The Prisoners of Potma

It’s almost ten years since Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich appeared in Novy Mir, the Soviet cultural periodical. This was the first time that the Soviet reader was officially given the facts, even if in fictional form, about the spiritless, monotonous brutality of a labour camp in the USSR. Today Solzhenitsyn’s works are no longer published openly and countless Ivan Denisovichs populate camps in many parts of the Soviet Union. In the past few months alone, there have been eight trials of Soviet Jews, with two more, those of Liubarsky of Rostov-on-Don and Shkolnik of Vinnitsa, pending.

Most of the jewish prisoners, sentenced in recent years, are held in camps in the Potma complex in Soviet Moldavia. The area itself is in a closed zone and cannot be approached without a entry permit. the very name, “Potma” is supposed to be a secret, although it has become notorious to the Soviet public at large. Since 1970 Jews convicted for their determination to emigrate to Israel have been filling the camps of Potma, amidst storms of protest from governments and ordinary people alike.  Some of them have become world-famous – especially Sylva Zalmanson and her husband, Edward Kuznetsov, both ailing badly, but forbidden to visit easch other as they work out their respective ten and fifteen year sentences. Others have been forgotten  or have never been heard of outside Russia.

The first collective trial of Soviet Jews, arraigned for their desire to go to Israel, was staged in the town of Riazan, some 300 km, south of Moscow, in February 1970. Details only reached the west in mid-1971 and even then were very fragmentary. The defendants were six young Jewish students from the Riazan Institute of Radio Technology who had become interested in the idea of emigration to Israel soon after the Six Day war. from working for human rights generally, they had turned to an educational programme, aimed at young Jews. This consisted of distributing such material as tape recordings of Leon Uris’s Exodus and the Churchills’ Six Day War as well as volumes of Dubnov’s History of the Jewish People. Appropriately the room at the Institute of Shimon Grillius, one of the main defendants at the Riazan trial, was affectionately dubbed ‘the Evreiskaya Synagoga’ because of his dedication to the idea of aliyah. His work also earned him the attention of the local KGB and on August 21 1969, four KGB officers, armed with a search warrant, presented themselves at his home in Klaipeda in Lithuania. They confiscated a number of documents including a seven page article he had written on the Jewish problem in the USSR, tape recordings of Kol Yisrael from the Six Day war, articles by Vladimir Jabotinsky and a copy of Rumanian Foreign Minister Manescu’s speech to the UN in 1967. All these items were referred to in the official record of the search of the Grillius home under articles of the Lithuanian Criminal Code dealing with “anti-Soviet activities”. the KGB men arrested Grillius and returned with him to Riazan. Three days previously, another three Jews, the brothers, Yuri and Valery Vudka and Oleg Frolov had been detained on similar charges.

All these arrests “happened” to coincide with the arrival of affidavits from relatives in Israel. the timing was clearly designed to act as a warning to any Jew in the region who was considering emigration to Israel. Grillius’s parents in Riazan, for example, received their permit on August 23, two days after the arrest of their son. Again the psychological threat of a family break-up was clearly used as a weapon against potential emigrants. Grillius was held in the KGB prison in Riazan for nearly six months. During that time numerous Jewish students were expelled from colleges and universities  and meetings were held by party representatives to explain that £an anti-Soviet organisation of Zionists” had been discovered.

in the course of their trial, the defendants showed up some of the injustices done to the Jews in the USSR. Yuri Vudka claimed that they did not have any facilities for propagating a national life: they had no schools, no books, no theatres, no newspapers of their own – not even the possibility of teaching their children the aleph bet. In Vilnius for example, where the Jews far outnumbered the Poles, there was a fine Polish newspaper, but the Jews had nothing. The judge, Matveyev, accused yri Vudka of being a nationalist. To which Vudka replied defiantly: “If a nationalist is someone who demands for his people textbooks, culture and a homeland, then I am the first nationalist.”

Shimon Grillius wanted to know why his father in a capitalist Lithuania, had the possibility of going to a Jewish school, reading Jewish books and singing Jewish songs while he, in a socialist country, was denied all of these.

One of the more extra-ordinary incidents of the trial was an accusation by the prosecutor that Bertrand Russell was an anti-Soviet figure. Grillius had addressed a letter to the British philosopher (who died a week or so before the trial) asking for his help to go to Israel. the letter which never crossed the borders of the Soviet Union, was also produced as evidence of “anti-Soviet activity”. Since then nine of Russell’s colleagues  including David Dillinger, Lawrence Daly and Laurent Schwartz have written to Leonid Brezhnev, demanding an explanation. So far, Brezhnev has not replied.

The accused were all found guilty and extremely harsh sentences meted out, four of them for a crime for which the maximum sentence was six months’s imprisonment. Yuri Vudka received the maximum, seven years “strict regime”. Grillius and Frolov were given five years and Yuri Vudka’s brother, Valery, three years. The other two defendants, Martimonov and Zaslavsky were placed on probation. In a final speech, Grillius reaffirmed his intention to emigrate to Israel, with a concluding “Next year in Jerusalem” in Hebrew. he repeated the phrase in Russian – “your language”, he told the court, which earned him a sharp dig in the back from his guard. he and the others sentenced with him are in Potma.

Another trial which was unknown until quite recently was that of the two teachers from Bendery, Yaakov Suslensky and Yosef Mishener. Like the Riazan defendants, Suslensky and Mishenerhad initially concerned themselves with violations of human right, but had gradually become more involved with the idea of emigrating to Israel. Suslensky, as a teacher of English, had belonged to the English section of the international friendship club in Bendery. He then had the bright idea of suggesting the opening of a Hebrew section, a suggestion immediately the club’s officials. Suslensky was particularly incensed by the lack of concern shown by the Soviet leadership about the brutal hanging of the Iraqi Jews in Baghdad at the beginning of 1969. In aopen letter to the central Committee of the Communist party, he and Mishener complained bitterly bout the Soviet Union’s attitude  not only to Iraqi Jewry, but also towards its own Jewish population. These activities brought them to a Kishinev courtroom on a charge of anti-Soviet propaganda in October 1970. the prosecutor demanded three years for Mishener and five for Suslensky. To everyone’s surprise, the judge handed out sentences of six and seven years respectively – and those sentences are now being served in Potma.

the persistent agitation of Jewish activists forced the KGB to find a solution to this “Jewish problem” and it took the form of a series of five trials, centred on the infamous “hijacking affair” of June 1970. In order to crush the spirit of the Jewish movement for emigration to Israel, the KGB attempted to create a concept of an inter-city Zionist conspiracy.Mikhail Korenblit, a 33 year old dentist from Leningrad, is a good, but little known, example of those sentenced during theses trials.

Korenblit was arrested on October 27 1970 and detained for the next seven months in Shaplernaya prison in Leningrad. During that time he was not allowed visitors and was permitted to receive only one parcel of food a month from relatives. When the second Leningrad trial began in May 1971, relatives and friends in court described Korenblit as a completely changed man. He had become thin, pale, shrivelled and totally dejected. Korenblit, besides being charged with anti-Soviet activity, was also accused under a n article of the criminal code dealing with the hijacking of aircraft. It is now known from many sources that he had consistently opposed suggestions of hijacking or any similar kind of activity as “completely immoral”. he regarded Soviet Jewry as part of ‘the face of Israel” and held that it should not indulge in this kind of activity even though it might be the only way of getting to Israel. During the trial itself, defendants from the first Leningrad trial testified that Korenblit had not been involved in any hijacking plan in anyway whatsoever. But neither their evidence  nor the plea of Korenblit’s lawyer that the charge be reduced to one of failure to inform the proper authorities, were of any avail. On May 20, he was found guilty on three counts and sentenced.

After the trial, Korenblit’s fiancee Polina Yudborovskaya, requested permission to marry him before he was sent to Potma. the authorities however were irritated by her vigorous defense of Korenblit in court and purposely delayed permission for the ceremony. the couple were finally married in a KGB prison on September 14, Even then, the prison authorities were spiteful emogh to remove all the flowers and any remnant of this extraordinary ceremony. One month later, Korenblit was transported to the KGB corrective instruction prison in Saransk where political prisoners are “educated” for five or six hours each day. On January 24 1972, Korenblit was finally moved to camp number 17 in Potma.

Number 17 is in many ways typical of the Potma camps. the camp’s perimeter is less than 600 metres all told and is formed by two fences, one of steel wire and the other of wood two metres apart. To make escape even more difficult, the ground is studded with barbed wire and glass. At each corner of the camp, armed guardswith machine guns keep watch on the prisoners from observation towers. But these gurards are not the only ones who are armed: those inside the camp do not carry guns for fear that they might be seized by the prisoners in preparation for a break-out.

Every day in Potma is like every other day. There is no variation in routine; the empty void of tomorrow is exactly the same as the bleakness of yesterday. All prisoners rise at six in the morning to the raucous call of a camp supervisor. At seven there is a roll-call to see who is fit for the day’s rigours. Breakfast consists of a few oats and a little decayed cabbage floating in some lukewarm watery soup. From eight o’clock to noon, the prisoners work at their jobs.

Yuri Vudka, an engineer by profession, spends his time sandpapering furniture, while Shimon Grillius and Oleg Frolov make gloves for 14 kopeks (70 agorot) a day. Mikhail Korenblit, a graduate in dentistry of the First Medical Institute in Leningrad, is forced to work as a labourer, lugging cement from construction site to construction site. Leib Khnokh, a skilled electrician, sews away his ten years in a Potma workshop.

Lunch is not much better than breakfast. consisting of some more “soup” plus alittle salted porridge. the camp rules provide that all prisoners should receive 20g of meat every lunchtime; in fact meat in Potma is about as common as manna from heaven. From 12.30 to 4.30, the prisoners complete their afternoon stint and present themselves for a second roll-call at 5 o/clock. a little fish (15g) plus black bread is served at supper. In addition each prisoner is given his 20g of sugar to sweeten the drink of brownish hot water, known as “shlom” (mud).

The day does not end there. In the evening, every prisoner is expected to attend the daily political lecture. On many occasions Jewish prisoners have absented themselves because they believe that as citizens of the state of Israel, such affairs do not concern them. This has earned some of them a stretch in the “kartza”, the solitary confinement cell. the only respite in this life of physical and mental suppression comes on Sunday when prisoners have a day off.

medical care is extremely rare in Potma. even though Mikhail Korenblit suffers from a stomach ulcer, a weak heart and severe fainting fit, he is still unable to get adequate treatment. the camp authorities have even refused his wife permission to supply him with drugs or vitamins.

One of the more abhorrent aspects of the camp life is the employment of former Nazi collaborators as supervisors. Invariably the supervisors insult and abuse the Jewish prisoners as they did quite openly in the old days. Anti-Semitic provocation often gives rise to a retaliatory approach and consequent punishment. In order to make the official attitude crystal clear, the fascists are allowed privileges not granted to the Jews. They are, for example, permitted visits from relatives in comfortable surroundings and are able to receive extra money from them. In contrast relatives in Israel of Jewish prisoners have recently complained bitterly that their parcels have been returned to them.

It is camp policy to isolate the prisoner mentally and thereby “re-educate” him. One method is to control the availability of news. In order to eliminate potential listening to the BBC, the Voice of Israel and Kol Yisrael, no individual radios are permitted. Instead every hut has a speaker , connected to only one station, Radio Moscow. Only the official press is allowed in the camp; even foreign Communist newspapers which sometimes carry titbits of “liberal” news are prohibited.

During the past couple of months, many Jewish prisoners have been moved from Potma to camps in Perm near the Urals where conditions are much harder. This is yet another attempt to isolate the exodus movement by settling prisoners in a relatively distant place where communication is difficult. Some prisoners, having completed their term in Potma, are allowed to emigrate to Israel. others, for no logical reason, are still being kept in the USSR.

next week, the Soviet government will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the birth of the USSR, a union based, in the words of Lenin, on “socialism and the friendship of nations”. In the Soviet Union and in Israel, relatives and friends of the prisoners of Potma are hoping that Moscow will behave magnanimously and makr the occasion by freeing the captives and allowing them to emigrate to Israel. So far there has been little apparent change in the Soviet attitude towards the whole question of Jewish emigration except for a slight relaxation in the “academic ransom”; which could well be a temporary sop to Washington in exchange for the recent “most-favoured nation status” economic agreement. Indeed well-known Moscow activists such as Slepak and Polsky are now being questioned by the KGB about such a basic matter as the writing of letters requesting emigration, one of many actions formerly guaranteed under the constitution which are now being interpreted as “anti-Soviet”.

In such conditions it is worth recalling the words of Solzhenitsyn:

It is high time to remember that we belong first and foremost to humanity. and that man has distinguished himself from the animal world by thought and speech. And theses naturally should be free. If they are put in chains, we shall return to the state of animals.

Jerusalem Post 3 November 1972


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