Helene Celmina. Women in Soviet Prisons

In the guard shack a fat woman guard carefully went through my things. When she finished, the door opened and I was admitted into the "zone," a small strip of land, wrenched from the forest, with a road down the middle and white barracks on both sides. The camp was isolated on all sides by a high board fence with several strings of barbed wire attached to the slats. Electrical wires ran along the top of the fence. To the left of the camp was the forest and to the right was the village.

Outside the fence, ground-hugging walls of barbed wire formed an approximately twelve-foot wide strip, while a tenfoot "forbidden zone, separated from the camp proper by a low barbed wire fence, skirted the inside of the fence. The forbidden zone was cleaned, weeded, and smoothed by rake.

Every morning and night the camp guard in charge of security walked along the small barbed wire fence to check for footprints within the forbidden zone.


The big camps had observation towers in each corner. However camp #17-A was small (about the size of two soccer fields) and had only two towers. 'These were placed diagonally opposite each other at the corners so that a guard, standing in a tower, overlooked the fence along two sides. These guards were army draftees who reported to the Ministry of the Interior.Within the compound the guards were either soldiers on extended duty or salaried mercenaries. The women guards were recruited from surrounding villages. All were well paid. The pay in the communal farms was low and the work bard, making the job of a guard much more attractive. The guards in these camps all had a sixth-grade education.

Camp #17-A had a total of four barracks. This included two dormitories and one mess hall, at the end of which was a clinic, a shop, and a storeroom for private belongings. The inmates did not keep their personal items with them in the dormitory, but rather in the storeroom. This arrangement allowed us to rummage through and air our things out on summer Sundays. This pastime reminded us that we, too, once had a different life. In other camps, personal belongings were normally stored outside the zone, the inmates only received them early on the morning of the day they were released. By that time mice may have finished off a shoe, or moths may have eaten holes in coats and woolen scarves.

The fourth barrack was for the administration, containing rooms for those in charge and a sauna. The inmate working in the sauna was disabled, since the able-bodied inmates worked at sewing. The sauna had two rooms: a changing room and a steam room. The sauna contained a huge vat that was filled by means of buckets. The fire under it had to burn for an entire day in order to heat the water. The sauna was heated once every ten days. If inmates wanted, or needed, to wash more frequently, one might dip a half gallon of hot water in a wash basin from the large pot built into the floor behind the kitchen. We were allowed to take this water to the barracks at night.

Each of these 120-person barracks contained a small, socalled hygiene room, about five-by-six feet. Often we lined up with our wash basins of warm water, which frequently became cold before we reached the room. The walls, benches, and the small shelf to hold the basins were made of timber. The room was always dark, with long stalked mushrooms growing under the benches in the summertime. During the winter it was cold, since there was no way to heat it. Nevertheless, all of us who had to wash more often than three times a month were glad to have this little hygiene room.

The living quarters were partitioned into two sections, accessible from each end, with a third door mid-way. Each section contained sixty beds. Every two beds were tied together with wire for stability, and being in two tiers, actually formed a block of four beds. Whenever somebody moved in one bed, all four would move and wake up. These four-bed blocks were separated from each other by a three foot strip of floor that contained two small dressers. Each dresser was intended for the personal goods of two people: a mug, a spoon, a comb, a toothbrush, and a couple of books. Spare clothing was kept in the bed under the pillow. The brown bed frames were made of unfinished boards, joined together with large nails.

Every new arrival to the zone received a black cloth bag filled with wood shavings to be used as a mattress, a smaller black bag also filled with wood shaving to be used as a pillow, a dark blue cotton blanket, two sheets, and a pillowcase. Since the women have to wash the sheets themselves, they are issued more soap than the men. The monthly allotment is one piece, or one-half pound per inmate. This piece must be used for washing one's face, hair, clothes, and even occasionally the floor. The entire section contained only one small ceiling light. Whoever wanted to read had to put her head at the foot of her bed, but those in the lower bunks hardly had any light. A small board attached to the foot of each bed gave Family name, first name, father's name, and the paragraph and length of the sentence.

A long table covered with a white sheet and with benches on both sides, ran down the middle of the section. On it were newspapers. Fond was never allowed at this table which was to be used for political indoctrination read to us by the head of the section. Also inmates were allowed to sit and read at the table during free time. On one side stood a large brick stove, plastered with clay that continually dried and dropped to the floor. Every now and then a piece of dried clay dropped during the night and woke everyone. The stove was heated with coal, a job reserved for the disabled inmates. In the barracks the wood floor had cracks so wide that one had to be careful not to drop anything. Small treasured items like a pencil or a spool of thread that fell down these cracks were lost forever.


During the winter clothes left behind by freed inmates were spread over the cracks. These clothes were taken apart along the seams, stitched together again and spread out evenly to cover the largest possible section of floor. Whenever the wind blew especially hard, it whistled through the cracks and lifted up our rags, as if some phantom had crawled underneath.

The barracks were whitewashed inside and out each spring. Water poured onto the quicklime fizzled like a carbonated drink. We then dipped primitively made grass brushes into the solution. The main thing was to protect one's eyes, as lime burns heal slowly and poorly.

The inmates who had been at the camp from the beginning said that nothing existed in camp #17-A when they arrived. They lived in tents and waited while the men erected the barracks. A barbed wire fence surrounded the tents and conditions were much worse.

Now the work zone was separated from the living zone by a high board fence with a gate in the middle. The work zone contained a long barrack with forty electric sewing machines and also the camp lock-up, a small house surrounded by a triple wire fence. The camp contained two toilets, one in the living and one in the working zones. To the right, beyond the fence was the village where the guards lived with their families, as well as the camp commander and other administrators. The telephone operator lived there, as did the electrician, the medical personnel, the store supervisors, and others. Children, chickens, and pigs all roamed the village without supervision. The white chickens were painted for recognition, some purple while others had green wings or tails. In the middle of the village stood the only water pump, surrounded by a big pool of mud in which pigs and naked children wallowed from dawn to dusk.