Helene Celmina. Women in Soviet Prisons

In 1977 during a private conversation, KGB Lieutenant-Colonel Kondratovs asked a Latvian emigre why she was so unhappy with the Soviet system. After all, she had a good job, a large income, an apartment, and even an automobile; everything a person could want. The woman never bothered to answer.

Helene Celmina, who survived four long years in the Soviet Gulag for the "crime" of reading foreign magazines, knew any answer would be superfluous. Because Kondratovs had to ask in the first place, he would never understand.

Instead, she took her experience to the West, to a world that not only understood but highly valued personal freedom, legal justice, and human dignity. Other, more famous survivors of the Gulag have, of course, preceded her and have begun to unravel the curtain of secrecy shrouding the massive Soviet penal system. More will surely follow. What makes Helene Celmina's story so special however, is that it is a deeply personal one, focusing on the lives, experiences, and relationships of the women-mothers, wives, and daughters; murderesses, criminals and thieves-she met, lived with, and worked with during her four years of imprisonment.

Although Women in Soviet Prisons is primarily about people, it can only be understood within its political context. To understand how a bright, young Latvian girl with a knack for languages and an insatiable desire to read, becomes, almost overnight, an "especially dangerous criminal to the state," one must understand what it means to be a Balt growing up in the Soviet Onion. Helene Celmina was born in 1929 in Latvia, a Baltic nation which gained its independence from tsarist Russia in 1918. Along with the neighboring countries of Lithuania and Estonia, Latvia struggled for centuries to free itself from the Russian empire and embraced its new sovereignty with enthusiasm. As a small but ancient culture whose Indo-European language was neither Slavic nor Teutonic, the Latvians viewed themselves as forgotten Europeans whose time as an independent nation in the world community had finally come.

Joseph Stalin felt otherwise. Unable to hold onto The tsar's Baltic provinces during the Bolshevic revolution, he nevertheless coveted Latvia's strategic ice-free ports and growing economic potential. In 1940 he got his wish: Soviet troops occupied Latvia under the pretext of protecting the populace from the Germans. The relentless column of Red Army tanks were followed by a reign of terror that reached all levels of Latvian society. It was then that eleven-year-old Helene Celmina first saw Soviet atrocities against her people. Then in 1941 the Germans invaded Latvia, forcing the Soviets into a hasty retreat. When the basements of the abandoned Cheka buildings were opened Helene and her relatives gazed in shock at the hundreds of maimed and mutilated bodies of Latvian officers and patriots left by The Soviets. For the young Helene, this sight remained "before my eyes forever."

By 1945 the Germans were defeated and Latvia was occupied once again by the Soviets. In a new wave of terror, thousands of Latvians were deported or executed. The Latvian nation was forcibly annexed to the Soviet Union and the "Russification" of Latvia began.

For Celmina, now a student, the effects of Russification were felt directly and immediately. Her Latvian school texts were replaced by Soviet books which erased all mention of independent Latvia and replaced it with pro-Soviet, Marxist-Leninist propaganda. Like her Fellow students, she no longer believed anything she was taught, apart from non-political subjects like algebra or geometry. Even singing classes, which she had always enjoyed, became repugnant, since she was forced to learn Soviet songs.

Celmina now became personally familiar with the dreaded Soviet security forces, known as the KGB in the West and the Cheka in the Soviet Union. Dressed in long leather coats, the Chekists visited her school regularly. One by one the students were summoned to the Cheka offices, questioned, and urged to become informers. Although these interrogations always took place at night, the students were instructed not to tell their parents where they were going or what they were doing. In addition The students were forced to attend demonstrations on Soviet holidays. Those who refused to participate faced expulsion from school and the deportation of Their relatives to Siberia.

In 1947 while living in the Latvian city of Liepaja, Celmina's mother was arrested, charged, and sentenced to seventeen years in prison for "anti-Soviet" agitation. Although this was an abstract, unprovable crime without evidence or eyewitnesses, there was no defense.

Following her mother's imprisonment Celmina traveled to Riga, hoping to move in with her father. On arrival she was refused an apartment permit and was subsequently arrested. Although accused of a long list of crimes, she received only a one-year prison term. Since she was young and strong, that year was not difficult for Celmina. In fact, she found the experience a valuable lesson in the art of self-preservation in the Soviet system.

At the time Stalin's purges filled the prisons with thousands of political prisoners, mainly peasants and farmers who gave bread to partisans hiding in the forests. Celmina listened intently to prison conversations, familiarized herself with prison routine, and learned much she would be thankful for later.

Following her release from prison, Celmina was understandably discreet and careful. Hope came in 1953 when Stalin died. Although the Russian people cried over the loss of their leader, Celmina, along with the Latvians and other Soviet minorities, breathed with relief: Things were about to change again, but no matter what happened, they couldn't get any worse. Or so they thought.

During The early Khrushchev years, their hope seemed justified. With Khrushchev's "liberalization" many forgot The terror caused by the invidious presence of the Cheka. Latvians began to sing forbidden songs, at first quietly; later, as no arrests were made, their voices grew louder and prouder. Some even related political anecdotes. Tourists arrived in Latvia and spoke with the local citizens in The streets and parks, and in this way Celmina met a foreigner who offered her work as a translator.

At the time Celmina spoke Latvian, Russian, German, English, Swedish, and French. She used her linguistic skills to befriend foreigners, primarily sailors, who supplied her with foreign literature, magazines, newspapers, and books. Like her fellow Latvians, she didn't believe the propaganda of the Soviet press and wanted to hear what the outside world had to say.

Feeling no repercussions for her newfound "education" she wrote to her many foreign friends. Merely receiving letters with foreign postmarks was an indescribable joy. She translated articles from Swedish and Norwegian papers and submitted them to Soviet publications. To her surprise, they were accepted. One magazine, "The Star " published her translation of an article about the animal world.

One day, however, the editor of "The Star" was replaced and "foreign" translations were no longer accepted. Rumors spread throughout the Soviet Union as ministers, editors and high Communist party officials were suddenly removed from office. The fear that accompanies every Soviet crackdown quickly spread throughout Latvia, as news of arrests, tortures and imprisonments traveled from city to city. By 1962 talk of massive arrests was everywhere. Helene Celmina was included in this sweep.

One night the Chekists ransacked her apartment and interrogated her. During the search almost all of her possessions were confiscated, including a bag of foreign books in various languages, about fifty magazines, foreign record albums, and all her writing materials. In addition, letters and tape recordings from friends, as well as their phone numbers and addresses, were taken. The search did not stop There. Also taken from her were empty cigarette' wrappers (which she had been collecting), a prayer book, an American-made lipstick, some religious buttons, and ink cartridges. An imported chocolate bar and a bottle of whiskey were also confiscated, since according to the Chekists these items were "poisoned" and were sent to the U S.S.R. in order to kill its citizens.

Celmina was arrested under the charge of "anti-Soviet agitation," an accusation supported by the testimony of an Intourist guide. Celmina had befriended two French tourists, Pierre and Marta Lander, who were members of the French Communist party. In conversation Celmina tried to educate her idealistic friends about what the Communist system had done to Latvia. She told them about the deportations, the Chekist murder squads, the mass executions, and national repression. The French tourists immediately repeated Celmina's conversations, word for word, to their Intourist guide.

As a result, the Cheka added the additional charge of "spying" and tried to build a case against Celmina. She was interrogated every day for six months at the Riga Cheka. However, when her case finally reached court, the only items used as evidence were sixteen foreign magazines, ten copies of Reader's Digest, and several illustrated magazines from West Germany. Everything else taken from her apartment had disappeared, probably into the hands of the Chekists and their families, who were equally hungry for news and products from the West.

Based on this evidence, Celmina was accused of hiding "anti-Soviet materials" with the "intent" of dissemination. Intent was the key accusation, for without it she could not have been charged. Celmina vigorously denied any intent, describing herself as a translator with an interest in foreign languages, explaining that the books and magazines were solely for personal use. Unable, nevertheless, to disprove such a subjective charge as intent, she was found guilty and sentenced to four years imprisonment in a strict corrective labor camp. It is of these four years and the people she met that she tells in Women in Soviet Prisons.

After her release in 1966, Celmina spent a futile year-and-a-half searching for an apartment, primarily because no one was willing to associate with an ex-prisoner. However, in 1968 her skill as an artist, accompanied by a stroke of luck, enabled her to win a major Soviet art competition, and with it, a great deal of money.

Her work and acceptance enabled her to save enough money over the next five years to acquire a cooperative apartment, a car, and even a garage. She also met Viktors Kalnins, another ex-prisoner, whom she married. Since they shared common political interests and experiences in the Soviet Gulag, they traveled throughout Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia visiting and befriending other ex-prisoners. Needless to say, they were continously watched and followed throughout their travels and were eventually expelled from the Soviet Union for refusing to stop Their political activities.

Upon reaching the West, both immediately began a campaign to relate Their stories to the free world. They have visited congressmen and senators in Washington, D.C. and members of the Australian parliament. They have lectured and appeared on television in England and Scotland, and continue to travel across the United States and Canada giving interviews and appearing before Latvian emigre groups.

Like many with a stake in The crumbling Soviet system, Lieutenant Kondratovs and Pierre and Marta Lander were unwilling, or incapable, of understanding what Helene Celmina, and others like her, have experienced. Those in the West, far removed from The day-to-day realities of Soviet life, may have difficulty comprehending the society that made such experiences possible. Helene Celmina, however, lived it, and we are all fortunate that she survived to tell about it.

Ojars Kalnins
September 4, 1982