Helene Celmina. Women in Soviet Prisons

After living with the inmates of the penal camp, I realized how few were in for political reasons. Most of the women were in the camp for religious "crimes." The Constitution states that there is freedom of religion in the Soviet Union, a half-truth which applies only to the large churches. In the main churches there is usually an official pastor, whose sermons are subject to state censorship. He is permitted to express from the pulpit only state-approved views. For example, on June 14, 1941 Stalin began the first wave of massive deportations of Latvians. In the free world this day is observed as a national day of mourning. If a pastor in Latvia were to mention these deportations during a sermon, he would be sentenced for "distortion of Soviet reality." After serving his sentence he could labor at a collective farm, but he would never again be allowed onto the pulpit.

One of the most persecuted religious groups in the Soviet Union is the Jehovah's Witnesses most of whom live in the former Romanian territory of Moldavia in the Ukraine and in the Irkutsk region of Siberia. Founded in 1872 by Charles Taze Russell in Pittsburgh, the Jehovah's Witnesses are headquartered in Brooklyn, New York. The Soviet Jehovah's Witnesses receive their religious literature from Brooklyn illegally since its Importation into the Soviet Union is strictly forbidden. In fact, literature from Brooklyn arrives regularly, in good shape and in large quantities through unofficial and well-organized channels, not only in many cities, including Siberia, but even in the penal camps of Potma. This fact distressed the camp authorities. No one could understand how this land of barbed wire and limited human contact could be penetrated by forbidden literature-and from the United States at that!

After the search was over, the inmates were allowed to return

Many Jehovah's Witnesses receive ten years of hard labor merely for having a few issues of the magazine Watchtower in their apartments. Since people are arrested for possession of these writings, the anxiety and exasperation of the administration over the presence of this literature in camp is understandable. No one has discovered how it gets into the camp. After all, following conviction, every prisoner is stripped of all clothing and completely searched. On arrival at the camp each prisoner is thoroughly searched again, down to the last seam. Suitcases are searched for double bottoms. No stranger is allowed into the camp without good cause. When inmates are let out of the camp zone for work in the fields, they are surrounded by armed guards and no one is permitted to approach them. A thorough search of each prisoner is made when they return to the camp in the evening. But despite this surveillance, the Brooklyn literature finds its readers.

In the camp the Jehovah's Witnesses were the most disadvantaged because they were under constant surveillance. If more than three of them gathered, they were ordered to disperse. The camp authorities maintained a list of festivals I honored by each religion. On one Jehovah's Witnesses holiday armed soldiers were brought in and positioned nearby to wait for the services to begin. Their services began with singing hymns outdoors. Previously organized, the women gathered rapidly, one gave the pitch, and all began to sing. Before the hymn was finished, the camp gates opened and the soldiers and the camp director marched in. The director approached the singing women and ordered them to disperse. They ignored her and continued to sing. Then the director raised her voice and shouted, "I order you to disperse!" No results. "Whom am I ordering?" Still no reaction. 'The Jehovah's Witnesses sang louder. Then the camp director went up to the head of the soldiers and spoke with him quietly; she shrugged and returned to the women. "I am warning you for the last time, get moving at once. You are breaking camp regulation. You know singing is not allowed in the camp." No response. The camp director stood helplessly and listened.

The women disregarded the director, finished one hymn, and started another. The director could hardly contain herself, bit her lip, and darted infuriated looks. "I will give orders to shoot," she threatened. No reaction came from the women, who looked entranced, even blissful, standing close to each other singing. I decided that the soldiers armed with machine guns were present merely to intimidate the women. If the order to shoot came, it would be to shoot above their heads. But that did not happen. When the women finished singing their three hymns, they left without even glancing at the director, as if nothing had happened.

The Jehovah's Witnesses were mainly young women with a few older ones serving second sentences. First sentences ranged from live to seven years, while second sentences were ten years. All Jehovah's Witnesses, except for the Group II disabled, worked at all camp lobs, mainly in the serving division. After work, during rest periods, they regularly recited Bible verses. The more capable ones also studied foreign languages - French, English, and German-in order to translate the religious literature for those who did not understand. It was because of the Jehovah's Witnesses that the camp was so frequently searched. No matter how carefully they hid their scraps of paper with biblical quotations and excerpts from their translations, the authorities always found something.

Often, especially after dark, guards loitered outside the windows to observe what the Jehovah's Witnesses were doing in their beds. If they noticed anyone writing or reading from a scrap of paper, the guards rushed in to tear the paper from the girl's grasp. Often they found only a letter to a relative.

Several times a year the authorities carried out what were known as major raids. Although they always took place on Sundays, no one could predict them. I recall one typical raid when the guards burst through the gates, ran into the various sections and barred all the exits. "With bedding to the work zone!" they ordered. Everyone, ill or well, picked up her bedding and moved. By the gate the women guards shook all the sheets one by one and searched pockets and bodies from head to foot. When the body searches were completed, all inmates were herded into the work zone. Each put down her bedding sat on it and waited. Conversations were strained. As soon as all the inmates were in the work zone, the camp was thoroughly searched, often for several hours.

After the search was over, the inmates were allowed to return and tidy up the sleeping area. Once after such a search, the camp director called me into her office. I was surprised, knowing that no clandestine papers were among my things. The director, Anna Aleksejevna, spread five issues of Watch-tower before me. They were written in different languages, but the director, although a teacher by training, did not recognize the languages. I had never seen the magazine and wanted to read, which I knew would not be allowed. Therefore, I said, "All right. Let me look closely at the spelling. You know, the European languages are so much alike that I could make a mistake. And I want to be accurate." While I was speaking I had already read a few sentences in the German copy. One verse stuck in my memory: "Be harmless as a dove and wise as a serpent." I have often thought about this sentence which is not bad advice for people who have to survive in the Soviet Union.

When I stopped reading because the director was becoming suspicious, I placed the magazines into three piles and declared, "These two are in English, those two are in French, and this one is in German." The director was delighted, since she could mention the languages of the confiscated magazines in her report. The magazines had been found buried in the flower beds, but how they had come into the camp zone, no one knew.

One day while working in the field I could not stand up. I felt such sharp pain in my spine that I could not move. The guard was notified, he passed the message on to the mobile guards, and by the time the work day ended, a horse and a cart arrived. The Jehovah's Witnesses gently lifted me into the cart, lifted me out at the gate and carried me inside the zone, into my barracks and placed me in my bed. All through my sickness they were diligent nurses. I could not have wished for better care, especially under camp conditions. Every one of them should have studied medicine and worked with the seriously ill in hospitals. The severe shortage of nursing personnel in the Soviet Union amounts to an emergency. The wages are so low that it is only possible to recruit chronic alcoholics who are not tolerated anywhere else. Consequently, patients in hospitals receive practically no nursing care.

Jehovah's Witnesses consider it their duty to help everyone, regardless of religion or nationality. As no one ever nursed and pampered me like these young women, I found it almost difficult to accept. While nursing me, they sat at my bedside for hours trying to convert me. Although I said that I had been christened and had my own faith, they explained that it was their duty to she theirs. In contrast to the rest of the inmates, I was more patient, and was interested in hearing their proselytization. Considering their educational level, they knew their subject well and knew many Bible verses by heart.

One woman who had been a member for four years was struggling. She explained, "I lost my house in a fire, and my two children died. I had a difficult time. Then the sisters consoled me and preached their faith. I accepted and two years later I was arrested. Now God is testing my faith."

I asked, "And you don't regret having accepted the faith for which you now must sit in prison?"

"What can he done? Everything happens according to God's will. If we must suffer here, that is because of our sins," she sighed.

I continued, "I do not think the Soviet labor camps are for penance; they are punitive camps where the Party puts people for thinking differently from the government. All of you are in prison not because you believe, but because you preach and try to convert. If you sat at home alone and prayed quietly to God, no one would ever find out or take you to court."

"That is true, But it is our duty to preach and gain new brothers and sisters. We should not be so egotistical to prepare only ourselves for the millennium on earth. All people should be informed so they can live in it. If someone refuses, that is their own business."

Several of the Jehovah's Witnesses told me about events that occurred in connection with their faith. I wondered where they found the strength and energy to carry out such risky and complicated activities. For example, a clandestine printing press was discovered in Irkutsk where translated literature was printed in Russian, in order to reach greater masses of people.

One of the women volunteered, "I don't tell anyone that I speak German. I know you do and we could talk to each other in German."

"Fine. In fact I prefer German to Russian."

"Did you know I was in Germany," she asked.

I was not particularly surprised, as several people had been to Germany. To continue the conversation I asked, "Long ago?"

"It was about ten years ago, when I went to the Netherlands to attend the international conference of the Jehovah's Witnesses."

"Really? But where did you get the necessary documents for the trip?"

"You think I traveled with documents? Without documents! I crossed the border on foot and traveled to Holland. I returned on foot. Besides, I had a large pile of literature to carry back." I looked at her in disbelief. "What do you say to that?" she asked after seeing my astonishment.

"And you went alone?"

"I went alone, but God was with me everywhere."

"But that's incredible!"

"It sounds unbelievable, but it happened, not once, but twice!"

"Both times without documents?"

"Yes. Both times on foot across the border and back."

"If that's true, then God must have guided you across the border."

"Yes, my dear, such is God's power. To make the visible invisible, to make the audible inaudible, and much more."

"But power in your faith is enormous. Without faith, you would never have dared to take such a risk."

"Without a doubt, that too," she agreed.

I remember, too, another conversation I had with the Jehovah's Witnesses about the gods. They insisted that there were two gods, Jehovah and another, whom Jehovah would fight. No matter how hard they tried, using modern science, chemistry, and the newest findings in physics, they could not prove the existence of the other god to me. Despite our disagreement, I found these women, with a few exceptions, good, charitable, virtuous, and extraordinarily strong in their faith.

Then the Jehovah's Witnesses were suddenly and unexpectedly assailed by the tempter, the devil. The Cheka discovered a new method, never before tried, whereby they hoped to eradicate the Jehovah's Witnesses: by discovering their leaders. The task was difficult, but not Impossible. One by one these leaders were taken to Saransk, the capital of Mordovia. Like any larger city, Saransk had stores, theaters, and other attractions. Two Chekists would take a woman, half-staved for years in hard labor camps, to a grocery or restaurant and tell her, "Choose whatever you like. We will buy it for you." When the woman proudly refused, saying that she did not need anything she was taken to a department store and again offered anything. "Then they would say, "Since you do not want anything at least have some ice cream," which would be brought to her. The woman would reply, "Thank you. I don't eat ice cream," and would not accept it. "Perhaps you would like to see a movie or a play?" the Chekist would offer, showing his ignorance, because Jehovah's Witnesses never attended the movies that were occasionally brought to the camp and shown to the inmates in the dining room. The woman was kept for a few weeks in the Saransk Cheka where they tried to convince her to leave the group, with the promise of immediate release from prison. When the Chekists accepted their failure, the victim was returned to camp. After a while another one was taken away.

Upon returning to camp, everyone told the same story. It was horrible to tempt people who had already suffered such a long time. To show people, who haven't eaten well for years, shelves of fresh bread, cakes, cookies and other goodies, is actually torture. Only one woman, a young Moldavian, did succumb. No one ever found out exactly how it happened as she never told anyone. Like the others, she was suddenly taken away with her belongings. Before she left, the other women told her what to expect and gave her sound advice. Even so, the young Moldavian was unexpectedly released, despite a remaining five year sentence. Perhaps she wanted to live and could not endure. Possibly she was taken home from which it was impossible to leave. Nevertheless, if she was free to go home, she had also been forced to renounce her faith and to promise in writing and on tape never to return to her religion.

After about half a year this same woman reappeared in the camp, recuperated, well fed, and accompanied by two Chekists. She came not as an inmate, but as a lecturer. She wore a cherry-colored woolen suit, in bad taste but expensive, black patent leather shoes and a matching handbag. The Jehovah's Witnesses were visibly upset. Work in the sewing division stopped and everyone was called to the living section. There, sitting at the head of the table, the former sister delivered a lecture.

She explained that when she accepted the faith she was not aware of what she was doing. She regretted having convinced women in the Moldavian villages of the existence of Jehovah. She regretted having been responsible for ruining so many families. Convinced of her error, she now felt it her duty to lead her former sisters back to real life. She lectured for several hours. She cried. Yet her former sisters viewed her with scorn.

This experience was both upsetting and depressing. That afternoon no one in the camp laughed. Everyone was involved in her own thoughts. No matter how they tried to conceal their feelings, the Jehovah's Witnesses were terribly concerned. I wondered why this display was necessary. Was anything gained by it? It was an empty performance for which the administration could draw a check mark on their calendar to indicate that their regular hounding of the religious inmates had been performed. Perhaps the Chekists thought it ingenious; perhaps they imagined that the women would line up to denounce their faith. However, the Chekists achieved the opposite effect.

At that time one Jehovah's Witness began to study the laws from the Criminal code and wrote to the All-Soviet Prosecutor's office. After months of study she had discovered that all of them were tried incorrectly for "agitation against the state." Thus their highest penalty could not exceed three years. As soon as the women heard this, they wrote to the courts that they received seven and ten instead of the three years. One's unnecessary years in prison became the only topic of discussion. One woman spent six extra years. In three or four months every sister who wrote to the court was informed that her penalty, reclassified according to a different section of the law, was now reduced to three years. All of them had already spent four or more years in prison. No one offered compensation for the surplus years, no one apologized or asked forgiveness.

It is difficult to imagine another country where the courts could make such an enormous mistake. Because of the misapplication of the clause, hundreds of people were Imprisoned for seven and ten years (with another ten years for second offenders), instead of for three years. Women were serving their second decade for nothing but their faith! Within a year, camp # 17-A had no more Jehovah's Witnesses inmates.

Since they could no longer he classified as "particularly dangerous state criminals," but as ordinary social criminals, Jehovah's Witnesses were placed in camps for criminals. Physically, life was easier for them. Living conditions and food were better. However morally their lives were more difficult because they quickly became objects of ridicule and entertainment for some inmates. At the same time, they continued to proselytize and discovered other inmates ready to accept their faith. There is one tragic footnote to this story: All the Jehovah's Witnesses were released, except one. Because she almost completed her second ten-year term, there was no reason to write. She did not finish serving her time, though, because she died exactly ten days before her release. Agitated, she counted the days until freedom when she would again be among her relatives. The excitement was too much for her heart. In contrast to the women who walked out through the gate, this one was carried out in a coffin made of crude boards. No one knows where she was buried. No matter how hard relatives try, bodies are not released to them.