Helene Celmina. Women in Soviet Prisons

It was the work hour, and a young woman wearing glasses came towards me. In clear Latvian she said, "Good day. Erna already told us that you were going to be here soon. My name's Nina, let's get acquainted."

"Where did you get such a Russian name?" I asked.

"Nobody could pronounce my real name so I became Nina ever since childhood. My grandparents owned the dairy in Riga. Because of that all of us were sent to Siberia."

"And how did you get here?"

"That's a long story, however not much is required to get here. Let's go see the Commandant so that she can show you where you're going to be. Give me your case, I'll help you."

She turned out to be strong despite being so tiny. She grabbed my heavy case, and with small running steps, carried it into the barracks. Nina knocked on the Commandant's door, announced me, and, having let me inside, remained outside. The Commandant was about thirty-five, dumpy, wore glasses, and dressed in uniform. Last week's entire menu could he seen on her blouse. She asked for my name and surname and whether I knew how to sew.

She then took me into the section next door where about twenty old women were sitting or lying in their beds. The Commandant asked which beds were not taken. A little old woman stepped forward and pointed out one right in the middle of the room and a couple further away in the dark corners. The Commandant told me to sleep in the middle of the room. A couple of hours later they brought me sheets and blankets from the store and a bag full of wood shavings. I signed for this as if for valuable goods. Two rubles plus a few kopeks per month were to he taken from my salary for the use of my bedclothes. They subtracted a similar amount for room, electricity, food, and uniform. I told them that I had no need for their uniform. "You're wrong, you certainly will need it. Nobody is going to let you walk around in your own clothes," the head of the storeroom, an old man with a wooden leg, solemnly announced.

Then they told me to see the doctor, a short thin captain with dark hair. He hardly spoke beyond asking what was wrong. I told him my physical problems which he wrote down and then solemnly announced: "You will be classified as a Group III disabled person."

Tears rushed to my eyes, I was hardly thirty and they were calling me disabled. I went out and the nurse asked what had happened. "He put me into the disabled category," I mumbled.

"But that's great, you should be overjoyed! That means that you won't have to work at the back-breaking tasks. The doctor knows what he's doing." Only after a month did I understand. Those classified as fully able-bodied sat at the sewing machine for eight hours producing their quota of thirty-two shirts in eight hours.

At night, once work was finished, the first one to rush out and greet me was Erna. While we were talking women returned from the work zone. Most of them walked slowly, weariness visible in every step. A depressing sight, all wore black prison garb, altered to fit, or a mere black shapeless bag with sleeves.

Erna exclaimed, "Zenta, come and meet someone I've told you about. The two of us were locked up together at the Cheka."

We were introduced and I could not help looking at Zenta with horror. She was slightly younger than I. Her face looked waxen, as if yellow parchment were stretched over her skull. Except for her brilliant eyes, it could have been a cadaver's face. Her features were tiny and pretty but the brilliant eyes were unnaturally large. She was tiny and extremely thin. Erna excused herself and ran off. I remained with Zenta.

"I suppose you've been here a long time," I asked with a compassionate voice.

"Yes, I've put quite a few years behind me already," she said with a smile, as if this was nothing worth speaking of. I learned later that she was one of those sentenced to twenty-five years.

When Zenta smiled I noticed that her teeth were made of some dark grey metal. I could not stop myself from asking "What happened to your teeth? Did they make them like that here?"

"Yes, because they knocked them all out while crossexamining me at the Cheka."

"How did they do that, all at once?"

"Yes, all of them with a single blow."

"The bastards! They should have had their own teeth knocked out so they'd know what it feels like. And these were put in right there at Riga?"

"No way, they were put in while in the Siberian camp."

I did not want to keep Zenta any longer. She was returning from a hard day of laboring so I said, "Well, let's not talk anymore right now. We'll get to it another time."

Zenta asked one more question, "Which section did they put you in?"

"With the disabled ones," I pointed with my arm towards the barrack.

The fourth Latvian Erna introduced at dinner was a tall, middle aged woman, her face totally without expression. Vilma was also in for twenty-five years, and was not interested in nor surprised by anything. She moved like a robot, having completely lost all interest in life and in the outside world.

I could not fall asleep for a long lime that night. Heavy thoughts tortured me, especially the difference in response between those who recently arrived in prison and those who already spent a long time behind barbed wire, isolated from the outside world. Within the Riga Cheka or Central Prison, inmates, regardless of paragraph, still show a lively interest in what is happening outside.

Vilma knew that I was from her native country, Latvia. She asked no questions about how things were there, whether Latvian was still spoken. At first I thought that perhaps she did not want to burden me with questions on my first day. But as days, weeks, and months passed I realized that no one sentenced to more than ten years asked a single question about anything. The outside world no longer seemed to exist for them. They had trained themselves not to think. But perhaps that is not the case. Perhaps they only hide their thoughts.

The next day though I did not have to work, I still reported myself present at the morning head count. Sleeping late is not allowed. Another working day starts after the count. Those able to work lined up near the gate leading up to the work zone. The disabled lined up near the other gate, leading to work outside the zone. Soon the Commandant appeared, in the same dirty blouse, and told me I was assigned to the agricultural brigade. During the day I was brought to the warehouse to pick out my black prisoner's garb, a choice between an outfit too small and one too large. I took the oversized one. The boots were large but fit well enough once tightly laced. They were made of bumpy artificial leather and tarpaulin with rubber soles. I found rags to wrap around my feet before putting on the boots so I would not blister my skin.

Impatiently I waited for the end of the working day when I would meet with my new acquaintances. Zenta interested me, and I felt as if I already knew her.

When, alter dinner, Zenta came to the bench where I sat and smoked, I asked her, "What did they give you twenty-five years for?"

"Because I was in the forest."

"When did they catch you?"


"But then you should have gone home when everyone was released in 1956, during Khrusehev's large commission."

"You're right, many returned home. Only a few of us from Latvia were left behind," Zenta said sadly.

"What reason did they give?"

"Nothing they only said that they could not let us go home yet."

"The other one was Vilma?"


"What was her case?"

"She worked in the passport section of the local township's police department."

"And that was all that was held against her?"

"Yes, there was no alternative in those days. Everybody was given twenty-five years, plus another five without rights. But then those who were released to go home in 1956 received the same sentence."

"How did they decide who remained and who left? Why did they keep you two in particular?"

"Among the women, two with twenty-five year sentences were kept. Many men were retained. They considered each case. If no dead bodies were involved, they were released. Suspicions or proof of dead bodies guaranteed that the commission did not release them."

"If Vilma was working in the passport office, where did the dead bodies come from?"

"The fact that she worked at the government office was part of her trouble."

"And were there dead bodies in your case?"

"There were," she answered quietly.

"Whose were they?"

"I don't know. I never saw any, but on paper they're part of the case. They said that we had to have shot someone while living in the forest. They maintained that our men shot several while we were surrounded and shot at. We didn't even have any ammunition for six months before being surrounded."

"But how did you end up in the forest?"

"I shouldn't have hidden in the forest. I was seventeen and hopelessly in love with a fellow who was twenty. There was no way he could avoid being called up. When the war ended, the older men advised him to take to the woods. Otherwise the Russians would find him and shoot him since he still wore the German uniform."

"You truly laved him, didn't you?"

"Yes, that's why I went with him."

"How long did you live in the forest?"

"A long time . . . four years."

"Wasn't it difficult?"

"Don't ask, I cannot explain it to anyone. Things were the worst in the winter when we had no food. During the summertime we managed."

"But where did you sleep while it was freezing outside?"

"We excavated underground bunkers. With body heat we didn't feel the cold."

"Like animals in their caves."

"That's how it was."

"Where there other women too?"

"At first there were five of us, but one died during the first year. A year later another one died, leaving three of us."

"I can hardly imagine living four years in a cave in the forest, pursued like a frightened animal."

"Several times they threatened to surround us. Once I thought we were trapped, but fortunately we escaped through the marshes."

"They knew that you were in the forest?"

"They knew everything, including the fact that we were unable to escape. They were in no particular hurry to catch us."

"And once they caught you, what happened?"

"They took us to prison and beat us terribly."

"Everybody got twenty-five years?"

"The death sentence for the men; twenty-five years for the two of us. The third woman was wounded so severely after being captured that she died in prison before the trial."

"What happened to the other woman sentenced along with you?"

"She died five years later in the correctional camp. She was past fifty when we were captured, and she was sick."

"And your boyfriend? What happened to him?"

"He got the death sentence, they shot him."

"You're the only survivor of all those who lived in the forest?"

"Yes," Zenta said with a heavy sigh.

"Do you have any relatives?"

"I do, parents and a brother."

"What about them?"

"Nothing in particular they write and wait for me to come home."

"According to the new penal code, your sentence should be over soon."

"If they lift it." Zenta said with pronounced indifference.

"They have to lift it. If according to the code, the maximum is fifteen years. Nobody can get more than fifteen. After that there's only the death sentence."

"The men who already served more than fifteen had nothing lifted, they were taken out and shot."

"They were taken out and shot, without any sentence?"

"I only know that there was an observation commission which reviewed their cases. They were told their sentences could not be reduced. After a few days they were shot."

"I'm no longer surprised at anything. Are you afraid they won't want to reduce your sentence?"

"Nobody can foretell the future."

"Why don't you write an appeal for parole to Riga?"

"I've never written one."

"I'll be glad to do it for you. It's a real pity that so much time has been lost."

"You really think that it's worthwhile to write if?" Zenta asked shyly, as if she were waking from a hundred year sleep. This change was noticeable during the following days when we tackled the appeal. Several months later the answer came that Zenta was pardoned and could leave the camp.

Vilma's situation was different. She kept to herself, never revealing anything in conversation more than "Good day, how are you?" and then disappearing immediately like a doe. Once safely away, she would find a private corner, usually a wooden staircase to sit on and do her handicrafts. She made embroidered handkerchiefs, one of which she gave me on my name's day (which is the Latvian equivalent of a birthday). She presented it shyly and disappeared immediately. Perhaps she was shy ever since she was a child.

Nina was quite different. She loved people and was always chatting with somebody. One night I sat with her for several hours while she told me about the people in charge of the camp. She was extremely well informed. There was not a single old woman whose life's story, or at least the best part of it, Nina didn't know. In fact her whole appearance proclaimed that she knew it all. Her conclusions were to the point and made sense.

Then one night Nina finally told me about herself: She grew up in hardship. In 1940 when she was a child, her parents were sent to Siberia. Once there, she survived by eating the potato peelings and fish heads she scavenged from garbage cans. She eventually married a Ukrainian and gave birth to a son who was in Riga. She once had a very close and warm-hearted girlfriend whom she trusted, and to whom she revealed her childhood sufferings and bitter outlook on the Soviet system. But her friend, in turn, told everything to her father. The father turned her in to the Cheka. Nina was given ten years of strict regime in correctional camps. More than nine years were behind her. Despite her suffering Nina was an optimist. Many people did not like her openness and bluntness. She never flattered or pretended, but expressed exactly what she thought of people. I could not help but think well of Nina.