Among the convicts: Russian nurses on life in the gulag

In another report from her recent visit to the Vyatlag prison complex in central Russia, Ekaterina Loushnilova is entertained by some of the camp's nurses. They share with her not only cranberry liqueur and pickled mushrooms, but also their vivid experiences of camp life.

On my second day in Lesnoy, the ‘capital’ of the Vyatlag area, I suddenly wanted to kill someone, or at least rob them. Dark thoughts whirled like startled birds around my brain. I crossed myself surreptitiously, but these evil portents continued to invade   my mind. On my right stood the minimum security zone, on my left the maximum security camp, while between them loomed a monument from Soviet times – a rusty steel ‘Hammer and Sickle’ sculpture. As I tried to take a photo of it, I didn’t notice how the ground was literally giving way under my feet, and I gently sank into a quagmire right in the centre of the village.

‘I told you Lesnoye was built on a bog, but you always have to go wherever you shouldn’t !’ scolds one of the nurses as she pulls me out of the mire. The nurse in question goes by the name of ‘Fierce Little Hedgehog' . It’s a tradition of Russian prisons that both inmates and staff are generally known by nicknames, and real names are used rarely. And I will certainly not use them, since I’ve already been told I’ll have my head ‘knocked off’ if I give away any names, dates or details.

Crosses

Vyatlag survivors remember the weather conditions, that it was always raining or a blizzard was howling. There are no more than 40 good days a year in the region according to meterological statistics. 

My clothes were washed and dried in the home of ‘the Young Pioneer’, another nurse. The building where she lives stands right up against the camp’s barbed wire fence, and prisoners were giving us friendly waves from the other side, while a guard with a submachine gun over his shoulder studied us young women through his binoculars.

A nurses’ party

To celebrate our meeting we bought two bottles of cranberry liqueur, boiled some pasta, opened jars of pickled mushrooms, tomatoes and gherkins and went to sit on the veranda opposite the camp, where we were joined by three more nurses: ‘Shag Tobacco’, ‘Fuckin’ Margarine’, and ‘Christina Orbakaite’, who indeed looked a bit like the singer and actress from whom she got her nickname. She was a slim, fragile-looking blond with the body of a dancer and the face of an angel. But this angel was tormented by demons.

‘I never have anything to do with women!’ she announced after her third glass of liqueur. ‘Females shout, scream, pull your hair, scratch, bite. And then they get my fist in their eye. Like a bloke. I only fight with blokes. What do you want? It’s my camp training.’ She knocked back another glass, washed it down with a pickled mushroom and went on, waving her fork in time with her story as though she was conducting an invisible orchestra. The rest of us listened with bated breath, forgetting even to eat or drink.

‘I was doing my training at a college in Kotelnich. A gang from Kazan turned up, about thirty of them – they would grab girls and rape them. Everyone was afraid of them, including the police. So anyway one day I went for a walk along the riverbank with a girlfriend, and the gang caught us. I tore my shirt open and started shouting at them, “You flaming bastards! I’m going to throw myself off the top of the bank, you pricks!” They grabbed me by the collar –“You some kind of psycho, then? Tired of life, are you?” “I’d rather die than live like this”, I shouted back. They sniggered and let me go, deciding I was a nutcase and not worth the trouble… But they shoved my friend into their car and drove off with her.’

‘What was I to do? It wasn’t on, to leave a friend in the lurch. I ran to the student hostel to find some guys, but they wouldn’t even move their butts off their beds. “What do you take us for – nutters? Get mixed up with the guys from Kazan? Sorry, love!”’

‘But I had a hand crafted knife with an inlaid handle – I bought it as a present for my granddad to slaughter pigs with. I drank some vodka for Dutch courage, took the knife and went off to rescue my friend.  It was dark, the street lights weren’t working, the vodka was making me unsteady on my feet, and I was going along, thinking: “A knife like this, I can cut five of them up – easy – and rescue my friend!” The gang’s ‘headquarters’ were out of town, in a barn. I rolled up, knocked on the door, the boss himself opened it: “Hey, lads, look who’s here!”

‘I’m walking through the camp one day, minding my own business, and the same gang boss comes up to me and says, “You gave me a knife and I killed a man with it, so now you really owe me…”’

He grabbed me by the arm and dragged me inside. I looked round and thought, “Oh my god, there are thirty of them! I can’t deal with thirty…” I didn’t even feel the vodka any more, I was so scared… but I wasn’t going to go down without a fight, so I got out the knife and shrieked, “Which of you MFs is going to get a taste of this first?!” They all leapt off their beds and stared at me like a chimp in a circus, and there’s me in the middle waving my dagger about. The head guy wised up first, sat me down at the table and said: “Listen, just calm down, let’s do a deal…Where’d you get that nice knife? I wouldn’t mind one like that! Why don’t you give me it as a present!”

“Fine, take it!” I said, “I’ve got loads more like it”.

So we made a deal: I’d give him the knife and go and get the rest, and he’d let my friend go. Only of course I never came back with any knives…

But that’s not the end of the story…twenty years later, I’m walking through the camp one day, minding my own business, and the same gang boss comes up to me and says, “You gave me a knife and I killed a man with it, so now you really owe me…” So now I don’t know if he’s out or still inside, and what he’ll do when he gets out…’    

Christina tailed off, obviously thinking about the possible consequences of her unexpected meeting with the Kazan bandit chief.

‘Don’t worry, girl’, the nurse known as ‘Shag Tobacco’ consoled her, ‘some cons’ll have taken him out by now, or he’ll have died of TB – that’s if AIDS didn’t get him first’.  

‘Shag tobacco’

This middle aged woman was rarely to be seen without a lighted cigarette hanging from her lips. She’d get through several packs a day, puffing on one cigarette after another like a child sucking sweets. The smoke swirled around her throat, cutting into her words like barbed wire. ‘Tobacco’ certainly had the gift of the gab. She had worked most of her life in camps and prisons and was afraid of nothing and nobody – not the camp bosses, not the criminal bosses, not even the law itself.

‘I’ve been working for thirty years and it feels like a week. I got a job as a nurse when I was 19, straight out of college. My first job was in a ‘striped’, maximum security prison, where the cons had stripy uniforms, and they used to laugh at me and say, “Ok, girl, if you have a kid, you bring it here and we’ll put it in striped nappies! “ No, I never looked at their files – I was a nurse, not a guard. If you start reading you’ll only find out how many murders they did, then you won’t want to work with them any more. Of course with some of them it’s written on their faces, especially the paedophiles.

Camp_bridge

The Lesnoy camp facilities are mostly built out of wood, since this is easily sourced locally. Barbed wire is another constant in the camp's depressing scenery. 

There’s a lot of them about these days, perves can have a field day now. It used to be they’d get buggered by the other inmates, or get a knife in their ribs, but now nobody can be bothered.  Who wants to end up doing more time for the sake of a perve? So they do what they like. For example, one day a con comes to the camp clinic and hangs around in the doorway of the treatment room, saying he doesn’t feel well, he has a headache. There was a young nurse on duty, Little Galya, and she was having her period at the time. The pervert says to her,”Eh, it’s your time of the month, innit? Could I lick you down there? Don’t be scared, I won’t do anything bad, I’ll just have a lick… how about it, eh?”’  

‘Anyway, she called out the guards, and they tied him up and took him away, and that was the end of it … but what would have happened if she’d been alone and he overpowered her?’

‘There was a young nurse on duty, Little Galya, and she was having her period at the time. The pervert says to her,”Eh, it’s your time of the month, innit? Could I lick you down there? Don’t be scared, I won’t do anything bad, I’ll just have a lick… how about it, eh?”’  

‘You remember Lenka, the psychiatrist?’ Christina butts in. ‘She worked in the prison at Rudnik.  And it was three kilometres there from the prison to the village, along an empty road with a forest on one side and a cemetery on the other. And one night she’s coming back from work late, it was autumn and there was rain and a wind blowing and the road was slushy, you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face, and suddenly a man in a padded jacket and a cap with earflaps jumps out at her in the darkness and holds a knife to her ribs. “Get your clothes off”, he says. “I’m going to fuck you!” It could have been an escaped prisoner, or someone who’d just been released, who knows?  Anyway, anybody else would have had a heart attack on the spot, but Lena was made of sterner stuff. She talked to the pervert like the psychiatrist she was: “You know, I understand your problems. Of course you want warmth and affection and a woman’s sympathy. But there’s no hurry, let’s go home and sort everything out there.” The convict was dumbstruck to start off with, but then he actually began telling her all about his ‘problems’ and how difficult life was for him.  Then he said,”Where do you live? Here in the village? Let me take you home, I wouldn’t want somebody to try to fuck you! You wouldn’t believe how many perverts there are around!” He saw her right to her door, and fortunately she never saw him again.’ 

Christina’s story brought peals of laughter from our little group. When it died away, Shag Tobacco knocked back another glass for inspiration and went on talking in her hoarse, cigarette-soaked voice about nutters in the camps. ‘There was one day I was just walking along a corridor in the clinic when I saw a prisoner standing in a corner – a little old guy, all bent over. And suddenly he seemed to punch me in the stomach. I pretended nothing had happened and walked on, but then he caught up with me and showed me a home made blade, a thin awl with a hook at the end. “I wanted to stab you!” he said. “If you had so much as flinched, I would have sunk this blade into your belly!” Why? No reason! Maybe they had lost me in a card game, maybe just out of boredom…Let’s go out for a smoke, Katya.’

We smoked on the veranda in front of the camp; it was pitch black all around, somewhere in the distance guard dogs were howling …there seemed to be no signs of civilisation for 100 kilometres around – no city lights, no well-dressed noisy crowds with iPads and iPhones. Just forest, barracks, barbed wire fences, a dark sky overhead, convicts in dark monkey jackets, marching in formation to evening roll call, guards in their watchtowers, and one law for all – the law of the taiga. We finished our cigarettes and went back to our table to continue our ‘nurses’ party’.

Horses

Owing to the quality of roads, horse transportation remains a mainstay of travel around Lesnoy

Dreaming of hamburgers

‘It’s like, we’re supposed to be teaching them how to live, but in fact it’s the other way round’, says the nurse known as ‘Fuckin’ Margarine’, a young mother on maternity leave. ‘They teach us to live by their own gang rules. I wanted to give my little boy an enema the other day – he had a stomach ache. But my husband freaked out: “You can’t do that! You can’t shove an enema up a bloke’s arse!” And this isn’t even a convict - he’s an officer of the Federal Protection Service, just like his father and grandfather.’ 

‘So in prison the cons make the rules, and outside there are no rules at all any more’, added Christina. ‘They can get away with anything now – they rake in the dough, shrug off any responsibility for the mess, sell each other down the river and bugger off abroad.  And they’re still seen as honest men. In prison their place would be in the corner next to the slop bucket. That’s why so many people want to go to prison – not because they are such hardened criminals, but because they can’t get the hang of life on the outside any more. Prison means freedom for them. You get fed, you get clothed; you get sick, they make you better. You can work if you want, but you don’t have to; you can read as much as you want; you’re free to think whatever you like. I’ve got a Theosophical book by Madame Blavatsky out of the prison library... ‘

‘In prison the cons make the rules, but outside there are no rules at all any more. They can get away with anything – they rake in the dough, sell each other down the river and bugger off abroad.  And they’re still seen as honest men. In prison their place would be next to the slop bucket.’

‘It’s a different story outside – you’ve got to have somewhere to live, you’ve got to buy clothes and food, you need a job…and who’s going to give you one if you were brought up in care, for example? There was one lad in the camp who was an orphan. And he said to me, “you know, life in the home was really good; they fed us, dressed us, took us on holiday to the seaside, we even went abroad.” But come his eighteenth birthday, it was “Bye! - here’s a room in a hostel, here’s a vocational course (he was trained to lay parquet floors) – off you go.” He spent one month, two months, three months looking for work; the money they had given him in the home was all gone, and nobody would give him a job. So he went and did a robbery and got a prison stretch. “It’s really good here” he told me. “It’s just like the children’s home! I’m getting out soon, but I’ll do another robbery and then I’ll be back home, in prison!” And he was. But it turned out he had terminal AIDS. He told me he’d injected heroin once, just to try, and evidently the syringe was infected. ‘

‘He went and did a robbery and got a prison stretch. “It’s really good here!” he told me. “It’s just like the children’s home! I’m getting out soon, but I’ll do another robbery and then I’ll be back home, in prison!” And he was.

‘So we took him to the hospice in Studentsy… to die. And there were two things he dreamed about doing before he died –eating chocolate biscuits and trying a real hamburger. They’d given him 1,000 roubles (£20) when he left the prison, so we bought him the biscuits, but we couldn’t find any hamburgers around here… So there we were on our way to the hospice with him… it was winter, there was a blizzard, we got lost, we got stuck in a snowdrift. The driver went off to find help and I was left alone with him, smoking my last cigarette to warm up a bit. And there’s the poor lad lying on a stretcher in the freezing cold, obviously close to death, and he’s asking for a hamburger. But where could I buy him a hamburger in the forest? So he died without tasting a hamburger… I don’t even know why he wanted a hamburger. Maybe he’d seen one in an American film…’

We walked back from the party in the pre-dawn blackness along the road between the two camps, constructed 50 or so years ago by prisoners in Stalin’s time using pick axes to uproot the tree stumps. But there are still stumps poking through the asphalt. The poet Chilibabin was once imprisoned here for telling a joke about Stalin, and not long ago there was a lad from a children’s home who dreamed about a hamburger… One was the victim of a political system, the other, of his own tragic circumstances…  

Or was it perhaps the same thing? 

About the author

Ekaterina Loushnikova is radio and print journalist based in the city of Kirov

Read On

Moscow Center for Prison Reform (MCPR), website

Judith Pallot and Laura Piacentini, (2012) Gender, Geography and Punishment: The Experience of Women Prisoners in Carceral Russia. Oxford University Press

Laura Piacentini (2004), Surviving Russian Prisons: Punishment, Politics and Economy in Transition. Willan 2004

Inside Russia's Prison System, Photographs of life under incarceration, from Moscow to Siberia, The Atlantic, oct. 18th, 2012

Former Butyrka Inmate Says, 'They Throw You There To Break You' , Roman Popkov speaks to Anastasia Kirilenko, RFERL, Dec. 22, 2009

The changing nature of murder in Russia, by Valeriy V. Chervyakov, Vladimir M. Shkolnikov, William Alex Pridemore and Martin McKee, Social Science & MedicineVolume 55, Issue 10, November 2002, Pages 1713-1724