Viktor Shmyrov, telling of how the convicts arrived at the Perm-36 political camp, likes to mention the Estonian Mart Niklus, an ornithologist by profession, who identified the approximate location of the camp by the singing birds. Somewhere in the Urals.
Now this story is a legend. So is Mart Niklus, a well-known Estonian human rights activist.
In 2010, Mart Niklus was an honorary guest at Pilorama, where museum staff interviewed him during a tour of the museum’s special-regime area.
Read it. It’s still very topical today. Maybe even more topical than yesterday.
– March, tell me, was your first time in Mordovia?
– The first time, yes.
– Were you in prison at the same time as Anatoly Marchenko?
– Yes. And in the Vladimir prison with him, too. But he was in a different cell, so I didn’t know much about him.
I was also in jail with such famous people as Sharansky – in the same Vladimir prison, but he was also in a different cell.
Who else? Julius Daniel – with him in Mordovia.
And the last time with Levko Lukyanenko. He was sentenced to death, then they gave him life. A humane attitude to a man. Then he became the Ambassador of Ukraine in Canada.
– You never met him again?
– I did. At a conference in Kiev. It was very touching, we celebrated his 80th anniversary there.
Back in May of this year, I met with Ovsiyenko, he also promised to come to “Pilorama”, but they did not let him in, they took him off the train. He was banned from Russia. And we skipped it. Because we got ourselves a tourist visa. First we showed him the invitation we got from here. We were told: No, this is not good, there is no stamp, and the purpose of the trip is not explained, we will not give you a visa. And then one wise man said: fools, go to the tourist bureau and ask for a tourist visa to Russia. Well, I think I’ll be the first one to be refused. But it worked.
But this does not mean that we were immediately in Russia. We went through all these searches and stuff… And if they found any literature that we brought here, they would confiscate it right away and send us back.
– What were you given your last sentence for?
– For anti-Soviet activities, of course.
– How long were you in here?
– They gave me ten plus five, I did more than eight.
– Did you know who was in the neighboring cells?
– Of course, we knew in general.
– And how? In what way?
– On walks, we would meet each other. Sometimes in the bathhouse where we could talk and pass letters.
– But there were shields and partitions, everything was blocked off! How did you manage?
– They even managed to smuggle letters abroad. Though the guards were very careful. When they saw you sitting at the table and writing something, they would immediately open the cell and demand to see what you were writing. I said that I had the right to write a letter to my relatives. And the warder said, “And I have the right to check at any time what you are writing, and since I don’t know your language, we’ll send it to the KGB, and the KGB will decide.
So you had the right to write as much as you wanted, and he had the right to check as much as he wanted…
– Who were you with in the cell?
– Vasil Stus.
– What was your impression of him?
– Very nice. I wrote my memoirs about him, I have them with me. “It’s good to twist screws under the native Soviet power. The wardens are thieves, each one tearing you apart. Lenin, like a lunatic, gave us the convoy of the glorious CPSU.” This is Stus. I asked him: “What, Vasil, do you write humorous poetry?” “No, just ironic!” He was composing them while he was working.
– Tell us about your time in Perm-36.
– In winter they let us out to shovel snow, there was a lot of snow, the wardens didn’t want us to, the prisoners chased us away. They said, do you want to go for a walk for half an hour? But we had to clear the snow. They gave us this instead of a walk. We worked and went back to the cell.
– And when they took you out for a walk there were no fences?
– There were, there really were. Sometimes we tried to pick dandelion leaves, you know, they are edible, young leaves. The wardens would stop right away, they thought we were trying to poison ourselves. They didn’t know the leaves were edible. They ate them instead of lettuce.
– When they took us out for walks, were there two wardens watching both walks or one?
– It depends, it could be one, it could be two. If they talked, they went straight back to the cell. The wires (letters) were thrown over the wire on the ceiling in the exercise cell when the warden turned away when he got tired of looking at us. If they noticed that I threw them over, they would take us straight to the cell.
– Was there a punishment for that?
– Of course, they could deprive us of our parcels and forbid us to correspond. By the way, none of my letters in Estonian reached my mother. They were all taken away by the Tallinn KGB and destroyed.
– Was one of the cells a quarantine cell?
– One, or even more, were used as needed. There were even punishment cells. The bunks were only lowered for the night, they were raised during the day, and you had to sit there. When I came here in the fall of 1988, two months after my release, they found Stus’ inscription on the boards here, he was tortured to death here.
– In a work cell?
– Yes. I don’t know exactly, I was already gone. I was here as a prisoner, and he was here as a worker, because those who were in solitary confinement also had to work. You always had to, because “work doesn’t punish, it corrects. One had to “redeem oneself before the Motherland by honest work, honest work and exemplary conduct” – that’s what they said to a man with a higher education.
– Were the stools bolted down?
– Yes, because otherwise you could punch the warden in the forehead. That’s why there were two doors. You open the outer one so that the inner one was still closed. Worse than the animals in the zoo.
Moreover, I was not allowed to dress. We were only allowed to wear underwear: a shirt, pants, and a striped tiger skin… We called ourselves “knights in tiger’s clothing”. It was still very cold in winter, the walls are very thin, it was a former garage or cattle yard. And you always had to sit by the radiator and huddle up to keep warm.
– Is this where you sat?
– No, this is the shower, but only the warders washed here.
– Where were you washed then, if there was a shower here for the warders?
– Everyone was taken to the baths, both us and the solitary.
– How much time did you have to wash in the bathhouse?
Half an hour for washing and washing. They were constantly pushing us. At least there were no bedbugs here, there were in Mordovia.
Well, you’ve probably had enough of these prison stories by now. Now will you tell us how the authorities treat your activities?
– The local authorities have partly taken the path of “correction,” and we are not talking about the central authorities. In this respect, Perm stands somewhat apart from other regions. The fact that this museum is working, and that the government supports and partially finances it and even Pilorama, is a big deal, of course.
– You changed your mind, made the right conclusions. Eternal honor to you for what you did. In Estonia, on the contrary, they try to silence, suppress and forget. They say you have to look to the future and not dig in the past!
– Were you taken down the street or to the barracks?
– In the street. Prisoners worked in the bathhouse as stokers, they did laundry and even ironed. There were some warehouses here, things were stored back then. And this is where the people who were in the general cells worked.
– Were there wardens here?
– Yes, it was called the guardhouse. The working and living cells were opposite each other. Here was the kitchen, where the prisoners worked, too, and carried aluminium bowls with trays.
– Why two rooms in the kitchen?
– You should ask Gayauskus, he worked in the kitchen. He was a very good cook. From the humble materials we had – potatoes and cabbage, we made very tasty things. We sometimes praised it, we said that even at home we did not eat like that.
– Did they give you extra?
– Sometimes we did, if you made more. In this respect it was maybe even better here than in other places. We knew very well where the good prison was and where the bad one was. Here in Sosnovka in Mordovia, for example, they feed us very well.
– And here, in comparison to others?
– People in the minimum security were able to live, but those in the punitive regime were given hot meals only every other day.
There were some delicate stories with the doctor, too. They would not let you see the doctor by yourself, the guard was always with you. When you went to work, you were shmoled, both when you went there and when you went back. “Strip naked!” I answered that I would only strip naked in front of the doctor, not the guards. Then they would tear my clothes off and draw up a report that I had physically resisted the clothing inspection. And that could happen several times a day. When they took me to work, from work to lunch, back to work and back to the cell after work. We used to call it a punitive striptease.
– Did the boss also talk to you? Do you remember who?
– Sure, right after you arrived. Dolmatov. I even have a picture of his grave. He was overworked, that’s probably why he died.
– Say, you’re an ornithologist, aren’t you?
– Yes. Sometimes I can even hear birds singing through the windowpane here, which don’t exist in Estonia.
– When did you first come here, at what time of year?
– In winter, I think. The trial was in January, and I think I arrived here around March.
– You were on hunger strike when you were brought here, right?
– I did. But there were no hunger strikes in the Soviet Union. There was a refusal to eat for hooliganism reasons. There were no warders either – there were controllers. There were no prisoners – there were convicts. There were no political prisoners – there were state criminals. There were no censors – there were letter inspectors.
– And there were no camps, there were institutions.
– Correctional labor institutions.
– Did you speak Russian well back then?
– No, of course not. Worse than now.
– Did the guards understand you?
– No. But they said: “If you don’t know how, we’ll teach you; if you don’t want to, we’ll make you.
– There was a cinema hall here, what can you say about movies?
– They never showed us movies, never. We were strictly isolated from each other. Maybe they showed them in the old days, but not to us. But just before liberation, they started showing TV. And there was one occasion when they showed some program on TV, how people in the West were demonstrating for freedom, how Soviet political prisoners performed, and I saw it from the camp!
– Wasn’t there a library here?
– No, we were only allowed five books.
– Were you allowed to bring any books, possessions with you?
– I didn’t receive any parcels. During my first conviction, there was a decree that said a prisoner had the right to personal property, but it didn’t specify the quantity. And it turned out that people who had been incarcerated for 8 or 10 years could accumulate a lot of property. I had about 100 kilos of books at that time.
– Were you allowed to subscribe for books and magazines?
– No, only newspapers, but I got Estonian newspapers.
– Did you shop at the stall?
– Those who were well-behaved would get around 5 rubles each, and those who were bad would have their stall taken away.
– How did it happen?
– Once a month we would write down what we wanted to buy, but we didn’t get any money in cash, plus we had to pay for underwear, clothes, etc.
– But what was the temperature regime?
– Well, if the stokers were well heated, then it was okay, as long as we were still clothed. Sometimes we used to put old newspapers under our clothes to make it warmer. It was warmer in a general cell than in a solitary one.
– Tell us about the people you were in jail with and with whom you still communicate.
– I think Gajauskas did the most time, 25 years, then 10 more, but he still got out alive and became a deputy of the Lithuanian Parliament and a board member of the International Association of Political Prisoners and Victims of Communism.
Lukyanenko and Ovsienko were our guests in Estonia, they were in a movie. We had an agreement with Stus: “Vasil, when you get out, come to Estonia” – he has never visited us. “I’ll give you a botanical tour.” He generally had very academic interests, he wrote, read, and spoke foreign languages.
I remember a competition between me, Stus and Gajauskas, an Estonian, a Ukrainian and a Lithuanian, to see who could recite poems better.
– Were there any conflicts between you in the cells?
– There were disagreements sometimes, but there were no conflicts. There were conflicts with everyday people (criminals) who sometimes came here. For example, they wanted to kill Gayauskus, Romashov. It happened with Stus too, some criminals threatened him.
Household workers, they clash all the time. There were cases when criminals tattooed themselves “slave of the CPSU” or something like that, he was convicted under a new, but political article and sent to a camp for political prisoners, where he terrorized political prisoners in safety.
And there were other cases. Once I was transferred from one prison to another and placed together with the domestic workers. And I was telling them that I was a political prisoner, and they asked, “What were you in jail for? Oh, I was for that too, but the Soviet regime was no good. As a result, the everyday people would take the autograph of a political prisoner.
– Can I ask you a slightly incorrect question? Estonians are usually considered to be so well-adjusted, calm and reasonable… Why did you take such a path? You went against the authorities.
– You know, I was convinced that all the empires that existed in human history, from Assyrian, Macedonian, Roman to British, they all collapsed. Why should the Soviet empire be an exception?
– At what age did you realize this?
– At school, probably. I’ve been an anti-Soviet since I was a child. The fortieth year, when Estonia was occupied by Soviet troops, when deportations began – I remember it all very well. And in 1948, during the deportations, schoolchildren were taken away. From my class, among others. And at universities there were doubts and disagreements – at seminars, when they studied the materials of Party congresses.
– Did you get into university okay?
– It went well, although my father served in the German army. After I graduated from the university, a year later I was arrested. Then the dean of the faculty, a veteran communist, shouted: “Here, comrades, I told you a long time ago that he was bad, why didn’t you listen to me?”
– Tell me, were there dogs here?
– There were, walking around. We couldn’t say anything about the dogs, though, because we couldn’t see them, and it was unclear where they were barking from – the camp or the village.
– There was no radio?
– What could you listen to?
– Well, music sometimes broadcasted classical music, news and a little bit about the weather.
– How long were you allowed to listen to that loudspeaker?
– Well, they turned it on in the morning and it seemed to work all day long. And “Perm Says” I remember. How the local news and weather reports were broadcast. I remember once I started to reread those places, where the weather was: Kudymkar there, Cherdyn, etc.
– What did you do after you were released?
– After the last release, I had to completely retrain, so I can say that my specialty now is a foreign language teacher on courses for adults. My colleagues were philologists, I was one biologist. But I was told that I taught better than these professionals.
And finally I was elected to the Supreme Parliament of Estonia. I don’t want to brag, but I get a parliamentary pension, so I can afford to come here. Ordinary people here live very poorly, we are in an economic crisis now, many cannot afford such trips.
– How did they let you leave home? It’s a long way, isn’t it?
– Well, I know the way. And then here are friendly hospitable people, frankly, quite different from the Russians in Estonia. You may have heard, they have slogans on the streets there, “Kill an Estonian, save the world from fascism”? These young people, as they are called – “Night Watch”, like your pro-Kremlin skinheads.
– You don’t work now?
– I’m working as a translator, translating Darwin’s books into Estonian, which we haven’t translated yet.
– How did your family react to your trip?
– They didn’t. I am free and single.
* Anatoly Marchenko was a famous Soviet writer, human rights activist, dissident and political prisoner. It is believed that it was after his long hunger strike and death in 1986, which caused a wide resonance, that the process of releasing political prisoners in the USSR began.