Helene Celmina. Women in Soviet Prisons
When I met her, I was surprised at how different Olga was from the other women prisoners. Though no longer young, and Imprisoned for a number of years, she literally bloomed. She was the only one in the whole camp who did not look like a prisoner. Her skin was beautiful, pale and pure as Japanese porcelain. Her smile was like a warm caress. She radiated peace and kindness, and it felt good to be near her. Her beautiful blonde hair, naturally wavy was arranged in a loose knot at the nape in a hairstyle that could have competed with that of a high society lady at the beginning of the century. Her appearance and style were extraordinary under prison conditions.
In spite of her well groomed and pampered appearance, she proved to have immense moral strength. Olga was always kind, and never displayed bad temper. Unlike the other prisoners, she never appeared nervous. It was a special treat to listen when she spoke. No one in the camp spoke Russian as beautifully; besides, she possessed a fine literary style.
I told her briefly about myself. After hearing the accusations against me. Olga was astonished and reported that many people in Moscow kept the kind of literature fur which I was convicted in their homes, but that no one was taken to court for it. Then I asked her: "I do not understand why you are here. As far as I know, Boris Pasternak gave his manuscript to the Italians himself."
"That's true, he gave it to them himself. But in his will he left all the Zhivago income to me. When Pasternak left us, I received parcels of the Zhivago money from abroad. That's what I was condemned for."
"With what right? For what?" I exclaimed.
"They have unlimited rights and powers, and if they want to pick on someone they always find a way. They condemned not only me, hut my daughter also. We were accused of black market activity, and placed in camp #6 like common speculators, along with the most awful women criminals. These are all, in the language of the jurists, crimes against the collective."
"And then, what happened?"
"I wrote to the Ministry of the Interior, asking for permission to serve our time in this camp because the company in camp #6 was very unsuited to so young a girl as my daughter. One heard only curses and obscenities. I would never have believed that women of that kind exist in this world. In two weeks there we never heard a decent sentence. Even the songs they shrieked were filled with obscenities. After two weeks we received permission to serve our sentence in a camp for prisoners condemned for crimes against the state, and we were brought here. My daughter's sentence was only three years, she is at home already. I received five years."
"But, I don't understand, what did you have to do with the black market?"
"In the parcels from abroad there were clothes and things that neither of us could use. Since we had no money to pay our rent, we sold the things that we could not use."
"I still think the black market clause was applied to you incorrectly. It seems to me that you are involved in the black market if you buy something for the state price and sell it for a higher one, thus gaining a profit."
"Yes my dear, that's what you and many others think. But they wanted to get us into prison. We were an irritation."
"It would mean that, if my aunt gave me a piano which I sell because I don't play or have room for it, then within a week I could be arrested and tried as a speculator!" I blurted out indignantly.
"That's the way it is. We are powerless to change it."
After this first conversation I thought about her situation and smoldered again at the Soviet institutions of power. I recalled the Russian proverb: "All we need is the man, the law against him can always be found."
Olga Vsevolodovna's health was poor, hut she was not assigned to the invalid group. She worked in the sewing shop where she trimmed the thread ends of the finished products with scissors because she could not learn to use the machines.
Once the two of us were sitting on a small bench outside the barrack. There was no one else about, so she recited a few excerpts from Dr. Zhivago for me. Most people remain ignorant of the controversial works of literature if the newspapers do not print slanderous articles. After reading these attacks, people
try to read the literary work. However most remain in ignorance about the actual content of the novel, story, or poem so abused in the press.
When Olga finished her recitation, she smiled, but then warned me in hushed voice: "If I were you, I would watch myself a little with the reptile."
"With the reptile?" I asked in confusion. "What do you mean?"
"Your friend Erna. She reminds me of a reptile, and that's what I have been calling her from the first day I saw her."
"Thank you," was all that I could say, for I had to consider what she meant. A year passed before I discovered that Olga Vsevolodovna's remark was well founded. Generally, she trusted people, even too much so, but in this case she had not been mistaken in calling Erna "Reptilia," as I learned later.
Olga remained fit for years, however in her last years in the camp she ailed more and more often. She walked slowly and sometimes she was not able to rise from her bed. No medicine helped, and it was painful to watch her becoming paler and thinner. She had a good friend among the nuns who I brought her food and helped her when she could not get up. When she felt ill, I did not want to impose lengthy conversations on her, and we only exchanged a few words. Even then, though I could see she was in pain, she usually had a friendly smile. Warmth dominated her personality. Her cordiality was artless, pure as the sunshine itself. With it, she gained the friendship and respect of others.
No matter how slowly time passed in the camp, the day came when Olga Vsevolodovna said good-bye. Tears in her eyes, she embraced each of us in turn. She wished from the bottom of her heart that the rest of us were coming home with her. She told some of us her address, inviting us to visit her in Moscow.
We were glad for every one who departed, though we knew the difficulties of entering "freedom" after imprisonment.