This is fact

I’ve been reading and writing (one novel finished, the next one in the planning stages) about Russian revolutionaries for so long now, I sometimes have difficulty remembering what is fact and what is fiction.

So it’s extraordinary to walk the blind, stuffy corridors of the Trubetskoy Bastion prison in St Petersburg, and peer into cells where all these people who’ve been locked away in my imagination were really incarcerated. Peter Kropotkin, Boris Savinkov, Vera Figner, Lev Trotsky; so where’s Dmitry Suvorov – ? Oh no, idiot, I made him up, didn’t I…

But the lesson I learn from this experience is that the old truism is utterly true: fact really is stranger and more terrible than any fiction.

What else can I make of it, the various incarnations of Russia’s main prison for political offenders in the Petropavlovsky Fortress, from Peter I’s son to the Decembrists to the Narodniki and SRs and Bolsheviks to the enemies of the revolution? It is such a bizarre mixture of inhumanity and repression and bureaucracy and chaos and idiocy and human error.

In Tsarist times the prisoners were isolated in separate cells, banned from communicating with each other or even the guards. They all did communicate though, by tapping out messages (on the beds, the walls, using spoons, cups, buttons) in an alphabet that they all knew. “The struggle for tapping is the direct struggle for existence,” wrote revolutionary Vera Figner.

The prisoners’ alphabet

Punishment in special cells (up to seven days alone in total darkness and cold) was mainly for attempts to communicate with other prisoners or the outside world. For tapping – three days. For writing notes in books – two days. For writing notes in the bible – four days.

The books and bibles came from the prison library. The only occupation permitted prisoners was, incredibly, reading. Didn’t the Tsarist regime realise the dangers of the written word – how else did they think revolutionary ideas spread? Books in the prison library all had to pass the censor. Nevertheless prison officers regularly found ‘morally dangerous’ works there by Gorky, Saltykov-Schedrin, Zola, Engels, Marx’s Capital…

While locked up in his cell the anarchist Kropotkin wrote up his seminal research into the origins of the ice age. Trotsky wrote Results and Prospects, in which he developed his theory of permanent revolution. Prisoners went mad, set themselves alight with gasoline from the lamps, died of TB and typhoid, were sent off to be hanged, to be incarcerated for years in the Shlissenburg fortress, to exile in Siberia where they met up with other revolutionaries and frequently escaped to Europe – Siberia a sort of vastly inefficient get-out clause for the government, a way of solving the problem of dissidents without in fact solving it at all.

After the February 1917 revolution, the cells briefly filled up with Tsarist ministers. The prison bureaucracy began to break down. Following the October revolution, they were joined by provisional government ministers and deputies, by white army officers, cadet mutineers, monarchists… In March 1918 the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police, took over. For three years ‘Enemies of the revolution’ were packed twenty to a cell. There was no prison regime anymore, just whatever brutality the guards wanted to practice. No food, no bedding, no exercise, no books. No rules.

“Opening the window of our flat on Lakhtinsky street in the nights of 1918–1919, we could hear irregular shooting and short bursts of machine gun fire from the direction of the Petropavlovksy fortress”, wrote the academic Dmitry Likhachev. The identities and fates of the 500-600 prisoners during this time are mostly unknown. No one kept records, not like those exhaustive Tsarist lists that form the basis of today’s Bastion museum exhibits. All there is is a handful of names recalled by the few survivors.

The other lesson the Trubetskoy Bastion teaches. That this is the way (must it be?) of tyranny and revolution; in fact, in fiction.

 

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