Scenes from an uprising: the Kopeysk revolt

A mutiny at a prison camp in the Chelyabinsk region of central Russia has just shaken the country. Olesya Gerasimenko is one of the few journalists whom its director allowed into the penal zone, and to date the only one to interview him.

Olesya Gerasimenko
4 December 2012

‘Don’t go away, or they’ll kill us’

Denis Mekhanov, the director of Penal Colony No 6 (IK-6) in Kopeysk, had his 30th birthday on 9th November, and he and his wife and four year old daughter were due to fly off on holiday on 26th November. But on Saturday 24th, a ‘parents’ day’ when families could visit their relatives in the camp, 500 inmates refused to return their barracks and workshops after breakfast. ‘It all happened so quickly, the staff had no time to react’, Mekhanov told me. Dozens of prisoners climbed up on the roof and the scaffold tower and unfurled banners reading ‘People, help us!’; ‘The administration steals money from us’; ‘We are being tortured and murdered’; ‘There are 1500 of us’.

The slogans were not written in blood, as the terrified relatives waiting outside initially thought: the inmates had instead got sheets of cloth and red and black paint from the prison workshops. Shock Troops from the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) were called out; OMON riot police were stationed at entry points. The family members were initially told that it was a training exercise. But the convicts shouted at them, ‘Don’t go away, or they’ll kill us!’ Relatives started arguing with the police, and pelted them with snowballs and stones; then they started rocking a jeep containing the local police chief from side to side. The riot police went on the attack: releasing dogs, beating men’s faces in, hitting women with truncheons. One girl’s arm was broken, and a prisoner’s pregnant girlfriend lost her baby the next day.

Meanwhile inside the prison the inmates continued their peaceful protest, standing in the open air all night and all the next day, taking it in turns to go inside to warm up. On Sunday evening a discussion was organised, with the local public prosecutor, the regional ombudsman and relatives of three prisoners sitting at tables in the colony’s assembly hall where 60 of the protesters had gathered. Two representatives spoke for them. One was a prisoner known as ‘Tyson’, who had already served 10 years of a sentence for raping a 13 year old girl; the other the ex deputy mayor of Magnitogorsk, Vitaly Sidorenko, sent down for bribery, who had arrived in Kopeysk just two weeks earlier. His glasses glinting, the former official told those assembled that what went on there was ‘an insult to human dignity – moral, physical and psychological’.


Later, director Mekhanov announced that he had spoken to Sidorenko, and that the latter had fallen under the influence of bad people who had exploited his intellectual capabilities. On the morning of 26th November the convicts gradually climbed down from the roof, but continued their hunger strike. Various officials arrived at the colony for an enquiry. There were representatives of the Russian ombudsman from Moscow and observers from the local community. Rumours were flying around the town – of someone falling from the tower, of 12 people killed in the barracks, of mass opening of veins. Mekhanov cancelled his flight to Egypt.

Just business

After several days, the worst rumours had been refuted: it was only a jacket that had fallen, not a man; no one had died and the guards had not beaten up any prisoners afterwards. The protest was a nonviolent one, and its peaceful outcome amazed everyone, from inmates and their relatives to the troops and the ombudsman’s representatives. ‘Camp staff dressed in prison uniforms even tried to provoke them, but the prisoners didn’t fall for it and refused to get into a fight’, said Nikolay Shchur from the national Public Monitoring Committee (ONK), set up in 2008 to ensure the observation of human rights in penal institutions.

‘99% of prison protests end with the use of the special services and brute force’, Mekhanov explained to me. ‘Peaceful outcomes are rare. I warned them: don’t break anything, don’t destroy anything, or I’ll send in the troops. I also increased the number of machine gunners in the watch towers. But the prisoners themselves didn’t want any violence and shouted from the roofs:”We won’t do anything, you don’t need the troops”.’

At any time there will usually be 15-20 prisoners in solitary for some infringement or another, and there creature comforts are minimal, with no tea or cigarettes and constant loud music, often by a German heavy metal band.

Kopeysk IK-6 is a strict regime camp for prisoners convicted of serious crimes – half of the 1600 inmates are in for murder. The majority are also young men, many no older than 21. At any moment there will usually be 15-20 prisoners in solitary for some infringement or another, and there creature comforts are minimal, with no tea or cigarettes and constant loud music, often by the German heavy metal band Rammstein. Another 300 inmates live in ‘lighter conditions’ thanks to good behaviour and a good attitude to work; their barracks are well decorated, with proper bathrooms, a DVD player, a library and even eBooks. Mekhanov says that none of these prisoners took part in the protest.

Among the demands of the hunger strikers and protesters was an end to torture and extortion by the camp staff. These complaints are not new: the prisoners say they have been sending them, via their families, to the public prosecutor’s office for many years. They also wanted improvements in their conditions and the release of some prisoners from solitary confinement.

The main problem in the camp, according to both official and unofficial human rights bodies, is the excessive financial ‘collections’ made by the administration from the inmates, referred to as ‘voluntary contributions’, and the violence that results if an inmate refuses to pay. Wives and mothers waiting outside the gates also told me that they had to pay 3,000-5,000 roubles (£60-100) for a visit, and that there were only 24 rooms where visitors could stay overnight when there should have been 90. By law visits should be free, but the camp has three classes of accommodation: free rooms, where however you have to pay for extras like clean sheets or a kettle; ‘semi-luxe’ costing 750r (£15) a day, and ‘de luxe’ for 1,400r (£28). I had a look at these ‘de luxe’ rooms, in a windowless one-story building. Each of the nine rooms is painted a different colour – green, lilac, pale blue – and has furniture made here in the camp, as well as a DVD player, a separate shower, air conditioning, a kitchen and a mini-bar.

‘The main problem in the camp is the excessive financial ‘collections’ made by the administration from the inmates. Prisoners who refuse to pay up are subjected to ‘chilling’ (being confined in an unheated space and/or forced to strip in cold weather), beatings and sleep deprivation.’

According to the families, support for parole applications are also expensive, running to 35,000 -150,000 roubles (£700-3,000), although you can pay in kind – lino, cement and TV sets are all acceptable currencies. They all tell me the same story: those who refuse to pay up, or persuade their relatives to pay, are subjected by camp staff and trusties to ‘chilling’ (being confined in an unheated space and/or forced to strip in cold weather), beatings and sleep deprivation.

Mekhanov categorically denies all of this. ‘I admit that we accept humanitarian aid, but only from official sources and in the form of TVs, DVD players, fridges and that kind of thing.’ But rank and file camp staff are more frank about the inadequacies of the system. ‘There’s nothing wrong with families wanting their husband or brother to have a few home comforts. But the camp authorities aren’t going to organise it themselves, so they use middlemen, who ask 1,500 roubles instead of 1,000 and pocket the difference. There’s nothing you can do about it. If it could be organised through some charity it would all be more transparent and these problems wouldn’t arise.’

Mekhanov sketches a diagram of the camp’s financial system for me. Federal Government money pays for food, clothing, heating, gas and water. The camp also earns money by selling goods produced by prisoners in its various workplaces: sewing, carpentry and furniture workshops and agricultural projects - raising chickens, quail and pigs. This money goes to pay wages for the camp’s 200 free workers, taxes, expenses such as light bulbs, broadband connection and petrol, and also wages for the inmates (pathetically low once the government has taken its 75% for their upkeep). ‘All this adds up to an outlay of 2.5 million roubles a month’, he says. ‘We can’t produce enough to cover our costs. That’s why the prisoners are paid so little. I have to work like a businessman. The government is supposed to provide us with contracts, but they don’t. I look around and find us business partners myself, but not everyone is going to want to deal with a prison camp.’

'A prison, not a kids’ summer camp’

Mekhanov is angry with the protesters. ‘We’ve been through it all – beatings, torture, extortion. It’s nothing new. The public prosecutor’s office did an inspection and couldn’t find any evidence. Now they’ve handed the investigators another 130 statements with the same old demands. Somebody can’t get parole. Somebody is just fed up. Somebody can’t solve the crossword’. He also denies the accusations of violence. ‘The prisoners are subjected to physical force only as far as the law allows, and that very rarely’. I remind him about Andrey Skvortsov, who during the negotiations with the protesters shouted to his mother, ‘That officer sitting beside you – he’s the one who beat me’. I think of the photos in my bag of Aleksandr Dmitriyevsky after a beating, given to me by his mother together with an official complaint, where he wrote, ’They extort money, beat you with rubber truncheons and wooden mallets, torture you with tear gas, sexually abuse you using both their cocks and any other instruments lying around.’


A number of prisoners climbed up onto the camp roofs and unfurled banners such as 'People help us'! to their relatives below Photo (c) Ria Novosti. All rights reserved


‘There’s a large scale investigation going on here right now’, continues Mekhanov. ‘And they haven’t found any physical marks on any prisoner. What beatings are they talking about?’

The mistake the camp management made was to allow the prisoners to organise. So they united against the administration and its ‘bitches’ – the guys who collected the money - held their protest and got what they wanted. What can I say - good for them!’

The camp director believes that the inmates only started demanding an end to beatings and extortion when they realised that the administration would not meet their initial demands – for an improvement in conditions and the release of prisoners from solitary confinement. ‘They got worried and decided they needed to justify themselves’, he tells me. The demands, he says, are unrealistic. But the ordinary camp employees believe that the administration has lost control. ‘The mistake the camp management made’, says human rights monitor Nikolay Shchur, ‘was to allow the prisoners to organise. So they united against the administration and its ‘bitches’ – the guys who collected the money, held their protest and got what they wanted. What can I say - good for them!’ Meanwhile the regional Federal Penitentiary Service is afraid that the tactic of non-violent protest might spreads to other penal establishments.

Mekhanov is unconcerned about a criminal charge by local investigators,of increasing the powers of his security staff. ‘We had order here’, he says. ‘There’s a wave of disorder spreading all over Russia at the moment, ‘democracy’ is the new buzzword, it’s ‘rights for everyone’. There are all these human rights people everywhere, the public prosecutors are also cleaning up their act, everybody is fired up, everybody has lots of rights. Of course we were strict here – it’s a prison, not a kids’ summer camp! Of course they didn’t like it, and they were encouraged by all these ONK people, who immediately and unreservedly took their side, wrote down all complaints, put video of them on the internet.’

Son of the regiment

While Mekhanov and I were talking in his office on the evening of 28th November, he had a phone call from the camp. The last inmate had come off his hunger strike. Mekhanov hung up, obvious relief on his face. I asked him how someone gets to be in charge of a prison camp at the age of 30. ‘You just have to want it,’ he replied.

'In seven years Mekhanov rose through the system, from a junior officer to the head of a camp. His colleagues put his meteoric career down to a combination of reforms in the system, purges of personnel and personal ambition.'

Mekhanov was born in Norilsk, in the north of Russia, but by his teens was already in Kopeysk, where his father worked at IK-6 as a driver. He graduated with distinction from Kopeysk’s Mining Economics College and in 2000 applied for a place at a Police Academy. But on the evening when he was packing to go and take the entrance exam, his father died. The 17 year old, in a state of shock, failed the exam. The then management of IK-6 took him under its wing, sent him off to study at the Ministry of Justice’s own training college in Perm, and then gave him a job. In 2002 the 19 year old lieutenant was in charge of a brigade of 100 prisoners. ‘The prisoners were two or three times older than me, I was like their son, but I was also their commander.’ After a year he was transferred to an operational division to do intelligence work. In seven years Mekhanov rose through the system, from a junior officer to the head of a camp. His colleagues put his meteoric career down to a combination of reforms in the system, purges of personnel and personal ambition.

Mekhanov is not much loved, to put it mildly, by human rights monitors and prisoners’ families. Shchur and his Public Monitoring Committee colleagues hold him chiefly to blame for the protest. As the monitor says, all the money goes through Mekhanov, and the person directly responsible for its collection is Viktor Timashov, the former deputy governor of Chelyabinsk, convicted of bribery offences. ‘The number of times we have told the Federal Penitentiary Service to get rid of Mekhanov!’ says Shchur. ‘But there they call him a son of the regiment and say they trained him themselves. They are turning IK-6 into a torture camp – they transfer the most brutal guards here from other camps.’ And one prisoner’s sister, who spent two nights standing under the camp fence during the protest, told me that ‘Mekhanov personally beats prisoners up, in the same office as he receives families in’.

After the protest, the only media people allowed into the camp were a film unit from Vesti-24 TV. I buttonholed Mekhanov at the evening roll-call, and we went up to the staff canteen, which reminded me of an expensive Chelyabinsk restaurant, complete with built in aquariums, beautifully laid tables and a menu in a burgundy coloured leather cover. Staff meals are prepared by an elderly Georgian prisoner: ‘an excellent cook’, says Mekhanov. ‘He’s a member of the Guild of French chefs.’ The chef comes over and bows to the camp director. ‘What would you like this evening? Venison, duck?’ Mekhanov orders foie gras, I choose chicken soup, and the assistant to the Ombudsman who is with us asks, as a joke, for quail and the chef respectfully inclines his head. ‘They were on the menu yesterday, but not today. However, if you can wait we’ll see to it.’ The chef has four more year to serve in IK-6.

After seven o’clock we went over to the barracks area. The camp bathhouse was wreathed in steam, the prisoners on the parade ground were lightly dusted with the snow that was falling. In ten minutes time Mekhanov would have to address the inmates directly for the first time since the protest. He lit a cigarette, sheltering in the porch of the visitors’ building. ‘So, what should I say?’ he asked me. ‘OK. Imprisoned citizens, I demand that you observe the camp rules … I ask you to… I call on you. I call on you to observe the camp rules. And then I repeat it. Should I put some music on for them? To cheer them up…’ ’You could do’, I say. Mekhanov starts going through the songs on his iPhone. ‘What about “We’ll get high today, me and you”? ‘Why don’t you put on “It’s good to travel the world, a toffee in your cheek”?’ I suggest. We went out into the frost, past the inmates lined up in their brigades. I thought I’d offer some advice. ‘Perhaps you could say that they’ll get tea and cigarettes soon. Or that you’ll switch on the payphone tomorrow.’ ‘No’ he says, ‘that’s horse-trading’. ‘Well, you have to put something human in at the end’, I insist.

Mekhanov climbed up onto the first floor of a small building and switched on a loud-hailer. ‘Imprisoned citizens. I call on you to observe camp rules. I call on you to observe camp rules. From today the parcel posting and delivery office will be working again as normal. Other matters are also being looked at. Thank you for your understanding. Goodnight.’ 1600 prisoners, who two days earlier had grabbed the attention of the whole of Russia, listened to him attentively. He came down again: ‘Well, what do you think? I added the bit about understanding. Was it OK?’

A longer version of this article was originally published in Russian at Kommersant

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