Orthodox America

  Blessed are the Poor in Spirit...

From my encounters with Russian people in the Soviet labor camps

By Olga Russkaya

It was at the close of one of those long days of the short Ural summer.  I stepped out of the stuffy barracks for a breath of fresh air.  The prison yard already lay in shadows, but elsewhere the setting sun still shone. Its burnished gold rays played above the high prison fence, emphasizing the black knots of barbed wire.   There was something symbolic in this picture.   It seemed that this horrid fence, with its tightly-locked gates, permanently divided my surrounding world of force and darkness from the free and radiant world of God’s creation.

As if in answer to my dismal thoughts, a key in the lock grated the stillness and the gates opened to reveal the tiny figure of a woman, silhouetted in the blinding rays of the setting sun. The gates shut. From the door of the guardhouse a grey sentry came and led away the newcomer.  There was nothing unusual about the scene: the number of prisoners was frequently augmented with the arrival of someone arrested in freedom or transferred from other points of incarceration.   But the sight of this unknown woman bathed in light impressed itself on my soul as some kind of wondrous vision.

The newcomer’s name was Masha. She was assigned to the same work brigade as I was and was lodged in the same barracks.  It turned out she was scarcely more than a youth; her flaxen hair hung in a braid at her back and she had a slight figure with a transparently pale little face and strikingly light eyes set in a seemingly absent gaze.

The “new one” sat silently on the plank bed where she’d been led, taking in with her strange, light eyes her new comrades who crowded around, pelting her with questions.

“Why don’t you say anything?  Swallowed your tongue?” one of the women finally asked in frustration.

No, Masha shook her head.  “It’s only that... in prison I was beaten terribly... on the head. So now I’m... a bit crazy,” she whispered with a shy smile.

“They knocked her brains out.   Ha!” someone laughed scornfully.

“Of course. And so she sits, the little fool.”

“Hey, brainless!”

“Brainless, brainless!” new voices chimed in. Someone pulled Masha by her skirt, another tugged her braid.

A tall, swarthy figure jumped down from a neighboring bunk and pushed into the crowd towards Masha, casting around at the suddenly hushed gathering with angry gypsy eyes.

“Break it up!” she ordered laconically, and under the effect of her roaming gaze, the crowd around Masha began to thin until it dissolved altogether.  “Don’t be scared, my friend,” advised Masha’s unexpected guardian.  “If anyone so much as lifts a finger to harm you,” she added, her voice rising, “I’ll deal with them on my own terms.  So watch out,” she threatened the rest of the barracks as she slid back onto her bunk.  “The devil’s tied a knot with an innocent,” declared someone ironically, accurately assessing the situation.

Indeed, one could scarcely find a starker contrast than the light-eyed Masha and her sinister guardian “Galka”, one of the more notorious representatives of the camp’s criminal contingent. What possessed Galka to take such a stand no one knew; in any case, Masha’s safety was guaranteed.  Not only the prisoners but even the camp administration reckoned with outlaws like Galka.

The incident was exhausted and consigned to oblivion.  Then, late one night, the residents of the barracks were awakened by a noise unusual for that time of night.  The single paraffin lamp cast its pale light on the figure of Masha sitting on her bunk in nothing but a shift.  On the floor beside her were the remains of a bundle; standing over it was the half-dressed, stubby figure of a well-known thief nicknamed “Pocked”, holding a piece of colorful material. In front of “Pocked” stood a lean woman with a tangle of black hair.

“Well now, stealing? From her? You think I don’t back up my threats?” hissed Galka.  “Hold it right there.  I’ll show you how fast we can go from words to action,” she menaced through clenched teeth.   As she drew herself up, a glint of steel flashed from her raised fist.

“No!” rang out Masha’s voice imperatively. Her frail figure tore from the bunk and planted itself over the shrinking form of the thief.  “I gave this dress to her myself,” she insisted, raising her smiling, pure, childish eyes towards Galka.  “I gave her this, and this,” she continued feverishly, picking up her meager belongings which were spilled out on the floor.  “Here, take them,” she finished gleefully, thrusting the articles at the stunned thief.

The broad, pock-marked face froze in an expression of utter stupefaction.  In the mute silence of the barracks the ring of a knife hitting the floor was startlingly clear .

“Oh, you... Angel of God!  Oh you...holy soul!” muttered an exasperated voice, before an outburst of several dozen voices rendered all other words unintelligible.

This episode was soon blotted out by the drab refuse of the prison routine, until another remarkable incident propelled Masha into the center of attention.

It was autumn. A frenzied wind howled around the barracks. Outside its blind windows still reigned the nocturnal darkness when its residents, awakened by the despised sounds of “reveille”, began to crawl down from their plank bunks and get dressed.

“Auntie Natalie!  Where are you, Natalie?” Masha’s small voice rang out frantically over the muttering of the still somnolent women occupied with their morning “toilette”.

“Well, what is it?” answered “Aunt Natalie”, yawning. A red-cheeked, husky peasant woman, she stood in the middle of the barracks twisting her dark, greying braids round her head.

Masha made her way through the half-dressed women and stopped in front of Aunt Natalie, her lips trembling, eyes brimming with tears.  “Auntie,” she whispered breathlessly, “I must cross you.”   Masha stood on her tip toes. “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  Her voice was barely audible as with great concentration she made the sign of the Cross over “Aunt Natalie”.  “Now then, you have nothing to fear.  You won’t suffer, not for a moment,” said Masha earnestly, smiling through her tears, and she disappeared into the crowd of women who laughed good-naturedly at this mysterious behavior.

That day, out in the taiga, “Auntie Natalie” was struck by a tree felled by her co-workers.  The wind had caught it and sent it spinning in the wrong direction. The peasant woman was spared any suffering; she was killed instantly.

This incident created a reputation for Masha-not only in our barracks but throughout the camp-as a “clairvoyant.”

Time went by.  Winter came, and with it a new, altogether astonishing incident which conferred upon Masha the status of some kind of legendary being and carried the report of her as a “clairvoyant” beyond the camp fence, to freedom.

The frost crackled.  A snowy eiderdown covered the ground. The brigade worked in the white taiga. Its weaker members were assigned to make bonfires and to keep them burning throughout the long work day.  At the noon break, virtually the entire brigade gathered around Masha’s bonfire, enticed by its powerful blaze.

On the packed snow of the clearing strolled two armed guards in heavy sheepskin coats, automatic rifles slung over their shoulders.  “Look what the devil’s sent us,” remarked someone from the tight circle of prisoners warming themselves by Masha’s fire.  Conversations died down.  The women silently chewed the hard, half-frozen bread, stretching towards the fire their cracked hands, blue with cold, and casting unfriendly glances at the uninvited guests who remained near their company.

“Hey, what’s she got there?  Looks like worms,” remarked one of the guards, a homely, blond fellow.

He stood behind Masha, who was huddled on a woodpile to the side of the other prisoners, and peered with curiosity into her cupped hands.  “Well now, gives us a look,” his dark-bearded colleague ordered Masha.  “They’re not worms, they’re mice,” he announced, unceremoniously snatching from Masha’s hands four newborn mice.

“Great, we’ll heat them up over the flames,” he muttered with a grin, stepping towards the fire.

“Don’t mister!  Don’t!” cried Masha terrified, clutching at the hem of his coat.  “Let go!” barked the guard.  He tore free of her grasp and strode through the commotion towards the fire.

“Mister, kind sir! These are God’s living creatures!  You mustn’t burn them, you mustn’t!” pleaded Masha, running after him.  “Listen to me, my dear man!  Don’t destroy your soul.  It’s the last drop in the cup of God’s long-suffering patience!” she sobbed, jumping up in a vain attempt to restrain the hand of the guard as he moved it over the flames.  “Now you’ve done it, you’re doomed. You yourself will suffer cruel torment for all the living souls you’ve tormented,” shouted Masha into his face; her words rang out like a curse. She turned to look at the tongues of fire which had swallowed her four nurslings.  “There it is,” she murmured, as if listening to something.  Her eyes grew wide with alarm as she slowly turned her head and looked past the head of the guard into some unknown space.  “They’re crying...,” she lamented.  “All four of your children...  The innocent little ones are burning in the flames on account of your sins...” “That’s bizarre. It’s like she’s sorry for your kids.  How does she know you have four?” asked the blond in amazement.  “It’s nonsense. Don’t you know she’s off her head?” retorted the bearded one with feigned indifference.  He deliberately turned his back on Masha.  “What are you staring for? Back to your places!” he yelled at us, punctuating his order with a curse.

When the brigade dragged itself to the camp gates and the convoy guards made ready to take a count of the prisoners, the commanding officer approached our guards. No sooner had he uttered a few words than “Beard” tore into the darkness of the already approaching night, leaving the officer to take his place for the count and admit the brigade into the camp.

The invalid prisoners, who did not leave the camp for work, related that there had been a fire in the village, whose smoke was visible from the camp. When those prisoners privileged with being able to work in the village returned to the camp, the camp learned the shocking story of four young children who had slipped away from their mother into a hay barn.  The hay had mysteriously caught fire and it was only after the fire was extinguished that their charred bodies were recovered.  Within a few days Masha was summoned, alone, to be transferred.  A thick wall of prisoners stood in front of Masha as she waited, sitting on her bundle at the camp gates.  Downy flakes of snow spun about her slight figure, settling on her and transforming her dark kerchief and drab jacket into white, glistening garments.

The gates were flung open.  Beyond them stood a leaden wall of fog, made strangely alive by the whirling snow.

“Mashenka!  Holy soul!  Pray for us, sinners,” a voice burst from the crowd as Masha passed through the gates.

The bright rays of the spotlight illumined her solitary, snow-covered figure, forming a picture of a shimmering phantom against a background of the nearly black wall of fog.

“Pray for us sinners...”  Like a heavy, repentant sigh, the voice rose sorrowfully over the crowd of prisoners, trailing in the wake of Masha’s departing figure.

(Translated from Pravoslavnoye Obozreniye #55; Monastery Press,Montreal, March 1982.)