Authors: Lara Prescott
Anatoli, I can tell you now that my five-year sentence was a blessing and a curse. Only bourgeois Muscovites had such pitiful sentences, a fact I was reminded of again and again by our barrack brigade leader—a Ukrainian woman named Buinaya, who was sentenced to ten years for stealing a sack of flour from her collective farm. She was strong and severe and everything I was not. Over time, I grew stronger in the fields, but I was still one of the slowest workers, and Buinaya made a point of making me the primary recipient of her sharp tongue.
Once, after coming in from the fields, I was too tired to bathe and went directly to my bunk, so exhausted I didn’t even remove my dirt-encrusted smock. Just as I shut my eyes, I heard Buinaya’s unmistakable voice. “Number 3478!” she called out like a magpie with a cough, using my prison number as the guards did.
I didn’t stir. But she called out my number again, and Ana tapped the underside of my bed. When I didn’t respond, she kicked it. “Answer her or there’ll be trouble,” she whispered.
I sat up. “Yes?”
“I thought you Muscovites were a cleanly people. You smell like shit.”
A ripple of laughter erupted across Barrack No. 11 and I felt the burn of embarrassment spread across my chest and up my neck to my cheeks. I did smell, although there were women in the barracks who smelled far worse.
“I was born in a dugout,” she continued, “and even I was taught to wash my crotch at least once a week. No wonder only traitor poets will go near yours. Isn’t that why you’re here?”
The laughter rose as I swung my legs over the edge of the bunk and got down. My legs shook so hard I was sure they were vibrating the floorboards. I could feel every eye on me, awaiting my response. But I hesitated, and turned to face the wall, which made Buinaya, then the rest, laugh even harder. She picked up a small pile of her dirty underthings and marched down the middle of the barracks until she reached my bunk. “Here,” she said, dumping the clothes on the floor. “While you’re cleaning your filthy body, you don’t mind washing some of my things as well? Of course not.”
Anatoli, I’d like to report that I turned away from the wall and threw Buinaya’s dirty things back in her face. That I stood my ground and slapped her, which provoked a fight that left me bruised the next day. That although I’d lost the fight, I’d gained Buinaya’s respect.
But I didn’t. I took her dirty things to the wash basin and scrubbed them with my lye ration, then carefully hung them to dry in the best spot next to the wood-burning stove. Then I stripped and washed myself in the cold, cloudy water. Then I slept. Then it happened again the next day.
If I were to give you now what you’d asked for during our late-night chats in Lubyanka, Anatoli, would it do me any good? Would my sentence be lessened if I cooperated now? If I were to confess to every last charge, could I leave this place? If I took the sharp end of my pick and used all my force, could I end things for good?
One might think winter would be worse, but the summers are what wore us down most. As we worked the fields, digging or pulling or hauling, sweat pooled under our gray smocks. We called those smocks “devil’s skins” as they didn’t allow our skin to breathe. We developed sores and rashes and attracted black flies with vicious bites. To shield us from the sun, we stretched gauze over rusted wire to fashion hats that resembled a beekeeper’s. Other women, their hide already tanned from a decade or more in the fields, laughed at our hats, at our precious porcelain Muscovite skin. They were thirty or forty but looked sixty or seventy. They knew it would be only a matter of time before we’d give up trying to block the sun—before we’d turn our faces up and let the rays take from us the last remainder of the people we were before coming to Potma.
We were in the fields twelve hours at a time, Anatoli. I’d pass those hours reciting Borya’s poems in my head—timing the rhythm of each line, each break, with the clang of my shovel.
In the evenings, when we came back from the fields and they ran their hands over our bodies to ensure we hadn’t brought anything back to the barracks, I ran Borya’s words through my mind again, deadening what was happening to my body.
I’d also compose poems of my own, the lines appearing in my head as they would on paper. I’d say them to myself again and again until they were cemented. But for some reason I cannot recite them now, when I have the paper to write them down. Maybe certain poems are meant only for oneself.
They called for me one evening after I’d finished washing Buinaya’s dirty clothes. I was about to lie down when a new guard, who hadn’t quite mastered the tone of voice the other guards used when barking orders, entered the barracks and called out my number in her singsong way. I put on my smock and shoes and followed her out the door.
When the guard turned left at the end of the path that cut through the barracks, I realized where we were going: the small cottage whose upkeep was given to prisoners who’d gained favor with the camp’s Godfather. The style of the cottage did not fit with the rest of the camp, and the first time I saw it, I thought I might’ve been hallucinating. It resembled a grandmother’s dacha—bright green with white trim and neat flower boxes lining the windows.
In one window, I could see the glow of a red-shaded lamp. Beyond that, I could see, sitting at a desk, the Godfather—a man I’d seen only once before, standing at the center of a semicircle of lower-level government officials who’d once toured Potma. Even from a distance, I could see his thick white eyebrows. They seemed to stretch up his forehead, almost touching the white hair he’d combed down across his bald spot. He looked friendly, seated there at his desk like any dedushka. But I knew from some of the other women that he was no harmless grandfather. The Godfather’s job was to interrogate prisoners and recruit informers. He was also widely known to have taken several camp wives—women who were called into the green cottage and given the option of either letting him do whatever he wanted with them or face the rest of their sentences in another camp, where the most violent offenders were taken.
The camp wives were identifiable by the silk robes they’d wear after bathing and the large straw hats they wore to shield their faces from the sun. They were also taken out of the fields to work the easier jobs in the kitchen or laundry. Or they simply spent hours tending to the cottage’s hedges and flowers—and then whatever else needed tending to on the inside. Each of the camp wives was beautiful, the prettiest among them an eighteen-year-old named Lena. I never saw Lena, but her famed black hair, long and sleek as an orca’s back, was talked about across the camp. It was rumored that Lena had been given special shampoo the Godfather had smuggled in from France, and a pair of calfskin gloves to protect her slender fingers, as she had been a promising pianist in Georgia before her arrest. It was also rumored she was pregnant once, and a babki was brought in with her knitting needles to perform the abortion.
These were rumors, only rumors, I told myself as the guard pointed her truncheon at the cottage door. I told myself I was too old for the Godfather’s taste, which I’d heard was for women who’d yet to have children or reach the age of twenty-two—whichever came first.
I entered the two-room cottage and stood at the door. The Godfather sat at his desk, writing. I wanted him to speak, but all he did was point his fountain pen to the chair in front of his desk. Ten minutes passed before he put down his pen and looked at me. Without a word, he opened his desk drawer and handed me a parcel. “For you. These cannot leave this office. You must read them here.” He pushed a piece of paper toward me. “And when you’re finished, you will sign that you’ve seen it.”
“What is it?”
“Nothing of importance.”
Inside the parcel was a twelve-page letter and a small green notebook. I opened it, but the words didn’t register. All I could see was the handwriting—his handwriting—broad scrawls that always reminded me of soaring cranes. I flipped through the notebook, then the letter, and the words started to register. Borya was alive. He was free. And he’d written me a poem.
I won’t share the poem with you, Anatoli. Did you think I would? I read it over and over again until I committed it to memory, then I never saw the actual pages again. Maybe you’ve already read them, but I will pretend you haven’t—that his words are mine and mine alone.
In the letter, he wrote he was doing everything in his power to get me out, and if he could change places with me, he would do so gladly. He said the guilt was a weight on his chest that grew heavier each day. He said he feared the weight would become so heavy, his ribs would crack and he’d be crushed to death.
Reading the letter, I felt something I think only the nuns of the camp could understand—the warmth and protection of faith.
Why was I allowed to read what Borya had written me, Anatoli? Why had the Godfather given the letter to me after all that time? Perhaps he wanted something in return. Whatever it was, I knew then that I would do it. I’d become an informer, I’d become a camp wife—whatever it took as long as I could hear from him.
But, Anatoli, the Godfather never asked that I become his wife, nor did he groom me to become an informer. Only later did I discover that Borya had demanded proof I was still alive, and that they had sent him some months later the piece of paper I had signed that night after reading his letter.
It was rumored that Stalin was sick and his reins were loosening. After my night in the cottage, I was allowed to receive mail from my family and Borya. He wrote of his heart attack, a condition he attributed to my arrest, and how he spent months in a hospital bed fearing he’d never see me again.
He wrote of his renewed obsession with finishing his novel now that he was well again and could be in contact with me. He said he’d finish it at all costs, and nothing—not the authorities who were likely reading his letters, nor his bad heart—would keep him from doing so.
Dear Anatoli, do you remember the night before Stalin died? I dreamed of birds that night. Not the white doves I’d been longing for—which the women of the camp believed signaled one’s imminent release—but of black crows, thousands sitting in rows like chess pawns in an empty concrete lot. The crows barely appeared to be breathing, and when I walked toward them and clapped my hands, they remained still. I clapped and clapped until my hands were raw. And when I turned to walk away, some inaudible signal propelled them to take flight. They swarmed into a beating cloud that covered the moon. I watched as the cloud shifted to the right, then left. Then, all at once, the cloud dissipated in all directions, each bird going her own way.
The next morning, the music started before dawn, blaring from the camp’s loudspeakers. We all seemed to sit up at once, squinting until our eyes adjusted to the darkness. Funeral music—they were playing funeral music. No one in Barrack No. 11 said a word. No one asked who had died. We already knew.
As the music continued, we splashed cold water on our faces from the bathing trough and dressed in our smocks, not knowing if we’d be summoned. When no roll call came, we sat on our bunks and waited in silence. Buinaya went to the door, cracking it open and sticking her head out. “Nothing,” she said, shaking her head.
The music stopped and the loudspeakers crackled. We heard the needle hit a record, then our national anthem began. We looked around, not knowing whether to sit or stand and sing. A few women stood, then the rest of us followed. The anthem finished and we remained standing. There was a moment of silence before the speakers cracked again and the familiar, deep voice of Radio Moscow’s Yuri Borisovich Levitan announced, “The heart of the collaborator and follower of the genius of Lenin’s work, the wise leader and teacher of the Communist Party and of the Soviet people, has stopped beating.”
The recording ended and we knew we were supposed to cry. And we did. We cried until our eyes were swollen and throats raw. But not one tear dropped for him.
Soon after the Red Tsar fell, my five years were cut to three. I’d be home by 25 April. Stalin’s death prompted our new leaders to release 1.5 million of us. When I received the letter stating the date of my release, I went back to Barrack No. 11 and looked into the jagged piece of mirror hanging above the bathing trough. I had the bronzed look of someone who’d spent years in the camps. My eyes were still cornflower blue, but framed by wrinkles and dark bags. My nose was spotted from sunburns. My figure was not the picture of health but of survival: my clavicle sticking out, each rib visible, my thighs thin as sticks, my blond hair dull and lifeless, my front tooth chipped from a pebble in my soup.
What would Borya think? I thought back to the time he told me he feared seeing his sisters again after years of being apart, after they’d emigrated to Oxford. He said he almost preferred to not see them again, to keep the pretty young visions he had of them intact. Would he feel the same way about me? Would he look at me as he had his wife—someone he no longer shared a bed with? Would he compare me with my own daughter, someone he’d seen grow into a beautiful young woman while I aged beyond my years? “Ira’s become the very picture of her mother,” he’d written me in a postcard.
Buinaya, who had yet to receive amnesty, walked behind me as if going to wash her face, then turned and pushed me into the makeshift mirror. Shards of glass dropped to the floor and I stumbled back, a thin line of blood dripping from my forehead. She smiled at me and I smiled back, blood trickling into my mouth. She scowled and walked away. And that was the last I saw of her. But when I heard that those who had not received amnesty eventually rose up—and that during that uprising, the fields and the Godfather’s cottage and the whole camp had burned to the ground—I imagined Buinaya was the one who’d lit the match.