barbed wire and razor wire

If No One Speaks

by Sam Szanto

When they threw my kitten into the furnace, I thought: how in God’s name can I survive this? But what else can I do? Sometimes I think of slitting my wrists, but picture Masha’s face when she hears she will never see her mother again. Those words would be knives dragged over her skin for the rest of her life. I will survive but, I tell you, this is hell.

‘Welcome to hell’ was how Natalya had been greeted on her first day at IP-15 Penitentiary in Moravia. It was a freezing hell; Dante’s seventh circle, reserved for violent criminals. This included those who ran and worked in the prison, as well as the inmates.

Natalya was in the fourth week of her sentence. It still felt like hell. The accommodation (‘the barracks’, the prisoners called it) was dreadful: thirty women to each room, a toilet that couldn’t be used because there was no central sewage system; in the night, they went to an outside one. The lack of rest-time was inhumane: they got to bed at half-past one, rose at six. The bathrooms were foul: special poles were used to knock on the doors so the rats would scatter. The food was disgusting: often an unfathomable grey mass.

The work was the worst. Natalya made clothing, using a sweat machine. Much of the clothes allegedly went to the family of the prison director, Officer Krushkev, and his business associates. The job involved cutting the fabric into exactly the right size, ninety cuts made by a saw on a chalk line: if one was not on the line, all cuts were ruined. Natalya had no experience in such work, and no training was provided. She was a writer, her fingers used to tapping keys. But when she asked if she could have a job in the prison library instead, the response was laughter.

The women worked in a silence pregnant with nerves and boredom. Every so often there was a scream, as a rodent ran over a foot, and the guards chastised the noise-maker. Natalya hoarded words under her tongue. Every day she disgorged some in a letter to her husband Vladimir. One day, she planned to write a news story about life in the prison. Novaya Gazeta may be interested. A book deal could follow. Natalya was not an investigative journalist, she wrote for the literary magazine Nash Sovremennik, but her dream was to be like Elena Milashina, the prominent journalist and human rights defender who had won accolades for her extraordinary activism. In this place, dreams were necessary.

‘Stop dreaming, go faster,’ one of the guards shouted at her. ‘You want to stand outside all night? That’s what will happen if you don’t make your quota.’

In a non-prison working environment, this way of speaking would be cause for complaint. But there was no worker’s union Natalya could have gone to here. No-one running one would allow a director to get away with workers doing sixteen-and-a-half-hour days with one day off every eight weeks. Half of this was ‘voluntary overtime’. Waivers were signed, stipulating that the prisoner would work after hours, including weekends, ‘of her own volition’. Compulsory voluntary labour. As Natalya had dragged the pen across the page, scraping out her signature, she bit her tongue.

‘Tell me you don’t agree with how we work and live,’ she said to the women on her table at lunch time. ‘There must be something we can do.’

But there were only shrugs and shakes of the head.

Natalya did not want to be the sole dissenter, she wasn’t stupid. But she was willing to lead a complaint. She had visions of the women rising up, rebelling. The Shawshank Redemptionhad taken five years to reach Russia, but it had. She watched the DVD five times, for every year she hadn’t been able to see it.

A prison rebellion in IP-15 was unlikely. A successful one was even more unlikely. Women did protest, but many felt it to be futile; they were rarely listened to in prison. Although it was a woman’s penitentiary, many of the guards were men. Most of them, when performing punishments such as handcuffing women to beds for hours, or beating whole groups of workers with clubs, ankle boots and bars if one person failed to miss a production target, as well as threatening to take away the right to bathe and wash their clothes, of having visitors and letters, did it with no rage or anger on their faces. Brutality was apparently normal and necessary to them. The more frightened the women: the more silent they were. The more silent, the more the light slipped out of them.  

Natalya believed in the illuminating and transformative power of speech. In her first days in prison, she asked women for their stories whenever she had a chance. She whispered enquiries in the queues for toilets and showers, at exercise time, during meals. She imagined she was interviewing. Some women refused to tell her anything; some merely told her the years of their sentences, as if that defined them; as if they were the courts’ judgements. Natalya became aware that although they all wore the same dark-green dresses and white headscarves, and followed the same rules, the connection ended there.

‘You need to do what you are told in here, girl,’ Yulia, who slept on the bunk above Natalya, and had her coveted job in the prison library, said. She took another mouthful of grey mush and continued: ‘You want to get out of here, see your daughter? Do anything to stress out the fucks here, you can forget about parole. And worse. Just keep quiet.’

Natalya thought of the poem, ‘The Balloon of the Mind’ by Yeats, which she had studied on her Russian and Comparative Literature degree: ‘… do what you’re bid / Bring the balloon of the mind / That bellies and drags in the wind / Into its narrow shed.’ She couldn’t drag her balloon-mind into the barracks; it slipped from her hands and rose into the sky.

‘Okay, so when we get out of here, then we say something,’ Natalya said. ‘Then, they can be taken down.’

‘Oh, they can be taken down? How many gangster films have you seen?’ mocked ‘Knitting Irina’, so-called because she knitted items for the prisoners for small amounts of cash. The consensus was that Irina was scarred, physically and mentally, by twenty years in prison. When she walked, her body swayed and nodded. When she slept, in the bunk next to Natalya and Yulia, she screamed.

‘Even Tolokonnikova didn’t manage to change anything,’ Yulia stated.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, from Pussy Riot, had been incarcerated in Moravia six years before. She had written an open letter condemning the penal system and prison life. People read it; journalists wrote about it, Pussy Riot’s international fame and Tolokonnikova’s good looks selling and spreading the story. A widespread investigation into injustices in the system had been launched. But had anything changed? It hadn’t, but Natalya believed it had knocked a few bricks off the wall of oppression; had weakened it.

‘I have to believe things will change,’ she said. ‘They won’t if we accept the status quo.’

Yulia dragged her pale hands through her tangled hair. ‘You want to be listened to? So tell us your story. You’ve asked all of us: your turn.’

Natalya took a breath and began. She had been walking Masha home from after-school club. It was a woundingly cold winter day, dark early, few people around. The only sound was the crunching of their feet through thick snow and Masha’s excited chatter, which Natalya had tuned out of in a consideration of what to make for dinner. Later she regretted that, the not-listening to her daughter, when it was their last moment of normality. Suddenly, a man sprang from behind a car, wielding a knife. ‘Give me your bag,’ he shouted. Masha screamed. Without thinking, Natalya grabbed the knife. There was a tussle, the knife was in her hands, and then it was not. Her hands, her whole body, were shaking. The man was on the floor, a shocking amount of blood around him, the knife jammed in his chest. There was more blood on Natalya’s skin and clothes. Masha had stopped screaming. She was staring at her mother, the rainbows of her eyebrows raised. ‘Mama?’ she asked, again and again, like a stuck piece of music. Natalya’s mouth was a torn-apart nest. She stared at the knife, the man, the blood. People spilled out of houses and shops, wailing angels arrived, the blue of the sirens bright on the snow. Masha was taken to her father’s office; Natalya to the police station. She had to tell her story, over and over, the words soaked with sorrow.

The justice system flowed like a contagion, like the blood that had spilled out of the man’s body. He was nineteen, a known thief with a record of petty crime. His name was Aleksandr Ivashov. Natalya couldn’t stop thinking of Alexandr being named; of what an important task it was to bestow a name, something carried through life and engraved on stone with death. Alexandr was the name of the poet, Pushkin, whose ‘Drowned Man’ described the ‘awful chaos / All night through stirred in his brain’ when a father ignored the drowned man on the beach shown to him by his children. Awful chaos had stirred in Natalya’s mind from the second the knife was in her hands, and had not left her. She could barely speak to family and friends from the day of Alexandr’s death to the day of her sentencing. Vladimir found her a lawyer, a man. The lawyer spoke passionately of Natalya acting in self-defence; he spoke of her previous good character; he spoke of her young child who needed her. When Natalya talked, words were unstable in her mouth, she stammered when she answered questions. The mostly male jury found her guilty of murder that exceeded reasonable levels of self-defence; she was sentenced to two years in prison. There was a write-up in the local paper; it was not a big enough story for the nationals.

Yulia and Irina nodded as Natalya clawed out the tale. So unique to her, so all-consuming, the story was no more or less interesting to them than anyone else’s. It was clouds moving across the sky; to Natalya, it was the sky.

That evening Natalya wrote, as usual, to Vladimir. Since meeting at university, aged eighteen, they had rarely stopped talking and listening to each other. In their year apart, when Natalya worked for a paper in Spain, they wrote and spoke on the phone every day. Since Masha was born, much of their talk had been about her. Now Vlad was at home with their daughter, and Natalya was here. Sometimes she wondered if he was horrified by her crime. He had not condemned her as some of her friends had; as his parents had. Although he was obviously shocked by what she had done, he had been supportive, his face desperately sad when she was sentenced. She knew he suffered too, suddenly being a single parent, facing the local gossip about his murderess wife. Whatever his pain, he would still write to her, she was sure. The letters were one of the few things that made prison bearable. His to her; hers to him. She imagined that knowing what it was like here might motivate Vlad to speak up for her; he might write a letter about the way women were treated in the State prisons. Perhaps he could, to paraphrase Marina Tsvetaeva, take the droplets from the fountain, and the sparks from the rocket of her words, and elicit change from them. When she made the most of the lurid details of her life it was to tacitly, passively, inspire this.

Lev, my lion, I miss you so much, Natalya wrote. I am exhausted. I thought that would be the case in prison, but imagined becoming used to it. After six weeks, nothing has changed except that it is colder, the radiators having stopped working. The noise, even in the depths of night, is unimaginable: snores, grunts, cries, screams, masturbations. Time is silent, though, as my watch was stolen. When the bell stabs the air in the morning, I often feel I have just slipped into sleep. I’m so tired the concrete wobbles as I walk across the yard, under a sky groaning with clouds, from the barracks. The memory of our soft double bed keeps me going. Your warm body beside mine, Masha climbing in beside us, snuggling against me, all three of us dreaming together. Peace. Quiet.

I have sent you a watch. I wish I could send you some peace at night, Koshechka, my kitten. It is not quiet here, but quieter than where you are I guess. Masha does climb in beside me every night, and she is not silent. She screams and cries, wets the bed. Masha and I are seeing a psychiatrist together. She is fearful, he says, that she will not have you back. Traumatised, too, because of what she witnessed. I’m sorry. I do not know if I should tell you this, I don’t like to upset you when everything is so difficult. But I know you don’t like things to be withheld from you. You like things to be spoken about.

My poor Masha, Natalya wrote feverishly. My varobushek. I can’t bear to think of her suffering. Does the psychiatrist think she will ever get over it? Give her a thousand hugs from me, hold her whenever you can, promise me. Help her face to light open like a sunflower, as it used to. Tell her no-one will hurt her. Tell her I love her, over and over again, and then again. The mightiest word is love.

Natalya was distraught that she had not considered how scarred Masha would be. Had she become so obsessed with her own situation, her own feelings, that she had neglected her only child’s? Children were resilient, her mother always said, and Natalya had tried to believe this. But how many five-year-olds had seen someone die in front of them; their mother taken away by the police? How could Masha talk about that in school? Was she worried that a man would jump out from behind a car every time she crunched through the snow? Was she worried about her mother’s safety, in a place she had never been, far from her home? Did she dream of screams, of red blood and blue light on white snow? Natalya had those dreams, in her rare moments of sleep. Then she lay awake and thought about whether she could have behaved differently. Aleksandr had behaved as he had because he was desperate, she had found out in court: the product of neglect, of a prostitute mother barely at home. Natalya had behaved thoughtlessly, instinctively. Her lawyer said she had been protecting her little girl, but if she had handed over the bag would Alexandr not have gone on his way? Would Natalya have stabbed him even if she had been alone? Would Masha forgive her? So many fears, and she could not speak of any of them in prison.

They were ruled by fear in IP-15, a place meant to keep them safe and to keep the world safe from them. Certainly, Natalya was not safe: none of the prisoners was. She had not been beaten by the guards herself but heard stories of those who had been. They lopped branches off the silver birches that grew around the prison and used them to hit the prisoners. Women were sometimes made to walk through the corridors bent over like commas, to show their disgrace. Guards also regularly asked for sexual favours, in exchange for contraband such as vodka. An annual beauty pageant was organised, the winner rewarded with blini. Any woman refusing to take part was beaten on the legs and soles of their feet. Or, sometimes, the violence was mental: women set against women, fights ensuing. Natalya recorded details of the brutality in her letters. When she was free, she would use them for her news article. She knew this was dangerous, but refused to silence herself.

Yesterday in the sweat room, a woman made a mistake. The saw ran over her finger and it was cut off. She went to hospital and was back on her machine today. Of course, she couldn’t go as fast as before. The guard said, ‘That means everyone else must work for an hour longer to make up for your laziness.’ After we left, the woman was spat at by a co-worker. Thank God, I have my day off from work today, but what can I do once this letter is finished? There is little to do here but wait, and try to stay sane. Perhaps one day you will be able to visit, when it is Masha’s school holiday. How could have they sent me two thousand miles from my family?

After writing to Vlad, Natalya penned a short and light-hearted note to Masha. She tried very hard to say the right things, the most loving things, struggling to find the words that would build a shield around Masha’s pain. After the letter was finished, she lay exhausted on her bed. As she was drifting off to sleep, she heard a sound. A ginger cat had slunk in and was meowing. The cat’s tummy was swollen and distended. Her meows were startlingly loud, and she was staring at Natalya in an angrily beseeching manner. Natalya had never had a cat, was not a cat person, but she put out a hand to it. The animal sniffed it then jumped onto the bed beside her. Its fur was mangy and threadworn, but stroking it felt wonderful. They slept together, and Natalya did not have a bad dream.

The next day, at exercise-time in the yard, the cat was on the wall. Watching. Slowly, Natalya moved closer and put out a tentative hand. The cat lurched to her feet, unsteady because of her enormous belly. With her rough tongue, she licked Natalya’s wrist. Pleasure climbed inside her as if she were a window.

As I was stroking the cat, I felt a bang on my head. The guard had hit me. He said I was breaking a rule and would be punished. I thought being hit was my punishment, but I was deprived of dinner. I’m sorry if I sound self-absorbed. I know you have your pain, and Masha has hers. Mine is no worse.

A week later, the cat was on Natalya’s bed when she came in at night-time. She had given birth. Ten kittens were snuffling and mewling, blind faces screwed up. The cat cleaned one after another and the babies snuggled into her body. The prisoners crowded around and cooed. Voices usually sharp as knives became soft as fur, spiky words became smooth.

I stayed awake all night, making sure the cat – I call her Petra – and the kittens were alright. In the morning, Yulia got a cardboard box from the library and we hid them under the bed. I did not expect them to be there when we came back that night, but they were, all sleeping. The kittens are ginger and white, except for one black and white one. I call the black and white one Manya, after Mother. I whisper her name to her like a love song. She lets me hold her for as long as I like. Manya is the best thing to have happened since I was sentenced; now I just have to protect her, and her brothers and sisters. Somehow.

While giving birth, Petra had bled on Natalya’s bed. This was bad, for every week when the women took the sheets to the prison launderette they were inspected for soiling. Those who stained them were punished. Natalya blamed the blood on her period, but it did no good.

I was made to stand in the ‘spot’ after work. It was minus-twenty degrees. I would have cried but the tears would have turned to ice. I stared up at the trees, fellow living things, scratching at the sky as if they too want to get out of here. Ah ah, cried the crows as they circled. I wasn’t sure if they were mocking or sympathising. A murder of crows for a murderer. We think we are the free ones, but what freedom to be a bird. When I bent my head back and stared up, the barbed wire above the fence was like scars on the sky. I wonder if I am going mad, whether there would be some relief in that. What are you thinking as you read this, Lev? Are you reading this? I have only had one short letter in the past week. I need you, please write. It doesn’t matter what you say; I just need lines on a page.

While Natalya was standing on the spot, Manya the kitten was mewing in the barracks, missing her. Her mother Petra and the other prisoners tried to comfort her, but she wouldn’t stop. After hours of this, one woman – Natalya didn’t find out who it was – fetched a guard. The kittens were bundled into boxes and taken away. Petra scratched the guard, and was taken away too. The cat and kittens were to be burned in the furnace.

Yulia and Irina told Natalya the story at dinner, their words running over each other. Natalya could bear the pain only as long as they were talking.

‘They deserve to be thrown in the fire themselves,’ Natalya ranted when they had finished, tears rolling down her cheeks. ‘I’m going to Officer Krushkev. It can’t be legal, what they did. Is there no protection for the innocent in this country?’

‘Many of us in here are innocent,’ Yulia says, ‘fitted up by the State. You know what happened to me, right? You remember I said I am here on terrorism charges? They were waiting when I came out of my office, a twenty-year-old working for an insurance agency. Two policemen leaning on a car. They took me to the police station, put explosive devices in my handbag and never let me out. I was accused of taking part in the Chechen Wars; it was crazy, almost laughable, sometimes I still think I am dreaming it. In the first war, I was nine; in the second, I was twelve. I protested my innocence, but you think anyone spoke up for me? Even my fiancée was too scared. I did nothing wrong apart from being Chechnya.’

Irina took over. ‘You know how it works, Natalya. Don’t say anything. You don’t want to be in Solitary. You think it’s bad now? It’s even worse there; believe me.’

Most people had left the dining room. Into the quiet came the crows’ deranged song.

‘If no-one speaks,’ Natalya says, ‘nothing gets better.’

‘Listen to me then,’ Irina said, ‘listen to me. I am speaking, and I am telling you to stay quiet. I was in Solitary once. You know why we call it shiza?’

Shiza: schizophrenia. Natalya could guess why they called it that, but said nothing. This wasn’t her story.

‘I was in there forty days,’ Irina said, ‘forty days and forty nights. They handcuffed me to a bed and they didn’t let me go. They treated me like an animal: or worse, because at least the cats’ pain would only have lasted minutes. I could have nothing: not even hot water. There was no toilet; I could go once a day when they opened the cell; often, I soiled myself. I dreamed of having TB, so I could be in hospital. When they let me out, I spoke. I went to Officer Krushkev. I said: this is inhumane. I told him he was allowing his staff to torture people. You know what his reply was; spoken through a mouthful of the chocolate he was eating in his warm office? “Jesus survived in the desert for forty days and forty nights, do you think he had luxuries and home comforts? You think you are better than Jesus, lady? I know you have a mental illness, but I didn’t realise it was that severe.” This is the first time I have spoken about that.’

Natalya opened her mouth, choked. Irina patted her on the back.

‘I wish I were as strong as you, Irina. You have survived in here for so long,’ Natalya said.

            Yulia spoke. ‘You are strong, you just need other ways to survive, and that means thinking differently. Do you like to visit cemeteries?’

‘What? On the anniversaries of my grandparents’ deaths; no other time,’ Natalya said.

‘You don’t think they are as lovely as Gorky Park? As your own garden with the roses you have nurtured with your fingers? But by the end of the summer, your garden will be full of dead things. I think a cemetery is as lovely as any place I have ever visited, because it is the garden of everyone in it, everyone who has been loved. Most people do not think this, because most people try to think the same way as everyone else. They think it keeps them safe.’

They stared at each other, the three women, and then laughter bubbled up like a spring. Natalya thanked Yulia for the metaphor, and asked Irina if she could pay her to knit a hat for Masha for her birthday. Irina said she would, and make one for Natalya too.

Still no letter, Vlad. Perhaps mine are not getting through, censored due to my complaints. Or perhaps yours are not, as my punishment. Or maybe you don’t want to write. I will carry on, because what else can I do? I have to believe you are still waiting, still loving. I read all the letters you have written since I have come here, again and again. I clench the words like pebbles held in a fist. Although I am writing, I have no real news, but I need to do it.

Today is Sunday, so in the morning we went to mass as usual. I know I rarely went at home, but when I am released I think I will. The chapel here is a special place, colourful silk flowers hanging from the corners of the ceiling; rich-hued pictures of a sorrowful but calm Jesus on the walls. Today, I stood and prayed for the souls of the cat and her kittens; and for all of us in here and all of you out there, especially you and Masha. The priest read from the book of Isaiah: ‘Zion says, “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.” Can a woman forget her baby, or disown the child of her womb? Though she might forget, I never could forget you.’ Please tell Masha that she is always with me. Tell her, please, that I sang her name before she was born; I’m singing it in my head right now, like a hymn. Tell her I see her every time I look in the mirror, her name written in the lines of my face. Tell her. Speak of me. Don’t let her grow up in silence.