In this book, published in 1993, I wrote, “Here in America, I ask myself a new question: Could anything like that happen here? It is America that I am now concerned about most of all.”
I see the assault of Donald Trump & co. on the body of American institutions, values, and traditions as a political gang rape. It was cheered, unfortunately, by a large part of Americans. The absurdity of “alternative facts” and the cold cruelty of the now infamous “ban on Muslims” revived my memories of the so-called “refusal”: the Russian ban on emigration of Jews of 1979-1987. I spent the actual 1984 in a Siberian prison camp on the Mongolian border.
The Orwellian relics of the bygone Soviet-Russian life, some of which have been restored and burnished in Putin’s Russia, seem to be tested for import to the USA. I see with bitter satisfaction that George Orwell’s 1984 is being read again in America and some prominent Russian immigrants in the U.S. are shivering like in a cold draft. The worldwide march of anti-Trump protesters makes me hopeful, but not enough to ease my worries. It is hard to guess what the elephant in the china shop can do next.
With all that, I clearly see that Donald Trump has touched upon some real and important problems and his voters are not necessarily bigots, retrogrades, and rednecks. He has a point. He is strong. I am worried all the more because he is strong enough to open the floodgates for lies, absurdity, and hate. The freaky fatal attraction—and similarity—between him and the current Russian virtuoso of absurdity has been widely noted. Paraphrasing Napoleon, from two party-system to one-party system there is but one step.
I am a chemist, but in my youth, projecting my future occupation, I vacillated between chemistry and psychiatry. I was engrossed in both. There is more about it in the book. Witnessing the recent presidential denial of the absolutely indisputable and visible with naked eye facts, and remembering my now antiquated medical textbooks, I am worried even more. “Delirium was the very essence of the Soviet ideology in a very clinical sense,” I wrote.
After some style and content editing of the original manuscript, correcting at least a part of numerous errors, and adding a few footnotes, I am uploading my Memoirs of 1984 – my personal story of the real 1984—on the Web. For a while, I will continue editing and updating the site.
As for modern Russia, Bill Browder’s Red Notice: a True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man's Fight for Justice (Simon & Schuster, 2015) is a fascinating personal story and a factual source for understanding post-Soviet Russia and pre-Trump America.
Yuri Tarnopolsky February, 2017
THE SMOKE IN THE WIND
It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clock was supposed to be striking thirteen, as George Orwell predicted. The year was 1984.
As a matter of fact, there was no clock at all. But the day was really bright, so I could use the shade of the electric pole in the yard outside as a sundial.
By that time, I had gotten used to not having a watch on my wrist. It had been taken away by the investigator more than a year ago, upon my arrest. Time did not matter much in the labor camp anyway.
I stood in a narrow, dark hallway with three iron doors along it, all locked on the hall side. Behind the doors were three camp factory workshops. The drone of seventy sewing machines coming from those rooms was as loud as the sound of a turbojet.
To emerge once in a while into this forbidden area was a special privilege granted to me by the doorman. Upon my request, he would occasionally unlock the door of my workshop and let me out of the crowded, dusty, and noisy room so that I could peep out into a larger world.
From the dark hallway, I was watching the brightly lit yard through a grated window the size of a book page. The afternoon shadow of the pole was pointing to the left, I noted, toward the latrine.
The doorman was nice to me because we were about the same age and had both been arrested for the first time in our almost fifty years of life. That was enough to form a bond between us. We could even talk a little, with my part limited to "Oh, really?" "Sure," and "Oh, yeah.”
The doorman could not see, however, that our similarity extended beyond age. Both of us had attempted to steal state property from the Soviet government. His crime was losing a dozen state-owned sheep in a snowstorm. Mine, much more heinous, was my desire to leave my country for good. In the state where I was a sheep, I wanted to be my own herdsman, and I wanted to be lost in the snowstorm of history.
I was a refusenik—an applicant for emigration who had been denied an exit visa. As a black sheep that marred the pristine white flock, I was sent here for correction.
In the caste system of the labor camp, the doorman, formerly a shepherd at a government farm, was now one of the billy-goats—inmates who had repented and were cooperating with the prison administration, agreeing—not necessarily honestly—to squeal on other prisoners. Therefore, they were trusted to be doormen, cooks, dishwashers, hospital nurses, storekeepers, librarians, accounting clerks, artists, and writers for the prison newspaper.
The doorman pushed me aside and looked into the yard. “Lunch”! he yelled out in a rough voice. He unlocked the outer door and three others. Several other voices in the workshops repeated the call, adding obscenities, and the deafening roar of the sewing machines gradually subsided.
The doorman had no watch either, but he had not used the shadow to tell time. He just noticed an officer on duty who had appeared in the distant corner of the yard, waving his hand.
The yard was surrounded by rows of barbed wire on the ground and a high plank fence. On the north was a wooden fence between the working zone and the school zone. The western fence with four parallel gable-roofed adobe workshops along it separated the working and the living zones. On the south, the roofs of camp warehouses could be seen behind the fence. The main workshop, a long flat-roofed barrack with four iron doors, one of them behind me, ran along the eastern edge of the yard.
All of the fences were adorned on top with the curls of barbed wire. Casual-looking guards with machine guns over the shoulder stood on corner watchtowers. It was a picture of utter peace and security.
I was ready for lunch.
The contents of my pockets included an aluminum spoon in a small fabric bag, another fabric bag with a piece of bread, and a handful of fabric shreds used as napkins, handkerchiefs, and toilet paper. I had also a pencil stub, a self-made French dictionary, a page of Moscow News, a Soviet newspaper in English, and the small luxury of two cheap caramel candies.
When we watch old films shot on the streets in the 1920s, the world looks very different. First, it is black, white, and gray. The clothes look wrinkled and crumpled, streets overcrowded and littered. As it appears on the screen, the world of the past seems devoid of vacant, smooth surfaces, straight lines, grace, and order. It looks like its inhabitants have just moved in and they are not sure they would like to stay.
The labor camp seemed to belong to the world of old movies and photographs. The buildings did not show even a square foot of uniformly colored flat surface. There were no straight lines or pure colors, no symmetry, smoothness, or uniformity of detail. Everything was done haphazardly, everything made by prisoners who hated what they were doing. All was jagged, rough, and coarse. Glass splinters, threads, sewing needles, and cardboard cores of spools were stamped into the dirt yard. The windowpanes were a patchwork of dirty pieces of glass remarkable for their rich collection of the various defects the glass industry could produce.
Now people were coming out into the football-field-sized yard from several of the workshops lining its borders. They were smoking, chatting, walking to the latrine.
The latrine was a typical example of camp architecture. It was hackwork of unshaved wooden planks of various forms and sizes, all cracked and rotten.
The tin-plated gutter for urine was supposed to accommodate about four hundred men per shift. During the severe local winter, the urine froze before it could reach the end of the gutter. It overflowed onto the floor, and by the end of the season two feet of yellow ice accumulated both inside and around the structure. The lowest caste had the job of breaking it up with a heavy crowbar. The strikes of the tool revealed the daily layers, like the year rings on a tree stump. With strict periodicity, some of them showed a reddish tint, probably because of blood from kidneys injured by excess salt and by weeks spent on the cold concrete floor of the punishment block.
Little wonder that during the night shift, and frequently during the day, the inmates did not bother going to the slippery shack but simply used the yard.
It was the windy season—a cold spring after an almost snowless winter, on the eve of a short rainy summer. The wind carried dust mixed with dry urine and scarce snowflakes. Hopefully, it was the last snow of the spring. The soil was still deeply frozen. Some hillocks thawed under the sun, and the rare black wet spots were the only signs of April.
The inmates, mostly Siberian aborigines, were used to much colder weather. Despite the wind, many of them were bare-chested. An occasional scarf served more as a sign of prison prosperity than as protection against cold.
Russian political, ethnic, and geographical terms can be confusing for a stranger.
The part of Siberia that sheltered me in 1984 was called Trans-Baikalia. One can find it on a map of Asia right above the Soviet-Mongolian border, east of the narrow strip of Lake Baikal, the deepest and largest freshwater reservoir on Earth.
From a historical point of view, Russia was the old name of the whole country that was renamed the USSR, or the Soviet Union, by the Communists. Ethnic Russians, often of mixed blood, made up only about half the population, which consisted of hundreds of different ethnicities, from Assyrians to Eskimos. The country hosted believers in all major world religions, as well as pagans. Most of the ethnicities had inhabited their territories as long as they could remember themselves, some since biblical times.
Russia was also the name of one of the fifteen Soviet republics such as Lithuania, Armenia, Ukraine, Georgia, etc., most of which had been acquired during the eastward expansion of the original Russian state. Russia was a walking-distance empire—one did not need to cross an ocean to reach the colonies.
By no means were Soviet republics the counterparts of American states. Each republic had its own languages, culture, history, religion, and mentality. Ethnically, they could be as different as Germany, Iran, Egypt, China, Poland, and Finland. Yet most of them had never been independent states.
The colonization of Greater Siberia, including Trans-Baikalia, by the Russians, which took several centuries, did have something in common with the birth of America. Siberia was not only the land of hard laborers and exiles but also the freest part of Russia for those who stayed there of their own will.
The Trans-Baikalian counterpart of Native Americans was Buryat-Mongols, a people closely related to the Mongols by language, culture, and the Tibetan branch of Buddhism. They considered themselves a part of the Mongolian people, or Tartars, who once ruled the whole of Asia and almost all of Russia.
The Trans-Baikalians were proud of living in the area that had been the notorious penal colony of Russia since the advent of the czars. It was the area with the so-called super-continental climate—the most severe known climate except the polar one—and the part of Siberia that accounted for perhaps the only romantic page in the stern volume of Russian history.
The Decembrists were Russian aristocrats who, driven by the French ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity, conspired against the czar but failed to overthrow him in December 1825. He hanged five of them and sentenced the rest to hard labor in mines, mostly in the Chita region, where my labor camp was located. Many of their young and beautiful wives, despite various obstacles imposed by the czar, moved from western Russia to the frozen land to be closer to their chained aristocratic husbands.
The region of Chita was one of the most backward parts of the country. Every fourth man there was said to be locked in a labor camp, sooner or later, either for petty theft or for giving a black eye to his neighbor. Judging by the stories of inmates, the aborigines skinned dogs and ate them, using the fur for warm hats. They beat women and children, drank cheap perfume, and fought each other without mercy. They cared very little about human life and the rest of Russia, and cared not at all about the rest of the world, except Mongolia, which supplied forage for the cattle. Civilization meant nothing to them. Comfort and even freedom meant very little. During a winter night, a herdsman could sleep in the steppe right on the snow.
Of course, one should not judge the hardworking, friendly, and generous population of Chita by prison stories that knew no bounds to fantasy. Still, the presence of an enormous number of convicts, as well as drunk and reckless soldiers and officers, very much defined the way of life in that God-forsaken area. The prisoners were convenient and profitable labor, which was desperately needed in this underpopulated region along the border, part of it with China. The largest Soviet military district was located here, among the hills stuffed with hidden missiles pointing at China and America.
There was no place in the camp for animals, children, age difference, retirement, and women—occasional female technical personnel did not count. The two polar constituents of the camp were the prisoners (zeks) and the officers (ments). Zeks and ments needed each other like two sexes.
For political prisoners, the KGB (State Security) was a third force, invisible and powerful. For reasons that will be explained later, I and my refusenik friends—about that term also later—called the KGB dybbuks, evil spirits in Jewish mythology.
An average local zek was a young man, strong, roughly hewn, resourceful, cruel, and proud of being a zek—at least that was the impression the zek was supposed to give.
Some zeks were sons of zeks and future fathers of zeks. Many of them, as soon as they came out of the camp gate, immediately got drunk and started to fight with the first poor fool who came along. The re-arrest of a zek on the day of his release was a common story.
At first glance, all zeks looked alike. They were, or pretended to be, composed, cool, and slow in movement and words. Outbreaks of anger and threats mostly were faked as part of zek rituals. The zeks became truly irritable only when there was no tobacco to smoke.
A member of the highest caste of thieves was supposed to talk and move in a special ritualistic way, spreading his fingers as if to illustrate the laws of electromagnetism.
It took a newcomer like me a certain period of adaptation to see in rough, ugly, cruel, wrinkled, sallow faces the diversity of personalities distributed along the universal human pattern. So, now I can say “we”.
We, the zeks, wore dark gray padded jackets stuffed with cotton wool. The green uniform looked like ordinary pajamas. On the left side of the chest we had identity tags—small rectangles of fabric with the name and number of the brigade. Our pants were tucked into classical solid Russian high boots with tarpaulin tops and no shoelaces. Only the color of the jacket distinguished us from the army construction troops.
The unarmed ments who worked in prisons and camps wore regular military uniforms although they had no military training and no military discipline.
Every barrack housed a brigade of about one hundred zeks and was enclosed by a metal cage with a double-gate trap at the checkpoint and fence-netted top. It was forbidden to enter another barrack or workshop.
The big gate between the working and the living zones was now open. The yard was full of officers in trench coats. We lazily lined up in a column of five in each row and made for the gate. We moved across the yard, passed through the gate, turned left, walked between the fence of the working zone and the barracks, through a small central plaza, and turned to the right, where the poster "Out into freedom with clean consciousness" invited us not into freedom but into the mess hall.
The mess hall was the only place where all prisoners of one shift could see each other. It was also the movie theater on Sundays. Saturday was always a workday, as was at least one Sunday a month.
The concrete mess hall was also the place for rare official meetings of the whole camp. There was a stage with political slogans, a movie screen, and a pulpit. On the walls were posters with happy faces of the builders of communism.
The other end of the hall had openings in the wall for food and dishes. Long tables, each seating twenty people, covered by scratched and rumpled zinc sheets wiped with dirty rags. The zeks of the lower castes ate at separate tables.
The zeks sat tightly pressed, hardly able to move a hand, especially with their winter clothes on. The ments were standing or walking in the aisles. There was no time for talk at the tables.
It was as cold in the mess hall as outdoors, but at least there was no wind.
"Hats off”! an officer on duty commanded. The prisoners exposed to the cold their shaven heads, many marked with scars.
First, soup consisting of potatoes, sauerkraut, carrot, beet, traces of tomato paste, and the cheapest artificial fat, arrived in aluminum cauldrons. In the spring, only dried vegetables were available, the sauerkraut was half-rotten, and pieces of dried beet were carbon black.
Instead of the legally required two ounces of meat a day for each prisoner, only rare meat fibers could be found by a lucky few. If there was a big piece, a privileged zek from a high caste would get it all.
The zek who sat on the edge of the bench stood up and dispensed the soup into gray aluminum bowls, all dented and coated with dirty water after washing. Pieces of bread were put right on the grimy zinc, alongside a bowl of coarse salt. The zeks consumed salt, the only available seasoning, in huge quantities.
I was not very hungry. In the mess hall, I could never eat a meal without disgust, even if I was hungry and even today, when I knew it would be my last meal before a hunger strike.
The second course was barley gruel with the same artificial soap-like grease. They called it margarine. There were no drinks, not even water.
I wiped my spoon with a piece of fabric and put it into a fabric sheath. My mates licked their spoons up and tucked them into their high boots.
"Got guzzled? Now get out!" the foreman commanded. We went out, lined up in a column, and moved back to the working zone, past gloomy officers shivering in the cold wind.
At the door of my working barrack, I tried to stay in the fresh air as long as possible.
Camp life dragged on under unrelenting stress. Although the labor camp was supposed to depress any sensation of change, movement, and achievement, existing there was like driving in rush hour traffic. Every minute was charged with compressed danger. On these alleys and aisles, nobody had any insurance, so you had to watch out.
In the free life, the safest place could be in hiding; in the camp, it was out in the open. My eyes and ears were working as radar, automatically pinpointing all the changes around me while I savored the candies bought in the prison store. Once a month I could buy tea, caramel, cheap cookies, and canned fish for a total of about six dollars. The money came from my strictly limited prison account opened and maintained by my wife.
Lunch left heaviness in the stomach but no feeling of satisfaction. The prison food did not contain any ready nutrients. Food had to undergo a complex process of chemical change before glucose could be released into my veins.
Luckily, I was a former professor of chemistry, because that somewhat quirky science, irritating to most non-chemists, gave me lots of knowledge that was especially valuable here, where both the sturdy and fragile mechanisms of life could be put to a test. Astronomy would have been of much less use.
The sight of the smoke inspired and depressed me at the same time. I admired the persistence of the smoke, and I saw that the smoke was doomed.
I felt sorrow because somebody cared about the smoke and kept it alive by feeding the furnace with coal, but there was no one to replenish the internal fuel that sustained my soul. I was like a self-contained planet, all the coal I had under the ground was my last one, and I was surrounded by empty and cold space. The aftertaste of the candies was the light of a distant world, which had probably already ceased to exist, like faraway stars that we see in the skies long after they have flickered out.
It would be sheer idiocy to begin a new hunger strike tomorrow. Dying was not a way of living. There was no immediate threat to my life. As a chemist, I knew that however black the beet was, however rotten the cabbage, the barley gruel was as good a source of glucose as honey. My mind did not want to fast; neither did my body. I did not want to resist, to struggle, to suffer. Yet there was something else totally immaterial and irrational, neither mind nor body. Pride? Honor? Tenacity? I did not know. I have always wondered what it was. I believe it was scientific curiosity. Life for me was an experiment that I wanted to complete and gain from a loss by learning something new.
To remain strong and to keep my soul alive, I had to burn my own body in the metabolic fire.
Soon the candies shot enough sugar into my brain to resume the humming of thoughts. The real 1984 was not that bad. My brain was free, and nobody was trying to make me love Big Brother. Moreover, prison seemed to relieve me from the daily chores of free life.
FULL TEXT : spirospero.net/1984.pdf