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About the Past

Khava Vladimirovna (Vilkovna) Volovich

...Human rights, dignity, pride — everything was annihilated. The selectors of the devil could not destroy one thing: sexual desire. Despite the prohibitions, solitary confinement, hunger, and humiliations, it lived and thrived much more openly and directly than in freedom. What a person might ponder a hundred times over in freedom was happening here easily, like among stray cats. No, it wasn't the debauchery of a brothel. Here was real, "legitimate" love, with loyalty, jealousy, suffering, the pain of separation, and the terrifying "culmination of love" — the birth of children.

The instinct of procreation is a beautiful and terrible thing. Beautiful when all conditions are met for bringing a new person into the world, and terrible when the child is doomed to suffering even before birth. But people with dulled minds didn't particularly think about the fate of their offspring. They just desperately, to the point of banging their heads against the wall, to death, longed for love, tenderness, and affection. And they longed for a child — a being most dear and close, for whom they wouldn't hesitate to give their life. I held on relatively long. But I needed, so desperately desired, the touch of a loved one's hand, just to lean on it slightly in this many years of loneliness, oppression, and humiliation that a person was doomed to endure.

Khava Vladimirovna Volovich

...Many hands were extended to me, but I chose not the best one. And the result was an angelic girl with golden curls whom I named Eleanor.

She was born not in a town, but at a remote, desolate labor camp. There were three of us mothers. We were allocated a small room in the barracks. Bedbugs here poured from the ceiling and walls like sand. All through the nights, we picked them off the children. And during the day — to work, leaving the little ones to some decrepit old woman who ate the children's leftovers. As I've already said, I didn't believe in God or the devil. But during my motherhood, I passionately, feverishly wanted God to exist. So that there would be someone to pray to fervently, humbly, for the happiness and salvation of my child, even at the cost of any punishment or torment for myself.

For a whole year, I stood by my child's bedside at night, picking off bedbugs and praying. I prayed for God to prolong my torment for a hundred years, but not to separate me from my daughter. Even if He released me, poor and crippled, from imprisonment along with her. So that I could, crawling at people's feet and begging for alms, raise and educate her. But God didn't answer my prayers. As soon as the child began to walk, as soon as I heard from her those first endearing words: "mommy," "mama," they bundled us up in rags and took us to the "mothers'" camp, where my angelic chubby-cheeked girl soon turned into a pale shadow with blue circles under her eyes and chapped lips.

I was sent to the logging camp. On the first day of work, a huge dead tree fell on me. I saw it falling, but my legs gave out, and I couldn't move. Nearby were the roots of a large uprooted tree, and instinctively I crouched behind them. The pine fell almost next to me, not touching me with a single branch. As soon as I emerged from my hiding place, the foreman ran up and shouted that he didn't need scatterbrains in his brigade, that he didn't want to be responsible for any idiots. I listened indifferently to his scolding, my thoughts far from the pine that almost killed me, the logging camp, and the foreman's tirade. They hovered around the cot of my yearning daughter.

I saw how at 7 a.m. the nannies woke up the babies. They poked and kicked them off their cold beds (for the sake of "cleanliness," the children were not properly covered with blankets, they were just thrown on top). Pushing the children in the back with their fists and showering them with coarse abuse, they changed their clothes, washed them with icy water. And the babies didn't even dare to cry. They just grunted like old folks and gurgled. This terrible gurgling echoed from the children's cots all day long. Children who were supposed to be sitting or crawling lay on their backs, with their legs drawn up to their bellies, emitting these strange sounds, resembling muffled pigeon cooing.

One nanny was assigned to a group of 17 children. She had to clean the ward, dress and bathe the children, feed them, stoke the stoves, participate in various activities in the zone on Saturdays, and, most importantly, keep the ward clean. Trying to lighten her workload and carve out some free time, such a nanny "rationalized," inventing various tricks to minimize the time spent caring for the children. For example, feeding, which I once witnessed.

From the kitchen, the nanny brought in scalding hot porridge. Spreading it into bowls, she snatched up the first child she came across, pinned his arms back, tied them to his body with a towel, and began, like a turkey, to stuff him with hot porridge, spoon after spoon, not giving him time to swallow. And all this — without embarrassment in front of a stranger. So such "rationalization" was apparently legalized. So that's why, despite a relatively high birth rate in this shelter, there were so many vacancies. Three hundred child deaths per year even in peacetime! And how many were there during the war!

Only their own children were constantly carried by these nannies, fed properly, tenderly checked their bottoms, and raised them to freedom. There was a "Child Death House" in this place, and a doctor — Mitrikova. There was something strange and incomprehensible about this woman. Hasty movements, disjointed speech, darting eyes. She did nothing to reduce infant mortality, only dealt with them when they ended up in isolation. And even then, only for show. And "rationalization" with hot porridge and blankets over the cots at a temperature of 11-12 degrees Celsius was apparently carried out not without her knowledge.

She spent her brief raids into the baby house with groups of older children — six and seven-year-old semi-cretins, who, according to Darwin, survived, despite the hot porridge, kicks, pokes, icy washes, and long sitting on potties tied to chairs, causing many children to suffer from rectal prolapse. She dealt with the older children a little bit. She didn't treat them — she had neither the means nor the ability to do so — but she danced with them, taught them rhymes and songs. And all to "show off the merchandise" when it came time to assign the children to orphanages. The only thing the children acquired in this house was cunning and slyness from the camp bosses. The ability to deceive, steal, avoid punishment.

Not knowing yet what Mitrikova was like, I told her about the bad treatment some nannies gave to the children and begged her to intervene. She thundered and promised to punish the guilty, but everything remained the same, and my Leila began to fade even faster. During our visits, I discovered bruises on her body. I will never forget how, clutching my neck, she pointed to the door with her emaciated little hand and moaned: "Mommy, home!" She didn't forget the bedbug-infested cot where she saw the light and was always with me. The longing of little children is stronger and more tragic than the longing of an adult. Knowledge comes to the child before understanding. As long as their needs and desires are guessed by loving eyes and hands, they do not realize their helplessness. But when these hands change, betray, become cold and cruel — what horror engulfs them.

The child does not get used to it, does not forget, but only resigns himself, and then in his heart there settles a longing that leads to illness and death. Those for whom everything in nature is clear, everything is in its place, may be shocked by my opinion that animals are like children and, conversely, children are like animals, who understand a lot and suffer a lot but, not being able to speak, cannot ask for mercy and compassion. Little Eleanor, who was a year and three months old, soon felt that her pleas for a "home" were useless. She stopped reaching out to me during our meetings and silently turned away. Only on the last day of her life, when I took her in my arms (I was allowed to breastfeed her), she, looking with widened eyes somewhere to the side, weakly began to beat me with her little fists, pinch and bite my breast. And then she pointed to the cot with her hand.

In the evening, when I came to the group with an armful of firewood, her cot was already empty. I found her naked in the morgue among the bodies of adult prisoners. In this world, she lived only a year and four months and died on March 3, 1944. I don't know where her grave is. They didn't let me out of the zone to bury her with my own hands. I cleared the roofs of two buildings of the baby house from snow and earned three loaves of bread. I gave them, along with my two, for a small coffin and a separate grave. My convoy brigadier took the little coffin to the cemetery and brought me back from there a cross-shaped fir branch, resembling a crucifix. That's the whole story of how I committed the most heinous crime, becoming a mother for the first and only time in my life.

I continued to go to work, no longer aware — whether it was easy or difficult for me. I did something, felt neither hunger nor the need for human interaction. During a routine medical examination, they diagnosed me with dystrophy and gave me a two-week leave, but I didn't understand and, barely dragging my feet, continued to go to work until one day the doctor turned me around. At that time, a group from the camp's political department came for me. While still with the child at the bedbug-infested camp, I participated in amateur activities and there I met its leader, the charming elderly professor Alexander Osipovich Gavronsky. Helping me prepare for a role, he talked to me for hours about everything under the sun, while little Eleanor, crawling at his feet, tried to untie the laces on his boots. They took him from the bedbug-infested camp to the political department, gave him another ten years of imprisonment, and made him the director of a newly formed theater and variety collective (TEKO). There he remembered me, found me, and arranged for me to be transferred to the political department.

He couldn't have known that I was no longer the same, that with the death of my daughter, both the desire and the ability to perform on stage died in me. But in the camp, you don't get to choose. The political department came — and you go where they lead you. With an empty wooden suitcase in my hands, in felt boots on bare feet and in an old greatcoat, in August 1944, I walked to the train station, as indifferently as I walked in the field or to the logging site. In Gavronsky's theater, neither the love for the stage nor the acting abilities ever returned to me. The kind old man sometimes called me to him — partly to entertain, but more to have someone to listen to his thoughts out loud (he was writing some work). He delivered long monologues, gave half-hour lectures that flowed past my consciousness. (What was the need for all the philosophy of the world if I no longer had Leila?).

Khava Vladimirovna Volovich

And he, smoking his hand-rolled cigarette, kept talking and talking until it seemed to me that I was hanging upside down somewhere near the ceiling, while the floor swayed far below. The roles they gave me were completely unsuitable for my state at the time: very positive, very cheerful, very blue ladies, flourishing officer's wives with curls. If only they gave me a role of a woman hitched to a plow instead of a horse! But there were no such roles. And no such plays. Even in 1944, when the cities lay in ruins, people lived in dugouts, and peasant women dragged plows on themselves. The life of "theatrical prisoners" sharply differed from the life of other inmates. The food was much better. During tours, which lasted up to ten months, it was even better.

We received our ration in dry form. This means that the prescribed norm almost reached our stomachs. During tours, in some places, we were treated or attached to dining rooms. It was scary to return to the dirt and lice of the common barracks, to the nettle soup and willow tea, to the backbreaking work and eternal humiliation. And I knew how it would all end. I didn't feel my roles and played like a parrot. In any case, I knew for sure that I was not suitable for the collective, that I was absolutely unnecessary to myself. That after the tours, I would be expelled and that I could no longer bear the burden of fifteen years of hard labor.

Upon returning from the tours, I attempted suicide. The memory of it still makes me blush with shame. From the theater administrator, I stole a bunch of sleeping pills, and when everyone left the dormitory for some concert, I swallowed them all to the last one. But without having my own bed, it's hard to die. One of my old friends forgot a book somewhere. Thinking it was with me, he and his wife came to the dormitory and started waking me up. Sensing something suspicious in my unusually deep sleep, they raised the alarm. I want to digress a bit to tell you about this friend.

Several years before Knyazh-Pogost, I worked in the kitchen at one of the labor camps. Once a new group arrived, consisting of intellectuals: scientists, professors, printing workers... The head of the group was a skinny man of short stature, with such a clean, charming, and gentle smile that whenever he came to the kitchen with a bucket for lunch for himself and his comrades, I always wanted to do something nice for him, and I tried to fill his pot as generously and thickly as possible. He immediately organized amateur activities, involving me as well. Then we worked together in the same brigade on the road, and he was the only man in the camp with whom communication made me believe in the possibility of pure friendship between a man and a woman.

Then we went our separate ways and met again in TEKO. Together with his camp wife (they remained husband and wife even at liberty), they saved me from death then and continued to be my guardian angels, saving me from the blows of fate. We were in different theater groups. They worked in the puppet theater at TEKO, worked independently, and then even separated completely. While I was in the hospital, they, with the help of Gavronsky, persuaded the director of the puppet theater to accept me into their group. The director was an interesting woman. The former wife of the famous Georgian director Akhmeteli and a famous actress herself, she was a kind and compassionate person. In a good mood, she smiled so widely and sincerely that everyone around began to smile too. And it was she, Tamara Georgievna Tsulukidze, who began to awaken me to life.

In her theater, she staged not only puppet shows but also small one-act comedies. She cast me in one such play. I owe only to her the opportunity, later in another Siberian camp, to lead the cultural brigade and then work quite successfully in the theater. But most importantly, I fell in love with dolls. The happiness of the puppet paradise was also short-lived. The war ended, changes in the regime and policy began; everything started to change. I know very little about why our theater closed down. It seems that the Minister of Education of the Komi ASSR wanted to have it for herself, but without convicts. The dolls we made with our own hands were taken from us and sent to Syktyvkar. There they found rest in the stomachs of rats shortly afterwards. Tamara Georgievna, Alexey, and Mira Linkevich (my friends I mentioned earlier) were soon to be released. They stayed in Knyazh-Pogost. I was sent to a remote agricultural settlement in Kyultovo, and some time later, I ended up on the lists for a new stage — in Siberian camps.

Khava Vladimirovna Volovich

For almost a month, the train dragged on towards its destination. Everything went as usual: they gave us salty fish, and water was scarce. And there wasn't much fish either. The "thieves in law" among the convoy exchanged our supplies for vodka and white bread, drank and ate together, and laughed at the "suckers". These "thieves", numbering 8-10 (I say "numbering" because they had no souls) among 30-40 political prisoners, terrorized the latter as much as they could, robbing them as they pleased, and the victims didn't dare to protest: the "thieves" had knives. In our carriage, the majority were foreigners: Poles, Lithuanians, Estonians, Latvians. There were eight or ten of us "Soviets", and ten "thieves". After consulting among ourselves, we, the "Soviets", decided not to take their abuse lying down.

The "thieves" started with the foreigners. There were many of them. Mostly young, athletic-looking girls. They could have easily overwhelmed those creatures. But — no! When one of them was being robbed, the others would move away to make it more convenient for the bandits. Even though the "thieves" had knives, they probably wouldn't have used them. It was Easter eve. The bandits had just taken away the pregnant Pole's "mother's" ration, and, climbing into their den on the upper bunks, were devouring it. One, resembling a witch fresh from a Sabbath, with a cross dangling from her neck, paused for a moment, stopped chewing, and said:
"Oh, girls! It's Easter eve, and we've robbed a pregnant woman!"
After a moment's thought, she added:
"Well, never mind. God will forgive us!"

And our group of eight decided to get rid of them. We knew that no pleas or complaints would help: after all, the convoy was with them all the way. So, we resorted to a rather sneaky trick (may God forgive us too!). During a stop, we threw out a letter claiming that the "thieves" in our carriage were planning to escape, that they intended to cut open the floor with knives and flee while the train was moving. Half an hour later, the convoy rushed into the carriage, conducted a thorough search, found the knives, and put the "thieves" in the punishment carriage. The rest of the journey went smoothly for us. After a month of travel, we arrived at the agricultural camp — Suslovo department, where we were immediately placed in quarantine. This quarantine was a breeding ground for all sorts of diseases. Crowded conditions, sticky black soil, clouds of fleas and bedbugs. There wasn't enough space on the bunks, so we slept under them.

Once the head of the cultural and educational department of the department came to the barracks. He was recruiting artists for the cultural brigade. Someone among my fellow stage companions "ratted" on me, and after quarantine, I was already making dolls in a small workshop in the departmental club. (The entire Suslovo camp was considered a state farm, and the main department was like the farm's office.) This labor camp differed from the others only in having a larger infirmary and a club. And in the residential barracks — the same bedbugs and fleas, straw mattresses without sheets, torn blankets. Unlike the northern camps, the barracks were hardly heated in winter. People slept on the bunks without undressing, in padded jackets, cotton trousers, and felt boots. I was relatively better off. I lived near the club. It was a large dilapidated building infested with rats, impossible to heat. We burned anything we could find: stage props, newspaper lining, furniture. Once during a rehearsal dinner, one of the guys briefly left, and when he returned, his chair was already burning in the stove. But no matter how much we heated, spilled water or soup on the table would instantly freeze.

In 1949, for the first time in a regular, non-penal camp, the zone was divided into male and female sections. Our boys started attending rehearsals by passing through the guard post (the club remained in the women's zone). This was a time when the power of persecuted love became particularly evident. Men and women climbed to each other through the wire, got shot, became disabled, but nothing stopped them. And then women were removed from this camp altogether, and it became purely male. The cultural brigade ceased to exist. For me, this was a big blow because I had become very attached to the collective, which was nothing like the TEKO. Here, difficulties welded us into one family, where jokes, laughter, merry pranks, and mutual assistance prevailed. I owe it to this collective that I'm still treading the earth. Once I fell ill with severe pneumonia, and in the absence of medicine, the doctors allowed me to die quietly. The members of the cultural brigade without convoy privileges went around two settlements and, wherever they could, begged for sulfa tablets, and then took turns sitting by my bed to administer the medication. It was only thanks to them that I survived.

I didn't have to do common labor. Immediately after the disbandment of the cultural brigade, I was called to the administrative "convict" theater. How did they find out about me there? During one of the annual Olympiads, we brought a puppet theater and a live play to Maryinsk, in which I played the role of a negative character, the wife of a convict. In our department and during tours to other camps, I played this role quite averagely. But here, on the big stage, it was as if the shackles were lifted off me. I played so lively, naturally, and effortlessly, yet hilariously, that I was applauded off the stage. It was then that I was offered to join the administrative theater. But I wouldn't trade my collective for anything. When they learned in Maryinsk that the Suslovo cultural brigade no longer existed, they sent for me.

In the theater, there were three groups: dramatic, vocal, and choreographic. I was always indifferent to dancing. But here, in the Mariinsky Theater, I grew to love them. The ballet master's skill was on par with Moiseyev's. But the group was most adorned by one dancer, whose dreams of finishing ballet school were dashed by war. She was from Hungary; her father was Jewish. When the Nazis invaded Hungary, the family scattered. She became a dancer in a cabaret in some remote town. When the Soviet Army approached the borders of Hungary, she decided to flee to the Soviet Union through the front lines. She managed to reach the Soviet trenches and collapsed at the feet of the soldiers. They isolated her immediately and, treating her as a spy, put her on trial and sent her to a camp. In Mariinsky, they took her off the train, sick and almost dying, and placed her in a hospital. After treatment, the theater workers pulled her out.

What a dancer she was! Alongside ballet performances, she danced folk and character dances. It's hard for me to describe the beauty and mastery of her dances. My language is too poor, and I understand choreography poorly, but I had never seen anything like Dolly before or since. The Gulag authorities flew in from Moscow just to see Dolly Takvaryan's dances. In this theater, I played roles that were more or less accessible to me: Maneva and Galchikha in Ostrovsky's plays, Dunyasha in Gogol's "Marriage," Lukerya in "Marriage with a Dowry." Additionally, when there were no tours, I had to participate in choral and dance reviews in big holiday concerts. I liked it, but not as much as my roles. It's impossible to say whether you play well or poorly. But I've heard musicians or dancers say during some tenth performance: "Let's watch Galchikha (or Dunyasha), then we'll go to sleep."

It wasn't too bad in this theater. Clean dormitories, salaries paid in cash (minus deductions). There were old actresses here—Morskaya, Malinovskaya—who said they would prefer to stay in this camp for the rest of their lives, fearing the dubious freedom that awaited them outside. And then, frightening news again. They started gathering recidivists at the camps, and hundreds of them were crammed into the Mariinsky transfer station, where they immediately started a serious war with the Vlasovites. They fought with axes, not just to survive, but to kill. To stop this war, the transfer station chief ordered machine guns to be placed on the towers and began mowing down everyone indiscriminately, resulting in the deaths of many innocent people.

The scandal was so loud that the higher authorities were forced, as always, to find a scapegoat. The transfer station chief turned out to be it, sentenced to 25 years after being demoted. Then they started assembling political stages. Long trains were formed at the stations, packed to the brim. From hospitals, they took semi-dead, dying old men, post-operative patients, those on crutches, on stretchers, and those who could walk themselves, dragging them to the station and packing them into frozen compartments until they were full. This was in January, February, and March 1951. The entire camp was in panic. Rumors spread that all political prisoners were doomed to destruction or, at best, they would be removed far away to the wildest, most barren, and waterless outskirts of the country, where a cruel regime and unimaginably difficult working conditions would lead them to mass death without the use of gas chambers or machine guns. They reached our theater too.

On the day when the lists were read out in the club, the theater was essentially devastated. Only those with short terms remaining, those who were non-recidivists, and those whose terms were coming to an end remained. Dolly Takvaryan and I were not on the lists yet. Everything was already known for certain. Among the volunteers, we had many friends. Some of them were assigned to accompany the stage. They informed us of the destination: Dzhezkazgan, Copper Mines, a waterless saline steppe. Additionally, there was a former Gulag worker in the camp. In our small women's dormitory, where almost all theater workers gathered to sadly see off their comrades, he told us the reason for these stages. I'll relay his story.

Eleanor Roosevelt visited the Soviet Union. She was aware of the large number of prisoners in the Soviet Union. Eleanor Roosevelt wished to visit the camps personally. She was firmly refused. The UN raised the issue of human rights violations, and it was talked about sending a special commission to the Soviet Union. Our representatives in the UN resisted as best they could, but at home, they started cleaning up the "garbage" and shoving it into remote corners, like Dzhezkazgan. The mines had been there for a long time, but due to the lack of vital conditions (mostly due to lack of water), they barely survived. And then the convicts arrived, detached from human laws. All that was needed was more barbed wire, handcuffs, guards, machine guns on the towers, German shepherd dogs...

The stages passed. The convoy returned, and we received a note from our comrades, from which we learned of their fate. The regime—hard labor. They were all marked with numbers, like in a fascist camp. Working in the mines. Food—twice a day. One liter of water per day. Drink it if you want, wash with it if you want. A healthy person lasts a month, someone weaker—two weeks. We walked around like stunned.

Khava Vladimirovna Volovich

Rehearsals weren't going well. In order to salvage the program somehow, everyone was obliged to carry a double, or even triple, workload, but the actors, overwhelmed by despondency, lost their taste for work. A lifelong favorite, it now seemed to be worthless and stale. Not long before these events, I underwent a complex operation. Just when I was lying in the hospital and the rush to send stages began. Anyone who could stand on their feet even a little bit was discharged from the hospital. They discharged me too, even though I was still learning to walk after the surgery. But I rallied, showing everyone (and myself) that "I can!" And it was true! My roles were very demanding (except for Galchikha). During rehearsals, no one would believe that just a few days ago I was struggling, short of breath and with a pounding heart, trying to cover the space between two beds. But after rehearsals, I collapsed like a plank.

When disaster struck the theater, I was overwhelmed by feelings of hopelessness, fear, and despondency. I feared my physical weakness, feared the prodding bayonets of the convoy, hated my cursed heart for refusing to break. It was the fear of a wounded rabbit, which in the hands of a hunter cries out childishly from pain and fear of even greater pain. Cursed be forever whoever is capable of instilling such fear, regardless of whether it's in a rabbit, a dog, or a person. Of course, outwardly, I showed none of my emotions; we were all toughened enough and knew how to hide our feelings. But the gray hair discovered after a sleepless night, wrinkles that weren't there before, an elderly fold at the mouth. It couldn't be smoothed out, no matter how hard you tried. In short, my premonition didn't deceive me. The main stages were sent off, everything seemed to be falling into a calm routine, and management started dealing with tailoring. We managed to prepare the program for tours, and then suddenly—the blow, the most painful and unexpected one: Dolly Takvaryan, the star and pillar of the theater, was called up for the stage. And a few days later, it was my turn, despite having just over a year left until the end of my term.

It was already late spring when I left the zone, heading to the transfer station. Several unfamiliar women walked with me. The day was warm and sunny. Our things were packed on the sled, the convoy didn't rush or hurry us. And the transfer station was only about three kilometers away. All fears and anxieties ceased. Only a terrible numbness and indifference to everything in the world remained. I didn't find Dolly at the transfer station. Another disappointment. Suddenly, I felt terribly sleepy. I threw my things on the bunks, lay down on them, and fell asleep, spending almost two weeks at the transfer station, waiting for the stage, almost entirely asleep. Every time I sat down or lay down, I fell asleep. Thankfully, they didn't push us to work. I woke up in Taishet. Here they told me that Dolly had been sent on the road just a few days ago.

To which camp—unknown. A few days after a large stage of other women, I was sent to Bratsk.

Starting from the mid-1930s, the name given to Soviet camps, corrective-labor camps, lost its original meaning. True, from the very beginning of their existence, they were more like extermination-labor camps, but some semblance of Malakhov's "humanism" covered the "educational" measures of our overseers. There were mixed-gender camps where less tormented and downtrodden people could indulge in the embrace of love, and the authorities often turned a blind eye to this if the inmates met and even exceeded the norms.

There was self-activity and pride among the managerial chiefs—the professional theaters they created, which they boasted about to each other. In them, the lucky actors felt like second-rate, but still human. They brought movies. Within the camp zone (except for the punishment cell and the morgue), there were no grilles, and you could freely walk around the entire zone. The novelty, constructed by the Beria-Abakumov company, didn't shine with originality. Everything, everything was copied from Hitler, except for the gas chambers. The first thing that caught the eye when we entered the zone was the bars on the windows of the barracks and the bolts on the doors. Near the latrine, where, as usual, everyone was drawn, barrels were lined up in rows, and there was no need to rack your brains about their purpose. Clearly—urinals. So, it's true, it's a prison regime.

The zone was deserted. After the chief of the regime's sermon, acquainting us with the rules and duties, dominated by words like "forbidden" and "punished," we were seated in the middle of the zone under the scorching sun, instructed not to wander around and to wait. Immediately, a huge swarm of mosquitos, large and brazen, descended upon us. But it wasn't the mosquitoes that made my vision darken. Women approached us with lists in their hands: a doctor and two dressers. On the doctor's white coat, patches with numbers were darkened on the back and hem at the knees. Similar patches were on the dresses of the dressers and all the passing women. It might seem like there was nothing special about patches with numbers sewn onto clothes. But these patches stripped us of our names, surnames, ages, turning us into branded cattle, into inventory, and perhaps worse, because a numbered chair continues to be called a chair, a branded animal has a nickname, but we could now only respond to a number. Absence of the number in its designated place was met with severe punishment.

By evening, without a bath (there was no water), we were placed in barracks. It was already crowded enough without newcomers squeezing onto the bunks. They were squeezed in without a medical examination, and among them were recidivists, including those with syphilis, tuberculosis... The barracks were locked for the night and parasols were set up. The unbearable stench was added to by the heat and overcrowding. Cultural activities, movies, books, newspapers, and board games were prohibited in the new camps. After dinner, everyone was sent out for inspection and kept in line until lights out. Reveille was at half-past five, and when the guard on duty got tired of picking his nose, he would wake us up an hour earlier to drive away sleep.

And another scourge: water shortage. It was brought in a tanker from a river ten kilometers away. Two tankers couldn't meet the needs of two densely populated zones and settlements. Voluntary workers, barracks, and then camp kitchens were supplied first. In the morning, a water barrel was brought into the barracks, which the stronger ones fought for. In the evening, the same barrel with hot water, slightly tainted with barley coffee, was brought in. Bathing took place once a month, half a bucket of water was issued, and there was no talk of a laundry. People flocked to every rain puddle.

Everyone, young and old, was driven to heavy work indiscriminately. And what's interesting is that here they particularly didn't ask for norms or plans. There were no punishments for non-compliance, nor rewards for exceeding. They simply forced everyone to work until they dropped for ten hours. There were many inmates, and it often happened that there wasn't enough work for everyone. Then they made them do Sisyphean labor: do something unnecessary, useless, "just to keep the hands busy." For the slightest offense, for a torn off number, they were sent to the intensified regime barracks. Among the triumvirate of camp authorities, the most humane was the political officer. He could threaten too, but his threats sounded like a warning, and with one word, he could calm and instill hope in the soul of a desperate person. He somehow managed to keep the drunken regime chief and the mentally ill camp chief within the shaky framework of legality. An epidemic of suicides began among the inmates. Mostly they were young Western girls: they poisoned themselves with lime or hanged themselves somewhere in a secluded corner.

Another winter passed, summer came. August 1952 came and went - the time of the end of my term. I met this date without joy or sorrow. I had long been accustomed to the fact that there was no way out from here. Now they no longer staged performances with the presentation of a new term, as it used to be. (The convict was summoned, congratulated on the end of the term, and asked to sign for a new one). Now they didn't release - that's it.

But then I was summoned by the chief of the special department. With a forced smile, he informed me that I was summoned for a "termination of contract."

I found myself free with some sort of dog's nickname, into which my name had turned under the pen of an inattentive clerk. Alma!

It was April 19, 1953.