Monday, June 06, 2005

I wrote this in my Dear Diary on August 26, 2004, when we still lived in St. Pete, and I kept thinking about it ever since they started reading Khodorkovsky's sentence last month:

That prison on the way to Komarovo/Zelenogorsk, right by the railway – I keep looking at it when I'm on the train.

Normally, cemeteries put me in this mood – when I’m totally horrified and want to stay as far as possible from the place where so many poor people lie dead. In prison, they are alive, crammed together in terrible conditions, barred and fenced and barbed-wired off from the rest of us.

But not from our noises. Every other minute a train passes by so close to where they are, a train full of free people. And those whose cells are on the upper floors can even see these trains.

Someone said it’s a women’s prison – and one evening, I even noticed that one of the upper-floor windows had this cozy red light on, a womanly thing. But today I saw an amazing scene while inside the moving train, and now I'm almost sure it's a men's prison.

I didn't pay attention until it was too late, unfortunately, and there was no way I could take a picture. Two young women, tall, slender, good-looking in that boring local way - totally stunning if you're some poor "mail-order" Western guy, but way too made-up if you're not – they were on the relatively wide sand/gravel path separating the tracks; the red brick prison fence was maybe five or six meters away from them. With their feet, they were writing this on the sand strip: 'Misha I Love You' – no punctuation, almost no spaces between the first three words – must be hard to be a calligrapher in such circumstances. The letters were huge – so that this Misha guy could see the message from his cell window.

I was wondering what he was in for – a robbery or maybe he killed someone in a drunk driving accident (I thought of the latter on my way back from Zelenogorsk, when the marshrutka driver was speeding like crazy – speeding past all those memorial wreaths on the trees, marking spots where someone died in a crash)...

I was reminded of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, of all people: he's also a Misha - and there are lots more of them in Russian jails...

And it also reminded me of the Soviet-style maternity hospitals – how all those happy new fathers crowd outside, with no way to get in, greeting their wives and newborns from down below, scribbling stuff like 'Sveta, I Love You!' on the ground, in huge letters, with chalk or paint, so that it stays there forever...


Alex(ei) of the Russian Dilettante's Weblog has three wonderful entries on how Khodorkovsky's case isn't the only one worth paying attention to here in Russia:

- From the legal front;

- The right to defend ourselves;

- Mikhail Khodorkovsky is not the only political prisoner in Russia.


  1. I like your words :-)

    06.06.05 - 5:49 pm

  2. you took a picture with your mind - maybe its better that way - better remembered - sharper...

    06.06.05 - 5:53 pm

  3. Is that true, what I've read in our press, that Zhyrinovski's party has introduced in Duma a project of a law prohibiting russian woman to marry non russian men? I ask because information about Russia in polish media are not very objective and this idea is too stupid even for Zhyrinovski.

    06.06.05 - 10:38 pm

  4. Yeah, I've read about it, too. They haven't submitted the draft yet, thank God. It's not exactly prohibiting Russian women from marrying foreign men that they have in mind - they are proposing to start taking away Russian citizenship from women married to foreigners. Same shit, in a way, of course. The scariest part of it for me is trying to imagine all those thousands of people who've been voting for Zhirinovsky and his schmucks for over a decade...

    06.06.05 - 11:32 pm

  5. Scary indeed. Do you know, if russian government is doing anything SENSIBLE to prevent the looming demographic catastrophe? Does Putin in his plans of restoration the Russian empire include such a small and unimportant detail as preventing the extinction of his own people?

    06.07.05 - 2:32 am

  6. i remember back in 2000, two of my friends (a russian and an american) and i were walking along the Neva embankment, when we walked past the Kresty Prison. i'd had no idea it was even there. my russian friend explained a bit about the prison and its history... but what really struck me was the people standing outside of the prison along the Neva. they were picking through what looked like trash along the sidewalk. we took a look ourselves, and discovered that the "trash" consisted of crude, homemade projectiles, with small notes to family members, launched from the tiny prison windows in the hope that a loved one would find it. some of the people found notes addressed to them, and were very excited. others searched in vain and cried. some waved their arms, spelling out cyrillic letters; arms reached out through the siny windows, spelling replies. my russian friend told me that this was the prison where alleged criminals were kept while they awaited trial... and that friends/family were not allowed to visit - hand-signals and notes on the embankment were their only means of communicating with the outside world. i don't know if that is true or not though, but the emotions i witnessed on that day were so strong, that this is one of the poignant memories of my seven months in russia.

    06.07.05 - 4:12 am

  7. Jane, this is an amazing story - thanks so much!..

    Kresty is very close to the prison by the railway: maybe it's even one the divisions, though I've never been too eager to do any kind of research on it.

    06.07.05 - 12:58 pm

  8. Marek, I know that the demographic situation here looks pretty bad (especially in comparison with the States or Europe), but I doubt Russians will disappear anytime soon. In a country that at one point eliminated tens of millions of its own people and didn't collapse, a quiet loss of a million or two - to alcoholism, AIDS, foreign husbands, war, etc. - wouldn't really matter. And there'll always be enough Ukrainians and other countries' nationals to labor at Russian oil fields, drive Moscow buses and clean Moscow streets.

    06.07.05 - 1:08 pm

  9. Some days ago there was a really depressing TV-report about a youth prison in Sibiria. Eventually, the narrator pointed out that every fourth male person in Russia has "imprisonment experience". I was totally stunned about this fact - can it be true? Even taking into account some special army experiences?

    06.07.05 - 4:15 pm

  10. Mishah has read somewhere that at least 4 million Russian males are "officially" alcoholic. This "at least" thing is scary, when you think about the difference in standards between this part of the world and certain other countries: an alcoholic in the States is likely to be considered just an amateur drinker here and vice versa...

    06.07.05 - 6:51 pm