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Grigory Pasko: Siberian Prisoner Interviews, Part II

A person from the camp majority By Grigory Pasko, journalist The external appearance of my next interview subject is typical of those who sit in Russian prison camps. Take a good look at his face – it bears the clear marks of a hard and difficult life. I have seen many people like this, both in the jail and in the camp. There was really only one thing about Alexander Platonov that amazed me – that he is raising a small child all by himself, without a wife. As I understood it, his wife is sitting in a prison camp – again. The family is the basic unit of society… Alexander set a condition before agreeing to talk with me – a carton of cigarettes. I had no idea what brand I should choose from the gigantic variety of cigarettes (and vodka too, by the way) available in the Chita store. A salesgirl helped me out. “Take these”, she said, “and you won’t get any complaints!” I took them. Alexander didn’t complain. In fact, he lit one up immediately and began his tale. Second story. Alexander Platonov: platonov.jpg Photo of Alexander Platonov by Grigory Pasko I’ve been in twice. The first time, in the Ingodinsky District Court of Chita they gave me three years of deprivation of liberty. Before the trial, I’d sat for 9 months in the local investigative isolator (SIZO) (where Mikhail Khodorkovsky is today—G.P.). I did my term at “The Troyka” (correctional colony No. 3, not far from Chita—G.P.). The second time I got busted, for Article 228 (unlawful acquisition of narcotics—G.P.), I was just plain stupid. They gave me two years. Here’s what happened. In the summer, some friends and I drove out to a field where hemp was growing. We came there and saw some guys standing next to a car. We decided that they’d come for the hemp too. We chatted, asked about this and that. They said they’d come for some grass too. Then we’re coming back from the field, and they’re already waiting for us with handcuffs. Turned out it was a sting. And that’s how I ended up in the “zone” for a second time in 2005. At first to Karymskaya, then they sent me to the Chita SIZO, and only later to Krasnokamensk colony No. 10. It was hard that time in the SIZO. The cells were overcrowded, there were 50, sometimes 60 people and 12 beds. They say it’s easier now: 40 people or even less. Back then the old building still hadn’t been renovated. Earlier, juveniles and death row prisoners sat there. The daily regimen in the SIZO is the same as in all jails. Reveille, shakedown (body search), breakfast, outdoor exercise… We had “masquerade shows” (the beating of prisoners by policemen in masks—G.P.) in 2005. Later they didn’t have them any more. Back then, we nearly had an uprising. They hushed it all up. I was in Krasnokamensk from March 2005 through April 2006. A year and a month. They’re general-regime there. First two weeks’ quarantine. Then I was assigned to the 5th detachment. They appointed me to work in the construction shop. We worked outside the boundaries of the “zone”, on site. We made doors there, boxes for the mine, containers… I glued backgammon sets. Everybody did different things at the site: some worked for the administration, others for themselves. In general, there is a sewing operation in the “zone” (that’s where Khodorkovsky worked when they brought him to your colony in 2006), they’ve got a garage there, a gang saw, a welding shop, where they cut metal from the uranium mines… We also made support columns for coal mines. They brought Khodorkovsky in 2006. This news spread fast in the camp. Before that I had heard that he’d been arrested. I saw it on TV. From the TV we learned that they were bringing him to us. Of course, it was intriguing: an oligarch in the camp. We would inadvertently look to see where he was standing and what he was like. Then everybody got used to it. He was always reading books. About the food transfers. Of course, you have to share whatever comes your way. They never used to throw you into the punishment isolator for that. And when Khodorkovsky didn’t make it to the sewing shop on time – they punished him for that on purpose. I used to see Khodorkovsky a lot: he was in a neighboring barrack across the street. Did I ever talk with him? I didn’t. I’d often go into his brigade. He always had a book with him, he read a lot. Didn’t interact much with people. All kinds of dandruff – well, different people – they’d come up to him: gimme this, gimme that. With Khodorkovsky’s appearance, they started to tighten up the regime in the “zone”, they introduced work-off – do two hours of something for the camp – pick up litter, help out in the caboose [kitchen]. Before that, you could kick around a football in the stadium, go down to the neighboring barracks. Then they shut all that down. We had a so-called feeding room in the barrack. But usually the mug-spoon were found in the nightstand next to the bed. With Khodorkovsky’s arrival the “trash” [camp guards—Trans.] started pressuring to have all this standing in the feeding room. But there isn’t enough room there for everyone. The cabinets are small. Drinking tea in an inappropriate place – that’s asinine. Everybody drank, and anywhere at all. But they punished only Khodorkovsky. For example, I’m chifiring [chifir: extra-strong tea, a prisoners’ favorite—Trans.], and the “trash” is all “Why aren’t your going out?” I’m all “Can’t you see I’m chifiring!” Khodorkovsky wouldn’t be able to pull that one off: they’d sweep him into the punishment isolator immediately. And they did… When he was drinking tea in a supposedly inappropriate place. …Alexander Platonov told all kinds of things about the “zone”. He even forgot about his smokes. He talked about the procedures, about the work, about the different categories of “zeks”… He didn’t say much about Khodorkovsky. And I understood that there, in the camps, the fate of such people as Khodorkovsky concerns people even less than the fate of those around them. The world behind the bars is a cruel place, it’s every man for himself. That’s the law of camp life. But even there, there are examples of humanity manifesting itself. As a rule, these examples are from the side of the prisoners, and not from the sides of the employees of the administration. But I’m thinking about how Mikhail Khodorkovsky is still going to be surrounded for a long time by people like Alexander Platonov. They are neither good nor bad. They are the typical “sitters” of Russian prison camps, the majority.