A life in free fall: a Russian drug addict's story (1)

Irina Teplinskaya was born with every advantage. But when she started taking drugs, there was no effective help to be had. She tells the harrowing story of her life as an addict: driven to crime, in and out of prison camps and hospitals, but fighting all the way for her right to treatment.

Irina Teplinskaya
17 November 2010

Photo: Cavin

Part 1: Gilded youth and life inside

I started using drugs when I was 14, and now I am 44. I grew up in an elite family in Kaliningrad: my grandfather was a naval commander in the Baltic Fleet, my grandmother was director of the ‘Tourist’ hotel, and my parents were at the other end of Russia in Kamchatka earning crazy money for those times. I grew up a talented and gifted girl: excellent marks, music school, Russia’s national youth athletics team, elite Black Sea children’s camps ‘Artek’ and ‘Orlenok’ in the summer.  My grandfather arranged my admission to the most prestigious higher education institute in the Soviet Union, MGIMO (Moscow State Institute of International Relations).

I found being with my peers uninteresting.  My friends were older than me.  They had high-up parents and were studying at universities, naval schools etc. They all injected. Seeing them using drugs, I thought it was cool and a sort of sign that I was part of the gilded youth.  In 1981 I tried morphine in ampoules for the first time: it was available at pharmacies, on a simple prescription for cancer patients, and it was not difficult to forge a prescription. I liked it at once. A bit later came opium. By the time I finished school I had been injecting for three years, but I managed to pass my final exams with excellent marks. However, when I was in my last year, my mum started suspecting I was injecting. She pulled up my sleeve and saw that my entire arm was covered in track marks.

First acquaintance with institutions

Before the final examinations she put me in a ‘nuthouse’ for two months to get me off the rattle (withdrawal symptoms), because in 1984 there weren’t any drug treatment clinics. They got me through the rattle, but they wrecked my psyche for ever. At that time drug addicts were treated and medicated in the same way as raving lunatics: cyclodol, haloperidol, aminasine, insulin comas and sulfasine injected at five sites with the patient strapped down to the bed.

We were kept together with other patients – the epileptics, schizophrenics and paranoiacs - and the indelible impressions left by that treatment will be with me for the rest of my life. When I was discharged, I became a student of the economics faculty at the institute. I continued using drugs.  For the whole of my five years as a student my relations tried one thing after another to get me off them, grasping at the straws of what was known about drug treatment in the 1990s. But I would always go back on them: my cravings were such that I could no longer do without them.

Of all the detoxes in use at that time my favourite was the ‘morphine ladder’ in 1987. To beat the rattle a patient was prescribed a dose of morphine based on how much opium he was using. Every day the dose was reduced by 1 ampoule until it came down to zero: the physical withdrawal symptoms were painless but you never actually had enough to get your hit, so you always wanted to inject more. This method was soon banned as ineffectual, but it was at least humane for those who really wanted to give up.  For some reason I didn’t, though I didn’t try to work out why at the time. I liked the state of euphoria, the sense that the world was a warm, loving place ‘rose-coloured glasses’ and universal love.

During summer vacations I would be put into ‘drugs’ hospital No. 17 in Moscow. I was even taken to Bishkek to see Nazaraliev. After that I was clean for 4 months. All this was ‘voluntary but compulsory’ with no account of my wishes or needs. My grandad kept getting me off the hook, when the cops arrested me for being in possession of opium, but after my fourth year at university he got fed up and said, ‘Now you do some time in jail, my girl, enough is enough!’ In 1989 by way of ‘prevention’ I was given an 18-month sentence for forging prescriptions. Before that there was 18 months of parole for 10 rotten poppy heads growing on my balcony, which I had completely forgotten about. In 1989 I got Hep C for the time from a shared needle.

Prison (1)

In the Arkhangelsk region there’s a settlement called Puksa-Lake.  In the 1990s there was a women’s ‘zone’, or penal colony, there.  It was built during Stalin’s time for the wives of men who had been purged and on the whole nothing had changed much when I got there. The ‘Gulag Archipelago’ was spread out over the taiga and marshland that lay all around.

In April it can be 40° below zero with snow up to your chin. At 8 in the morning the gates were opened, and a crowd of women were driven out of the ‘zone’ to work. Men out in the taiga were felling timber, and a narrow gauge railway brought rail cars with pines felled for ships.  We had to unload them: four women would climb up on a car and throw down the pine logs, the others would saw them up and load them on carts.  Many of the women were crippled and someone was injured by a log every day.

The second gang was laying a narrow-gauge railway further into the tundra: very ‘female’ work.  There was one bitch I had to slash with a knife.  She was a convict and a gang leader, she enjoyed considerable power with the camp administration and she fancied me because I looked like a boy.  Her offer was that I should live with her and in return I wouldn’t have to work until the end of my sentence. I didn’t like her, and refused. She started pressurising me through the screws.  At that time there were still punishments for misconduct such as the loss of right to receive parcels, buy foodstuffs at the stall or have visitors.  Many a prisoner spent ten years on thin gruel for having done something trifling.  I had already been deprived of everything one could be deprived of for the rest of one’s life rather than just six months - and all this within a week of arriving in the ‘zone’!!

At the last moment I was sent to the punishment cell for 15 days.  The guard there also threatened me – if you don’t sleep with me, I’ll see you rot in there until the end of your sentence. I understood I had little choice: either I get into bed with her or I kill myself.  Or I bump her off.  I got a knife and stuck it in her throat.  She’ll be an invalid till the end of her days. The screws came running in.  I felt so bitter and so overcome by the ‘system’ that I started attacking them with whatever came to hand – a stool or a poker.

They put me up in the medium-security barracks where the punishment cell for troublemakers was located.  Because I had attacked the screws, they decided to take their revenge.  All the other troublemakers were granted an amnesty and returned to the zone.  I was left alone in the barrack and they stopped heating it.  They turned off the light and took the glass out of the window, which they covered with polythene.  It was - 40° outside - and inside my cell too.  During the day I had an enormous guard dog in my cell.  You had to sit completely still, afraid of even breathing.  I was given food every other day. 

I spent three months like this and then my mother was informed, or rather I was allowed to write to her. She had started worrying because I was not answering her letters and no one could tell her whether I was alive or dead.  She hired a ‘golden’ lawyer in Moscow right away, as she had the money to do this. He was able to prove that I had been forced to commit a new crime because I had no choice: I had either to kill myself or defend my honour. I could have got 8 to 15 years, but thanks to the lawyer’s efforts, I only got another four and a half.  My grandfather had planned that I should be inside for 18 months to prevent any more crimes, but actually I was in for 6. 

I got out in 1995. One month later I was back on the needle. By then opium injection was widespread and HIV was on the rampage across the city.  I didn’t have time to catch it because in 5 months I was jailed again.  I did actually try private treatment, (hemosorption, plasmapheresis), but only succeeded in reducing the dose. 

Prison (2)

At that time gypsies had started selling drugs in their encampment. The police were in on the deal.  They needed good clean-up rates, so they had to appear to be sorting the drug trafficking. They would call the gypsies in advance to say they needed a ‘dealing’ episode that day, and the gypsies would set up someone for them. I was arrested in the encampment, when I had just bought 2 tubes of opium. The article on purchase and possession of drugs had not yet been repealed, and I got 3 years. At that time there was one female penal colony in Chuvashiya for drug addicts from all over the Soviet Union. Treatment was compulsory: sulfasine and haloperidol were administered during the first 2 months of the sentence.

Prison (3)

Then I did one year for an empty syringe. That was ridiculous! I was on my way from the gypsy camp on 29 December with a syringe and a spoon washed clean after a jab in my pocket (heroin was already in town, in 2000). I was stopped and searched, but they only found the syringe and the spoon. I had no money, so there was nothing for them to take.  They let me go.  I walked on. Suddenly they came back, put me in their van and took me to the station. They send the syringe and the spoon for examination, and there are trace residues on them – 0.00000026 g of heroin. So they say to me ‘We’re short of one completed case before the New Year and we can’t be bothered to run around looking for anyone else. You’ll do, as your previous record and re-offending mean you can be locked up straight away.’

Prison (4)

I got out in 2001, but in a few months I got another 3 years. Bold as brass, the cops had put 2 bags of heroin into my pocket in the gypsy camp because I had refused to pay them the camp ‘entry-exit’ charge: I didn’t have the extra hundred roubles at the time, or I would have paid up as usual.

Prison (5)

The last time, in 2005, it was the same story. I’d come to the camp by taxi.  While I was trying to shoot up in the light cast by the flame of a cigarette lighter, the taxi drove off. The gypsies always keep a fire burning near the sale ‘outlets’, so that people can see where they are.  So I sat down by the fire, thinking that I would be able to hitch a lift with some prostitute or other who had made some money and come to get her fix. The cops arrived.  I’m sitting quietly gouching [drugged up, ed] with nothing, not even a syringe, on me – I’d learnt my lesson. They put me in the van and take me to the station.  I wake up in the morning and think, now they’ll do the paperwork and let me go, the usual thing. Instead they took me to an identification parade. There were two women who looked like alcoholics. I was wearing typical drug user’s clothes - jeans, t-shirt and sneakers – so it was immediately clear which of us was the drug user. Some copper’s nark came in and said he’d bought heroin from me. Enough to get me 3.5 years! I tried to appeal on grounds of improper investigation procedures:  I had no marked money on me, nor any heroin; no samples had been taken from me by hand wipe and the officers gave confusing evidence on the arrest. But I was presented with a fait accompli – my previous record meant that if I didn’t calm down, I’d get 8 years, not 3. They had the cred, I didn’t.


In 2000 I fell ill with HIV. Again, it all started at the gypsy camp: they stopped selling the raw ingredient, opium, because it was more profitable for them to sell the ready-to-use product, heroin. Some people would come with a new needle, others with a used one –the gypsies didn’t care, just pay up! As a result, by 1998 Kaliningrad had come to rank first in Russia in terms of HIV prevalence. I was told my diagnosis at the low-threshold centre. It was the only place in the city where disposable needles were available; you could have tea there, or just get warm when the pain was bad, or watch TV. And at the same time get tested and see a gynaecologist - all anonymous and free. This place was hugely popular with drug addicts and prostitutes - it was soon closed though because volunteers working on the needle exchange began selling heroin. There hasn’t been any other low-threshold centre in the city, nor have there been needle exchange programmes.

At first, we were divided in the ‘zone’ by diagnosis: HIV- positives were kept separately from the healthy - the prison wing where we were kept was called ‘Planet HIV’. But that didn’t last long - an order was issued to keep everyone together. At the local female penal colony in Kolosovka we were kept in squads together with healthy prisoners and there were no distinctions in the security regime or physical work whatsoever. There was a tiny difference in food: for breakfast we were given 20 g of butter and an egg 3 times a week, and a symbolic piece of chicken was added to the general lunch. Staff and medical workers didn’t disclose our ‘diagnosis’, of course, but we had our own section in the dining hall. Everyone sat with their squads and each squad had its own table, whereas we were all from different squads and sitting at separate tables, obviously because of the diagnosis. I began insisting to the screws that they were discriminating against us, ‘unintentionally’ disclosing our diagnosis: the Criminal Procedures Code says nothing about division by disease - only by squad. I started making a point of sitting with my squad: it was not a violation of the Criminal Procedures Code, and the screws were going mad because three times a day they and the head of the educational department were made to look foolish in the eyes of the entire camp. They started getting at me for nothing, and I had to spend 15 days in the punishment cell, but after my release from it nobody touched me in the dining hall, and other HIV-positives also started sitting with their squads if they wanted to.

Punishment cells are all alike in all ‘zones’: for two weeks you eat and sleep in a toilet. The cell is 1.5 by 2 m. There is a bunk fastened to the wall from 5am tn I did one year for an empty syable, a stool screwed to the floor, and concrete all around.

It was not so easy to write complaints, as they rarely went anywhere. Once a month, an inspector would come. You could get an appointment to see him, but before that all the heads of departments in turn (operational, educational and security) would call you in. They would try and get out of you what you wanted to say to him, to sort the problem out before the appointment. The line was – look, if the problem can be solved, why take it any further, wash your dirty linen in public? There was usually no solution to my problems, so they would resort to intimidation.

All meetings with the inspector ended the same way:  the more he tore into the officers, the more we suffered. Although I knew what the outcome would be, I just had to go on with it for my own self-respect and dignity.  Why on earth should I allow screws to walk all over me? Most of them are losers, who have joined up so that they can use the ‘system’ to vent their complexes on us, which gives them a sense of power over us, who have none. I knew I was doing the right thing, both legally and ethically. 

This was all the more important for me because there was no longer anyone ‘out there’ for me to rush back to and I had nowhere to go.  In 2000 I had lost the right of residence, because my mother had cunningly got my name taken off the list of residents in the flat and refused to have me home.

End of Part 1

Part 2 can be read here

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