Mikhail Khordokovsky, the ex-tycoon who was convicted in a Moscow courtroom Monday on embezzlement charges -- a development that surprised approximately zero observers -- faces a grim short-term future, judging from a cable released this week that describes the Russian prison system in painful detail.
The cable, dated Feb. 27, 2008, and signed by then-ambassador William J. Burns, tells of
a broken, inhumane system that "combines the
country's emblematic features -- vast distances, harsh
climate, and an uncaring bureaucracy -- and fuses them into a
massive instrument of punishment." A Dostoevsky novel come to life.
Khordokovsky has yet to be sentenced, but observers expect he could be on the hook for as many as 15 more years in jail. Since he was first arrested in 2003, he has spent much of his time in Krasnokamensk, a Siberian prison camp more than 3,000 miles from Moscow. There, he was exposed to freezing temperatures, awful food, and solitary confinement -- conditions he called "Gulag Lite." Later, during his two-year trial, he was crammed into "a 35-square-foot cell with several other
men and no fresh air or sun save for a few shafts of light through a tiny
ventilation window," according to an account earlier this year in FP.
Judging by Burns's cable, Khordokovsky's experience sounds rather typical. But Russian prisons aren't simply brutal, inhospitable places. They also contain some unique features. For instance, enforcers:
According to Lev Ponomarev, who recently established
the NGO "For Prisoners' Rights," the authorities use a
two-tier system of administration. The prison officials and
the guards protect the perimeter of the facilities and
provide the upper layer of security, but then they elevate
select prisoners to act as internal enforcers among the other
prisoners. These elite prisoners receive privileges and
protections in return for enforcing a brutal form of order
within the prisons. Ponomarev called this a "low-risk ghetto
system" for the guards. "If one of their enforcers gets
killed by another, they can just promote a new one. Maybe
even the one that killed the last boss." [...]
This system of using prisoners to enforce discipline
and order was formally established by the Ministry of Justice
in 2005. According to William Smirnov, a member of the
President's Council on Human Rights, the MOJ formalized a
system that had long existed. Smirnov defended the system,
telling us that "It was not a bad idea, but it was poorly
Another unique feature? Toddlers:
At the women's prison in Mozhaisk (Moscow Oblast)
the Embassy and a visiting DOJ delegation were given a tour
of the prison housing facilities and clothing factory, and
then treated to a bizarre fashion and talent show by the
inmates. Eleven of the 43 women's prisons in the Russian
Federation allow inmates to have children under age three to
live on the prison grounds, and women in the other prisons
who become pregnant are transferred to prisons that allow
children. Only two, Mozhaisk and Mordovia, allow mothers to
live and sleep in the same rooms with their young children.
At age three, the children are moved to family members on the
outside or to orphanages. The facilities at Mozhaisk were
clean, well kept, and the factory where prisoners produced
uniforms for the military, police, and other government
workers appeared to be safe, well lit, and well run.
Burns, or whoever wrote the cable, holds out no hope for change:
A system as vast and entrenched as the Russian
prison system will be difficult if not impossible to reform.
The nature of the system, which has not substantively varied
as it has evolved from tsarist prisons to the gulag to
today's system, nurtures the spread of disease, abuse, and
corruption. Observers agree that the combination of
distance, isolation, corruption, and general indifference to
the plight of convicts combine to create a system that is
brutal and will resist attempts to reveal its inner workings,
or to change it.
ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images