Helene Celmina. Women in Soviet Prisons
1 INSIDE THE CHEKA BUILDING
Try as one might, it would be difficult to find a Latvian, Lithuanian, Estonian, or an inhabitant of any of the other "brotherly" Soviet republics unfamiliar with the Cheka. Its name has changed several times: NKVD, MGB, and now KGB, but despite translations into the various national languages of the republics, it is usually called by its Russian initials CHEKA. Cheka is an acronym derived from the initials of the Russian words for "extraordinary commision." The full title of this body, established in December 1917, is the "All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-revolution, Speculation, and Sabotage." Since this elaborate title might suggest a more respectable institution, the use of the Russian initials eliminates any doubt. The infamous institution, known flippantly as "The Office" among the Chekists themselves, has local nicknames in the Latvian capital of Riga and in other cities and Soviet republics.
One of the oldest names four the Cheka in Riga is "Stabu iela," the former name of the street on which the main entrance is located. After World War II the street was renamed Fr. Engels Street and the nickname changed to the "Corner House." In Liepaja, a port city in Latvia, the Cheka was known as the "Blue Wonder," because it was housed in a bluish-grey building on Toma Street.
It is also safe to assume that no adult in the Soviet Union is ignorant of the functions of the Cheka, or of its great power. individual Chekists change; some retire, others replace them, occasionally one is fired. Sometimes methods of interrogating intimidating and obtaining confessions also change. Only the Cheka itself remains the same. It is, and continues to be, the one institution which can do with people as it pleases. There is no law or paragraph in the constitution which the Cheka cannot alter to suit its porpoises.
Also the Cheka is in the unique position of having authority over a number of government departments: the ministry of the interior, the ministry of justice, the ministry of commerce, the port authority, customs, the department of tourism (known as the Intourist), etc. Actually, to describe in detail the activities of the Cheka, or to enumerate its cases and procedures, would produce the world's largest publication, requiring a truck-load of paper. The reader would need strong nerves.
What sort of individual works for the Cheka? Originally, judging from events and known facts, Chekists were handpicked sadists, often lacking legal training. Later, when Khrushchev came to power, torture and corporal punishment were forbidden in the Soviet Union. After exposing Stalin's despotism and villainy Krushchev was anxious to avoid negative criticism. Moreover, he wished to appear the opposite of Stalin and to take no more political prisoners. Thus, corporal punishment was officially abolished and political prisoners were renamed "extremely dangerous state criminals."
However, the Cheka continued to work in an altered style. People were arrested and kept in the inner prison of the Cheka. The smiling interrogator questioned, complimented, and occasionally, even flattered prisoners. Flattery obtained confessions faster than beatings had; though, frankly, confessions were unnecessary, because people were condemned without them. Nor were sentences lighter Prison guards and their superiors consider sentences up to five years no penalty at all.
In recent years the educational level of the Chekists has risen considerably. The Cheka selects graduates from law schools who have flawless records and family backgrounds. Such an intelligent Chekist does not feel sympathetic towards another intelligent person who reaches the Cheka as a "criminal." The Chekist will not humiliate and degrade the interrogee, but will talk to the person as an equal, and record everything useful for the writing of the indictment. This method of interrogation is dangerous since one reveals his innermost thoughts easily when lured into a friendly conversation.
Everyone in Riga recognizes the Cheka building from the outside. Anyone taken inside once or twice for interrogation remembers little of the interior, having been upset and in no condition to notice. In contrast, those who have "lived" in the Cheka building remember the inside precisely. The entrance to the "Corner House" leads directly into the screening office. Another door connects this small office with the inner rooms and hallways.
The summoned presents his or her notice at the screening office wicket and the attendant telephones the identity inside. The witness is taken upstairs in the elevator to the sixth floor where witnesses, suspects, as well as those already arrested, are "received." Since someone once jumped through the window to his death, the windows have been barred.
A common quip:
Q: "What is the highest building in Riga?"
A: "The Corner House. From the sixth flour, you can see Siberia!"
The Cheka building is laid out in a square, enclosing a quadrangle courtyard. On two sides, at the pavement level, small barred windows face the courtyard. Viewed from the inside, the windows are at the ceiling level. These are the inner isolation cells. Other isolation cells face the other direction where, enclosed by the Cheka building and a high brick wall, lies a small exercise yard, about ten steps below the street and courtyard level. Those taking their walks are unable to see into the isolation cells, as the windows are high when viewed from the little yard.
Deep underground are the showers. When the guard took me down for the first time, I noticed, after descending a whole story underground, doors on both sides of the dimly lit hallway. Each door had a peep hole and a feeding window. I felt sick because at first I thought that people were imprisoned here. I wondered what kind of prisoners would be confined deep underground. All doors had heavy padlocks, coated with dust. Unnoticed by the guard who was opening the door to the showers, I touched the last padlock with my finger. My touch left a small, dark mark. Later, on every occasion I was taken past these doors, I observed the locks closely, giving special attention to "mine." There was no change. These cells were not used, but were kept in reserve. Nevertheless, in the years immediately after the war, these cells must have been overcrowded, for I heard descriptions of the Cheka's underground cells, in which fifty or more people stood upright day and night because there was no room to sit down.
A trip to the showers came once every ten days. Each time I was issued a small piece of black, foul-smelling laundry soap the size of a matchbox. While I washed, the guard sat in the next room with the door ajar, so she could observe. After the shower, clean sheets were issued and life went on.
Food for those arrested is prepared in the underground kitchen. The kitchen workers are trusted women prisoners, former party members, serving time for petty crimes, such as acceptance of bribes, misuse of position for personal gain, etc. Work in the kitchen is a position of great honor and trust which no other criminal can earn. Good work earns the women good references which open the door to better positions after release. Therefore the kitchen workers are highly motivated and outdo themselves pleasing the Cheka's inner-prison administration.
Food for prisoners in the preliminary interrogation isolation cells was prepared according to definite instructions. This food was incomparably better than that served in general prisons; bread, obtained from the local city bread store, was good. The soups from the Cheka's kitchen contained, apart from lard, potatoes, and other "goodies," large quantities of bay leaves so that the soups were sometimes bitter. Pepper was both expensive and virtually unobtainable on the free market, yet the Cheka used it generously; every bowl contained thirty to forty black peppercorns. Some fished the peppercorns out of their soup, dried and hid them, only to have them confiscated in the next search of their personal belongings. It was forbidden, they were told, to keep pepper in the cells. Who can fathom the Cheka's rules? It seemed, at times, that the guards did not know the rules themselves, or changed them arbitrarily.
Strictest secrecy was observed during the preliminary isolation period to prevent anyone learning who was in the other cells. These cells are not large. The smallest are the single cells which have barely enough room for the bed and the chamber pot-which is not meant only for night use. One cannot walk the length of the bed. On the wall is a shelf to hold a teapot and bread. Spare underclothing must be kept in the bed, either under the pillow or at the foot. To clean the floor, the bed must be lifted and leaned against the wall. There are also cells for two, three, or four occupants. Immediately after their arrest, prisoners are usually assigned a single cell.
The events of an arrest follow a prescibed sequence: Officers arrive at your home, show you the prosecutor's warrant, then ransack your house. You are put into a car and driven to the Cheka's guardroom. Your rings, watch and other personal effects are confiscated. You are thrown into a single cell, the door clangs shut, and you are alone. When a woman is arrested, a uniformed female comes into the cell, orders the prisoner to strip and searches her again. If anything had been missed in the initial search, such as a tiny cross on a chain, it must be surrendered. If the arrested person, for whatever reason, refuses to surrender the cross, she is taken out of the cell to the officer on duty where three men hold her while the fourth removes the cross.
Personal valuables confiscated by the Cheka are never returned. To ensure that the accused know they will never see their belongings again, the clause "with confiscation of property" is added to the verdict in court. This includes all real estate, household goods, and other movable property confiscated at the time of arrest. Anything held in storage for someone else is also seized at the time of arrest; once confiscated, no proof of possession is accepted. Third-party property is also lost.
Should the arrested person protest that he has been imprisoned without grounds, and ask for pen and paper to write a complaint to the procurator, the request is granted. Anyone may write daily to the local authorities of the Republic, as well as to Moscow. -These complaints and petitions are carefully read by the interrogator and deposited in some drawer. Rarely is a complaint allowed to reach the outside world.
In the preliminary isolation cells total silence is enforced. Since they can be used for communication, singing and loud talk are forbidden. To summon a prisoner for questioning, a guard opens the food window in the cell door and calls out the first letter of the prisoner's surname. The prisoner must answer, in a whisper, with his full surname. The door is unlocked and the prisoner is led along a green-carpeted hallway to a table holding the register. Entered in this log are the date and time of the prisoner's removal from his cell for interrogation, as well as the time of his return. The prisoner must sign the log under these entries. To prevent his seeing other signatures, a piece of cardboard with a hole large enough for his name is placed over the page at the appropriate spot. The guard holds the cardboard with both hands while the prisoner signs.
In the interrogator's room, the prisoner sits at his own table. The table is nailed to the floor on the right side, in the corner by the door. The interrogation office door can only be unlocked from inside with a key, although it opens from the outside without a key. This allows other interrogators or their superiors to enter during the process without undue disruption. The windows are barred to prevent any attempts at leaping out. It is virtually impossible to commit suicide at the Cheka.
The questioning procedure is unique. There is reason to believe that actual provable crimes seldom come up before the Cheka, so the interrogator must turn accusation into proven fact. Below are some examples:
Chekist: "You have written to your acquaintances abroad that someone you know has been arrested and sentenced to two years for attempting to cross the border."
Accused: "Yes, I did write that, and what is wrong with it? Two years isn't so long that I couldn't write about it."
Checkist: "How do you know he got a two-year sentence?"
Accused: "His wife told me."
Chekist: "How can you prove that his wife told the truth?"
Accused: "She told me everything in detail; she even cried. And later, when her husband served his sentence, I met him on the street and he told me himself."
Chekist: "That is no proof. They lied."
Accused: "They had no reason to lie to me."
Chekist: "You are proven guilty of spreading false information abroad."
Chekist: "During the search of your home, foreign magazines containing anti-Soviet articles were found. These magazines were kept openly where they were accessible to friends who visited you. You insist that you did not keep them for purposes of dissemination, yet anyone could take one and read it."
Accused: "But my friends could not have read them because they don't understand foreign languages. Besides, they haven't shown any interest in them."
Chekist: "How can you say they don't know any foreign languages?"
Accused: "Because I've known them long enough to know that they don't know any foreign languages."
Chekist: "How can you prove that?"
Accused: "If you ask them, they will tell you themselves."
Chekist: "They can say that they don't, but may actually speak several other languages. Can you prove that they don't?"
Accused: "I can swear that they don't, but of course I can't prove it."
Chekist: "Fine, that's all that we need. You can't prove a thing, but you are making a claim."
In this manner, routinely, the guilt of the accused is proved. Each interrogation is an exercise in madness and the Chekist is a madman. It is obvious that the accused has spoken the truth; however, despite the lack of hard evidence, the Chekist must draw up the indictment. Producing facts to substantiate crimes takes time and patience. It is not easy to manufacture crimes where there are none. By law all cases must be completed within two months, but in actuality most investigations drag on for a year or more. Those Chekists who excel in proving non-existent crimes become diplomats. For example Andris Trautmanis, the former Cheka interrogator in Riga, went on to become an ambassador to East Germany.
The Cheka has yet another, although seldom used, method of conducting interrogations: by injection. The drug is probably expensive, or the Cheka would use is more often. In one case, the Cheka in Riga arrested several people on currency charges. This case warranted special attention because the accused used gold. In order to discover the location of the gold, the accused was given an injection. He confessed. Back in his cell, he told his cellmates in total disgust. A few days later the same accused as summoned again. He was a Jew of pensionable age, and the Chekists, suspecting the existence of more gold, gave him another injection. He had nothing left to tell. Back in his cell he complained of illness. Shortly afterwards, he died. His unfinished case was marked: "Hearings against Blumenaus discontinued, owing to Blumenaus's death."
Let me relate another example of currency crime:
The accused, Gutman, was quite old, and his life story was tragic. He came from Jekabils, a small provincial town in Latvia. His family was shot during the German occupation when he was on business in Russia. After the war, he returned to his birthplace to see if anything remained of his father's estate a house and a jeweler's business in Jekabpils. He went to the father's house, now inhabited by strangers, and found his father's gold hidden in the attic. He remarried, had a daughter, and it seemed that nothing could cast a shadow on the happiness of the new family.
Gutman was earning an average salary of eighty rubles a month, about $120.00. Eighty rubles is not enough to live on, no matter how thrifty the family. The child grew; their needs grew. The girl was gifted in music, and since she was studying at the Em. Darzins music academy, she needed a piano.
Several times a year Gutman took one or two gold bars to a jeweler he knew and asked him to make a bracelet or cigarette case. He paid for the work, but sold the finished article. It never occurred to him that he was committing a crime. He had stolen from no one. The gold was his father's, and since his father was dead, the gold now belonged to him.
Eventually Gutman was betrayed. The interrogator told him to expect severe punishment and confiscation of all property. He knew that he could expect a sentence of fifteen years and had no hope of ever seeing his daughter again; he was already over sixty and under prison conditions fifteen years is a long time. He received permission to write to the director of the music academy, asking for an evaluation of the child's musical ability as well as confirmation of the need for a piano. The director sent a report of the girl's unusual talent, addressed to "the most honorable chairman of the court," with a request to exempt the piano from the confiscation list. In their view the piano was absolutely essential for the girl. As she was only ten years old and had committed no crime, why should she suffer?
The "most humane court in the world" refused the request. Zimins, judge of the Supreme Court of the Latvian Socialist Republic, found Gutman guilty of currency crimes, sentenced him to fifteen years in a corrective labor camp, and confiscated his property.
A prisoner Zbrizher, tried at the same time, was sentenced to seven years of corrective labor and eight years of exile. In preparation for emigration from the Soviet Union, Zhrizher sold everything he owned, including some gold, and bought a sixteen-carat diamond necklace for his wife. Zbrizher's wife testified in court that she thought the necklace was quartz, for which the humane court gave her two years in prison. The diamond necklace was confiscated for the benefit of the state.
Many Soviet citizens do not know even now that surplus gold must be surrendered to the authorities, since it is forbidden to possess or sell even one gold coin. If an old woman takes a five-ruble coin from the days of Tsar Nicholas from her mattress to sell as dental gold, she dares not let anyone know. Otherwise, it means more work for the Cheka, a lengthy sentence four her, and confiscation of her property.
However unbelievable, this is the Soviet reality. It is the same with foreign currency: To buy twenty dollars from a foreigner is a crime punishable by three years in a prison and confiscation of all property. On the other hand, gifts of foreign currency from visiting relatives, are permitted. Actually, currency operations are considered criminal offenses, the concern of the militia, the ordinary Soviet police, rather than of the Cheka. However, because the Cheka does not trust the militia cases relating to currency go through the Cheka. Presumably the Cheka thinks that currency, especially dollars, could be connected with espionage. Any goods from abroad can be interpreted as payment for espionage.
Chekists presume, too, that it is difficult to learn a foreign language, and can be done only with the Party's recommendation, at special educational institutions. Applications for the entrance examinations to Moscow's Institute of International Relations are accepted only from those with a character reference from their local Komsomol committee (Young Communists League), as well as an affidavit from their city's executive committee. The examinations are taken only by those who have approval and a special testimonial from the Cheka.
Any Soviet citizen who tries to learn a foreign language on his own immediately draws the attention of the Cheka which wants to know why he is learning the foreign language. They already consider him a potential spy. If a person fluent in one or more foreign languages meets officials from abroad, diplomats, journalists, or jurists, the Cheka considers him a spy. And if the foreigner gives him a souvenir-a cigarette lighter, a book, or a record album, the act of espionage is proved. The Cheka has only to be informed for the machinery to carry this person to his fate.
Court, Trial, and Sentencing
When the Cheka completes the preliminary investigation, the evidence is presented to the accused in the interrogator's office. The testimony of all the witnesses is included. Witnesses summoned to the Cheka to answer questions about friends and acquaintances require great presence of mind to prevent their testimony from being distorted beyond recognition. If the witness fails to recognize his testimony in court, he is called to the bench and asked: "Is this your signature?" The witness, confused and anxious, is obliged to recognize his signature, but it is too late to protest that his testimony has been twisted.
The next person to he acquainted with the evidence, after the accused, is the procurator. Not every procurator has the right to deal with the cases fabricated by the Cheka, which has its own trusted procurators to deal with these cases.
The trial in court is the final, albeit insignificant, step. It is a mere formality, to which neither the public nor family members are admitted in the cases of especially dangerous state criminals. No one, not even a father or mother can learn on what charges their son or daughter has been convicted. Only when the sentence has been served, should they be fortunate enough to meet again, can the family learn what happened. Often parents die of grief, never knowing what became of their children.
Usually the accused are held in the Cheka's inner prison until the judgment is pronounced. Rare exceptions are prisoners who become ill enough to require hospital care. These are taken to court from the prison hospital. After sentencing prisoners must leave the Cheka. In Riga this meant transfer from the Cheka to the Central Prison, Unit 4, which contained the holding cell for transport prisoners. The next step was to the railway cars. The prisoner transport to the "strict regime" corrective labor camps takes a month. Those convicted of "anti-Soviet propaganda" or "treason against the homeland" are destined for camps with specially chosen guards and strict censor-ship of letter content. There are no such camps in Latvia.