A Letter From Boris Kagarlitsky in Russian Prison

In February, judges sentenced the Russian Marxist Boris Kagarlitsky to five years in prison under trumped-up charges of “justifying terrorism.” He wrote to Jacobin from his cell about the conditions that he and thousands of other Russian prisoners face.

Boris Kagarlitsky in 2008. (Jenya Demina / Wikimedia Commons)

After I returned to Moscow from Syktyvkar, a journalist acquaintance of mine urged me to write something about my experiences in prison. The idea appealed to me, and I immediately set to work. After writing fifteen or so pages, though, I realized that I did not have enough material for a whole book. The problem soon solved itself, when the Leviathan made sure I had new opportunities to top up my knowledge of prison life. Acting on a petition by the Prosecutor’s Office, an appeals court decided to review the sentence imposed in Syktyvkar, and once again put me behind bars.

My latest experience of prison has turned out to be different in many ways from the previous one. In the space of a little over a month I passed through three prisons and five cells, before settling into my “long-term cell,” where I am writing these lines. The result is that I have got to know new people and have gained access to an extremely rich trove of new material. A lot of new thoughts have occurred to me, and little by little I am writing them down (these thoughts do not always have to do with prison life, but they are obviously influenced by my experience here). I am getting plenty of opportunities to reflect on philosophy and psychology, but the richest discoveries are tied up with the moves I have been forced to make from place to place.

Although the rules of prison life are basically the same everywhere, the actual practice can differ markedly, not just from prison to prison, but even from cell to cell. In each place distinct communities come into being, evolve, disintegrate, and form afresh as circumstances change. There are large and small prisons, rich and poor ones, in the provinces and in the capital. The guards may be friendly and even show understanding, but they can also be mean-natured. The inmates are of various human types, belonging to different cultural groups and social classes. There are always things to talk about, though these conversations are by no means always pleasant. As the prisoners are moved from prison to prison, they exchange information about what things were like in their last place, and what might be expected in a new facility. What interests people most of all, of course, is the food. Eating decently is one of the main pleasures to be hoped for in prison life, and hence the quality of the prison cuisine is a topic of especially lively discussion.

When I arrived in Zelenograd, I was placed for some reason in a quarantine cell, although the two-week stretch I had spent in Kapotnya already amounted to quarantine. The problem with being in quarantine was that people outside could not contact me properly. I was not receiving parcels, and my three new cellmates were in exactly the same situation. It was here I heard about the Medvedkovo Remand Centre, where, it seems, the prisoners are very well fed. Oh, the praises I heard heaped on the cooks in that prison during my spell in the Zelenograd quarantine! The porridge in that place! The amount of meat in the soup! The size of the portions that were doled out at dinner! To judge from the comments of my cellmates, that facility deserved a Michelin star rating.

Once you land in a cell with a refrigerator and a television set, you start depending less on the prison kitchen, and more on food parcels and your cellmates. By no means everything is shared, or with everyone, but managing things in common is nonetheless quite natural and reasonable. In the cell where I was placed in Kapotnya, I was struck by the fact that democratic procedures had been set up, with some questions decided by voting and others by consensus. Food, however, was not joint property; the inmates had divided themselves into several groups (in all, we numbered from thirteen to fifteen, with people constantly arriving and others leaving), and within these groups resources were shared.

I came to see this as a sort of anarcho-socialism, though there were also individualists. For example, there was a former academic chief who had been jailed for corruption. The refrigerator was stuffed with his food supplies, which he did not share with anyone. Once, it is true, he approached me and offered me a piece of cake. I was astonished, and gratefully accepted the gift. Unfortunately, the reason for his generosity immediately became clear: the cake had passed its use-by date.

Here in Zelenograd the cell is smaller, and it does not occur to anyone to establish formal procedures, much less to hold votes. Nevertheless, informal communities inevitably take shape, and operate by their own rules. The degree of solidarity and mutual help shown here is noticeably greater than outside.

Of course, I’ve been lucky. I’ve been placed in a cell with decent people, to the extent that this is possible in such conditions. Though perhaps this is not so surprising. Most of the inmates, after all, are not hardened villains but ordinary people who have come into conflict with the law, who have yielded to some temptation or who have lost control over their circumstances. When I was placed in my cell in Kapotnya one of the inmates, who had been there longer than the others, immediately said to me, “You’d be in here for murder, would you?” I was shocked. “Do I really look like a murderer?” The reply was even more unexpected than the question: “The people who are in here for unpremeditated murder are all very decent, intelligent, and kind.” Meanwhile, the reputation of political prisoners is not always so good. “Some of them think too much of themselves, and on the whole they are prone to hysterics.” I hope I have been able to improve the reputation of political prisoners somewhat in the eyes of my cellmates.

The prison in Zelenograd, where they have set me up putting, is small and has limited resources. This is apparent in the amount and quality of the food, and in the fact that the facility is chronically understaffed. The guards complain constantly about all this, drawing sympathy and understanding from the prisoners. In general, though, the quality of the prison food ceases to trouble you once they put you in a cell with a refrigerator. Our cell is particularly lucky; one of the inmates graduated from a culinary institute and is a pastry cook by trade. He managed to obtain a Crock-Pot for the cell, and every evening the place is filled with delicious aromas.

Unfortunately, while a refrigerator may become the source of positive emotions, a television set is the opposite. In a curious way, these two appliances exist in a sort of organic unity; you either have both, or neither. Every day the television showers you with propaganda that becomes a kind of background noise from which it is hard to escape by switching channels — the messaging is the same everywhere. After a certain time, however, you develop an immunity. The television also has a positive function: it lets you find out the time.

From talking with my cellmates over a few weeks, and in some cases only a few hours, I have gradually been compiling a sort of encyclopedia of human types and life histories, on the basis of which I might be able, at some point, to write quite a good book. All this experience and knowledge, however, will still need to be summarized and worked over. Hopefully, of course, I will be able to do that on the outside.

For the present, though, I am simply accumulating knowledge. The journey continues.

Zelenograd, 25 March 2024