Helene Celmina. Women in Soviet Prisons

 The next morning after breakfast, I was told to return all equipment, including the mattress and bed linen. I took them to the basement where I had received them. Then, with my hands behind my back, I was taken across the yard to the incomparably cleaner hospital block, to a small room with two beds. I was amazed at the luxury of a room with only two beds. One bed, opposite the door, was occupied; the other, at the left along the wall with the head opposite the door, was visible through the spy hole. Each bed had a cupboard. The first bed was occupied by an elderly woman of indeterminable nationality. I said hello, and she answered in Latvian. We exchanged names. If ever anyone's name was completely incompactible with her personality, it was that of Maiga Laimina (gentle bringer of luck).

Maiga had coarse features: Her lean and bony face was more like that of a man than of a woman; her eyes lay deep in the hollows. Her voice was deep and hoarse as if from chronic drinking. She was weak and spent her time lying in bed. We talked about her illnesses. The fact that she had cancer in the last stages suprised me because it is customary to conceal such facts from the patient. Finally I asked, "Have you spent a long time in the hospital?"

"In two days it will be three months," was the reply.

"And in prison altogether?"

"Two years and four months."

"Is your investigation taking that long?"

"Not at all. I was sentenced long ago and spent one and a half years in the camp. Then the camp doctors refused to treat me and I was brought here."

Her reply made me cautious; I sensed something not quite right with this woman. I knew prison laws. The unsentenced were never placed with the sentenced. If she had been sentenced and I was placed with her, she must be an informer or, in prison slang, a "broody hen." I decided to be on my guard.

"How many years did they give you altogether?"

"Five years, but I will not finish them. I'll die here."

That day she seemed sick and we did not talk much. Plagued by curiosity, I asked her what she was sentenced for.

"For fraud," she answered, as if she were joking. "I received money from several people, for whom I promised to obtain deficit merchandise. I had connections in several stores, where I could get the merchandise, but they did not have the goods immediately. Later during a large drinking bash this money was used to buy. drinks. What can I do? I was a stupid old bag, a weak character, now I have to squat in the slammer."

"Did you leave a family at home?" I asked in a compassionate voice.

"Of course, my old man was left alone, my son married last year."

"All of you couldn't come up with the money and return it?"

"How do you get what is not there? No use asking my son, who is too proud. And he would not have had that much either. He plays the fine fellow, eats in restaurants. We have never gone to restaurants, we are satisfied at home."

The next day my suspicion was confirmed. After breakfast when the medicine was distributed and no one disturbed us, Maiga suddenly started to question me about people I knew. "I know a certain Nina, I once bought an imported jacket from her, don't you know her too?"

"Yes I do, so what?" But Maiga asked several times, then seemed to share what she knew, and then asked questions again. Maiga's assignment was obvious. When it appeared that I knew Nina no more than Maiga, she asked about another. After a few days she tried to take up the conversation about the same acquaintances, and when nothing resulted, we chatted casually.

Then one day Maiga was called to "the doctor." The regular doctor's visit came every morning after breakfast. I was never called out of the ward to the doctor. I must have been considered an idiot for such an obvious attempt to be made on me with the "broody hen," Maiga. When Maiga returned in a couple of hours from the "doctor," she carried a parcel. "Imagine what a joy! My old man brought me a parcel. Already at the door, I was called back to sign for a parcel from the old man." In a coquettish way she added, "The old devil remembered his old woman after all!"

That she was glad about the parcel, I understood. And that the parcel was not from her old man I understood too as soon as she started to arrange the items on her cupboard. There were about ten packages of cigarettes, gray bread from the prison store along with the prison store margarine, melted cheese and cookies. These items were wrapped exactly the same as those bought in the prison store by the women who had money in the prison cash-box. I pretended ignorance. Later I thought I should have told her to her face: I know where this comes from. At that time, I held my peace and said nothing not wanting to make an enemy. We had to live together in the same room. Besides, Maiga was not stingy; she immediately gave me a package of cigarettes. I wanted to smoke and there was little left of the mahorka the elderly prostitutes in ward #10 rolled for me.

That day she left me alone, probably on the "doctor's" instructions. Nevertheless the next day she resumed questioning asking about people I knew and whom she could not have known. It became clear that she did not know the "mutual" acquaintances discussed on previous days either. Her hollow conversations continued for about two weeks. Neither was I the worse for them, nor did she profit. Finally I was informed that my trial would start in four days. Worried, I could neither sleep nor eat.

I went to court every morning as others go to work, and returned in the evening. After three days the head of the guards refused to drive me to court because my vomiting soiled his automobile twice a day and there was nobody to clean it. I had never had motion sickness before. In the morning when I stepped into the barred cage, I w as fine, hut as soon as the vehicle started to move I felt terrible and in ten minutes I was sick. The intense vomiting exhausted my strength so that when we arrived at the courthouse I could not climb out of the vehicle without the soldier's help. After drinking cold water I felt better. Once I lost consciousness in the courtroom. The ambulance came from the hospital and I was given an injection. The court recessed. When I felt better, proceedings continued.

In the evening as I stepped into the vehicle, I felt fine, but as soon as we were in motion, I became sick. To prevent a mess, I was lavishly "fed" with medication in the morning with more taken along for later. The most trying lime came in the evening when I was taken into the large prison hall and placed in the cupboard. There were about twenty cupboards, one person in each, to prevent people from seeing one another. From the cupboard the prisoners went, one at a time, behind a curtain to strip for the personal search. Only then were the prisoners returned, one at a time, to their wards. One often squatted in the cupboard for hours, awaiting return to the ward One evening on returning from the court, I found a strange woman in my bed. To my question, "Where shall I sleep tonight?" the guard with the slanted eyes replied, "Don't worry, there'll be a bed," and slammed the door. The woman did not talk; the only sign of life was her large brown eyes, which because of her pale face, seemed particularly dark.

Maiga explained that this woman was operated on a few hours earlier. Aha, I thought to myself, she was placed here For me to nurse, as Maiga hardly ever left her bed. I was not worried about where to sleep, because there was enough room for a third bed along the empty wall on the right. hater our new patient became restless, moving her lips, asking for something to drink. Since a mug of cold tea stood beside her, I held the mug to her lips.

The patient drank eagerly, taking small sips. After the drink she was calm for about an hour. Then she experienced shortness of breath. I pounded the door with my fists. Nobody came. I removed my shoe and pounded on the door with the heel. Finally the guard with the slanted eyes opened the feeding window and threatened me, "What, have you gone insane? Do you want the punishment cell?"

"Quick, call the doctor, oxygen bag, quickly," I shouted.

"The doctor will be here tomorrow," he said and slammed the window. I pounded the door even more desparately, because the woman was growing worse. The guard yelled, "Stop it, or you will ga to the punishment cell at once."

"The woman is dying call the nurse."

Again he slammed the window with a bang and went to the other end of the hallway. The nurse heard my pounding and came on her own. She returned with the oxygen bag quickly. I put the bag to the woman's lips and she seemed to take a couple breaths. The nurse took the woman's hand to check her pulse.

The woman was no longer breathing. We closed her eyes. Immediately two prisoners, stretcher-bearers, appeared. We stood for a couple of minutes in silence, then the dead woman was placed on the stretcher and carried away.

A few days later a nurse explained what happened to the woman who died in my bed. A Russian, she was arrested, operated on, and died, all on the same day. The militia, arriving a her house to arrest her, found her severely beaten by her husband. She left two small children at home. The militia brought her directly to prison, because of her serious condition. She was examined and operated on for an internal hemorrhage. Nothing could be done because her spleen had been detached. Sewn up and put into my bed, she was not expected to live until the evening. Because I am leery about beds in which someone has died, I did not sleep much during the following nights.

Nothing special occured in the next few days. Then came the day when my sentence was pronounced: Four years in the severe regime corrective labor camp for anti-Soviet propaganda. When I returned as a sentenced prisoner I was moved to a different ward in the hospital. Maiga, the "broody hen," could question another with her honeyed, Battering smoker's voice.

I was placed in the maternity ward, a larger room with eight beds: seven pregnant women and me. Six of them were Russians, the seventh, a Gypsy. The Gypsy was sentenced to two years for speculation, the rest were sentenced for theft.

I did not remain with the pregnant women long. In a week I was transferred to the fourth block, as my treatment was supposed to be finished.