The day after I spoke with Boris Mityashin at his place and agreed to meet again later that week at mine, I heard from him again. His voice was extremely tense and his tone urgent. He said he needed to see me as soon as possible because the KGB was about to arrest him. I agreed and he came to my apartment at about five in the evening. It was the long white nights in Leningrad and broad daylight still when he arrived, and I know that I, for one, was worried that a KGB agent would appear out of the stairwell to whisk Mityashin away. They did not, their plan was a little different.
The first thing Mityashin did was ask if my phone was plugged in. I said yes, and he went to it and pulled the cord from the wall. “They listen in through the telephones,” he said. I knew, of course, that in the apartments of foreign diplomats they also listened in through planted microphones and might even have hidden cameras. I did not mention it to him.
He told me he had gone to the trial that day and bumped into Lena, “the weak link.” He saw immediately that she had started singing at the top of her lungs. She refused to look him in the eye and told him that she did not think she could hold out any more. Now it would be only a matter of hours, not days, before he was arrested. He was so desperate to unburden himself that I have never forgotten it.
First he told me about his first stint in the prison system. He had been arrested as a political prisoner, but they got no special treatment under the Soviet system. No “limited security for nerds” facilities under the fist of the Reds. He was dumped straight into the heart of the State prison system, sharing his cell with murderers and other assorted hardcore criminals. And the real criminals, the cons, were contemptuous of the politicals and abused them. (Imagine Noam Chomsky sharing a cell with inner city gang members or motorcycle gangs.) In this way, the State turned one group against another and let the cons do a lot of the punishing on behalf of the authorities. Mostly Mityashin tried to keep a low profile. He did not associate himself closely with any of the other politicals, who huddled together whenever they got a chance. It was always three groups: the cons, the pols, and him.
He said he would listen to the politicals whisper among themselves at night, frightened of their cellmates and of the future, always carping about something. Finally Mityashin could not keep his silence. One night as the pols continued their complaining about the cons picking on them, he asked them why they took it. “In this cell there are more of us than there are of them. If we all stand together, we can beat them and then they will leave everybody in peace.” They agreed enthusiastically. Of course, why hadn’t they thought of it? The very next time somebody was victimized by a con, all the pols would rise up as one and overwhelm the con.
Shortly after this pledge of unity, he had occasion to test it. Mityashin had been given a prized lower bunk (a wooden plank attached to the wall with chains) and had been using it for a while. One day it was announced that all the prisoners had to leave their cells to allow fumigation (lice were a constant plague). When he got back to the cell, he took off his jacket and laid it across the bed. Just at that moment, one of the cons with an upper bunk moved next to Mityashin and with the toe of his dirty boot threw the jacket on the floor. “I’ll take this,” he said.
Mityashin remembered the pledge and he stood his ground. “It’s my bunk, you don’t get it.”
“Oh, yeah?” said the con, who swung and hit Mityashin in the face with his fist. As Mityashin awaited in vain the thronging of his comrades rushing to his defense, all the cons united and beat Mityashin mercilessly. The guards did not intervene. When it was all over and Mityashin was lying on his top bunk, bleeding and bruised and aching, the criminal who had taken his bed spoke to him.
“Don’t be stupid, kid” he told him. “You’re all in here for a couple of years and then out, but we are here for the rest of our lives. This is it for us and we control this place. If you learn that, you won’t have any more problems.” Mityashin absorbed the lesson and lived by it for the rest of his sentence. He never again had a problem with the criminals, who had gained respect for Mityashin because he had dared to stand up and take a beating. For them, Mityashin was the real idealist, as opposed to the posturing limp-wrists cringing in the corner.
“I saw in prison a microcosm of life in the Soviet Union,” Mityashin told me. “There are so many more of us than there are of them, but nobody dares to rise up in defense when the State turns on some innocent. Unity is impossible.”
With regard to the Fund, Mityashin explained how he had been recruited into the organization and how the KGB had set up the director, Valeriy Repin, for arrest. A “volunteer” with the Fund (in fact a KGB mole) went to Repin’s door and rang the bell. Repin, no doubt peering through the peephole and ascertaining that it was a familiar face, opened the door. The visitor shoved a brown paper-wrapped parcel at him and Repin instinctively took it. At that moment, out of the shadows stepped the photographers, snapping the illegal transaction, followed by the KGB, who arrested the director for possession of prohibited literature. I was not there when it happened, but I imagine he was hauled off with maximum humiliation and lots of cameras, his wife and children left crying in the background. Remember that with the communists, public opprobrium was excellent medicine for the transgressors. “Name and shame!” The mob against the individual and the individual doesn’t stand a chance.
Since her husband’s arrest, Lena was handling the funds, said Mityashin, and squandering them. “She uses the train between Leningrad and Moscow as if it were a trolley,” he charged with some heat, no doubt thinking of the help those many train tickets would bring to those in need of it. Now the Fund was being rolled up by the KGB, which was arresting everybody involved and putting paid to the Fund. Mityashin was headed back to the Gulag.
He did not even mind going back, Mityashin said. But he was almost finished with his book and if he could finish that, he would go at peace and happily. He asked if he could take up sanctuary in the Consulate (as religious believers had done in our Moscow Embassy) until then. I was mortified. Didn’t it seem only humane to agree? But I had to explain to him that this was prohibited by State Department policy.
It was probably eleven o’clock at night before Mityashin finally rose to leave. Even today I think about that, about his leaving our candle-lit apartment, knowing where he was going. I cannot even imagine how he felt. My heart was very heavy for him and I gave him a gold good-luck charm. It didn’t work. The gold charm no doubt quickly found its way to some KGB employee’s girlfriend. Mityashin was arrested after leaving the building, when the sky had turned dusky for the brief moments before it rose again.
I don’t know what ultimately happened to Mityashin and will always wish I did. But about six months later, in one of the State-owned newspapers, I read a notice of an upcoming trial of Boris Mityashin.
The notice said the trial was closed to the public.