Nonfiction > Upton Sinclair, ed. > The Cry for Justice

Upton Sinclair, ed. (1878–1968).
The Cry for Justice: An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest.  1915.
In Siberia

By Katherine Breshkovsky

(Reported by Ernest Poole)
AS punishment for my attempt at escape I was sentenced to four years’ hard labor in Kara and to forty blows of the lash. Into my cell a physician came to see if I were strong enough to live through the agony. I saw at once that, afraid to flog a woman “political” without precedent, by this trick of declaring me too sick to be punished they wished to establish the precedent of the sentence in order that others might be flogged in the future. I insisted that I was strong enough, and that the court had no right to record such a sentence unless they flogged me at once. The sentence was not carried out.  1
  A few weeks later eight of the men politicals escaped in pairs, leaving dummies in their places. As the guards never took more than a hasty look into that noisome cell, they did not discover the ruse for weeks. Then mounted Cossacks rode out. The man-hunt spread. Some of the fugitives struggled through jungles, over mountains and through swamps a thousand miles to Vladivostok, saw the longed-for American vessels, and there on the docks were re-captured. All were brought back to Kara.  2
  For this we were all punished. One morning the Cossack guards entered our cells, seized us, tore off our clothes, and dressed us in convict suits alive with vermin. That scene cannot be described. One of us attempted suicide. Taken to an old prison we were thrown into the “black holes”—foul little stalls off a low grimy hall which contained two big stoves and two little windows. Each of us had a stall six feet by five. On winter nights the stall doors were left open for heat, but in summer each was locked at night in her own black hole. For three months we did not use our bunks, but fought with candles and pails of scalding water, until at last the vermin were all killed. We had been put on the “black hole diet” of black bread and water. For three years we never breathed the outside air. We struggled constantly against the outrages inflicted on us. After one outrage we lay like a row of dead women for nine days without touching food, until certain promises were finally exacted from the warden. This “hunger strike” was used repeatedly. To thwart it we were often bound hand and foot, while Cossacks tried to force food down our throats.  3
  Kara grew worse after I left. To hint at what happened I tell briefly the story of my dear friend Maria, a woman of broad education and deep refinement. Shortly after my going, Maria saw Madame Sigida strike an official who had repeatedly insulted the women. Two days later she watched Sigida die, moaning and bleeding from the lash; that night she saw three women commit suicide as a protest to the world; she knew that twenty men attempted suicide on the night following, and she determined to double the protest by assassinating the Governor of Trans-Baikal, who had ordered Sigida’s flogging. At this time Maria was pregnant. Her prison term over, she left her husband and walked hundreds of miles to the Governor’s house and shot him. She spent three months in a cold, dirty, “secret cell” not long enough to lie down in or high enough to stand up in, wearing the cast-off suit of a convict, sleeping on the bare floor and tormented by vermin. She was then sentenced to be hanged. She hesitated now whether to save the life of her unborn child. She knew that if she revealed her condition her sentence would be changed to imprisonment. She decided to keep silence and sacrifice her child, that when the execution was over and her condition was discovered, the effect on Russia might be still greater. Her condition, however, became apparant, and she was started off to the Irkutsk prison. It was midwinter, forty degrees below zero. She walked. She was given no overcoat and no boots, until some common criminals in the column gave her theirs. Her child was born dead in prison, and soon after she too died.  4

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