Helene Celmina. Women in Soviet Prisons
It is said that nobody is born a criminal. However, considering Valya Dshakova, it is difficult to understand how one could become like her. A slightly built, middle-aged woman, Valya was neither bad-looking nor pretty, but her eyes made her always appear angry. Even when she laughed, her eyes stayed angry. Her laughter was harsh, since continuous smoking had made her voice coarse and hoarse.
The paragraph under which she received her twenty-five year sentence was original. She had no rights to parole. She was sentenced for murder and cannibalism. Cannibalism was never prevalent in Russia. Anyone who knew the paragraph under which she was sentenced wanted to know more. Valya did not consider what she did unusual, everything occurred so naturally. Perhaps her reasons tor committing the crime lay in Soviet social problems and the low standard of living at that time; perhaps she acted simply for personal gain. According to Valya, there was nothing to eat in the district around the Volga river. People were paying exorbitant prices for food. A loaf of bread cost one hundred rubles on the black market. A worker's average monthly wages were about one thousand rubles, a secretary's about four-hundred-and-fifty. Valya herself had no money to buy bread, presumably since she would not work hard for nominal pay. She discovered a solution to her financial problems and the high cost of food.
Valya had a girl friend. The two of them met often, and the friend spent the night at Valya's place now and then. Valya figured that nobody would immediately miss the girl. One night Valya acted. She killed her friend in order to sell her meat. To dress human meat so that it could be sold without being recognized required hard work. Valya chopped her friend into little pieces which she turned into mince meat using a hand mincer. This took several days.
It is difficult to visualize a young girl like Valya, twenty at that time, carrying out such a cold-blooded task. From the ground meat she made hamburgers which she took to the railroad station to sell. The hamburgers were snapped up almost the moment she appeared with her basket. Who could imagine what kind of hamburgers they were eating? Would anybody believe it? Chances are they would think it was horse meat. Everybody wants to eat, especially where there is little or no food. Her business was thriving. However, people started looking for the girl friend earlier than Valya anticipated. The pressure and the rush of her work left her no time to finish burning her girl friend's hones.- Also her neighbors wondered how Valya could be selling hamburgers by the basketful. The militia raided Valya's place while she was mincing her girl friend's last remains, which she planned to sell the next day. Valya was caught with the evidence at the scene of her crime. Asked by the judge why she did it, Valya answered, "For money."
Valya worked in the camp laundry, washing the guards' clothes. In the camps working in the laundry is a privilege. Whenever the soldiers came by horse-drawn wagon to pick up the laundry, Valya brought tea. Whenever there is tea, friendships flourish. In Camp #17-A a number of women criminals in addition to Valya formed eternal friendships by means of tea. Valya, despite having been sentenced for murder, made another friend in camp.
Differences arise among friends, regardless of social circles. Some difficulty arose between Valya and her girl friend, who normally spent their free time together. Now the two friends kept their distance for two days. In order to spite her friend, Valya asked another criminal in the camp to tea, and spent the whole evening with her. This was a great test for her friend who, the next morning failed to report for work in the factory. Instead, she did her washing. The hot water came from the boiler stoked by Valya. To prove to Valya how much she had been wronged, the friend took a whole basinful of boiling water and, making sure that Valya watched, dumped it on her own legs. She kept her stockings on since burns obtained this way are much more severe than those on bare legs. The girl friend calculated everything to regain Valya's attention. Valya felt guilty and looked after her friend with care during her long convalescence. As far as one could tell, Valya was happy. She looked after her friend, sharing strong tea with her at night, and life continued as before.
The case of another murderer, Anya Vishnevskaya was different. Anya was alone, with no friends. First, Anya was an ugly woman with a broad freckled face, low forehead and pale, fish-like eyes. Second, she was always angry at somebody and walked up and down the zone cursing in the foulest language. Third, Anya's past made life in the camp difficult. Anya had been sentenced for twenty-five years for murder. A young and healthy woman, she was assigned to felling trees in her first labor camp. She worked under inhuman conditions in the forests. One cold winter day, during a non-stop blizzard, Anya asked the man in charge to stop the work. He refused. Anya then lifted her ax in both hands and, before he could move, struck his head killing him. Anya described this episode as if she was describing the chopping down of a tree. For this new murder, ten years were added to her sentence and she was taken away to another camp.
In the new camp Anya made a friend. They remained close until a new woman, also in for murder, arrived in the camp. The friend then became unfaithful to Anya. Unable to forgive her girl friend for being unfaithful, she went to the woodshed to fetch the ax. Ax in hand, she approached her friend's bedside. The friend leaped up and stared at Anya in surprise. Anya advanced slowly and, when close enough, swung the ax right into the middle of her friend's head. Anya smiled as she spoke. For greater effect she added, "And her brains spattered all over the wall!" Having said this, Anya's face screwed up into a broad happy smile, revealing her ugly and prematurely blackened front teeth.
Anya told her story after two inmates were released, based on petitions for parole which I wrote. Bored with twenty-three years in camps, Anya decided that it was time to return to the free world. Life in previous camps was more entertaining and time passed quickly. After writing the anti-Soviet curse on a wall, she found life among nuns difficult. She wanted me to write for her exactly the same "piece of paper" I wrote fur those who were allowed to go home. As cautiously as possible I reminded her that since her case was more complicated then anyone else's, I was not sure what to write. She had to agree that three bodies and a political curse were actual crimes. Evasively, I said I would think about how to write a plea for her.
A happy Anya appeared the next day in the working space that I was given to prepare drawings and posters. With her repulsive face twisted into a smile, she said, "I like you. Let's be friends!" I felt my blood turn to ice. Anya smiled and came closer. I remained quiet, watching her every move. All of a sudden, she stuck her hand into her pocket and stood, smiling. Abruptly she yanked out her hand, stretched it out over my table and put down a gift, a small compact. Apparently there was no reason to fear she might hurt me. She believed I could help her get out of the camp. I worried that she might warmly embrace and kiss me. I quickly suggested, "Sit down please, Anya. I've thought of what to write." She sat down facing me, and waited.
"Tell me Anya, do you have parents?"
"No, I don't have parents, but I do have relatives "
"Would this relative let you stay at his place for a while, once you left here?"
"He would take me in all right, I know it," Anya announced, sounding as if she had already arranged everything with him.
"'Then I'll write that paper stating that you want to stay at your relative's, a Soviet officer's place."
"You're sure good at everything," Anya exclaimed happily.
"And now Anya, go and get some rest, because whenever I'm writing something Important, I need to concentrate. Just give me the facts about your family, your birth and court cases. I wrote down everything she told me.
When the plea was ready we went together to the chief administrator's room. She appeared surprised, looked at me with a strange half-smile and, not knowing what else to say, stated briefly, "Good, I'll send it an."
I never expected this criminal to get a parole. However, after about six months, notice came that she would leave if her final plea expressed deep regret for having killed three persons and more Important, regret for having written the political curse. The final result turned out positive. I don't know how much joy Anya felt over regaining her freedom. The eyes of the camp inmates conveyed the genuine and true joy they felt at her leaving. Anya kept the women in such a state of constant fear that everyone gave her wide berth and gave in to her demands. Anya threatened several women who dared argue with her promising that their stay in this world would end abruptly. No one doubted that she could fulfill her threat.
Even the camp administrator was scared of Anya and always tried to say a word of appreciation especially when Anya was in a bad mood. Once the commander even fled the camp, using the excuse that she had forgotten something. There was a good reason for her flight since the neighboring camp received several criminals from a clique of inmates separated after serious troubles in the Kemerova district. An ugly incident took place there when the inmates chopped off the head of the camp commander and played soccer with the head until the arrival of the Army. Some of the soccer players were brought
to camp #17, across the road from us. In the evenings, Anya yelled out to these new prisoners.
It is difficult to understand people like Valya, Anya, and others sentenced for murder. Op to a certain point they felt rapport for one another, but beyond that they were unpredictable. Every now and then there would be another murder, not because of any special hatred, hut from boredom. In men's camps it was a popular pastime to play cards for people's lives with the loser having to kill the first person to come around the corner.