Helene Celmina. Women in Soviet Prisons

A large proportion of the prisoners, all Russians, were of the sect known as the True Orthodox. Because they wore the traditional garb of nuns, the whole zone called them "the nuns." The rules stated that prison apparel must be black. Theirs was, and anyone who tried to make them change into prison uniforms gave up because the nuns refused. For several months after their Imprisonment, the nuns steadfastly refused to wash. Other prisoners were ordered to wrap them in blankets and bring them to the bath house. Once there, the nuns refused to undress. After being forcibly undressed and splashed with water, they quickly dressed and fled to their beds, a sort of refuge or asylum. Eventually the nuns were persuaded that it would not be a sin to go to the bath once every ten days.

The nuns differed from the other prisoners in refusing to work. For their refusal, they were confined innumerable times to the hard punishment cells. According to the law, they could be kept in those cells for three months. Thereafter the local court would arrive, hold a session, and sentence all those whom doctors considered healthy and capable to work.

There is only one place in the Soviet Union for especially dangerous criminals against the state, the Vladimir prison. No matter where the criminal was born or raised, if he or she has been tried for especially dangerous crimes against the state and if the sentence is to be served in prison rather than in a labor camp, the prisoner is sent to Vladimir prison." Corrective labor camp" means that one must work rather than idly serve one's sentence. Vladimir prison is the only place where one can serve one's time without working in a locked cell, with the right to a thirty-minute walk once every twenty-four hours. Other strictures include the limit of one letter per month to relatives and a minimum ration of food.

When prisoners were brought from the Vladimir prison, they looked as though they had been dug from a grave. Their faces were emaciated, unnaturally grayish and pale with sunken eyes. A group of nuns arriving from Vladimir was a terrible sight. Zenta explained that they were from our camp originally.

"There is always someone from our camp in Vladimir prison," she told me.

"For a long time?"

"Usually fur three years. At the end of that time, they are returned, and another group is taken there."

"But that is dreadful. Look at them, they look dead!"

"What can you do if their God doesn't allow them to work? We all work, even though it is hard. Sometimes I think I will rebel and refuse to work too. But I can never muster up the courage."

"But on the outside they must have worked."

"They never worked officially," Zenta explained. "None of them ever carried a Soviet passport. They don't touch money, and they don't go to work."

"How can they gel by without passports?"

"They never let themselves be photographed, so that's why they don't have passports. The other reason they would never even hold a passport in their hands is because it carries the sign of satan: the five pointed star and the hammer and sickle. The sign of satan is also the reason they do not touch money. And they never go to the doctor; they treat themselves."

"But what if it's serious?"

"Doesn't make any difference. They pick some herbs in the zone. They absolutely refuse to go to the doctor or touch medicine from the dispensary. In Siberia we had several cases where we had to try to save a life. We held their arms and legs down while the nurse gave injections. And what do you think we got for it? The other nuns heaped the world's worst curses upon us. Then they tried to hide their illnesses until several died. To this day they believe that doctors and medicine come from satan, only they themselves are good. I can tell you, they come from satan too," Zenta concluded angrily.

"I'd like to know how the court can sentence these women to three years in Vladimir prison when they don't know the state of their health."

"This idiocy of theirs is to blame. If they went to the doctor, only a few would be declared capable of labor. The rest would officially be declared invalids."

"You know, they don't seem too bright. Even without a doctor or any medical tests, it's clear that some of them are quite ill."

"Sure they're ill, everybody knows that. But a doctor's certificate is essential. He's the only one who can release anybody from work."

"This thing about not touching money. Here in prison no one has any, but how do they survive outside, pay for rent, transportation, food?"

"They don't live in rented apartments but spend the night wherever they happen to be, usually with the people they do house work for in exchange for food. And if someone gives them an old piece of black clothing they alter it. They don't need transportation because they walk everywhere."

"I still don't understand. How can anyone walk such long distances, say several thousand kilometers?"

"They don't need to go that far."

"What do you mean they don't? Say if one of them has finished serving her sentence and wants to return to her relatives to live where she was living before, will she walk?"

"No. The camp administration will send someone with her to the railroad station to buy her ticket. Then he will give the ticket to the supervisor of the train and put the nun herself into her carriage."

"All right, I understand it so far. She may be on the train several days. How will she cat without money?"

"She will beg her bread from the other travelers. They have no demands beyond bread because they know nothing of secular life. Their shirts are made from rough canvas. I saw one of them completely baffled by brassieres drying on a line. She pointed with her finger and asked: "What's that thing and what do you do with it?" And another middle-aged nun didn't even know that you can bring berries home from the woods, add sugar and make jam for the winter. When she was told about it she shook her head in wonder because all her life she went to the woods to eat berries. They think about nothing except God."

I made friends with the nuns from the Tashkent convent. All the nuns, including their "matushka" (abbess), were arrested. Matushka Gorbashova was well along in years. The rest of the nuns respected her and brought her everything she needed. They made her bed, did her laundry, took care of her as well as possible in the camp.

Closest to the matushka were her two assistants, her main counselors. -The first one, who appeared to be her closest counselor, had an advanced medical education. Those who knew she graduated from a medical Faculty in Soviet Russia but refused all medicine were astounded. The other studied history and was generally intelligent and an interesting conversationalist. All the other nuns were literally servants of God and of this trinity, centered on matushka. -The faith of these nuns without education, and from peasant backgrounds, bordered on fanaticism.

Matushka Gorbashova was the oldest, the two educated advisers next, and the rest of varying ages. It was difficult to determine their ages, for their faces were almost invisible, hidden by a head covering different from that worn by ordinary nuns. These headdresses, specially sewn of black cotton, fit the head as closely as a diver's helmet. Only the eyes, nose, and mouth were visible; the rest of the face, eyebrows and half of the cheeks were covered with blank fabric. It tied around the neck, and widened around the shoulders to form a capelet ending at the shoulders. The dress was long, down to the ground, and voluminous. Though they all looked alike, one recognized the youngest by her gait. When she thought no one was watching this young nun sometimes pranced like a young doe, her skirt aflutter. Her name was Nadje. Because of her slight build she looked like a high school girl, and I thought her to be eighteen at the most, hut she was twenty-one.

Camp life was especially difficult for Nadja who was brought up in a religious family. Her father was a Bulgarian, her mother a Russian, and the family lived in Tashkent. Along with the other school children, Nadja joined the Pioneers, from which one is automatically promoted to Comsomol. When her parents and their friends found out, they criticized her for succumbing to peer pressure. They suggested that Nadja turn to the convent for advice. Returning from the convent, Nadja promptly went to school and returned her Comsomol card, saying that she did not need it anymore because she was leaving both that organization and the school. Neither persuasion nor threats by teachers helped. Nadja went to the police, returned her passport, and refused to take it back when they tried to force it on her. Still, they pushed the passport into her hands. Nadja tore it into pieces which she threw down on the table in front of the flabbergasted officials. Then Nadja went straight to the Tashkent convent. Her behavior was unheard of, and as a result, the police, collaborating with the Cheka, arrested the entire convent. The whole event was classified as a particularly serious crime against the state. Each nun received ten years.

In the Soviet Union, convent life differs little from life in camps, at least in terms of food, since the convents are so poor that the nuns must eat bread and "kasha," barley stew. The state does not support the convents. Their only subsidy is from the church to which the convent is attached however the church, without a congregation, usually lacks funds. The income of many churches does not cover their expenses, let alone necessary repairs like fixing the roof or walls or replacing glass in the windows which are frequently broken by the local Comsomols.

The Tashkent convent was in a particularly bad situation because it did not belong to the official church and was considered illegal. The Orthodox church and its ministers are recognized by the state whereas the True Orthodox believers are considered a sect to be persecuted. The True Orthodox believers, on the other hand, believe that they alone possess the true faith. They sever themselves from the official leadership of the Orthodox churches which have, along with the priests, sold out to the Communist party, the Cheka, and the state censorship. The True Orthodox believers do not recognize these Orthodox ministers.

Prayer, the main occupation of the nuns, frequently lasted several hours. They kneeled for hours, reciting prayers and making signs of the cross. While dressing in the morning, they made the sign of the cross over each piece of clothing. Each piece of bread and each cup of water received its cross, as did the bed, in the evening before going to sleep. The nuns usually did not reveal their family names. If asked, they answered: "God's servant Barbara" or "God's servant Maria."

At the approach of Easter the nuns started their great fast, living on bread, water and prayer for weeks on end. Their toughness was admirable. No inmates of the women's camps were more persecuted than the nuns. One would think the administration was trying to destroy the nuns. The hard punishment cells were probably not lifethreatening in summer, but we could not understand how the nuns endured these cement cubicles for weeks on end during the winter months, without heat or bedcovers. Warm food was issued once every two days, and the soup could be better described as dishwater. The other days they received only bread and water. It was bitter, bitter cold in the cubicles, and water froze.

When the thirty days of punishment passed, and the nuns came out of incarceration, all the women not stuck at their sewing machines ran up breathlessly to see how the nuns looked when they were carried out. Incredibly, the nuns walked out under their own power supporting each other. And yet it was a gloomy sight. Two of the younger nuns who could barely stand were propping up two elderly nuns, one of whom appeared ready to collapse. Not a drop of blood in her face she looked like a wooden statue. The others did not look much better, except that they appeared to have a small residue of strength. The nuns took a long time to cross the small stretch between the punishment cells and the gate where the other nuns waited to take the emaciated old women in their arms. Then two of them flanked each of the others. The nuns walked to the barracks in a more sprightly step. Watching this sight and knowing of their stay on the frosty cement for thirty days. I could only believe God gave them the spiritual and physical strength to keep from perishing.