Helene Celmina. Women in Soviet Prisons

All who have spent time in the Potyma Archipelago of the Mordovian Autonomous Republic know where camp #3 is. All the camps in the Archipelago are connected by a narrow gauge railroad, at the end of which is camp #3, the combined hospital for all camps. One was taken to the hospital only in cases, such as operations, pregnancies, or diseases requiring continuous laboratory analysis or x-rays. Naturally toothaches did not qualify for the hospital, regardless of how painful they were. No dental care was provided in camp #17-A. Once while, generally during the summer, a dentist would visit.

All aching teeth were yanked out and occasionally also those that were not. Because the dentist was there for one day only, there no time for repairs and fillings. However, if one was taken to camp #3 for laboratory tests or x-rays, on could sec a dentist as well. Only the camp doctor could approve a transfer to the hospital, except in s of sudden serious illness, when the camp's free medical assistant could.

The medic normally accompanied a patient during the transfer to the hospital, in medical help was needed along the way. The trip was not long, but rough, over a road that was merely a forest clearing filled with potholes and ruts. It seemed amazing that the administration having access to the cheapest labor never thought of constructing a decent dirt track, let alone a paved one. Whenever it rained, the area flooded because the clay soil could absorb no water. Trucks could barely get through the deepest holes. Every now and then the truck would threaten to tip over.

For those sitting inside the windowless compartment, the experience was terrible-no air, tossing around and swaying. Motion sickness is almost inevitable. When the trip is finally over, and one steps out of the truck, the ground seems to continue swaying.

Waiting for the train the prisoners must sit on the ground, regardless of season or whether the ground is dry. Seated prisoners are easier to guard. When the train arrives the prisoners are placed in the cages. The guards on these train are always "the sons of the steppes" from Central Asia, young men who do not speak Russian, but have been taught to bark out orders.

The hospital is by the railroad. When the train stops, the men are lined up and driven through the gate of the male zone and the women through their gate. When I went the female guards were only interested in the slips that contained our first name, surname, father's me, paragraph, length of sentence, and the number of the camp we came from. After our papers were checked, we, the only three women there, were put into a waiting room. After a long wait, a different guard took us to the hospital block that was also a barracks, where we were placed in the care of a nurse who was a prisoner. She briefly went through the list of clothing allowed. Because of the cold, end-of-November weather, with rain puddles already frozen could keep more than we would have summertime. We kept footwear, stockings, underwear, head scarf and gloves, if anyone had them. The rest was stored to be returned when we left the hospital. They gave us each a coarse shirt, yellowed from repeated washing, and a gray padded smock. I put on the shirt and was about to pick up the smock when I noticed it was filthy. The other two had already pot on smocks equally filthy with caked dirt on the neck and lapels. Without putting on the smock, I stood shivering. The same nurse returned and told me to pick up my clothing and follow her to the store. I asked for a clean smock. The nurse gave me an odd look, and added in a coarse, smoker's voice, "Just think. We've got a lady here! It's good enough for everybody but not for her! We don't have any others."

"If you don't, you don't. But I'm not going to put it on."

"Yes you are. Everyone wears one and so will you!"

"I wouldn't think of it"

"I'll call the guard!"

"Go ahead."

"I don't have time to fight with an oddball like you. Let's go."

The nurse yanked open the door, the other two grabbed their things and followed into the yard. I hesitated, then seeing that it was senseless to fight, I picked up my things and, clad in the shirt, crossed the yard to the store.

It started to snow. Tiny snowflakes landed on my naked shoulders and melted, leaving droplets. By the time we reached the store, I could not give my name, because my teeth were chattering.

The nurse haughtily explained to the women the store, "'This lady doesn't like our clothes. They're too common for her. She needs them straight from Paris."

The woman shook her head; "Now you cannot please everybody."

I kept quiet. The second prisoner pretended not to hear anything but the third one observed that the hospital instead of handing out such dirty smocks, should wash them at least once a year.

The man in the store now explained solemnly, "Look here! We do wash the smocks once a year, each summer. But who's to blame when we run into pigs that wipe their noses and behinds on the corners of their smocks? We cannot wash them more often because we don't have enough soap, nor is there any place to dry them."

I was now so cold that neither jumping around nor rubbing my hands together helped. Fortunately, the discussion ended and nobody paid any more attention to me. The nurse took me into a large room with about thirty beds and gave me a bed at the end against a real wall. I went to bed immediately to counteract the cold. Because the room was warm, I started to thaw out, with little helped from the thin felt blanket. The women lying nearby asked which camp I was from. Learning that I cam from camp #17-A, they sighed compassionately and fell silent.

Several nurses, both prisoners and free citizens, walked though the hospital. The free nurses appeared to be too young to be in a prison hospital. But on the other hand, they were locals, born and bred right there and were used to prisoners ever since childhood. The entire neighborhood consisted of forced labor camps and houses for the camp personnel. The local children knew that the best place to work was in the prison camps. The nurses who were prisoners, were middle-aged. All the orderlies were inmates. Towards the evening, when activity slowed down, I asked a first-aid nurse who seemed more affable than the rest, if I could get a few buckets of hot water.

"What do you want hot water for?"

"I was given a smock which is so dirty!"

"I know, I know. But it's going to be difficult to get the water."

"But this is a hospital isn't it?"

"That's true, but water is a great deficit here. We're lucky to get enough for the kitchen. Washing takes second place."

"Where does one get water?"

"Nowhere, really. The patients carry it from the well. There is water enough there! But we don't have a place to heat it." "

"Then it looks like I won't be able to wash my smock."

"It is going to be difficult, but we'll think of something."

Becoming more responsive, she said she would bring me water. The only way to heat it was on the little electric hotplate the nurses used during the day to boil the needles. I thanked her for being so friendly and felt happy, especially after she told me that she, too, couldn't stand the dirty clothes.

The orderly brought two buckets of water. Since there was only one hotplate, I had to wait for the water to heat. To break the silence I asked, "You probably wash your uniforms yourself, don't you?'

"Our own and the doctor's gowns too, because the laundry cannot be trusted. Things are either stolen or replaced with worn out ones. You never get back what you send. Surgical sheets are in special demand."

"Why do they steal the sheets?"

"Embroidery. They're such fanatics that they won't use old sheets. They insist on new ones."

"Yes, I've noticed that the public here gets really carried away with handicrafts."

She asked me what I was in for. I told her briefly and trying to find out why she was here, I asked, "You're suffering for fixing books, right?"

"No, murder," she answered simply.

"I would have never imagined that. You, in for murder!"

"Life's funny. Many don't believe it and think I'm kidding. But it happened, and here I am in jail."

"Did you really kill someone?"

"Yes, my husband," she said with a smile.

"If people don't get along, I would think divorce would be the better answer. Why did you have to kill him?"

"Because he was a bastard but wouldn't give me a divorce. And then, too, there was someone else whom I wanted to marry."

"And he's waiting for you now?"

"I don't know if he's waiting or not. He's locked up for the same thing. We did it together."

"I see . . ." I said thoughtfully, not knowing what to say.

The she told me her life's story. Her husband seemed to be the devil incarnate. He turned up at her place in the middle of the night, having been released or paroled from jail. She was living with her father. Using threats of violence he forced the father and daughter to wait on him. Because of his size and strength, they were in no position to turn him in to the militia. One night, seeing no other release, she got the despot drunk, and she and her lover killed him. They expected a light sentence. Nevertheless, they each received seven years.

The water heated, and the friendly orderly gave soap. The water turned muddy as soon as I started washing. A young woman brought a third bucket of water for rinsing. That one bucket had to do since I could not fetch water myself. I hung the smock up to dry outside, where it froze solid. After four days I brought it in and hung it by the stove in the ward, where it finally dried. I patched the places where the padding was falling out. Finally, after six days, I had a decent smock. As a result of walking around in my shirt I contracted bronchitis which lasted for three months.

The Russian women from the surrounding criminal camps complained that because they did so much work, they were both healed and maimed in this hospital. The two orderlies looked after the doctor's offices and the operating rooms. The prisoners could not wash the floors of these rooms because they prison would steal everything. The floors in the remaining rooms, including the ward, were washed by the hospitalized prison who also fed the stove. The stronger ones fetched the ice cold water from a well while the weaker ones washed the floors and threw the dirty water into the yard. The hospital had no sewers. As a concession to comfort, the dry latrine was equipped with a "throne" made out of boards. Facilities for washing were much worse than in the camp. In camp #17-A each prisoner had her personal wash basin, and for every sixty prisoners there was a common hygiene room. Even with mushrooms growing in the moldy corners of this room , we could brush our teeth and wash our feet. We washed whatever we pleased in our basins as long as we fetched the water ourselves. Here, in the hospital, not every inmate was strong enough to fetch the water. The well was deep and the parapet rose chin high. Furthermore, the handle on the hoist used for winching up the bucket was stiff, especially during the first few turns. Normally two people worked it together.

At that time many inmates could not get out of bed. One was paralyzed and could not speak. These patients we cared for by other inmates. The free nurse only gave injections and handed out the pills prescribed by the doctors, they never washed those confined to their beds. Other inmates now and then brought them a basin of water, enough to wash their hands. Every ten days the inmates, holding each other up, took the long walk to the sauna. This was a sad sight, sick inmates dragging those sicker than themselves. When they finished washing, everybody received a clean shirt but wore the same dirty smock. We were allowed to spend a whole hour in the bath-house, sufficient to get clean enough to last for the next ten days. The only ones who could not manage were those with, as the criminal prisoners said, the bad bourgeois habit of washing every day. Those who wanted to wash daily could take a mug of tea into the yard, and pour it on their hands. Also those who wanted to brush their teeth badly enough went into the yard.

The only clean place in- the primitive hospital was the operating room, which was located in the same barracks as the women's ward and the record rooms. Complicated surgery was carried out in the hospital of camp #3. Intestinal, stomach, and other operations that could not be postponed were done immediately. Heart operations, however, re done in the Leningrad. Camp #3 was known for intestinal and stomach operations. The surgeon gained plenty of experience from the male prisoners who every now and then decided to visit the hospital for an operation. These men went to prison straight from detention homes for the underaged, and subsequently served several terms. Prison was their life. Whenever these professional prisoners desired to rest or to hold hands with the nurses, they swallowed the most unimaginable things, most often small metal objects, but occasionally a spoon r a thermometer. Others proved their originality by swallowing a whole chess or domino set. The prisoner, after explaining what he had done to the administration or to the camp doctor, was taken to the hospital for x-rays. Even the most hardened criminals respected and loved doctors. They knew that by swallowing objects they were risking their lives and were at the mercy of the doctor. They knew, too, that doctors would do everything they could to save them, staying the entire night at their bedside, if required. It is amazing what professional criminals do to their bodies. To prove that he was right, during a fight, an inmate might lift up his shirt, and slice open his stomach with a razor blade or knife. Whoever does this knows that he will be saved when he reaches the hospital. Hospital means paradise where no one works hard other than occasionally carrying water or firewood. And one spends daytime in bed, the greatest break for a Soviet prison camp inmate. In addition there is a great difference in food, sometimes one even receives meat.

Among the criminals some do not have courage to swallow a spoon, tell all about it, and finally lie down on operating table. They only pretend to be sick. Nobody respects them and they are quickly discovered. If one of these malingerers legitimately fell ill, no one believes them.

Occasionally, madmen among the criminals, the drug addicts, actually gamble with their lives. Since they have no access to drugs, they "borrow" the injection needles from the first-aid station, extract blood from a cat which they inject into themselves. Cat blood does not mix with human blood and the resulting fever gives a pleasant high to the addict. But in conjunction with the inevitable weakening that occurs during the prison stay, even in the strongest bodies, such an experiment can cost a prisoner his life. Still many are willing to try it. Some die others take their place. They are in a class by themselves. Those who have managed to remain permanently in the hospital regard themselves as the chosen ones.

Normally those working in the hospital have a disease which erupts now and then. There is a twofold reason behind this. First, they do not have to be transported every time they fall ill or get well. Second, the inmates carry out their tasks energetically as long as they are allowed to keep their jobs. In the women's zone several "permanent" hospital workers brought for treatment were allowed to stay until the end of their sentence. However only criminals sentenced under the "normal code" were eligible to work in the hospital. "Especially dangerous prisoners guilty of crimes against the state" and sentenced under the "strict code," were not allowed to work at the hospital, even though this work might be their specialty. For example, a woman doctor could only work as a nurse at the hospital if she was not considered a political prisoner.

Kitchen help, laundry workers, and orderlies were considered "half-well" inmates. On the other hand, women still breastfeeding their babies after giving birth at the hospital, became workhorses, doing all kinds of heavy work, lifting, carrying and digging.

The fire tender's job was not easy. She had to chop the wood for eight stoves, light the stoves, and bring the coal, as well as remove the ashes and carry them out herself. The fire tender while I was there, was a woman in for the tenth time, for theft. About sixty, she had sly, shrewd eyes and vast prison experience. Her bed was in a privileged position, by the window inside the door. It was an unwritten prison law that only thieves sleep at the window. If such a bed ever became free, only a thief would get it.

Despite having lost her left leg, this sixty-year-old woman was a wizard at splitting wood. Her wooden leg was simply a wood block, supporting the stump of the leg at one end and attached to a nailed on rubber boot. She experienced the earthquake at Ashkhabad, during the quake she fell into a two-year coma. Upon awakening, she no longer had a leg. Her wooden leg thumped loudly upon the floorboards whenever she moved, carrying her heavy load of firewood to the stoves in the doctor's rooms and the inmates' wards. The doctors often praised her industriousness. However under the prison rules she never received more than ten rubles per month for her hard work. Her bed was in a corner of the ward, where she lived with twenty-nine other sick inmates. She tended the fires on Saturdays and Sundays as any other day; because days off did not exist. She never complained about needing a rest or lighter work. To the contrary, she appeared pleased with her position. Apparently the concept of freedom did not exist for her nor was she longing for it. She enjoyed teaching her younger colleagues and carried great authority among them. She was more like a mother to the young one who felt more than respect for her as an older person. The fact that her every word was the law for the younger women gave her a pride. She felt as if she had worked her way up through the ranks from private to general. Apparently she belonged to the category of people who, after having spent their entire lives in prison, also expect to die there.

The local tomcat Vasja, "the mailman," gained the love of the entire hospital. Normally he slept in the ward. The inmates loved the tomcat and let him sleep on their pillows. In fact, every one hoped that the tomcat, just in from the yard with muddy paws, would go sleep in her bed. The eat, though no longer young; still carried out his "job" of mail delivery admirably.

The grounds of camp #3 were divided into men's and women's zones, the men's zone much larger than the women's zone. The grounds were divided in direct proportion to the number of forced labor camps in that area, twenty for men and three for women. The hospital zone separated by a high wooden fence, skirted on each side by a barbed wire fence. Between these fences ran a seven-foot wide, rough-plowed strip. Nobody except the tomcat crossed these barriers since a guard was always on duty in the sentry tower. He prevented anyone from throwing anything across the barbed wire fence. Nobody knew why contact between men and women was so closely monitored; it was hard to understand how such contacts could hurt or endanger the state. Before sentencing, strict security made sense contacts could influence how an accused person testified at his trial. But in the Mordovian forced labor camps everyone received sentences lung ago. If a man called a woman by name, and tossed her a package of cigarettes across the fence, the administration cracked down and made an example of the offenders. The guilty parties were threatened with expulsion from the hospital if they ever repeated their misdeed. Often men called out one of the most common women's names, three women answered, and the guilty one could not be found.

Women who wanted to keep in touch with men did it with the help of the tomcat. He was trained as a kitten to jump across the fence with a note tied to his neck. The tomcat was warded with meat from dinner. Working as the hospital's mailman for several years, Vasja knew his job well. In addition, he became adept at distinguishing the free personnel from the prisoners, since the free nurses and doctors chased him out of their beds. Therefore he had become wary of strangers while he loved to sleep in the lap of "his own people."

The great shortage of paper in the Soviet Union was felt within the prison amps where, even a palm-sized piece of old newspaper is of great value, let alone blank paper that can be written upon. Love confessions and promises of eternal faithfulness were written on cigarette pack paper, rolled up and tied around the neck of Vasja the mailman.

Even though the food at the hospital was better than in the camps, one still felt hungry after eating. Potatoes were highly valued and they functioned as a currency to pay for cigarettes, clothing, and even work. Potatoes were carried into the hospital by the breast-feeding mothers who, during the day, loaded potatoes onto railroad cars. The guards at the gate did not confiscate potatoes which were for sale, prices set by mutual agreement. Highest price commanded by stockings, cardigans, nail polish, even earrings. I remembered some cheap earrings, a gaudy head scarf, and other trinkets, which I traded for a half a pillowcase of potatoes. The pillowcase was safe during the day since open stealing was not accepted. However, every now and then at night, things disappeared. I checked under the bed whenever I awoke during the night.

The problem was how to boil the potatoes. Once again I received help from the friendly, orderly in for murder. She let me into the nurses' room where nightly I boiled a potato on the electric hot plate. She would not accept a potato as thanks, so I drew her a huge parrot with exotic flowers. My drawings turned out to have value because many women did embroidery in their spare time. Everyone with colored thread asked me to draw something pretty; pictures against payment, naturally. I was offered cigarettes, sugar, and preserved fruit jams. The only problem was getting paper. Some inmates had a good rapport with the doctors with the free nurses from whom they obtained a few sheets.

One can see the differences between forced labor camps under "strict" and those under "normal" penal codes. In a penal camp under "normal" codes the main problem is not food but finery. For example, dinner such a camp might be meat broth and mashed potatoes with a sauce. In addition, these inmates received ten rubles a month for shopping. The shops carry cookies, jams, and even shortening. Those with relatives received a five kilogram food parcel once every two months. Whatever else they are legally entitled to, they receive. The law looks after, protects, and preserves them. For all this they are grateful to their Soviet native country, since "where else can man enjoy such freedom?"

As in any hospital, the inmates changed constantly. Most men came to the hospital to rest or to go to the operating room, while the women were seriously ill. A new patient arrived and was taken directly from the gates to the operating room. Our eyes met when she was taken from the operating room to our ward. The left side of her face was bandaged, and when the bandages came off an ugly scar ran from the corner of her left eye to her lower jaw. Whenever she sat in profile so that the scar could not be seen, she had the lovely face of a young girl. But straight on, the scar marred her face so that it was difficult to tell that this was the same girl. My first question to her was , "How old are you?"


"Who beautified you like this?"

"I had a girl friend. She became jealous over me talking to someone else and she cut me up."

"What did she cut you with?"

"She sharpened the end of a spoon against the concrete floor. It was as sharp as a knife."

"Wasn't anybody nearby who could have prevented her from doing that?"

"It happened in the living section, everyone was, there, but they were scared of her. Luckily my eye and the teeth were untouched. The cheek was cut through completely, reaching the gums."

"Will she be punished for this crime?"

"Not her. What's there to be punished for? I'm alive."

"But she cut you up!"

"I was guilty."

"Why, after all this, do you think that you were guilty?"

"I should have known that while she was friendly with me, I was not allowed to talk with other girls."

"But you're only nineteen! You couldn't have known their rules."

"I couldn't not have known them since it's the second time for me."

"How's that? The second time?"

"Well in prison, the second time. And I know everything."

"How old is your girl friend?"

"She's twenty-seven and it's her fourth sentence."

"And what is your face going to look like now? Who's going to marry you?"

"It's going to be good enough for the prison, and no one's going to marry me."

"How much longer do you have to stay inside?"

"Two years and four months."

"How much did you get altogether?"


"So you haven't been in very long. How did you find such a wonderful friend in such short time?"

"We got to know each other in the prison cell. I did not want to at first, but she forced me. She showed me the spoon which she used to sharpen every day for at least a half hour."

"But how did you start to talk to someone else?"

"I was taken from the prison and put on the forced labor 'stage.' She was left behind. When she arrived in the camp two months later, she saw that I was eating with somebody else."

"Is that bad, to eat with somebody?"

"Yes. According to our rules, only close friends eat together."

"And you were close friends with the other one?"

"Not yet."

"But still you were cut up! And you did not try to defend yourself?"

"It was too late already."

"What was too late?"

"To defend myself."

"Then your girl friend is unpredictable?"

"What's that, unpredictable?"

"Well, it's someone who will do whatever comes to mind, never thinking about the consequences."

"I don't know."

"Tell me frankly, are you angry at your girl friend?"

"No. It was my fault."

"I don't think it was your fault. You never did anything had."

"I don't know was the answer. I felt sorry for and angry with this characterless girl. I wanted to tell her that she was stupid. But an the other hand, what had she seen of life and what did she understand?"

"Are your parents still living?" I asked.

"My mother is. My father died when my brothers and I were still children."

"How many grades did you finish at school?"


It seemed unbelievable that she could have finished nine grades. I am not sure what the Russian schools teach, but the results are clearly visible. Knowledge is weak, incomplete, and in some cases, totally lacking.