Helene Celmina. Women in Soviet Prisons
CHAPTER 7 THE STAGE
I didn't know how long I had been traveling since I never saw a clock. When the train stopped I was told to collect my things and get out. Four soldiers with automatic rifles surrounded me and led me off. We reached Pskov and I was taken to the prison where the thick, almost black walls, always wet, reeked of, if not the Dark Ages, at least century-old dungeons. The Count of Monte Cristo must have been locked in a similar place, I was searched and my things rummaged through, then I was taken to an empty cell, and the door was slammed shut. I was left alone to let my imagination run wild.
Fortunately I was not detained long in this wet fortress. Within a few days I heard a sharp order: "With your things." Happily I jumped up and prepared my bundles. When several hours passed and nobody came, I worried that they had forgotten me. The guards finally came and took me to the train. The car was filthy, and I felt that I would stick to the walls it I touched them. The cars jolted and rolled towards the unknown. This trip took longer than the last.
There were also other prisoners in the car, which was divided into compartments by partitions extending to the ceiling. I was alone in the first compartment, the other prisoners were led aboard from the rear of the car. The doors to the corridor were replaced by prison bars. From their slang I understood that these prisoners derived their livelihood from burglary and robbery. Six or seven of them got out with me. All wore black prison garb. Their shaved heads resembled pumpkins; their unshaven faces sprouting like cactuses.
One stopped near me. His face inspired horror. His eyes were frightening set unnaturally high in his forehead, almost at the hairline which was visible despite the shaven head. One could not tell the color of his eyes since they were set deeply, like a prehistoric man. His cap was pushed far back, fully exposing the horrible face. Two gaping nostrils substituted for the nose while the mouth extended from ear to ear like a lizard or frog. The faces of the others could not he distinguished, being shaded by the bill of the cap. They seemed always to pull down the caps all the way forward, with the front resting on the bridge of the nose. I couldn't figure out how they didn't stumble because the caps appeared well over the eyes.
Everybody stepped forward when his name was called out, and recited his given name, patronymic, and the length of his sentence. Then we moved slowly across the tracks towards the closed-in prison van, accompanied by dogs and guards. In the distance I noticed the station was named Kostroma. Shop windows in Riga displayed huge yellow wheels, labelled "Kostroma Cheese." Thinking of cheese made me suddenly hungry, since for days I existed on dry bread and water. The van, like the train, was subdivided into several barred partitions, and I was placed in the rear partition with the guards. The other criminals were put into the front, as far inside as possible.
Two guards and a dog got into the back, the commander of the convoy with all the papers climbed up with the driver. The van started, however the road was so bad that the van seemed about to tip over any moment. Except for the rattles and the squeaking wheels the motion was like being at sea in a storm.
All of a sudden somebody asked in clear Latvian "What city are you from?" I started from my nautical dreams and turned toward the voice, one of the guards at the back.
"From Riga," I replied, then asked, "Do you have to be in the Army much longer?"
With a sigh he replied, A whole year. But what are you here for?"
Because of anti-Soviet propaganda, dear friend."
"I feel for you. A month ago several others from Riga were brought here. They were also Latvians . . . all for politics."
"Oh, I know them. Don't you know where they're taking us?"
"I don't really know, but I've heard it might be Abakan-Taishet."
Conversation was difficult because we had to talk softly so the commander would not hear. The rattle of the van created a racket. The other soldier, smoking and spitting, gazed out of the window. We could not talk once we arrived at the prison gates. I was surprised at how nice this yard looked. Trees displayed their luxuriant spring greenery, and flower beds with green shoots and an odd pansy ran along the prison walls. I was received by a smiling woman guard who looked me over and proudly announced that the bath was ready. I was surprised by her tone, which suggested I had come to visit for a few days. I answered, "Naturally, I'm just visiting no chance of staying on they'll be taking us further tomorrow or the day after. Who knows when I'll get another chance to take a sauna."
I liked this woman. She showed me my cell where I dropped my things. The cell was built of wood, even the cot was wood, painted dark green. The chamber pot, a barrel, was also wood, in the same dark green oil paint with two metal handles, one on each side, and a wooden lid. The floor had been scrubbed clean white, like the bare board floors scrubbed in the Latvian countryside on Saturday nights. I put down my things, picked up a clean change of clothes and asked, "What about soap?"
"There is enough soap in the sauna. If you want to wash anything you can do that at the same time."
As I opened the door to the sauna the air was pleasantly warm and dry. The guard pointed out everything. "Bang on the door when you're finished," she said, shutting and bolting the door behind me. A large bluish white-washed stove loomed on the right. As I got closer, shiny brown cockroaches took fright and scattered into the cracks, only their long feelers waving outside. The sauna was homey, with wooden benches, dry and clean, in two rows. At one end were several stacks of traditional galvanized sauna wash basins, exactly like those in the Riga saunas.
I was extremely pleased with the sauna. Because it was unlike a prison, I tried to stay as long as possible. I finally returned to my cell and heard movement at the cell door. "There's cabbage left from dinner, cold by now, but perhaps you'd like some?" The guard handed me a bowl. Surprised that anybody cared for my welfare, I thanked her. The cabbage soup tasted foul; still I ate more than half. Silence and peace prevailed in the Kostroma fortress. It seemed as if I was the only one here.
Next morning after tea, I was taken into the exercise yard, a simple bare patch of ground, with a fence around it. There were no watch towers with guards. No one watched while I walked. In the grassy strip along the fence dandelions bloomed. Summer was coming. After one more day in this "friendly prison" at Kostroma, the order, "with your things," was barked out. I was the last one aboard the van and got more fresh air because there was no door at the back, just bars.
We arrived at the railroad tracks where the convoy with dogs awaited. Once we were put into the cages, the train began to move. The trip to Yaroslavl passed quickly. Again the name of the city matched that of a cheese, a round oblong cylinder, like a log of sawn wood. The prison at Yaroslavl compared to that at Kostroma was a real prison with massive iron gates and thick walls. No greenery nor flowers were visible. Here all the guards were men. My bag was barely opened, then slammed shut, and I was ordered to follow the guards to my cell. The block I was taken to fell chilly and smelled of steel and damp walls.
Except for a small light in the ceiling the cell seemed absolutely bare. Only later did I see the bed; a steel frame with bars, locked to the wall during the daytime. When unlocked, the frame formed a shelf which did not touch the floor. Not knowing that prisoners on the "stage" were not entitled to mattresses or bedclothes, I knocked on the door. When the guard appeared I pointed at the widely spaced grating that was my bed and asked for a mattress. The guard angrily stared at me and then snapped, "Not entitled to any. It's no hotel here." Then, as hard as he could, he slammed the door. I tried moving this way and that, but there was no position in which I could comfortably spend more than ten minutes. The sparse straps pressed into my ribs, and my legs an arms kept dangling through the bars. Finally I sat down on the concrete floor, with my back against the wall. The clanging of keys woke me up. A different prison guard, an elderly man, stood in the doorway. He asked, "Why aren't you sleeping?" I growled "You show me how to lie down on this grating."
"Probably it can't be done," he muttered. "You should have asked for a mattress during the day. Now the storeroom's closed."
"I asked for it, but they wouldn't give it to me."
"Well, that's true. You're not entitled to it, but one could make an exception for a woman," the guard added. However, I spent the whale night sitting on the floor. Next day the command, "with your things," came as a relief.
The stage this time was large, holding about fifty of us, more women than men. Thirty women were pushed into two crowded compartments. In order to attract the attention of the men, they started to sing one with a particularly good voice. Then they started to look for "relatives," asking in loud voices for names and birthplaces. The day was already warm and it became stifling in the car. Finding it bard to breathe, the women started to yell and bang against the doors, asking for water. Then somebody remembered me.
"Who's that monkey, sitting all alone in her cage? Let us in there boss, there's no air in here."
"We're suffocating" somebody else growled.
"What's up, are you deaf that you can't hear us?" someone squealed.
Then another asked more politely, "Eh, boss, please let us into the front compartment, we'll be good." Several women kept on haggling but no one answered. Gradually the whole car quieted down, except for an occasional curse.
When I was brought some drinking water, I asked the soldier where we were going. "To Kirov," he answered. Seeing that nobody was near, he asked, "Tell me, you're in for spying aren't you?"
"Where did you get that from?" I asked brusquely. "I looked, out of curiosity, at your document envelope. Naturally we're not allowed to open them, but the outside of the envelope says paragraph sixty-five."
Now things made sense. In the legal code of the Soviet Union, paragraph sixty-five deals with spying. But in the code of the Latvian Republic the same paragraph deals with "anti-Soviet agitation." I explained this discrepancy.
"I see. Please excuse my curiosity, but I'm interested in what you agitated about."
"Absolutely nothing" I answered with a smile. But because he was interested and his tone was polite, I explained in detail how I had been reading foreign literature in Swedish, English, and German, which the KGB afterwards labeled anti-Soviet.
This soldier's interest increased. He looked left and right and asked again softly, almost whispering "Sprechen Sie Deutsch?" I asked him in German why he wanted to know so much. In good accented German he replied that he was a German teacher. Our conversation was cut off by someone approaching down the corridor. Later, he tossed a few cigarettes through the bars into my lap. They were better than these I had received as a farewell gift at the Riga jail.
The train stopped. After it started to move again , the teacher stopped by again and handed me three packs of Bulgarian "Shipka" cigarettes which he bought at the station, especially for me. Then, in German he told me the story of his life. He told me his name was Ruslan, he was twenty-five years old and single. He was from the Azerbaijanian city Baku, and although it was abhorrent for him to serve in the Russian army, there was nothing he could do about it.
I felt that there was a lot he would have liked to talk about, but could not for fear of personal jeopardy. The shift changed, and Ruslan returned to his compartment. In the morning he returned to my cage and speaking softly, gave me an address in Baku which I memorized.
After a few hours we reached Kirov. The prison at Kirov had wooden gates, a green yard, and low blue-painted wooden fences encircling flowerbeds. There were barracks on both sides of the road: They were simple wood frame barracks, painted light blue with red and green embellishments, surrounded by lilacs in bloom. I was amazed at the bright colors. The prison looked like a market place full of booths. This farcical impression was emphasized by the satirical wall hoard labeled "Crocodile" nailed to one wall.
I was led to a large house behind the barracks, up wooden stairs to the second Boor, to a tiny cell. Although empty at the moment, it was designed for two, judging by the two-tier bed. Not ten minutes passed before somebody knocked on the wall. Because one never knows who's on the other side of the wall, I returned the call. I heard a voice coming from the window. The window had normal bars in front of it, without boards or screens. The voice told me to go to the bars. I climbed up to the top bunk to reach them. Then the voice asked me to stick my hand through the bars. Into my hand fell a thick piece of string pulled taut by a ball of dried bread at the end. "And now, pull it," the voice ordered. I pulled, aand to my amazement found a pack of cigarettes attached to it. I thanked him. The string disappeared as suddenly as it appeared. I asked how he knew that I smoked. "All pretty girls smoke," he answered.
I asked how he knew what I looked like, and he told me that he looked at me with his mirror. At first I could not figure out how he could have a mirror in prison, but then I realized that on our arrival, nobody even looked at our bags. dangling keys and thumping steps interrupted my thoughts. The noise stopped outside my door. Two women who arrived on another "stage" train were brought in. I pointed out that there were only two beds in our cell. "You're going to make it, somehow," we were told. As we began to get acquainted, the door opened again. A woman guard, stepping almost inside our cell asked, softly so that no one from adjacent cells could hear, "Girls, do any of you have clothes to sell? Tomorrow morning I will bring sugar, white bread, bacon . . . whatever you want in the way of goods."
I was confused and amazed by such unheard of behavior by a prison guard. She continued "Don't be afraid, I'll pay for everything we agree to, right here on the spot. You see, here we don't have knitted cardigans, nor woolen head scarves. We can get nothing here." The scarves I received as presents were not what she wanted, but one of the other women did have an imported cardigan that was to the guard's liking. Since they could not agree on a price, the guard wanting it practically for nothing no transaction took place. The guard left with her feelings hurt.
We continued to get acquainted. The elder woman, who had been negotiating over her cardigan, was well into her sixties, plump, active, and moved with the agility and grace of a much younger woman. She was well dressed, her clothes obviously obtained on the black market. When asked why she was in prison, she answered, "For practicing palmistry and chiromancy."
"And for how long?"
"I got seven years, since it's my second time under the same paragraph."
"I've never heard of anybody getting sentenced for predicting the future by reading somebody's palm."
"And how! I'm telling you, it's my second time already. I became too famous. My services were in high demand by too many fine ladies."
The other, younger new-arrival remarked, "But surely you could have read your own fortune well in advance, and then gone to a far away place where no one would know you. Russia's so big."
"You cannot escape fate anywhere, daughter," the fortuneteller replied sagely.
The younger woman, an Ossetin, was alarmingly beautiful or, more precisely, wildly and exotically beautiful. Her skin tone was quite dark, and her long hair was jet black, arranged in a thick braid lying like a snake on her back. Her eyebrows, too, were jet black, curved as if drawn by an especially
skillful make-up artist. Her most alarming features were her eyes, black, and in the shade of long eyelashes, unnaturally large and almost threatening. I became uneasy, almost fearful looking into her eyes for any length of time. Despite being frightened by her eyes, like a doomed rabbit standing fixed before a snake, I could not help looking at her.
Dinner time arrived. The little window in the door opened, and two friendly young men, obviously' inmates, offered us fish. I thought they were pulling a morbid practical joke on us new arrivals, gullible enough to believe anything. I was amazed when I went to the window and received a beautiful piece of boiled cod in a aluminum bowl.
"A pity there's no bread to go with it," I must have thought aloud.
"How's that? No bread? I'll get you some in a minute." The young man ran away and returned a moment later with bread. I thanked them repeatedly. I kept eating and praising the food, "Where did they, find excellent fish like this in Kirov, so far from the sea, when they only gave us heads and fishbones in the prison in Riga?"
My cellmates agreed that it was unusual to receive such good fish in prison. We ate, licking our fingers and sucking We bones. I divided the bread so that we each got equal shares. Then the window opened again and the men asked if we wanted extra helpings. We yelled yes in unison, and I asked what was the occasion to be getting such good food.
"No occasion at all, its just something for you, pretty girls, from us, the men from Kirov." He handed us a bowl of fish. Naturally, we smiled and were happy.
"God bless you and give you health," the old woman wished him. The window closed, and we feasted and praised these decent boys.
"A strange prison," I mused, "they have great freedom here. Nowhere else are prisoners allowed to distribute food to other inmates."
"And in the prison at Gorki I never saw another prisoner for four years," added the brunette.
"How's that, didn't see anybody? You're not saying you spent four years in solitary?" I asked, amazed.
"Yes in solitary."
"The investigation took that long?"
"No, that was part of my sentence. They brought a sewing machine into my cell, where I sat and sewed because my sentence called for the first four years to be spent in a prison. Those four years have passed, and I'm being taken by stage to a forced labor camp."
Spending time in solitary with a sewing machine was unheard of.
"Do you have much time left now?"
"Long enough to leave this place as an old bag. I was given fifteen, now I'm twenty-nine. When I was imprisoned I was twenty-five."
"For murder," she stated simply.
"Who did you kill?"
"Who else but a man. My sentence wouldn't have been nearly as severe if the bastard had been a civilian, but unfortunately he was an officer."
"Yes, you're right, only seven or eight years for a civilian," I added compassionately.
"In no way more than ten," the black-eyed beauty agreed.
She asked what chiromancy was. The old woman explained that she predicted the future from the stars, from lines in the palm of one's hand, and that she was also well versed in many other fields. Naturally, the black-eyed beauty asked the old woman to predict her future. The palm reader excused herself because of weak eyesight and the poor light in the cell.
At bedtime, the palm reader because of her size needed a bed to herself. We, the two skinny ones, shared the other bed. I felt somewhat uncomfortable sharing a bed with a strange woman, a murderer at that. She fell asleep quickly, while I lay awake.
When I finally slept, I had crazy nightmares: I dreamed I was under the spell of a sorceress, an old woman with a big black eyes that blazed youthfully. When she looked at me she lowered her brows and lashes like window blinds. She ordered me to look in her eyes. The longer I looked the more I saw, like looking at a television set. I saw vison after vision that I could not have thought on my own. She told me to swing my arm. around and around, and to fly off into the moonlit night. I obeyed and took off steeply like a helicopter. However high I rose, her eyes remained before me. They glowed with a fascinating luminescent sheen under the large fans formed by her lashes. Then a strange cosmic music started; it sounded like avant-garde jazz and changed into clanking.
When I opened my eyes I understood the clanking. The prison guard walked down the corridor, banging the keys against the steel door fittings, loudly shouting "Get up, get up." My bedmate on the outside jumped out of the bed. Her black braid had come apart and the wavy hair covered her back. Though to Russian taste she was not quite plump enough, nevertheless, the guards still found this black-eyed girl appealing. Every now and then the door opened and a couple of men stood in the entrance staring at her. Word about the rare specimen in cell number four spread quickly through the jail because after breakfast, the highest prison administrators came to inspect her. The door opened to admit four officers in Ministry of the Interior uniforms. There was not room for four, so one stepped across the threshold and entered our cell. Making a show of being on a fact-finding mission they questioned her about her sentence, prison work, etc. Then they shook their heads over the fact that she still had to spend so many years in confinement. "Poor girl," one of them said leaving. This "poor girl" had killed someone, yet everyone felt sorry for her.
The window was opened by yet another man. "Do you want to take a walk?" he asked, "if you do then get ready." An old guard took us to the exercise yard. He ordered two more cells opened, releasing seven more prisoners. Against prison rules, he took us out together: The old guard did not stare at the black-eyed girl, but took us by a long fence, grayed by natural weathering in contrast to the gaily painted fences at the front of the prison. We came to a small padlocked gate in the middle of the fence. While the guards unlocked the padlock I heard voices behind the fence. We entered a small yard containing about ten women, some walking around, some squatting on the ground, all talking animatedly.
The prison inmates rapidly quizzed each other, "Where are you from?" and "Where are you going?" This collection of information was to find out about their friends. They wanted to know who gained freedom, and who returned to prison after how long a period, who traveled on which "stage," which breaches of rules were committed, and how many times someone was in solitary confinement. Most important was to discover who was eating with whom, at this revealed relationships, including intimate ones. The three of us were not from the right category. In addition, we came from prisons and not forced labor camps, which meant no information could be gained from us. I got to know only one woman among this motley crowd. She was in for murder and had been sentenced a long time ago. She traveled by "stage" from her camp far away in the Orals to her native city of Dnepropetrovsk as a witness in another court case. She told me that she came from a special camp in the Perm district in the Urals. This camp at Bereznyki was solely for women sentenced for murder. I asked if this camp held many inmates.
"A little more than a thousand," she explained.
"It would be interesting to know if anybody was from Latvia."
"Yes, we have two, one a very intelligent lady from Riga." she announced with pride then gave her name.
"I know, I know!" I exclaimed. "I've heard about that case. It was rather mysterious, and apparently the guilt was never quite proved."
"She says she's not guilty." My partner emphasized the word, "not." "But the murdered man's mother pointed the finger at her in court, asking for the death penalty," she added.
"Yes, people at the hearing said the same thing, but nobody clearly understood what actually happened. Those who know her agree that she couldn't be guilty and must have been promised a large sum of money to accept the blame."
At length, and in some detail, she started to tell me about herself: "I met an officer who appeared to be a decent and quiet guy from another city. He settled in the end room of my uncle's house, which was small. I was then of the age to be 'given away.' Having looked me over, he came to our place with wine to propose to me. All my relatives were delighted with my marriage to an officer. We celebrated our wedding and went on living reasonably. After a year I had a son, later a daughter."
"Old folks say one shouldn't marry a stranger, one never knows what devils may possess him. My neighbors opened my eyes more and more frequently, saying that he was seen here and there. Often he wouldn't come home nights. When I asked him where he was, he always answered, 'A military secret.' What could I do?"
"One morning he was hungover and would not wake up.Then my son, already two, went to the chair over which my husband's uniform was hanging. He stuck his hand into the pocket of the uniform and pulled out two letters, one was crumpled up. I shouted to my son not to touch his daddy's papers. As if the devil himself pulled me over to have a look, I picked up the envelope. I took out the letter and the photo of a rather pretty woman with two little boys on her lap. I started to read but did not understand. The more I read, the less I understood. I turned the letter over without having read it to the end, and saw, 'Kisses, your wife, Nyura.' Tears clouded my eyes. I had to know more. I wiped my eyes and started again from the beginning. 'Haven't your maneuvers finished by now? How long should I wait for you? Four years have passed. And you send me so little money, how are we supposed to make ends meet?
Thank you at least for not forgetting me on my birthday by sending me the beautiful ruby brooch."'
The woman continued, "A hot current passed down my back. I jumped up, as if stung, to look in the desk drawer. My only memento from my dead mother, a brooch with two tiny rubies, was missing. I looked at my husband, sleeping off his hangover. He reeked so strongly of rotten fish and vodka that I held my breath ten feet away. At this moment he seemed so repulsive to me, as if I had never seen him before. An overpowering hatred came over me because he deceived me about his other marriage; because of all the nights of 'military secrets;' and finally because of my mother's brooch. I looked through the window where my boy played in the sand pile at the other end of the yard. The little one slept in the cradle."
"I rushed out to the porch where we split wood, grabbed the ax and, not thinking of anything except how much I hated this bastard, I ran to the bed and swung the ax into the sleeper's neck. He never even moved. I was in such a state I couldn't look at the bed. I yanked the baby from her cradle, grabbed the boy in the yard, and ran as if pursued straight to the militia. I was dead tired and I did not understand what was happening. I sat down and started to scream for 'help.' 'They called the local medic who injected something and I told them everything."
She started to cry. Even now, what happened still moved her although over a year passed.
"Who is taking care of the children?" I asked her, lighting a cigarette. My hands shook because her story touched me so deeply.
"The children have it good, thanks to God. They are at my sister's. She loves children. One time, when I was in my native town, the children were brought over to see me. They had grown." She wiped her tears. "I went hack
once again to testify about my husband's sins. He and friends falsified papers at a warehouse to get money for drinking."
"How much were you given?"
"I got by with seven years. After all, in your native town you are known from your school days on. 'They knew I wouldn't have committed such a crime if that stranger hadn't turned up. The Army staff also gave him a bad character reference wherever he went."
The exercise period was intended for walking and muscle stretching. Engrossed in this tragic story, we sat down on the ground with our backs a against the fence. And now, when both decided to move and stretch our legs, the guard opened the gate and announced that our walk period was over. We moved toward the exit as we had been taught ever since our first days in prison, in single file, with our hands on our backs.
After lunch the black-eyed girl successfully twisted the palm-reader's arm. I regarded this fortunetelling as futile and doubted her ability. In order not to hurt her feelings I stuck my hand out saying "While you are at it, please see what's ahead for me." She looked and told me that I could expect to be arrested again around 1970. Not wanting to believe this, I lost all interest.
The window opened and a guard we had not seen before yelled out, "Is there anyone here who'd want to come over to the guards' hut to wash the floor?" I volunteered. One cannot pass up such an opportunity to find valuable things, like a pencil stub, a match or a piece of razor blade which are useful in barter. The guard evaluated me from head to toe and asked, for security reasons, how many years I received. "I was given four. One I've sat off, three remain now."
"Good," he said, "let's go."
I grabbed the knitted sweater and followed him through the well-cared-for prison garden where the male inmates worked as gardeners. They wanted to get acquainted, not knowing I was not "one of them." Only after I crossed the entire courtyard without answering did someone say, "She's not one of ours."
Washing the floor was successful. I carried water from the other end of the hut where there was a kitchen where visitors to the inmates could prepare meals. A woman was forming pelmens, the large, Siberian dumplings filled with meat. She automatically asked me, "For how many years, where from and what for?" I answered in similar shorthand that I was in for politics. I could not stand and talk for any length of time, although nobody was checking on me. Therefore I went to change the water as often as possible. The woman was visiting her son who received two years under the paragraph for hooliganism, applied to fighting. The woman regretted that she could not offer me anything because the pelmens would not be ready in less than an hour.
I did find some useful things while washing the floor: small mirror, two hair clips, and a match box with a piece of lipstick. When I went to change the water the third time, the woman rushed forward with something white. "Here take it, it's sugar. My son has enough, I brought him plenty of everything. I live close by, you're from far away." All this she poured out in a single breath. She did not have any paper, so the sugar lay in big lumps in her calloused hands as in a bowl. "Quick," she said, "take it, before somebody comes."
I put the lumps of sugar in my blouse. Only the thin layer of my slip kept the sugar away from my body. The sugar lumps fell on top of each other, forming a big bulge around my midriff. In the meantime the bucket had filled with water. Thanking her for her generosity, I returned to my work. I yanked on my cardigan to conceal the bulges. Whenever I moved the lumps rustled but could not be seen. Back in my cell I wrapped my sugar in a large clean handkerchief. First I offered a piece to each of my cell-mates, who already had sugar.
We spent one more night sleeping as a threesome. Then early in the morning they called for me "with your things." The others remained behind another few days. In the "stage" block of the Kirov prison, as in a hotel, the inmates stayed only a few days, until the next "stage" car.
I crossed the verdant yard as slowly as possible in order to remember the lilacs in bloom, the decorative shrubs, and the flowers. Awaiting me was a locked prison van, tracks, a barred car, surrounded by soldiers with automatics slung around their necks and a couple of dogs on short leashes.
The cages in the barred car were not as overcrowded as the last time. Nevertheless a middle-aged woman with two sacks of things was put into my cage when the train stopped. She was angry and would not talk. She appeared not to have been in for more than a week. She seemed resentful towards her situation and was put off the train in the middle of the night.
I traveled alone and learned from a soldier that we were going to Sverdlovsk. The trip was long and tiring. Finally we arrived at a gloomy and depressing prison where discipline and order ruled. Our things were examined carefully, and we were meticulously checked for lice. Then we were taken to the bathroom.
I was let into the bathroom with a Chinese woman. I disrobed and began to wash. The Chinese woman kept on a long white broadcloth shirt and her leather boots. I thought she feared that someone might steal her boots, for she entered the sauna wearing both shirt and boots. The sauna was bleak: a large concrete room with exposed iron pipes above, fitted every three feet with the head of a watering can. We could not adjust the water ourselves; this was done by the sauna assistants, male inmates. They asked us through the glassless window how we wanted the water, and then adjusted the taps accordingly. The Chinese woman may have known about the spectators in the Sverdlovsk jail and perhaps that is why kept her shirt and boots on. I kept my back towards the window, washed my hair, and left as soon as possible. Then I was given a medical examination.
On the way to my cell, the guard explained that the large prison was built in the days of Catherine the Great. Seen from above, it forms her initial "E." (Catherine, written in Russian starts with an "E.") The prison was intended as a maximum security jail for those guilty of serious crimes. When the door to my cell opened, I was surprised to find the Chinese woman.
The cell was small and gloomy, with two beds, one along each wall. The rest of the room was bare, without chair or table. The walls were covered in dark grey oil paint to prevent prisoners from writing on the walls, leaving messages for friends. I could not help thinking that the Sverdlovsk authorities were breaking one rule by putting me into a cell with someone else. According to the standing instructions, I, as a particularly dangerous criminal aginst the state, should be kept alone. I was not surprised at Kirov since they did not go by the book on any point.
However, when the Chinese put a finger on her chest, saying "Chu Uh Shi," it was clear that she could not speak Russian and that the Sverdlovsk administration had nothing to fear. I could not indoctrinate her with anti-Soviet ideas, nor could she spoil me with Mao's teachings. For the first time in my life I could not make myself understood. Since I speak several languages I have always been able to communicate through one of them. Chu Uh Shi started to eat her dinner, a large herring and some black bread. She offered a piece of herring to me, too, having deftly skinned it with a spoon. I accepted, thinking one piece would not hurt me. The herring tasted great, later however, I paid for it. Around midnight an excruciating pain hit me and I started to groan. Chu Uh Shi banged on the door. A nice medical aide in a white smock brought me opium and also gave me a shot. The drugs helped and I fell asleep. The aide even prescribed a diet for me.
I knew that eventually I was to be taken to Abakan-Taishet. Then I was told that I had been taken in the wrong direction, because there was no longer a camp at Taishet for the people sentenced according to the code paragraphs as mine. That camp had been moved long ago. I wondered how the administration of the Riga prison did not know where to send me. Several people were already sent from Riga to Taishet, and they turned up in Sverdlovsk again. This time I was to be sent in the "right" direction.
The same night Chu Uh Shi and I were both called "with your things." As we were taken into the corridor a group of minors were brought in from the "stage" through another door. There were about twenty boys between the ages of fourteen and eighteen. They were dressed in dirty clothes and were bouncy and full of life. Most of them were from orphanages.They were horsing around, not suspecting that few of them would lead normal lives. It was a depressing sight, seeing young children on the way towards a hopeless future. In prison they were taught a trade, and kept working. They provide the slate with a cheap source of labor, working their entire lives for the minimum calories required to maintain existence.
The head of the convoy placed me in the car all alone. Chu Oh Shi was placed with the other criminals "against social norms." There I also saw four old Chinese men. Overall, the "stage" from Sverdlovsk was large, all compartments stuffed to capacity. There was no indication of where the train was going.
I fell asleep with my feet towards the inside of the compartment, and my head near the bars. In the middle of the night, I felt someone pulling my hair. In the darkness I could barely see the soldier who yanked my hair. He stood glued against the door to my compartment. He said, "Hurry up." Only when I sat up did I understand. The soldier opened his trousers, pressed his stomach against the bars and stuck his penis through.
"Get lost," I said.
"Look here, stupid, at these goodies," he said.
"I'm going to give your goodies such a kick that you're going to forget what your name is." Finally he backed off, muttered something under his breath and left. The remainder of the night I could not sleep but squatted in the corner, with my chin on my knees and my coat over my legs.
A few of us, including all the Chinese, were put off in Kazan. The prison at Kazan had previously been a Greek Orthodox church. I was taken into a large empty hall filled with double tiered bunks. I waited in vain for Chu Uh Shi to appear. Despite it being summer the room was cool; I was freezing. I put on everything that could provide warmth, yet I was still cold. As prescribed for travelers on the "stage," I slept on the bare bars of my cot with a bundle of clothes as a pillow. Despite not having slept much the previous night, I could not sleep because of the cold. Towards morning I fell asleep briefly but was awakened by the cooing of pigeons. To loosen my limbs, stiff from the cold, I walked up and down the cell. At the same time I counted the beds, sixty, the same number as in Riga. I tried to read the by-laws and rules written on the wall in Russian and in Tatar. On the adjacent wall, however, I found some words penciled in Latvian, "Greetings compatriot" followed by initials.
With the start of the working day the Tatars came to see me. The Tatar prison guards were extremely curious. Some came into my cell, sat down on the edge of an empty bed, and asked about the availability of potatoes, fruit, and meat in Riga, and the prices. Once their curosity was satisfied, I was taken out for a walk. The exercise yards were arranged like triangular slices of pie, cut radially, with the guard, positioned al the center, with a little roof above his head. Standing at the narrow end of a yard one could see a corner of the church, the present prison. The walls were plastered white, the slate roof painted dark green. Except for the high fence with the towers and barbed wire, nobody would have thought this building anything but a church. I warmed up outside and was sorry to return to the dark cell. Officially everybody is entitled to one hour of walking. But there is no way inmates can verify their actual time, since they no longer have watches and there are no clocks anywhere in the corridors, let alone in the cells.
From the Tatar capital of Kazan I was taken on a short trip to Ruzayevka where a huge "stage" awaited. It took time before they finished calling our names. Throughout my long travels by "stage," I heard only a handful of non-Russian names, of the black-marketeers from China and Central Asia. The rest had typically Russian surnames. As the names were called, one man attracted everybody's attention and admiration. He was tall, with a masculine face, about forty. When his turn came to give his father's name, the code paragraph and the length of his sentence, everybody listened spellbound to his recital. His paragraphs followed each other closely, as if he was reading from a book, his voice magnificent and loud. He paused for effect, then solemnly announced, "The total term: one-hundred-and-forty years."
Everybody admired him. I wondered how he could get one-hundred-and-forty years. Assuming that the court gave the maximum twenty-five years, he would have to have committed twelve murders in jail, since ten years were added for each one. For camp inmates the years added for crimes committed in camp could not increase the total sentence to more than twenty-five years. It would have been interesting to hear his life story.
In Ruzayevka the station was close, just across the tracks. A whole crowd of us went there. Sapped of my strength, I could no longer carry my leather trunk. The head of the convoy ordered one inmate to walk alongside and carry my trunk. By the time everyone was stuffed as tightly as possible into the cages aboard the van, there was no room for me. The entire stage was made up of men and I was the only woman. I was placed in the middle of the van, between the cages. The trip was over rough road, and the wheels seemed hexagonal, not round. We had not traveled far before I noticed that I had been robbed. I did not notice when my handkerchidf was removed from my coat pocket. Later the man waved it inside the cage. Since it was my only one, I asked for it back. The thieves grinned and laughed. What was I to do? This was their profession.
At Ruzayevka I was taken into a large cell with huge double-tiered bunks along the walls. 'The cell was overcrowded with women of different ages. Some were lively like wound up springs, while others lolled listlessly on their cots. Another sat on the floor with her back propped against the wall and with the aid of a hair pin, smoked the last fraction of an inch of her cigarette. The moment I stepped over the threshold and bid them good morning four or five of them surrounded me to ask if I had anything to sell. I told them nothing but sugar.
"What d'you want for the sugar?"
"Cigarettes," I answered.
"All of us want them. You're not going to make a deal."
Then one of them pressed herself close to me and whispered, "It's a pity you don't have earrings. They rate five packs of cigarettes."
"Sorry, but I don't."
"Maybe you've got some lipstick?"
"I've got a little piece," I told her.
"Give it to me."
Suddenly a whole mob milled around, all needing lipstick. I sold it for ten cigarettes and felt pleased. I considered what trinkets I could sell. Here they needed everything. For romance, they wanted to pretty themselves up. They may gain freedom for a short time only, a month at the most. Then they return to their "native home," as prison is called among thieves.
Then the door opened and I was ordered, "with your things." Prison officials committed a grave mistake by failing to look at my paragraph and allowing me to join the other girls. Now I was taken to solitary confinement, as befit my sentence according to the rules.
I was taken to the exercise yard alone, too. On the other side of the Fence separating the exercise yards a man was walking. His steps slowed, then stopped. I tried to pretend I was not aware that he was watching me. Then all at once, I heard a kick against the boards, saw two hands appear on top of the fence and watched as the man jumped into my yard. He was young, probably eighteen or nineteen. But to my horror, he seemed to be mad. I was frightened and did not know what to say. Nor did he. He watched me and grinned in a silly way. He came closer, with that grin on his face. To flee seemed futile since the entire yard measured only twenty by ten steps. The gate was lucked from outside. I asked his name, and he replied that his name was Misha.
I deliberately spoke loud so the guards would hear. "You sure are a great looking guy, Misha. What on earth are you doing here?"
"Don't you see, they put me into a jail. And they keep heating me." A while later he rubbed his nose into his sleeve and still grinning continued, "Do you like me?"
"Sure I like you, Misha. Take it easy and relax. I'll talk, to the chief and see if I can get him to agree to let you go home."
Overjoyed, he jumped and clapped his hands like a child. "Yes, talk to him," he said, moving closer.
In the meanwhile, the guards noticed that Misha was no longer in his yard. The key clicked and two soldiers grabbed Misha under his arms, ignoring his protests. It is incomprehensible how a sick man can be sentenced to jail. According to the law mental cases are not judged by a court. An individual's
ignorance of the law is never allowed as an excuse. But if the state errs and breaks a law, there will always be justification and excuse. I was depressed for several days thinking about the unfortunate Misha.
Ruzayevka serves as a center for the "stages" while its prison functions solely as a transfer jail. Hence it did not insist on strict discipline and one could exchange a word or two with people being taken in the opposite direction. As I was being taken back to my cell, a young man heading for his walk asked me which camp I was going to. I did not know.
"What were you sentenced for?"
"In that case please give my regards to Anna Popowich from Nikolay."
"Where will I see her?"
"She is there, where you are going. You'll recognize her because her right arm is missing."
From Ruzayevka I was taken to Potyma, then the only place where "criminals against the state" or old style "politicals" were kept. A group of particularly dangerous criminals in horizontally striped uniforms were on the same train. We walked across to another track where a narrow-gauge railroad had been constructed to link Potyma with the other camps. Our train had a total of six cars. Everyone boarded and the trip continued. From the car window we saw a camp wherever the train stopped. It looked frightening: a whole region of nothing but camps. Some were very close together, others several miles apart. On the platform of one station I saw Chu Uh Shi and the Chinese group.
Finally I was put off the train. The enclosed prison an took me over rough ground, not a road but a footpath which ran the length of the forest. Frequent use had finally turned it into a rough track. Finally the trip was over, and I was let out at the gate.