In 1938, on the orders of the NKVD [forerunner of the KGB and FSB] a secret detention centre was established in the former St Catherine’s Convent outside Moscow. Sukhanovskaya Prison, also known as Sukhanovka or Special Facility No.110, was set up to house the deadliest enemies of the Soviet Union, in general, and Comrade Stalin, in particular. Prisoners were not only held there for years without trial or even investigation, but were subjected to the most horrific tortures. Between 1938 and 1952 about 35,000 people passed through its gates, and few of them came out alive. And until recently all information relating to this facility was locked away in FSB archives, marked ‘secret.’
Sukhanovskaya Prison, also known as Sukhanovka or Special Facility No.110 existed between 1938 and 1952.
The last witness
‘“Educated people, you must be harder than steel! There are spies all around, and the worst is Stalin!” How do you like my poem?’ asks the old man sitting up in bed drinking a cup of tea, with a slightly mocking note in his voice. It is three o’clock in the morning, but everyone in the house is still up. ‘Those are costly lines; I got 10 years hard labour for them.’
‘For a couple of lines of poetry?’
‘That’s all it took. I read the poem to a friend, but his father was an NKVD general, so they came and got me. And they charged me not just with anti-Soviet propaganda but with “intent to commit acts of terror”. I called Stalin a spy – so evidently I wanted to kill him.’
Semyon Samuilovich Vilensky was twenty when he was arrested, a student in the Languages Faculty of Moscow University. He is now 87, lives in Moscow, writes poetry, and has his own publishing company, ‘Vozvrashchenie’ (‘The Return’), which brings out memoirs of former prisoners of the Gulag.
Semyon Vilensky at the time of his arrest at the age of 20.
Those who spent time in Sukhanovka called it the ‘Torture Dacha.’
Semyon Vilensky spent eight years in Stalin’s prisons and labour camps, beginning with Special Facility No.110. It was Lavrenty Beria, head of the NKVD, who personally set up Sukhanovka in the former convent. He expelled the nuns, and their cells were used to house the prisoners, while the extensive cellars became torture chambers. The facility was designed to hold former friends of Comrade Stalin who had, on his personal command, been re-designated as enemies. Officially, this secret prison was described as an NKVD ‘dacha’, although those who spent time there called it the ‘Torture Dacha.’
A stroke of luck
‘I was put in a narrow cell with a concrete floor. The window had bars and thick glass that let in little light’. Semyon Samuilovich begins his story in a quiet, toneless voice and asks me not to interrupt him. ‘There was a stool and table bolted to the floor, and a foldaway bench for a bed, like in an overnight train, but we were forbidden to lie on it during the day. Our food for a day was two sugar lumps, a ration of heavy bread and a bowl of undercooked pearl barley porridge. But if you ate the porridge you would get such stomach cramps, it was as though you’d swallowed poison. I sat there, day after day, and wasn’t called for interrogation. So I started a hunger strike and demanded to see a prosecutor, but nobody paid any attention to me until I started to sing and yell. Then they put me in a punishment cell. It was like a narrow stone cupboard, with slimy damp walls and constantly dripping water. I don’t know how long I was kept there; I lost all sense of time and then collapsed on the cold damp floor. The guards picked me up and sat me on a wooden box for a while, then pulled it out from under me. I don’t know how long all that lasted ...
I heard cries, sobs, women wailing, blows, and interrogators shouting ‘Beat him in the balls!
From all around I heard cries, sobs, groans, women wailing, blows, and interrogators cursing and shouting ‘Beat him in the balls! Beat him!’ But for some reason they left me alone! Later, I was told that for a short period Stalin banned the torture of pregnant women and students. So I was just really lucky!’
In his solitary cell Semyon Vilensky began to compose a poem.
My sad cell,
Why do you need me?
Why the lattice of the bars
Cuts up the indivisible light.
Why the locks, why the soldiers,
Why the groans of innocent victims
That I curse each of my days
And await the redemptive night?
Here are ghosts
And a fiendish demon,
Not the devil, but just the same.
‘I recited it loudly, with expression, as though I were performing to an unseen audience’, says Semyon Samuilovich. ‘My jailers thought I had gone mad, and I was transferred to the Serbsky Institute High Security Psychiatric Hospital. The main job of the psychiatrists working there at the time was to expose patients who were feigning madness, while I, on the contrary, was desperately trying to prove that I was completely sane. And they admitted that I was, diagnosing me as “mentally competent, but in a state of extreme physical and nervous exhaustion”. From there I was moved to the Lubyanka [NKVD headquarters] and then to Butyrskaya Prison [in central Moscow], which was like a holiday camp after Sukhanovka’.
Today, despite its fearsome past, St Catherine’s once again functions as a monastery. CC A. Savin
In Butyrskaya, Vilensky was informed of his conviction by the NKVD special council for Anti-Soviet Agitation, and the student was packed off to Eastern Siberia to serve a ten year sentence in the Gulag. There he continued his ‘universities’ until the death of the Great Leader in 1953. He spent just three months in Sukhanovka, and is the only one of its 35,000 former inmates who is alive today – the last witness to what went on there.
Roll call of victims
Among Sukhanovka’s prisoners over the years were well-known politicians and public figures, members of the cultural elite, and military commanders. They included bloodthirsty NKVD head Nikolai Yezhov and his associates, responsible for carrying out the Great Terror of the 1930s; writer Isaac Babel, Sergei Efron, a former White Army officer and the husband of poet Marina Tsvetaeva, who was recruited by the NKVD while in emigration in Paris and arrested on his return to the USSR. Among senior military figures executed there were Marshal of Aviation Sergei Khudyakov, General Pavel Ponedelin and Admiral Konstantin Samoilov; and even Alexander Beloborodov and Filipp Goloshchokin, the murderers of the Tsar and his family, ended their days in the prison.
Isaac Babel, the playwright and short story writer, passed through Sukhanovka. He was shot in 1940.
Prominent journalist – and NKVD collaborator – Mikhail Koltsov, Pravda’s correspondent in Spain during its Civil War (and the prototype for the character Karkov in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls), arrived in Sukhanovka immediately after a party given in his honour at the Writers’ Union building in Moscow. He had just been summoned back from Spain, and received the Order of the Red Banner from the hands of the Great Leader. ‘Do you have a gun on you, Comrade Koltsov?’ asked Comrade Stalin. ‘Wouldn’t you like to shoot yourself?’ Soviet Russia’s most famous journalist was then arrested in the Pravda newsroom, under the eyes of a terrified secretary. Once in prison he was tortured and then shot on the same day as Vsevolod Meyerhold, one of the greatest theatre directors of the 20th century.
'They beat me, a sick 65-year-old man, on the soles of my feet and my spine with a rubber strap’ (Vsevolod Meyerhold).
Under torture, Meyerhold confessed to working for British and Japanese Intelligence, and also incriminated his fellow-director Sergei Eisenstein, the writer Ilya Ehrenburg, the composer Dmitry Shostakovich and many other figures from the arts world. The letters Meyerhold wrote to leading politician Vyacheslav Molotov about his torture have survived:
‘... they beat me, a sick 65-year-old man. I was made to lie face down and beaten on the soles of my feet and my spine with a rubber strap; then they sat me on a chair and beat me hard on the legs with the same strap ... For the next few days, when those parts of my legs were covered with extensive internal haemorrhaging, they again beat the red-blue-and-yellow bruises with the strap, and the pain was so intense that it felt as though boiling water was being poured on these sensitive areas. I yelled out and wept from the pain … My nerve endings were very close to the surface of my body and my skin was as tender and sensitive as a child’s, while my eyes turned out to be capable of weeping bucketsful of tears. Lying face down, I found myself writhing and squirming and howling like a dog being beaten by its owner. They would beat me on the old bruises and contusions, so my legs turned into a bloody mess. My interrogator kept repeating the same threat: “If you don’t sign a confession, we’ll go on beating you. We’ll leave your head and right hand alone, but we’ll turn the rest of you into a shapeless bloody lump of meat”. And I signed everything they wanted.’
Meyerhold and Koltsov were shot on 2 February 1940, and their bodies cremated in the former convent’s furnace. Executed prisoners’ ashes were usually either used as potash fertiliser, thrown into the sewers or dumped on a city waste tip.
Forms of torture
According to former inmates, there were 52 kinds of torture used in the prison. Historian and Gulag researcher Lidia Golovkova, author of the book Sukhanovskaya Prison: Special Facility 110, compiled a detailed list of the ‘methods of interrogation’ used there. ‘It was regarded as the most horrific prison in the whole of the Soviet Union’, she told me. ‘The usual, simplest method used was beatings, which could go on for days, with interrogators working in shifts. They would beat prisoners on the most sensitive parts of their bodies; it was known as ‘threshing the rye.’ The second most common method was sleep deprivation, which could go on for 10-20 days. During interrogation, prisoners were often made to sit on a leg of an upturned stool, so that the slightest accidental movement would send the leg into their rectum.
‘Another form of torture was known as the “Sukhanovka Swallow”, where inmates were trussed up with a long towel that was forced between their lips like a horse’s bridle and then pulled down behind them and tied under their feet. You would think no one could stand this for more than a few seconds, but its victims were left like that for days on end. There were also overheated punishment cells, so called “tallow-boilers”, or in winter, prisoners could be dumped in barrels of icy water. Other methods of persuasion included prisoners having needles and pins forced under their fingernails, their fingers being crushed in a door, or being forced to drink their interrogator’s urine.’
I asked Golovkova whether people sometimes held out and refused to sign confessions even after torture. ‘That was very rare. The pain of the beatings and torture was so excruciating that 50-year-old generals would forget themselves and start crying for their mothers. General Sidyakin lost his mind and howled in his cell like a dog. Many prisoners were sent off to psychiatric hospitals for compulsory treatment immediately after their interrogation.
The pain was such that 50-year-old generals would start crying for their mothers.
‘I only know of one documented case of a prisoner who refused to confess despite being tortured. He was Mikhail Kedrov, a member of a Moscow aristocratic family who became a Leninist Bolshevik and member of the Cheka, [the first incarnation of the Soviet secret police apparatus]. In 1939, Kedrov, with his son Igor and one of his friends, who also worked for [what in the 1930s was renamed] the NKVD, wrote a letter about abuse of power in the Security Services, and all three were immediately arrested and interrogated for 22 hours or more. The two young men were shot first, but Mikhail Kedrov refused to confess to anything, no matter what tortures he was subjected to. Amazingly, a court found him not guilty of any crime, but he was still not released from prison; and when the USSR entered the Second World War in 1941, he was executed on the direct orders of Lavrenty Beria.
Lavrenty Beria, head of the NKVD, loved to visit Sukhanovka. ‘Executions, by shooting, took place at Sukhanovka in the former St Catherine’s church, with the executioners standing invisible behind iron panels with slits for them to look through. Their victim usually didn’t even have time to work out what was happening before being dispatched, and his or her body loaded onto a stretcher, to be thrown into the oil-fired furnace. Cremations usually took place at night, so the locals wouldn’t complain about the stench. Some prisoners who were classified as not only ‘enemies of the people’ but also ‘personal enemies of Stalin’ were beaten up one last time before their death. “Before he’s off to the other world – smash his face in!” Beria would say. He loved visiting Sukhanovka and had his own office there, with a personal lift to take him down to the cellars to take part in interrogations.’
Cremations usually took place at night, so the locals wouldn’t complain about the stench.
‘Were there also women prisoners’, I asked Lidia Golovkova. ‘Of course’, she replied. ‘I particularly remember the story of Marshal Grigory Kulik’s young wife, Kira Simonich-Kulik. She was a very attractive young woman who was only 18 when she married the marshal, and she was arrested soon afterwards. Perhaps she had caught the eye of someone at the top (possibly Stalin himself) and it was decided to kidnap her. Responsibility for the operation was entrusted to Beria’s deputy, General Vsevolod Merkulov, and an NKVD operations team chosen for the job. She was watched day and night by three cars, and one day in July 1939 she left her home in central Moscow and disappeared without trace. I don’t know to whom they took her, and what happened to her there, but she eventually ended up in Sukhanovka. Meanwhile, her inconsolable husband approached Beria to ask him to find his wife. Beria agreed to help and even launched a nationwide search for her, although he knew very well that she was in Sukhanovka, and had even interrogated her there himself. Kira was accused of spying, but they didn’t even try very hard to press the point. They just took her into Moscow and shot her. There wasn’t even any charge made against her. But the official search for the marshal’s wife continued for another ten years, generating 15 thick volumes of documents that were later destroyed. In 1949, Marshal Kulik himself was also arrested and shot.’
I asked Lidia Golovkova who it was that carried out the sentences, and what kind of people they were. ‘If you asked their families, they would all tell you that they were loving fathers, husbands and grandfathers, but they had a difficult job to do. I once met someone who had worked at Sukhanovka. He was a driver, who drove prisoners to the jail – these transfers usually took place in special vans whose side panels read “Bread”, “Meat” or even “Soviet Champagne”. Anyway, he told me that once he had to take a pregnant woman there, and probably from being shaken about in the van she went into labour. He drove on like a lunatic, but not to hospital – to a torture chamber. One of the guards delivered the baby boy and wrapped it in his greatcoat. Then he escorted the woman to the prison governor’s office. As he told the story, the ex-driver couldn’t hold back his tears ... But most of Sukhanovka’s employees felt no remorse about their actions, and to the end of their days believed they were carrying out ‘revolutionary justice’ in the name of the people.
Transfers usually took place in special vans whose side panels read 'Bread', 'Meat' or even 'Soviet Champagne.'
‘Interrogating officer Mikhail Ryumin loved to say, “We used to beat, we still beat and we don’t hide it from anyone!” At Sukhanovka, Ryumin’s beatings were legendary. He was aided in his efforts not by an ordinary detective, but an NKVD colonel. The prisoner’s trousers would be removed, the colonel sat on his back and Ryumin beat him with a rubber truncheon until his body looked like a bloody lump of meat. At the next interrogation Ryumin would stab his victim in the stomach, so that his intestines would fall out. They would then gather them up and take him off to the hospital at Butyrskaya, another Moscow prison, for treatment. Ryumin was awarded a ‘For Valour’ medal for his heroic services to his country, but was eventually shot as well.
‘One NKVD operative, Bogdan Kobulov, who weighed 130kg, could kill a prisoner with one blow, a feat of which he was very proud. Another special operations officer, Pyotr Marro, was responsible, according to his colleagues, for shooting at least 10,000 prisoners. He died of alcoholism just before the start of the Second World War. Another interesting fact: NKVD commandant Vasily Blokhin, Stalin’s chief executioner, who carried out death sentences all over the Soviet Union, even had a special outfit for shooting people – a long leather apron, gaiters, cap and rubber boots, all to avoid getting spattered by the blood and brains of his victims. According to KGB General Tokarev, Blokhin shot himself in 1954 after being summoned to the Public Prosecutor’s office, where he was stripped of his general’s rank and awards (although a few years later these were posthumously reinstated). Most executioners did not survive into old age. There were three reasons for their premature death: alcoholism, schizophrenia, and suicide. No one, however, was ever called to account for anything. There were no Nuremburg Trials in Russia.’
Most executioners did not survive into old age.
Which regime does Lidia Golovkova think was worse: Stalin’s or Hitler’s? ‘I think they learned from each other. For example, the special prison trucks that were used to transport prisoners, where the exhaust pipes were turned inwards and the occupants died of carbon monoxide poisoning on their way to the crematorium – those were invented by the Soviet Cheka. The Nazis were just perfecting the technology when they installed gas chambers in the death camps.’
An accursed place
If you go to Sukhanovskaya Prison today, it’s as though it never existed. Where before there was a convent for nuns, there is now a monastery occupied by four monks and five novices. They spend their days in work and prayer, and try not to think about the past. The cellars where prisoners were tortured were already filled with earth, asphalted and walled up in Soviet times, when the buildings were handed back to the Orthodox Church. The cells where those condemned to death were kept, now house the monks, and the Church of St Catherine, where prisoners were shot and their bodies burned in the furnace, has been restored and is being used once more in god’s – not police – service. Lavrenty Beria’s old office is now used by the abbot, the Right Reverend Tikhon, but I wasn’t ‘blessed’ with an interview – women are not allowed entry to a male monastery. The only thing in this sacred place to remind one of its accursed past is the Sukhanovskaya Prison Museum, set up by Viktor, one of the novices and an artist by training; and one of the few Gulag museums in Russia.
Artifacts in the Sukhanovskaya Prison Museum. (image via author)
The entire museum consists of one room, or, rather, cell. It receives few visitors: not many guided tours stop here, and Orthodox pilgrims don’t usually bother to look in on their way to a service at the church. The museum also can’t boast of many exhibits. A glass case holds some squares of parquet flooring from Beria’s office, on which the foot of the bloody Security Chief stepped; aluminium bowls out of which prisoners ate their shrapnel-like barley porridge; a telephone used to deliver death sentences and a Chekist revolver, which may well have been used to carry them out. There is also a stand with small photos of prisoners and oil paintings by Viktor of a guard with a sheepdog herding prisoners, and a prisoner with eyes wide with horror in a solitary cell. And there is a sculpture carved in wax – Lavrenty Beria, to the life, in his signature pince-nez, sitting, ready to get up and take his personal lift down to the cellars, and personally and enthusiastically conduct some interrogations.
‘Aren’t you scared, living here?’ I ask Viktor. ‘Don’t the ghosts of the murdered haunt the monastery?’ The novice smiles: ‘Nobody haunts this place! There’s nothing to be scared of! My room is an old cell, after all. I do find myself wondering sometimes who lived here before me and what he thought about in his last minutes, but I try to banish such thoughts from my mind. You can’t be thinking about that all the time – it would drive you insane!’
‘Our teachings forbid us to pray for atheists, apostates and communists.’
‘Do you pray for the people who died here?’ I ask. ‘Members of the Orthodox Church can only pray for other Orthodox, for people who belonged to the Christian Church. Most of the people imprisoned here were atheists, and many who became victims were former executioners themselves. And even those who hadn’t killed anyone still shared the ideology of the murderers; and our teachings forbid us to pray for atheists, apostates and communists. We pray for the Orthodox Tsar Nicolas II, who was murdered by those betrayers of Christ! All the sins and misdeeds of the Russian people began with that murder ... I don’t know when God will forgive Russia.’
Brother Viktor sighs deeply and hurries off to vespers. ‘Let us pray unto the Lord!’ chants the all-male choir solemnly. The sun is setting over the dome of St Catherine’s, the crows are producing their usual cacophony, smells of beetroot soup and fresh bread emanate from the refectory, and it is difficult to believe that a half century or so ago there were more dead bodies than live ones in this holy place, just as there were in the thousands of other corners of Russia that are known collectively as the Gulag Archipelago.