Helene Celmina. Women in Soviet Prisons

A few weeks passed since my arrival in camp #17-A. I became acquainted with almost all of the women, except Lydia. Concerned with her own affairs, she did not care who entered or left the camp. She was so busy that often she did not come to the dining room to eat. Though Lydia often went without lunch or dinner, neither her looks suffered, nor did she lose weight; on the contrary, she blossomed like a rose. Lydia worked as the designer and main cutter in the sewing shop. This was her specialty, even on the outside.

What Lydia cut and designed none of us ever saw. We saw that she got along well with the administration and that all sorts of people came and went from the place. She had a separate room where she worked from early morning till late night. Sometimes Lydia even smelled of wine. She was always by herself, never making friends with any of the prisoners.

Although already imprisoned for ten years, she looked as though she had served ten days at the most. Five years remained. It was evident that Lydia was not serving a political sentence because people interested in or occupied with political activity need connections with, and information from, fellow prisoners. Lydia studiously avoided contact with others.

One day I asked Nina: "Say, do you know anything about Lydia? You know everyone. Lydia never speaks about herself."

"She doesn't need to; anyone who wants to find out about her, can."

"What do you mean?"

"On the outside, did you see the movie Quiet Journey?"

"No, what is it about?'"

"It's about Lydia and her lover."

"What? A movie about Lydia?"

"Yes, some magazine carried an account of her crime. Later apparently they made a movie of it. The magazine was passed from hand to hand here in the camp. They promised to show the film to us, but it never got here."

"Then Lydia is a famous personality. But what actually happened?"

"Lydia and her lover planned to escape abroad. They plotted to use a plane because her lover was a pilot. When they were in the plane, ready to take off, something went wrong, and they resorted to the final solution, murder. He killed two pilots, but the third one, though seriously injured, remained alive."

"Why did Lydia get such a heavy sentence?"

"She got fifteen years for handing him the knife to kill the pilots."

"And the man?"

"Him? Of course he got the maximum, death."

"Maybe that's why Lydia doesn't talk to anyone, because of her suffering. I assume his sentence was executed."

"Lydia suffering! What do you take her for? She suffering for somebody? Money is her god, she cares nothing about people. Why do you think she sits in the workshop from early morning to late evening? Because it is in her interest."

"But, if she is an accomplice in murder with no political involvement, why is she in our camp?"

"It's considered political because she wanted to escape abroad."

"Do you think everybody who wants to go abroad has political reasons?"

"Not everyone does, of course. I imagine the great majority have a purely materialistic reason. In spite of her long sentence and serious charge, she has made herself at home here. She lacks nothing she lives like a bug in a rug."

"Aren't outsiders afraid to deal with a prisoner? They risk a sentence of up to two years if they are caught."

"They trust Lydia, knowing that she would not betray anyone. These are good contacts established long ago. That's why she does not talk or become friendly with anybody here."

"Now I understand. It would be against her interests to lose her good relationship with the outsiders by talking with prisoners."

"Since she is on such good terms with the administration, does she get packages from home?"

"She could if there was someone to send them to her."

"Doesn't she have relatives?"

"A daughter."

"But if she has been here for ten years, the girl must have been quite small."

"She was about seven or eight years old, her grandmother was still alive. When the grandmother died, Lydia wrote the neighbors not to let the orphanage take the little girl. They were kind, sympathetic neighbors and kept the girl."

"That's rare that somebody would take in a strange child. It's also expensive."

"Lydia sent money for the child's expenses."

"What? Sending things from a camp to the outside? Can that be done? How could she make money here?"

"Several mothers here send money to their children. You can do it by submitting a written request to the supervisor, asking that an amount be deducted from your personal money and sent to the address on the request.

Naturally most earn so little that they cannot send more than ten rubles a month to their children. The great majority receive nothing for their labor and can send nothing. The only ones who earn anything are those who have been working in the sewing shop for years. Lydia is an exception. She earns the most and can send the most. I heard she sends no less than thirty rubles to her daughter every month."

A few months later, Lydia spoke to me. Briefly and matter of factly she explained that her eighteen year old daughter was to be married soon. She wanted me to paint a sizeable oil painting as a wedding gift. She would send one thousand rubles for her wedding but she would also like to send a gift.

"But will they let you send the painting out of the camp?"

"Don't worry, I already spoke with the administration. In a case like this, they let you."

"What about the canvas?"

"I will get you canvas. I will give you more canvas than you need so there is some left for you. Make the painting as large as you can. I think we can agree on payment. It seems to me you smoke. How about cigarettes?"

I felt dizzy for joy that she was offering cigarettes and accepted before she could change her mind.

A few days later Lydia gave me a nice length of canvas. We agreed on the size of the painting the subject was still left open. I mentioned that, if she Could sit for me, I could paint her portrait. At first Lydia considered this but then energetically said, "No, that would not do. My son-in-law might not like to have on his wall a mother-in-law who is in prison. A landscape would be better."

I brought a whole pile of picture postcards, Latvian landscapes, sent to me in the mail. She chose one, and I went to work.

Lydia paid me with cigarettes, and even threw in a handful of candy. I did not ask where these goodies came from because the camp store never had these.

One could survive in the camp where there is no equality, though reading the internal rules plastered on the walls suggest that the camp was the only place where complete and uncompromising equality reigned.