Chapter 6

I am startled out of my thoughts by a heavy clatter of boots from the corridor.

–     Kholmyansky! To the deputy warden of the prison, Major Kol’k.

Major Kol’k, a puny man trying to project a Superman image, fixes me with his penetrating gaze.

–     So you think you’re going to declare a hunger strike?! You’re going to organize protests for us here! We’ve seen this before.  You, my fine fellow, think a lot of yourself.  You think you’re so smart but you don’t understand the simplest things.  Haven’t you figured out who’s running the country now[1]? Time is working against you.  Here’s a simple example: on April 1 of this year, 1984, a decree was adopted that refusing to accept food without justified reason is considered a malicious violation of the internal regime, and individuals who refuse to accept food will be sent to the punishment cell.  With no time limit.  I shall clarify: a prisoner who attacks a prison guard is sent to a punishment cell for a maximum of 15 days.  But you will sit in the punishment cell for as long as you are conducting a hunger strike.  Either you end the hunger strike or you’ll die.  One or the other.  I’ll give you 24 hours to think about it, until tomorrow morning.  Take him back to his cell!

I look around this notorious punishment cell.  This is the highest degree of punishment for unruly “zeks” (convicts).  Beyond this, it’s only torture or execution.  The tiniest room, approximately 2.5 by 1.5 meters, two metal stumps for the raised cot to rest on—from eleven at night to five in the morning when I’m permitted to use it.  But during the day – no way! OK.  What else can they do to me now?

Between the stumps is some kind of strange metal object like a miniature stool, 12 by 12 centimeters, with sharp edges.  An adult couldn’t possibly sit on it.  In the corner is a tiny toilet surrounded by a meter-high wall.  The cement floor is rather dirty.  No little window or even a crack for air.  They must never air it out.  How can one breathe? It’s cold and it’s only the middle of September.

It seems like I have just laid down when the door opens again and the duty guard thrusts me off the bed.

– C’mon, c’mon, move it, it’s already five in the morning.

Shivering from cold, unable to coordinate hands and feet, I slide off the cot.  In a flash, it is locked.  The clang of the bolts, and I am left alone.  It seems like I just put my head down and I’m already woken up.  My best time here is when I am asleep; that’s when they leave me alone.  The shroud of sleep protects me from all misfortunes.  Only then am I able to relax a bit and not feel like I am withdrawn into my shell or coat of armor, ready for an attack at any second.  And now he has invaded my sleep, interrupted and destroyed it, and I don’t know what to do with myself.  Ugh, morning in the punishment cell is awful.

The next morning the door opens: “To Kol’k!”

What does the grand vizier want from me now?  All the punishment cell denizens are glued to the peepholes and the cracks in the doors.  I haven’t been taken out of the punishment cell yet; none of them has seen me.  I can hear the quiet exclamations of astonishment; evidently they have never been clothed in such a remarkable striped outfit.  Only I am considered especially dangerous here.  Again we go through the long prison corridors.  I gloatingly watch as the guards conveying other zeks stop and stare at me in astonishment.  The guard leads me into Kol’k’s room.

–   We conferred and decided that it was wrong to conclude that in one stroke of the pen you doomed yourself to an open-ended hunger strike as you write in your declaration.  A person can write all kinds of things in a fit of anger!  This is humanly understandable.  But as a result, you have driven yourself into a trap from which you can’t extract yourself.  Let’s do it differently; let bygones be bygones.  Now let’s decide every day anew, even not every day but every time.  We’re willing to meet you halfway.  You will receive food not according to the punishment cell ration but as if nothing happened and you were sitting in a regular cell.  Three times a day they will bring your ration.  If you want it, take it; if you don’t, you don’t have to; it will stay in your cell until they bring the next one.

So, my hunger strike is affecting you! That means it matters to you; you want me to drop it! I suddenly feel elated.

–     I am a man of my word, citizen major.  I said unlimited hunger strike and I mean it.

–     But nothing’s unlimited.  What does that mean? There’s an end to everything.

–     I declared a hunger strike in protest against false charges.  Free me, I’ll stop my hunger strike, and that will be the end of it!

–     You’re more likely to croak here than get out scot-free!

In a festive mood I return to the punishment cell.  I have barely entered when the door opens again.  They are offering me my so-called breakfast.

–     Put it on the floor.  I refuse to take it.

They put it on the floor.  This is much harder.  When a person is very hungry, the smell of food—even prison food—arouses and tempts him.  Now they are going to watch carefully to see whether I take even the tiniest crumb, even half a teaspoon.  I won’t give them that pleasure; they won’t get it!

***

Kol’k’s order is scrupulously observed.  Three times a day they bring me my next ration and collect the previous untouched one.  Frequently the cot remains down, and now it seems to me that this is done at Kol’k’s direct order so that the food will be closer and tempt me more powerfully.  I lie with my face to the piercingly cold wall and say to myself, “No, this is inedible, it’s like wood.”

***

Maiboroda is the exact opposite of Kol’k: an enormous, imposing man who speaks in a confident, loud, and angry voice.  Apparently he is not used to being crossed.

–     Alexander, what are you trying to do? You are only undermining your health.  Do you think you’re the first one?  We deal with this; don’t think that we’ll let you die.  On the sixteenth day we’ll begin force-feeding you.  The drama of this incident will die down, but you’ll ruin your health for sure.  You are an adult, after all; what’s the point of these childish games?  Think about your aging parents: what do they need this for?

–     Do they know?

–     They’ll soon find out.  I am now officially informing you that you are complicating your situation as a person under investigation.  The behavior of a pretrial detainee during the period of the investigation is very significant, and the court always takes it into consideration when determining the degree of punishment.  Not only are you undermining your health, but you’ll earn yourself a longer term.

“My God, keep trying,”, I say to myself.  Your words are like balm on my wounds.  It’s not going well for you.  The worse it is for my enemies, the better it is for me.  And a calm smile settles on my face.

***

The news of my hunger strike makes the rounds of the prison.  No one believes it will succeed, especially the older zeks; they twirl their fingers at their temples to show what a nut I am.  One of them, taking advantage of a moment when I am led by him, whispers,

–     Have you gone crazy? Who did you decide to take on—the whole state, a superpower?  They’ll give you an injection and then the next morning they’ll say, “His heart didn’t hold out.”  And that’s it.  Drop it, before it’s too late.

Dyed-in-the-wool criminals, who spend many long years in forced labor camp or in prison, are not at all opponents of the regime, as it turns out.  In their eyes I am some sort of anti-Soviet type.  Nevertheless, my hunger strike evokes evident sympathy.  By various means, zeks sneak rags and newspapers into my punishment cell.  Are they ever needed! It has become colder at night.  If my hand or foot accidentally touches the metal frame of my prison cot, it really stings!  I stuff all the cracks in the boards with newspapers and wrap the frame in rags.  What a difference it makes.

***

[1] That is to say, the KGB.  Yuri Andropov, the KGB chief, became the political leader of the USSR from November 12, 1982, till his death on the February 9, 1984.  This was the period when the KGB openly seized control of the country.  Andropov’s death didn’t put an end to his evil decrees, like the one mentioned by Kol’k: Andropovs’ nominees continued his mission.

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