No complaints – because there’s nobody to complain to? By Grigory Pasko, journalist On 25 October 2003 at 5 o’clock in the morning Moscow time, when an airplane flying from Nizhny Novgorod to Irkutsk stopped for refuelling in Novosibirsk, the head of Russia’s largest oil company “YUKOS” and its largest shareholder Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested. Four years have passed since then. Just a few days ago, Yuri Kalinin, the director of the Federal Service for the Execution of Punishments [also known by its Russian acronym FSIN; it is the direct successor of the infamous Stalin-era Main Administration for Corrective Labor Camps and Colonies, better known by its acronym: GULag—Trans.], announced to the public that Khodorkovsky had never once filed a complaint against the conditions of his incarceration.
FSIN director Yuri Kalinin (photo from the archive of Grigory Pasko)
I think that this tells us more about Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s character than it does about the conditions in Russian camps and jails. Russia’s chief prison warden also reported that torture had not been applied towards Khodorkovsky. I’ve got my own thoughts on that subject: I had spent a long time sitting all alone in a cell in the Vladivostok investigative isolator – a grand total of nearly two years. If you ask me what periods in that time were the most difficult for me, I would easily recall two incidents. The first was when I fell ill at the height of the New Year’s holidays, and a doctor saw me only after two weeks, when I had already begun to exhibit chronic symptoms. And the second was when they planted a “brood hen” – an informant – in my “solitary” cell. This lad was a bit dull, a bit sneaky, a bit impertinent. He didn’t even hide why it was that he had been placed together with me in the cell. He unceremoniously poked around in my papers, asked what people were writing me when I read letters, and listened in on the conversations I had with other zeks through the barred window on the cell door… He was lazy about keeping the “hut” clean, and got up very reluctantly to go get bread and sugar when it was his turn. And finally, he devoured my food parcels, which in the conditions of rare visits and a sick stomach was of no small importance for me, either. He was irritating, but I could not allow myself to get irritated: if I drive this one out of the cell, they’ll just send another one. And I had been tortured many a time already by these “others”. I recalled this particular variety of torture when I read the words of FSIN boss Kalinin about how Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev since the beginning of serving their sentence had not once complained about the conditions of their incarceration. But then, how can you complain about a “brood hen”, if according to the rules for the incarceration of prisoners, the leadership of a jail has the right to allocate zeks any way it deems necessary? And TO WHOM should you complain? To Kalinin, who is JUST FOLLOWING ORDERS? Or to Putin – who gives them? Of course, Kalinin’s words aren’t worth a hill of beans for those who have experienced the “charms” of the correctional system firsthand. For example, the FSIN director told that Khodorkovsky “has by law two hours of exercise in the fresh air, …he can engage in sport and wash himself…”. And he added: “Even I don’t always manage to spend so much time in the fresh air daily”. “So change places!”, I wanted to shout to the pensioner Kalinin. But he won’t, will he? Because he knows: there are dozens of reasons why the overseers don’t observe either the two hour exercise time period or the frequency of baths in the bathhouse (and I’m not even talking about the condition this bathhouse is in), or ignore the right to visit the exercise facility… In a word, Kalinin isn’t going to enjoy living in one of his prisons. And he will no doubt complain about the conditions. I know for a fact that Khodorkovsky constantly has a “brood hen” in his cell with him. For a year already he’s got a person breathing down his neck, who was planted there by the same group of people who had put him behind bars in the first place. One of these plants told me that he had been given the task not only of keeping a constant watch on what Khodorkovsky wass doing and how, in what mood he returned from his meetings with lawyers and from the procuracy, what he read and about what he wrote, but even of trying to understand what he’s thinking about. And then to report on everything. But probably not to Kalinin. Because the director of FSIN is just an insignificant little cog in the wheel. Whose task it is to now and then read out some kind of texts, such as this last one about how Khodorkovsky and Lebedev have no complaints.