Ep. 32 The supreme measure of social defense

Just fifty kilometres from home, Gerhard was placed in a large cell at the Taganrog prison where the GPU (secret police) held their interrogations. The de-humanizing began immediately. Checking prisoners for weapons included probing with filthy fingers the mouth, eyes, ears, nose and genitals. The goal was to humiliate the prisoner beyond anything he had experienced.

But wherever they found themselves on their first night under arrest, …all prisoners faced an urgent immediate task: to recover from shock, to adjust to the peculiar rules of prison life – and to cope with interrogation. The speed with which they managed to do this would determine … how they would fare in the camps.[1]

As the newcomer, Gerhard’s sleeping space was next to the toilet bucket. Over time, his  space moved progressively further from the bucket as his seniority increased and other newcomers arrived.[2]

GERHARD I arrived at the Taganrog prison in the Black Raven, that’s what they called the prisoner trucks. After checking me for weapons, I was put into a cell. I looked around for windows and finally found one ten feet up on the wall.

 The inmates in our cell were there for various reasons, but most of them were political prisoners like me. There was a large barrel in the middle of the room into which we had to do “our business.” I prayed that my father would be spared this experience.

Eating also was not very pleasant. A large bowl of soup was brought in and then it was up to each individual to get what he could. Naturally we all wished we had larger spoons. Now and then my father and Auntie Dick were able to bring a small package of food which was quickly consumed and we were still hungry.

The simplest method of disposing of the vast number of “legal” cases brought before the court was to encourage arrestees to confess to the crimes assigned to them. Gerhard knew his guilt was already established. As one former prisoner was told by one of his interrogators: “We never arrest anyone who is not guilty. And even if you weren’t guilty, we can’t release you because then people would say we’re picking up innocent people.”[3]

In the end, the interrogation’s greatest importance was the psychological mark it left on prisoners. Even before they were subjected to the long transports east, even before they arrived at their first camps, they had been at some level “prepared” for their new lives as slave labourers. They already knew that they had no ordinary human rights, no right to a fair trial or a fair hearing. They already knew that the NKVD’s [secret police] power was absolute, and that the state could dispose of them as they wished. If they had confessed to a crime they had not committed, they already thought less of themselves. But even if they had not, they had been robbed of all semblance of hope, of any belief that the mistake of their arrest would soon be reversed.[4]

The time allotted for investigation was not used to unravel the crime but, in ninety-five out of a hundred, to exhaust, wear down, weaken and render helpless the defendant, so that he would want it to end at any cost.[5]

The most efficient method of resolving cases was to lay a revolver on the desk and ask the victim to incriminate himself.

The frightening revolver lies there and sometimes it is pointed at you, and the interrogator doesn’t tire himself out thinking of what you are guilty of, but shouts: “Come on, talk! You know what about.”[6]

After interrogation back to the dungeon

Returning to the dungeon after interrogation.

GERHARD Interrogations usually happened at night with two or three interrogators. They sat behind a table and screamed at me as if I had done something terrible. It was always at night. We were to sign written confessions. The interrogators said we were gathering an army and in case of war with Germany we would strike the Red Army from behind. What a nonsensical accusation.

They said: “We know who you have spoken to, and we know your plans. Give us a name.” For four months of night interrogations we languished in the dark cells and soon we didn’t really care anymore. When they could find no one who had spoken to me they finally gave up.

One warm and sunny Spring day I was asked if I wanted to chop wood. I said as long as I can be in the fresh air. There I met a young air force pilot who was given five years for making an emergency landing in Finland. I would meet him again in exile.

Gerhard soon learned that he was a German spy and was confined subject to Section 58-6 and 58-11 of the Soviet criminal code:

58-6. Espionage, ie. the transmittal, seizure, or collection, with the purpose of transmittal, of information, being a specially kept state secret due to its content, to foreign governments, counterrevolutionary organizations, and private individuals, shall be punishable by–

deprivation of liberty for a term not less than three years, with confiscation of all or part of one’s property, or in those cases where the espionage brought or could bring especially severe consequences for the interests of the USSR– the supreme measure of social defense– shooting or proclamation as an enemy of the workers with deprivation of citizenship of one’s union republic and, likewise, of citizenship of the USSR and expulsion beyond the borders of the USSR forever with confiscation of property.

Transmittal, seizure, or collection for purpose of transmittal of economic information, not consisting by its content of specially preserved state secrets, but not subject to publication either due to direct legal prohibition, or due to the decision of the management of the department, institution, or enterprise, whether for a reward or for free, to organizations and persons listed above, shall be punishable by—

deprivation of liberty for a term up to three years,

58-11. Any type of organizational activity, directed toward the preparation or carrying out of crimes indicated in this chapter, and likewise participation in an organization, formed for the preparation or carrying out of one of the crimes indicated in this chapter, shall be punishable by–

measures of social defense, indicated in the corresponding articles of this code.[7]

Gerhard’s conviction was a foregone conclusion, given the months of midnight interrogations invested in him. Russian officials recently confirmed the date of Gerhard’s conviction as June 17, 1934; he was sentenced to five years imprisonment.[8]

torture in gulag prisonsAll things considered, his interrogations went smoothly. He does not report any nasty physical torture the NKVD were known to use such as lowering victims into an acid bath, tieing up naked prisoners to be overrun and bitten by ants and bedbugs, thrusting hot ramrods into the anal canal, and slowly crushing a man’s genitals under the toe of an interrogator’s jack boot.[9]

Gerhard wasn’t the most wanted spy in Russia, he was human fodder for Russia’s aggressive policy of industrializing the North. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn calls it Stalin’s sewage disposal system. Anyone perceived to be a rival or a potential rival to the system was flushed away. Anyone who was denounced by anyone else, flushed away. There were quotas to fill, and if they were not filled, you were next. Solzhenitsyn expressed his survival strategy thus:

So what is the answer? How can you stand your ground when you are weak and sensitive to pain, when people you love are still alive, when you are unprepared?

From the moment you go to prison you must put your cozy past firmly behind you. At the very threshold, you must say to yourself: “My life is over, a little early to be sure, but there’s nothing to be done about it. I shall never return to freedom. I am condemned to die — now or a little later. But later on, in truth, it will be even harder, and so the sooner the better. I no longer have any property whatsoever. For me those I love have died, and for them I have died. From today on, my body is useless and alien to me. Only my spirit and my conscience remain precious and important to me.”

Confronted by such a prisoner, the interrogation will tremble.

Only the man who has renounced everything can win that victory.[10]

Taganrog prison 1837

Taganrog prison 1837.

Gerhard was not to be shot, but saved for his youth and his ability to provide labour. The five-year sentence was just a number with no reality coefficient – it could double or triple at the whim of any guard or administrator. As an enemy of the people he was stripped of his citizenship, his property, and his freedom. His family members were tainted by association and subject to suspicion.

Taganrog prison on Peter st 1859

Taganrog prison 1859.

Once his case was decided, he was moved from the GPU prison to the old state prison in Taganrog. The old prison is Russia’s first penitentiary created by the decree of Peter I (the Great). Ironically, this is where Russia first used slave labour as punishment. In 1711 there were already 318 convicts living there in permanent exile. The actual prison fortress was completed in 1806. Tsar Alexander I visited the prison twice: in 1818 he ordered trees be planted so the prisoners had shade and in 1825 he visited the kitchen and pantry facilities. In 1837 the prisoners revolted and battled their keepers for two days before “gunpowder and lead” subdued them. From 1917-41 it was a transit prison from which transports would deliver prisoners to their exile locations. It’s conveniently located right next to the tracks and today it is still a prison with more than 500 inmates.[11]

In the state prison Gerhard was held among the general prison population.

GERHARD It was the summer of 1934 and my sisters were permitted to visit me and my father visited me twice also. Permission to visit wasn’t always given because I was to be treated as a great criminal guilty of treason and espionage. In the eyes of our guards we were enemies of the people and were always treated that way. Here we were all together in one large cell with murderers and thieves and us “enemies of the state” such as I. Here if “enemies of the state” still had any worthwhile belongings, they were forcibly taken. It was important to know who the leader of the thieves was and to be friendly with him if you wanted to retain anything of your own.

I had the privilege of working in the blacksmith shop during the day and then back under lock and key at night. Since I was relatively young for an “enemy of the state” under Section 58-6, the older fellow sufferers took me under their wing and protected me.

That reminds me, my friend Peter Treu who had also gone to Germany, it was his sister who was my girlfriend. She sent along a gift for me, but Peter was not allowed to visit me. Later I received a letter from her, she wanted to wait until I got out. I wrote to her not to spoil her life waiting for me because I did not know what might happen to me.

Gerhard’s first love, also a victim.


Taganrog prison today.

Those awaiting exile to the gulag were the lucky ones and Gerhard always considered himself lucky. It was here that the supreme measures of social defense were carried out.

GERHARD In the large prison there were hundreds, maybe thousands of criminals. Here prisoners were taken out to be shot. Often at night you could hear the great doors open and close and it worked on your nerves. First we heard the iron latch clang open and suddenly everyone became agitated. Suddenly we heard another latch open and a man screamed: “Brüder Ade,” and then they stuffed a rag in his mouth. That meant “brothers goodbye,” he was going to be shot. The entire prison seemed to come alive, and as if in an earthquake, shook with rage and hatred. That’s how it was when they took someone to be shot, they would stuff his mouth so he could not cry out, but sometimes it happened that someone could call out like that.




[1] Applebaum, Anne, Gulag, A History, Anchor Books, 2003, New York, page 134.

[2] Ibid. pages 154-55.

[3] Sgovio, Thomas, Dear America, Kenmore, NY, 1979,  p69 quoted in Applebaum, op. cit., page 137.

[4] Appelbaum, op. cit.,page 145.

[5] Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr, The Gulag Archipelago, iBooks version, Published: Jan 02, 2016, Publisher: Books Pub, page 282.

[6] Solzhenitsyn, op. cit., page 283.

[7] Article 58, Criminal Code of the RSFSR (1934), Copyright 1999 © by Hugo S. Cunningham, First posted 971006, Last updated 991115, latest minor change 001226 quoted in http://www.cyberussr.com/rus/uk58-e.html#58-6 accessed December 23, 2016.

[8] Letter from Director V.I. Korobov, National Archives of the Republic of Komi, Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Archives of the Republic of Komi, dated March 17, 2017 to Edvin Peter Wall, received October 3, 2017.

[9] Solzhenitsyn, op. cit., page 271.

[10] Solzhenitsyn, op. cit., page 266.

[11] https://sites.google.com/site/istoriceskijtaganrog/home/istoria-razvitia-1/podrobnosti/gulaet-staryj-taganrog-prodolzenie accessed December 23, 2016. See also http://bloknot-taganrog.ru/news/taganrogskomu-tyuremnomu-zamku-ispolnilos-210-let, accessed December 23, 2016.

2 thoughts on “Ep. 32 The supreme measure of social defense

  1. Hello Ed, can you add these 3 emails to your list. I have been update I gotta them every episode so far.

    Thanks again for the posts. Hard to read. Great work.

    Thank you David Ratzlaff Sent from my iPhone 250 272 5100 – davidr@hrpacific.com Please excuse grammatical errors.


    Liked by 1 person

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