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4. Volodarka, oh Volodarka

Prisons are different from each other just like households are. They have different moods, food, the whole spectrum of feelings you have while being there varies from family to family. But as far as general distinction is concerned, there are only two types of prisons — the “red” ones and the “black” ones. At the red ones the administration holds all the power, which means the conditions are always strict. As for the black ones, they are practically under control of the authoritative convicts that, however, act with the acquiescence of the actual prison authorities. Volodarka of that period was, to my huge relief, a “black” prison.

The first thing that happens to you at the Pre-trial Detention Center is a body search. They break apart the arch supports in your shoes, which sometimes cost more than the average prison guard makes a month. You’re also stripped of all forbidden items including belts and shoe laces. The only answer you get to your timid protests is “Against the rules. Don’t want you to hang yourself on those in the cell.” However, the cops know better than anyone else how sweaters, hats and even synthetic socks (those make the strongest thread) will give you enough material to make a rope. After all, if you’re desperate enough to hang yourself, even a bed sheet will do.

“Undress. Underwear too. Stretch your arms forward. Squat three times (in case you’re hiding something forbidden between your buttcheeks). Get dressed, move along. Next.”

The next thing that awaits you is the Special Unit — a mug shot, fingerprints again, then personal details. Then you get to the holding cell. To be frank, it must be one of the most notable parts of the prison. It is a huge cell, but it hasn’t got any plank beds (instead, it’s got a ‘stage’ — a platform made of boards, sloppily put together), and everyone is placed there as soon as they arrive to the prison. In a few days (up to 6 if you were unlucky to arrive during a national holiday) people are moved to their cells according to their offences: low security (for first-timers) or high security (for repeat offenders). The most obvious reason for such division is not to let the experienced criminals ‘educate’ the new ones.

When Soviet writer Sergey Dovlatov was asked what the worst thing about a Soviet prison was, he answered: “To relieve myself in a roomful of people.” Let me remind you that he served his time in mid-1970s. Four decades later, people have learnt to make computers as small as a watch, but the prison toilets of the former USSR remain the same — in the open. And while there are improvised solutions in the cells (such as a hand-made rope and a bed sheet), at the holding cell you’ll just have to put up with it.

A description this detailed may put off people that are fond of action stories. They should probably just skip these pages. However, these first impressions as I was getting to know my new home I believe, must be told just as they really were.

Next day, they took us to the shower rooms (we were allowed to take a shower), took a blood sample (for HIV and syphilis tests), and a TB test. I guess I was really lucky: I only spent one day at the holding cell, and the following day we were pulled out in groups of five to six people and escorted somewhere else.

Prison corridors, filled with liquid electric light, looked surprisingly spacious. On both sides were dark rectangles of doors with huge bars and numbers of cells, and it was difficult to imagine that every door was hiding a cell housing up to 30 people.

First, we were taken to the warehouse where we were given everything we needed: a mattress as thick as a flat sheet, a pillow, a woolen duvet so worn out it had holes in it, an aluminum spoon with a broken off handle and a similarly handleless mug. I marched a little further down the corridor and a moment later a heavy metal door with a feeder(a small window to pass food, care packages and letters from home into the cell) closed behind my back with a dull thud.

“Hey, guys!” — I stood in the doorway somewhat at a loss.

“Hello,” someone greeted me from inside the cell. “What are you here for?”


“What’s that?”

“Computer fraud…”

“What are you, a hacker or something?”

“Not exactly.”

“Come on in then.”

Only now I could finally see who I was talking to. I could have done it sooner if it wasn’t for the thick cigarette smoke that filled up the cell. It was a lanky guy in his early twenties, covered in tattoos.

“Makar,” he introduced himself.  “I look after this cell. What’s your name?”


“Oh, a namesake. Where are you from?”


Did they keep you long at the holding cell?”

“Nah, I was just brought in yesterday and today they tossed me in here. The rest were there since Friday.”

“Do you know what cell this is?”


“Shame,” Makar shook his head in disapproval. “The number of the cell is on the wall behind the cell door. They could have put you in with the cocks, what would you have done then?”

“Don’t know. Kill myself, I guess.”

“Cocks” is the term used by the prison community for forced passive homosexuals. In the holding cell, more experienced convicts said that sometimes cops would intentionally assign you to a “gay” cell to break your spirit. And if, God forbid, you do end up in that cell, you have to break out of there by all means necessary. Because you can be “brought down” and “turned”, and the others will never let you undo or forget it. Being “turned” is the worst punishment of all. It often happens at the pre-trial detention centers when a police informant (or someone seriously suspected of being one) is brought there. It can also happen to a “rat” — someone who has stolen from his cellmates. It will inevitably happen to pedophiles and other sex offenders. It’s a horrible revenge, since there’s no way to go back. Cocks can’t be taken from. You can give him something, but don’t even think about accepting anything from him; otherwise you can be turned into one as well. They’re much like India’s untouchables. At prison camps, the cocks do the hardest and most humiliating jobs: they sweep and clean, take out the trash and clear snow, wash toilets and every corner of the barracks. They eat separately from everyone else, they have their own dishes, and they sleep separately as well — usually at the doorway in the barracks or under the beds or the clothes rack. Bored prisoners can punch or bully them. They’re often used for sex (the “working cocks”) — for tea or a few cigarettes or chocolates.

“Could you?” the shot caller watched me with interest.

“I could,” I unclenched my fist and showed them a sharp narrow blade from a disposable razor that I had kept in my mouth.

“Alright. You can take that plank to rest,” he pointed at a bed in the center of the cell. “You’ll share it with one more guy. His name’s Igor, you can take turns to rest, 12 hours each. It’s not too bad,” Makar must have noticed the surprised look on my face. “In other cells, some sleep in three shifts. Sort out the schedule between you two, we’re a community based on mutual understanding here. The guys will tell you about our routines, ask me if you have any questions. Alright, bro, get some rest, we’ll talk later.”

The man I had to share my plank with was about forty and the details of all the parties he’d been to could be read in the scars on his closely cropped head.

I put down my bag, a massive checkered bag Soviet shuttle traders used to take to Poland, in the corner of the cell, sat at the edge of my plank, took a deep breath and looked around. The room was lit by a single dim yellow bulb in a thin metal net. There were four bunk plank beds, a flush toilet in the corner, a cold water tap right above it and a small barred window. The cell was small (not more than 15 square meters) and crowded — there were people on all the bunk beds. It smelt of unwashed bodies, dirty socks and cigarette smoke. There was no ventilation whatsoever, and every single inmate smoked.

The planks were so close to each other you could only squeeze between them if you moved sideways. Some of them were covered with thin blankets, some were open, but the clothes thrown over ropes for drying made it hard to estimate how many people were on the top bunks. I later found out there were 13 of us. I’ve read somewhere that prison sanitary standards allow at least two square meters for every prisoner — at Volodarka at that time the norm was reduced to less than one.

My world had narrowed to the size of the cell. Somewhere outside, big city life was humming: herds of cars were scurrying down the streets, contracts were being signed in banks and offices, exams were being taken, babies born. But none of it had anything to do with me. For the first time in my life I was entirely separated from the society.


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