Prison letters

A young man discovers first-hand the pressures exerted on the incarcerated in the age of the ‘special military operation’

Prison letters


Often, it is the little lives that tell us most about a system. Perhaps that is why 19th century Russian literature gave so much place to the “little man” — the humble individual usually subsumed into that slogan-friendly notion of “the people”.

Following Alexey Navalny’s tragic death in prison, I found myself thinking of his fellow prisoners, some of them also known to the world, others faceless, last making it into the Western media when Yevgeny Prigozhin began recruiting them en masse to do a stint on the frontlines in Ukraine in return for freedom.

And I was thinking of Spartak, named after his sisters’ favourite football team. He was 14 when I first met him. A good-hearted but directionless kid, one of the millions growing up without a father, and with a mother busy trying to survive. The mother, back in the years of Soviet industrial enthusiasm, had left her native Tatarstan to build the Baikal-Amur railway in Russia’s Far East, a young woman eager to contribute to her country’s development who had ended up stuck in a mining town in southern Yakutia. Spartak was her son from a second marriage to a Ukrainian who died young, and when his older half-sisters left to conquer the capital, he soon followed, went to school, tried to settle down.

He didn’t really settle. He went to live with his father’s parents for a time, but rural Ukraine wasn’t his thing and he returned to Moscow. He drifted, until the army called him up for military service. After a bumpy start, he blossomed, discovered new talents, motivation, a sense of structure and discipline. He was stationed in Ingushetia, amid the simmering conflict in the North Caucasus. He was a conscript, not a professional soldier, but they sent him to a hotspot, and later gave him a document to prove it.

He thought of going professional, staying in the army, going to the military academy, but he’d quit school too early and the doors were closed. And so he drifted in Moscow again, did some silly things, ran afoul of the law and ended up being charged with “hooliganism”, a kind of catch-all offence frequently used and abused.

That he’d become a bit of a hooligan was without doubt, but he wasn’t beyond redemption.

He was 20, a malleable age, and all he really needed was some guidance and structure in his life. Instead, he got a year in the Butyrka pretrial detention facility in Moscow, enough to harden and embitter anyone, followed by three years in a prison colony in Mordovia, a region east of Moscow, which hosted some of the matches at the 2018 Football World Cup, but is far better known within Russia for being home to countless prisons.

When he returned to Moscow, the sisters and I looked for programmes or groups working on reintegrating newly released prisoners. We found just one, a Jewish organisation that said it was swamped. There was a big prison population, but practically nothing addressing the needs of those returning to their old homes.

Spartak now had a criminal record, publicly accessible to any potential employer. Prigozhin, the late Wagner boss, had a criminal record too, but made his way up during the freer and wilder 1990s, and had the right connections. Spartak had no connections and found one door after another closed, even for the least prestigious jobs. The only connections he had were his fellow prisoners, who’d help each other out where they could with employment or other opportunities. A young man written off from the start. A young man who was still kind-hearted Spartak, but branded now, seemingly condemned to this drifting and easily manipulated life.

He muddled along until last October, found a new job, a girlfriend, when a chance encounter with some men from the North Caucasus upended a life just beginning to shine with new prospects. As he tells it, the men provoked the dispute, and one of them lunged at him with a knife. He reacted fast, instinctive, not thinking, snatched the knife and made a rapid thrusting movement in the man’s direction. Scare him off. Only the thrust was too fast, too hard, and the man went down, trying to stem the blood.

Spartak headed for the police station, told it as it was, he’d left a man injured, a foolish altercation, self defence. Later, he learned the man had died, and he was arrested, charged with murder, despite his pleas that he’d never had any desire or intention to kill anyone.

I happen to know a judge, an honest judge, and I set out the situation to her. Difficult, she said. Lawyers are costly and few are genuinely good. She put me in touch with a lawyer who also wasn’t cheap, but who she said was a conscientious man, who’d do his best. Spartak said no. He didn’t want to burden anyone. His family would be paying the cost. They’d hired him a lawyer the first time too, when he was up for hooliganism, and that had cost a fortune and hadn’t brought the slightest result.

He’s onto his third state-appointed lawyer now. These lawyers also try to squeeze money from their clients. He’s in a different Moscow pretrial detention facility.

In his letters, everything is decent — the food, the facilities, his cellmates. The letters are read first by the authorities, of course.

He has books, a chance to get some exercise. They were all taken to vote in the recent presidential election. No surprise who they voted for. Communication is by letter only, and the occasional visit, when permission is granted, which often it is not. They watched Putin’s recent lengthy address, and he writes about his impressions. He’s not a Putin supporter (that he doesn’t say in his letters, of course), but he can’t help but admire the man’s strong will and sense of purpose.

Everything he, Spartak, never had. He recognises his foolishness in life, admits too his ignorance of the law. He’s aware they’re playing a game with him. Everyone else is signing up for the “special military operation”, he writes. The war in Ukraine. People not yet convicted, but already presumed guilty and told they can buy their freedom this way.

He hasn’t signed anything yet, doesn’t want to go to war — war against half of himself, war against that village where he spent part of his teenage years. But they keep shunting back the hearing date. No clear investigation, no proper lawyers, no case materials to see, no certain date, only the constant repetition that they’re going to sentence him for murder, so he’d be better off going to the front.

And sometimes he says that maybe he’ll take that offer. Accept his fate. Prison or war, and he writes the word “war”, and it passes uncensored. To escape not the worst of cages, but nonetheless a cage, to breathe a breath of freedom before being killed.

That’s his story so far. He’s 34 now, still waiting in his cell. Not a story with a hero, because Spartak knows he’s not a hero, and that he’s brought more grief and worry than anything in this life, but he wanted me to share it. He can’t concentrate on much for long, he writes, too battered by the gusts of his thoughts, the uncertainty, the choices ahead.

And there are many Spartaks, many young men who’ve walked this same road, or are walking it now, but could have had very different lives. Some of them will be given guns and sent into the meat grinder on the front, and for most, whatever breath of freedom they snatch will be brief and burning.

Ijen Kim is a writer and artist whose latest book, In the Shadows, is out now.

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