Helene Celmina. Women in Soviet Prisons

In the history of the Soviet penal system there has probably never been a camp which did not have its stool pigeons or , the Russians call them, "stukachi," meaning knockers. These informers usually are people with questionable pasts and moral standings, a, well as poor educations. But in ramp #17-A the stool pigeons s a young woman recently graduated from, institute of higher learning. She was not Russian with a dark past, but rather a Latvian woman with an enlightened background. At first I was credulous when several Jehovah's Witness told me that my countrywoman Erna passed information to the administration.

There is not a single convict in the Soviet penal camp system whom the administration has not tried to recruit as informer. This does not happen during the first days, but after about a year of captivity when the relationships with other prisoners have developed and certain things have been learned. Then the proposal comes quite unexpectedly.

Camp #17-A was visited weekly by a Cheka representative named Yershov. A black-haired Russian of medium build, about forty, Yershov carried himself. As he walked through the gate toward his office he seemed unaware of people, however, he saw everyone. Everyone realized Yershov was dangerous and remained on their guard when talking to him. As he spoke, his face became distorted by a false grin which continued throughout the conversation.

One Friday he ordered a whole list of women to his office. There were about twelve of us, mostly Jehovah's Witnesses, waiting in a long line in the corridor. My turn came. I knocked and walked in. Yershov sat behind a desk and, assuming his best false smile and addressed me by my first name. This is not the normal style of address in a Soviet prison. The informality immediately put me on guard, but I tried to appear witless and asked: "How do you know my first name?"

"You should realize that it is my duty to know all about you, and to take care of you."

"That is odd," I said, "What do you want from me?"

"I don't want anything, but I would like to help you."

"To help me personally, or all of us here at the camp?"

"This time I am talking about you personally. I would like to relieve your present situation."


"I would like you to understand me correctly. A lot depends on me; I can allow you to receive food parcels from your relatives and for two rubles a month you will be able to buy something at the store."

"Thank you for your kindness, but I don't have the money for the store, and for a ruble a month I won't be able to buy anything anyway. What do you want in return?"

"Oh, you are cunning," he pretended to be laughing at a joke.

"Well, we are living in times when nobody does anything for nothing."

Yershov made a somber face and continued. "You understand everything, but you don't realize that this can have an adverse effect on you and your future."

"What has this got to do with my future. I am serving sentence completely without reason, and when it is finished, then goodbye to you and to everybody else."

"But what about my reference?"

"What sort of reference do I need from you? I spit on that kind of reference."

"But do you understand correctly what I have asked of you?'

"'That I should bring you information about the other prisoners."

"That's not quite so, you have misunderstood me. I would like you to speak with the Jehovah's Witnesses and find the main leaders."

"As a service for you?"

"You see only evil in our work, but you don't understand that we work to keep people out of prisons."

"I laugh at your noble words. Why do you need the main leaders?"

"That's because well, you know yourself that most of them are uneducated and stupid, and they would have been sent home long ago if they had been willing to regret their breaches of the law. But their main leaders don't permit it, and that's why they sit in camp. If you would find their leaders, think of the benefits for the others and yourself. First, many of them would be released before their time and second, you could receive food from home. And, maybe you will be released sooner also!"

With his last words, the Chekist assumed his glued-on smile. I understood his strategy. The older leaders would be taken to Vladimir Prison, and the other Jehovah's Witness would he worked over one by one to force them to renounce their faith.

I announced loudly and with irony, "If you have decided to trust this important mission to me, you have made a mistake. I am not the right one for such assignments which amount to betrayal."

"But maybe you will change your mind?"


"You may go." Nothing remained of his grin and his words fell like the blows of an ax. When I was at the door, he reminded me to call in the next woman.

The next in line was one of the leaders of the Jehovah's Witnesses. I embraced her in the hallway and whispered "Brace yourself?" in her ear. She was kept in the office for at least two hours.

On following Fridays I began to observe who was called to Yershov's office. Most often it was Erna. I noticed that Erna acquired lipstick which she wore when she went to the office. Presumably, from Erna's painted lips flowed the names of women about whom there as something to report. Anyone else in her place I would have pitied, since her work was not pleasant, but it did not enter my mind to pity Erna after watching how proudly she opened the outer door of the administration building. She galled me immensely and my anger grew, bull without concrete facts, I could say nothing.

Still, I asked, and once said to her quite innocently, " I have noticed that you walk over to Yershov's office frequently. What does he want with you?"

"Nothing in particular. He says I should help the boys."

"What boys?"

"The ones I was tried with."

"Have you gone out of your mind? Or maybe he has. How could you help them now? They have been convicted, and received long sentences."

"Don't say that! I can do it."

"Wait a minute. There is something I don't understand. It's turning out that Yershov is some kind of benefactor rather than a Cheka agent?"

"'That's how it is turning out."

"Then maybe you can tell me n more detail how you can help them. Maybe we should sit down." We walked to the nearest bench and Erna started her story.

"Yershov told me about every one of our boys, how hard they have to work and so on. He said that some of them could go home right away if they would write a letter of regret which could be published in the newspaper. After a short time, the sentence would be lifted."

"Let him talk to them himself. Why does he get you involved in their affairs?"

"It concerns Uldis. He knows I like Uldis."

"How can he know that?"

"When they were all discussed, one after the other, he mentioned Uldis also."

"And you, of course, blurted out that you like him."

"And what's bad about that? Yes, I did blurt that out. Now I will be able to help Uldis."

"That's interesting! How?"

"You see, it was only to my advantage that I told about Uldis. Now I have permission to write to him at the men's camp."

"Oho!" I was surprised.

"And Yershov gave me Uldis' brother's name and address in Riga. His brother is still young and goes to secondary school."

"What do you need his address for?"

"Why not, I have to persuade Uldis' brother to ask Uldis to stop resisting stubbornly and to regret everything. I already sent the text of the letter which his brother has to send to Uldis."

"And Yershov dictated this text to you?"

"I wrote the text, only the idea came from him."

Uldis is an adult and knows how to behave. Maybe he won't like this. If he is, as you say, resisting stubbornly, then he must know what he is doing."

"You don't understand anything," Erna said angrily.

"Maybe." Seeing that this subject was closed, I walked away.

Occasionally my suspicions concerning Erna's visits recurred, but one day I learned the facts. Another Latvian woman received a visit from her daughter. This woman had arrived in camp # 17-A about six months earlier on a two years sentence because an acquaintance, a Latvian poet gave her his handwritten book of patriotic poems to read. The woman's apartment was searched, the poems were found and they were both convicted: The poet for writing, and the woman for reading. She was accused of anti-Soviet agitation. She received two years in a strict regime labor camp, while the author received seven years, also in strict regime labor. Because there are no strict regime labor camps in Latvia, she made the long trip to Mordovia. Her name was Rute. Although, compared to the other women, Rute was in the camp only a short time, her joy at her daughter's visit was immense. When she first heard about it, she flushed with excitement and said, "Where did the child get the money for such a long trip?"

Railroad travel in the Soviet Union is cheap compared to that in other countries. Rute told me earlier that she did not suffer as much from the incarceration as from the thought that her menage daughters were left without any means of support. Nothing at home could be sold, and the girls were still going to school and were too young to work. Rute had a hard life because her husband died young, leaving her with three children. She worked as a bookkeeper earning eighty rubles a month, and she managed to support her family with her small vegetable garden plot near Riga. The children carried water in buckets from a ditch. Then her son, the eldest, married, and Rute was left with the two girls until her arrest. It was the older daughter, already in her last year in high school, who suddenly arrived. Although Rute worried about the shortage of money at home, the joy of seeing her daughter overshadowed her concern. Rute was led out of the penal zone to the small visitor's cottage to meet her daughter.

Toward the evening of the next day, Ona, who worked in the ambulance, called me aside and said anxiously, "Rute is in a bad way. I gave her an injection, my last two ampules. If shhe needs more during the nigh I will have nothing to give her."

"Did she get had news from home?"

"No, not that. It is much worse."

"What could be worse?"


"Betrayal?" I repeated, confused.

"Yes, treachery. Erna has betrayed her."

"In what way, and for what?"

"Well listen. Rute received a ten ruble note from her daughter. She did not want to take it, because of the poverty in which her girls live. But the daughter insisted that she receives help from the brother. Rute hid the money which was not found during the search upon leaving the visitors cottage. After walking through the gate into the penal zone, Rute met Erna and joyfully told her everything. Erna apparently rushed to the guard shack, because two guards came and rifled through Rute's bed until they found the money hidden in a pillowcase. The other beds were not touched. Rute collapsed next to her bed. Valya ran to me and told me what had happened, and we ran to the barracks and carried Rute to the infirmary."

I felt a lump in my throat. I expected anything from Erna but that. The women had warned me long ago. " I will drag this snake into the daylight," I muttered indignantly.

"Just don't do anything rash. Don't do anything that will get you more years because of that slut."

"No , no, don't worry about me. I am going to drag her into the light with everybody watching. Is she so stupid to think that nobody will find out? How is she going to face Rute?"

"You know, I don't understand it either, and have never been able to."

Later, when I saw Erna pumping water, I walked up and asked directly "Can you tell me why you are betraying other prisoners?"

"She did not lose composure, did not even blink. She straightened up like a cobra before attacking its victim and chopped her words, "It is the duly of every conscientious Soviet citizen."

These words numbed my mind and I could only ask, "But how then did you, the conscientious one, happen to get in here?"

Erna said only, "I got here and that's all."

I walked to the barracks, determined to warn everyone about Erna, the sooner, the better.

My section of the barracks was active because the second shift preparing to leave for work. The clothing factory worked two shifts, the day shift from morning until five, and the evening shift until one in the morning. Some of the woman stepped outside. One was darning her completely worn out dress, another one was writing a letter to her relatives. Some close enough to the light were reading. It was quit in the barracks. Erna reclined on her cot and paged through a magazine. I felt the moment had arrived.

I pulled myself together and went to the long table in the middle of the section. Pressing my palms against the table edge for support, I said, "Women, listen! There is a dangerous traitor among us; she will spare nobody. If any of you have secrets, keep them hidden so she won't be able to betray you."

The eyes of the women riveted upon me. Some were not surprised since they knew it already, but those who heard it for the first time were greatly taken aback. "Who is she?," exploded from all sides.

After a short dramatic pause, I pointed at Erna, and said, "There she is. My countrywoman Erna." I drank a glass of water because my hands trembled.

The quiet of the section was replaced by loud conversation as nearly every woman spoke to her nearest roommate or sister-in-faith. Not the least concerned, Erna continued to look through her magazine as if she did not care what people were saying. That's how confident she was. My words were like water rolling off a duck's back. This event was discussed in the camp for several days. There had been many previous cases of suspicion but never had they been discussed as openly as I dared to. I received many words of thanks, and several women embraced and kissed me.

I never spoke to Erna again. Through others she tried to renew normal relations with me, but I refused.

Fortunately, Rute recovered without any serious consequence. She did not know who had betrayed her in Riga when her house was searched for the poetry book. She did however, know who betrayed her in captivity about the hidden ten rubles. In less than a year, Rute's term was up and she was released. None of us learned if she told her children about the betrayal in the camp. Perhaps not because she was exceptionally sensitive person who wanted to shield her children.

After Rute left, everything remained as before in- the camp. On Fridays, Yershov arrived. Erna visited him and continued to do her duty as a conscientious Soviet citizen, not regarding it as treachery. Finally, Erna stopped sleeping in her bunk during the nights when Vanya was on guard duty. According to regulations, no one was allowed to leave the barracks during the night. Erna must have been convinced that none of the women would turn her in. She was right. No one did.