Helene Celmina. Women in Soviet Prisons
Most of the Lithuanians worked in the sewing section. Some important people were visiting the camp. They came to inspect the sewing section, but on leaving they asked whether there were complaints. Whoever initiated the question must have regretted it later, for as soon as it was heard above the buzz and racket of the sewing machines the prisoners complained in one voice about the camp shop. Having received no deliveries for over a month, the shop had only envelopes and soap. The visitors, feeling that the situation was out of hand, edged toward the door. However several women deliberately blocked their path and complained loudly. The local administration ordered the women back to their tables and work, and promised that the next day the shop would have everything. It did not; not the next day, nor the day after, nor for the next several weeks.
After this incident a Lithuanian friend of mine, Birute, told me, "You can never trust these bastards who promise everything and deliver nothing. Earlier, when we were in the large camps in Siberia that housed over a thousand inmates, we were fed with promises only. Once we staged an uprising because of lack of food. We couldn't take it any longer. We started with talks. When that didn't help, we threatened not to work. While the administration telephoned for the troops, we collected all the rocks we could find and barricaded ourselves behind beds and mattresses. While the Army fired on us unarmed women, four of us crawled along the roof. Others handed us rocks, which we threw at the soldiers. When the uprising was over two of us climbed down from the roof, the other two were carried off, badly wounded. They both died. Altogether six inmates were killed, and scores were wounded."
"In our zone the administration immediately picks up and pockets any stone that could be sharpened. I've noticed it several times, and could never figure out why. Now it makes sense."
"After uprisings like ours, an order was issued for all camps to pick up stones in the zone. Uprisings still happen, hut only in the large camps. They wouldn't dare torture the inmates with hunger in a large camp."
Then I asked, "Why weren't you released after the 1956 Commission? Were there dead bodies in your case?"
"There were, but not in that sense. It was horrible, and I can still see it. I was a student at the Medical Institute. When the Chekists came to the institute in broad daylight to arrest me in 1950, I had no idea what they were up to. When I was taken into the professor's room, he was lying on the floor, dead. I was only a suphomore and did not understand anything. I couldn't take my eyes off the professor lying on the floor. A narrow trickle of blood Curled from the corner of his mouth down his neck, and formed a dark red pool. Suddenly the youngest Chekist leaped on the professor's chest and jumped up and down like an ape. Each jump caused wheezing and roaring sounds to come from the dead man's throat. So many years have passed but I still remember that horrible scene. That was the body in my case."
"What happened afterwards?"
"After the jumping ape finished, I was taken downstairs to a prisoner's van. I don't know if you realize, but in 1956 an inmate's character was extremely important to the commission. The administration of each camp had to prepare character descriptions, so they were forced to use professional traitors to supply information. The main informer in our camp was Masha Saltykova, whose crime was so serious that she had no hope of parole. For that reason she showed no mercy against anyone she didn't like; me for example, because I told her to face that her informing is a big sin. Even now Masha goes into the commandant's room at night to pass information."
"Yes, I was warned during my first week not to say anything about myself to her because everything I said would be known by the commandant the next day. My first day here Masha said that we should get better acquainted. She gave me a whole pack of Sever cigarettes and said there were plenty more where that came from. The same night, as everyone rushed to dinner, I went to the section to get my spoon and ran into Masha who asked me to eat at her place, and joked that I'd have enough time to become familiar with government issue dinners. I was confused and Masha, as though she were an old friend, took me by the hand and led me to her bed. She told me to sit down while she rummaged in her little closet. She took out a loaf of bread, a knife, an opened can of sprats, and a brand new can of salmon. I was really amazed, and she explained that her sister brought her the food. She opened the canned salmon and told me to eat. I finished off the sprats, and had a piece of the salmon. While she was putting away the salmon I went for tea. She served expensive chocolates with the tea. I mentioned that her sister seemed to be making a lot of money. Masha shylyy added that she only did it couple times a year. She didn't ask me anything much, only what I was in for. Please tell me about the spy schools."
"Masha knows what she's doing. She graduated from two spy schools. She finished the first spy school during the war in Leningrad and was sent to Germany where she was captured. Immediately she enrolled in a spy school with the Abwehr-the German intelligence bureau. All of the students were Russian prisoners of war brought together by Canaris. It was a famous spy school even before the war."
"So, she was a double agent. How did Masha trip herself up?"
"When the war ended, she was in Czechoslovakia and returned to her mother's in Leningrad with some made-up story. She married an admiral and everything was fine. Then one night Masha was at the theater with her husband and a former officer recognized her. This officer knew everything because a Russian prisoner managed to send information on Masha while still in Germany. That's why she couldn't be released by the 1956 Commission."
"How old is she?"
"She's forty-seven. She was already thirty-three when she was arrested. She will certainly be paroled, there's no doubt abut that. She's telling on everybody, from the guards up to the big chiefs. She once turned in a section head who bought a fur coat from an inmate in return for food. The section head disappeared and nobody ever heard from her again."
"Several women told me that any casually dropped remark might be a bonanza, material that can be used against you when it is your turn to be reported on."
From then on, my relationship with Birute was close, and I struck up friendly relations with the other Lithuanians and Estonians as well. One young Lithuanian even gave me a pair of earrings. A gift of earrings in a forced labor camp might sound strange, but she did not expect me to wear them or show them off in camp. She gave me the amber earrings so I would remember her.
A recent arrival, Ona, had graduated from an Institute of Physical Culture and was qualified to teach physical education in high schools. She was strong and volunteered to empty the latrines. No one wanted to do that work, yet to everyone's amazement a young girl with a higher education volunteered to do it. In the civilized world a tanker drives up and pumps the toilets empty. In the camps a small bucket was attached to the end of the long pole for scooping and pouring into a huge vat. A horse pulled the vat when filled to the gate where a trusted inmate took charge of emptying the vat. At six p. m. the inmates's freedom expired and he had to be back inside the zone and behind the barbed wire.
Ona probably knew that what she was doing would preserve her health. Emptying the latrines was done only twice a month, for a day-and-a-half. The rest of the lime she was off. She received a monthly bonus of three gallons of milk in addition to the monthly salary of twenty rubles. The milk was issued all at once, straight from the cow. The fresh milk did not keep for more than a day, nor when curdled, did it last for more than four. Naturally she did not finish off the three gallons by herself. Her friends received mugsfull.
One day Ona said, "I hear that you know several foreign languages. For several years I planned to travel. But everything fell apart. Now I'm here for six years. I was working in a Black Sea spa, teaching physical education as part of the therapy. A Russian who works in the Swedish embassy arrived for rest and recuperation. She had a Soviet passport validated for going; abroad. I noticed that she looked similar to me. So one morning when most of the guests were on a day-long bus excursion, the embassy-worker included, I went into her bedroom, opened the drawer of her bureau, and pocketed her passport. Within an hour I packed my bag and left the spa without being noticed. A couple of hours later I flew into Moscow and bought my ticket for Sweden, showing the passport. Everything went smoothly since the photo in the passport looked even more like me. Then the weather turned bad in Sweden, and the planes were not flying from Moscow to Stockholm."
"You must have been nervous counting the hours."
"Hours? I was counting the minutes, and then every second." Then Ona announced, with special emphasis, "Exactly six hours, fourteen minutes, and thirty seconds after the scheduled departure, they arrested me. Two young men in dark blue suits approached from two sides simultaneously. They Ripped out their badges and rattled off in unison, 'your papers!"
If the weather had not turned bad in Sweden, Ona would not be emptying the latrines in camp #17-A in Mordovia. As I found out later, in the men's zones this chore was normally carried out by people with higher educations, too. It was an occupation for professionals.
I was introduced to a quiet, retiring Lithuanian, sentenced for nationalism. She was a middle-aged woman, a teacher by profession. She did not speak much and never told anyone about herself. She greeted everybody, however, who crossed her path. The only thing anyone knew about her was that she was allowed to receive letters and small parcels once a year from relatives in the United States containing items such as soap and writing materials. She spent her free time walking back and forth along the fence on one side of the camp, barely keeping the prescribed minimum distance from the barbed wire. She trampled a regular footpath, walking winter and summer, rain or shine.
Another Lithuanian was scheduled to finish her ten-year sentence within a few days. She was deeply affected by this approaching event and felt both excitement and worry about what she would do when free. Leaving confinement was not a happy prospect if one did not have relatives or close friends waiting outside. Being expected and well-received was not as important as having a place to stay. Of equal gravity was the problem of registering one's passport. Returning inmates are not normally accepted for registration. The penalty for living without being registered, if no other crime has been committed, is a return to the camps for two or three years. Since this woman had no relatives to help during this difficult first stage, her anxiety was justified.
While we were discussing who did or did not have relatives, several stories came to light. Another Lithuanian, also in for twenty-five years, watched as a child from a barn loft as a mob of drunken Chekists drove into her family's yard, gathered the entire family of eight, shot them in cold blood and drove off laughing. The young girl, speechless with fear from witnessing the shooting of her parents, grandparents, brothers, and sisters, left everything and hid in the forest. She stayed in the forest alone, without food for several days.
After several days passed, she met some compatriots she knew. She lived with them until the Cheka and the Army surrounded the forest. Everyone living in the forest was arrested and automatically given twenty-five years, without question. Had the Cheka known she was a witness to their atrocities, they would have shot her without a trial. By remaining silent about her true reasons for being in the forest, the girl survived.
By the time I met her she was a middle-aged woman, her legs still badly scarred from the bullets received while the forest was encircled. She lived without joy, without her family. She had no hopes. The future no longer existed for her, only the past and the present. The most characteristic thing about her was the fact that she never spoke about her past or her lost family. The only ones who knew about her grim life were a few Lithuanian women to whom, during her first years of imprisonment, she talked about herself.
Some Estonians never spoke about their experiences, saying that their suffering was too heavy for them to discuss. Also, everyone had personal sorrows and problems, which were enough in themselves without hearing others speak of the pains that had wrecked their lives and the tortures that they had passed through. By telling others about their sufferings, they only relived the experiences without feeling better or easing their mind.
In a way they were right. On the other hand, if no one ever spoke others would never learn of the Cheka's cruelty. 'Pry as the Cheka might to hide and suppress these blotches on its honor, to change events that had taken place, or to even deny that they had occurred, they will never succeed, as long as the victims talk about them, write about them, and keep them in their memories.