Helene Celmina. Women in Soviet Prisons
6 THE FOURTH BLOCK
As in the preliminary investigation ward, the majority of the inmates were young Russians: All the Latvians, except two, were former bookkeepers who received relatively stiff sentences, from five to ten years. One received twelve years. One of the other Latvians was a young woman named Livija who had a narrow face, amiable eyes, and a pleasant, quiet voice. Despite being seven months pregnant, she was sentenced by the Soviet court for giving false witness.
Livija tried to defend her friend Erna who was on trial. Although the friend confessed, Livija s denial angered the judge, who ordered Livija's arrest despite her pregnancy. Erna received twelve years. Unable to alter her friend's fate, Livija gained a year in prison where her daughter was born. Livija was sentenced to prison because of her good heart. Ilga, the other Latvian, should not have been in prison either. Ilga, her husband Arnis, and another young man, Janis, attempted to cross the border into Finland on foot. They obtained ski boots, a compass, and food, and traveled by train to Petrozavodsk.
From there they walked across the marshes of Karelia to Finland. Although they followed the compass, they kept returning to the same place. Unbeknownst to them, magnetic fields in the area prevented the compass from working properly.
Then misfortune struck. Despite the bitterly cold winter, unfrozen pools covered only by a thin layer of ice remain in the Karelian marshes. Since the whole marsh was covered with snow, these pools were impossible to detect. While walking along the white, snow covered plain, Ilga felt the ground give way under her. There was nothing she could grab. In less than a minute Ilga was up to her shoulders in cold marsh water. Arnis rushed to her with a branch, but he fell through the ice before he could reach her. Both of them were in mortal danger. Fortunately, Janis continued the rescue.
Half an hour elapsed before Janis, thoroughly wet, managed to help Ilga from the pool. Then both of them helped Arnis out. Their clothes were frozen solid. They needed to build a fire to thaw their clothes and save their lives. A fire was risky, because the border guards might see the smoke, but they had no choice.
They removed their outer clothing which they placed by the fire, but the severe frost made it impossible to strip to underwear. Towards evening Ilga's temperature rose, her face and body burned with pneumonia. With every hour Ilga's condition worsened. Arnis and Janis decided they must find the border guards to save Ilga's life. Janis called, built a fire, but found no trace of any guard. A whole day elapsed before Janis found them, explained Ilga's condition, and asked for help. All three suffered from frostbitten hands and feet.
They were taken to the hospital in Petrozavodsk. Despite every effort, Arnis lost both feet. Janis, only nineteen, lost both hands and feet in his attempt to reach freedom. Ilga was more fortunate. The high temperature caused by pneumonia kept the heat in her limbs for a longer time and only half of each foot had to be amputated. When all three were out of danger, they were transferred to prison and from there, on a prison transport, to the Cheka's basements in Riga.
Those who sat in the Cheka's basements remember the heavy sounds from the hallway at toilet time made by people hobbling on crutches. On my first day in Cheka's cell thirteen, the sounds suggested at least five people on crutches. It was only three, Janis, Ilga, and Arnis. Arnis, the principal offender, was given seven years. Janis, without hands and feet, received live years. Ilga, considered a collaborator, was sentenced to two years.
When she arrived in the ward for sentenced prisoners, Ilga's feet were not yet healed so she was still on crutches. Despite her physical handicap, Ilga's spirit could not he broken. She courageously demanded that the prison administration observe at least the minimal rights of the prisoners. At times great arguments arose between Ilga and the prison guards. Placement in the punishment cell, with which she was repeatedly threatened, endangered her health. Once she was placed there, but the prison doctor protested and after a few hours she was removed. Militant and strong, she quickly earned authority and respect in the ward.
The most miserable people were the former bookkeepers and store employees, for whom prison life was difficult. First, they came from comparatively good circumstances; second, in some cases they regretted their crimes; and third and most important, they all had children and husbands at home. They missed their children, but their greatest concern was that their husbands would not wait for them to serve their sentences. Some of them were already weeping over their husbands.
I had not yet met all the inmates when I was told to collect my belongings, as I would be going on the prison transport. In the Soviet Union transport means traveling in a barred railroad car from one place of impriisonment to another. The guar announced it in one breath, emphasizing the word "transport." Although prison guards appear unfeeling towards other people's fates, "transport" was important even for them.
Only in rare cases since 1956 were people sent out of the Latvian republic on a prison transport. They were sent for particularly dangerous state crimes: Treason against the homeland and anti-Soviet propaganda. All other crimes qualify as social crimes and despite ten to fifteen year sentences, these prisoners remainded in Latvia, where there were plenty of punishment camps. After the guard made her announcement and slammed the door, the ward became ominously silent, and all eyes focused on me. I stood, overwhelmed with a strange feeling of happy excitement.
It might seem paradoxical to feel both happy and concerned, especially since "transport" was nothing good. But I was happy to be going if even to something worse. I assembled my meager prison belongings. I almost felt like singing but worried what others would think, so I didn't.
I spread my knitted sweater on the table and piled up my two shirts, three pairs of pants, one dress, comb, and toothbrush. Some wardmates thought I did not have enough. A pretty, tall brunette added a carefully folded woolen kerchief to my pile, saying "That is for your head in cold weather."
I felt ill at ease and said, "That is not necessary."
The whole ward came alive. "Of course it's necessary. None of us will go on the transport. We can receive what we need from home."
Since I had been arrested during the summer, my only warm garment was the knitted sweater. By the investigator's orders I could not receive anything from home. Another woman added a woolen scarf. The third put down a pair of socks. Then came a group of women, even the poorest, each with something in her hand: an onion, a handkerchief, mittens, a package of cigarettes, The majority gave packages of cigarettes or mahorka, as every smoker understands another smoker. After my bundle was tied and I was waiting to be taken to the railway car, a Russian, stocky and roundish in stature, about sixty, looked at my white summer shoes. With small, quick steps, she hurried to her corner and rummaged under her bed. She returned with a pair of white felt boots trimmed with brown leather. "Take these from me," she said in Russian. "You can believe me, an old woman, I know what Siberia means and you can't get by without these."
"But these are very expensive boots and I cannot take them," I protested.
"They're not quite new, but good enough for the camp. Better put one on right away, so I can see whether they fit." I tried on one boot which was about a size too large. "It fits!" The old woman cried with delight.
The others advised me, "Be sure and take them, do not refuse a good heart."
I kissed the donor on both cheeks and placed the boots beside my bundle. The prison guard arrived and ordered me to take my things and go. All the women crowded around, to kiss me good-bye and say a few parting words. The kissing took time, and the prison guard impatiently rapped her keys against the steel gratings. However I took my leave properly and when the last prison gate clanged shut, I knew that something unusual was about to start.
I was dazzled, coming from the shadowed prison rooms, into the sunny day. I did not have far to go because one gate led directly from the prison yards to the railroad. This gate had obviously been built long ago, when masses of people were deported. I crossed several tracks to reach the prison car with barred windows. 'The car contained what appeared to be animal cages. I was placed into one of these. I asked where I would be taken, and was told I did not need to know. I settled myself more comfortably and waited for what would come next. After a while I felt my car being hooked onto a train. The transport began.