Struggling to stay alive

Having apparently appeased Cheka, Marguerite Harrison was released from solitary confinement and placed in a cell with a dozen other women who faced political charges. These inmates included a young peasant girl who was overheard speaking about a new revolution, wives and girlfriends of White Russian Army officers, and aristocrats who had supported the czar.

The women also included spies who had struck deals with Cheka in exchange for more favorable treatment. Although there is no record that Marguerite was one of those prison spies, when she moved into the cell, she selected a bed that was in a corner by the window. It was odd that this bed was vacant as one American prisoner later said inmates would fight over the beds near the windows.

Throughout the ensuing months, women in the cell came and went. The remaining prisoners never knew the fate of those who left. They might have been freed, transferred to other prisons, sent to Siberian work camps, or executed.

The goal for every inmate—aristocrat or peasant, Russian or foreign—was survival. A prisoner’s first step to staying alive was to keep as clean as possible in a cell infested with lice and fleas that carried deadly typhus. Marguerite carefully combed her hair and searched the seams of her clothing for vermin.

Although the women had no medicine, they did their best to care for one another, applying cool compresses to those suffering hysterics, trying to make pregnant women comfortable, and sharing their aid packages with their friends.

Hunger was constant. According to one estimate, the rations given prisoners amounted to about 750 calories a day, and unless a prisoner received aid packages from the Red Cross or a similar organization, starvation was inevitable. 

Survival also meant finding ways to occupy their minds. They softly sang songs so the guards could not hear, told stories, engaged in political debates, and predicted each other’s fortunes. Marguerite developed a reputation among the prisoners and guards as a reliable prognosticator. Fluent now in five languages, she also mastered the prison communication of tapping on pipes to send messages to the inmates in other cells.

Merian Cooper, who miraculously escaped from a Russian prison work camp and made his way to safety, told American officials in Helsinki of the dire conditions Marguerite faced. “In my opinion it is impossible for anyone to stay six months in this prison and retain health,” he said. “She is in the worst state of any American prisoners.”

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