Daily Archives: 14 April 2005

Russian Prison Tapping Code

Perhaps the most elaborate form of forbidden communication [in Russian prisons] was the prisoners’ Morse code, tapped on the walls of cells, or on the prison plumbing. The code had been devised in the Czarist era–Varlam Shalamov attributes it to one of the Decembrists. Elinor Olitskaya had learned it from her Social Revolutionary colleagues long before she was imprisoned in 1924. In fact, the Russian revolutionary Vera Figner had described the code in her memoirs, which is where Evgeniya Ginzburg had read about it. While under investigation, she remembered enough of the code to use it to communicate with a neighboring cell. The code was relatively straightforward: letters of the Russian alphabet were laid out in five rows of six letters:

А Б В Г Д Е/Ё
Ж З И К Л М
Н О П Р С Т
У Ф Х Ц Ч Ш
Щ Ъ Ы Э Ю Я

Each letter was then designated by a pair of taps, the first signifying the row, the second the position in the row:

1,1 1,2 1,3 1,4 1,5 1,6
2,1 2,2 2,3 2,4 2,5 2,6
3,1 3,2 3,3 3,4 3,5 3,6
4,1 4,2 4,3 4,4 4,5 4,6
5,1 5,2 5,3 5,4 5,5 5,6

Even those who had not read about the code or learned it from others sometimes figured it out, as there were standard methods of teaching it. Those who knew it would sometimes tap out the alphabet, over and over again, together with one or two simple questions, in the hope that the unseen person on the other side of the wall would catch on. That was how Alexander Dolgun learned the code in Lefortovo, memorizing it with the help of matches. When he was finally able to “talk” to the man in the next cell, and understood that the man was asking him “Who are you?” he felt “a rush of pure love for a man who has been asking me for three months who I am.”

SOURCE: Gulag: A History, by Anne Applebaum (Anchor Books, 2003), pp. 155-156

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