New Times Loom for Fabled Lefortovo Prison
Published: June 7, 2005 (Issue # 1076)
MOSCOW - When Lefortovo is removed from the Federal Security Service and, placed like all other penitentiary facilities, under the jurisdiction of the Justice Ministry, the legend of the much-feared, high-security prison may finally draw to a close.
At Lefortovo, prisoners suffer extreme isolation, and routine prison regulations are followed to a depressing degree. But this also can make time spent there more tolerable, former inmates say.
"I feel a strange pity for the place. After the FSB gives it away, the super-orderly Lefortovo will turn into a regular stinking jail," said writer Eduard Limonov, who spent 15 months in Lefortovo in 2002 and 2003 as the FSB investigated his radical National Bolshevik Party.
Justice Minister Yury Chaika announced at a meeting with the Council of Europe's commissioner on human rights, Alvaro Gil-Robles, in late May that his ministry would be taking over Lefortovo and other penal facilities that have remained with the FSB.
The transfer was a condition for Russia's admission in 1996 to the Council of Europe, which demanded that Russia separate investigating agencies from detention facilities where inmates could be subject to pressure from investigators. The Interior Ministry transferred its prisons and other penitentiary facilities to the Justice Ministry in 1998.
"The one who is trying to prove your guilt is the one who is keeping you. He is also the one who eavesdrops on you and collects compromising material on you 24 hours a day," lawyer and human rights activist Karina Moskalenko told Gazeta.ru last week, saying that such practices violate the concept of a lawful state.
A spokesman for the FSB, Alexander Murashov, said the transfer of Lefortovo to the Justice Ministry would be done gradually and no deadline was imposed for its completion. Whether Lefortovo changes, will depend upon whether the prison personnel stay after the transfer is complete.
"Regulations are all the same at any prison, but we manage to keep Lefortovo as a model facility, not like any other Russian prison," he said.
Murashov denied a request to speak with prison personnel or visit the prison.
Hidden behind a high fence crowned by concertina wire, Lefortovo's three-story building of yellow brick, shaped like a giant K if seen from above, has held many of the country's most famous prisoners, from political dissidents of the Soviet era to suspected spies of more recent years.
Recent inmates include diplomat Valentin Moiseyev, who was accused of spying for South Korea; metals magnate Anatoly Bykov, accused of ordering the murder of a former business partner; Alexander Litvinenko, a former FSB officer who later defected to Britain; senior Yukos managers Platon Lebedev and Alexei Pichugin; scientist Igor Sutyagin, convicted of spying for the United States; and Mikhail Kodanev, a former co-chairman of the Liberal Russia party, who was convicted of ordering the murder of the liberal State Duma Deputy Sergei Yushenkov.
But it was Limonov who gave the most detailed and vivid account of the prison in a book he wrote while there, "In Dead Men's Captivity."
"Lefortovo is, I would say, a very lonely prison. They isolate you from everyone but your cellmate, and for people used to active socializing it is extremely difficult to stay in Lefortovo," Limonov said. Regular criminals whom he had met in Lefortovo preferred other Moscow jails despite much worse conditions and overcrowding, he said.
Another writer who described Lefortovo was Nobel Prize laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn. In his seminal "Gulag Archipelago," he wrote that in the 1940s there were "psychic" cells in Lefortovo, painted all black inside and with an electric light that was never turned off. A roar from a wind tunnel built at the nearby Central Air and Hydrodynamcs Institute also tortured inmates, he wrote.
Writer Yevgenia Ginzburg, who was kept in Lefortovo during Stalin's Great Terror in the 1930s, wrote in her book "Steep Route" that loud tractor engines were often running in the courtyard of the prison to deaden the screams of prisoners being shot in the basement.
Quiet and 'Lifeless'
Those who have been inside in recent years say that today it is the most quiet and tranquil prison in Russia.
"I have been in hundreds of prisons, and Lefortovo is the only one that does not have that stale stink of tobacco inside," said Alexander Borodulin, a prison inspector at the office of the Russian ombudsman. "No one screams inside and no one beats on cell doors."
Limonov said the noisiest time is from 8 a.m. until noon, when inmates are allowed to take daily hourlong solitary walks in tiny cubicles in a fenced yard on the prison's roof. Radio music is switched on at full volume to prevent inmates from talking between the cubicles, he said.
In their cells, inmates can switch the radio on or off and adjust the volume, he said. Also, they are allowed to have television sets.
Lefortovo can hold 200 inmates but is rarely filled to half of its capacity, Borodulin said, adding that Lefortovo is perhaps the only prison in Russia where inmates enjoy the four square meters of space they are entitled to by law.
None of the inmates he saw during a visit to Lefortovo in December complained to him about bad treatment, he said. The ombudsman's office, which was established in early 1997, said it had never received a complaint from a Lefortovo inmate, while they receive plenty from those in other prisons.
Most cells are designed to house three people but rarely are there more than two, Borodulin and former inmates said. There are also a few solitary cells and two cells for six inmates. In other Moscow prisons, dozens of people can be crammed into a single cell.
Vladimir Linderman, another NBP activist who spent 19 days in Lefortovo in 2003, called the place "lifeless," but said that the strict adherence to formal routine by prison personnel makes many abuses inherent to other prisons impossible.
"My cellmate was dreaming about getting into another prison where he could see other people. He tried to speak to the guards, but this is impossible. These people are like machines, polite by cold and formal," he said.
Linderman said the FSB did not want anyone to know about his arrest, and only because the Lefortovo administration adhered to the rules and sent out his letters in a timely fashion was he able to inform his friends.
Former inmates said the guards took great pains to prevent inmates from even seeing other inmates.
While escorting them when they were called to interrogations or moved from one cell to another, the guards used tiny clackers to inform other guards of their movement. If two escorts were about to meet, one would put the inmate he was guarding into one of many black wooden cabinets that stand along the prison passages.
Nina Silina, also an NBP activist, said that in the 15 months she spent in Lefortovo, only once did she see another inmate, apart from her cellmates, when she glanced through an open door into the interrogation room as she was led by.
Both Limonov and Silina said that people without an intellectual background quickly sank into apathy in Lefortovo. Limonov said none of his three cellmates would go out for the daily walk or do physical exercise.
"Once my cellmate was a woman who would spend all her time in a bed, watching television," said Silina. "That was all she did for weeks."
While not allowed to see much, prisoners are closely watched, former inmates said. The prison passages are covered with carpets, which muffle the steps of the guards who peer into the cells through the inspection holes every two to three minutes, they said.
The FSB also often plants informants in the cells, according to former inmates. Silina said she had spent nine months in a cell with a woman whom she later saw on television testifying against a Chechen woman, Zarema Muzhikhoyeva, who was convicted in 2004 on terrorism charges. Silina said she was confident the woman was an FSB informer.
Edmond Pope, a U.S. businessman sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2000 on espionage charges and later pardoned by President Vladimir Putin, said that during the eight months he had spent in Lefortovo he had once tested his cellmate, whom he had suspected of being an informant. "The informant forces you to talk about things that are of interest for investigators," he said by telephone from State College, Pennsylvania. "I tested him and it worked: At the next interrogation, I understood that the investigator was aware of our conversation in the cell."
In Lefortovo, inmates suffer from enormous psychological and mental strain because of the isolation, uncertainty and the prison's total control over their lives, Pope said.
Pope said he never suffered any physical violence, but he saw other inmates taken from his cell for interrogation return with marks of physical abuse, such as bruises and scars.
He said he had been subjected to more subtle forms of intimidation, such as having rocks or even drugs put in his food.
None of the NBP activists said they were abused themselves or witnessed others being physically abused.
An Uncertain Past
Owned by the secret services for many decades, Lefortovo remains the most secretive prison in Russia. While journalists can get into other Moscow prisons, they have only been allowed inside Lefortovo once, in 1993 for a press conference.
Since the first years of Soviet rule, Lefortovo belonged to the secret police, which changed names several times until 1954 when it became known by the abbreviation KGB.
In 1994, jurisdiction over Lefortovo was transferred to the Interior Ministry.
In 1997, control over the prison was returned to the FSB.