Helene Celmina. Women in Soviet Prisons

Every spring all the barracks we e whitewashed inside and out. This was dangerous because the whitewashing was done with lime, which if it gets into the eyes, causes blindness. Splashes of lime corrode bare skin, and these wounds heal slowly.

The well-organized whitewashing was carried out on Sun-day, since work for the state was done weekdays. Early in the morning all the bedboards, actually four or five planks nailed together, were taken outside. The younger and stronger women did the whitewashing with tools they made by themselves, as none were provided by the administration. Clumps of last year's grass or old rags cut into thin strips were tied to a stick. This "brush" was dipped into the thin lime solution and banged against me ceiling, covering every nook and cranny.

The older women stayed outside, trying to get rid of the bedbugs in the cracks of the bedboards. It was too difficult to reach the bugs living in the quarters. Often the bugs fell from the ceiling where they lived undisturbed. In desperation a piece of crunched-up paper could be lit and held beside the biggest racks in the bedboards. Partly burned, the bugs fell crackling onto newspapers or sheets spread beneath the beds. "If one could eat bedbugs like raisins, there wouldn't be one left," joked one woman.

Now during whitewashing to stop the bugs from flourishing some women tended a large pot of boiling water with which all bedboards were scoured. The cracks were probed with knitting needles, and finally filled with softened soap. However, once the soap dried and fell out of the cracks, the bugs had snug living spaces again. Then the sacks of wood shavings which served as mattresses were carefully examined. When the whitewashing inside was finished, ten women quickly scrubbed the floors and the clean beds were taken back inside. The outside walls were whitewashed, and the work was done.

After spring cleaning the bugs were bothersome only occasionally. However, by the middle of summer, they multiplied again. Every square meter of the floor area held a body and there was no lack of warm blood. No chemicals against the bugs were provided. The chemicals cost money and prison regulations did not call for them.