Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Prisoner's Futile Pleas for Help In Dossier That Ends in Silence

From her cell in Butyrskaya Prison in Moscow, an American named Ruth Ikal wrote to Nikolai Yezhov, chief of the secret police, to ask for his help.

Arrested during the Stalinist purges, she had been held prisoner for six months. Her husband, Arnold, who had worked as a spy for the Soviet government, had also been arrested and would soon die in a Soviet prison camp. Secret police officials preserved her letter in their files. Here, edited for length, are her words.

June 6, 1938

Dear Comrade Yezhov,

I regret very much that I must trouble you, for I realize how very busy you must be. However, I am faced with problems which force me to ask your help. I beg your indulgence.

As you may know, I am the American wife of Arnold Ikal and not guilty of any crime, but merely the victim of circumstances. My family are in the United States, including my daughter. ... Both my parents suffer from ill health. My daughter is only eight years old. I last saw them on October 10th. They have heard that I am in prison but they do not know why. ... I am very anxious indeed to communicate with them to let them know that I am well.

The investigator has been most kind and tried very hard to make things as pleasant as possible for me and I therefore feel deeply indebted to him and the organization he represents. I have been shown such remarkable human understanding that for the first time I really feel proud to be a member of the human race. One does not meet such comradely love in the United States. I therefore hesitate to complain. ...

I last conversed with the investigator March 16th, almost three months ago. I am alone (which by the way I prefer), I have no books nor any other occupation. My occupation is thinking very unhappy thoughts. ... Would you please try to arrange a meeting between the Investigator and me, and I am very anxious to know if I may communicate with my folks. ...

There is another problem which I must come to you with. It is about conditions here on my floor with my attendants. They have some peculiar notion about me. I think they believe that I am guilty of some dastardly crime and bourgeois. ... They play tricks, bark at me, sneer and jeer, which I would overlook but they go further. They ... tamper with my food, ignore my requests and do so many, many mean little spiteful things. ...

Can I ask you how long I have to stay here? ... Not long ago the investigator promised to bring my daughter to me, and also some of my furniture. Do you know if that is still a promise?

I want to thank you again for everything you have done for me. When I felt my world fall out from under me, there were friends who gave me their help, which saved me from falling into despair and gave me the strength to face the future. It will always be in my memory, and will never disappear.

Sincerely yours,

Ruth Ikal

Twenty years later, in the late 1950s, Ruth Ikal was still asking if she could go back to New York. That is where her official file ends, her final fate left unrecorded.