The Wall Street Journal reports:
“The protest began after OMON [riot police] had been brought to correctional colony No. 5 (Amur Oblast, Skovorodino Rayon, village Takhtamygda) and started massive beatings of the prisoners. People in camouflage and masks were beating with batons inmates taken outside undressed in the freezing cold. . . . As a protest, 39 prisoners immediately cut their veins open.
“Next day, on 17 January, the ‘special operation’ was repeated in an even more humiliating and massive form. At that time, about 700 inmates cut their veins open. . . .”
The description here comes from a report received by the Moscow-based Foundation for Defense of Rights of Prisoners. The time reference is to 2008 — that is, last month. This is not Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Russia. It’s Vladimir Putin’s. And correctional colony No. 5, located not far from the Manchurian border, does not even make the list of the worst penal colonies in the country.
That distinction belongs to the newly revived institution of Pytochnye kolonii, or torture colonies. After all but disappearing in the 1990s under the liberal regime of Boris Yeltsin, there are now about 50 pytochnye kolonii among the roughly 700 colonies that house the bulk of Russia’s convict population, according to FDRP cofounder Lev Ponomarev. And while they cannot be compared to the Soviet Gulag in terms of scope or the percentage of prisoners who are innocent of any real crime, they are fast approaching it in terms of sheer cruelty.
The cruelty to prisoners often begins prior to their actual sentencing. “When people are transported from prisons to courts to attend their hearings, they are jammed in a tiny room where they can barely stand. There’s no toilet; if they have to relieve themselves, it has to be right there,” says Mr. Ponomarev. “Then they are put on trucks. It’s extremely cold in winter, extremely hot in summer, no ventilation, no heating. These are basically metal containers. They have to be there for hours. Healthy people are held together with people with tuberculosis, creating a breeding ground for the disease.”
Once sentenced, prisoners are transported in packed train wagons to distant correctional colonies that, under Russian law, range from relatively lax “general regime” colonies to “strict,” “special,” and (most terrifying of all) “medical” colonies. Arrival in the camps is particularly harrowing. According to prisoner testimonies collected by Mr. Ponomarev, in the winter of 2005 convicts from one torture colony in Karelia, near the Finnish border, were shipped to the IK-1 torture colony near the village of Yagul, in the Udmurt Republic, about 500 miles east of Moscow.
“The receipt of convicts ‘through the corridor’ takes place in the following manner,” Mr. Ponomarev reports. “From the [truck] in which a newly arrived stage [of prisoners] is brought… employees of the colony line up, equipped with special means — rubber truncheons and dog handlers with work dogs. . . . During the time of the run, each employee hits the prisoner running by with a truncheon. . . . The convicts run with luggage, which significantly complicates the run. At those [places] where employees with dogs are found, the run of the convict is slowed by a dog lunging from the leash.”
The prison gantlet is just the welcome mat. At IK-1, a prisoner with a broken leg named Zurab Baroyan made the mistake of testifying to conditions at the colony to a staff representative of the Human Rights Ombudsman of the Russian Federation. “After this,” Mr. Baroyan reported, the commandant of the colony “threatened to rot me in the dungeon. They did not complete treating me in the hospital. The leg festers [and] pus runs from the bandage. . . The festering has crossed over to the second leg.”
Not surprisingly, suicide attempts at these colonies are common. One convict, named Mishchikin, sought to commit suicide by swallowing “a wire and nails tied together crosswise.” As punishment, he was denied medical assistance for 12 days. Another convict, named Fargiyev, was held in handcuffs for 52 days after stabbing himself; he never fully recovered motor function in his hands.
Even the smallest of prisoner infractions can be met with savage reprisals. In one case, authorities noticed the smell of cigarette smoke in a so-called “penalty isolator” cell where seven convicts were being held. “A fire engine was called in. . . . The entire cell, including the convicts and their personal things, was flooded with cold water.” The convicts were left in wet clothes in 50 degree Fahrenheit temperatures for a week.
As a legal matter, the torture colonies don’t even exist, and Mr. Ponomarev doubts there has ever been an explicit directive from Mr. Putin ordering the kind of treatment they mete. Rather, for the most part the standards of punishment are determined at the whim of colony commandants, often in areas where the traditions of the Gulag never went away.
That doesn’t excuse the Kremlin, however. Under Yeltsin, the prison system had operated under a sunshine policy, as part of a larger effort to distance Russia from its Soviet past. “But when Putin came to power, a new tone was set,” Mr. Ponomarev says. “The sadists who had previously been ‘behaving’ simply stopped behaving.”
Now reports of torture are systematically ignored or suppressed while regional governments refuse to act on evidence of abuse. Commandants at “general regime” colonies can always threaten misbehaving convicts with transfer to a torture colony — a useful way of keeping them in line. The Kremlin, too, benefits from the implied threat. “The correct word for this is Gulag, even if it’s on a smaller scale,” warns Mr. Ponomarev. “This is the reappearance of totalitarianism in the state. Unless we eradicate it, it will spread throughout the entire country.”
Readers interested in a closer look at what is described above may do a YouTube search for “Yekaterinaburg Prison Camp.” The short video, apparently filmed by a prison guard and delivered anonymously to Mr. Ponomarev’s organization, is a modern-day version of “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” It isn’t easy to watch. But it is an invaluable window on what Russia has become in the Age of Putin, Person of the Year. [LR: The video is currently down, we are researching its status and will report back]
To watch video from the author of this piece, click here.