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Russia’s Enduring Gulag

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The following is an exclusive translation of an article from the German newspaper Die Welt by Manfred Quiring, which takes a look at the current controversies over prison conditions and dying prisoners, and what President Medvedev is trying to do about it.

The remains of the Gulag
By Manfred Quiring

Russian prisons have a notorious reputation, and many inmates die while being held in detention pending trial. Dmitry Medvedev, president and lawyer, wants to change this.

Moscow – In the narrow corridor between the steel door to the outside and the turnstile that opens the path into the prison, the correspondent meets, as if by fate, Father Constantine. The light scent of consecrated wine gently hovers over the tall, heavyset, bearded man in his black priest vestments. “You’ve come at a good time,” he grumbles. “Today is a holiday in Butyrka. We’re celebrating the patron saint of the prison.”


Butyrka, Moscow’s Detention Centre No. 2, constructed in 1771,enjoys an unsavory reputation. It must be said, however, that it hardlydistinguishes itself from any other prison facility in this enormouscountry. Amnesty International has for years asserted thatincarceration in Russian prisons and camps is the equivalent oftorture. Visits by journalists to such facilities are therefore fraughtwith enormous difficulties.

Butyrka is no exception, although in this case, the visit is to theprison museum. It took almost three weeks to receive officialpermission. Things might have been slowed down by the fact that duringthis time the 37-year-old lawyer Sergei Magnitsky had died in a cell atButyrka. The authorities claim it was due a heart attack, whileMagnitsky’s friends say it was a failure to render medical assistance.His diary entries confirm the latter version.

“It’s too bad the holiday service is already over,” says LieutenantColonel Alexander Polkin regretfully. He holds the position of deputyprison director for cadre and training – head of personnel, if you will- and serves as the occasional guide through the labyrinth of Butyrka.We quickly walk through the entrance hall, passing locked cell doors,and go up and down a maze of steps. Polkin is constantly pulling outhis master key, locking us in along the way. The steel doors slam shutwhen locked. Polkin calls this the “sound of Butyrka.”

The Lieutenant Colonel proudly shows us the entrance to the museumhidden behind a swiveling bookcase inside the Pugachov Tower. Themuseum, which displays three centuries worth of exponents, was set upin Soviet times and has hardly been altered since. The portrait ofFelix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Cheka, the Bolshevik’s infamoussecret police, and inmate here under the Tsar, occupies a centralplace. Stalin was held here twice, informs Polkin with the tone of atour guide who is proud of a particular sightseeing attraction.

There is no indication, though, that on 1 August 1946, GeneralVlasov and twelve other high-ranking former Soviet officers wereexecuted in the prison courtyard for fighting on the German side duringthe Great Patriotic War. Nor does the officer responsible for trainingprison guards mention that Stalin’s henchmen shot people in the tiledground floor of the Pugachov Tower. There is no evidence of prisonerssuch as Osip Mandelstam, Lydia Ginsburg, or Varlam Shalamov, one of thegreatest Russian literary figures of the 20th century. “Shalamov?” asksPolkin, taken aback. “Never heard of him, but there were so many here.”

He has, of course, heard of Alexej Magnitsky, but he doesn’t want totalk about it. The Magnitsky case is typical of the Russian prisonsystem, say experts in the field. They claim that it is not unusual todeny medical assistance to those in pre-sentencing detention facilitiesin order to extort the desired confession.

The living conditions for the approximately 875,000 inmates inRussian prisons and the country’s 755 prison camps are so horrible thateven the Ministry of Justice had to admit in a report that they aredemeaning to human dignity, lead to physical and moral suffering, andviolate the human right to health and personal safety.” The figuresspeak for themselves: In 2005, there were a total of 540 deaths among100,000 inmates and 686 became invalids. In 2010, the correspondingfigures are expected to be lowered to 420 and 675, respectively.

President Dmitry Medvedev, himself a trained lawyer, had dozens ofofficials fired after the death of Magnitsky and is now calling for afundamental reform of the prison system. Lieutenant General AlexanderReymer, recently appointed chief of Russia’s penitentiary service, hasstated that he is pursuing an ambitious goal, namely, to free theinstitution he now runs from its Stalinist legacy. “We have to do awaywith the remains of the Gulag,” he said on television.

In its place, he wants to establish a modern, humane prison system.After the reform is completed, only two types of penal institutionsshould remain. Those convicted of minor or non-serious offences willhave to work off their time in simple colonies or facilities withtighter conditions. Dangerous criminals will remain in prison. Reymerwants to keep both groups strictly divided from each other in order toprevent gangsters from recruiting a new generation while in jail.

Reymer, however, has no influence upon the justice system and itsobsession to incarcerate people in detention facilities “to preventescape or collusion,” even in the case of relatively minor infractions.The accused often sit for years under inhuman conditions before beingbrought to trial.

The way out leads across the courtyard along a five-meter high wallthat is secured with a barbed-wire entanglement. Escape seemsimpossible. The last escape attempt was in 2001. Three inmates servinglife sentences dug a tunnel under the wall. They were all latercaptured.