This is Karelia: tortured voices from Russia’s prison system

Evidence of how prison officers cooperate with inmates to effect torture and humiliation inside Karelia’s prison system continues to emerge.

Anastasiya Zotova
23 December 2016

"I was then dragged into the office where, continuing to be beaten, my trousers were torn off and I was threatened with rape unless I stopped complaining." Sergei Malygin's testimony of torture at IK-1, 2015. Source: Territory of Torture.The deeper you go into the woods, the darker it gets. My colleagues and I at Territory of Torture have received more complaints from Karelia’s IK-1 prison colony. These complaints concern not only beatings and humiliation, but even (excuse the expression) “a stick up the arse” — anal rape with a baton or other instruments. Over a dozen current prisoners from IK-1 and around the same number of former prisoners have spoken of their experiences of torture at this prison colony. 

Our investigation into tortures at IK-1 began with Aleksandr Nikolaevich Zaytsev, otherwise known as “Arkhara”. Zaytsev went on the record about a number of beatings he suffered, despite the fact that he had just undergone heart surgery. Prison officers also extorted money from him, “squeezing” him for cash. Zaytsev even reported the murder of a prisoner, which took place in May 2015. Zaytsev’s complaints have been sent to Russian investigators, we have the necessary receipts. 

We sent a lawyer, Natalya Vasilkova, to speak with Aleksandr Zaytsev. In discussion with her, Zaytsev reiterated his complaints and provided further details. Our colleague also managed to speak with another prisoner, who gave testimony but was extremely afraid and requested that rights defenders from Moscow visit IK-1:

“I can confirm that when new convicts arrive at IK-1, they’re beaten by other recently arrived prisoners while in quarantine. Everyone is beaten very brutally, the new prisoners are gagged with scotch tape, and a broom handle is forced up their sleeves, so they can’t move their arms. Their trousers are then pulled down and their tormenters threaten to insert a stick into their anus. They’re beaten, bullied and forced to work all night.” 

This humiliation of new prisoners is ordered by the director of the penal facility, and is carried out by ‘activists’

This humiliation of new prisoners is ordered by the director of the penal facility, and is carried out by ‘activists’ [the term given to prisoners, often convicted for rape or child abuse, who agree to cooperate with the prison administration]. Normal convicts serving their sentences in IK-1 urgently await visits from representatives of human rights organisations and the human rights ombudsman. They believe that the situation can only be addressed on the federal level, given that local and regional authorities cannot be trusted to deal with the beatings and work-related injuries sustained during these unpaid night shifts. We’ve repeatedly sent appeals to Ivlev, the local chief prosecutor, but to no avail.” 

And there are even more testimonies of torture at the IK-1 camp in Karelia. A third witness, who we quote on condition of anonymity, was a prisoner at IK-1 until quite recently, and revealed what went on there to his relatives. 

“Basically, in the quarantine area there are two guys, Artyom Vlasov and Andrey Yershov. They’re in there on orders — who to kill, who to injure. There are also two prison officers — Denis Sergeevich Kopeykin and Denis Aleksandrovich Malevich. There’s another one, this Zabolotsky, I don’t know his full name, he’s the deputy director of security. He came over from IK-4 camp, in Onda. He gives the orders on who to beat up, who needs to be punished and how, and who needs to be controlled. Basically, if you remove those prison officers or try to get to them, then everything will stop.” 

Here’s another former prisoner from IK-1. It’s interesting that in the full transcript, this former prisoner doesn’t even use the word “beat” but instead “murder”. Here’s what he told us about the so-called “cold torture”:

“At IK-1 there’s Cell No.4, and if you go in there on any day, they won’t stop you. It seems the floor is ventilated, it’s underground so there’s a draft. I don’t know why, but the floors are covered in ice, the cell is frozen. If it’s -5 degrees outside or even less, then everything here will be the same, frozen over — even the radiators. The temperature in that room is terrible. 

In Cell No.10 at IK-1 it’s a tiny bit warmer, but they won’t even let you sit near the radiator, to press yourself up to it. They won’t even let you sit near it. You’re supposed to sit over there in the corner near the bench, in the cold.” 

Here’s part of a conversation with another former prisoner from IK-1. It’s a very human story, worthy of Solzhenitsyn: 

“You don’t open your mouth too much there. I nearly got in trouble before my release, managed to talk my way out of it. One other guy from Petersburg, he didn’t dish the dirt on me, he was OK, a local Karelian, he asked me: ‘Do you write stuff on the internet?’ I was actually inside because of the internet. “Well, when you get out of here, we’ll give you a list just before your release, and you’ll tell about all the illegal stuff which goes on here. You send it to the prosecutor or some journalists, and they’ll have a lot of information to work with.’ 

So I answered: ‘I can do that’. 

Two months went by, and the Karelian guy who proposed the whole thing just goes and tells the activists about it all. Then they knocked me about, punched me in the ears. It could have been worse, my ears went blue, that’s all. Unless the overseers agree to it, nobody’s going to do anything serious to you. But I was forced to write a declaration admitting that I wanted to do this. Despite the fact that I’d done nothing against the law, I signed the declaration anyway, admitting that I had intended to tell others about the illegal actions there at IK-1. 

And then I’m called up by Kopeykin, one of the officers in charge. We had a chat, and he turned out to be alright. He told me that he wasn’t going to lock me in solitary, wouldn’t do anything to me. There’s no point in breaking you, he says, it’s clear that you’ll just tell me you won’t write anything, and then you might write about it later. But we basically don’t give a fuck, he says. Everything will stay just the way it’s always been. People are writing about us on the internet — and he [Kopeykin] even named them. 

“Just as I’d thought, there was fuck all use in me writing anything. So I saved myself from a real hiding by those animals” 

‘For whose sake are you going to write all this?’, Kopeykin asked me, ‘they complain about how shitty it is here, and then they dob you in. You could have really suffered, but for who? They’ve been here for many years — they’re used to it. Remember, I’m not the one who’ll tear you apart, the inmates will. The same ones who you’re so willing to help.’ He then told me about the utter chaos in the ‘black zones’ [prisons de-facto administered by inmates], as compared to theirs. He described a video on the internet taken in some penitentiary, where some prisoners insert the heating element from a kettle into a prisoner’s anus and then turned on. He told me that this was real anarchy. I wasn’t stupid, he told me, even though I was playing the fool. Kopeykin advised me to think carefully. After our chat, he left me alone. 

In principle, I got the most reasonable officer. Had it been somebody else, I’ve no idea what would have happened. I could have had my arse torn open with a stick right then and there. Kopeykin was alright. I’m even grateful to him for his explanation. Just as I’d thought, there was fuck all use in me writing anything. So I saved myself from a real hiding by those animals.” 

Here’s another from IK-1: a statement from Sergey Vasilyevich Malygin, dated 12 January 2015, which found its way to the For Human Rights foundation: 

“I was beaten, a gas mask was forced onto my head without its respiratory system. I was then dragged into the office where, continuing to be beaten, my trousers were torn off and I was threatened with rape unless I stopped complaining [about the prison conditions]. They then attempted to tear open my mouth, shoved me off the table onto the floor and continued to beat me. I was then hung up, beaten and subject to electric shocks. Finally, I was brought to the office of K.I. Bondarovich, the deputy director for security and ‘special regime’, before whom I was to say that I understood everything.

As a result of all this, I was left with the following:

- On the right side of my body: broken ribs, a hematoma of the temporal lobe of my head, bruises on the buttocks, groin, feet and wrist, and a bloody wound on my leg;

- On the left side of my body: a bruised wrist, a thumb injury, incisions to the wrist, damage to the knee joint, a huge black bruise around the kidneys and the thighs. 

Due to the broken ribs, I couldn’t breathe normally for around three months. 

I was refused medical assistance. They also refused to submit a declaration about the beating.” 

Here’s a letter from a prisoner who had already complained in April 2012:

“For my refusal to wear a blindfold and do a report, I wasn’t hit with any particular penalties, but twice a day I was pushed around, they forced my legs apart, consciously inflicting physical pain, they did this to break my will, to force me to wear a blindfold and do the report. 

During these torments, the inmate who was tasked with overseeing the disciplinary cells would pour bleach solution into my cell, making the place even more unbearable. The coughing and vomiting wouldn’t stop until I was removed ‘for the next inspection’, and then it started all over again. 

One of the prison officers opened my complaint in front of me, praised me for my literacy, and refused to forward it to anybody. After all, he said, “this is Karelia”

As it seemed to the officers at IK-1 during these sessions that I wasn’t in enough pain, they would gag and beat me even more severely, and I sustained injuries all over my body. Still, during the daily medical examinations, doctors refused to notice the new abrasions and bruises.

I wrote a declaration about what the wardens had done to me at IK-1, and sent a confidential letter to the court in Segezha [local town]. But one of the prison officers, Zinovyev, opened my complaint in front of me, praised me for my literacy, and refused to forward it to anybody. After all, he said, ‘this is Karelia’.

Once the prosecutor in charge M. Tikhomirov visited IK-1 to examine its disciplinary cells, I told him that my complaint to the court had never been sent, that I was being beaten daily. To this, Tikhomirov simply responded that if this was the case, then I couldn’t prove anything. When it came to discussing my many injuries, Tikhomirov summoned A.M. Bondarenko, another of the director’s security deputies. Bondarenko told him that I was attacking prison personnel myself, that he has a report to prove this, and that they have to use physical force against me to defend themselves. 

After this, prosecutor Tikhomirov suggested that either I forget about how the IK-1 prison staff had beat me, or else he would begin an investigation into my alleged attacks on prison staff and bring the matter to court.


I was able to get an appointment with prosecutor Tikhomirov, who told me that I couldn’t prove that the prison administration at IK-1 authorised ‘activists’ to beat and humiliate regular prisoners. He warned me not to fight the system, and instead proposed that I join it instead by becoming an “activist” myself. I told him where to go…

Unable to endure the further insults and humiliation from the ‘activists’, I then deliberately broke a number of prison rules in the presence of the wardens, for which I was placed in solitary confinement. I was made to do the splits daily and had bleach poured in my cell. I couldn’t bear it anymore, so I slit my wrists. The doctors stitched them up again, and on it went. 


When I returned to IK-1, I was again placed in solitary confinement and underwent exactly the same beatings, humiliations and punishments as before. In November 2010, I was questioned by prosecutor Tikhomirov, and I stuck to my guns and repeated the same accusations, even naming fellow prisoners who could confirm them.

Tikhomirov said that he would find the prisoners I mentioned and ask them. But once he left IK-1, two inspectors from the prison authorities and a warden, Melnikov, took me to the exercise yard, pushed me to the ground, twisted my arms behind my back and, kicking me, demanded that I withdraw my accusations. No longer able to bear the humiliation, I agreed. 

After that, Tikhomirov called me for another meeting, saying that he hadn’t been able to question the witnesses I had named. He asked me to clarify whether I would like to withdraw my statement. I signed a paper agreeing to just that.”

Territory of Torture recently published a statement by Ali Islamov — he was also at IK-1 and also confirms the living hell suffered by its inmates. Islamov’s testimony is from 2010. And it, along with those above, is just a small fraction of the information on torture and humiliation which we have received.

This article originally appeared on Territory of Torture. Translated from Russian by Maxim Edwards. 

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