When sent to the “box” [punishment cell], I would try to smuggle in a fragment of pencil lead, usually by hiding it in my cheek. Then I could spend my time drawing castles — on scraps of newspaper or directly on the floor and walls. I set myself the task of constructing a castle in every detail: from the foundations, floors, walls, staircases, and secret passages right up to the pointed roofs and turrets. I carefully cut each individual stone, covered the floor with parquet or stone flags, filled the apartments with furniture, decorated the walls with tapestries and paintings, lit candles in the chandeliers and smoking torches in the endless corridors. I decked the tables and invited guests, listened to music with them, drank wine from goblets, and lit up a pipe to accompany my coffee. We climbed the stairs together, walked from chamber to chamber, gazed at the lake from the open veranda, went down to the stables to examine the horses, walked round the garden — which also had to be laid out and planted. We returned to the library by way of the outside staircase, and there I kindled a fire in the open hearth before settling back in a comfortable armchair. I browsed through old books with worn leather bindings and heavy brass clasps. I knew what was inside those books. I could even read them.
This was enough to occupy me for my entire spell in the “box,” and still there were plenty of problems left over to solve the next time; it was not unknown for me to spend several days trying to decide on the answer to a single question, such as what picture to hang in the drawing room, what cabinets to put in the library, what table to have in the dining room. Even now, with my eyes closed, I can retrace that castle, in every detail. Someday I shall find it — or build it.
Yes, someday I shall invite my friends and we shall cross the drawbridge over the moat, enter these chambers, and sit at the table. Candles will be burning and music playing, and the sun will gradually set behind the lake. I lived for hundreds of years in that castle and shaped every stone with my own hands. I built it between interrogations in Lefortovo [a Moscow prison], in the camp lockup, and in the Vladimir punishment cells. It saved me from apathy, from indifference to living. It saved my life. Because one must not let oneself be paralyzed; one cannot afford to be apathetic — that is precisely when they put you to the test. It is only in sport that referees and competitors wait for you to reach your best form — records achieved that way are not worth a damn. In real life they make a point of testing you — to the limit — when you are sick, when you are tired, when you are most in need of a respite. At that point they take you and try to break you like a stick across their knees! And that’s the very moment, whilst you are still groggy, when the godfather, the KGB security officer, hauls you out of your cellar, or the political instructor invites you in for a chat.
Oh no, they won’t put it to you point-blank, suggesting that you collaborate. They need much less than that for now — just some trivial concessions. They simply want to accustom you to making concessions, to the idea of compromise. They carefully feel you out, to see if you’re ripe for it. Not yet? OK, go back to your cellar, there’s still plenty of time to ripen, they’ve got decades ahead of them.
Idiots! They didn’t know that I was returning to my friends, to our interrupted conversation before the fire. How were they to know that I was talking to them from my castle battlements, looking down on them, preoccupied more with how to fix the stables than with answering their stupid questions? Laughingly I return to my guests, firmly closing the massive oak doors behind me.
It is at moments when you lapse into apathy, when your mind grows numb and can think of nothing better to do than gloomily count the days till your release — it is precisely then that someone in the next cell is taken ill, loses consciousness, and collapses on the floor. You ought to hammer on the door and demand that a doctor be sent. In return for that hammering and commotion the enraged prison governor will undoubtedly prolong your stay in the punishment cell. So keep your mouth shut, shove your head between your knees, tell yourself you were asleep and heard nothing. What business is it of yours? You don’t know the man, he doesn’t know you, you will never meet. And you might very well not have heard.
But can a castle dweller permit such behavior? I lay my books aside, pick up a candlestick and go to the gate to admit a traveler who has been overtaken by bad weather. What does it matter who he is? Even if he’s an outlaw, he must warm himself at my hearth and spend the night under my roof. Let the storm rage outside the castle — it can never tear off the roof, penetrate the thick walls, or extinguish my fire. What can it do, the storm? Only howl and sob down my chimney.
Excerpted from To Build a Castle: My Life as a Dissenter, by Vladimir Bukovsky; translated by Michael Scammell. Copyright © 1979 by Vladimir Bukovsky. Reprinted by permission of the author.