Anton Ciliga

In Stalin’s Prisons

Dr. Ciliga Continues Series on Persecution
of Revolutionists Under the Stalin Regime


Source: New Militant, Vol. II No. 15, 18 April 1936, pp. 1 & 3.
Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.


“Question: Is it a criminal offense to speak against Communism in the Soviet Union? – M.C.

“Answer: No. There is complete freedom of speech in the U.S.S.R. Any person can have and can voice any opinion about Communism or about the Communist Party, or about its policies, or leaders ...” – Daily Worker, April 16.

Now read the testimony of Dr. Anton Ciliga who was jailed for five years in the prisons and exile camps of the Soviet Union for differing with the Stalinist bureaucracy on questions of policy. Ciliga, a member of the Political Bureau of the Jugoslav C.P., came to the Soviet Union an exile only to find, through bitter personal experience, the repressions against revolutionists more severe than in his native land. Another installment of this series will follow in the coming issue of the New Militant.


III. In the Prisons at Leningrad and Verkhne-Uralsk

I spent five months (from May to October 1930) in the Detention Prison in Leningrad. During the first part of this term, up to the conclusion of the investigation, I was committed to a small dark cell with several other prisoners. During the latter part of the term, while awaiting my sentence, I sat in a large cell, intended for 23 people, in which there were from 80 to 110 of us. The occupants of the large cells were continually changing and in view of the fact that 4 to 5 large cells were let out together for 15 minutes into the yard, I had the opportunity to become acquainted with a great many prisoners with hundreds of “cases” and the fate of hundreds of individuals.

These were the days of the mass uprisings of the peasants against the Stalinist collectivization, the days of mass executions throughout the whole of Russia, the days of the famous execution of the “Forty-Five’’ so-called wreckers. During this time prisoners in our jail were taken out almost daily to face the firing squad. Except in rare instances, the press carried no news about these executions. But once I witnessed the following case. The morning papers, which had been just brought in, contained a dispatch that the death sentence of so-and-so had been “carried out.” But this man was still alive, sitting, entirely unaware, among us in the cell. The entire cell, the whole tier fell into a frenzy, into horror ... but a few minutes later this oversight was “corrected,” and the man led from the cell to face the firing squad ...

I also became acquainted here with the methods by which certain trials of wreckers were prepared and organized. One of the men who “confessed” spoke to me as follows:

“They kept me in solitary confinement for five months, without newspapers, without tobacco, without my being allowed to receive packages (of food and clothing) or to see my family. I was starved and tortured by loneliness. They kept demanding that I confess myself guilty of acts of wrecking that never took place; I refused to assume responsibility for crimes I never committed – I was afraid of the consequences of such grave self-accusations, but the prosecutor kept assuring me that if I was really for the Soviet power, as I said I was, then I must prove it by deeds: the Soviet power was in need of my confessions, and therefore I must give them. I need not be afraid of the consequences because the Soviet power would take my unreserved confessions into account, and give me an opportunity to work (he was an engineer), and enable me to expiate my sins through work. I would immediately be permitted to receive visits from my family, obtain newspapers and packages, and go out for walks. But if I persisted in remaining stubborn and kept mum, I would be treated ruthlessly and not only find myself subjected to repressions but my wife and children would be persecuted as well ... For months I refused to capitulate, but then things became so hard, I was so lonely that it seemed to me that the future could hold nothing worse in store. In any case, I became indifferent to everything. Then I proceeded to sign everything the prosecutor demanded.”

The consequences? He was immediately permitted to receive newspapers, visits, books, packages, and was transferred to a common cell. The G.P.U. kept its promise. His lot was improved by his false self-accusations (and his accusations of others, although he made no mention of them directly to me). But why does the G.P.U. insist upon forcing such false testimony? Obviously in order to shift the responsibility for the difficulties and failures in the fulfillment of the Five Year Pan from the Government onto the shoulders of the engineers – that is the answer. In this jail I later ran across many similar cases.

In the Leningrad prison I was also treated to the spectacle of people compelled to spend the entire day standing in the corridor before the doors of the prosecutor’s office – without food or sleep – or, subjected to 16–24 hours’ grilling in order to force from them “confessions” wanted by the G.P.U.

There is no sense in deluding oneself that these inquisitorial tortures are, if you please, applied only to the representatives of the former ruling classes, or to the bourgeois intelligentsia, and the middle classes. No. They are applied to workers. I saw a sailor who, on being led out from the cell, was several times told that he was going to face the firing squad. He was led out into the yard, and then brought back to the cell.

“After all, you are a worker. We don’t want to shoot you down like a White Guard. As a worker you should make a clean breast of it ...”

The sailor persisted in refusing to confess. But as a result of these tortures he went half-mad. Then he was left in peace. They insisted that he confess his fictitious participation in a fictitious plot against Stalin. This happened not after the Kirov affair in 1934, but long before, in the year 1930.

Persecution of Chinese

All that I witnessed in the Leningrad prison came as a frightful blow to me. Until then I had the highest regard for the G.P.U. This was another one of the phases which demonstrated to me that the degeneration of the once revolutionary power had gone much further than I had presumed. I immediately protested to the prosecutor against these horrors, tortures, false accusations, and “confessions.’’

Upon the conclusion of the investigation of my case, I sent a letter to the collegium of the G.P.U. and the C.E.C. of the U.S.S.R., demanding that I be permitted to depart abroad. My communication was left unanswered. There was no need to treat us with ceremony, for we were only representatives of a small Balkan people. Together with my Yugoslav comrade Deditch, I was shipped off to the political prison in the Urals. The question of my returning home was postponed indefinitely. As I found out later, the treatment accorded us was quite “respectable.” After all, I was a European, a man, as Hitler would say, belonging to the white race.

But so far as Chinese and all other “Asiatics” are concerned, the present Soviet rulers deal with them much more unceremoniously: they are generally not recognized as political prisoners. Thus, for instance, the students, the Communist Oppositionists of the former Chinese University of Sun Yat Sen in Moscow were either shipped to the worst exile areas and into concentration camps where only criminals were sent, or they were simply handed over for extermination to Chiang Kai-shek (they were placed on board of a ship which goes from Vladivostok to Shanghai).

Comrade Deditch and myself were removed from Leningrad in the middle of October. True to its methods, the G.P.U. did not tell us where we were being taken. Only in Chelyabinsk did we learn that our destination was Verkhne-Uralsk. We arrived there on the evening of November 7. Throughout the day, from our car windows, we could observe the October parades, the celebrations in the cities of Troitsk, Magnitogorsk, and other places through which we passed. Everywhere against the sky rose the foundations, walls and chimneys of factories, power plants and industrial giants in process of construction. A new America, cruel and mighty sprouting over one-sixth of the terrestrial globe ...

The three of us, all Yugoslavs (comrade Draguitch was brought there three months later) spent 2½ years (until May 1933) in the Verkhne-Uralsk political prison – (a political isolator, in Russian terminology). This prison is an old military jail, a structure three stories high on the steppes of the Ural Cossacks. The bottom story of the prison is very cold. One has to wear overshoes and sheepskin throughout the entire winter, sitting in the cells of the first tier. The inside window panes become covered during the night with a thick sheet of ice.

The food is the traditional fare of the poor Russian mouzhik: bread and gruel for dinner and supper, day in and day out, from year to year. In addition we got a tiny portion of bad fish or of canned, and often half-rotten meat. Conflicts broke out several times over the rotten meat. Once a week we were given vinaigrette (a sauce made of vinegar and oil – Ed.). This day was considered a holiday. Two times a year – on May 1 and on November 7 – we received a slice of white bread. But even this modest and monotonous fare was given us in inadequate quantities. The portions were slightly increased only after the 18-day hunger strike in 1931. The quality, unfortunately, remained unchanged.

When, in the beginning of 1933, we began reading in the papers about the workers’ delegations that were being sent to Germany to visit the prisoners there, we were seized with downright envy! If some workers’ delegation or a democratic delegation would only arrive from abroad to pay us a visit, to take a look at what is going on, and observe how we are living in the prisons, concentration camps, and exile! But for some reason or other, the self-same leaders of the foreign working class organization, and the self-same democratic lawyers who grow indignant at any protest against the terrors of Hitler Germany keep quiet and remain unconcerned about measures, quite similar in nature, taken against workers, peasants and revolutionists in Stalinist Russia.

* * *

The Hunger Strikes

In 1931 we went through an 18-day hunger strike in our prison. It passed peacefully, and most of the demands were granted. This was the only case of a peaceful settlement of a conflict. During the 1930 conflict, during one of the harshest winters, in the month of February, the prison administration – the self-same G.P.U. – used the water hose, sprayed the protesting prisoners with ice water, broke the windows, and shut off the heat. During the conflict in 1929, the G.P.U. went even further – after they were doused with water from the hose, the prisoners were bound hand and foot, and, in this condition, soaking wet, hog-tied, without any food, they were left lying on the cement floors for three days and three nights – “in solitary confinement.” Such is the juridical label for these abominations. In the 1934 hunger strike, which was held in protest against the arbitrary automatic and universal extension of the prison terms, the Communist Oppositionists were once again hog-tied and subjected to forced artificial feeding, and then, they were transferred either to concentration camps or to other prisons.

Heavy Casualties Among Prisoners

Several of the imprisoned female comrades among the Bolshevik-Leninists, among them Lena Danilovich, slashed their veins in protest against this bestial treatment. The consequences of this regime proved catastrophic for a number of comrades. In addition to two grave cases of insanity – Vera Berger and Victor Krainy, who were transferred to an insane asylum – there was the serious psychical illness of Marusia Ivanova, whose name is famous throughout all of Siberia as the heroine of the civil war and of the underground struggle against Kolchak. After a long drawn out struggle, the G.P.U. agreed to free her from jail but refused to let her go to her relatives, sending her instead into exile. One of the prisoners, Andrey Grayev, became stone-blind in the prison after the brutal acts of the G.P.U. in February 1930.

The imprisoned Communists lived in their cells and took their walks in the prison yard in groups (3–5 cells together, 25–30 people); they composed the “communist sector” (all told, 140–180). The Socialists of all parties (Russian and Georgian social democrats, Zionists and left S.R.s), the anarchists and individuals from the Right S.R.s and the Maximalists were placed in different cells and composed another, an anarchist-socialist section (50–80 people, approximately ten to each of the above mentioned organizations).

Each sector had its own “household” economic organization, headed by an Elder and a “Minister of Finance.” Each collective was represented by the elder in dealings with the prison administration, while the “Minister of Finance” had charge of the treasury of the sector. In the event of struggles with the administration, both sectors harmonized their actions, supporting each other in this or that form, but otherwise the relations between the two sectors, even as regards the day to day routine, were rigidly differentiated. The illegal post office was organized jointly.

Political Life

In the political domain the Communist sector was divided into a number of groups and shadings, almost each of them with its own separate organization, its own committees, its own publications. The Five Year Plan shook up the entire 170 million population of Russia. The Plan represented a real technological, and, in part, an economic revolution (or, at any rate, as could be sensed even back in 1930, an attempt at such a revolution). The social and political problems which the Five Year Plan posed before all thinking people could not fail to arouse in the prison a profound ferment, new seekings, and. in part, a crisis in old ideologies. The intense and more or less fruitful search for answers to new questions was accompanied by an inevitable sharp internal struggle.

In 1933–1935 the situation in the country had become more clarified, the theoretical questions had assumed a more distinct and integrated form, and, on this basis, there occurred a new crystallization of the prisoners into several basic political groups, among them the unification of all the Bolshevik-Leninists into a single organization. I, too, took the liveliest part in the struggle of groups and ideas, in the search for the theoretical definition of all that was taking place at that time, and everything that had occurred during the entire 16 years of the revolution, and in the search for the definitions of the lessons of the Russian Revolution and the new revolutionary tasks. The large numerical strength of the Verkhne-Uralsk collective of the political prisoners, the presence there of qualified representatives of all tendencies and shadings of revolutionary thought in Russia for the last 20 years helped greatly to facilitate the attainment of definite results.

Under conditions that doomed the entire country to silence, or, rather, to subservience and compelled men to repeat parrot-like an obviously false official ideology, the large and internally cohesive jail was transformed into a laboratory of ideas. The prison became the only place for free sociological research. I attempted to make fundamental use of my compulsory presence in this prison, this tiny island of liberty.

Ciliga’s Prison Conclusions

I was of the opinion that aims and results justify sufferings and victims. As a consequence, I arrived to the views of the so-called ultra-Lefts. I became convinced that the fundamental and decisive breaking point in the Russian Revolution occurred in 1920–1921, when the initial steps of the workers towards gaining control of production came to an unsuccessful conclusion, and when, as a result, the bureaucratic state-capitalist organization of industrial production triumphed, being subsequently correlated under the N.E.P. with concessions to private capitalist elements in agriculture and trade. These concessions were liquidated, by and large, during the period of the Five Year Plan, after which there was established in Russia the system of far-flung bureaucratic state-capitalism in the domain of economy, supported by a regime of Bonapartism in the sphere of politics.

Because of these views I left the “collective of the left Bolshevik-Leninists,” and became one of the initiators of the unification of the so-called ultra-Left groupings. This unification took place only after my departure from Verkhne-Uralsk. “The Federation of left Communists” (consisting of extreme left Bolshevik-Leninists. a section of the D.C.ers. Workers’ Opposition, followers of Myasnikov) was organized there. This Federation numbered 25 people. The re-united organization of the Bolshevik-Leninists consisted of 140. A section of the D.C.ers and “independents” remained outside both these united groups.

(To be continued in next issue)


Last updated on: 6 May 2018