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CHAPTER XXIV
 

BEYOND THE PALE

 

AS we had been condemned to "fortress prison," in each of the places to which we were transferred we had the very gratifying distinction granted us of being given individual cells. Everywhere these were quite alike, damp and contaminated little dens with thick walls, strong iron doors, a small barred window near the ceiling, a bed, a chair, a table and a box for our things.

As we political prisoners were always kept apart in one special wing of the principal building, we were treated on quite a different basis from the ordinary inmates—the doors of our cells were not locked, and a criminal prisoner was told off to clean our rooms, boots and clothes, as well as to cook our food, which was of a better quality than the ordinary prison fare and for which we paid in the prison office with the money sent us from our homes.

In every prison where I was kept for any length of time I set to work along two main lines: first I cleaned and put everything in my cell in order as best I could, then I planted beds of vegetables and flowers. In the Harbin prison I discovered a small supply of cement left in a drum in the store-room and with this made a fairly large concrete basin, which I placed in that part of the prison yard given over to our exercise. When it was set, I filled it with water and put in my artificial pond some Cladophoræ and other water-plants, given me by the wife of one of the keepers; and, after these were well established, I added some crustaceans and two little tortoises. This improvised aquarium gave us men, deprived of our freedom, many delightful hours of watching and feeding the fish and the turtles, which grew so accustomed to us that they would take food from our hands.

My second activity was teaching. From the authorities I secured permission to visit the large common cells, where there were sometimes as many as two hundred prisoners quartered in the one room. Here I had long talks and discussions on all sorts of subjects, in order to distract the men from brooding over the stern realities of their position and to put into their hearts and minds the seeds of clean and wholesome thoughts. I remember how I frequently told the stories of some of the great benefactors of mankind to the inmates of Cell No. 1, where one hundred and ten of the worst of criminals, condemned to life sentences in irons, surrounded and listened to me, and how the impressions made by my anecdotes seemed to me quite the same as those on normal men, who look upon a prison as something entirely foreign and far removed from them.

The prisoners came to like and respect me, as they knew that I would not allow an abuse of authority or an unwarranted action to go without protest, and that, if one of the prisoners sought to take liberties with me, I knew how to answer him, just as I had answered Mironoff during the first hour after our arrival. In view of these facts I was chosen at Harbin, and in some of the other prisons, to be the starosta, or headman, of the prisoners. A starosta occupies a position unofficially recognized by the prison as well as by the judicial authorities, is respected and listened to by the prisoners and acts as a mediator between them and the wardens or superintendent, besides being the accepted judge in the internal affairs of the institution.

After I had settled down in the new prison, I again began to work systematically, to read and to write a great deal and also continued the notes from which I have drawn most of the material for this book. To give variety and diversion I wrote some rather fantastic novels, which lifted me from the sombre surroundings of my prison life and transported me to the unknown and little-travelled lands of my imagination. In addition to these occupations I filled my time with walks in the improvised garden, with talks and lectures for the prisoners and with gymnastics.

Through the window of my celi I could hear the conversation of the prisoners in two of the common rooms on the second floor. Drawn by the character of their unguarded utterances, I could not resist going into these rooms and very soon had, as a consequence, the whole life of the prison in the hollow of my hand, as it were. I learned the minutest details of it; I saw the bared souls of the men held between its walls; I understood and shared in their misery, despair, hopes and joy; I tried to help them, to console them, to build up hope within them, to reach and work upon their consciences, as hard as flint, and to lead them gradually into another way of life.

The older prisoners often laughed at me, though in general they liked me and showed evident pleasure in talking and discussing with me. Quite frequently they gave me presents, which were for the most part figures or whole scenes from the prison life cleverly made up of bread—men in irons, dragging sacks filled with coal or with stones, fugitives in the forest near a fire with a kettle hanging over it, subjects which awoke and strongly stirred the artistic fantasies of the prisoners. Sometimes I received other presents, such as a sharp, thin knife, a saw for cutting through the iron bars, a little bottle of poison, a watchchain made of hair, etc. I had a whole museum of these gifts in my cell.

One evening about ten o'clock, when I was sitting in my cell writing, I perceived rather than heard that somebody was carefully and noiselessly opening my door and then realized that a shadow was standing behind me. He had entered so deftly and quietly that I did not even turn my head, thinking at the time that I must have been mistaken. However, after a moment I sensed the breathing of a man and looked behind me, to find that Mironoff was standing there and was gazing at me from his oblique eyes with a look that clearly betokened an unpronounced request.

"What do you want?" I asked him, as I rose to be ready for any emergency.

"They have assigned me to the work of servant in the political division. I saw that you were not asleep and came in. You must be angry with me for having acted so badly when you came here. Please pardon me."

"No, I am not angry with you. I forgot all that some time ago."

"Thank you!" he exclaimed. "May I ask you something?"

"Certainly. What is it?"

"Allow me to remain in your cell while you are at work."

"But why?" I asked, somewhat astonished.

Mironoff gave a sigh and began whispering, as he pointed to that part of the prison which could be seen out through my little window.

"You don't know that up there, where we live, it is hell, real hell! It is already six years since I entered that terrible den. Here in your cell I feel something different, another air, another appearance of the walls, something else which does not exist there. Now I shall sleep in the corridor and I beg that you allow me to remain in your cell, when you work. I shall be your servant for two weeks and I want to rest from those surroundings up there, to breathe freely and gain some more strength to continue to live."

During the whole night I talked with Mironoff and heard from him how he had formerly been a sailor on a merchant vessel, how he had committed several terrible and awful crimes, how he had escaped more than once from his prisons, how he had been caught and flogged and how he had finally been condemned as a habitual criminal to prison for life, which in the language of the prison is referred to as "forever." With it all he had been a very unfortunate man, for no little part of his difficulties had been due to unhappy combinations of circumstances.

After this first visit it became the regular custom each evening for Mironoff to come to my cell and sit quietly on my box, mending clothes or boots and pondering over matters which brought alternating smiles and frowns to his hardened prison face. Though I always continued with my reading or writing, I regarded it as my duty to have a little talk each day with my guest. If Mironoff learned something from me, I also profited from my acquaintance with him.

First of all he taught me the prison "wireless telegraphy," which enabled the men to send words or whole sentences by knocking on the walls or on the pipes of the heating system, using a telegraphic alphabet which is changed in each prison to safeguard the secrecy of the correspondence. The mastering of this code enabled me to understand and study a number of dramas and love affairs of the prison and, when Mironoff was no longer my servant, to pick up his signals and talk with him.

I also learned from Mironoff the lingua franca of the prisons and came to know the keeper as the "ment," the prison as "kiecha," a knife as a "pen," a lodging as a "haza," a revolver as a "shpayer," a poison as "milk," a murder as "wet," to kill as "to sew," to escape as "to fly," a false passport as "the face" and many more like these, which I treasured in my mind and in my notebook.

I liked one expression which came to the prisons from the Volga, at the time when numerous bands of river pirates dominated this great highway to the whole country. These men used to rob and kill the merchants who were bringing their precious Eastern wares from Persia and the Caucasus, and they even mustered strength enough to fight the detachments of the regular army that were sent against them from Moscow. The national literature idealized the leader of these brigands, one Stenka (the diminutive of Stephen) Razin, making of him a hero, who was struggling for the release of the peasants from the slavery to their landlords.

The expression used by Stenka Razin, when he was on the point of undertaking some risky expedition, was:

"Saryn da na kiechku!" The influence of both the Tartar and Kalmuck language is phonetically perceptible in the phrase and, as a matter of fact, both have contributed to it. This sentence has two different meanings: for the robbers, "Kill and go to prison"; for prisoners, "Break the bars and flee from prison." After my instruction by Mironoff, I knew, whenever I heard this phrase, that an attempt to escape was in preparation.

Singing holds an important place in prison life. Many types of songs are current, some gay, some sad, and they are rendered both as simple airs or with frequently well-combined and impressive part singing. The prisoners put into these songs their whole soul and they value highly any among them who has unusual talent. I found that the most popular among these prison songs was the one which began:

Though the sun ever mounts and descends the blue sky,
The dank cell of my prison stays dark …

The songs of the prisons really merit a special, closely analytical study, for in them one can find echoes of all the historical periods of Russia, the motifs from the folksongs of the many peoples which have combined to make up the Russian Empire, the influences of the legends of various Mongolian tribes and, especially, distinct traces of the vivacious, sentimental gipsy music. It is a crushingly significant fact that the prisoners never sing religious or pious songs.

"We are cursed," they say: "God will not heed our prayers."

These words are terribly tragic, the more so since every prisoner individually and secretly lifts his eyes to Heaven, fervently though almost hopelessly, with longing and despair feeling that from there only can come relief and aid.

With my work and in these first studies of the prison life my days passed rather quickly. I felt distinctly that beyond the walls of my individual cell there simmered and boiled quite a different life, this "hell" of which Mironoff had spoken; yet I could not at the outset penetrate into all its details and its hidden recesses. Time and propitious conditions were necessary for this. However, the clamour which always reigned in the main building and in the yard, the clanking of irons, the terrible oaths of the keepers and the prisoners,—this accumulated weight of the ceaseless, depressing noise of the life of barricaded men finally searched out my every nerve and angered, excited and fatigued me. At times I felt wrath or hate born of it all and even despair, which imposed on me the keenest torture.