The camp came alive as prisoners filed out of their barracks for roll call. The cold, freezing wind and the darkness were an agony to the people outside. Lining up by barracks, the prisoners received their meals and went directly to work.
The barracks had been emptied of its inhabitants, but the smell of dump clothing, human swear, excrement, and disinfectant filled it. It seemed as though the shouts of the supervisors, the sound of soul-shattering swearing, the suffering of people, and the cruelty of the criminals remained inside as well. This depressing feeling, among the naked benches and the rows of bunk beds, was counteracted by the warmth of the place, making it feel somehow lived-in, softening the feeling of emptiness.
At –27, the gusty winds today alarmed not just the prisoners who had gone to work, but even those dressed in their warm clothing who watched them.
The prisoners trudged off to their work in fear. They knew that their work was designed to be cruel to them, and that the requirements set forth by the camp’s chief officers were nearly impossible to fulfill. Everything was done to lead these people slowly to their death. Both political prisoners and common criminals whose crimes were punishable by death were sent to this camp. Few came out alive.
Father Arseny, whose name had been Piotr Andreyevich Strelzov before his prieshood, had been assigned the tittle of “zek” (prisoner) No. 18376. He had been sent to this camp six months ago and understood that there was no hope for him to ever leave it.
The night was transforming into a dark dawn, and then into a short half-dark day. Searchlights were still lighting the camp. Father Arseny was always on duty; he had to split logs near the barracks and then carry them into the barracks to feed the stove.
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” he repeated constantly while doing his work. The logs were damp and half frozen and were difficult to split. As axes were not allowed in camp, he had to split the logs by hammering a wooden wedge into them with another log. The heavy, frozen log slipped and jumped from the weak hands of Father Arseny, and he could not hit the wedge properly. The work was slow. Exhaustion and the lack of food made it impossible to work properly. Everything was heavy and difficult. Yet the barracks had to be heated for the arrival of the workers. It had to be clean, tidy and swept. If it was not ready on time, the supervisor would send Father Arseny to the punishment cell and the other prisoners would beat him.
The political prisoners were beaten often: the supervisors beat them as punishment, the criminals just liked to do what they were used to doing, and all their hatred and cruelty came out this way. Someone was beaten every day, and beaten with pleasure for the criminals, it was a real distraction.
“Have mercy on me, a sinner. Help me. I place my trust in Thee, O Lord, and in You, O Mother of God. Do not abandon me, give me the strength”, prayed Father Arseny, almost falling from exhaustion as he carried bundle after bundle of logs to the stoves.
It was now time to light the fires. The stoves were cold and no longer gave off any warmth. It was not easy to light the fire for the logs were damp, and there was no dry kindling. The day before, Father Arseny had found some dry branches and put them in a corner near one of the stoves thinking, “Tomorrow I will be able to light the stoves very fast!”. When he went to get the dry kindling, though, he found that some of the criminals had poured water on it. He knew that if he was late in lighting the fires, the barracks would not be warm for the return of the workers. Father Arseny ran to try to find some dry bark or anything dry behind the barracks. And all the time he was praying, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God! Have mercy on me, a sinner”, but then he added, “Thy will be done!”.
He looked everywhere, and could find nothing dry. He did not know how he would light the fire.
While Father Arseny was looking for the dry branches, an old man working in the next barracks walked up. He was a criminal of immense cruelty and power. People said that even under the Tsar his name had been infamous all over Russia. He had committed so many crimes that he himself could not remember them all. Not much was known about the details of his crimes, so numerous were his exploits. Yet when he was brought to trial, the judge had knowledge of lots of his crimes to condemn him to be shot. His sentence was later commuted to internment in this prison camp, which for some criminals was much worse: if you are shot, you suffer a short time; in this camp death is slow and painful. Those who were released from the camp came out as invalids. Knowing this, many criminals became cruel, and their cruelty was expressed by beating the political prisoners and sometimes even other criminals, beating them to death.
This criminal was the boss of his whole barracks. Even the camp officers were afraid of him. It would take only a wink from him to have an “accident” occur. His fellow inmates called him “Graybeard”. He was in his sixties and his appearance was gentle. He would often begin by talking to people nicely, sometimes joking. Then, suddenly, he would start swearing horribly and punching with his fists.
Seeing that Father Arseny was looking for something he shouted, “What are you looking for, you silly priest?”
“I had prepared some dry branches to start the fire today, and somebody poured water onto them, so I am looking for something dry. The logs are damp. I don’t know what to do.”
“That’s right, silly priest, without kindling you are lost,” answered Graybeard.
“People will come from work, they will be cold, and they will beat me,” mumbled Father Arseny.
“Come, Pop (a name for priest in Russia), I will give you some kindling,” Graybeard said, leading Father Arseny to a whole pile of beautiful dry kindling. Father Arseny had a thought that perhaps this was a joke; he knew Graybeard only too well, and could not expect any help from him.
“Take Father Arseny, take what you need,” the criminal said.
Father Arseny began to quickly gather some dry branches, all the time thinking, “I will take some kindling and he will shout that I am a thief.” Then he realized that the man had called him Father Arseny. He prayed silently, crossed himself in his mind, and began to gather the kindling.
“Take more, Father Arseny! More!” Garybeard barked. Then he bent and started helping Father Arseny, carrying the kindling into the barracks and putting it next to the stove. Father Arseny bowed before him and said, “May God bless you!”
Graybeard did not answer, and left.
Father Arseny put the wood in the stoves and lit the fire. The logs began to burn. He had time only to throw more pieces of wood on the flame before he had to rush to clean the barracks, wiping off tables, sweeping, and getting more logs.
It was almost three o’clock. The stoves were red-hot and it was getting warm in the barracks. The smells became stronger, but because of the warmth, the barracks regained a familiar and almost cosy feeling. The supervisor came in several times as Father Arseny went about his work. As always, his words were angry and menacing. During one of his visits, he struck Father Arseny on the head with a piece of wood.
Carrying the logs and throwing them into the stoves tired Father Arseny to the extreme. His head hurt because he was so tired and weak, his heart beat irregularly, and his breathing was bad. His legs felt so weak that they could hardly support his tired body. “Do not abandon me, O God,” he whispered, bending under the weight of the logs.