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Death and Redemption – a newspaper article and some thoughts on release

It’s  been pointed out that the translated newspaper article I pasted into a comment at the bottom of a long discussion might go unnoticed, and – given it might be useful to others teaching on the Gulag – I thought I’d add it here as a proper post. 

I have just a couple of points in response to the dialogue between Steve and Jeff. It is perhaps striking given the huge energies that went in to “sorting” those identified as criminal on their way into the penal system, that there is no equivalent for them on their way back.  The only exception which springs to mind is the attention local party committees paid to rehabilitated prisoners wanting their party cards back in the late 1950s. Some victims, and their relatives, in fact welcomed this new opportunity to be assessed. One purge victim wrote to Khrushchev in 1954 asking for the party to re-examine not just the case itself, but her whole being: “I understand that anything written by me cannot serve as evidence, but I know that you are able to verify my whole life [proverka vsei moei zhizni], and it is this that I’m begging you to do.’ Rather than fearing re-trials and renewed interrogation, several petitioners implored the authorities to recall them, and to read their souls in – to borrow another purge victim’s terms – the “light of truth” (v svete pravdy).[1. Miriam Dobson, ‘POWs and Purge Victims: Attitudes towards Party Rehabilitation in Vladimir and Moscow, 1956-7’, Slavonic and East European Review 86, 2 (2008), pp. 328-345.]

In general, was there simply an assumption that – unless  evidence suggested otherwise (e.g. attempted escape, offences committed in the camp, failure to meet targets) – the sentence of hard labor awarded must have been appropriate and must have worked? Steve’s observation that camp officials did not focus on recidivism rates suggests a certain kind of insouciance in this regard. It’s worth noting that in the 1950s, law-enforcement officials working outside the camps (procuracy, ministry of justice, MVD etc) certainly were worried about recidivism and saw it as a failing of the Gulag. I have tended to see this is as a post-Stalin phenomenon, reflecting both heightened concerns about the impact of the great Gulag exodus on social order and a new political readiness to admit the prison sentences did not in fact work that well. I wonder, though, whether we might also see a disjuncture between institutions: perhaps enforcers of law-and-order outside the Gulag were always more ready to comment on its failings, than those within it?


Anyway, the article:

The Heart of a Chekist, Izvestiia, 4 October 1935

When, not so long ago, the Bolshevskii NKVD labour commune celebrated its tenth anniversary, the name Matvei Samoilovich Pogrebinskii appeared on the list of organisers and leaders who were to be given the highest state awards. As creator of several NKVD educational institutions and as one of Iagoda’s closest advisors in this field, Pogrebinskii is outstanding because already more than three thousand criminals must have passed through his hands: thieves, bandits, marauders and freemasons who have now broken with their dark pasts and returned to the path of honest toil. Matvei Samoilovich Pogrebrinskii can rightly wear his medal of honour and be proud of it!

Already there has been a substantial amount written about Pogrebinskii and the NKVD’s educational work. We all know dozens of surprising and unexpectedly touching stories about former thieves who have become engineers, or about ex-bandits who now work in laboratories with microscopes, or about former robbers who are now graduating from conservatories and will become conductors, singers, and musicians. But how do these miraculous transformations occur? What methods do the Chekists employ in order to remake people? What is the most important in this very complex and difficult work? As yet, we know very little about this. However, as soon as you look at Pogrebinskii and his colleagues one thing jumps straight out – their incredible love of man and the touching kindness that runs though all their work. I think that this warmth is the secret to their stunning successes.

Here is a run of the mill story – when it comes to Pogrebinskii, you could recount so many, and each one as compelling as the next.

About eight years ago, when the Bolshevskii commune was only just getting going, a big-time ‘safe-cracker’ was arrested and put on trial. For the purposes of the article, we’ll call him Poronin. He was an exceptional, original, and in his own way, talented individual, no doubt deserving of a more detailed account of his past and current fate – but we don’t have space here to recount his whole life-story. Suffice it to say, he was arrested and as a result of his crimes – taking into consideration the fact that he had already been a criminal for thirty years – the court sentenced him to the death penalty. The matter was already decided and the proceedings were in their final stages, when Pogrebinskii, supported by Iagoda, stepped onto the scene. Yes, of course, Poronin is a criminal, but it was the old [pre-revolutionary] system that made him that way and which is responsible for his crimes, argued Pogrebinskii. Surely before punishing, shouldn’t the revolution try to heal, shouldn’t it have pity on people who had been morally crippled by capitalism? Yes, of course, Poronin is a socially dangerous type, but didn’t these characteristics develop during the ugly circumstances of the past? Won’t the new social conditions allow his talents, his will, his intellect to develop in another, more healthy direction?

Pogrebinskii believes too much in the healing principles of the revolution to let a chance go by, he loves and feels for people too much, he values each human life too much – as long as the person is not an outright enemy of the working class. He takes Poronin under his guardianship and begins a long and persistent struggle to save a human being.

Three months in a row, Pogrebinskii visits Poronin in prison every day. Their conversations last for hours, and Pogrebinskii conducts them with amazing skill, acting as psychiatrist, as teacher, as political agitator, and as Chekist all at the same time. He tries all methods, one time adopting a comradely tone, the next acting exceptionally severe, and the third unexpectedly shower his Poronin with the kind of warmth that would make even the most hardened heart must tremble. One time he might explain the basics of political literacy; the second he turns into a cold and deliberately impartial judge; the third time he suddenly switches into the realm of personal life and for hours they sit chatting about love, about women, mothers, children. The huge gulf that lies between them little by little begins to be bridged. Little by little, the whole life of the criminal is laid out before Pogrebinskii, like a complex, but finely-drawn, map. He studies his subject with all the care of an anatomist, seizing on every little thread which might help him drag this man from out of the murky depths and towards the surface. This work is terribly difficult and these conversations in prisons demand huge amounts of physical and spiritual strength. Every time he leaves the prison completely wasted, his head hurting and bags under his eyes. But he doesn’t give up. The life of a human being is at stake, and in saving another life, he doesn’t want to think about himself.

And then after several weeks, he begins to feel the first signs of change, the first tiny crack in the thinking, mood and emotions of the old thief. It is almost unnoticeable, almost invisible to the naked eye. But the ice has cracked, and it is now time to act.

He comes and takes Poronin to the commune. He arranges that tomorrow, at 6pm, the old thief will come to his apartment. They will go to the theatre.

The next day, Poronin is already missing from lunch. Will he come, or has he already run away? Pogrebinskii believes he will come; the ice has cracked, he has found all the little threads and holds them firmly in his hand… But then again, maybe not? Pogrebinskii stands by the window, drumming on the glass, his heart racing with anxiety. On the dot of six, the bell rings and he melts into a warm smile. But no, two other thieves have arrived with whom Poronin was supposed to have come, but they are without him. It seems that on their way to the apartment, Poronin hung back, then said that he had to go to his sister’s. He had run away! Something snaps within Pogrebinskii. He became heated, but couldn’t show anything in front of these two, who are looking at him sideways.

‘He’ll come!’, he said casually. ‘Let’s drink tea!’

They sit and wait. The conversation doesn’t flow. To Pogrebinskii the tea seemed bitter and tasteless. The hands of the clock tick by unbelievably slowly. Finally, seven o’clock comes. There’s no Poronin. He had run away! No doubt, he’d run away! […] They went down the stairs and opened the door. There on the doorstep stood Poronin, panting. His sister had kept some of his belonging and he had simply called in on her to get changed into smart clothing before the theatre. He wasn’t any old burglar or freemason – he knew good form! Pogrebinskii felt a pleasant wave of warmth flood his chest. He wanted to embrace this bearded, rather smelly bloke standing before him – but pedagogically, he knew he mustn’t.

“Ah Poronin!” he said in a very casual tone, before turning to speak to the other two, as if the hour of torture had never happened, as if he had never doubted for a moment that when he opened the door he would find Poronin standing there on the doorstep. And only he knew how much this act cost him, and only he felt the sudden fatigue that hit his whole being.

So Poronin moved into the Bolshevskii commune and began working. But Pogrebinskii knew that this didn’t mean that relapses wouldn’t happen. This was just the first step and it was still easy to slip. He didn’t let his eye off the old thief for a second. He went to the Bolshevskii commune almost every day, he advised the pedagogues there, he surrounded Poronin with healthy influences, constant attention and concern. […]

A year passed like this. It seemed as if everything was going well. Poronin was working well and it seemed as if all links with his past had been broken. But with his special gift as psychologist and Chekist, Pogrebinskii felt that something wasn’t quite right. He decided to do a kind of general check-up.

“Listen Poronin,” he said suddenly in the middle of a conversation, “You came to the commune, you broke with your past. But what happens if you’re on a tram and you see a thief steal someone’s watch? What would you do? Would you arrest him?”

There was a long heavy pause. Slowly Poronin paled, little drops of sweat appearing on his skin.

“I never was and never will be a snitch,” he said finally. “Don’t ask this of me.” Abruptly he turned around and walked out. […]

Pogrebinskii didn’t push it further and didn’t return to the difficult topic. But he made new efforts. Poronin liked reading, so – without him noticing – Pogrebinskii began to push books his way that might help him to make sense of things. Poronin enjoyed detailed, precise work, so they found him employment that suited him. He was surrounded by young people who introduced him to new and exciting things. For three whole years the battle for his soul went on. And only at the end of three years did a moment of triumph come for Pogrebinskii.

At this time, while he was living in the city of Ufa, Pogrebinskii went through a difficult phase in his life. He became very seriously ill and underwent one operation after another. The Bolshevskii commune arranged for a delegation to go to Ufa and find out how he was doing, and Poronin headed this delegation. So six former thieves arrived at the hospital and were taken to see the patient. Pogrebinskii lay there, his face pinched, gloomy, his skin slightly yellow, with bags under his eyes. The conversation didn’t flow, everyone sat in silence and Poronin could only fidget on his stool. It seemed that he wanted to do or say something nice and pleasant to Pogrebinskii but that he didn’t know how to begin. Finally he plucked up his courage.

“Matvei Samoilovich!” He said. “Things are hard for you, perhaps we can help you in some way?”

“In what way?” asked Pogrebinskii, surprised.

Poronin paled slightly, but remained calm. “Well maybe you have problems here with bandits and thieves. If you allow us, we will catch every last one of them and bring them to you.”

Pogrebinskii looked at him and a happy smile lit up his thin, yellow face. “But don’t you remember what you said to me that time?” He asked after a pause.

Poronin paled ever more. Then he lifted up his hand and did the sign of the cross. The past is finished. And these two men – a thief and a chekist – silently embraced each other.

I think that this was one of the happiest days in Pogrebinskii’s life. But it took three years of stubborn battle to see that gesture and to bring Poronin back to life (he’s now the manager of a large enterprise). Three years! What amazing inner qualities, what genuine humanity, what warmth towards people and what belief in the new life, Pogrebinskii must have had to devote so much energy and effort on another person like Poronin whom he didn’t even know – a thief who in any other country (with their pitiless judicial systems) would simply have been hung.

One reply on “Death and Redemption – a newspaper article and some thoughts on release”

This is a great article, Miriam, and relates precisely to what I blogged about today. (Great minds think alike, perhaps?) Your point about prisoner sorting upon entry into the Gulag versus exit from the Gulag is striking. One might think that there needed to be some distinction made between political and criminal prisoners, especially vis-a-vis their possible “reforging.” On the other hand, might it be the case that no sorting was necessary upon release given that there was a presumption (correct or mistaken) that verifiable Soviet citizens were being released back into society? Or, as we know, there was no need to “sort” many people who were guilty in the first place? Clearly I’m not the expert here, so it’s just a thought.

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