“Prison changes every idea you have about life. I became friends with a man who pickled his wife and children in a barrel” Emigre Writer Sergei Dovlatov
Russia has observed a moratorium on executions for almost thirteen years now. Those criminals who would previously have been sentenced to death are now sent to special colonies to serve life terms.
“Prison changes every idea you have about life. I became friends with a man who pickled his wife and children in a barrel” Emigre Writer Sergei Dovlatov
Russia has observed a moratorium on executions for almost thirteen years now. Those criminals who would previously have been sentenced to death are now sent to special colonies to serve life terms. There are currently five such colonies, each identified not only by official number, but also by nickname: for example “The White Swan”, “The Black Dolphin”, “The Vologda Coin”, “The Village of Harps” or “The Black Eagle”. “The Black Eagle” is located approximately 40 km from the city of Ivdel, in Sverdlovsk Oblast. It holds around three hundred prisoners. Almost all of them are convicted murderers: two hundred had an original death sentence commuted to 20-25 years in prison and 47 others were sentenced to serve their entire life behind bars.
This isn’t Chateau d’If, you know!
The “Priobye” express train stops in Ivdel for two minutes in the dead of night. The night I arrived and stepped out onto the platform, I found myself immediately engulfed by darkness. It was a darkness that failed to lift when dawn broke: lost to the forests and mountains, the town was still full of smoke from the burning taiga. Every breath of air had the bitter aftertaste of ash.
The guards working in the prison watchtowers are generally women.
Outside my hotel, which was packed with homeless fire victims and fire-fighters, two officers were waiting for me in a service vehicle. “It’s going to be a bit bumpy,” the driver cautions, moving from the smooth tarmac onto a dirt road. A warning sign — “Attention! Security zone!” — appears from among the pines, and then after that, a fence with barbed wire and watch towers.
“The guards working in the watchtowers are generally women,” says one officer. “It’s considered to be easy work.”
“But what if someone tries to escape? They’d have to shoot, right?”
“Yeah, if they had to. There was one incident back in 1989, when the prisoners took hostages. They shut themselves in one of the administrative buildings and demanded a car and money. We got troops on high alert, and had them surround the prison. The prisoners eventually surrendered, but only on the condition that their sentences wouldn’t be extended. Since then, no one has even tried to escape. We’re built on a cliff edge, so it’s impossible to dig an underground passage even if you wanted to. This isn’t Chateau d’If, you know!”
We approach the gates of of the prison, which are painted in a kind of brown and green spotted camouflage. There is a shaggy dog tied up to the gates, raising its head in alarm when we appear. “Any weapons?” asks the security guard at the entry checkpoint. They ask me to hand over my mobile phone and passport.
The Black Eagle
The first thing that stikes you when you enter the prison is its pond and small fountain, located next to the administration building. The pond actually has fish in it, and from time to time fishing competitions are held among the prisoners (after the competitions, the prisoners return the fish to the water). Just as striking as the pond itself is the concrete sculpture that decorates it, depicting as it does a black eagle holding the head of a vanquished serpent. It was in honor of this sculpture that people began to name Colony IK-56 “The Black Eagle”. The unusual sculpture is the work of former traffic policeman Khabas Zakuraev, currently serving a sentence for murder.
“The eagle flies everywhere, picking up carrion on the way, Those who break the law are carrion!” is how he explains his creation to me.
“You really consider yourself to be carrion?”
“Why wouldn’t I?” Khabas says, lowering his eyes sadly.
Sweet coffee and biscuits are awaiting in the office of the governor, Subkhan Dadashbala-ogly Dadashev, who is today away on business. His deputy, Valery Kamaevsky, doesn’t have good news for me. “Only two of the life-term prisoners have agreed to an interview with you,” he says, before adding with a sly smile: “one is a serial killer, the other is a terrorist ... but we’ll begin with a quick look at the outbuildings!”
It was in honor of this sculpture that people began to name Colony IK-56 “The Black Eagle”
We walk through the camp and its noisy crowd. Kamaevsky leads the procession, with two prison officers and camp activists alongside him. Behind them walks the press-secretary of the Sverdlovsk Federal Penitentiary Service Alexei Karalevich, and then me. The prisoners had lined up on the square in front of the barracks for daily inspection. As soon as they notice that there is a journalist among their usual group of comrades, they begin to throw random greetings in my direction.
“All of these prisoners have been handed exceptional sentences” explains Kamaevsky. “They’ll all have a sentence of about 20-25 years, and they’ve been in jail since the Soviet era”. According to Kamaevsky, the prisoners live in “ordinary” prison conditions. “They have the right to telephone conversations without restrictions, three packages and three parcels a year. They work at the saw bench, at the carpentry workshop, and in the garage. There is a garden with cucumbers, tomatoes and herbs. There’s a barn where we keep pigs, so the food here is very good. And here’s the canteen...”
The impact on the penal system of the collapse of the USSR in 1991 was monumental. When the doors of the prisons were opened, the reality was shocking. Human rights abuses, massive overcrowding, disease and torture were commonplace in the Soviet penal system. TB was rife, prisoners died of overcrowding and malnutrition. Victims of AIDS have now joined the prison population.
Wash your hands before eating!
The canteen at Ivdel reminds me somewhat of my Soviet childhood, and more exactly the Druzhba pioneers’ camp where I spent some of it. It has the same tables covered with the same discolored oil cloth, the same window for collecting food, and the same poster on the wall that implores you to “wash your hands before eating!” When we arrive, the floors are being cleaned, but instead of a typical cleaner, the mop was in the hands of a rather gloomy-looking prisoner.
“Have you been in prison long, Vladimir Ivanovich?”
“Yes!” replies the prisoner loudly and — for some reason — cheerfully. “40 years! 11 charges!”
“I robbed, burgled and murdered two people. One was a KGB captain. She was the wife of a good friend.”
“Was it jealousy?”
“Jealousy?! No, no, no. She was drunk, she started insulting me, and I poked a knife in her! There were actually two of us, but they couldn’t find the other guy, so he wasn’t sentenced. But I got the death sentence. Can you imagine such a thing?
I shake my head, somewhat jolted.
“You can’t?” says the prisoner in disappointment. “Just imagine being in a cell one and half by three meters, and four and a half meters high. Two to a cell, with each one wondering who would go quicker? Who would be finished first? One the guys on death row strangled his cell-mate — cut his heart out and ate it. My own cell-mate was a first-time convict, and so he went mad. He started catching butterflies.”
“It was always at night, around eleven o’clock”, he continues. “I saw two people taken to be executed. Even now, every time the warden opens the door and the keys jangle, especially at night, it gives you the willies... why bother hiding that now? But you don’t have any feelings. You get this feeling of apathy towards everything. You just don’t give a damn. They give you food, and you eat it even though you don’t have any sense of taste… When they reduced my sentence to 25 years, then I began to have some feelings. I’ve already been in jail for 11 years. I’ll be 60 soon, and when I get out I’ll already be over 70.”
“Is anyone waiting for you?”
“I have a family, a grandson, granddaughter, sister and brother. I haven’t done anything bad to them... If I make it to that age, I’m intending to stay a free man… I’m not going to kill and rob anymore. I mean, I’ll be old — what’s the point?!”
“What’s your position here called?”
“So you’re a shnyr then?”, I said [slang for “prison assistant” — ed.]. Perhaps I shouldn’t have bothered trying to show off my knowledge of criminal slang. Vladimir Ivanovich for one was not impressed. I wouldn’t say he was “offended”, of course. Not least because if you say this word in prison, it is also a grievous insult. “Offended” or “humiliated” people are a special category of prisoners — those who engage in homosexuality. Incidentally, one former prisoner at IK-56 told me, there are many homosexuals in Ivdel. Valery Kamaevsky, however, was keen to assure me this was not the case...
Pray for me, Lord!
Almost all the prisoners come to believe in God after 10 or even 20 years in prison. Religion plays a big role in Ivdel. The maximum security prison has its own church – a wooden structure made by prison inmates, and Father Vladimir Dushin comes to hold a regular service here. Everyone, or almost everyone, goes to Father Vladimir for confession. Even serial killers, maniacs and terrorists.
“We had 30 people at communion today,” boasts the church elder Andrei Iosifov. Iosifov has his own particular story, having killed a fellow student at university.
“I was debauched as a youth,” he admits. “For this debauchery I am now in jail. I felt sorry for myself initially, but then came a recognition of guilt, and the fact that it was no longer possible to fix it…. I began to read the Gospel on death row, and I realized that no one but God would help me.”
“Do you think he’ll accept you?”
“He accepts everyone… Pray for me, Lord, when you come to your Kingdom!”
“When was the last time you cried?”
“I’m crying now, actually. As if you can’t see...”
Vladimir Internatsionalovich Bannykh is another parishioner. He finds himself in the Ivdel colony after killing his wife and her lover out of jealousy (before turning on his “favourite” mother-in-law as well).
“Forgive me for asking, but how did you kill them?”
“Knives, axes, the usual thing. The report said I was half sane. Meaning that I remember some of it, but not everything. That didn’t stop them giving me a full sentence of 25 years, of course. There’s one thing I don’t understand: everything happens according to God’s will, right? God is love, and all that? But is it really His will that I took the lives of three other people?! His will that I didn’t just steal a hat! OK, so I repented, and I found the Lord. But they’re still dead!!!”
“How old will you be when you are released?”
“61. And who’ll need me then?”
On the way to the prison a warning sign — “Attention! Security zone!” — appears from among the pines
The majority of prisoners on extended terms simply do not know how to live outside prison once they are released. There are not infrequent tales of lifers who have bottle of beer for the first time in a quarter of a century, get as drunk as if they’d had a litre of vodka, punch someone in the face, fall asleep on a bench, only to wake up in prison again.
I spoke to former inmate, who we will call Ivan, about life outside the Black Eagle. His sentence was 20 years for murder.
“The first thing I did was to buy myself a mobile phone. The second thing I tried to do was go home to Tashkent. By now, Tashkent was located in a foreign country, so I needed a passport to travel. My friends helped me apply for one, and eventually I returned home. When I got there, my son was already 20 — he hadn’t been born when I was put into prison. I started to look for work, but I couldn’t find anything. Apart from a job running drugs across the border. So I decided to return to Ivdel. Now I live by gathering scrap metal in the woods. The whole of Ivdel is made up of cops or prisoners, and often both at once. Everyone’s intermarried”.
What about his time inside? “The Eagle’s a decent prison. I can’t say nothing bad about the boss. He keeps things in order, nothing don’t get out of hand. But I don’t respect the ones who are here for life. They’re just freaks”.
Of freaks and men
47 of the prisoners as The Black Eagle are serving lifetime sentences. While the profile of these prisoners is different for each one — serial killer, sex maniac or terrorists — they are joined by having piles of bodies behind them. One of the prisoners, a former Chechen fighter, decapitated captured Russian soldiers, and then showed the footage of the execution on the Internet. Another prisoner raped and murdered children. A third blew up some fifty people at a Moscow market. These prisoners are not held in the general barracks, but in a special prison with strict holding conditions, and two to a cell. Cell-mates are assigned only after examination by a psychologist. The cells resemble a rooms of a Soviet-era communal apartment: bunks on two levels, a table, bench and a bucket used as a toilet in the corner.
“We still don’t have proper toilets here,” says Valery Kamaevsky. “But we are rigorous about keeping everything clean and in order. The prisoners do all the cleaning themselves.”
There is no television in the prison, only two libraries — one secular, the other religious. If Russia used to be the most widely-read country in the world, now it is perhaps only in Russian prisons that remains decisively so. They read everything here: Chekhov, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Michel Houellebecq, detective stories, romance novels, the Gospels, writings about the church fathers and the journal “Issues of Philosophy”.
Later, the human rights lawyer Igor Galendukhin told me that when he goes to bookshops to buy prison literature, he cannot always find everything on the prisoners’ list. “Not even the best shops in Yekaterinburg always have what they ask to be sent,” he said. “The booksellers treat me with great respect. They think I’m selecting books for professors… If only they knew that these books were for “wads!”
In prison slang, a “wad” is the name for life-term prisoners. Even among murderers, they are considered outcasts. A “wad” rarely gets letters or parcels from home, news from the outside, nor visitors in general. These prisoners aren’t given the opportunity to work. Life for them is a jail cell in the company of a fellow brother from the “house of the dead”. They aren’t even allowed to take walks in the fresh air, only in a special area with sky poking through a metal grill…
Prison officers only enter a “wads” cell with the security of numbers, and they try not to do so more often than strictly necessary. “Who knows, maybe he’s been sharpening a dowel for five years, perhaps we didn’t notice,” one prison officer said to me confidentially. “You treat him like a person, and he suddenly stabs you. He’s got nothing to lose, he can’t have his sentence increased, he’s already there for life.”
So that prison officers aren’t tempted to form friendships with these prisoners, each cell has a sign with the “service record” of its inhabitants — name, surname, who the person killed, raped or mutilated, how many people he killed and under what articles of the criminal code. The cell of a murderer from Nizhny Tagil reads: “Eduard Chudinov, born 1969, life sentence, list of crimes: murder of seven girls, including his own daughter”.
In many regions, prison labour is necessary if the prisons, and the prisoners themselves, are to survive. Although prisons are expected to rehabilitate prisoners as well as punish their law-breaking behaviour, a prisoner in Russia has to work in order to live, and not for the sake of the national economy, as was the case during the USSR. Central government funding and resources improved under President Putin, but funds are not always guaranteed, so it is left to the regions to provide for the prisons.
Does a murderer suffer?
The thing that sticks in my mind most of all are the eyes of the killer: the heavy, motionless look of his green irises, burning in anger at an “awkward” question. And the surprising, almost cheerful calm with which he talks about how he killed. How he strangled the girls. Court documents suggest 11 girls fell victim to him. Some he killed personally, others were the work of “colleagues”. Chudinov’s line of work was unusual enough, financing a firm providing intimate services.
“Perhaps you’ll tell your story yourself?” I asked. “Did you really run a brothel?
“The only involvement I had with the brothel was that I was the friend of the person who ran the it. And I lent him fifty thousand dollars to buy it.”
“The girls lived in a rented apartment. They usually came from the country, where they’d only earn one and a half to two thousand dollars per year. In the city, they were able to earn three times as much, and have the added extra of all kinds of entertainment. So they readily agreed to this work. No one forced them to do it. They all went out on call, and they could have complained to the very first client they saw: “Help, he’s beating me up!” I’m going to tell the truth, I will, I don’t deny what I did.”
“Did you kill them?”
“Yes, there was that. One girl was the girlfriend of a friend of mine. This friend was married, he’d he promised the girl that he would get divorced and marry her. He couldn’t keep his promise and asked me to talk to the girl. Well, I met with her, but the conversation just went wrong. She kept hurling a whole bunch of abuse, threats and swearwords. And… sometimes a woman finds words that are simply too insulting. I wanted to scare her, I pulled a scarf around her neck, but I was drunk and didn’t realize my own strength... When I understood what I had done, it was already done, I mean I had strangled her. I left her body in the forest.
“Did you rape your victims?”
“No. Although I did have sex with one of the girls. Almost all of them, except one, were prostitutes, so how can you call it rape? You give her two or three thousand and do whatever you want with her…
“Is it true that you killed your own daughter?”
“That was an accident. I found drugs on her, I made a scene, I hit her and she fell down, and hit a rock… While I was thinking about what to do, she died.”
“Wasn’t one of the murdered girls just 14 years old?”
“I didn’t murder her, I just locked her in the trunk of the car. It was hot, during summer. Perhaps the exhaust fumes got to her, or perhaps she had a weak heart. In short, she died… yes, she was 14 years old. What else can you say about it? I took her away and buried her. The problem is burying and covering it, of course. Where you hide it is not difficult.”
The maximum security prison has its own church – a wooden structure made by prison inmates
“Do they come back to you?”
“Yes, I dreamed about their faces… I was constantly nervous. After the second murder I was 50% sure that I would end up inside anyway. So when they got me, deep down I was happy. I don’t know how I would have been able to stand another one or two murders.”
“You had a need to kill?”
“Not at all. I’m not some kind of maniac,” Chudinov smiles as he says this. “It’s just how things happened. She said something to me, I replied. One thing led to another, and I just couldn’t stand it. I freaked out and strangled her.”
“I don’t understand. What can someone say that makes you want to strangle them?”
“You don’t understand?!” Chudinov’s voice shrills with pent-up anger. “If it weren’t for these three men here, I’d explain it to you. You’d also throw yourself at the bars!”
“In the courtroom, the parents of your victims wanted to kill you. And they even wanted to bury you alive…”
“They didn’t say that aloud, but people can think whatever they want. Their wishes are understandable.”
“Would you like to ask forgiveness from them?”
“Yes, I would.”
“Do you think they’d forgive you?”
“I know they wouldn’t.”
“Have you been to see the priest, for confession?”
“Yes, and with great pleasure. I’ve found peace in my soul here in prison. I know that I will never do this again. Does a murderer suffer? Yes, he suffers afterwards, when he knows that nothing can ever be changed.”
“You’ve started to write poems in prison, so I believe. What are they about?”
“About everything and nothing. Like all poems. I’m just good at coming up with rhymes. And I also like reading, especially detective novels.”
“What will you do if you suddenly get a chance of release?”
“I’ll go into the forest. As far away from people as I can go.”
Eduard Chudinov may only get his next chance of release in 25 years, which is when he will have the right to submit an appeal for amnesty. It is unlikely he will live that long. Reports suggest the average life expectancy of life-term prisoners in Russian prisons is no more than 10 years.
An artist from the house of the dead
Another life-term prisoner at The Black Eagle is the Old Believer and terrorist Ilya Tikhomirov. Ilya is just 24 years old: a thin, intellectual young man from Moscow, and a former art student. In August 2006, together with a comrade from a nationalist underground organization, he carried out an act of terrorism at Moscow’s Cherkizovsky market. Their home-made bomb exploded, injuring 50 people and killing 14, including two children.
“It’s a complicated story, I don’t even understand myself.” Ilya began, talking in a very quiet, strangely slow voice, initially unwillingly, and then with increasing animation. “There was a military sport training club at our local youth club. It was like a sports club for me. We were taught marching, hand-to-hand combat and generally prepared for service in the army. The trainer, Nikolai Valentinovich, told me that he had been insulted and beaten at a café at Cherkizovsky market, and that there were drugs being sold there. He even said that there was an Al-Qaeda training center.
“And you believed this?”
“Surprisingly enough, I did.”
“How old were you?”
“You knew how to make bombs?”
“I downloaded all the information I needed from the Internet. I saw how all you needed was ammonium nitrate, which I got in a gardening shop. It was all remarkably easy. I tested it in a forest. and saw that it exploded quite well. The first thing I blew up was the “Liliana” Black Magic Salon. The trainer told me that people were being cheated there. So I went in as a customer, locked myself in the toilet and planted a bomb. It exploded all right, but no one was injured. After that there were some people Nikolai Valentinovich didn’t like. They were living in living in the same hostel as him. We called that the “vengeance” operation. We also blew up a rubbish dump and a biological toilet. It was all a kind of kindergarden game on the one hand. On the other, I did want to teach the “foreigners” a lesson. I wanted to take revenge for the bombs that had exploded in Moscow.
“Did you want to kill these people?”
“No, I only wanted to scare them. Still to this day, I don’t quite understand it. I mean, why everywhere else there were no victims, but here — one big tragedy. Perhaps we were consciously being led to this do what we did. Perhaps there was something else planted alongside our “firecrackers”. During the trial I talked with experts, and they told me that this compound is very sensitive to changes in humidity. Maybe this played a role — I mean, the first time I made it in the garage, and the market bomb I made in a flat… I fitted a 50 second delay so remember hearing a bang, being deafened by an explosion. When I came to, I was sitting with the investigator, who told me that people had been killed, 14 people… At first I didn’t believe him, I thought he was trying to scare me. I couldn’t imagine that this was true. I don’t know how to describe this state – horror, fear… But when I heard that I had been given a life sentence, strangely enough I felt a sense of relief… My accomplices also had very strange reactions. Some of them laughed…”
“What is life like for you here?
“Well, the day starts at 6am. We make the bed, have breakfast, there’s the morning inspection, dinner, and then a walk for an hour and a half. We’re allowed to walk in a closed area, only there’s a net instead of a roof. Each cell leads to its own section, and they watch you from above, just to make sure you’re not talking to each other, and that you’re behaving properly… Lights out is at 10 p.m., so you can go to your bed and lie under the blanket. You dream about this all day. You’re slightly free when you’re asleep.
“Tell us about your cellmate”
“He was sentenced for killing and raping 12-year-old girls. I don’t know… he says he was innocent. In any case, it’s not for me to judge him…”
“What are you reading?”
“Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’. I’m actually re-reading that one. And also “The Idiot”. I found the story of Prince Myshkin close to my heart. I even suffer from the same illness that he does…”
“You have epilepsy?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact I had stopped medication when all this happened. I think I was in a special state of mind, an organic personality disorder. I was even examined and found to be partially insane during that period. It would be terrifying to go mad. Although on the other hand, a madman doesn’t care where he is.”
“Do you have the opportunity to draw?”
“Yes, but I’ve almost completely gone off art. The only thing I do is draw for wall newspapers and posters. I help the education department educate us.”
“If you had the choice between life imprisonment and execution, what would you choose?”
“You can say for all that you like that death is better than life. Of course there is some truth in this… But there is more truth that at the point at where your life is about to stop, suddenly it becomes dearest of all… It’s unlikely that anyone would agree to exchange even the most terrible life for death. Especially if you have nothing to take with you there, beyond the boundary of life and death. Nothing to justify yourself with! This is even more terrifying than death itself.”
“Do you believe that you’ll ever get out of here?”
“If anyone tells you ‘no’, don’t believe him. Perhaps a person never admits it, but deep down he always hopes that things will get better. Everyone hopes: for a review of their criminal case, for a presidential amnesty, for a new Russian revolution, for a miracle from God.”
Ilya wanted to shake my hand when we said farewell, but he could not: his hands were cuffed, and he was sitting in a tiny cell. We almost parted as friends.
When I was preparing to go to the prison for life-term prisoners, many of my colleagues were surprised. “What do you want to find there?”. they wondered. I didn’t really know how to reply. Perhaps I wanted to look beyond the brink of despair. To see the eyes of doomed people, of outcasts.
And what did I see? Within the eyes of the doomed, a hope, concealed.
Photos: Ekaterina Loushnikova