Anton Ciliga

Hunger Strike in Stalin’s Prisons

Heroic Struggle of Revolutionary Political Prisoners Against Despotic GPU
Is Told by Dr. Ciliga in Fourth Installment of Series


Source: New Militant, Vol. II No. 16, 25 April 1936, p. 3.
Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

May 22, 1933 was the day on which our prison term expired. On March 21, we sent a declaration to the C.E.C. and the collegium of the G.P.U. demanding that we be given permission to depart unhindered from Russia upon the expiration of our sentence. We pointed out in our declaration that in the event of a refusal or failure to receive an answer we would begin, a hunger strike on the day our sentence expired, and should the necessity arise, we would not refrain from resorting to the most extreme measures, sparing neither our health nor lives in the struggle.

A short time ago, I succeeded in obtaining permission to depart. Comrade Draguitch, a former member of the C.E.C. of the Jugoslav Communist Party, in his struggle to achieve this aim is still incarcerated in the secret dungeons of Soviet Guiana, the terrible Solovetski Islands, because he attempted to cross the frontiers illegally after permission to depart legally was denied him. Comrade Deditch, a well known trade union activist in Jugoslavia (Herzegovina) is sitting ill, famished, and without employment in distant Siberian exile.

Seasons for the Struggle

We were so stubborn in insisting upon permission to depart abroad for several reasons. First of all, we came to Russia in 1926 only for a temporary stay and were supposed to return home after accomplishing certain work. By 1933, our mission had long been fulfilled. Secondly, there were no possibilities in Russia for doing revolutionary work as we understood it, and besides we had infinitely greater possibilities abroad. Thirdly, after our harsh experience in Russia we want to become directly acquainted also with the experience and the ideas of the Western European and American labor movement. And, finally, we could not reconcile ourselves with the conduct of the present Soviet Government, which permits itself to treat foreign workers and revolutionists like slaves, turning them into its perpetual prisoners, depriving them of their elementary human rights, seeking to strip them of all human dignity. Hundreds of foreign workers and revolutionists find themselves in Soviet Russia in the status of thinly veiled slavery and captivity. All this is being perpetrated by a Government that passes off its regime so persistently and falsely as the fatherland of the toilers of the entire world. It is this combination of the cynicism of infinite oppression with the cynicism of infinite lies to the foreign proletariat that most aroused our indignation at the Soviet bureaucratic customs.

Our demand for leave to depart was actively supported by the entire communist sector of the prison. In a special declaration to the Government, the Elder, in the name of all the imprisoned Communists, supported our demand to depart, and placed the responsibility for our fate upon the Government. The universal and decisive support of the entire isolator (up to and including a hunger strike in solidarity) was a manifestation of international solidarity, and of a desire to make known through us to the international working class the position of the persecuted groups of the working class movement in the U.S.S.R.

A GPU Coup

When the GPU saw that matters were heading toward an extensive struggle, it executed a maneuver, deciding to remove us from Verkhne-Uralsk on a decorous pretext. A few days prior to the expiration of our prison term, on May 15, 1933 we were told to surrender our correspondence and to get our things ready. To our inquiry as to our destination, Bizukov, the warden, replied – Moscow. To the question as to the purpose of the journey, we received the answer: “Can’t say. Apparently, in order to discuss the matter you raised in your declaration.”

We were taken away. The isolator sent us off with the warmest wishes, but also with some doubts as to whether we were not being simply removed to mother prison. Our possessions were examined, our persons were searched. We were placed in two autos, comrades Deditch and Draguitch in one, myself in the other. The machines started together but on the road, the auto with my comrades pulled ahead, and disappeared in a cloud of dust. I never saw my comrades again. They had separated us. We rode the entire day, and toward evening we arrived in the city of Chelyabinsk. I was taken to the Chelyabinsk political prison, which held at that time from 50 to 80 people (S.R.’s, social democrats, Zionists, anarchists, and a few communists).

Chelyabinsk and Hunger Strike

When I announced in the prison office that in view of the trick with regard to my alleged journey to Moscow, and my being separated from my comrades, I would immediately begin a hunger strike, the head of the Chelyabinsk isolator. The GPU agent Dupnis told me that in that case he refused to accept me, and would send me back to Verkne-Uralsk. Once again I was placed in an automobile and carried off. But not to Verkne-Uralsk They threw me into the cellar of the jail for criminals under the Chelyabinsk militia. I was locked into a damp, cold and dark cell. The electric light burned night and day. I spent three months in this cellar without ever leaving it for a minute, without even seeing the prison yard or the sun ...

I immediately began my hunger strike here. I knew that my comrades were also on a hunger strike somewhere, because we had taken into consideration all the possibilities beforehand, and had planned how to meet them. We had agreed that in the event of our being separated, or being taken to some other place than Moscow, we would begin a hunger strike immediately. A G.P.U. guard was placed over me: I was enrolled under the G.P.U. in the isolator although I was being kept in the jail under the militia. On the day of my transfer from Verkhne-Uralsk to Chelyabinsk I had received a rotten meal, and I therefore began the hunger strike under inauspicious conditions. For this reason I began to vomit on the second or the third day, but afterwards I began feeling better. I did not feel hungry. When a man’s consciousness is really profoundly permeated with the conviction that he must not touch food, he absolutely does not feel the pangs of hunger. He only feels weak. I had already had the experience of the great hunger strike of 1931. Of course, the hunger strike in this place was made more difficult by the cold and the dampness. Half-dressed, wrapped in a blanket I lay the whole time, night and day, on the wooden bench. On the tenth day, after midnight a group of G.P.U. agents stamped into the cell. Night time is the favorite time of the G.P.U. for its work ...

A Nocturnal Visit

I was already quite spent physically, and even more so mentally. Eight days had already elapsed since my demands. Suspense tends without any answer from the G.P.U. to strain and weaken spiritual resistance more than anything else. The G.P.U. is well aware of this, and therefore makes systematic use of this weapon. When the G.P.U. agents rushed in, I was dozing, and in the semi-darkness of the cell did not at first recognize the intruders. Then I perceived that in addition to Dupnis and six G.P.U. agents, there was also present the “Commission from Moscow”, the representatives of the collegium of the G.P.U. My old “acquaintances”: citiziness Andreyev, Agranov’s assistant, who is in charge of all matters relating to the persecuted communist, socialist and anarchist groups. There was also the head of the All-Union Department of Prisons under the collegium of the G.P.U., citizen Popov, whose appearance alone bespoke of his functions. The third member of the commission – the representative of the prosecutor’s office – was absent, although, as I learned later, he was present on the spot in Chelyabinsk, and used to make the rounds of the isolator during the day, together with Andreyev and Popov.

The Execution of the Poles

But inasmuch as my case, coupled with what the commission had to tell me, was such a shocking instance of lawlessness, such a cynical breach of even formal rights and proletarian morals, the prosecutor’s office decided, quite reasonably, that it should best be done “without its knowledge”. All the more so since the representative of the prosecutor’s office was himself a foreign communist, a former Polish worker. One should imagine that this former Polish worker is today already so “Stalinized” as to be able to now assume upon himself quite openly and brazenly what he undertook only shamefacedly in 1933. That is to say, unless he happened to be among those fifty important Polish communists who were recently shot in Russia without a trial, upon the unverified and all-embracing charge of Pilsudskyism, espionage and provocation. (In the opinion of the most competent and authoritative representatives of the Polish labor movement, the great majority of the executed, among them a former deputy to the Polish Sejm, were above all suspicion; and that upon investigation any impartial international committee would have proved criminal light-mindedness on the part of the Soviet ruling organs, if not something worse.)

In the eyes of the present Stalinist leadership, which is conducting a nationalist policy, every Pole and German must be held suspect, if not directly considered as a “spy”

I am personally inclined to consider this psychology as the underlying reason for the monstrous crime of shooting fifty Polish communists. Being somewhat acquainted with the deportment and methods of the G.P.U. I can say with certainty that it would not be so bad if among the executed there were ten or even five real agents of Pilsudsky.

“Citizen Ciliga”, said Dupnis, “the representatives of the collegium have something to communicate to you.”

“Well, what is it?” I said rubbing my eyes, fumbling for my glasses, and half-raising myself on the bench.

“Citizen Ciliga”, continued citizeness Andreyev, “I have the following to communicate to you: the collegium of the G.P.U. and the C.E.C. of the U.S.S.R. have rejected your demand for permission to depart from the U.S.S.R. ... By the order of the collegium of the G.P.U. your prison term has been extended for an additional two years ... The G.P.U. refuses to recognize your hunger strike and beginning tomorrow you will be fed artificially ...”

“The question of the hunger strike and of artificial feeding has already become a secondary question,” I began coldly and deliberately. “In answer to the unheard-of decision of the G.P.U. and of the Soviet Government, and the refusal to allow me to return home although I have already served the prison sentence which you yourselves imposed upon me in 1930, to the automatic addition of a new prison term which transforms me into your perpetual slave and captive. I will resort to the extreme measure left me – suicide. If necessary let my death be the price paid for informing the foreign proletariat into what a position you put those foreign revolutionists who refuse to become your lackeys. I will also inform Moscow of my decision.”

“A man who decides to commit suicide does not give notice of it,” objected citizeness Andreyev.

“Yes”, I said smiling at her, “you would like to see me dead, provided you do not bear any responsibility for it. I am engaged in a political struggle against you, and you bear full political responsibility for everything you have done and will do to me and my comrades. My official declaration is precisely intended to place the responsibility upon you in the event of my protest-suicide.”

“We Will Not Permit ...”

If the death could have been hushed up, the GPU would have not at all feared my demise, whether by suicide, firing squad, or as a result of an “unfortunate incident” But after our declarations in the Verkhne-Uralsk isolator, and after the declaration of the Elder of the collective of the imprisoned communists, our fate could not be kept secret any longer. This imposed upon the GPU the necessity of employing more cautious tactics.

“We will not permit you to commit suicide.” said citizeness Andreyev. “We will assign two GPU agents to your cell, and all your things will be immediately removed.”

And she proceeded to issue the necessary orders. I was left only with a few toilet articles. But in them was secreted a new sharp blade, already smuggled out of the isolator ... I was triumphant. If it came to “that”, I would show them ... For this reason I told citizeness Andreyev ironically that a man who finds it necessary to do away with himself would not be restrained either by soldiers or any other obstacle.

The next morning I sent a telegram to the Moscow collegium of the GPU and the C.E.C. of the U.S.S.R. containing a declaration similar to the one I had made to Andreyev.

No attempt was made to feed me artificially, but instead I was officially told the following:

An “Official” Decree

“The Political Bureau of the C.P. of Jugoslavia has passed a resolution approving the decision of the GPU to extend your term of imprisonment. This decision of the Political Bureau of the Jugoslav Communist Party will be given to you in writing ...”

“This is not my Political Bureau,” I interrupted the orator. “These are your mamelukes and their decisions are not binding upon me. I do not recognize this Political Bureau, I do not belong to any of your communist parties, nor have I any intention of belonging to them. Therefore I do not recognize their discipline and refuse to submit to it.”

Four days later, Dupnis appeared and informed me that a telegram had arrived from Moscow stating that the additional two year prison term had been changed to three years exile in Irkutsk.

“Irkutsk is a large city not like Chelyabinsk, and you will be able to arrange there the matter of your departure more quickly,” the head of the Chelyabinsk political prison diplomatized.

A New Columbus Itinerary

”You mean to say that since Columbus’ route from the Mediterranean to India was via America, therefore my itinerary from the Urals to Europe is via Irkutsk and Kamchatka,” I said to him in a similar tone. “But no.” I said, “I want to go from the Urals due West to Europe. Taking into consideration the withdrawal of an additional prison term, I withdraw the question of the protest-suicide. But I continue with the hunger strike for permission to depart home to Europe.”

This occurred on the 14th day of the hunger strike. I struck for 9 more days. Again Dupnis arrived, and told me that a new telegram was received from Moscow with instructions for me to go there. I demanded that I be given an official written notice to this effect, otherwise I would continue the hunger strike. Within half an hour the written statement I had demanded was delivered.

I called the hunger strike off; and in two weeks I was over its effects. (Dupnis really fed me quite well. He obviously thought that he was thus fulfilling his “revolutionary and international” duty; and besides, he was trying to “bribe” me so that I would agree to depart for exile.)

Still, I was not taken to Moscow.

I became nervous again. Finally I learned the answer. The typist “had made a mistake”. The communication from Moscow, it seems, read that I would be called, and not that I am being called there. A couple of days later, I was told that I must leave for Irkutsk.

En Route to Irkutsk

I declared a hunger strike. After these abominations, the question of the protest-suicide was again on the order of the day. But a few days later, shortly after I began the strike, again in the middle of the night, a group of GPU agents burst into my cell and informed me of the decision to remove me to exile by force. They packed my things, loaded them into an auto, shoved me in, and drove to the Chelyabinsk railway station. Thus, towards the end of July, accompanied by a convoy of four GPU agents I was taken to Irkutsk.

What to do? After pondering a while, I decided that the first stage of my struggle for departure must be considered as closed. The battle would have to be resumed in exile, after I had gathered and utilized all the possibilities it offered. Having made this decision, I called off the hunger strike and began to take note of everything new around me. For the first time after three years segregation from society, from life, I was on a train, “among human beings”

(To Be Continued)


Last updated on: 5 May 2018