To: The RSDLP Delegation Abroad, the PSR Delegation Abroad, and the Party of the Left SRs Delegation Abroad
To: The Editorial Board of Zaria
(For publication, to inform the international proletariat)
You already know that the Solovetsky concentration camp for political prisoners, socialists, and anarchists has been liquidated. The Bolshevik authorities have informed the whole world about it. It is not a coincidence that the liquidation of the Solovki camp was reported in the press on the same day when armed Cheka guards surrounded the buildings in the Solovki camp and announced to the political prisoners that they would be transferred to the Continent. Tomsky told the Franco-Belgian labor delegation, which visited Moscow recently, about the liquidation of the camp. In foreign Communist papers as well, they are probably singing the praises of the humaneness of the Bolshevik authorities who have liquidated the Solovki. Some workers unfamiliar with Bolshevik hypocrisy might really believe that a turnabout in the Bolshevik repressions has come and that finally socialists and anarchists in Russia could breathe freely, our duty to the workers of the world compels us as comrades to tell you the truth, the whole unsightly truth about the liquidation of Solovki.
Yes, the socialists and the anarchists have been transferred from Solovki, but on these desolate lands, near the polar circle, cut off from the rest of the world most of the year, there still remain many political prisoners—workers-strikers, participants in workers’ movements, peasants exiled for taking part in peasant movements, individual Socialists and anarchists who for some reason were not granted the status of political prisoners by the GPU1, and a large group of counterrevolutionaries sentenced for religious beliefs and so on all of whom are subject to a general penal regime for common criminals in Solovki. They are dying from hunger and backbreaking work; they are systematically beaten up and even shot without trial by the administration, which is accountable to no one and which was recruited from criminal scum. For all those who remain in Solovki, their situation is extremely hard because now that the main group of Socialists and anarchists has been transferred, the Solovki administration will display no restraint whatsoever and be even more merciless than before.
Although the Socialists and anarchists have been transferred from Solovki, six corpses remain, those killed on December 19, 1923. Their remains are in a common grave in Savvatiev [formerly a monastery] dungeon [skit] next to the grave of comrade Borts, who suffered an untimely death when she was not transferred to the continent for medical treatment. In the next Muksalamskii skit is the grave of a young comrade, Sandomir, who committed suicide; two more graves contain Aronovich, who also committed suicide, and Martsinkevich, who underwent the regime for common criminals. Ten corpses in two years—the awful result of Bolshevik terror—is the price for the liquidation of the Solovki camp. After the shooting of prisoners on December 19, a wave of indignation among the workers of the whole world made it impossible to keep the socialists and anarchists in the Solovki camp. Not the humaneness of Bolshevik authorities, not the repudiation of cruel repressions against the Socialists and anarchists, but the protest of the entire proletariat forced them to transfer political prisoners from Solovki. Even while making concessions, however, the Bolshevik authorities—the most hypocritical and vindictive in the world—tried to wreak their anger on the inmates of Solovki.
In the morning on June 17 , armed detachments of Red Army soldiers and Cheka men unexpectedly surrounded Savvatiev skit, the largest in the Solovki camp. Infantry, cavalry, and even a machine gun were deployed against a prisoners’ bloc in which everyone was sleeping at the time all this caused bewilderment on the part of the inmates, who naturally expected some new act of arbitrariness. Finally they announced that some prisoners would be transferred to the continent, but not which ones. They gave the prisoners three hours to get ready and subjected them to rudeness, humiliations, and ceaseless threats. The same was reported from other buildings. The inmates from Muksalamskii skit, for example, were forced to run three versts to the harbor, after they had already walked seven versts and were pushed by horses from behind even though there were women and sick persons in the column. The chief of the directorate of Northern Camps himself—one Kostev—and the director of the Prison Department conducted this operation. It was only because of the exceptional presence of mind and endurance of healthy prisoners, who took on themselves the blows and protected the weak and sick ones, that this last provocation did not end in tragedy or the passage end in casualties.
The ship that delivered the prisoners to the continent was so crowded that it was hard to breathe. In a cramped hold, stuffed to the limit, with hatchways closed and scuttles shut, the exhausted people who had just gone through a long walk could not lie down, but had to stand up most of the way. Here also were mothers with babies.
On arriving on the continent, the prisoners were split into groups and placed in railway cars, regardless of family ties. In one case, threatening violence, they took a pregnant woman with an 18-month-old baby away from her husband; he had to go to a place thousands of versts away without being able to say goodbye or knowing where he was going or where his wife was going. The train cars were filled beyond any conceivable norm; instead of 42 passengers in a regular car they stuffed in 87. It was midsummer and oppressively hot. Some comrades fainted, others had heart attacks. In these unbearably cramped conditions, we traveled nine long days. During all this time, we were given inadequate food, and there was not even enough fresh water. Those who were seriously ill among us received the same ration and could not escape the common lot.
The circumstances surrounding our transfer from Solovki did not portend anything good in store, but even so it exceeded our worst expectations. sent to Verkhne-Uralsk prison, and we, about a hundred Tobolsk. We in Tobolsk so far do not have any information on conditions in the Verkhne-Uralsk prison. But we can tell you what awaited us. We were placed in the former convict jail in the city of Tobolsk in Siberia. Even in Czarist times, they considered abolishing Siberian convicts’ jails because they were so far away and because conditions there were hard. The Bolshevik authorities could not think of anything better when liquidating the Solovki than the old Czarist convict jails in Siberia. All those transferred from Solovki were sentenced to detention in a concentration camp, not in a prison. Even though conditions in the Solovki camp were very hard and barbed wire surrounded our prisoner blocs, nevertheless, inside the barbed wire territory we enjoyed relative freedom. We did not have internal supervision in the prisoner blocs, our cells were open, and we enjoyed the right of free communication with each other from roll call to roll call.
Instead of this, in Tobolsk we found ourselves in a real jail with locked cells, with a foul-smelling toilet poisoning the air, with cells completely isolated from one another, and with a staff of guards transferred from Moscow’s internal prisons especially for us, who immediately set up their regulations here. We have received new and much harder punishments, even though no one had committed any new “crimes,” and no one reconsidered our sentences. We were placed in common cells, 14-17 people in each, which made it impossible to do any serious study. Some prisoners had spent many years in Czarist and then in Bolshevik prisons. Our food rations were cut considerably compared with those in Solovki and distributed without the participation of the prisoners. The prison administration refused to recognize elected elders as spokesmen for the prisoners. There is no special food ration for the sick and no hospital either (a little corner for three or four beds, without any medical supplies, cannot be called a hospital). Those who are sick are compelled to live in common cells with-out hospital food and with hardly any medical care, even though some have a bad form of tuberculosis and some have neurotic disorders. The cells in the first floor of this two-story jail are damp and dark. The sick prisoners live there, and the healthy ones always have to face the danger of falling ill.
We are some three thousand versts from the center [of the country] and some three hundred versts from the railroad. We are almost completely isolated from our relatives, and very few of us can count on their chance visits. But even that is not enough. They limit our correspondence, limit the number of addresses we are allowed to write to, and permit us to write only to our closest family members. They limit the number of letters, both e and received. Even the Czarist prisons did not light on this measure—the newest invention of the GPU!
The staff of prison wardens and Red Army soldiers have been selected specially for us. They have been taught to hate us and can’t wait to put that hatred into action. Despite the fact that we received permission from the administration to look out the windows, they constantly threaten that they will shoot those who stand at the windows. Just since we have been here, there have been two cases of shooting at the windows, which fortunately did not cause casualties. But casualties are probable and the repetition of the Solovki shooting on 19 December is inevitable in the current atmosphere in Tobolsk, as demonstrated by the latest incident of shooting at the windows.
After they shot at the windows, the prisoners began to knock on the doors, calling for the superiors from the prison administration. The guards responded by threatening to shoot from the yard and the corridor and stuck their revolvers through the small openings of the locked doors. Swearing obscenely, yelling “Menshevik scum,” and “traitors of Christ,” the wild, clearly drunken wardens rushed up and down the corridors from cell to cell threatening to shoot people and, aiming rifles and revolvers at us, shouted “Don’t save bullets”—all this shows the kind of people we had in Tobolsk prison, sent to us by the GPU. That’s the kind of “humaneness” the Bolsheviks displayed toward the former Solovki inmates who had been transferred to the Continent. Other inmates of Tobolsk prison have also experienced this “humaneness,” including those brought from Cheliabinsk. At Cheliabinsk they had unlocked cells, free communication with one another, and individual cells for the most needy—all of which had been won by several hunger strikes. Now in Tobolsk they found themselves in common cells, without individual cells even for the sick or those who had fifteen years of Czarist and Bolshevik prisons behind them. Now they still have to face five to ten long years of imprisonment.
A group of anarchists transferred from the Yaroslavl prison has also experienced Bolshevik humaneness (among them, a pregnant woman). Placed with common criminals, they had to go on a hunger strike to attain their transfer to the ward for political prisoners. Many Socialist and anarchist prisoners also had to go on a hunger strike because the GPU refused to grant them the status of political prisoners. The Messrs. Tomskys [trade union leaders and thus Bolshevik authorities] are talking about humaneness, and the German, Swedish, and other workers’ delegations are listen-ing to their speeches and, in response, praising Bolshevik freedom. But why was the Solovki camp in the two years of its existence not shown to any delegations? The English trade union delegation did ask to see Solovki, but were told that navigation was not possible at that time, even thong this was not true. Now the newspapers write about the German delegation visit to a prison in Sverdlovsk (Ekaterinburg) and about their meeting political prisoners. We do not know what kind of political prisoners these delegates talked to in Sverdlovsk because there is no permanent prison of political prisoners there. But why, we ask, did they hurriedly for dirty cells of the Sverdlovsk jail? And why did they transfer Borisenko, Zharkovsky, and Enukashvili to the GPU on 4 August, the very eve of the delegations’ arrival? Why, we ask, has no one from the delegates visited the Tobolsk prison or the Verkhne-Uralsk prison, where hundreds of political prisoners are imprisoned? Why wasn’t a workers’ delegation admitted there? Why didn’t they open the prison cells for them so they could see with their own eyes how, after the Solovki, the Cheliabinsk, and the Siberian convict jails, we are enjoying Bolshevik freedom on the continent. We would have told them all about that freedom and why we wound up in Bolshevik prisons. And they would have found out that the overwhelming majority of us were sentenced not by verdict of an open court—let it be partial, let it be Bolshevik—but by the GPU, which, just like the medieval Inquisition, is passing sentences in its secret offices. They would have found out that out of 121 political prisoners in Tobolsk prison, only 21 persons have a court sentence and that out of the 200 Solovki prisoners who wound up in Verkhne-Uralsk, only 1 had a court sentence. All the others were imprisoned by GPU resolution, not for any concrete crimes, not for armed struggle against the Bolshevik power (as Communist newspapers are shamelessly saying in Russia and abroad), but simply for belonging (in some cases in the past) to this or that Socialist party; that is, for daring to think and feel differently.
Only one prisoner in the Tobolsk political prison was sentenced for participating in uprisings, in this case, the Tambov uprising. (He was sentenced to execution, but his sentence was commuted to ten years imprisonment.) The 115 comrades we questioned have, altogether, spent 360 years in Bolshevik prisons and 16 years in exile—that averages out to three years and one month per person! And some of us have spent five or more years in prison out of the eight years of Bolshevik rule. Moreover, none of the 115 we questioned received his latest sentence during the Civil War. 29 were sentenced in 1922, 53 in 1923, and others in 1924 and 1925, that is, when references to civil war did not make any sense. Out of the 360 years we have spent in Bolshevik prisons, 60 were in preliminary confinement and only 16 counted toward the full term. More than 43 years of preliminary confinement were not counted (and that is in court trial cases only). There are comrades among us who had one, one-and-a-half, and even two-and-a-half years of preliminary confinement not counted toward the prison term.
360 years in Bolshevik prisons after we have already gone through 220 years of imprisonment, hard labor camps, and exile under czarism! Out of 115 persons, 53 suffered from Czarist repression; that averages four years per person. Some comrades, however, have 10 years and more of prison behind them, among them, 11 who had been sentenced to penal servitude (one was sentenced to execution by the Czarist court). They spent seventy years in penal servitude. They have gone through solitary confinement, flogging, and torture. Nine of them are workers and have been workers since the age of nine or 10. One of them spent 10 years and four months in penal servitude in Shlisselburg, three years in prison, 400 days in punishment cells, and three-and-a-half years in exile. He is a worker, a turner [metalworker] who has participated in the workers’ revolutionary movement since 1898. Now he has got ten years’ imprisonment from the Bolsheviks. These, the majority of whom are old party activists who joined the Socialist and revolutionary movement way before 1917, are the kinds of “counterrevolutionaries” that the Bolsheviks throw in prison. Out of 115 people, 112 are members of political parties, 66 entered before 1917, and 28 before 1905, for an average of 13 years of party membership per prisoner! This is not exceptional. Such a composition of the political prisoners’ population is typical in prisons and places of exile in Bolshevik Russia. These people, exhausted by long years of repression, must again resume the hard and desperate struggle for their human dignity and for their very lives in Bolshevik prisons. Any historian of this struggle knows about the “heroic deeds” of Bolshevik authorities, such as the beating of 300 Socialists and anarchists in the Butyrki jail in 1921, the brutal beatings in the Yaroslavl prison at the end of 1922, and the shootings in Solovki in 1923. Hunger strikes in Bolshevik prisons have become an everyday occurrence to attain the status of political prisoners, to obtain an individual cell, or to improve their hard conditions. The extent of hunger strikes is greater than ever before. Individuals as well as groups go on hunger strikes. In the fall of 1924, 150 prisoners went on a collective hunger strike that lasted 15 days in Solovki. Here in Tobolsk, out of 115, 85 have gone on a hunger strike at one time or another, that is three-fourths of all the comrades. As time goes on, the hunger strikes become longer and longer, beating previous records. The latest hunger strikes in Cheliabinsk, Suzdal, and Moscow set a record of 24 days.
One comrade has gone through two hunger strikes—one, 17 days, and the other, 24 days long. Another comrade (a woman and a member of the SR party) was beaten until she lost consciousness on the fourth day of her hunger strike in the GPU’s internal prison Fin GPU headquarters]. Not surprisingly, some prisoners have lost faith in the effectiveness of hunger strikes and are resorting to suicide.
Foreign work: delegations would have learned all this had they been allowed frame access, to political prisoners. And they would have learned one more thing about Bolshevik freedom—something that the majority of European workers repents most likely does not know—that a Socialist in Russia, once in the claws of the GPU, can never get out unless he repudiates his banner and repents in the pages of Bolshevik newspapers. Only by paying such a shameful price can he buy freedom and a piece of bread for his starving family. Otherwise, he must bear his cross endlessly from camp to prison, from prison to exile, and from exile again to prison. . . . He would not have to commit any new crimes against the authorities to be sent on that journey. All he has to do is be true to his political convictions. Many of us are sentenced to three, five, and 10 years in prison or camp. But what is it that changes for us, when, upon completion of our prison term, we receive not freedom, but exile in the Siberian tundra, Turukhansk, Obdorsk, Mezen, or Pechora, at the polar circle?
This is not an exaggeration.
Out of the many hundreds of political prisoners who have gone through camps and prisons in Bolshevik Russia, only a few were freed [on completion of the term]. Here are the data on the Solovki camp: out of 47 persons who completed their term in 1922-1925, 29 were sent into exile with the stipulation that their freedom of movement was limited. Nine persons were prohibited from settling in big cities, three persons could choose their place of residence but were to be under GPU surveillance, and six persons could return home, but were also to be under GPU surveillance. Among them were women with children, sick people, old people with Czarist prisons behind them, and young men that had only recently joined the workers’ movement. Torn away from relatives and friends, without means, without a job, deprived by the GPU of the possibility and, in certain cases, of the right to work, this is how our comrades live in exile. And as soon as they get settled, they are sent away again to even more godforsaken backwoods. They finish their term and get a new exile. In some cases they get a new prison term, again years behind bars, for some nonexistent crimes commit-ted in uninhabited backwoods. And it goes on like this without end. . . .
… Surprisingly, the louder the Bolshevik press shouts about the rule of law, the more inventive the GPU becomes. Only three or four years ago, they used to exile to Turkistan, to the Urals, to Vyatka, and to other places in European Russia. Then they began to exile to Narym, then all the way up to Pechora, and now they’ve remembered about Obdorsk, which was seldom used even in Czarist times.
Neither the infamous Czarist courts nor the bourgeois courts in Europe and America, which cruelly persecute revolutionaries, have known anything like this. This is what makes the Bolshevik terrorist regime so horrible. And socialists and workers throughout the world must know this. In “free” Bolshevik Russia—a country that has long since come out of the state of civil war and that is boasting about the strengthening of its power—socialists are beyond the rule of law. In that country, there is not a single socialist or anarchist whose name is known to the authorities and to the GPU, who is not languishing somewhere in a camp, a prison, or in exile. As long as this “free” regime exists, none of its captives will see freedom. These are the facts, and let those who sing praises to Russian freedom refute them. We have told you all these facts, comrades, so that you know how hypocritical and false are all the speeches about the liquidation or even about the softening of terror in Bolshevik Russia and so that you know that terror reigns here in Russia in all its pristine strength and in recent times has intensified. The Solovki camp was replaced with the Tobolsk prison. Let your old slogan, the slogan of all Socialists and workers of the whole world, sound from your ranks powerfully and ceaselessly as it used to: Down with Terror in Russia!
—FACTION OF THE RSDLP
—FACTION OF THE PSR
—Faction of the Left SRs and a Group of SDs in Tobolsk Prison
This handwritten letter has no title or date. To disguise the handwriting. the characters were printed. The text is in Russian, but the identification attached at the top is in German: Aufruf an das Internationale Proletariat unterzeichneir von 121 Suzialisten, die Sich in einem Gefaenignisse Sibiriens Befinden (An Appeal to the International Proletariat Signed by 121 Socialists Who Find Themselves in One of the Prisons in Siberia). Unfortunately, the copy in the archive does not have any signatures. From the contents we know that the time of writing is 1925. Nicolaevsky Collection, series no. 6, box 6, folder 4.
[PW: This document appeared in Brovkin’s book, Dear Comrades: Menshevik Reports on the Bolshevik Revolution and the Civil War ]
1. Chief Political Directorate; replaced the Cheka.