Mezcla

Sub-zero temperatures, a two-metre wide cell and electrocution or rape if you don’t bribe a prison warden. What life is REALLY like in Putin’s gulag for Russia’s most outspoken critic

The wake-up call in cell number nine of the IK-6 prison colony in the Siberian town of Omsk comes at 5am in the form of the Russian national anthem blasting from a loudspeaker.

Each day, journalist and politician Vladimir Kara-Murza knew as soon as he heard the opening chord he had only five minutes before prison guards came to take away his pillow and mattress.

By 5.20am his metal bed frame, attached to the wall, would be locked up so that he could not use it for the rest of the day. Kara-Murza’s cell, painted in bright blue, was 16ft long and 6ft 6in wide. In the middle, a table and a bench were screwed to the floor.

The only objects he was allowed to keep were a mug, a toothbrush, a towel and a pair of slippers. The light was never turned off.

Later in the morning a mug of tea and a bowl of gluey porridge made from an unidentifiable grain would be pushed through a small hatch in the cell door.

Each day, journalist and politician Vladimir Kara-Murza knew as soon as he heard the opening chord he had only five minutes before prison guards came to take away his pillow and mattress 

Kara-Murza, who is serving a 25-year sentence over charges including treason over criticism of the Ukraine offensive, appears in court via a video link from prison

Kara-Murza, who is serving a 25-year sentence over charges including treason over criticism of the Ukraine offensive, appears in court via a video link from prison

At some point Kara-Murza would be permitted a 90-minute ‘walk’ — a stroll around a concrete courtyard the size as his cell with a metal grille in place of a roof.

He was obliged to keep his hands behind his back. Often the sub-zero temperatures made it impossible to keep going for the allotted time. The loudspeaker in his cell blared throughout the day, sometimes playing the local radio station, sometimes a monotonous recital of the penal-colony rules.

CCTV cameras were trained on Kara-Murza around the clock. Even so, he would be taken to an inspection room at 9am and 5pm each day. He had to strip naked while they ran a metal detector over his clothes and underwear.

Every time he was addressed he had to identify himself in the official formula: ‘Kara-Murza, Vladimir Vladimirovich, date of birth September 7, 1981, convicted under criminal code articles 284.1 part one, 207.3 part two, 275. Start date of sentence, April 22 2022. End date of sentence, April 21 2047.’

Since the death of Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, in a similar penal colony in the Arctic last month, Kara-Murza has become one of the country’s highest-­profile political prisoners.

Like Navalny, Kara-Murza was the victim of suspected Novichok poisoning. He twice fell into a coma, in 2015 and again in 2017. As a result, he suffers from polyneuropathy, a nerve disease that causes his legs to go numb.

Like Navalny, he could have stayed in exile abroad — he had lived in America for years and is also a British citizen. (The British government has said that it will not try to secure his release through a prisoner exchange.)

And like Navalny, he also chose to return to Russia, drawn by his calling as a Russian intellectual and a refusal to let his country be defined by Vladimir Putin.

On April 5, 2022 — just over a month after Russia invaded Ukraine — he flew back to Moscow.

By that time, Putin had already made it a crime to refer to his ‘special military operation’ as a war, let alone to criticise it. Yet Kara-Murza openly denounced it as a war of aggression.

A week after his return he was arrested outside his home in Moscow and charged with spreading ‘fake news’ about the war. His trial for treason took place behind closed doors as it involved what the Kremlin regards as ‘state secrets’.

Kara-Murza was given 25 years in prison, the longest term currently being served by any political prisoner in Russia.

Kara-Murza is almost ­completely disconnected from the outside world. Since he arrived in prison, he has been granted only one 15-minute phone call with his children ¿ five minutes per child

Kara-Murza is almost ­completely disconnected from the outside world. Since he arrived in prison, he has been granted only one 15-minute phone call with his children — five minutes per child

From his own prison cell, Navalny described the sentence as ‘revenge for the fact that [Kara-Murza] did not die’. On January 26 of this year, Kara-Murza was transferred to an even harsher penal colony a short drive away, differentiated from the previous one by a single digit: IK-7.

This measure had been taken, officials said, because of a ‘severe administrative breach’ by Kara-Murza — missing a wake-up call which he says never came.

Kara-Murza is permitted to write and receive letters, though he is only allowed a pen for 90 minutes each day. I wrote to him after his abrupt disappearance from IK-6. ‘You ask me about the meaning of my transfer,’ Kara-Murza replied.

‘The meaning of a transfer is the transfer itself. One of the main features of prison life is a constant unpredictability, insecurity and uncertainty not only about tomorrow but even this evening.’

During the Cold War, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize-winning writer, identified this kind of punishment as a distinctively Soviet innovation.

Kara-Murza said: ‘The Soviet know-how was to constantly uproot a person, ordering him “out with your stuff” without any warning… As soon as you start getting used to and adapting to a place, you have to start all over again.’

Kara-Murza is almost ­completely disconnected from the outside world. Since he arrived in prison, he has been granted only one 15-minute phone call with his children — five minutes per child. Complete isolation means that even a visit from the prosecutor can lift his spirits.

Apart from the drone of the loudspeakers, Kara-Murza’s only external sources of mental stimulation are letters and books from the prison library. But he finds it hard to read.

‘You lose concentration very fast, thoughts run away. You read one page and don’t understand what it is that you’ve read,’ he wrote to me. Memory also works in a strange way.

‘You remember in detail what happened 30 years ago, but anything you hear and read this morning is erased completely.’ At 8.30pm he is handed his mattress and pillow.

His bunk bed is lowered. Then at 5am the next morning he once again wakes up to the sound of the Soviet national anthem.

Omsk, the city where Kara-Murza is being held, was one of hundreds of sites for the Main Directorate of Corrective Labour Camps, established by Stalin in 1929 and better known by its acronym in Russian: ‘Gulag’.

Since the death of Alexei Navalny, Russia¿s, pictured, most prominent opposition leader, in a similar penal colony in the Arctic last month, Kara-Murza has become one of the country¿s highest-­profile political prisoners

Since the death of Alexei Navalny, Russia’s, pictured, most prominent opposition leader, in a similar penal colony in the Arctic last month, Kara-Murza has become one of the country’s highest-­profile political prisoners

This was a centralised system of slave labour on an industrial scale, in which up to 20million people from across the Soviet Union found themselves trapped. Roughly two million of those prisoners died.

As with many Russians, the history of the gulag feels personal to Kara-Murza: his own grandfather was arrested in 1937 and survived a labour camp in the far east.

Russia’s camps — particularly in more remote parts of the country where the prison is the main employer — are often staffed by children and grandchildren of those who guarded the gulag. Solzhenitsyn spent years within the gulag and wrote a three-volume ‘literary investigation’ in which he described the prisoners, starving and exhausted by work, ‘eyes oozing with tears, red eyelids… white cracked lips covered with sores.’ Part of the function of the gulag, Solzhenitsyn argued, was economic: Stalin needed labour to industrialise and prepare for war in Europe.

The camps were usually in far-flung places rich in natural resources that needed extracting. But their horrors also served a political purpose: to sow terror and purge from society anyone who showed signs of independent thought.

After Stalin’s death in 1953 the Soviet leadership lost the appetite for mass repression. Slave labour was ineffective and even the leadership had had enough of terror. The extermination stopped, the system became more humane and the number of prisoners decreased.

The KGB, which Putin joined in the 1970s, found that the memory of mass repression was enough to control the populace. Everyone knew somebody whose relatives had been sent to the gulag. This was enough to instil compliance.

But Russians became noticeably less fearful after the collapse of the Soviet Union. By 2008 only 17 per cent of the population worried about the return of repression. The children born in these years became known as the ‘unflogged’ generation, regarding themselves as citizens rather than subjects.

In 2012, Putin decided to circumvent the constitution and reinstate himself as president. He was greeted by large protests, galvanised by Navalny. Taking drastic measures to reassert control, Putin started methodically to lay the foundation for repression to reignite collective fear. Exemplary brutality and lengthy sentences sent shivers across the whole of society.

He also brought back Soviet practices, such as declaring dissidents ‘insane’ and locking them up in psychiatric hospitals. By 2021, more than half of the population were concerned about the return of repression.

Putin has reason to keep the prison system unreformed, which became apparent after the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Olga Romanova, who runs Russia Behind Bars, a prisoners’ rights organisation, estimates the total number of prisoners who have been recruited since the start of the invasion is about 100,000.

For the most part, Putin¿s terror has worked. After 15,000 arrests in the first month after the invasion, protests have died down. Around 1,100 people are serving sentences for their beliefs

For the most part, Putin’s terror has worked. After 15,000 arrests in the first month after the invasion, protests have died down. Around 1,100 people are serving sentences for their beliefs

They are offered a choice between fighting on the front line, sewing uniforms or being transferred to a harsher colony. Prison spits out soldiers to fight the war and swallows those like Kara-Murza who protest against it.

For the most part, Putin’s terror has worked. After 15,000 arrests in the first month after the invasion, protests have died down. Around 1,100 people are serving sentences for their beliefs. Many are ordinary people — increasingly women — who had never previously been political: for instance, Anna Bazhutova, 30, was arrested in August 2023 for live-streaming a video about Bucha, a Ukrainian town where Russian troops committed a massacre.

Technology makes the secret service’s job easier. The FSB stages sting operations on social media and prosecutes people at random to create an atmosphere of unpredictability.

‘Everyone must be afraid of Russian prison. That is its purpose,’ said one former official. ‘The goal of the penitentiary system… is to break people, to destroy their personality and to vaccinate the population against freedom.’

Russia’s current prison population of 430,000 remains among the highest per head in Europe, with Belarus and Turkey. Around 225,000 employees work in the system.

The network of colonies and detention centres is still so vast that prisoners often disappear within it for weeks; they are transferred from one facility to another in windowless train compartments with six berths and twice as many prisoners. Their families and lawyers lose track of them.

To demand a meeting with a lawyer, detainees need a pen and paper, which they are often denied. They can complain, of course, but for that they still need a pen and paper.

The real power lies in the hands of prison officials known as operativniki — investigators rewarded on the basis of how many crimes they solve, using their unlimited power to coerce confessions and pin new crimes on prisoners.

They decide who gets urgent medical care and who gets punished with solitary confinement or beaten in special ‘pressure cells’.

Conditions vary greatly between colonies and even between cells within the same prison. Some have televisions and fridges; others have only a hole in the floor for a toilet. Some prisoners can pay for the use of a gym or have food brought to them by a delivery company. Others are kept hungry or denied correspondence.

Corruption lies at the heart of the system. Bribery can buy a better cell and racketeering by prison staff is endemic. They rent out slave labour to friendly businesses. How much a prisoner must pay for privileges is decided by the khoziain — the master who runs the prison. Some people paid the equivalent of £50 a month; others £20,000 or more.

Those who refuse to pay get ‘broken’ — beaten or tortured. The richer they are and the more they resist, the greater the punishment. ‘Breaking’ is mostly carried out not by guards but by ‘activists’ — inmates who work closely with the prison administration. The methods of torture include denying medical care, beatings, suspending prisoners from bars (known as ‘crucifying’), electric shocks and rape with mop handles.

Prisoners are divided into four castes. The top caste is ‘criminal elite’ or ‘made men’, who perform no duties themselves and adjudicate conflicts. They are followed by ‘collaborators’, ‘bitches’ or ‘reds’ who enforce order alongside prison officers. ‘Lads’, ‘men’ or ‘wool’, who are not professional criminals, make up the vast majority of prisoners.

And then there are the outcasts or untouchables who are referred to as ‘cocks’ or ‘the degraded’ because they sleep under the bunk beds.

They are not allowed to touch other prisoners or their possessions, and must eat separately, using their own cutlery. People convicted of sex crimes, snitches and those who hide their homosexuality fall into this category.

Eye contact is discouraged. So are acts of kindness. One new inmate didn’t have any gloves, so another prisoner took pity on him and offered him a spare pair. In response, their parole was cancelled. Prison is ingrained in Russian song, language and folklore. ‘You can never be safe from prison or the begging bowl,’ runs one popular proverb. ‘If you have not been to prison, you don’t know life,’ goes another common saying.

‘The only place befitting an honest man in Russia at the present time is a prison,’ a character reflects in Leo Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection. He recognised that no Russian can be a writer of national importance without incorporating the institution into his or her literary world.

Alexei Navalny died at IK-3, a prison colony located in Kharp, a city just above the Arctic Circle, while serving a sentence that had been extended by 19 years

Alexei Navalny died at IK-3, a prison colony located in Kharp, a city just above the Arctic Circle, while serving a sentence that had been extended by 19 years 

Prison is ingrained in Russian song, language and folklore. You can never be safe from prison or the begging bowl, runs one popular proverb. Pictured: The IK-3 penal colony

Prison is ingrained in Russian song, language and folklore. You can never be safe from prison or the begging bowl, runs one popular proverb. Pictured: The IK-3 penal colony

For those aspiring to be national politicians in Russia, prison is not just a punishment or hindrance but the ultimate test of someone’s convictions. It asserts their dignity and earns them moral authority.

Navalny, the ultimate national politician, understood this fully. He walked into prison to strike at the fear that prison instils and, in so doing, liberate his people from paralysis. When Putin tortured Navalny, he didn’t want a confession but a plea for mercy, an admission that fear works. He could not obtain it.

Alexei Navalny died at IK-3, a prison colony located in Kharp, a city just above the Arctic Circle, while serving a sentence that had been extended by 19 years. He was worn down with sleep deprivation, tormented with the smell of food when he was on hunger strike and denied treatment.

In his last significant appeal to Russia’s supreme court made from his penal colony, Navalny pleaded not for justice for his country or for his own release, but for the right of prisoners to have two items of printed material in a punishment cell. The rules permitted just one.

For himself he requested two books —the Bible and a volume of Orthodox Christian teachings called The Law of God. But he wasn’t just concerned with his own situation. A Muslim prisoner, he argued, is faced with a choice of having the Koran or a newspaper.

Such a prisoner would always choose the former, but anyone put in a punishment cell also needs a newspaper because ‘it is a very cold place’.

Navalny said: ‘Do you know what they take newspapers into the cell for? To cover themselves at night.’ In Russia the separation between prison and freedom, life and death, is newspaper-thin.

Arkady Ostrovsky is The Economist’s Russia editor. A longer version of this article first appeared in The Economist’s 1843 magazine

  • For more: DC & People website and for social networking, you can follow us on Facebook
  • Source of information and images “dailymail

Related Articles

Back to top button

Discover more from DC & People

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading