COLONEL AT THE GATE

                                                                                   by Mark Perakh

In our Siberian prison camp for "state criminals" - the KGB's term for political prisoners - we had no thermometer.  However, we could tell the temperature by the density of a milky fog,  which, at past forty below, would veil the giant pines surrounding our  fenced-in "zone."  

I glanced at the yellow spots of light which dully twinkled from the direction of the klieglights that hung on the invisible in the fog guard towers,  and decided that on that December morning the temperature must have fallen below minus 45. This meant that we would not be taken to work in the rock quarry, as the soldiers, even in their toe-long double-layered sheepskin overcoats, would not be able to stand guarding us in the open pits, under the scorching blows of the Siberian wind.

In the gloomy mess hall, I collected my chunk of bread for the day, and, for my breakfast, a bowl of bluish liquid containing a few millet grains. Fed like this, as the inmates adage went, one would not die, one just would not live. Finding no place to sit at one of the pine-plank tables, I joined Father Lodavichas, who was leaning against a wall, eating his portion.  We drank the "soup" over the bowls' edges.

Father Lodavichas' crutch rested on the floor, next to his crude wooden leg, the creation of a self-taught camp carpenter.    Lodavichas had lost his leg in the Northern camps. Lodavichas, then in his sixties,  used to be the Dean of a Cathedral, either in Vilnius or in Kaunas, before he received his 25-year sentence as a "Vatican's spy."   Educated in France and Italy, and the author of books on linguistics and the history of the church, he seemed to enjoy our conversations. Responding to his curiosirty, I explained to him the subtleties of Functional Analysis and Nuclear Physics.   Lodavichas knew 12 languages, and was teaching me Hebrew.   It was the language of my ancestors, but I had never cared, until I was locked up by the KGB.  While my half-literate interrogator was sweating, inventing an indictment for me, I, during the long months in my solitary cell, underwent an inner upheavel, of which one manifestation was the thirst to learn my roots.

I met Father Lodavichas in a cattle car on our way to the camp.  I happened to bring up the rear of the line of inmates, when, surrounded by soldiers and dogs, we scrambled aboard.  There was only one place left for me in the car,  and it turned out to be right at the door which the sodiers rolled closed with a bang as soon as I pulled my legs into the dark womb of the car. Next to me, there was a sloshing barrel that held rusty water, our drinking supply for three days and nights of the trip to Siberia. 

Soon I was drenched all over.  And there was the hole.  Jagged-edged, it was sawed into the car's wall, next to the floor. It was designed to serve, for the 70 animals confined to the wheeled prison, as a substitute for all sanitary facilities ever invented by the humans.

After a while, I gave up trying to protect myself from the odor, from sprays of slopping water and urine, from the jest of icy air. Huddled against the door, I tried not to feel. Then a man stood over me, swaying on a wooden leg and a crutch. "Let me take your place for a while, and you take mine," he said, with an odd accent, but in a grammatically impeccable Russian. He nodded toward a corner piled with sacks that held our belongings. Tall men there were Lithuanian Catholics. They treated the one-legged man with a reverence which led me to guess that he was a priest, and of a rather high standing. They took him back to their corner; then they took turns taking my place, each for a few hours.

After we settled in the camp, I sought out Father Lodavichas to thank him. It was our first conversation. Many other followed. We talked about history, languages, science, but never about religion. I felt that he would have liked to have found a weak spot in my agnosticism. Every now and then, subtly, imperceptibly, he would nudge me toward the "logical" conclusion that the hand of God was in everything we touched on in our talks. Yet while my respect for his intelligence and learning grew, my upbringing in the harsh reality of the totalitarian state had created an armor impervious to even the most ingenious arguments he used to try to win the soul of that 33-year old irreligious Jew.

When we left the mess hall, the cold outside seemed worse. A few steps from the mess hall, there stood a low log cabin, which had no heating. Iron bars crossed its timber log door. This was the cold cell, a prison within a prison, usually referred to in the inmates slang as a "kondey." It was used as a punishment cell. Hot food was forbidden to anybody locked in the kondey. This time, strangely, a soldier was carrying a steaming bowl of soup toward the kondey.

"Look," Father Lodavichas said. "A potage of lentils from the Master." At that time the inmate inside the cold cell was a Jew from Georgia, the warm and picturesque land south of the Caucasus mountains. He was a stove-maker, and was nicknamed Katso, which in Georgian means something like "chap" or "fellow." His real last name was something ending with common Georgian "shvili," while his real first name, as I had accidentally learned, was Yosef. At that time, he was finishing his 21st year in jail. In the view of the camp's masters, Katso committed a crime once every week. He stubbornly refused to work on Saturday. He preferred to spend his Sabbat in the cold cell, rather than to move even a single brick for the stove he had been diligently building the rest of he week.  He could build a stove in 6 hours, a job that took any other stove-setter 30.  So he served to enhance the meager salaries of all the captains and lieutenants who managed the slaves labor.  If they had their way, they probably would not have regularly locked up Katso in the cold cell.  But the KGB hovered over them.  One more crime by Katso made him the focus of the KGB attention: Katso, alias Yosef, used to read the Bible.   Not stealthily, but where everybody could see him.  The political officer tried to make Katso see the error of his ways.  The political officer's most persuading argument was, "Everybody knows that there is no God."  To the political officer's astonishment, this agument did no good.  A team of propagandists from the Irkutsk regional Antireligious Society came to the camp.  They talked to Katso. They got nowhere.  Time and time again, Katso was locked up in a cold cell.   Each time he left it, he managed to find the forbidden book somewhere and read it every chance he got.

"The Master feeds the slave, to enable the slave to feed the Master,"  Father Lodavichas said.  "But this Katso,"  he conceded, " he is an exceptionally dountless slave."    It seemed madness to me, to take such punishment year after year.  For what? I thought. A collection of ancient legends?

We hurried to our barracks and stood for a while in front of a stove whose burning pine logs blew out yellow tongues of flame. Suddenly we heard shouts from outside. The word etap sounded several times. In the jail slang this word meant that a group of inmates arrived from other camps and prisons. This meant a major break in the monotony of our fenced-in world. In the newly arrived etap, could happen to be friends lost long ago in the endless shuffles of prisoners among Russia's prisons and camps. Even if no friends had been transported to this zone this time, some other new arrivals could have brought news about our friends they met in one of the thousands of Gulag's islands.

There was foggy light in the eastern sky. Dawn was coming. The klieg lights above the gate threw across the icy, cinder-strewn yard, the so called "head-count yard" - the ragged shadows of drab figures stumbling one by one into the zone. Once past the gate, the newcomers would begin to run, to find a vagonka, a shaky two-level pallet, on which to sleep. Those who came late would shuffle from barracks to barracks, taking naps on any pallet whose permanent occupant happened to be at work in the quarry.

We met every new arrival, eagerly anticipating news, but the headcount yard was soon empty again. Just when we turned to go back to our barracks, we heard a commotion. A voice was begging for something and soldiers replied with swearing. The door beside the gate swung open, revealing a man who was wearing a prisoner's gray, padded coat, felt boots, and an odd, knitted cap. He tried to cling to the door. The guards kicked him inside, and the last push of a soldiers's boot sent the man down. He fell, and the door banged behind him. For a while the man stayed prone on the ground. Then he rose, first to his knees, and then unbent slowly and leaned against the guardhouse wall. The man had a yellowish face, a stubble on his cheeks, and a red bulb for a nose. His muddy eyes slid over our faces as he hugged himself with his thickly mittened hands.

"Good heavens,"  Lodavichas said.  "It's the Colonel.   It will be the end of him. A dog's death."

The Colonel started to pace back and forth beside the guardhouse wall, never more than a few yards from its timbered door.

Why this man was called Colonel I never learned.   Maybe he held that rank in the army, or, maybe, it was just a mocking camp nickname. A few months earlier, he had become an outcast in a camp where inmates worked with timber. As in every other camp, the KGB kept a bunch of professional criminals there, to intimidate, and, if needed, to eliminate troublesome "state criminals."   One day two of those thugs. who were piling logs to be hauled away by tractor, managed to leave a space in the pile, into which they crtept and hid, while their cohorts started a quarrel  at the gate to distract the guards.  But when the tractor reached the gate, the man called Colonel, shouted "Get out, you damned snakes. You'll be caught anyway, and then the whole damned camp will be in big trouble." 

The Colonel was right.  But because of his outburst he was branded a turncoat.  He probably begged not to be transferred to another camp, where he might encounter friends of the men he betrayed. Yet his reckless outburst had been witnessed by other inmates, and therefore he was of no use for the KGB.  Now, he knew, he was about to face his enemies.  His only chance was to run into the guardhouse as soon as any of his haters would show up at the headcount yard. But under this gloomy sky, in the frosty fog that ate away at human lungs, his chances of survival dropped with every hour that passed, his body losing heat unstoppably. 

Still new to the prison, I stared with horror at this grotesque figure pacing back and forth. His entire world was that icy strip, six steps long and one step wide; the frosted timbered wall behind him, and an invisible thread in front of him, beyond which unforgiving hatred watched and waited.

"Hasn't he already paid for what he's done?" I asked. "Oh, no. Never,"  Lodavichas said. He watched the Colonel in silence for a while, then quoted a biblical verse - something about the destruction of flesh to save the spirit.   Years later, under different skies, I would recall those words - the  Apostle Paul epistle -  evoking in my mind the leaden Siberian sky, the milky eddies of fog among the pines, and the gloomy figure pacing at the camp's gate, the gate, which, as the inmates used to say, was very wide coming in, but so very narrow getting out.

"What will they do to him?"

"Take him by his arms and legs, and beat his body on the ground,"   Lodavichas said.  "There are experts who can break a man's spine on the first strike. Then they vanish. The man is left to die.  Nobody will fetch him even a cup of water." 

Indeed, nobody seemed to have compassion for the stukach, an informer.   Anybody displaying sympathy for the stukach's sufferings would himself become an outcast.

"They don't need to bother,"  I said. "The cold will do it. It will be minus 50 tonight."

Throughout the night, the wind shook the barracks' walls. But in the morning the Colonel was still alive. He had unfolded his cap, converting it into a mask with holes cut for his eyes and mouth.  Ice circled the mouth hole.  Every now and then he would lean against the guardhouse, but the cold would soon force him to return to his pacing. Hour after hour, he hung on, alone in the world.  At one point, a young, red-cheeked soldier pulled open the guardhouse door, and stood there in a whirl of steam, gnawing at a chunk of bread. Crumbs fell. The Colonel dropped to his knees and tried to pick them up, but couldn't with his clumsy mittens.  He lay flat and tried to pick them up with his mouth.  He moaned. When he stood up, his lips were bloody. 

That night, though wearing all my clothes, and rolled up tightly in my camp blanket, I could hardly sleep.  I kept climbing down from the vagonka to warm up at the stove, where other huddled figures gathered in a miasma of the sour odor of worn felt boots. Yet the next morning the Colonel was still out there, pacing. Someone said the guards had let him spend the night in the guardhouse's anteroom, on the floor.   Still, his strength was going.  By noon, he no longer paced. He leaned against the wall, rocking, shifting from foot to foot.

Steam swirled around the guardhouse's door.  Two soldiers came out and trotted to the cold cell. Locks and bars clattered - Katso's latest ordeal was over.   But he did not appear on the threshhold.  The soldiers stooped inside the black hut, then reappeared with Katso between them.  At first, his legs would not obey him.  The soldiers turned him loose.  Dazzled by the noon sun's glare on the snow,  Katso hobbled to the mess hall. At the door, he noticed the Colonel at the gate.  He paused, then entered the mess hall.  He accepted his bowl of soup, and a spoonful of porridge.  Someone at the table called out, offering him a seat. Katso nodded his thanks but slowly shuffled out, careful not to spill the soup.  He crossed the headcount yard, held the bowl to the Colonel's mouth in the knitted woolen mask strewn with icicles, and put pieces of porridge into the Colonel's cold-stiffened hand.

All of us remained silent, as Katso walked back to the mess hall, across the wilderness of the headcount yard, carrying two empty bowls. 

An hour later, the Colonel was gone. The camp's commander, a former army officer new to the Gulag, had sent him elsewhere.  But now Katso was an outcast; his hours were numbered.  Yet he sat in his usual place, on a vagonka's upper level, under the sooty ceiling of the barracks, where tongues of ice hung from the ridgepole. He was reading a small book, the Bible.  The print was microscopic, the paper almost transparent.  His tattered copy had traveled through many camps, jails, and cattle cars.  Pages were lost but replaced with new ones, handwritten in tiny letters. 

A day passed, and nothing happened to Katso.  The gang we all expected to settle scores with him, made no move. Nor on the next day.  It was whispered that Katso would not be touched.

Father Lodavichas and I resumed our conversations. Though I still admired his wisdom and the breadth of his knowledge, I no longer felt the deep satisfaction I had enjoyed before the episode with the Colonel.  Father Lodavichas appealed to my mind, as an intellectual peer. Now a new thirst was born, in my heart. 

One day, having overcome my hesitation, I approached Katso.   "Yosef,"  I said, "could I borrow your book, just for a day or two?"

The end

 

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