Helene Celmina. Women in Soviet Prisons

It was a warm sunny day in Moscow on June 10, 1966. In Alexander Park, near the walls of the Kremlin, flowers bloomed. People walked on the footpaths, others sat on the park benches. I also sat on one of the benches, enjoying the flowers and the sunny day. It seemed that nothing had changed, everything was as it was four years ago, except the women's dresses were shorter.

Five or six military uniforms walked towards me. Suddenly, I felt a shortness of breath and my heart pounded like a sledgehammer. The pulse in my temples banged, and my hands trembled. Only after the military men passed me and disappeared behind the green shrubbery at the end of the path, did my heart gradually return to normal. The same fear and anxiety gripped me a short while later when I saw two policemen, walking on a distant footpath. Like the military men, they never even looked in my direction. I told myself that I had no use for fear. I had received a release and a picture showing that I served my sentence.

My first day in freedom was a strange, unusual sensation. On the train it was still hard to grasp, but getting off, the surroundings overwhelmed me, and I wasn't sure which way to turn. Since no loving soul waited in Riga, I decided to spend a few days with acquaintances in Moscow. Because my feet were not used to walking on asphalt, now and then I sat down to rest. Although I sat by the Kremlin wall, my thoughts lingered with those who were left behind in camp #17-A. Those women belonged to various nationalities and their appearances were as diverse as their life stories, but one classification united them: Prisoner. Only the lengths of their terms of imprisonment differed.

How many did not belong there at all? Did anyone besides their friends and relatives know anything about them? It occurred to me that people should know about them. I decided to tell everyone, wherever I went, about the unfortunate women prisoners, what they had done, and how they had been convicted. I wanted to write all of it down so that over the years I would not forget. At the thought of writing, I feared I was about to commit a serious crime against the state. For describing the life stories of these unfortunate women, I would be subject, according to Section II, paragraph sixty-five of the criminal code of Soviet Latvia, to ten years of incarceration. How I wanted to write! My anxiety grew. This must be the same anxiety felt by professional criminals preparing to commit a new crime. I decided that the planning of my new crime must be postponed for a while. In the distance I noticed more military personnel and became scared again, as if I had already committed the new crime.

Months passed, and every time I thought again about writing, my anxiety returned. The fear which gripped me upon seeing military people or policemen tortured me for several years. As my fear ebbed, I began my story with "Clara." Later I added other notes. In June of 1977, when my apartment was again searched and the assistant prosecutor of the city of Riga minutely examined every sliver of paper, all the notes were discovered I was asked afterwards, both by the prosecutor and by the Cheka where the other chapters were the story about Clara was designated "Chapter Eight." No one believed me when I said that there were none. I abandoned my writing indefinitely because of the Cheka's great interest in my apartment. After having gained my freedom in the West, I immediately sat down to write my book. May those unfortunate women about whom I have forgotten to write, forgive me.

Helene Celmina