Helene Celmina. Women in Soviet Prisons

Mail is eagerly awaited in the camps. With the exception of those few letters and telegrams telling of the death of a relative or other bad news, mail brings great joy to the inmates. In truth, mail is virtually the only link between the prisoners and the outside world.

Sometimes a whole year, or even two, Pass before a prisoner is allowed to write to family; before the trial sending or receiving mail is forbidden. After sentencing, the law allows every prisoner to write two letters a month, but only to members of the family. Only if there are no close relatives can a friend's name be put in the prisoner's personal file and permission is obtained from both the judge and the camp administration to correspond with that particular person. No mail is allowed to or from other friends.

All letters to family members must be put in the camp's mailbox, with envelopes unsealed. Because every letter is read by a censor, no letter is ever delivered sooner than a fortnight. All letters from the outside are opened. Sometimes the stamps are removed. However, not even the obliteration of whole sentence with black printer's ink can diminish the joy of hearing from home. Many women serving ten or fifteen year sentences never received one letter. These women either had no family left, or had relatives who never wrote.

Sometimes a happy prison , carrying a letter or several letters meets one of the unfortunate ones who never receive mail, and resolves after release to write letters of encouragement and understanding to her camp acquaintance and friends. Then comes the day of release. Farewells are exchanged between who, for years have slept, eaten, and worked side by side suffered cold, pain, and privation together. With many hugs and tears, the one for whom the gateway to freedom opens in ten or fifteen minutes promises: "I'll write to you, to all of you. ' Sometimes a letter or two arrives, but sometimes the tearful and sincere promise is forgotten a soon as the prison gates close. Occasionally the promise is kept. Some people keep in touch even in- freedom, tied by common fate and interests.

Besides letters, relatives also send newspapers, magazine and books published in the Soviet Union. Material published in satellite countries, Poland or East Germany, is not allowed into the camps. Writing materials, paper, pencils, and even watercolors, can be sent.

Sometimes dear, well-meaning relatives enclose mall bar of chocolate with the magazine and newspapers. Because this is not allowed, the whole packet is returned to the sender. Sometimes a kindly guard can be bribed into keeping the chocolate for herself and handing over the magazines and newspapers to the prisoner. Even sometimes the guard will allow the prisoner to eat the chocolate, but only if there witness.

Instead of chocolate, sometimes a piece of soap or a tube of toothpaste is enclosed. Then the inmate listened patiently to the reproofs and instructions to advise one's relatives not to send forbidden goods. After the rebuke, the wrapper was removed from the soap, which was carefully scrutinized for hidden writing, the tube of toothpaste examined for illegal enclosure , sender and receiver scolded again and finally, the articles were handed over to the inmate.

Food packages seldom arrived at the camp because they could only be received, and with special permission of the camp administration, after serving half of the sentence. Not everybody merited the permission. Other things could go wrong. Vera, sentenced to seven years and having served five, should have had the privilege of receiving food parcels from home. A good worker, she had not incurred other penalties. Permission was refused several times n various pretexts, but finally it was granted. Several months later a food parcel arrived, but Vera was not allowed to take it because the sender was not a close enough relation. The fact that Vera grew up in an orphanage because her parents were dead was stated in her personal file. However the distant relative who sent the parcel was not named in the file. In its bureaucratic zeal the administration returned the parcel because packets from unauthorized senders were not allowed in-to camp #17-A. Vera's bitter tears were to no avail.

A strange food parcel was sent by a mother to her daughter who already spent more than twenty years in the camps. This parcel was authorized so the daughter could receive it. To everybody's surprise, the parcel contained nothing but sunflower seeds. Russians and sunflower seeds go together like horses and oats. The floors of provincial clubs and theaters are always thickly covered with husks of these seeds which are considered snack food. When some of the inmates expressed their astonishment at this unusual parcel, she explained that her mother is poor and unable to get to Moscow to shop for food. In the country, the only obtainable foodstuff were the sunflower seeds. She was telling the truth, and was happy to receive her parcel which came from a mother with love.