‘One day our company officer, Captain Usov, said to me: “You, Marchenko, are always dissatisfied, nothing suits you. But what have you ever done to make things better? All you wanted was to run away . . .”.’ Having read My Testimony and a few of Marchenko’s Open Letters one must come to the conclusion that Marchenko has done more, much more, than was in his power ‘to make things better’.footnote1 The son of illiterate workers from the Siberian town of Barabinsk, he went, after eight years of schooling, as a Komsomol volunteer to build the hydro-electric power station at Novosibirsk. One day, after a drunken brawl among the young workers the police in one big swoop arrested all—guilty and innocent—who did not go into hiding and sentenced them summarily to one year’s imprisonment. Marchenko tried to escape from prison and made his way towards the Persian border. He was caught, charged with high treason, and sentenced to six years forced labour in what is euphemistically called a ‘centre for re-education’ of political prisoners.

My Testimony is the story of these six years, first in Vladimir prison and then in the terrible camp in Mordovia. Marchenko fell foul of the Soviet ‘law’ at the age of 21—a healthy, vigorous young worker; he was let out of camp crippled for ever before he was thirty. He is back in camp again and there are fears that he might not emerge alive.

He wrote My Testimony in 1966 during the short period of his ‘freedom’, but it is indeed difficult to treat as freedom the spell of time out of prison or camp. A couple of months had to be spent in hospital; most available jobs were barred to him; there was no unemployment ‘benefit’, because, as in theory there is no unemployment in Soviet Russia, there is no dole in practice either; as a former political prisoner he was not allowed to settle in Moscow and had to travel daily to the capital from the small town of Alexandrov in order to work as a loader, though this was certainly not the most suitable employment for an invalid ex-prisoner.

My Testimony is not the literary work of an intellectual, although some pages of the book reach artistic heights by their sheer power of directness and simplicity; nor is it a memoir of an individual who under the impact of suffering, seen and undergone, feels the need to verbalize and re-live his experiences so as to regain some measure of inner psychological balance. Marchenko wrote My Testimony out of a sense of political duty: he promised his fellow prisoners, who were doomed to stay behind bars for many more years, that he would try to tell the whole world about their fate. He was convinced that the conditions under which the inmates of the post-Stalin camp live—or rather die a slow death—would have been impossible, if the broad mass of Soviet citizens knew what was going on in remote ‘centres of re-education’. The authorities do all they can to prevent the curious from getting a glimpse of the outlawed. ‘March, march, quickly’ is the order shouted at the prisoners who, somewhere in transit, have to make a few steps under a footbridge from the Black Marias to the train. Immediately a crowd gathers wanting to know who are ‘the lads’, where they are from and where they are going. ‘Packets of cigarettes and money wrapped in paper rained down on the column of prisoners from the bridge.’ The officer in charge was sternly rebuked: ‘You have been told before not to parade prisoners in front of the whole town.’ No, nobody is anxious to ‘parade the prisoners’, least of all the guards who complain: ‘We do not like it either . . . Just listen to what they’re saying about us on the bridge.’

The efforts to conceal the truth about the camps take on a grotesquely perfidious character with the treatment of foreign prisoners, who are kept under a much more lenient régime than the ‘natives’. Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot, was imprisoned in Vladimir and for a time was Marchenko’s neighbour. Even the certainty of cruel punishment could not prevent one of the inmates from trying to catch a glimpse of the American. One look was enough to discover that the normal prison regulations did not apply to guests from abroad. Powers’ cell-mate, an English-speaking Esthonian, played a role similar to that of the In-tourist guide trained to explain away all possible shortcoming of life in the ussr to the visitors entrusted to his care. The foreign prisoner must receive the impression that all other inmates were treated as humanely as himself; he should also learn as little as possible about the Soviet Union. ‘Keep Powers busy with conversation about the cinema, literature, sport’, the English-speaking guide was apparently instructed.

Not only in such details did the régime in prisons and concentration camps reflect the course of life outside. As Marchenko shows, the fate of ‘big bosses’ affected the fate of ‘small bosses’. After 1953 most of the camps were disbanded; a great many administrators dismissed, some persuaded to retire, others found new jobs. There were, however, some who held themselves in readiness and returned to their former posts at the first opportunity. From 1961 camp conditions visibly and drastically deteriorated. The Supreme Soviet had just revised the Regulations on Detention Centres and Prisons, giving the administration of the camps practically a free hand in dealing with the inmates. Those rulers of the univers concentrationnaire who hoped that their experience might be needed again and who meanwhile bided their time were given hints, advice, and sometimes even instructions from above to apply for reinstatement. As if that were not enough, they also wrote complaints that they had been treated unjustly and slandered—in a word it was they who demanded to be ‘rehabilitated’. Slowly and on the sly they began to be restored.

The beginnings of the 1960’s marked the period of Khrushchev’s decline. His fall, in 1964, had tragi-comic repercussions in the camp. A large task force of prisoners was ordered to remove, with all speed, placards, pictures, quotations, and photographs of Khrushchev with which the walls of the huts were plastered. This activity, pursued with great zest in the camps, was going on practically at the same time outside them. Portraits of ‘The Kukuruznik’ (The Maize Man) were disappearing from walls, shop windows, offices. Thus came to an end the cult of yet another personality. To a definite end came the period of ‘liberalization’ too; Stalinists were returning and gaining the upper hand nearly everywhere. While in 1956 the police and the army opened fire on the students who in Georgia carried placards with Stalin’s portraits and demonstrated in favour of their idolized leader, 12 years later the handful of people who, on the Red Square, trampled underfoot Stalin’s picture protesting against his rehabilitation, were promptly arrested and whisked off to a labour camp. One ironic illustration of this turn of the tide is given by Alliluyeva in her ploddingly sentimental Only One Year.footnote2 She describes how Mikoyan, the spiritus movens behind the revelations of the Twentieth Congress, invited her to his home a whole week in advance to show her Khrushchev’s speech. In this way he hoped to soften the shock which might have been more painful if she ‘learned the truth’ about her father later, in an unexpected and more impersonal way. In 1966 the same sly fox presented her daughter with a gift: a rug into which a portrait of Stalin was woven.