Book Review: I Speak For the Silent – Prisoners of the Soviets

SpeakForSilentby Anniel   8/1/14
Author: Vladimir V. Tchernavin. First Published in 1934. Available on Kindle  •  This is the book clandestinely read by Whittaker Chambers when he was beginning his break from Communism. It is a harrowing, heart-breaking read, but answers some of the most perplexing questions about Soviet communists: Why did they insist on getting phony confessions from people they could kill at will? What possible difference did the confessions make when everyone knew they were lies? How did they control so many people? Why were there so few escapees?

Vladimir Tchernavin was a young, educated fisheries expert working in the Karelia Region of northern Russia bordering Finland. His wife and young son lived at home in Leningrad. The first part of the book deals with his early life, education, and his work in the fisheries, the job he loved. At first his descriptions of the fisheries seemed a little long and tedious, but the importance of the information became clear as the book progressed.

When the Soviet government was firmly entrenched under Stalin, most of the intelligentsia, those in scientific, production, educational and religious fields still felt safe. Tchernavin thoroughly explores the cascading events of the Great Terror, which began in the early 1920’s, and led to the gradual takeover of all means of business and production, and the establishment of mandated 5-Year Plans.

These plans were touted as a way of increasing production in essential food stuffs, clothing, lumber, mining and manufacturing. In the fisheries the harvest was “required” to be doubled each year, while the areas to be fished were also mandated. For instance, under the plan, the fishing fleets would be sent to the Barents Sea under orders to bring in 50,000,000 tons of pollock, then when the pollock were not in the Sea that year, or less than the mandated amount was caught, the fishing crews would all be arrested as wreckers who had deliberately sabotaged the glorious 5-Year Plan.
Or, if by some chance their quotas were met, they still had to double that quota each year, until the next 5-Year Plan

This led to the total collapse of the fisheries and the arrests and subsequent executions of all the 48 Soviet experts in the field, even as all other businesses in the country were being destroyed in like manner. Tchernavin tells how this terror affected the lives of his co-workers and the families of those around him until his own arrest by the GPU (Soviet Secret Police) in 1931.

On the very first day of his incarceration Tchernavin was accused of being a wrecker, the charge could not be defined for him nor could the GPU interrogator tell him what he had wrecked. He decided he would never confess to anything, nor would he lie, no matter what. That resolve is probably the only reason he was not shot. The living conditions in the prison were so revolting as to destroy the will to survive. Starvation, thirst, insects and disease (scurvy, typhus, etc.) were used to destroy morale. The descriptions of other diabolical means used to force confessions are incredible. Man’s inhumanity to his fellow men was on full display.

The GPU finally arrested Tchernavin’s wife, Tatiana, and said they would let her go only if he confessed. That move left his 11 year old son with no protection or means of survival. That night Tchernavin almost decided to give in and get it all over with. His fellow prisoners counseled him to never trust anything said by his interrogating officer. He came to the conclusion that the arrest of his wife was a desperate tactic to break his will and the only way he could protect his family was to remain true to his resolve to never confess.

He learned that a neighbor, a friend of his wife, had taken in his son, who, young as he was, brought what he could to his father in prison. After 6 months of incarceration Tchernavin was allowed one short visit with Tatiana before being given a 5 year sentence for wrecking. He managed through a friendly worker to be sent to a prison camp in the very region where he had worked in the fisheries, so he was familiar with the whole territory.

All his thoughts were on one thing, escape, but only with his family.

In his thoughts and writings about the Solovki Prison System,Tchernavin reveals how communism corrupted and kept its frightful hold on both its enemies and its adherents. He says that the GPU became its own ghost state within the Soviet state, complete with its own laws and leaders, and its hold was maintained by THREE pillars: FOUL LANGUAGE, PROTECTION and DENUNCIATION.

First Pillar – FOUL LANGUAGE: All prisoners were addressed by those over them in the worst possible language. Jews, intellectuals and priests were especially singled out for such treatment. A prisoner might be sent on a task, but not allowed to walk on the boardwalks. As he slogged through thick ankle deep mud he would hear shouts all along the way of, “You filthy ****ing blood-sucking Kike Jew bastard.” And mud and stones would be flung at him or someone might knock him down and kick him. Then he would be punished for being late or dirty and bloody, and he would still have to fulfill his work quota for the day, without his nightly food or water ration.

The name calling also went the other way. Between themselves the prisoners spoke and thought of the GPU and the guards in the same foul language. Especially hated guards were taunted whenever a prisoner thought they could get away with it. Of course they might get shot, but they could also be pushed beyond endurance.

Very few did not participate in this language distortion. And both sides were dehumanized and destroyed by the use of such language. Every person in the camps became hardened against their perceived enemies, and also hated themselves as they lost their souls and any goodness they once had.

ARE WE IN THE SAME BOAT TODAY? There are terms no one wants used against them: racist, sexist, homophobe, whatever seems hurtful, and these terms are often used with other frightful language attached. Political Correctness is the very base of this pillar. Those who speak truth become outcasts.

Second Pillar – PROTECTION: Prisoners with some money coming in would find a protector, a prisoner with access to what they needed, actual physical protection or other necessities, and bribe them for getting it. The protector would watch over a whole group of prisoners who could pay him a monthly sum plus money for their needs. The protector would set up a separate system to be over those who would steal or otherwise appropriate what was needed, then pay them a small amount for the item and resell it for a higher amount. He also paid the person over him protection money and then both bought and sold to him. Thus it was a case of back scratching all up and down the line. The camp commandant received the best of everything and he and his cronies lived pretty high on the hog.

The GPU allowed the system to flourish, and even used their own monetary system of GPU scrip within the camps. At the bottom of the heap were the political and religious prisoners with no resources or friends. They were simply starved and worked to death and cast aside. There were plenty more where they came from.

IS THE SECOND PILLAR ALIVE AND WELL IN THE US TODAY? Crony Capitalism, Wall Street, special favors in Congress, payoffs to the bureaucrats and President? Everyone can see the graft and corruption at the highest levels and all down the line.

Third Pillar – DENUNCIATION: All prisoners were expected to constantly spy and inform on each other. True or obviously false denunciations, it didn’t matter, either meant torture or death to the denounced. Some denunciations were coerced by the higher powers who wanted to get rid of a rival or an unwelcome type of prisoner. Other denunciations were just malicious and some were meant to deflect attention from some misdeed on the part of the denouncer. Spies within the camp were paid for information. Keeping anything secret was almost impossible.

PILLAR THREE TODAY – Just breathe wrong and find out if we have denunciation going on in our land. And think about the fate of anyone ostracized from his familiar group, or fired from his job after slipping up in any way.

By setting every one at each other’s throats a constant supply of slave labor was kept available for the GPU, which in turn propped up the Soviet state with cash, food and goods and deniability abroad that such slave labor existed.

The above three pillars did not apply to the criminals within the camp. They were allowed to terrorize the political prisoners at will. If they escaped they were quietly left free.

Why were those phony confessions so important? It was necessary for the Soviets to get rid of their enemies, all the while saying they had freely confessed so that the regime seemed blameless to outsiders.

Let’s say Comrade Ivan is a GPU recruit who needs to be trained to be heartless and ruthless, so he is told to get a confession from a prisoner at any cost. If he can’t do so, he himself might be arrested on wrecking charges. Both the GPU Officer and the prisoner are supposed to be under the Soviet Constitution and laws, so the appearance must be preserved. There must be a confession to show if someone from the outside inquires. NO BLAME MUST EVER ATTACH TO THE SUPREME LEADERS. (Oh, what could be said here!)

One of the most diabolical torments Tchernavin recounts is how the GPU would suddenly hold a general meeting of everyone in the camp and announce an amnesty of some sort. Maybe they would say that for every 5 days a prisoner met his work quota, 1 day would be removed from his sentence. And to show how kind and honest they could be, the amnesty was made retroactive, and 10 prisoners already qualified. The 10 men were given haircuts and new clothes, then quickly put on the train and sent home.

The remaining prisoners were jubilant and worked harder. Then someone’s wife would come for an allowed visit and quietly pass the word that of the men sent home, each was allowed only a few days or a week with his family and then was re-arrested and sent to another camp. The torment and hopelessness used against these people is staggering.

No one, no one in the camps, no one in society at large, was ever allowed to have a sense of hope, ever again. Everything is smoke and mirrors when the base and pillars of communism are established in a land.

Tchernavin’s wife also wrote a book of her life and tells the tale of their final escape. Vladimir Tchernavin was an extremely intelligent man who managed to maneuver a way of escape, for himself and his family. With miracles that could only come from God, he found freedom. • (2729 views)

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19 Responses to Book Review: I Speak For the Silent – Prisoners of the Soviets

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    I’ve read some accounts of the Gulags, though not this one, as well as other works dealing with Soviet state terror (including several accounts of the Yezhovshchina). One reason escapes were so rare is that most camps were in remote areas with inhospitable terrain and natives who spoke obscure languages.

    The parallels between Soviet techniques for breaking political prisoners and modern political correctness are chilling. Obviously, we are still largely free (or else we would all live in constant terror of the modern equivalent of the Gestapo/NKVD). But that doesn’t preclude a ruling party that sees state terror as something to emulate if they can (with unofficial methods of intimidation being their current alternative).

  2. Anniel says:

    Timothy – While I was reading this it was so easy to see how the screws were turned very carefully and when the trap was sprung everyone was kept guessing about what would come next. Confusion was the order of the day, no one believed what was happening to them. I could hear Rahm Emanuel and Axelrod shrieking, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Manufacture them if you have to. What we have so far is just a taste of what’s coming. I suspect that is what Chambers saw coming, too.

  3. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Reading the descriptions of collectivist behavior (sometimes outright Stalinist, sometimes it’s the Pink Mafia) reminds me why atheism is incompatible with conservatism or any kind of liberal (in the classical sense) democracy. It’s because man needs a well-developed conscience and moral attitude. Atheism is to the conscience what sleep deprivation is to fatigue.

  4. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Here’s a good read in connections to this article by Jeffrey Lord which tells about the evil amongst us: The Evil Mind of John Kerry.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      An interesting piece. Liberals hate to use the word “evil” even for those they think of that way (i.e., conservatives, especially Tea Partiers and religious conservatives). In any case, the only true evil they recognize is opposition to them, which is why no foreign enemy can ever be evil in their eyes.

  5. Anniel says:

    Brad- that is a very interesting piece. John Kerry is such a cartoon of a real man. My daughter commented that he is the walking embodiment of a cartoon, in looks and thoughts both. The refusal of this regime to call evil by name is dangerous to the whole world.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I refer to him as John Fresno Kerry because of the Gertrude Stein comment that I’ve heard was a description of Fresno (I’ve also heard that it was Oakland, but Fresno is more convenient): “There’s no there there.” I think nothing better describes Kerry. When I did my “Political Twinkies” piece in 2004, I said that Kerry already was (and is) a Twinkie.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Herman Munster works as well in connection to a comic book character.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          I’m not so sure. Herman Munster was a decent guy; that was the point of the series.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            Herman Munster more in terms of looks.

            • Timothy Lane says:

              But in that case, we might as well go all the way back to Boris Karloff’s first great role. (By the way, one Halloween night I was able to tape Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolfman, and The Mummy. They had others, but I could only tape for 6 hours overnight. The version of Frankenstein, incidentally, never appeared in the theaters.)

  6. Anniel says:

    I think it’s Rush Limbaugh who refers to Kerry as “Lurch”, which also seems appropriate. My husband was visiting in Boston during Kerry’s run for President. He went into a bookstore where there was a huge rack of filthy bumper stickers and other anti-Bush garbage, so he looked around to see if he could find the pro Kerry items. The store didn’t have a single thing FOR Kerry. Even the people in Kerry’s home state know there’s no there there.

  7. Anniel says:

    Brad, you are so right that “man needs a well-developed conscience and moral attitude.”
    Watching the behavior of spokesmen for the State Department, IRS and other agencies as they make their Public announcements is sanity defying. The blank eyes and faces of these Zombies almost makes one believe in the living dead.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I wonder sometimes if it was pot that helped turn them into Zombies. Or is pot just the gateway drug to Leftism?

  8. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Another great article at American Spectator that intersects on the general topic of Leftist insanity: The Quirks of the Nanny State.

    More evidence that pot and abortion are Sacraments of the Left and that little good came out of the hippie generation. This is the generation that wishes for a kumbaya Utopia, and one in which they could remain forever young. They have empowered the Clinton and Obama types…including such dreadfully immoral people as John Kerry.

    Note the similar attitudes that libertarians have regarding drugs, pot, and abortion. This is no doubt why Mr. Kung calls them “The Bolsheviks of the Right.”

    One has to seriously wonder how much of an effect pot has had on their brains.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I was very pleased to see that they pointed out the key to the nanny-state quirks: Whatever liberal elites like to do is acceptable no matter what (and if possible even mandatory), whereas whatever those elites don’t like should be banned on whatever basis they can come up with. Hence, marijuana is a Good Thing whereas tobacco is Evil, pregnancy is Evil and therefore abortion is Good, etc. Liberals believe everyone should be free to behave as liberals wish to behave.

  9. Anniel says:

    I have to admit a certain ambivalence about pot. As a recreational drug I hate the thought of it, but after seeing intractable seizures in a child and the difference when they are helped by marijuana – what can one do but support medical use? Our daughter was finally placed on marinol a few weeks ago and finally got a good night’s sleep, narcolepsy being one of her problems. We were all excited, she sounded really alive for the first time in years. The second dose was less effective, and thereafter she went into bouts of extreme nausea, a “rare” side effect which means the drug is off the table. So I guess even the good use isn’t for everyone.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Medicinal uses of pot have absolutely nothing at all to do with my disdain for pot and pot users. Marijuana when used in those rare cases of legitimate medicinal purposes is quite different from the purpose of getting high.

      Good luck to you daughter.

  10. Anniel says:

    Brad: as I said, I hate the thought of so called “recreational” marijuana use, and I think the states who legalize it are going to pay a very high price. But as things stand now, even those who have legitimate medicinal need for it often have to put up a big fight to get it. Reading what some families have gone through, legally, financially and socially, to get what helps their child is mystifying. Marinol was thought to be a substitute for actual marijuana, but isn’t working out as well as the docs thought it would. And if marinol makes one nauseated then apparently marijuana will, too.

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