Helene Celmina. Women in Soviet Prisons

I was impatient to know what crimes brought so many women to a strict regime camp. During my first days in camp, Nina explained that about seventy-five percent of the women were there because of religious practices, and only twenty-five percent were sentenced for political motives. Most of the political inmates were peasant women from Ukraine. Some of them along with their men were found hiding in the forest when the war ended. Others were sentenced for giving bread and milk to their compatriots in the forest. One day a Ukrainian peasant woman said "I believe you know how to write. Couldn't you write a piece of paper for me so that they'd reduce my sentence?"

Her pleading eyes would not leave mine and I promised to put together her plea within the next day or two. Her situation was simple. She lived alone, close to the forest. She kept a cow. The men hiding in the forest threatened to shoot her unless she gave them milk or bread. Her neighbor observed the nightly is its and turned her in to the militia. She received twenty-five years of confinement in a penal camp.

Another time I spoke with a young Ukrainian girl called Nastenka. Barely able to read and write, she delivered a case of political flyers to Odessa. For that she received ten years. I wrote Nastenka a petition for parole since nothing else could help her. Three months later the news came that Nastenka was being paroled. Overjoyed, she left me a small soft cushion as a memento. Later a letter came form Odessa, explaining that she was working as a dishwasher in a canteen, and was allowed to eat as much as she wanted. Nastenka's handwriting and style were like a child's. Everybody was amazed at Nastenka's parole, having taken it for granted that nobody could go home before serving her entire sentence.

A few days later after Nastenka left, I met a new "friend," Jurisson. She was an older Estonian with an unholy character. She did not have to work and ran through the zone, cursing everybody she met. She suspected people of stealing everything: Her soap, her towel, her bedsheet from the clothesline. In the evening however the bedsheet was on her bed, she hadn't remembered that she'd carried it inside herself. Her preferred sitting spot was the little bench near the gates where she could see who was coming and who was going. Whenever somebody high in the administration arrived, she would run to him, grab his sleeve with both hands and rattle off complaints against the other inmates. One of them spilled soup on her, someone else stole her shirt, and once again, her soap was stolen. When the administration tried to get rid of her by promising to investigate the matters Jurisson simply switched to a different topic. According to her. nobody in the entire zone could be trusted; everybody lied and acted under false pretenses. This went on endlessly.

All the officials ran from Jurisson. And now she wanted to make friends with me. Wherever I went there she was, waiting. She showered me with gifts, a yellow enameled mug for tea, then an old beaten aluminum bowl. Only several weeks later did she explain her sudden friendship: She too needed a plea for parole.

Putting the plea together was not easy because Jurisson refused to admit to the crime for which she was sentenced. She recounted only an approximate version of what occurred. He neighbors were always stealing from her. When she unmasked them, they turned her over to the militia, swearing under oath that Jurisson prayed to God both by herself and with others in her room at night. Their libelous testimony brought Juri son a ten-year sentence. She wanted me to write that in her plea. In vain I explained that first she had to admit guilt because the gist of the case was that she insulted her neigbbors by calling them thieves. It took me several weeks to convince Jurisson how the plea should be worded if she wanted to go home.

The entire zone commiserated over my spending hours each day with Jurrison. Finally, the plea was written and mailed. I endured her company for another seven months until the answer arrived. Jurrison was granted parole. She packed her belongings and left so quickly that she never thanked me. But several dozen other inmates gratefully shook my hand to thank me for saving the camp from Jurisson's presence.

Once I overheard a brief conversation which stuck in my memory. In the camp where the inmates received twenty-five year sentences for political causes, the actual level of political knowledge was low. Two old women, one Lithuania one Ukrainian, were speaking Russian. The Lithuanian waved her walking stick at a photo of Lenin on the wall, saying: "See, that's Lenin that they've hung on the wall there. Must be a clever man. D'you know if he's still alive?" (This was 1965.) The Ukrainian, sneaking a look at her partner, muttered to herself, "You old stupid bag," and announced aloud that he had been dead for ages.

Why did they keep these old women imprisoned? None of them were physically capable of doing any work, nor could anyone receive any benefit from them.

One more political inmate left the camp before completing her sentence. Valentina Semyonovna Sanagina was well past seventy. Her lawyer friend, Skripnikova, helped to prepare her pleas from outside the camp. Sanagina's political crime was unique. In her old age she decided to write a book about her life, starting with her childhood. Before she was finished the Cheka ransacked her home, confisscated the half-finished book, and arrested her. Her manuscript recorded her childhood memories of her despotic father, who in drunken stupors beat his wife and children. However this despot was a member of the Communist party. For slandering a Party member, Sanagina was awarded ten years in a strict regime correction camp. Sanagina spent eight years before she gained a new hearing which reduced her sentence. In the eyes of the Cheka, Sanagina commited a dangerous political crime. She was sentenced in 1958 when everybody believed the terror of Stalin's era was over. However the Cheka continued to work according to the proven pattern.

Anna Aleksandrovna Borkova was horn in 1890. A revolutionary, journalist by profession, working in the Kremlin as the First Commissar for Culture, Lunachsky's ,secretary, she knew Lenin. Despite having devoted her life to Communism, she was in for her third decade.

She was a tiny, extremely thin woman. Her thick white hair, loose to her shoulders, normally blew in the breeze. Because of the wind-blown hair, her narrow face looked even narrower. Her face was covered with freckles and her eyes were unusually small, like two tiny, dark brown pearls darling rapidly to and fro while she read. Borkova never used glasses. No one disturbed or pestered her with small talk and gossip, but kept instead a respectful distance.

I obtained a couple of cigarettes, and offered her one. Anna Aleksandrovna thawed a bit after taking one and asked me to sit down next to her. We sat and talked; Borkova found out all about me, because she shot questions so rapidly all I could do was answer. She decided I had been wronged by the system when I received such a lengthy sentence for reading foreign magazines. A few days later she showed me her photo album. Only later did it dawn on me that this album was her only valuable possession. She had never owned anything besides the album. She didn't own her clothes which were state issue. In prison she wore prisoner's garb, and during her post-revolutionary years in the Kremlin, the state provided everybody with one set of clothes every couple of years. Whenever she was paroled and released from a prison or camp, she was clothed by the state. She never owned a plate or a spoon, let alone furniture or other worldly goods.

As a young woman, finished with her studies, Borkova lived and worked within the Kremlin. During those early days, none of the revolutionaries owned personal possessions because they lived public lives. Reminiscing Borkova said: "The healthiest period of Soviet power was the revolutionary period when we truly were one for all and all for one.

While turning the album's pages, she came to a photo of Lunachsky, and next to it one of herself as a young woman, seated in the midst of Lunachsky's family. After closing the album she added, "I've only made one mistake in my life. When Lenin died, I should have shot myself." Strong words, I thought.

I discovered that Borkova was an idealist. She earned her first ten year sentence when, as a journalist she tried to publish an article about the extravagant lifestyle of Stalin and the members of the Politburo. She wanted to remind everyone that in a communist society it is not permissible for the highest functionaries of the Party to put their personal interests above those of the people. She was sentenced to ten years in prison in 1937, the darkest year in the history of Russia when Stalin shot the most trustworthy idealists in the Communist party.

After spending ten years in prison, Borkova saw that the conditions she criticized had deteriorated. All the Party functionaries had cars and drivers, access to special shops with better quality goods, as well as numerous other privileges. In righteous indignation, Borkova wrote scathingly that the Party was not following the principles of Lenin. Borkova again received ten years in a forced labor camp. After spending six years in the camp, Borkova was released and rehabilitated in 1953, when Stalin died.

Borkova carefully observed the new leadership under Khrushchev, who criticized Stalin. The time arrived, she thought, when the life and work of the high Party officials would be controlled. However, the entire Party and government officials lived in full comfort. Everybody had dachas (villas), servants, cars, and personal chauffeurs. Once again Borkova dared to criticize the highest circles of the Kremlin. For the third time, she received ten years in a correctional camp, regardless of the fact that she already served two terms and had been rehabilitated.

She believed that her sharp critiques would reform the Party and the government. The Cheka on the other hand believed that lengthy sentences would change Borkova. Neither side achieved success. Borkova, smoking cheap tobacco wrapped in strips of newspaper, sat on her bench in camp, still criticizing the government.

Then, Khruschev was out and Borkova was released after seven-and-a-half years, a total imprisonment of twenty-three-and-a-half years. The authorities placed her in the Communist party's old comrades' home, and gave her a personal pension, granted only to Party members. Thus this idealist passed her entire life without a bed, table, or chair that she could call her own.

In the camp were two former members of the Communist Youth movement (Comsomol). One young girl received one year because she once muttered something unacceptable at a Youth meeting. She could no longer recall what she said. The other Communist Youth was a twenty-six year old woman from Georgia, sentenced to two years. During Khrushchev's years, she ran afoul of the anti-Soviet agitation paragraph, applied to the glorification of Stalin. At a Communist Youth meeting she openly defended Stalin after someone criticized him. Stalin could not be called an anti-Soviet element. Therefore defending Stalin could not be interpreted as anti-Soviet action. But apparently the Soviet system had not yet determined how to deal with cases like hers. I once asked the Georgian, "Why did you defend Stalin? Do you know what he was like?"

She replied, "When I was little, they taught us in kindergarten that our most loving father was Stalin. When I later went to school, we were taught that Stalin was the apple of our eye and the bringer of our luck. In the Communist Youth meetings we were taught that we must be grateful to Stalin for everything and that he was the only true embodiment of the people's wishes. How could I speak otherwise?"

There were a few more inmates among the "particularly" dangerous to the state" offenders, whose crimes were unusual and worthy of mention. One was a student from Moscow University. She was part of a group interested in learning more than what was offered in the official course program. One enterprising youth discovered a library hidden in the attic of the university building and was able to make a duplicate key. Only a small circle of friends knew about the secret library, among them this girl. With great precautions, they visited the library to read the forbidden authors like Freud, Kant, Lessing, and others.

Despite their precautions, other students followed and betrayed them. All of them were arrested and sentenced to five years in a strict regime forced labor camp for anti-Soviet agitation. The student who initiated the crime and under whose influence the others joined, received seven years. Is there any other country where reading Freud will earn a prison sentence?

The case of Tamara was also strange. A Russian, she was living in the Ukraine. Tamara's brother-in-law regularly listened to the "Voice of America" and "Radio Liberty." He interested Tamara and both of them listened. There was an extreme food shortage in their provincial town which lacked butter, other dairy products and meat for months. When somebody at work complained about not having enough to eat, Tamara and her brother-in-law told them what they heard on the radio: Some people had enough food and some to spare. The Cheka arrested them for spreading lies. The court handed down a "just" verdict of guilt for denigration of the true living conditions in Russia and spreading the false foreign propaganda. Tamara received three years, but her older brother-in-law received five.

Another case involved Esperanto. Although not a popular language in the Soviet Union, some study it. There is even an Esperanto Club. One club member received permission to visit the Esperanto fans in Bulgaria. She struck up friendships and corresponded in Esperanto. Within a short time one of her letters to Bulgaria "accidently" reached the Cheka. Not pleased with the contents of the letter, the Cheka decided to teach this club member a lesson. They arrested her and gave her three years for denigration of the true conditions of Soviet life.

A woman doctor in Minsk, Byelorussia, who lived with her entire family in a damp narrow basement apartment was unhappy with her living conditions. She wrote to President Kennedy, apparently expecting that her case would be talked about abroad, and that the Russians would be shamed into giving her a more suitable apartment. But the letter went directly from the mailbox to the Cheka. Her writing to Kennedy and denigrating the true conditions of Soviet life earned her five years in a strict regime corrective labor camp.

There was another "particularly dangerous criminal against the state" whose crime made everyone grin. Despite being a cook at a big restaurant she was denied an apartment. Angry with the Party and Khrushchev's government, she drew a corn cob on a strategic spot of Khrushchev's picture on the front page of a magazine. For this, she was given three years.

Nobody knew what Tanya was sentenced for. She seemed rather stupid and nobody could understand her stories. She walked around singing to herself. When I first saw her she was pregnant. During her final two months she did not have to work and received supplementary food rations: half a glass of milk, one egg, and a knife tip of butter daily. Her child was born in the hospital, located several hours drive from camp #17-A. The child died and Tanya was brought back.

If the child had lived, Tanya would have remained at the hospital and received supplementary rations for another six months, although even breastfeeding mothers in the hospital worked. During the first six months a mother fed her baby. The baby would be taken from her the first day she ran out of milk and handed over to the children's home while the mother would be returned to prison. Once she completed her sentence, the mother could claim her baby. If she did not want the child, however, she would not have to claim it.

Tanya returned to the camp and after a few months sharp eyes noticed that she was about to have another child. The women talked about her, "She isn't too bright, but apparently she's got enough brains to know how to make children." Once again Tanya received the extra rations for expectant mothers, did not work, and walked around the camp, singing. What Tanya was in for no one ever learned.

To prevent camp life from becoming too monotonous and so that inmates would not think too much about their personal problems, artistic and cultural activities ere encouraged. The camps held folk dance competitions and the best troupes traveled for guest performances to other camps. Most camps had a choir and various quartets and soloist singers.

Camp #17-A however, had neither dancers nor singers and instead, literary evenings became popular. During these evenings an inmate read either a poem or a prose work. The choice of authors was restricted to the classical Russian writers such as Gogol, Pushkin, and Lermontov. Dora Borisovna led these literary evenings. A professional literature teacher, she worked in Russian high schools until her retirement.

Once retired, Dora Borisovna submitted a proposal to the government comparing the Hebrew culture with other U.S.S.R. cultures. She noted the fact that other cultures have their own publishers, their own movie studios and theaters, and are allowed to stage cultural weeks in Moscow to demonstrate singing dancing performing arts and folk arts. Dora Borisovna noted that in a country as international as the U.S.S.R., where friendship between and equality of culture is constantly proclaimed, Hebrew is the only culture unable to cultivate and display its folk traditions and cultural riches.

The Soviet Ministry of Culture, instead of answering directly, handed the case over to the Cheka which decided to punish Dora Borisnova and her husband with seven years each n strict regime corrective labor camps, basing their sentence on the paragraph on nationalism. Dora Borisovna was nearsighted, so could not take part in corrective labor. As a woman who actively worked her whole life, she took the lead in organizing the literary evenings. 'These evenings were beneficial because many of the inmates in the camp, sentenced on political grounds, had not completed their education.

All Soviet penal settlements have schools to serve the young criminals. For them the prison school was obligatory. Camp #17-A had no school because the average age of the inmates was fifty. However one inmate, Vera, insisted on learning. At twenty-four she wanted to finish primary school. She was allowed to study on her own and twice a year was mailed a list of printed test questions to be answered in writing. The entire camp helped her to prepare for her examinations.

Vera could not explain what exactly she was accused of. She said they talked at a furious pace in court, rattling off the numbers of the applicable penal code paragraphs. However she could not recall what she was charged with. This factor probably influenced her desire to complete her education by reading in camp.