Days and Lives :: Prisoners

Alla Tumanova

Introduction

Seventeen-year-old Alla Yevgenyevna Reyf Tumanova was arrested in 1951 at her parent’s home in Kiev. A student at Lenin State Pedagogical Institute, Tumanova was charged with membership in an anti-Soviet youth group. Of the seventeen students who were arrested, three were executed. Tumanova was sentenced to twenty-five years hard labor in the Gulag, which she spent in the Abez Invalid Camp and Vorkuta. Her task in camp was to lug the waste heaps away from a coal mine. Near the end of her imprisonment she became a member of the “cultural brigade” and traveled to camps to provide entertainment laced with propaganda. Tumanova’s sentence was cut short due to Stalin’s death, and she was released in 1956. Tumanova found work as a laboratory assistant and began the slow process of seeking permission to re-enter school. Tumanova immigrated to Canada in 1974 with her husband and son.

Arrest

“They came at night, honest to God, just like in the rule book. Somewhere around twelve, I don’t remember precisely. The doorbell rang. Voices in the entry. Mother opened the door. There were only the three of us at home, father had left on a business trip. My eleven-year old brother was sleeping soundly on the sofa opposite my bed in the room we shared. He was still sleeping when my mother appeared in the doorway; behind her stood several men in civilian clothes. Half awake, it seemed to me that there was a whole crowd of people in the room. I hadn’t the slightest idea that they’d come for me, after all, I’d stopped meeting the boys. The letters were in dark black ink: ‘Arrest Warrant.’ After that was my surname. Mother signed another paper, ‘Search Warrant.’ Mother’s eyes were focused on me, horrified, and filled with tears.”

Labor

“For some time our brigade worked at a coal mine face. We had to lug waste heaps from place to place, shifting the smoking rock with shovels. The work was unbearable, and not only because we were suffocating and made ill by the clouds of reddish smoke, but because no one had bothered to explain why we should move it from one place to another. It was like a kind of torture, another punishment. But later, under different circumstances, when we loaded the smoking rock onto trucks that were laying a local road, it was much easier to accept. Still, it is difficult to imagine now how we managed to survive. For five minutes, or faces covered over up to the eyes, we would toss shovelful after shovelful, almost without breathing. Then we would race several metres away, tear rags off our faces, convulsively swallow air, and then return to the scorching heat.”

Suffering

“Of the entire five years of my incarceration, the most terrible months were the fifteen I spent in solitary. Time passes most slowly and oppressively in the evening. The window begins to darken and turn into a black square. The dim electric light and the brown-green walls give the small space an oppressive atmosphere. That familiar sensation of fear creeps back: if they don’t call me to the interrogator during the day, then for sure it will be at night. I attempt to read, but the book cannot distract me from my heavy thoughts. Now and then I catch my eyes roaming in vain across the lines on the page, even turning the pages, but I recall nothing of what I have just read. That feeling of absurdity returns: how could I have possibly ended up here? This is an impossible accident, a delusion.”

Propaganda

“Of the entire five years of my incarceration, the most terrible months were the fifteen I spent in solitary. Time passes most slowly and oppressively in the evening. The window begins to darken and turn into a black square. The dim electric light and the brown-green walls give the small space an oppressive atmosphere. That familiar sensation of fear creeps back: if they don’t call me to the interrogator during the day, then for sure it will be at night. I attempt to read, but the book cannot distract me from my heavy thoughts. Now and then I catch my eyes roaming in vain across the lines on the page, even turning the pages, but I recall nothing of what I have just read. That feeling of absurdity returns: how could I have possibly ended up here? This is an impossible accident, a delusion.”

Solidarity

“For several months one of the distractions that helped me get by was ‘correspondence by knocking’ on the wall with the neighboring cell. Unfortunately, I was ill prepared for prison life having never learned Morse code. My neighbor, though, didn’t seem to have learned it either. So she and I had to invent our own personal code. I confess this was my first genuine feeling of joy for a long time: someone on the other side of the wall wanted to be friends! I liked my invisible neighbor from the start, and from the beginning of the day was impatient for each ‘meeting.’ But our contact was brief. One day the door unexpectedly opened and a furious sergeant, the one who was senior on the floor came in. ‘Why are you knocking on the wall? Don’t you know that it is forbidden in prison? The interrogator will be informed of this.’”

Conflict

“I was surrounded by strange women – crude, unlovely faces, half-naked bodies with enormous tattoos. They spoke in shouts, interspersing their words with profanity. For awhile it seemed to me that they were speaking a foreign language; I couldn’t understand half of the words. All these loudmouthed women looked old, although their figures and their wild behaviour suggested youth instead. Lida whispered to me that these were blatznyazhki, thieves, and that I should tell them nothing about myself. But they didn’t need any of our help to realize that we were ‘politicals.’ They asked me about something, shouting down from the racks at the top, but I had lost the power of speech in this terrifying place. ‘Hey, pinky, you mother fucker, don’t be sulky. We’re not going to bite you!’ a large half-naked devakha in a bra spoke to me pleasantly from the floor. On her stomach a dark blue snake wriggled at her every movement: the tattoo had been done masterfully.”

Guards

“’Get out of the cell! Hands in back!’ I don’t really need the orders: I do it all automatically by now, I am used to it, and in fact it makes it easier to walk. We walk along narrow metallic corridors. The endless rows of crude iron doors with inset peepholes stretch along the walls. Someone’s life is rotting behind each door. A nadzorka moves unhurriedly along the soft carpet from door to the next. She wears boots, a tunic, a beret on her head, and a grey pancake instead of a face. One door after another, she goes up to the peephole and for a few seconds inspects her ward. What is she thinking during those seconds, what does she feel? The satisfaction of a job well done, probably, displaces all her other feelings. But perhaps even this is going too far. Simply put, they are paid well for working in the prisons, more than in other places. There are special rations, privileges – that is the secret of their psychology.”

Survival

“Before taking us out to work, the ferocious nadzorki crammed the prisoners’ long hair under their kerchiefs so that any resemblance to a female human being [was gone]. Then there were the huge numbers on the backs of our jackets and grey, shapeless dresses. But that wasn’t enough: the people in charge kept looking for better and newer ways to tighten the screws. A few days before they had announced that it would be forbidden to visit other barracks, with solitary as a punishment, as usual. But threats couldn’t stop us: what was solitary in comparison to meeting with those who were close to you in faith, in spirit? If you could spend an hour before lights out in conversation with a friend, someone from your home, let come what may!”

Fates

“Two months after that evening Stalin died. Very soon after that the alleged doctor-poisoners were rehabilitated and Beria was shot, along with Abakumov and Riumin – all those who were connected with our indictment. Events piled up one after another, so quickly you couldn’t get used to one before a new one came rolling along. It was truly a joyful time! We were all full of hope. Soon they started letting people go, not waiting for the end of their terms. We all waited impatiently for the changes in our lives. My mother and the parents of the others who were convicted with me were petitioning for a review of our case. Illegally convicted persons could only be released on legal grounds so we rebels had to wait longer than most. It was only on the 25th of April 1956 that all of us were released into freedom.”

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