Farewell My Country, Ch 8

Chapter 8

The old Kresty prison, a foreboding five story structure consisting of two buildings in a cross shape, occupied an entire city block. Its solemn reddish-brown brick walls bespoke the sadness of those who languished and perished there. On the prison compound, rising above its walls, was the scalloped white-capped apse of the Alexander Nevsky cathedral that rose in defiance of the godless activities within the prison.

Stepping out of the USSR staff car, Jack gazed at the enormous edifice that was to serve as his home for the next two and a half weeks. Gripped by uncertainty, he felt an urge to tell the guard who accompanied him that he had changed his mind and would prefer not to accept Secretary Kirov’s generous offer. He took a step backward, but the guard prodded him gently toward the prison entrance.

Two veteran campaigners from WWl and the Russian Civil War bedecked with rows of medals and campaign ribbons manned the formidable entrance and intercepted Jack and his guard. One of them accompanied Jack to the admissions clerk. Reluctantly, Jack surrendered his wallet, his seaman’s certificate, his passport and signed his name to a form with all Russian lettering. For all he knew, he could have signed his death warrant.

With his identification confiscated, he thought these people could put him in the slammer forever or even kill him; he started to argue with the clerk about his papers. Again he feared the loss of identification. The clerk indicated that he understood no English, waved him off with a shrug then walked away. A prison guard stepped toward him and moved him up a steel stairway to the second floor. Their clanking steps could be heard throughout the cellblock. When the guard opened the steel door and Jack stepped into the cell, he looked at his three cellmates who in turn cast unfriendly glances at him. A single dim overhead light hanging from the ceiling revealed walls of dingy mustard-yellow flaking paint. Four cots, two above and two below occupied one wall. The room reeking of cigarette smoke, cleaning compounds and disinfectants failed to mask the underlying fetid odor of human waste from the single open toilet at the far wall.

One of the cellmates, a gaunt man with sallow cheeks pointed to an upper cot for Jack. Sitting on the non-resilient mattress, Jack eagerly accepted a cigarette and a box of matches from one cellmate then smiled appreciatively.

His linguistic efforts to communicate were futile, but some measure of understanding was reached with sign and body language. After a short while the men indicated eating time and Jack followed them after their cell door was opened. They walked in a long single file to an enormous mess hall where other prisoners had already begun the evening meal. Jack followed as his cellmates picked up metal trays with compartments. He moved down a line looking and smelling unfamiliar foods. Unsmiling robust women standing behind each food station held ladles at the ready. They wore babushkas and aprons covering their ample bosoms and delivered lumps of food with a clink as their ladles struck the trays. Jack chose a watery pale green soupy substance with unknown floating particles, salted dried fish, a pudding and two slices of coarse black bread.

With his tray he followed his cellmates to a long wooden table with bench seats on either side. He set his tray down and started eating from it before sitting. He hadn’t eaten for two days and his stomach had been growling in protest. The prison chatter, a roaring din, bounced off the barren walls causing his tapioca-like pudding to jiggle.

After three days Jack thought about his so-called freedom in this prison. At breakfast while drinking ersatz coffee and eating a slice of black bread smeared with some oleaginous spread, he thought of the long unproductive hours; the vacuum created by this period of inactivity became more than he could tolerate. In desperation, he summoned a guard and made him understand his need to see the commandant. After several exasperating minutes of gesturing, he was taken to some official’s office. He stood before a middle-aged man seated at a utilitarian desk in a room stark with two wooden chairs and a wall of file cabinets. Behind the desk was the ubiquitous portrait of the supreme secretary with his avuncular smile, Josef Stalin.

The unsmiling official with a brush-type mustache that dipped downward at both ends creating a scowl, said, “So you want to leave our luxurious accommodations?”

Although Jack was relieved to hear English spoken, he was well aware of the official’s sarcasm and worried to a nervous sweat that this man might want him as a permanent guest. Studying Jack’s papers, the official fingered his mustache. “You understand we are not conducting a hotel for tourists to come and go weely-neely.” Jack made no response other than to nod. “You are fortunate, comrade, to be on friendly terms with Secretary Kirov. Even so, you will not come back here unless you return under criminal charges or as an enemy of the state. Let me warn you, if you do not find shelter and food and walk around like the living dead, we will lock you up as a vagrant under our terms.” With that warning he stamped a paper three times, signed it and directed Jack to another office to receive his personal effects.

Jack experienced an overwhelming sense of relief but with a niggling worry about his new status as a free agent. After all, he still needed to find food and lodging for about two weeks. Walking along the embankment of the Neva on which the prison was located, he became excited when he saw the old destroyer, Aurora. He knew from his reading that the Revolution started officially when a salvo was fired from this ship on that memorable day of October 25th, 1917. It remained anchored as a permanent monument to attest to the beginning struggle and formation of the great Union of all the Soviet Socialist Republics.

As he drew closer, he saw a group of school-aged youngsters gathered along the river bank presumably looking at the ship, but as he approached, he discovered that they had been staring not at the ship but at a young black man who was taking photographs. When Jack neared, the children opened a path for him to approach the photographer.

“Beg your pardon, do you speak English?”

With an engaging smile, the black man brought his Kodak box camera down and turned to face Jack. “Yeah, as a matter of fact, it’s my only language.” He extended his hand to shake Jack’s. “Hi, I’m Lee Maxwell, just visiting like the rest of us.” He looked at the children and smiled. “I guess I’m an attraction to them also. Apparently, they don’t see many people of color around here.”

Jack introduced himself, and then asked, “Who are the rest you referred to?”

“Members of the American Students’ Confederation. We’re holding seminars at the Astoria Hotel.” He went on to explain, “American college students from across the States are convening and getting lectures on the origin and development of certain civil philosophies that have influenced the basics for current forms of government.” The young man stopped and took a deep breath. “Wow, did that come out of me? Anyway, it’s fascinating stuff and might help me understand my own problems in my cultural milieu.”

Jack, in awe of Lee Maxwell’s enthusiasm and the ease with which he verbalized, responded with an obvious lack of understanding to what Maxwell was saying. Aware of Jack’s confusion, Maxwell assured him that he too did not understand everything he heard at the lectures. “Some of the stuff is heavy. Do you have any concept of the meaning of Marxian Dialectical Materialism?” Jack looked askance and shook his head. Maxwell continued, “Did you know that Lenin was a scholar of Marx’s and Engels’ and Hegel’s theories, and that they in turn stole ideas quite liberally from the ancient Greek philosophers like Epicurus and Democritus?” Maxwell continued without a response from Jack. “Marx was an expert on stoicism and Lucretius’s theories too. The ancients had problems with governing also, and as you recall they lost their civilizations to warring hordes who terrorized and destroyed their cities along with their concepts of civilized government.”

Maxwell noted Jack’s increasing signs of interest and continued, “Look, why don’t you join our group for a lecture this evening. I’ll introduce you to the president of our confederation, Arthur Fehrstock. He’s a nice guy who…”

Jack interrupted. “Art Fehrstock? Hell, I went to high school with him. He was one of my closest friends. Sure, I’d like to attend. You have no idea how eager I am to see him.” He hesitated. “But, I’ve got only my soiled, smelly clothes, and I need a shower and a shave.”

“Don’t give it a second thought.” In an exaggerated Russian accent, Maxwell said, “Comrade, your old clothes will be the dress code of the day.”

 

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