An unmythical Altshuller
(PART 3.)

Leonid Filkovsky,
Baltimore, USA.

Copyright © 2003 by L. Filkovsky

About this time a terrible tragedy occurred back in Baku: Altshuller's mother, who was always so proud of her talented son, had been informed that Genrich was send for 25 years in camps, without rights for outside contacts, committed suicide by throwing herself from a second floor. Altshuller learned about it much later. His father was not alive by then - he died before this entire tragedy happened.

Altshuller's life in Vorkuta camp started with a call to a warden. This one tried to make Altshuller to become an informer, explaining that "being a real soviet citizen" he must help camp administration and that this behavior will be taken in consideration in his camp future. Altshuller refused using a strong language and as a result was send to a solitary confinement. After some time there, he was sent to work in a coal mine. Short time later he refused to work there and had been send to the solitary confinement again.

Altshuller wanted to work according to his education - after all, he was a fourth year college student when he was arrested. But the camp administration kept sending him to common works. He kept refusing and had been regularly send to the solitary. This cycle lasted until finally he got an assignment to design a turning stage for the camp theatre. This assignment placed him inside the mine offices.

Later, he was asked to help a new librarian. This librarian turned out to be a Jewish poet, Teiv, who was send into camp for being a "Jewish nationalist". Teiv knew literature and poetry, but the library had only books about mining. Altshuller taught Teiv mining, or rather engineering basics, and felt much better about it.

Teaching Teiv gave Altshuller some satisfaction. He used to jokingly say to Teiv that now he feels relieved about the Jewish fate: if the old man, Teiv, has so much enthusiasm for learning mine engineering, one can be assured that these people will survive.

There was some period there when Altshuller tried to study a higher math. He thought that a time would come when he'd be able to continue his college education and to get the engineering degree. It had started fine, but when Genrich advanced to integral calculus, he quit. He found it very difficult to understand and there was nobody around to ask for help; also, the camp environment didn't allow for a quiet concentration on a subject to figure it out by himself.

Unfortunately he was not assigned to a "sharashka" - a design group, built up by GULAG, of imprisoned specialists, university professors, engineers, etc., who worked on research and development projects in favorable conditions - this would help him to fulfill his engineering education. (Shapiro didn't get such an assignment either, but was lucky to have some technical people around him and got his engineering degree quite soon after the release. ) Of his surroundings, Altshuller used to talk about a prisoner in his barrack, a former mine manager, who used to burst in anger every time he heard a word 'calculus'. He said that, before the arrest, a young engineer was assigned to his team who used 'calculus' to improve a mine support. The support had collapsed and they all got 15 years each, for sabotage.

Altshuller was not too upset about quitting these studies. He had then envisioned his future rather in a literature, science fiction.

There also was a Jew in the barrack who knew Hebrew language. Altshuller had taken a few lessons from him, but quit these too, for not seeing a use of it.

Work in any kind of mining, manufacturing or construction offices is far from being creative. It mostly consists of calculating amounts of executed works and preparations of next ones. Works in Vorkuta camp weren't much different from slave works in Ancient Egypt. Only lifting of coal and people and borrowing blowing were more modern. The rest was manual and quite primitive. Coal was pushed manually in wheeled cars and transferred manually into bigger cars, which were pushed by horses, usually old and weak. Anyway, there were not enough even of these horses.

For some time, in a pause between solitaries, Altshuller worked with gravediggers. The cemetery was located a couple kilometers from the camp. Since there were not enough horses, the gravediggers pushed car with corpses along the only railroad leading to the camp. If a train appeared while they were on it, they had to throw the car with the corpses off the road and then to put it back on and to put the corpses back into it. Here Altshuller saw that the camp was literally "built on human bones" - he saw the layers of human bones under the railroad when they jumped off with the car like that.

In the conditions where manual work was a norm Altshuller didn't have real chances to apply his inventive skills. The office meetings were mostly dedicated to current problems like lack of materials and tools. The cheif engineer, who himself was a long time prisoner, usually opened these meeting by saying, "Let's skip the first suggestion and go straight to the second." The old "menshevik" (the one from the "bolshevik" opposition) Abramovich explained to Altshuller that by the "first suggestion" they all meant liquidation of the Soviet system. The second and other suggestions were related to that day problems. Never new technologies, automations or inventions were considered on these meetings. Five years spent in camp were actually stolen from Altshuller's life. Those were young years, when creative people usually are especially productive.

It was as difficult there to be a science fiction writer, which was another Genrick's passion, as to be an inventor. Altshuller resided in barracks, together with more than hundred of others. They slept in double-deck beds. People were of all kinds, mostly "25-yearers". In the barracks there was always extremely noisy. People played games, sung songs, yelled, fought. Not a creative environment. It took quite a long time for Altshuller to adjust and to be able even to think in such chaos.

He came up with a few science fiction ideas. Various resources - books, magazines, and references - were needed to make the ideas into stories. It was possible to order those through the warden, but Altshuller was not type of a person who would ask an enemy for a favor. Even a writing required permission from the warden. Thus, all the ideas were frozen until "better times".

Eventually, Stalin died. The news went through the GULAG camps and the prisoners quietly celebrated. (Some camp officers cried and it was dangerous to celebrate when they could see it.) Soon after that, an amnesty was declared for prisoners send to five years. In the entire Vorkuta camp where Altshuller was held there was only one person making such a short time. He was my college friend, V. Antonov, who introduced me to Altshuller later. The prisoners waited for a farther "warming". It was happening, step-by-step, the head of KGB, Beria, was arrested, and the hopes of the prisoners and their relatives grew up.

Then, R. Shapiro's father wrote a letter to Voroshilov, the chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Council of the USSR, requesting amnesty for his son. It triggered a process of reviewing of the Shapiro-Altshuller case. In 1954, they were send to Tbilisi, the town where the investigation started five years earlier.

When Altshuller was walked along the KGB corridor there, he met colonel Chernov. Genrich immediately declared a hunger strike requiring Chernov to be arrested. Probably, there was a lot of material there against Chernov - he really has been arrested soon. The upset warden showed a document about it to Altshuller and he aborted his strike. The book, "Adventures of an American in Russia" says, Chernov got 15 years and made all this time.

The review procedure started. Reviewing committee sat in a large room by a long desk. At the end of it, by two separate desks facing each other, sat Altshuller and Aba. He was the only witness. Aba showed Altshuller with a sign language that his 25 years are going to be reduced to 5. Altshuller showed back a finger.

The committee started with the first article of accusation, selling government secrets abroad. The witness repeated the old "facts", from memory. And - oh, miracle! - the committee didn't find there any criminal material. The second article - an attempt to cross the border under water. Here the committee figured out by itself that it was impossible with that invention. For the third article - anti-soviet propaganda - the witness couldn't remember most of his records, made more than five years earlier. He just said that Altshuller used to tell anti-soviet jokes, but could not remember them. The committee was ready to decide that without the contents it cannot qualify these jokes as being anti-soviet, but suddenly Altshuller said that he himself recalled one of them. The committee was disappointed and said to Altshuller that it's not necessary for him to remember, but Genrich was firm in having a right to tell this joke. It was this:

"Beria asked Eisenhower: "How do Americans hunt for tigers?" Eisenhower explained: "We send to jungle a thousand flying fortresses; they bomb the jungle; then we send there a thousand trucks and they bring back a thousand dead tigers." Beria replied: "It's too expensive; we do it simpler; we just get a thousand rabbits and all of them soon admit to being tigers."

For a moment there was a pause, and then, a burst of laughter. The committee decided to drop this article.

The fourth article, anti-soviet organization, was also found un-founded. The only remaining article of accusation was an unlawful keeping of a weapon. Here, the committee took in consideration that the revolver didn't have bullets, that it was a memory for a killed friend and that five years have passed, which was a maximum punishment for such a crime, and decided to drop this article as well.

All five articles of accusation were eliminated and Altshuller was freed on a lack of crime. Not "rehabilitated" (as some people write today), but let go as being unreasonably arrested. The same happened to Shapiro. They both signed documents of leaving Aba alone, who was forced to lie against them, received necessary papers, left the prison, and here by the prison gate, met up, after not seeing each other for five years.