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Grigory Pasko: Be Afraid of Vertyhais* Bearing Nothing

[**Vertyhai (вертухай) – a superintendent in a GULAG zone, a jailer, a convoy guard, an overseer.] Be afraid of vertyhais* bearing nothing By Grigory Pasko, journalist The very next day after president Vladimir Putin spoke at a session of the Council to Assist the Development of Institutions of Civil Society and Human Rights, where he talked about the lack of openness in the penal system and about the need for oversight of this system by society, I acquired the magazine “Crime and Punishment”, issue no. 1 of 2007. This magazine calls itself a “public policy and scientific methodology corrections” publication, and is published monthly by the Federal Service for the Execution of Punishments (FSIN) in a print run of over 20 thousand copies. gulagdrawing.jpg Russia’s penal system requires a closer look In the first issue of 2007, I discovered a rebuttal written by Yuri Alexandrov, a journalist with the FSIN unified editorial staff. It had the rather pretentious title “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts”. It turned out that the rebuttal was dedicated to the inauguration of a new foundation – “In Defence of Prisoners’ Rights”. Making derogatory and caustic characterizations of the members of the management board and board of trustees of the foundation right within his narration of the facts, the author insists that the money of the foundation will go to lawyers, various not-sinless experts, and the foundation members themselves. The human rights community also gets lambasted for having dared to criticize the penal system. In actuality, in the opinion of Alexandrov, the Russian GULAG has become much better, which was even noted by Ilina Taneva, head of the Prisons and Probation Unit of the Council of Europe’s Directorate of Legal Affairs. Apparently she actually did say that: the Russian penal system has something to be proud of. At the end of his opus, the author calls on readers of the magazine (and the publication is addressed first and foremost to FSIN employees) to beware of Greeks, even if they’re human rights advocates. Alexandrov had compassion for only one person – Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s mother, a member of the foundation’s board of trustees. “Now her”, laments the author, “you can understand. Whether her son committed a crime or no – for her it makes no difference, for her he’s still her son. And, naturally, she will defend him”. There you have an illustration to the words of the president of Russia about how, and I quote, “far from all people are found justly in places of deprivation of liberty. This is where the problem is, and this problem has been sitting in our consciousness since all the way back in the year ’37.” One thing is clear here: someone is shamelessly lying – either a certain Alexandrov when he asserts that everything’s fine with the penal system, or president Putin when he says that not all people in places of deprivation of liberty are there justly. It so happened that I, a member of the board of the trustees of the above-mentioned foundation, wasn’t present at the foundation’s inauguration ceremony. However, this did not stop comrade Alexandrov from writing in his lampoon that I was there and had even given a presentation: “They all spoke long, often incomprehensibly, but very expressively”. Since I wasn’t there, I decided to reply to Alexandrov briefly, intelligibly, and without excessive words. First, the members of the board of trustees do not receive money for their work. The members of the management board of the foundation too, to the best of my knowledge. Second, I know for sure that far from all of the members of the Council of Europe share the previously named Ms. Taneva’s point of view about the Russian GULAG (This assumes, of course, that she actually did say what the author of the rebuttal has ascribed to her in the corrections magazine. I, for example, seriously doubt it and if I have the chance I will certainly ask her about this in person). Third, the creation of foundations to help prisoners (and there are already quite a few of them throughout the country in Russia) has been taking place precisely because the Russian GULAG remains the same GULAG it has always been. Just like those who are now trying to represent themselves as journalists remain the same old vertyhais they have always been. And yes, I’m talking specifically about comrade Alexandrov – former head of one of the Russian penal colonies. And so, in response to Alexandrov’s assertion that the creation of the foundation is a public relations stunt by the human rights activists, we can add another assertion: that the rebuttal of a former FSINist is his own personal public relations stunt and an attempt to score points for himself within the system he is an organic part of. Maybe someone will notice and give him a handsome little medal for his efforts. I’ll be sure to send him my congratulations. A final thought: I think that if it weren’t for the indirect connection with Khodorkovsky (the idea of creating the foundation to help prisoners was his), there wouldn’t have even been any rebuttals from anyone at FSIN. But as it happens, the command has been given to crack down on the ex-head of YUKOS from every direction. And so the vertyhais crack down.