Helene Celmina. Women in Soviet Prisons

In the corrective labor camp only the extremely sick and Group I disabled were exempt from work. A Group I disabled is incapable of looking after herself, unable to hold a spoon to feed herself. There was in camp #17-A a young woman who had to be spoonfed by her co-religionists. She was suffering from a heart valve disorder, but Group I status was not granted her because the administration wanted her to have an operation. She refused the operation because as a Jehovah's Witness she could not accept blood transfusions. She had Group 11 status, even though in this particular case her official status did not matter, she was bedridden. Rarely could she leave her bed for more than a short while. Four women carefully put her on a blanket and, holding the corners, carried her to the door of the bathhouse.

Over half the women in camp #17-A were Group II disabled because of age, not sickness. They stoked the furnaces with coal or worked in the bathhouse. Those whose legs were affected and could not move without help worked in bed. They knotted nets from yarn and string. These old and sickly women made net shopping bags which the camp administration sold to stores. Some of the older women without relatives were happy to learn this new craft, with which they could support themselves after leaving camp.

The greedy camp administration decided that the old women could also tie woolen rugs and thus increase the camp's profit. Finally the idea had to be given up since none of the women possessed enough strength.

The Group III disabled had various chronic and acute diseases which limited their capacity for work. I was a Group III disabled because of stomach ulcers. Invalids in this category were taken under armed guard to the fields to perform varied tasks, depending on the season. In the spring cabbages had to be planted. Seedlings were grown under glass in the camp. Eaten every day of the year, cabbages are the staple food in prisons. Even though the prisoners grow, harvest, and preserve the cabbages, the state charges for them.

The cabbage fields were enormous. The portion of the field to be worked on a particular day was marked with wooden signs saying "No entry. Forbidden zone." Every morning before going to the fields, the prisoners lined up by the gates to allow the female guard to check underneath their black uniform dresses for colored clothing. This was to prevent escapes, since black clothing identified them as prisoners. The prisoners were then counted and their identity cards collected. Every prisoner, including the bedridden, has a special card with a photo, giving her name, length of sentence, and the paragraph under which the sentence has been passed. These cards allow the administration to know where every prisoner is at any moment. Before the gates opened, a guard said "morning prayers," that is, gave orders to march in closed columns, to obey all commands, not to converse, not to leave the column. Prisoners disobeying would he shot without warning.

Then, slowly the column started to move. Those who had trouble walking were placed in front to ensure that there would be no stragglers and that the column moved in an orderly fashion. The village through which we passed every day had no discernable road, only dark gray sand without a blade of grass, not even a dandelion. The lack of greenery looked unnatural, however it resulted from the collective scratching of the villagers' hens and pigs.

On the way to work the column moved slowly to shorten the actual working period. Returning from work, these same women who in the morning barely dragged themselves along, marched with such a lively step that one wondered where all this energy came from. On reaching the field, the prisoners squatted on the ground till the warning signs were in place. Then two of the stronger women carried a little wooden latrine shed to the middle of the field where a third one dug a hole. A wooden cask of drinking water was brought to the field in a horse drawn wagon. Bread, a mug, and spoon were brought along by the prisoners themselves. One was also allowed to bring salt.

Planting cabbages was not difficult. One woman would walk ahead digging holes with a spade while another placed the seedlings in the holes. The seedlings were carried to the fields in nursery boxes and left on the edge of the field. The hardest task was watering since water had to he carried from the river in pails. Although the river adjoined one side of the field, the other side of the field was a long way off. The watering was done in shifts.

Lunch, such as it was, was brought to the fields in large metal containers. Sitting on the ground to eat was fine when it wasn't raining and the soil was dry. However, fights broke out when the guards ordered the prisoners to sit in the mud. During rain, dark water from the wet hems of the women's black dresses ran down their bare legs coloring them black. Only during prolonged rainy periods did work in the fields cease.

Once it rained for a whole week. Since the soil of Mordovia is mostly clay and could not absorb all that water, little lakes formed in the low lying areas and remained for several days. Some of the roads on which we walked to work were flooded. The women holding their dresses high, looking like ostriches, slowly moving through the water, presented a strange sight. The cold water reached to the knees or higher on the bare footed women, but the guards wore high rubber boots. In one place the water was so deep that the women were ferried across by tractor, and later, when the water subsided a little, by horse-drawn wagon. Several fields of cabbages were also flooded and in the sky-blue water the heads of the cabbages looked like tiny islands arranged in neat and orderly rows.

Much of the summer was spent thinning and weeding sugarbeets. Sugarbeet tops were our best meal, far tastier than sauerkraut soup. We carried the tops back to the camp zone as well. Sometimes we were allowed to carry the tops into camp and sometimes not, in which case they were left to wilt on the ground by the camp gate. The recipe for cooking sugarbeet tops was simple; the tops were rinsed, torn into pieces, and sprinkled with salt. Hot water was poured over the tops and bread-crumbs stirred into the resulting broth, to produce a meal fit for the gods.

Once I worked for a few days thinning red beets. Like most beginners, I pulled out weeds and smaller plants, leaving the larger ones to grow. The more experienced women taught me to pull the larger ones and leave the little ones. Working with the red beets provided a daily feast of at least ten beets the size of radishes. We also ate the beet tops and tried to bring them back for friends in the camp.

A successful propaganda campaign against us women prisoners had been carried out in the criminal men's camp where our food was cooked. Often we met these men, escorted by guards and dogs, as they walked to work in the fields. The men's eyes expressed hatred. They swore at us, adding to every filthy swear word that beloved Russian adjective "fascist." Sometimes we walked close to the black-clad males who became especially aggressive, throwing lumps of dried clay. On those occasions the guards looked away, pretending to see nothing. Only the dogs barked in confusion. Considering the fact that Russian males have an inordinate interest in women and seek desparately to talk to any women around, the men's behavior proved that they had been told unimaginably horrible things about us.

Only two young male convicts were not hostile. They were trustees, unguarded, who drove wagons transporting various necessities, including our drinking water. Trustees are criminals not convicted of serious theft, rape, or similar offences; usually trustees have been convicted for non-payment of alimony, disturbing the peace, vandalism, or other petty crimes.

One of the men, Kolya, had drawn a two year sentence for fighting in a public place, in front of a restaurant. He was in the restaurant with a girl whom two other males also found attractive. The two strangers grabbed at the girl. Kolya beat up both of her unwelcome admirers.

Kolya brought us our tools and our luncheon soup. Sometimes he secretly threw down a handful of green onion tops which he gathered to make our soup more palatable. On those occasions he winked so we would know in which direction to look for this delicacy. Kolya was not allowed to talk to us.

Nevertheless he sometimes drove his cart near enough that we could exchange a few words. Once his horse appeared out of control close to me. Scared of the horse, I jumped away noticing at the same time something falling off the cart. Everyone, even the guards, watched the horse while I saw two cucumbers and a bunch of green onions. Not knowing how I deserved this kindness, my joy was indescribable. Nevertheless my first thought was "who is on guard duty tonight?" because I now faced the problem of getting at least one cucumber into the camp to she with someone else. Giving provides joy. In a place visited by joy only rarely, all opportunities to give must to be seized with alacrity. I decided to smuggle only one cucumber into camp. While continuing to work, I turned my back on the guards and swiftly and unobtrusively consumed one of my precious cucumbers. To look for salt would have made me too conspicuous.

During the working day my cucumber and onion tops remained hidden in a little heap of weeds and beet tops. Shortly before leaving for the camp I knelt and gathered up my hidden goodies. I hid the cucumber in the front of my dress. That evening because there was a fairly decent guard on duty, I hoped that I would not be searched down to my skin. I placed the onion tops on my sleeve which I rolled up. Nothing showed, and I felt confident of getting them into camp. I openly carried the beet tops in my hand. Arriving at the camp we lined up in fours, waiting for the guards to check us in. There was no serious search, the guards merely looked into our food satchels, counted us, opened the gate and let us in. My smuggling operation was successful!

All able-bodied women worked in the clothing factory and had no opportunities to acquire fresh food to alleviate the monotony of cabbage soup and porridge. Thus my fresh cucumber brought great enthusiasm and even greater amazement because everyone knew cucumbers did not grow in the beet fields. I gave the cucumber to Zelma who gave half to another friend. The onion tops I divided among three people, who probably divided them again, down to one stalk per person. Since beet tops were easy to obtain we handed them out right and left. This was our way to store up vitamins for the winter when there was no fresh food of any kind available.

Some prisoners received money from home with which they ordered Soviet newspapers and magazines which contained mostly communist propaganda. No matter how much money a prisoner had, there were no opportunities to buy a fresh apple or even a single lettuce leaf. Had the prisoners been allowed to keep their money, they might have bribed the guards to bring vegetables into camp from the village store. However the money was kept by the camp cashier.

Judging by conversations among the guards the village store stocked little besides liquor. When we walked to work through the center of the village we could see what the villagers bought in the store. Cotton net shopping bags are universally used throughout Russia. Except for Moscow and other large cities, nothing is wrapped in Russia. Unwashed potatoes are thrown together with bread and other baked goods, while salt herrings are simply carried in one's hand.

Once an open potato wagon stood by the village store. The guards did not notice it in time to take the women across the street. The women in our camp were not thieves, most of them were deeply religious. Nevertheless every one fell on the wagon and grabbed at least two potatoes. The guards threatened to shoot, but without an official order they couldn't. The Imprisoned women knew that survival depends on learning how to feed themselves. The shouts of the guards were no more effective than the yapping of puppies. When a guard raised his voice and started to abuse the prisoners, the women yelled back. It was useless trying to scare those who have been threatened for years.

For a whole week we hoed the onion fields. This was an extremely pleasant job for various reasons. To begin with, the road to the onion fields led past fields of carrots. The guards' shouts and threats were ignored as every woman leaped into the carrot field to pull out as many carrots as possible. In the onion fields we ate as many onions as we wanted, and hid the onion tops in our clothing. The main challenge was to smuggle whole onions into the camp for friends. A teacher from Lithuania was especially clever in this maneuver. For several days she carried onions into camp for those who needed them most. But the day arrived when her smuggling was discovered. To everyone's surprise the female guard went straight to the teacher and pulled onions from her hair, one after the other, six in all. We wondered how the guard discovered the onions so easily. Perhaps one of the prisoners observed the teacher removing the onions and, resentful that none was offered to her, betrayed the teacher.

To prolong the feast of the onions everyone worked as slowly as possible. The fields were cared for with extreme love, so that even the tiniest weed did not escape. The work norms in the fields were so unrealistic that even with the best effort we could never fulfill them. Thus we didn't try and consequently never received pay. Our recompense was what we could eat and bring into camp; the sunshine and fresh air were treasures by themselves. Even though the field workers were invalids we actually looked healthier, bronzed by the sun and wind, than those who spent long days at their sewing machines in the clothing factory.

Our greatest pay for the summer's work came at fall harvest. In the spring any green shoot by the roadside was valuable, while in the summer the sugarbeet tops were treasured. By the fall the beet tips lost their value. Cucumbers were harvested first. They were delicious eaten in the fields, and were nearly impossible to smuggle into camp. The guards asked the escorting soldiers where we had worked that day. If we worked with sugarbeets, the guards did not bother to search us, but if we worked with onions, cucumbers, or other valuable vegetables, the search was thorough. One way to frustrate the search was to wrap a small cucumber in a handkerchief and hold it in one's hand. During the search one raised one's arms, still holding the cucumber, and the guard ran her hands over one's body without finding anything.

Kolya transported the harvested cucumbers to the village store where the camp guards and administrators bought them by the sackful. The cucumbers were pickled and eaten until the following spring. There isn't a Russian village home that does not have row upon row of wooden casks containing pickled cucumbers and sauerkraut. Cucumbers and cabbages are grown near every camp. While the prisoners are fed cabbage every day of the year, they are never given any cucumbers.

The heads of cabbages grow enormous in Russia, especially since there are no pests, not even a single cabbage moth. Usually the cabbages are sliced with a special cutter and salted in a medium-size wooden cask. A few chopped carrots or cranberries are added. For prisoner consumption the cabbages are chopped with an ax, like firewood. The pieces are thrown into an enormous vat buried in the ground. The heavier women, wearing special long rubber boots, sprinkle salt on the cabbages and stomp them down. It is Impossible to clean the huge vat properly. The remains of the past year's sauerkraut lends a had taste to the sauerkraut in winter, but in autumn nobody worries about it.

The greatest feast was harvesting the potatoes. The potato fields were large and the harvesting usually lasted three weeks. Potatoes could be eaten raw, after cleaning them with a piece of glass and adding a little salt. Some guards allowed us to build a fire, and then we baked the potatoes. Smuggling the potatoes into the camp, however, remained a problem. During the potato harvest the searches at the camp gates were especially stringent. Once a woman imprisoned for religious offences was found with a whole stockingful of potatoes tied underneath her dress. Her potatoes were confiscated and she was punished toy having to sort rags in the clothing factory several days.

Other women baked the potatoes, peeled and mashed them into their drinking mug which every field worker carried. Usually the mugs were not confiscated. Only when the guard was feeling especially ornery would she throw the white mashed potatoes into the dark soil, thus demonstrating her power.

While the rest of the harvest was counted by the sackful, potatoes were weighed by the bushel basket. Every full basket contained ten kilograms of potatoes, and everyday I stood on the platform of a heavy truck hauling up and emptying about one thousand baskets of potatoes. During the potato harvest everyone went to the fields to eat, even if they could hardly work. Thus the amount of work varied: Some picked a great many baskets while some barely gathered ten during the day. There were rest periods while the potatoes were trucked to sorting sheds.

On one occasion I carried watercolors and paper to the field. When fall cast a golden glow over the landscape the desire to paint was irresistable. There were woods on two sides of the potato field. Between the field and the woods were narrow strips of meadow on which several dozen haystacks stood. The haystacks belonged to the families of the guards, each of which kept a cow. These haystacks, lit by the afternoon sun were lovely. Behind the haystacks was a thick grove of young, dark green spruce, among which the yellow tops of a few birches stood out. In front of the spruce grew white birch trees, and the haystacks were surrounded 6y a fence of thin white birch saplings. A rich and beautiful autumnal landscape.

The rest periods weren't long, and my watercolor was finished in about twenty minutes. The truck returned as I was adding the last shadows to the foot of the haystacks. I put my colors and the still-wet painting on the grass to dry and returned to my job. When the evening came and I was too exhausted to continue lifting the baskets, the guards allowed another woman to help me. This day, a jeep arrived out of which stepped the commander of the guard of all the nearby camps, the chief of operations and two other officers. Such a procession was never seen before and work slowed down considerably.

Our escort that day was Yuri Kashirski and a soldier from the regular Army. Kashirski spoke to the officers. He pointed to me. Every officer looked in my direction and I strained to hear what Kashirski was saying: " ... she fixed this area with absolute precision and I therefore considered it my duty to report it. Imagine the consequences if a plan of this strategically important object was secretly conveyed to the Pentagon!"

The officers approached and asked to see what I drew that day. Greatly puzzled I came down from the truck platform, went to the edge of the field, picked up my now-dry watercolor which I handed to the chief of operations. He looked at it casually and demanded to see the other drawings I made that day. I explained that this was the only one. The officers took another look at the watercolor of the seven haystacks, five birches, and a grove of spruces. Of course the chief of operations, convinced that I was hiding something, did not believe me.

He called Kashirski and asked him: "What did that drawing look like?" stressing the word "that." Kashirski looked at me with his only good eye, and said fawningly that this was it. The boss took the drawing nearer to Kashirski and asked him to take another look. Again Kashirski confirmed that this was the only painting I made that afternoon. "But this is just an ordinary landscape," said one of the officers. Kashirski tried to explain that it wasn't ordinary at all: the barracks housing the soldiers doing guard duty were near, while behind the village were three large prison zones, and on the other side of the woods were the kennels where guard dogs were bred. The painting would allow the Pentagon to ascertain the exact location of these strategically important objects. I suppressed laughter as it occurred to me that maybe Kashirski, suffering from heat stroke, lost his wits.

The chief of operations curtly stated that he saw n such thing in the drawing, returned it to me, exchanged glances with the other officers and marched back to the jeep. When they in the jeep, everyone laughed. Obviously one of officers said something sarcastic about Kashirski. Then sped toward the village center, leaving a cloud of gray dust behind. It was time to stop work. Quickly we emptied the last baskets of potatoes, gathered the food satchels with our spoons and mugs, formed a column and walked back to camp. Kashirski slunk along at the rear of the column like a dog with his tail between his legs.

That incident was talked about for days in the camp. Every prisoner wanted a good look at the "strategically important" watercolor. The watercolor became so popular that later in the winter I made an oil painting of it which I hung up. The story spread in the village also. Several female guards, laughing at Kashirski, pointed out their own haystacks in the painting and named the owners of the other haystacks.

After the harvest, the potatoes were sorted. The camps contracted to deliver a portion of the harvest to the state. The large potatoes were stored in huge cellars, the small ones, used to feed the prisoners, were covered with straw and soil. Even the invalids in Group II who could barely walk the kilometer to the sorting sheds volunteered. Everyone longed to taste a potato which never appeared in its natural state on the camp menu. Nor the stronger women, sorting the potatoes was fairly heavy work. The sorted potatoes were put in- large wooden chests, each holding one hundred kilograms. The instructions specified that two people should carry the chest to the storage bins. However because invalids could not manage, four carried each chest by the handles. When the potato level rose in the bins to the height of a man, lifting a hundred kilos of potatoes plus the ten kilogram chest was difficult. However working with the potatoes was enjoyable.

Not only people, but the village pigs enjoyed the potato harvest as well. One day a sow with her two piglets arrived at the sorting sheds. The piglets were petted and their backs scratched. When o e of the older women lay down on her side to rest during a lunch break, a piglet contentedly cuddled up against her stomach. The woman looked happy because she was the one chosen by the piglet as its "mama."

After the potatoes, the carrots were harvested. Even though everyone worked as slowly as possible because the carrot fields were small, the harvesting was finished in a few days. In order to smuggle the carrots into the camp, we grated them into our drinking mugs. The graters were made from the lid of a tin can in which holes were punched with a nail. The graters passed from hand to hand so that everybody could grate a few carrots into her mug.

Last to be harvested we sugarbeets and the beets used as cattle feed. The cattle feed beets tasted good if eaten with salt and bread. The sugarbeets weren't tasty, and we only ate their tops.

Work in the fields lasted for six months, from May until November. When the harvest was in, my half-year's earnings amounted to twenty-three tiny onions. I put them in a stocking under my bed so that during a casual inspection it could not be seen. The onion were the only supplement to the meager prison fare during the winter months, not only for me but for my friends who had nothing.