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The Last Insurgent  The Last Insurgent
by Bohdan Yuri
2017-07-23 10:26:28
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Ivan Kohut was the last insurgent at Nezkva prison. He was caught early in the spring of 1945, while still sighing from not having to fight the Germans as well. A concussion grenade knocked him out, he was 32. Fortunately, Ivan had no family to speak of; therefore, the flesh-eating interrogation did not call on any innocent victims.

They had tried to obtain information on the movements of the UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army), but Ivan knew little about the Army's command decisions, he had been a private. However, what small bits of information he did possess, such as the names of his comrades, became as precious to him as did his own heartbeat. It was in his measure to carry gracefully that burden to his grave. Now, thirty-seven years later, the secrets are forgotten, as one forgets his first misplaced walk. Yet, with each new step, Ivan had mapped a plan by which he would die……his final step.

ukr01_400Tomorrow morning at precisely seven o'clock, Ivan Kohut was to be hanged in front of the prison's full complement. The prison commandant, Col. Radkov, had promised to savor the moment to its fullest. He even had new gallows built to replace those which had worn neglect from disuse.

Miroslav Novotny, 19 years old and with a clean face that was gently freckled with fast fading innocence, rested at his post. He knew nothing of the shadows which carve illusions into the way of living. He was assigned to Nezkva only three months ago. Before that, he was in boot camp. He had heard stories about prison duty -- how it soaks tears into hatred for those responsible for such duty, the prisoners; how time is measured twice, delaying its pace. It was a duty that no one wanted. However, except for the stagnating stench, Miroslav didn't mind the duty that much. The routine was stale and bitter, but it was better than fighting in Afghanistan, he reasoned.

There were no windows in the "coffin", the east wing. Those cells housed the unstated executions. It was a place for those wanted dead. Except for Kohut, all of its occupants had died off within a month or two.

Kohut had lasted almost two years. Still, Miroslav could not understand what it was that made the prisoner in Cell 3 so special. Even the other guards talked of his impending fate as a sign of easier times ahead for them.

Through the thick stone wall Miroslav could pick up faint hammering sounds from the outside. The carpenters were putting the finishing touches on the new scaffolding. Col. Radkov wasted no time, twenty hours from the moment the orders were finally approved, to their execution.

Miroslav wondered if Radkov would let Kohut hang for two full days as he had promised. The thought of that sent a slight tremor throughout the young guard's callow marrow. He checked his watch -- another hour before being relieved.

Suddenly a shapeless whimper sneaked out from Cell 4, Miroslav grabbed the keys and stood by the door, awaiting a second call. He knew what had to be done to ensure death's silent watch. It was an unwritten law that dared not be disobeyed. The second cry followed.

Miroslav reached for the club and unlocked the door. He opened it, blinding Zenon Chupenko, a young nationalist who had already spent seven of his 26 years in prison. To him the light meant only one thing, since he had already eaten his meal that day. He raised his arms to cover the light and its savage blows.

Miroslav aimed his club at the side of the head, bypassing Chupenko's pitiful barricade. Another blow to the head followed, then another, until Chupenko lay still, a part of his shoulder propped against the damp stone wall. Miroslav gave the usual warning before leaving the cell. He leaned to the side of the door after locking it and drew a deep round of relief. Chupenko had a habit of talking in his sleep, nevertheless……

As the heavy breathing subsided, Miroslav became ill. He pinched his nose and twisted each side, but could not loosen its bitter net. He could still smell it -- the wasted remains of one's soul was everywhere. Most of the other guards were used to it, but for Miroslav, it was the smell of death, stretching its sour foulness into each corner of the corridor.

Miroslav wiped the blood and pieces of flesh off the club and hung it back on the wall. At least it was quiet again. He walked slowly to his desk and eased himself into the chair. He knew that in the end time will show mercy. Each new day was slowly hardening his linings. He checked his watch again, still almost a half hour to go. His eyes closed and fled to the white-capped mountains in Czechoslovakia, his homeland, and the fresh scent of snow. This will be his first winter away.

Miroslav stopped off at the mess hall for a cup of tea and indulged heavily into his newly acquired addiction, cigarettes.

Savilev, one of the other guards, had given Miroslav a pack when he first arrived, "to help rid the smell," he advised Miroslav. It didn't help. He smoked half a pack before heading to his barracks.

The wood stove inside the barracks quickly erased the misty dampness that followed Miroslav from the outside. Summer dissolves quickly in the northern region of the Gulag archipelago. Within a month winter will begin to show off its bitter edge.

Inside, the befriended faces of Miroslav's fellow soldiers were already engaged in familiar routines, waiting for lights out. Victor, a Muscovite who seldom rehearses a thought, was leaning towards the mirror, trimming his mustache. Next to Miroslav he had been at Nezkva the shortest period of time, only seventeen months.

Across the aisle, near the bathroom, Bykov sat on his bunk polishing his boots. He had been at Nezkva the longest, almost nineteen years. On the bed next to his, Petrov and Savilev were playing cards. Most of the others were lying in their bunks. Miroslav undressed.

"So, how did the old bastard decide to spend his last day in our fine hotel?" asked Victor, between snips.

"Well, uh, I didn't really notice anything out of the ordinary," replied Miroslav, disappointed that he could not produce a satisfying highlight. "He was quiet all night. I only looked in on him once when I made my early rounds. He seemed the same, sitting next to his latrine bucket."

Petrov studied the cards in his hand, then folded them, signaling to Savilev that the game was ending. "Some of the prisoners are saying that the old codger will have something up his sleeve for tomorrow. They say, that a man who has ‘primed his soul on lionized legends’ will not cry defeat so easily. And yes, it's as if they too can't wait for it to be over." he said.

"Neither can I," sounded Victor across the aisle. "I'll be glad when he's gone." Then, carrying his scissors with him, Victor walked over to the others. He propped his right foot on Savilev's bed, leaned forward and continued. "And I'll tell you something else," he added, motioning with his scissors as if to threaten, “Radkov better start easing off on us after tomorrow or he'll have Victor Sankin to deal with."

"Listen to the brave mouth," said Petrov sarcastically. "Last month he was so polite to the Colonel I thought I’d have to stick my head into a latrine bucket just to get a fresher scent."

"Hey," Victor hastily responded. "Being the Colonel's replacement orderly for a day is better than tending to the misery of those ghouls. I just wanted to make sure that the Colonel would not hesitate to call on me for any future service. That doesn’t mean that I still can't despise the man."

"Victor never forgave the Colonel for cancelling a two-day pass into town," said Savilev, directing his explanation towards Miroslav.

"It happened a while back, before you had arrived. That particular weekend, Victor's girlfriend ran off with a railroad inspector from Leningrad. Now Victor has nothing to warm his thoughts."

"Hell, it wasn't our fault that Kohut decided to sing out his national anthem on that day," said Victor.

"That's when the 'coffin' became silent," explained Savilev.

"Yeah, the whole prison was singing it, even the non-Ukrainians," added Victor. "We tried clubbing him but, every time he'd regain consciousness, he would start to sing again. Like it was some kind of a signal that he was still alive. What a mess he was the next day. Still, it was all Kohut's fault -- and our stinking Colonel's."

“I don't know what kept him going," said Savilev, respectfully.

"He was much stronger then.”

“The man's a fanatic, a lunatic. That's the only explanation," said Victor. "Bykov says that ever since Kohut arrived here there's been nothing but trouble. Isn’t that right, Bykov?" The old soldier stopped buffing his reflection and turned towards the others. "Go ahead, tell Miroslav what you told us," Victor demanded.

Bykov carried his boot as he slowly stepped into the aisle, stopping next to Miroslav. A tall man with greying hair, Bykov seldom slouched his crusty frame because of fate's misfortune. He spoke slowly, beginning with his own predicament as a warning. "Boy, if you don’t want to spend the rest of your life here, don't ever play around with an officer's wife…”

 "Yeah, yeah, he's told that to all of us," interrupted Savilev.

 "Yeah, as if they were the only women in town," added Victor. "Get on with the story, old man. Tell him about the time Kohut tried to escape from here five times in one day.”

 "As many times as you've heard it, none of you know it," Bykov told them before continuing his lesson to Miroslav. He concluded, “…unless you're anxious to begin death. When you become a prisoner to death, that's when your true character begins to unfold.”

 Miroslav looked into Bykov's deep eyes but failed to comprehend the concealed nuances that Bykov had intended. "How could a person try that many escapes in one day?" Miroslav asked instead.

 Bykov, feeling no responsibility for any misinterpretation, began his tale: "It happened about a year after he had arrived," he explained.

"By that time all the guards were fully aware of Kohut's troublemaking activities at the other prisons. So, he was being closely watched during the morning meal. Suddenly, Kohut stood up. One of the guards ran up to him, ready to use his club. But Kohut had convinced the guard that the Colonel had ordered Kohut to give his meal to the Colonel's dog. They all believed him, probably because they were afraid to disobey the Colonel's orders. No one had ever used such a crazy excuse before.

“Anyway, Kohut managed to get as far as the flagpole before Sgt. Groyko stopped him with a rifle butt to his knees and head. Then, as they were dragging him towards the sweat box, Kohut sprung up and ran. Caught everyone by surprise. He managed to climb over the wire fence before they, caught him again. Another clubbing, only this time they made sure that he was unconscious.

“Later that day, the man was finally let out of the sweat box, with all the prisoners as his audience. I remember, it was one of the hottest days of the summer. When he stepped out, bent over by a distorting grip, I could not help but notice his eyes. There was a strange blackness in the man's soul. I can still picture it, as if he no longer thought with mortal threads anymore.

That look is gone now, but I know it's still somewhere inside him, ready to surface again," Bykov paused briefly, staring at the glossy reflection in his boots. "When they were taking him back to the barracks," Bykov continued,

"Kohut saw a laundry truck parked near the boiler house. He tried to break free again, in the direction of the truck. Only, this time there was no strength left, it probably surprised even him that his body had suddenly betrayed him. When the Colonel saw what Kohut had tried, he ordered that the prisoner be tied up. And one of the men administered fifty lashes. We all watched the whip cut deep into his knobby back. He had the darkest blood I'd ever seen.

“Finally he was returned to the prisoner’s barracks, unconscious once again. Keeps the other prisoners in line, you know, to see what can be done to them as well…”

“And us as well,” chided Savilev.

“…Anyway, we thought that would be the end of it, at least for that day.

But the next thing we know, one of the sentry posts spots Kohut crawling along the compound, barely able to see through the blood where he was going. Got out through the air duct. That's when we used the storehouse as a temporary barracks because of the fire."

"The man must have no fear of pain," said Victor. The envy was clear to the others.

"Better yet, it doesn't bring him down," added Savilev with an even greater jealousy.

"Another whipping," continued Bykov. "Fifty more lashes. We were all rousted out of bed at three in the morning to watch. This time, the man was bled dry. And yet," a disbelieving chuckle moved Bykov to shift his head from side to side, "he somehow managed to be missing from his bunk in the morning. We caught him in back, next to the latrine buckets. There was a loosened floorboard next to him."

"I still don't think that the last one was actually an escape attempt, you told us that he was unconscious when you found him," Petrov argued. “The other' prisoners probably moved him there.”

"Then why would Kohut have a sharpened spoon in his hand?" countered Bykov, "if not to try an escape? Probably passed out before he could do anything. Too bad."

  "Still, I can't buy it," said Petrov, unconvinced. "Don’t worry, I'll come up with a good explanation before I leave this place.”

“After that,” continued Bukov, “Kohut was nailed into the ‘coffin’ and the colonel also got rid of his dog the next day. Someone said that he fed it to the prisoners. But no, Petrov is right. The inmates do expect Kohut to go out with style. They don't act up as much anymore, but Kohut still holds their respect. It's in his nature. He's all they have left to fight with."

"But why didn't the Colonel get rid of Kohut when he first started his troublemaking?" asked a puzzled Miroslav. "Why wait until now to execute him?"

"Because at the time, Kohut had managed to give his name somewhat of a reputation," explained Bykov. "It seems that one of those Western activist groups had heard about his small 'triumphs' at the other prisons, and they had decided to adopt him as a cause. The Co1onel had to wait until all the hoopla had died down. It did finally."

"What do you think he'll do tomorrow'?" asked Victor.

"Probably nothing,” replied Bykov. "Maybe say a few words, if he can still remember how to talk. But whatever he does, it'll certainly be his final farewell. In fact, I'm not even sure if the other prisoners will even be able to recognize him. He's changed a great deal since they'd seen him last."

"Yeah, those hunger strikes made him look like a skeleton," said Victor. "I hear that the Colonel ordered a gag on his mouth, as well. Doesn't want to take any chances, I suppose."

"Then it'll be harder for Kohut," confirmed Bykov before returning to his own bunk. He arranged his boots at attention, next to his footlocker, then ducked under the covers without saying another word.

The others soon separated as well. Miroslav made a trip to the toilet before retiring. The sergeant walked in at precisely ten o'clock and shut the lights off. He didn't stay. What remained was floodlit fragments scattering ghostly mosaics of their place. The patterns clung sharply throughout the continuing wall of darkness, as each man carried a dreamy ritual that would break with the morning call.

The light crept slowly, with subtle aches that craved for more rest. The morning mist preceded the grey curtain. It hung on, floating in spacious confinement. The guards carried out their duties, assembling inmates into the transition.

Colonel Radkov poured an extra ration of vodka into his tea. He took a sip before stirring the mixture. The burning in his throat was neither irritable nor savory, merely an added muffler for the chilling execution of command. He continued reading the Moscow paper, a day late. Petro, the Colonel's orderly, removed the dirty dishes from the table, carefully, so as not to intrude on the Colonel's thoughts. When the table was cleared, Petro stood by the door, holding the colonel's hat and overcoat.

Petro rarely spoke unless spoken to first. Radkov liked that quality in an orderly, it made for a proper relationship. Radkov himself, was a man of few words.

Col. Radkov checked his watch, then gulped down the remainder of his tea. He stood up and wiped his sleeve across his mouth, then tucked down his uniform over his stocky frame. It was his dress uniform, seldom worn anymore except on national holidays. It flashed proudly with a full array of medals, including the one that Stalin himself had pinned on his chest, for bravery during "The Siege".

Five years at Nezkva, then a quick promotion to the Division Staff in Moscow. That's what they had promised him. Only, he hadn't counted on Kohut's arrival during the third year. Radkov's personal record suffered. There was a growing disfavor in the eyes of the Special Division. He wondered if it still wasn't too late to reverse the trend.

Petro held the coat open then handed Col. Radkov his cap. The Colonel brushed his short grey hair with his thick hand and set the cap squarely on his head, with one hand letting go along the folded rolls at the back of his head, grown softer with age. The orderly picked up the gloves off the table stand and held them out as he opened the door for the Commandant.

Col. Radkov grabbed the gloves and stepped outside. He was immediately greeted by Lt. Shakar, a young officer from Georgia.

"The men are assembled, sir," Lt. Shakar was quick to inform his Commandant, who was fitting his gloves over his hands.

"Very Well, Lieutenant,” a final tug on the gloves, “Well, let's get our Mr. Kohut so the day can begin," replied Col. Radkov. The two men crossed the compound in the direction of the east wing, in full view of the waiting inmates and their guards. A hidden smile, the kind that holds the final card, spun its gay fiber through the Commandant's face. This was to be his day, at last. And everybody knew it.

Inside the east wing, two soldiers and a sergeant stood at attention in front of the door to Cell 3. The Colonel motioned for the door to be opened as soon as he entered the corridor. He took out a folded handkerchief in anticipation of covering the smell.

He had rehearsed his final words to Kohut countless times, not sure which he would actually use until the moment.

 Without hesitating, Radkov walked into the chamber, stopping at a preconceived mark. But the scene was not what he had anticipated.

"Bring a light in here," ordered the Colonel. Lt. Shakar quickly obeyed, grabbing a lantern from the sergeant's hand. He rushed into the cell. The added light left no doubt.

The young officer fought the urge to sneak a glance at the Colonel's face.

He knew that his Commandant's eyes were afire, bursting with rage. Instead, the Lieutenant bent over the former prisoner, holding the light above him, so that the Colonel could see clearly. He moved Kohut's head from side to side.

"He must have cut his throat, sir," He told the Colonel, leaving the wound exposed, it’s well dry. The dark red blood had soaked the prisoner’s tattered shirt, finding an honorable rest somewhere beneath the filthy floor. It had left a sharp signal in its wake.

The Lieutenant spotted the nearly full latrine bucket. There was blood along the rim. He, walked over and ran his finger his along the jagged edge. "He must have filed it down and used it to tear into his vein, sir," the Lieutenant deduced. “But why the neck, a wrist would have sufficed?”

The Colonel, his soul empty said nothing. He looked back at the guards who were whispering to each other. Before the young officer could command discipline, the Colonel turned and startled the Lieutenant before walking out. “Think, you fool, slit throat implies his MURDER!”

“Someone will pay for this," Col. Radkov informed the men as he continued walking. "I promise you!”

The Lieutenant followed, letting go of the lantern before rushing to keep pace with his commandant.

The Colonel hesitated at the main door, allowing the young officer to catch up. “Get me the names of the guards last night,” the Colonel added before stepping outside, where the wind still flowed on rested gears, delivering hollow traces from the north of what was yet to come.

Radkov unfolded his handkerchief and cleared his nose. He looked beyond the anxious faces, at the gallows with its virgin smell.

"Leave the prisoner in his cell for two days," he told his young officer. "We'll let the rats feast on him before bringing him out for display." Turning to Shakar, he added, “Bring in a few hungry ones.”

"Yes, sir," said the Lieutenant, “Shall I substitute another prisoner for the hanging, sir'?" he asked, favoring his duty.

"There'll be no hanging today," the Colonel replied, counting in his mind the anticipated steps leading up to the rope. "Tell the men this morning that, for not being……No, for not, having the courage to stand up and face his execution when ordered to…… Better, tell them that the job is already done. That the rats had started eating him during the night"

Then, lowering his head slowly, he added, "Besides, he probably wasn't heavy enough to hang anyway."

The Colonel stayed back as the Lieutenant carried out his orders. He knew what the prisoners really thought and eventually they’ll all find out the truth anyway, but not right now. Not in front of everybody.

If only a man’s spirit did not have a name or a face by which to measure its worth, its courage. Maybe the rats will at least take care of his face, he hoped.

Within the ranks, Bykov let go a slightly twisted smile as he received the news. To his left was Victor, who immediately expressed his displeasure. "Well, there go our weekend passes into town," he complained.

“Better worry more about the dark days ahead,” Bykov warned. “This will be a hard winter. Only the strongest will not bear its nagging scars from Radkov’s wrath."

Victor looked up at the grey sky and said, "Can't be any worse than the winters in Moscow." Bykov' didn't bother to respond as the soldiers marched the prisoners into the mess hall, resuming their daily routines.

Miroslav turned to Bykov and asked, “So what do you think really happened…?”

The end


     
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