Twenty Chechens and One Khodorkovsky Grigory Pasko, journalist Convict Denis Yurinsky was the first work supervisor for convict Mikhail Khodorkovsky at Krasnokamensk general regime colony No. 10. It was during Denis’s watch that all manner of provocations took place with Mikhail Khodorkovsky on the part of the colony administration. Denis knows about these provocations firsthand, like he does about what colony No. 10 is really like. The procedures in this colony are interesting also because the Putin power seems to have every intention of sending Khodorkovsky right back to Krasnokamensk after his second show trial. Simply because this is the most inaccessible of all the Russian colonies. Denis Yurinsky was released last year. At present, he resides 140 kilometers from Chita. I recently had a chance to meet with him, and here is what Denis told me about himself, the colony, and the people who live there.
Photo of Denis Yurinsky by Grigory Pasko
I’m 25 years old. They locked me up at age 16 for murder. I was born in Krasnokamensk. I did more than eight years. That was my first time in jail, and I hope it will be my last. At first I did time in a colony not far from Chita, and then at No. 10, in Krasnokamensk. Of course it was hard to learn what the world behind the barbed wire is like at such a young age. Eventually I got used to it. A colony is a small world with its own laws. Laws that are established by the prisoners themselves, and the laws of the colony administration. They rarely coincide in anything. By the way, the laws of the administration are far from always the same as the laws that have been adopted by the state. Which laws are more just? That’s hard to say. For example, thou shalt not kill and thou shalt not steal – that’s from the Bible. And in the criminal world, stealing from a convict is also punishable. Someone who steals from a comrade is a rat. True, the punishment for ratting is different, a lot more severe. And another thing. Zeks don’t punish innocent people, in contrast with the state. Yes, I also sat in the punishment isolator. You can end up there for just about anything. You can’t smoke in an unauthorized area, and there’s a whole slew of unauthorized areas. You can’t talk when you’re in lineup and on the parade ground. But in the colony we’re always either in lineup or on the parade ground. How does the day go in the colony? Well, you should know what it’s like yourself, but let me tell your readers. Reveille at 6 o’clock, you make your bed, breakfast, and go off to work… I had it easier: as a work supervisor, I lived on the territory of the industrial zone. I had my own room there. So after a certain point I was “denied the pleasure” of having to get in a lineup for another roll call a hundred times a day. I was a work supervisor; I had over a hundred people under me. We worked in the sewing shop: cutting, sewing camouflage uniforms for police and employees, bedding… Before that I sat at a sewing machine myself for five years; I can sew practically anything. We had lunch in the work area at 11 o’clock. In the “zone” it was at 12. At 2 o’clock – the mid-day roll call. They do a head count of the entire colony, without going out of the situation of the facilities. If the numbers don’t match up, the zone just stands there while they search for each and every single person. We had times where we’d stand like that for half the day. We had some escapes – mostly the non-convoyed ones. Convicts didn’t escape from the zone – they were simply shot. If a zek escapes, the vertyhai* will get strung up from the watchtower. So it’s just easier to shoot the escapee. After supper, everybody does his own thing. Some read, some wash, people do whatever… And that’s how the days pass by. And that’s how life passed by. My first meeting with Khodorkovsky went like this. Once they announced to everybody in the camp: get everything in order, a big commission has arrived. They were getting the camp ready for something, they were putting everything in order, even the cops [as the zeks call the colony staff – G.P.] were taking out garbage. They were saying that they were bringing 20 Chechens. Then the stage arrives and I see that they’ve brought just one guy. In glasses, average height, squat and compact. I says to the cops – that’s all your Chechens? That’s how I found out that they’d brought Khodorkovsky. They usually put all new arrivals in quarantine for 15 days, in separate barracks. Only then do they bring them out into the “zone”. Mikhail Borisovich was brought out to barrack No. 8. Then he ended up on my work team – a packer of finished output. He packed bedding, folding it up. We chatted, a normal guy. I called him Misha. There’s no such thing as using formal address, or calling someone by name-and-patronymic [e.g. Mikhail Borisovich – Trans.], among zeks. It’s easier to use the informal form of address, and that’s the customary way. Yes, I noticed immediately that this is a guy who isn’t afraid of work. He came in 2005, in the autumn. The two of us worked together for nearly a year. Until August 2006. Everything that took place with him took place on my watch. I even took part in one process, when they were removing Yevstratov, the chief of the colony. The first time they locked up Khodorkovsky for not being at his workplace. He came to me, he asks how the sewing machines work. And right then the duty guard shows up – to do a head count of people at the workplaces. And that’s how Khodorkovsky ended up in the punishment isolator. This had never happened before, that they locked someone up in the punishment isolator for something like that. I was often not in one place. My workplace was the entire industrial zone. And lots of people can come and go like that – on business. The fact that they locked Mikhail up – this was a special action, they were looking for a reason to lock him up. I then found out through my sources that there was an instruction from above: Khodorkovsky has to have one constant violation of the rules of confinement. It doesn’t matter for what. What matters is that it be and that it be all the time. So the cops tried hard. But Mikhail Borisovich is no fool, and had learned a lot in Matrosskaya Tishina. He wouldn’t let them pull a fast one on him, he’d studied the laws well. So sometimes they even fired staff who, I guess, weren’t able to handle the assignment – to announce reprimands to him. The incident with the lemons – you know, when Khodorkovsky shared with someone – is also wild. They say that they specially invented a new edict about the alienation of other’s property just to punish Mikhail. This is how they explained it: if you give someone a smoke, for example, then you’re driving him into debt. Total drivel! We’ve always given and have always shared everything, because that’s how it’s always been done. Even the staff gave us cigarettes. But after this edict some kind of idiocy started to take place. In short, they punished Khodorkovsky specially the second time too. I can’t imagine that every convict in every Russian colony is carrying out this edict. The third incident was the one with convict Kuchma. Yevgeni was his name. He was with Khodorkovsky in the 8th detachment. I’ve known him a long time. Kuchma lived in Chita before the colony. Now, rumor has it, he’s in another “zone”. “The situation, as I understood it, was like this: Kuchma had entered into a conflict with certain criminals. And he needed to come up with a reason for them to transfer him to another “zone”. I don’t know if he thought of that himself, to stab Khodorkovsky, or if someone suggested it to him. But it worked. He stabbed Mikhail, and they transferred him to another colony. They didn’t even throw him in the punishment isolator. But they let fly a rumor that Khodorkovsky had paid him 500 dollars to create such an incident, so that Khodorkovsky would end up looking like a martyr. Dozens of commissions came to the colony after they’d brought Khodorkovsky there. So Yevstratov had no chance to hold on to his job as chief of the colony. I heard that they’re already locking up some of the staff too. This has to do with the fact that their relations among each other have gotten more brutal. They’re all being searched, stripped down to their underwear. It didn’t used to be that way. Before they could probably even bring an elephant into the “zone” for the prisoners. No more. And after they’re fired, they’ll never be able to get a job as a cop anywhere else ever again. Yes, I know that Khodorkovsky is now sitting in the investigative isolator in Chita. Different people have different feelings about him. I’m positive about him, because I’ve had a chance to talk with him and see what he’s like in real life. He told me how he’d earned his money. People will never understand this. They don’t believe that you can earn big money honestly. And then there’s those who think that this is all just politics, that he’s an opponent of Putin’s. I got early release. I literally bough my release with camouflage. I sewed a good uniform, and they did the documents for me for this. Now I’m married to a woman with children, I’m busy with the house. If everything will be normal, we’ll have our wedding in the summer.
*Vertyhai (вертухай) – a superintendent in a GULAG zone, a jailer, a convoy guard, an overseer.