A taxi driver from the GUIN system By Grigory Pasko, journalist “Why are you photographing all this anyway?”, the taxi driver asked me as I was once again stepping out of his Volga car in order to take yet another photo. I looked him in the eye and answered in the way a seasoned veteran prisoner had taught me to answer on my third day in jail: “For what purpose are you interested?” My comeback question, it turned out, was the only correct thing to say in this situation. My taxi driver immediately introduced himself as Gosha Kozhanov, and announced that he had only recently been a captain of internal service from the criminal-execution [penal—Trans.] system of Chita Oblast. From all appearances, my phrase was well-known to him. Well, as they say in Russia, even an animal runs right at a skilful hunter. At any rate, after we made our introductions, the taxi driver agreed to answer a few questions himself. Here’s what he told me: Georgy Kozhanov, taxi driver and former officer of the criminal-execution system for Chita Oblast:
I got caught in a staff reduction and was dismissed from service, although I still had a desire to keep on service. I was the commander of a squadron in a tuberculosis colony. I can tell you that the prisoners were fed well. So well that many of them didn’t want to go free after they’d served their sentences. Many prisoners don’t have any relatives, a hearth and home, or a job. So they come back… Photo of Georgy Kozhanov by Grigory Pasko I’ve also been inside the Chita SIZO many a time – I took part in the carrying out of searches. The conditions there are worse than in the camp. I remember there were sometimes 60 or even 70 persons in a cell intended for 30. They say it’s better now. But I don’t think it’s much better. I’ve never been to the Krasnokamensk colony. I’d heard that Khodorkovsky was there. By the way, I’ve got this acquaintance, and he is right now part of the group of operative workers [See Translator’s note on “operative tracking group” at end of Grigory Pasko’s Exclusive Interview with Khodorkovsky Prison Informant] who are constantly, shall we say, working with Khodorkovsky. Of course, this is insanity, that such a large quantity of employees – spetsnaz, the “opers”… – are all attending to this one prisoner. If this were the president of the country, I’d understand, but this… I think it’s orders from Moscow. But the overkill with the street closures – that’s local chiefs showing how loyal they are. This has reflected on the life of Chita – they’re closing streets. There’s a lot of talk about these subjects among the people. The people are saying: Okay, so the person stole, he didn’t pay up; someone needed him locked up, so they locked him up. Let me tell you my opinion about those reprimands the colony leadership were laying on Khodorkovsky. I myself was a squadron commander, and I know how this is done. The chief of the colony would call me into his office, and he’d say: the situation in the camp is heating up, this or the other prisoner needs to be punished. That is, I would be given the order to put a person in the punishment isolator. But for what and why – they didn’t explain. No doubt it was the same thing in the case with Khodorkovsky. It was ordered, and they did it, they put him away. Someone put pressure on the administration, and it announced reprimands against him. Photo of monument to revolutionaries by Grigory Pasko But in general, I think the situation with Khodorkovsky is clear to everyone: they’re afraid of him. Hence the operative tracking of him everywhere. True, this all looks more like just window dressing. They couldn’t even convict him honestly. And us, the rank-and-file citizens – they take us for fools, as if though we don’t understand anything. They think we’ll believe all this. That Khodorkovsky alone is a thief and a swindler, while the other oligarchs, the ones they didn’t lock up, are all squeaky clean.
…After this monologue, Gosha the taxi driver seemed to want to phone his friend the operativnik, in order to have a chat with him. But then he thought it over for some reason. On the way back to the hotel, he showed me the main buildings in the city and, in his words, a “monument to Decembrists who had been shot”. Upon closer inspection, the monument turned out to have been raised in honor of revolutionaries – the organizers of a railroad strike in 1906.