Grigory Pasko: On Russia’s Prison Camp Mutinies

Seek not a repentant executioner – there is no such thing By Grigory Pasko, journalist Russia. The late 1600s. A gloomy, overcast morning. Standing next to the bloody scaffold is an executioner holding an axe in his right hand, bitterly wailing: “Dear people! For the love of Christ, forgive me! I am a sinner! I have hewn off innocent heads left and right, for which I now deeply repent…” Have you been able to picture this scenario in your mind? Me neither. Because it never happened. Here’s what really happened. As the historians write, “Peter [the Great] himself, after suppressing the Streltsy mutiny, personally chopped off the heads of four of these elite musketeers. His partner, prince Romodanovsky, also chopped off four heads, while Alexander Menshikov boasted that he had personally chopped off 20 heads! Peter organized the execution of the Streltsy like a theatrical production. The blood of the beheaded Streltsy poured into the unearthed coffin of the boyar Miloslavsky, whom Peter regarded as the ideological inspiration for the Streltsy movement. The coffin itself was brought to the place of execution on a sleigh harnessed to a team of pigs. The heads of the executed Streltsy were raised on poles and displayed for all to see.”

Morning%20of%20the%20Streltsy%20Execution%20%28Vasili%20Surikov%201881%29.jpgThe Morning of the Streltsy Execution by Vasili Surikov (1881). That’s Peter on the horse at right.Now, all this bloody bacchanalia – this is something I can believe in. Because it resembles the truth – Russia’s truth.Which is why it’s impossible today as well to imagine that the head of the country’s prison-camp system would come out and say “Dear people! I have sinned and I ask forgiveness for not having created normal human conditions for prisoners!”. These jailers, they don’t repent. Moreover, they are quick to accuse others for the fact that there are “individual shortcomings” in their system.A wave of prison-camp mutinies rolled across Russia recently – in the Kirovograd and Zhigulevsk colonies, in St. Peterburg’s famous «Kresty» prison. Human rights advocates assert that the reason for them became the creation of intolerable conditions of detention for the prisoners, torture, beatings, oppressions… In the opinion of the opposing side, all of this is – lies. Thus, for example, considers the deputy director of the Federal Service for the Execution of Punishments (FSIN) of Russia, lieutenant-general Vladimir Semenyuk. In his opinion, the actions of protest in a whole series of Russian correctional institutions and isolators became possible “thanks to the bad-faith work” of certain Russian mass information media.


A rare photo of lieutenant-general Vladimir Semenyuk, deputy director of Russia’s Federal Service for the Execution of Punishments (FSIN), formerly known as GULag (photo courtesy of «Komsomolskaya pravda»).

It just so happens that Semenyuk and I have met: we once took part in the same television broadcast (this was still back in those years when Russian television wasn’t Putin’s, and you could see more than just faces loyal to the party and personally to the comrade himself on the screen…). Even then Semenyuk was being evasive when responding to questions from the audience about the conditions of detention for prisoners in Russian jails, asserting that everything was “normal”. I gave him examples from my own personal experience that everything is far from “normal” throughout the system.These days, Semenyuk asserts that the mass media have become “an instrument in the deft hands of criminality and various kinds of false advocates of human rights”. Concretizing his complaints, the lieutenant-general named only the television channel Ren-TV, with which his agency has already litigated in the YUKOS case, challenging the fact of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s hunger strike. Semenyuk likewise considers that the prison uprising incidents have been artificially overblown by a series of mass media, and at the present time all attempts at prisoner mutinies have been suppressed.Look! See how the representative of the prison-camp agency isn’t even trying to defend the honor of his uniform! Instead, he’s… attacking! Whom? Why, those who, in the opinion of the Putinite bureaucrats, are already a long time “enemies of the people”: journalists, human rights advocates… Strange that they haven’t dragged in the environmentalists and the scientists here, too.But it only gets worse… The FSIN deputy director promised that his agency would keep a close watch on all “bad-faith materials” dedicated to institutions that enter into its system, and make all those “bad-faith” journalists answer for their words. This signifies that they’re going to bring journalists to trial for the publication of articles on topics related to the GULag, as well. And they’ll succeed, naturally. Because the head of the FSIN press service is a former officer of either the KGB or the FSB (I for one don’t see the difference). With that kind of experience, “keeping a close watch” on others is in the blood!Even the top man in this agency, Mr. Kalinin, doesn’t see any fault of his agency in the mutinies in the colonies. In a recent interview with one Russian newspaper he said that (and I quote) “this is not disorders and even less so mutinies, but excesses”. And bout the causes of such “excesses”? – not a word. Kalinin also complained that “it is more complex to control prisoners” (Translation: “the state needs more jailers”).File0350.jpgA typical colony in the FSIN system (photo from the author’s personal archive).There had been a period in Russia when the situation in the jails and colonies could have been changed: in the later Yeltsin years. Then, many jails were being shut down, there were fewer prisoners: their overall number in the entire country did not exceed 700,000 persons. Today, in the words of that same Kalinin, there are already nearly 900,000 prisoners in the country; the construction of new isolators and colonies, and the reconstruction of old ones, is proceeding actively. 68 bln. rubles have been allocated for these works.This, in the opinion of the jailers, is good news. For the zeks, I’m sure you understand, it’s like news that the executioners have been brought new axes – and lots of them. True, Kalinin mentioned other numbers as well. It turns out that new norms of feeding have been adopted. Now prisoners will be “getting more fish, meat, dairy products” (I don’t seem to recall the watery gruel they constantly fed us in prison containing any meat or fish at all – unless, of course, you want to call the rancid herring we occasionally received “fish”). And the bureaucrat’s phrase about how the state will be spending 40 rubles per day to feed one ordinary prisoner is positively heartrending. Absolutely unheard-of generosity! A whole dollar and a half a day! With oil prices up in the stratosphere and wild inflation rampant in the country, this sum ought to be a lot higher than that. But who’s got time to worry about some worthless prisoners? Only the mass media and the human rights advocates. But they, in the opinion of the Semenyuks and the Kalinins are nothing but “an instrument in the deft hands of criminality”.… Seek not a repentant executioner. There is no such thing.