Grigory Pasko: Life Behind Bars, Part 3

[Editor’s note: We continue our publication of a series of articles from our correspondent Grigory Pasko – his prison sketches. In our opinion, the things Grigory is writing about from his own experience in the GULag are just as applicable to today’s Russia. See part 1 and part 2 of this series.] Life Behind Bars: Captive of the Apes By Grigory Pasko, journalist Author’s note: Today, the Russian power, the KGB system, bluntly and doggedly, in full view of the entire world, is physically destroying Vasily Alexanyan, former lawyer and defender of M. Khodorkovsky, former executive vice-president of OAO NK «YUKOS», simply because this man chose not to bear false witness against another man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. He refused to commit perjury. In actuality, there are many like him in Russian prisons. Because prison in Russia is an instrument for destroying the unwanted. There is no shortage of cruelty when a system of repressive power seeks to protect itself.


The text around Stalin reads “ENVOY TO RUSSIA FROM SATAN AND THE DEVIL!!!”. Stalin’s axe handle says “CPSU” and the blade says “NKVD”. He is standing on the “LENIN” mausoleum. (Photo courtesy of

… It turns out that the Criminal Execution Code (CEC) of the RF [Russian officialese for “Penal Code”—Trans.], adopted at the end of the year 1996, “takes the international treaties of the Russian Federation into consideration”. From here, apparently, derives the appearance of Articles 8 and 9 of the CEC RF, which state that “humanism, democratism, differentiation and individualization of the execution of punishment” must be observed. In the number of principal means of correcting me, a convict, the CEC includes: instructional work, useful labor, obtaining an education, social influence.This is how I understand it: since the state – in the person of the FSB, the military procuracies, and the courts – has decided that I am dangerous to society and in absolute need of being isolated from it, that means the state is simply obligated to apply the “means of correction” declared by it in the CEC RF. That is, I’ve got nothing against instructional work, socially useful labor, getting another education, or social influence.There’s only one “but…” here: I’ve already had the pleasure of experiencing all these means on my own self. Instructional work, as a rule, boiled down to two phrases: “Hands behind the back!” and “Shut your mouth!”. Socially useful labor? – washing the floor in my solitary-confinement cell. Getting an education? – only without any feedback from my university, i.e. through the method of self-teaching.In a corrective-labor colony, all that I have mentioned above will not necessarily be any better or available in greater variety. By the way, out of the 24 correctional institutions of Primorsky Kray, only one (!) has the opportunity to actually provide convicts with conditions for work, that very same “socially useful labor”. Labor colonies with no labor!As concerns social influence, it’s really a sin to complain – I once actually had a visit from deputy of the state duma of the RF journalist Boris Reznik (a thank-you to him for his personal initiative).zona-1012808.JPG(Photo courtesy of NG-FOTO)And another thing. Convicts – or, as they’re also called, the “special contingent” – are also “society”. And this society also can and knows how to have an influence. (Remember: “to live in society and to be free is impossible”). Anyway, this particular society has such an influence that if you didn’t pay attention to the state before they put you in, after you’ve done your time you learn to despise it almost professionally. And this is why nearly half of former zeks (if not more) never agrees to cooperate with the state in any of its manifestations: be it work or observing the laws of this state.In 2.5 years of confinement in prison I did not meet a single (!) person whom jail had “corrected” or taught something good or kind. People here only turn bad, they learn how to despise the state in response to the state’s hatred for them.When they were taking the writer Limonov to stand trial, he dropped the phrase “…Captive of the apes”. A very accurate phrase. You won’t find a prisoner laughing at such a phrase, in contrast to such a one: “Correction of convicts – this is the formation in them of a respectful attitude towards the person, society, labor… On principles of legality, humanism, equality before the law”.The “respectful attitude” of the state towards a potential convict starts right in the first cell – the preliminary confinement cell (PKZ) at a branch of internal affairs [police station—Trans.]. Darkness, stench, filth, airlessness. It’s not the detainees who have brought the cell to such a state. It’s the cell that’s been made with such an intend – that there always be darkness, stench, and filth there… All this – the darkness, the stench – this is the face of our state. Because all cells are like this in our state: in temporary holding isolators, at the courts… Walk into any district, city, or military court. These days nearly all of them have been given a “European-style” facelift – evroremont – new siding, lights, armchairs, curtains, eagles with long tongues hanging up above… And only in the cells, where defendants are held at the courthouses, do you find darkness, stench, filth… Did they run out of money? Doubtful. This is about something else entirely.There are recesses during court sessions. The defendant needs to leaf through the case materials, prepare, discuss questions with lawyers… All this they do in that same place with the stench, the darkness, and the filth. The state does not want you to be well-prepared to oppose it. The same thing happens during the preliminary investigation, when before interrogations they hold you in a cell where there is stench and darkness. And it’s the same after the trial as well, because you’re going to be preparing with the trial transcript [for your appeal—Trans.] in that same dark and smelly cell. I heard how one convict refused to familiarize himself with the materials of the criminal case after the preliminary investigation (at the “Article 201” stage) only because there was no light in the cell where they forced him familiarize himself. As a result, the case went to court, which regarded the refusal as unjustified, because “time was provided without limitations”. Time – yes, but not the conditions!There was a time when we were told: you all must be happy that you live in the USSR! It’s not important how you live, the main thing is – in the USSR! And we were happy. Because we didn’t know what life was. Then we found out, but not for long. The state is incapable of providing a normal life for everyone. It’s another matter to provide “darkness, stench, filth…”. No problem, any time! Perestroika ended just like Lancelot’s sad realization from Schwartz’s play «Ubit’ drakona» [To Kill the Dragon]: “Three heads have fallen, but a thousand have sprouted… You are not people, you are sheep, a herd of lowly beasts.” We were unable to kill the dragon, especially the dragon within ourselves. We, like before, pray to the new dragon. The monster not only turns off our brains and stops them from thinking, it also brings – stench, darkness, filth, and airlessness.… And the most elegantly-formulated phrase in the Criminal Execution Code of the RF – it borders on sheer genius – is, in my opinion, found in Article 12 – «Fundamental rights of convicts»: “Convicts shall have the right to obtain information about their obligations”. How could anybody have said this any better?!And, finally, the last thing. I propose using the text of the criminal execution code of the RF in today’s Russia instead of the text of the Constitution of the RF. It’s closer to reality. It can be complied with – under certain conditions – much more quickly than the postulates of the Constitution. It is kinder, because, as one of its Articles reads, “for good behavior… shall be granted the right to exit beyond the confines of the colony accompanied by persons or the lifting of a previously imposed penalty.”Take care of yourselves. And don’t worry: the apes are going to come for you.