Helene Celmina. Women in Soviet Prisons

After several months in solitary, I was suddenly transferred to another cell. The door opened and I stood face to face with another woman. I felt peculiar; after months of no conversation, I was suddenly with another person. I said "Hello."

She responded, "Hello."

After a quick appraisal I was convinced of her rural origin and asked gently: "Do you come from the country?"

She replied energetically, "No, from Moscow."

To give weight to her answer, she struck a pose like an army general reviewing a parade. She told me she studied at the library institute in Moscow, graduated, and moved to Riga. In Riga, however, she was not received with proper respect, given neither a suitable job nor an apartment, and was arrested. Only after recognizing her importance did I have a chance to give my name and to ask for hers, which was Erna.

I looked carefully at Erna again. My first impression was not wrong, she was a country girl. Recalling her complaint about the apartment, I asked, "Where did you live in Riga?"

"With my girlfriend on Moon Street. She used the room, I slept in the kitchen."

"And where was your apartment in Moscow?'

"I had no apartment, I lived in the student dormitory."

"You said you came from Moscow. I thought you were a resident of Moscow," I teased.

She stopped acting so superior. "No, I studied in Moscow for four years."

"Where are your parents?"

"My mother lives in the Latvian district of Tukums; my father is dead, and my mother is remarried."

"But where did you spend your childhood?" I persisted.

"At home with my mother, of course."

"In the district of Tukums?"


"I knew you came from the country," I insisted, because her conceited, aggressive air annoyed me.

"I attended elementary school in the country, but later I went to technical school in Riga."

"All right, all right. Tell the court. I don't need any explanations," I said lightly and began to organize my belongings: a mug, a spoon, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a comb, and a few articles of underwear. We were chatting when I noticed pens and writing paper on her shelf. Surprised, I said, "I see you have a whole office here."

She, in turn, showed surprise. "Why, yes, I need it. I must have paper with me at all times. I can suddenly remember something, and if I do not write it down immediately, I may forget."

"But that is against the rules."

"The interrogator gave it to me, and what them interrogator does is the rule here."

I thought, "Then the interrogator and you, my friend, both sing the same tune."

She had been here since April, I since June. We both started in solitary cells, but she spent only three nights in hers. She was with another woman since. Then the other one was taken away and I was brought in. I could not decide which I preferred: to be alone, or to share a cell with her.

The next day I practically had the cell to myself. Early in the morning Erna was taken upstairs. At noon she was back for an hour, then returned upstairs and stayed until six o'clock. Work usually stopped in the Cheka at that hour, but if the accused or the witness started to say something important, questioning could continue until ten o'clock at night. (Recently night interrogations were discontinued. However during Stalin's regime, most interrogations were held at night.)

Erna was in a good mood upon returning from the interrogation. I thought to myself, this cat likes it here. She told me how handsome the interrogator was, she reminisced about other men, and she bragged about visitors she used to receive at night.

A few days later Erna mentioned that she was involved in a group case with seven men. I was surprised that she had not mentioned it earlier. When I inquired, she insisted that she knew no more.

"How did you get trapped'?" I asked.

"I do not know about the others, hut I was under surveillance for a long time," she replied.

"How do you know that?"

"Look, I lived on the first floor in a frame house. On the street side the windows were so low that, standing on a stool, any one could see everything that happened in the room."

"You don't believe that the Chekists put a stool to your window and watched what you did?'

"Not always. Only when I had a visitor."

"How do you know?'

"During interrogation they told me in detail everything that had happened in my home."

"You said that you lived in the kitchen."

"They must have looked through the kitchen window."

"I still can't imagine that anyone stood on a stool and watched through the windows."

"They did at my house."

"All right," I said, to finish the futile argument.

Next day, early, a pail of water and a rag were handed into the cell. The previous day, bothered by the dirt on the walls, I asked the guard for soap. The walls were coated with a dark gray oil-based paint. Amused, Erna said I should wash the walls in every cell. When she smiled, her eyes became strangely narrow. Her mouth closed; and her unusually thin lips became even thinner. I finished the walls, washed the floor where my bed stood and passed the pail to Erna.

Then we were taken to the showers. As we passed along the underground hallway, I noticed that the locks remained covered with a thick coat of dust. In the afternoon we were interrogated upstairs. Erna was taken first. I followed about fifteen minutes later. We went to interrogation daily, as others go to work. Back in the cell I always had the urge to ask how the interrogation went, and relate what happened at mine, but usually I kept most things to myself. Erna returned upset and immediately started to write a complaint to Moscow. It required two days and several sheets. She did not show it to me but read a few quotes from Lenin. I was amazed and remarked, "You must be a genius to quote Lenin by heart."

"I have read a lot of Lenin. These quotes are not quite by heart. But I know they are from the twentieth volume." She produced the volume. I was speechless, not knowing how to deal with a person who slept on Lenin's volumes in the Cheka.

When I recovered, I asked where she had gotten it.

"I asked for it. There is a library here, and every library must have the works of Lenin."

"You should have quoted Lenin while you were free; now it s probably too late. Or do you plan to gain the favor of some influential person by making him believe your head is full of Lenin and nothing else?"

"Not at all! I use these quotations in my case," came her reply.

I did not want to argue, but I thought: Your case is strange, you are strange, and I do not believe a word you say. I wondered whether she might be a paid informer. I was surprised by her flippant attitude toward her arrest, presence in the Cheka, and expectation of a sentence of no less than seven years.

Her elation upon returning from the interrogation annoyed me, as I always returned depressed. Every question stung like the blow of an invisible whip, leaving a burning pain around my heart for several hours. Inwardly I was always apprehensive; to. appear indifferent was exhausting but absolutely necessary when I was shown photographs of acquaintances, because I did not want to talk about them. Therefore, I could not understand how anybody's mood could be improved through interrogation. At those times Erna seemed so unnatural, so exalted that I had no desire to talk to her. Only later did I understand how susceptible Erna was in the proximity of men. Being in the same room and breathing the same air with a man lifted her spirits. However this fact was unhelpful to those men accused with Erna. As she had not seen them for some time, she "neglected" them and did not hesitate to talk about them, saying anything that occurred to her, good or bad.

Within the month I was transferred from Erna's cell back to a single cell. I felt like a chess piece which an unseen player moves according to his strategy. Back in the single cell, I did not know whether to be glad or sad. However I was there only one week when the unseen chess player placed me in a cell with an unfortunate woman. Of course, no one told me who she was, where she came from, or why she was here.

When the door opened I saw a well-groomed, well-dressed, deeply distressed woman. In her bright scarlet imported jacket, she sat on the edge of the bed, with tear-swollen eyes. It was clear she came from good circumstances and had led a pampered life. She did not hesitate to tell me what had happened.

Unusual things had begun to happen in Riga. Lawyers, judges, and procurators were arrested. Bribery was involved. Presumably, one could not bribe procurators or judges. Therefore, bribers whose arrested relatives could expect stiff penalties for mismanagement of state property found lawyers who were on friendly terms with procurators. In that manner the lawyers became the middlemen in the bribery cases. The Riga jurist bribery investigation was entrusted to Moscow jurists because, according to law, colleagues in Riga could not be assigned to the cases.

A few days before, my cellmate, a lawyer and middleperson in bribery, was arrested. The arrested jurists had nothing to do with the Cheka, but prosecutors and judges could not be placed in the Central Prison with criminals, because they would be killed within the first few days, without an investigation or judgement. For this reason-the Cheka "rented" their premises to ensure the safety of the jurists during the investigation. The lawyers had no reason to fear the prisoners' revenge; they were here for convenience. This woman lawyer had been unable to tolerrate the single cell for more than two days, so she asked her Moscow interrogator to place her with another woman.

In principle everything was clear. Because of her legal training, she was reconciled to her guilt and expected sentence, but she could not deal with the manner of her arrest. It is not enough in the Soviet Union to arrest, jail, and render harsh sentences to innocent people (while many a professional criminal gets the minimum penalty, or even gets off scot-free). The main element of the Soviet system lies in humiliating the arrested person.

If a suspect has taken part in a criminal action, and if he has a permanent residence, nothing is simpler than to go to his home. show him the order for arrest, and take him to jail. The arrest can be made equally successfully in the morning as in the evening after work. If there is doubt whether the suspect is at home, a telephone call can dispel it. But that way there would be no humiliation and the arrest would lose its effect. Therefore, someone decided that my cellmate should be arrested in the courtroom where she was the attorney in a major court case. She was taken directly from the courtroom.

"Three militiamen came in, approached the judge, showed them their documents and told him what they needed" she told me. "Then they came up to me and announced that I was being arrested in the name of the law."

"And you stood up and followed them?"

"Of course. What else could I do? First I picked up my papers, which were immediately taken away from me. I glanced at my clients and they nodded at me four encouragement."

"You had several clients?"

"Yes, four."

"How many were accused in the case?"

"There were sixty people altogether. It was a big case. You may have heard of it, the one about the drivers."

"No, I don't know about it. What kind of drivers were they, why were so many accused?"

"They were bus drivers on long runs. Certain passengers took the buses to work regularly and dropped in their fares, but did not take their tickets. So every day some ticket money got into the drivers' pockets."

"But most people on buses are strangers, except for the morning and evening regulars," I commented.

"Strangers, of course were given tickets. If once in a while someone said that he did not need a ticket, the driver became suspicious and gave the passenger his ticket anyway. Only if some old woman from the country refused her ticket she was not pressured into taking one."

"But how could you defend four clients in one case?"

"If they have no quarrels and contradictions among themselves, it is possible. Besides, they each had their own bus and their own route."

"And it's not enough that they have to go to court. They even have to witness the arrest of their lawyer," I added.

"Yes, that is how those damned officials worked it."

"Would the case have gone on much longer?"

"No, only about two weeks were needed before the sentence."

"Most likely your clients were offered another lawyer?"

"Yes, they were offered one, but all four unanimously declined, saying they did not need another lawyer."

"They must really respect you."

"What respect? What sense is there in talking about respect now that I'm sitting in prison? The drivers counted on me and they declined another lawyer in protest."

I enjoyed the lawyer's company. She had a peculiar name. When she was born in Russia, it was fashionable to give children names relating to the revolution and the party. Spelling "Lenin" backwards created her name "Ninel." Every time Ninel returned from interrogation, her eyes were red from crying, and once inside the cell she continued to cry.

I never cried, and I disliked her perpetual crying, so I tried to divert her. She felt sorry for herself and was anxious for her child who was left in her mother's care. Also she was afraid of losing her husband. The typical Russian scenario goes: As soon as a wife is imprisoned, her husband applies for a divorce to preserve his party honour and his career. Ninel's worries turned out to be well founded. Though the investigation was not completed, it was obvious that she would spend several years in jail. Her husband had already begun divorce proceedings. Despite the fact that Ninel knew our conversations were overheard, she repeatedly advised me how to act at a particular interrogation. Her advice was given indirectly by relating episodes from her practice. She would say, for example: "I have often asked my client 'What devil pulled you by the tail to tell the interrogator things which had not been disclosed and which nobody could prove? By telling the interrogator the whole truth you have created a case against yourself. How am I to defend you? How am I to turn into an unproven fact something you yourself have blurted out?" Time passed rapidly in Ninel's company because she had many interesting cases to relate.

One day Ninel returned from interrogation visibly upset because two more lawyers were arrested. Unable to control her disgust, Ninel started to rail against the district procurator, a woman, who betrayed everyone. The first one caught was the procurator herself, who accepted a large sum from a mother for her arrested son. In spite of accepting the money, the procurator still requested the maximum penalty for that crime.

"Why did she act like that? None of us understand. The only possible explanation is her constant drinking."

"But would she come to court drunk?" I asked.

"Of course she would. I once took part in a trial at which my charming 'procurator' could hardly sit up. She had to support her head with her hand to try to stay awake."

"And you think that she simply didn't realize what she was doing by asking the maximum instead of the minimum penalty?"

"She couldn't have. There's no other explanation."

"What happened next?"

"The mother who paid the money, which she borrowed with great difficulty, shouted and complained through the court that despite her six thousand her son still received the maximum penalty! Let me tell you, that case was unpleasant for the middleman. He's one of my colleagues, a sick man. I feel for him." Ninel continued, "At first the procurator kept quiet and did not betray anyone, as she planned to keep the case from reaching court, since she held such a high opinion of herself and her ability to talk. Rut when she realized that a trial was unavoidable, she decided that if she had to serve time, so would everyone else."

"Hard-hearted bitch," I exclaimed.

"Hard-hearted, indeed! She lacks a heart altogether. I will never forget the trial at which she asked for the maximum penalty, seven years, for a mother of four small children, for pilfering six spools of thread from the factory after work."

"What did the court do?"

"The court gaffer five years, as it had no right to differ by more than two years from the procurator's demand."

"So now, you say, she doesn't want to serve time alone?" I asked.

"Well she asked for the interrogator and listed all the lawyers she could remember, including me. Then she added names of people who had nothing to do with her or the trial."

"So she's dishonest too. Couldn't you sense what kind of person she was before you got mixed up with her?"

"I only had two experiences with her, both for petty hooliganism, involving small sums."

"Now you're in prison because of your kind heart. What sentence do you expect?"

"Up to five years, and after that I will never be permitted to practice my profession ever again. I will only be allowed to work as a law consultant in some factory. My life and my career are finished."

"But what if you moved to another city after you're released?"

"That wouldn't help. In my speciality I couldn't be without a report from my previous job."

"Listening to you I can see mine is the better fate."

"You always compare everything."

"Yes, that comes naturally to me. By comparing myself with another person, I become aware of my own life. When I was put here, for the first few days I thought a gross error had been made, and once it was cleared up, I would he released. When I realized that my release wasn't forthcoming, I became very depressed But then I thought of Mary Stuart, imprisoned for most of her life, only to be beheaded afterwards. And then my own sorrows, by comparison, seemed so small and unimportant that I had to laugh."

"You are aiming high, comparing yourself to a queen," said Ninel jokingly, "you are a dreamer."

"Queen or no queen, she was a human being, and suffering does not choose its object. Who can forbid me to compare myself to whomever I choose, if that makes me feel better?"

"You're right, it is good to have such a vivid imagination. I see things only realistically and can convince myself of nothing else."

Seeing how much Ninel suffered, I felt sorry for her. We spent a good part of the preliminary investigation time together, before I became seriously ill and was taken to the prison hospital for x-rays. We had grown accustomed to each other and did not want to part. Later I heard via the prison telegraph that Ninel, for her kind heart received the five years. That was a severe penalty. The second, even more severe penalty was the disintegration of her family. The third punishment for the same crime was the loss of the right to continue her practice.

Three severe punishment for one offense: That is the Soviet reality.