The Prisoner

March 23, 2022   •   By Anna Gunin, Vladimir Pereverzin

VLADIMIR PEREVERZIN’S MEMOIR The Prisoner: Seven Years Behind Bars in Putin’s Russia tells the true story of how one man’s life was ripped apart by the Kremlin. One day, Pereverzin was a senior manager enjoying the good life, the next he was plunged into the world of Russia’s notorious prisons and penal colonies — including the very same correctional camp where political prisoner Alexei Navalny is now serving time. His crime was to refuse to give false testimony against Yukos owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky; for this sin, he was sentenced to a lengthy and brutal incarceration. As Russia adopts new laws to punish people for sharing information about its war against Ukraine, Pereverzin’s striking memoir is more poignantly relevant than ever. The following are excerpts from the memoir, which was published in a Russian version in 2013.

Anna Gunin


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HARAKIRI

It was evening roll call. A dull winter day, with some sleet falling. As they waited for the bell, the prisoners calmly paced about the small yard. Once the bell rang, the inmates would line up and the inspection would begin. I quietly walked among the prisoners and pretended to follow their conversation. In reality, I didn’t hear what they were saying; I was lost in my own thoughts. Under my buttoned-up jacket was naked flesh. I had unfastened my uniform so it wouldn’t disturb the plan. The cold wind nipped my skin. In my right hand, I held a razor blade between my fingers. I had another in my breast pocket, just in case. The bell rang out. Each prisoner had his place in the row. We fell into line and waited. My heart was pounding wildly, I could barely breathe.

“Ivanov!” yelled the officer.

“Pyotr Nikolayevich,” the prisoner replied, and he stepped forward.

I heard the names: Nikolayev, Lizochkin, Panin.

It would be my name next.

“Pereverzin,” reached me.

“Vladimir Ivanovich,” I yelled, stepping forward, counting my paces.

One, two — turning my back on the inmate on duty, I moved away from the line, unbuttoning my jacket.

Three, four — I stared in amazement at my bare stomach and the blade in my right hand.

Five, six — the blade slid into my belly like a knife through butter.

The first cut was the hardest part — it didn’t go in deep enough — but also the most important. After that, a wave of adrenaline washes over you and, numb to the pain, you enter a frenzy.

My plan had been to slice open my abdomen, spilling my guts out with the words: “So you wanted my blood? Here, you bastards, enjoy!”

Then it felt as though I was watching it all from outside myself — from some place above and to the side. The stunned faces of the prisoner-orderlies, their mouths frozen in a scream … They all came surging toward me, surrounding me, swooping in from all sides. I didn’t have the strength — nor, perhaps, the desire — to resist, and I just wheezed out in a faint voice: “Freedom for political prisoners!”

My injuries were not grave enough, and everything remained as before. My insides were the same, as was my plight in the camp. True, they moved me to another unit: Unit No. 11, with better conditions.

I was left with the scars on my stomach as a memento of that eventful day.

THE SWEET SCENT OF VANILLA

The prisoner truck was chock-full of convicts bound for the general-regime penal colony. We were on our way to the town of Pokrov. A mood of jokes, laughter, and fun reigned in the truck, which seemed as though any moment now it might collapse.

Bitter experience had taught me not to lay any plans or harbor any illusions. Rumor had it this was a “black” camp — controlled by the criminals — and things there were laid-back. Though you could always get a tough reception. There was no telling what to expect. I was traveling light, carrying just one bag. After all the adventures and robberies, the number of my belongings had plummeted.

All the camp’s workers would assemble to meet the new arrivals. The door of the prisoner truck would open, and you would jump out to face a line of guards. Without any shouting, in a flash you realized that you had to run past them. The quicker you ran down the line, the fewer whacks you got. I received three rather nasty blows from a rubber baton. On my spine and sides. We were lucky: this was a gentle reception. We were led to the punishment cell, where the admission procedure began. One at a time, the men were taken away to be searched. Having gone through hundreds of searches, I saw no excesses in this one. It was just a regular search, which was already a good sign. They marched us across the entire grounds of the camp toward the quarantine barracks. From the various camp zones, thousands of curious eyes were turned on us, trying to pick out friends or men from back home.

The bleak quarantine building greeted us with cold draughts and mosquitoes. It took me a while to realize what the bumps on my face were: mosquito bites. Outdoors we were facing the late January weather. At night, in an attempt to block out my neighbors’ snoring, I put in earplugs and ceased hearing the relentless buzz of the winter bloodsuckers. This camp was surrounded by marshes, and mosquitoes were a serious scourge. They were everywhere, haunting the half-flooded basements, utility rooms, and industrial zone. Making no distinction between different ranks of men, let alone their uniforms, the mosquitoes attacked their sources of nourishment incessantly, treating staff and convicts as equals. But when the wind blew from the west, the colony would fill with the scent of vanilla and chocolate. A hundred meters from the camp was a factory producing Alpen Gold chocolate.

Chaos and havoc prevailed in the colony; there was virtually no work, and the convicts were left to their own devices. The camp was considered a “black” one and lived by the thieves’ code. A real criminal boss oversaw the place. Each barracks had a boss of its own. Then there were the endless bosses for the industrial zone, the medical unit, the prisoner kitty, the quarantine barracks, all watching that the prisoners kept to the code. The setup suited everyone: it meant the camp stayed comparatively calm and orderly. The staff of the colony could get away with doing nothing, just turning up for work and pocketing backhanders for doling out commendations and paroles. The prisoners were saved from doing idiotic correctional tasks and could quietly serve out their sentences.

The moment we entered the quarantine barracks, we wrote out a note listing who we were, where we came from, what units we had been in. I had worked in the dining hall and said so on the note. According to the local rules, that made me one of the pigs, a gruel-server, a rat. No self-respecting convict could share a table with me. While in quarantine, I became a leper. Just an hour earlier, in the presence of these barely literate guys, listening in on their conversations, I had wondered in horror how I could abide and endure their company. And yet now it was they who were rejecting me, though I had suffered at the hands of the pigs far more than the lot of them put together. I was dumbstruck. The worry and distress consumed me. I stopped eating, began starving myself.

“Don’t get us wrong, Volodya,” one lad told me. “We’ve got nothing against you. But we’ll get grief if we go against the rules and sit at a table with you.”

After a while, things turned around, and I struck up excellent relations both with the management and with the prisoners. Prison life is so full of subtleties, and often you stand a much higher chance of restoring justice in the criminal world than in the ordinary one. It might not shock you to hear that 70 percent of Russians have zero faith in Russia’s law-enforcement agencies or the courts.

We were in quarantine for nine days, following which we were summoned to the main office to be assigned work. I went in last and introduced myself, giving my surname. Two men sat in the room: an operational agent for the directorate of the Vladimir Regional Federal Penitentiary Service, Captain Fomin, and the political-education officer for the camp. They already knew who I was and were expecting me.

“Well, then, Pereverzin, will you be lodging complaints against us?” asked the agent.

“So far, there’s been nothing to grumble at. But if you mess with me, I’ll lodge complaints,” I leveled with them.

They were suffering from staff shortages, and the political officer suddenly suggested I work at the school. He assigned me to Unit Three, a “red” unit for prisoners who collaborated.

After the events in the Vladimir camp, I had acquired a stellar reputation as a troublemaker and lodger of complaints, and the police were afraid of contact with me.

They didn’t give me the job officially, as then they would have had to offer regular commendations, which they’d been strictly forbidden from doing. They were free, though, to heap infringements on me. They could send me to the punishment cell to their hearts’ content, or issue official sanctions or warnings. But no commendations for me! Someone quickly removed from my file the commendation issued in error for my involvement in the comedy contest, where I was both director and actor, playing multiple roles at once.

One day, the major who headed the education department (a man so drab and toothless that you barely noticed his absence — or, indeed, his presence) asked me: “How are your relations with the president?”

I choked in surprise and, slowly hammering out each syllable, offered the neutral statement, “Things are fine between me and the president.”

The major couldn’t resist spilling the beans and shared with me a state secret. “We got a call from Moscow warning us that Pereverzin’s release into society would be undesirable.” I could picture it clearly in my head. A deputy chief of some department in the Presidential Administration calls up the godforsaken prison camp in the town of Pokrov. The local chief, upon hearing the words “Presidential Administration,” leaps to attention and salutes the unknown caller, awaiting orders. He lavishes the caller with honor, though in this place honor has long since vanished from sight.

The days went by, gathering pace and merging into weeks and months, bringing my freedom closer. Rather than sitting about in the unit, I started calling in on the school, where I met the head — Nadezhda Gafarova, a born educator. Sometimes I marveled at the patience and wisdom with which she transmitted knowledge to her adult students, who were not always the most grateful of people. School being too grand a word for it. For a long time, the chilly unheated classroom became my retreat too. I organized an English language club. To my surprise, people came from every corner of the colony. I was inundated with men hoping to learn English. I was given some textbooks and audio courses. The men were arranged into several groups, and I got started. News had still not reached the deputy chief of security. The story of the English language club had passed him by, and when he found out what was going on right under his nose, he was livid.

“We cannot have an enemy of the people teaching English!” he said in outrage. “He’ll win them all over to his side.”

In Melekhovo, I had been an “enemy of the state,” so I responded calmly to the news that I was now an “enemy of the people.”

I had to meet personally with the deputy chief of security, Captain Stepurin, which led to us striking some kind of deal. Our pact allowed for me to serve my remaining term quietly and peaceably, without lodging complaints against the management, in return for which they would leave me alone, let me get on with life, and teach English to the prisoners. I was around two years away from completing my sentence, and I accepted these terms.

Realizing that I had no prospect of parole, I decided to put my remaining time to maximum use: by getting into shape. In our unit’s local zone, under my strict guidance the convicts erected a training ground. A pull-up bar, parallel bars, bench, barbell, dumbbells — we had everything we needed to get started. School, sports, and books engaged my every spare moment.

The penal colonies follow a hard-and-fast rule: the more freedom the convict enjoys, the worse he is fed. In this camp, they fed us abysmally, and what they gave us in the dining hall was utterly inedible. I had to switch to dry rations. Rolled oats, buckwheat and rice flakes, nuts and dried fruits became my main diet. I was receiving regular parcels. Warrant Officer Valentina, who worked in the visiting room and handed out parcels to the prisoners, was sweet-natured, polite, and chatty. She would examine the contents of my packages with curiosity. I was surprised to learn from her that whenever I picked up a parcel, she would immediately be visited by agents who would record the contents as she described them. Once a month, the agents would write a report on me. Valentina was replaced in the parcel room by her colleague Lyuda, who was her polar opposite. When she saw that my parcel contained a book written in English, Lyuda wailed like a siren. “In our colony … in our colony, we only allow Russian literature!” She would say this, stuttering with rage, and solemnly hand over the confiscated book to the agents. John Grisham’s The Innocent Man lay for a month in the agent’s office, before the major handed it back to me. “We had to check it, you see. What if it had contained some hidden coded message?”

In the strict-regime camp in Melekhovo, where I had regularly received similar books, nothing like this had happened. Indeed, it was a strange thing to hear in a colony where one in three prisoners had a mobile phone.

After the book, Lyuda entirely switched her attention to the magazines Men’s Health and GQ, which underwent brutal censorship. She ruthlessly ripped out all the pages where she saw the merest hint of bared female flesh.

The zeal of the staff in the visiting room knew no bounds. After putting relatives who had come for an extended visit through the degrading search procedure, the vigilant female warrant officers would demand certificates from a gynecologist and a local physician confirming they had “not had sexual contact with infected persons.” By the time the loved ones had jumped through all the numerous hoops and made it to the visiting room, it would be evening. I decided to protect my family from these abuses and refused extended visits in this camp. 

THE SEWING WORKSHOP

It was my first working day. We got up, exercised, had breakfast, and were led to the industrial zone. We came to the small industrial site where the sewing workshops were based inside the residential zone of ​​the camp. You were searched upon entering, and again when you exited. The head of the workshop, who was a major, taking into account my education, immediately offered me a number of options. I could clean the grounds; trim loose threads off the finished items; join the Section for Order and Discipline where I would wear an SDIP band on my sleeve and police the men’s smoking for strict adherence to the timetable and the designated areas; or sit at a sewing machine. Without a second thought, I chose the last option. “Why not try my hand at sewing?” I said to myself. “Might as well learn a skill at least, while cooped up in this colony.”

Eager to get cracking, I began my apprenticeship with a prisoner from another unit. I knew many of them from quarantine, and many of them knew me through the grapevine. My instructor asked me, “Do you really have a million in your personal account? Is it true the head of the camp called you in and told you to send the money back?” I smiled and told him it was nonsense. Sasha looked at me in disappointment and mistrust. He was inside for murder. A Moscow man, he had at one time played football and was a sub in a reserve team for Spartak. In this place, he was a star. This was the first time in my life I had set eyes on a sewing machine, and I watched every move of Sasha’s like a hawk. He shared the tricks of the trade with me. Sasha made one part of the cap, sewing the bands to the body. He had a production plan and output quota, and I only got to sit at his machine during smoking breaks. Quick on the uptake, I asked another prisoner to give me a chance to learn sewing on his machine. He agreed to this. So, running from one machine to the other, I penetrated the mysteries of sewing.

At 12:00 p.m., it was lunch; at 3:00 p.m., work stopped. The gates opened, we were searched, then we walked in file to our respective units. At four o’clock, we had inspection, after which came our free time. You could sit down, read, drink tea. You could go out into the local zone and get some exercise. And that was just what I began doing. One thought filled my mind: “Don’t let your time go to waste, spend every spare second, every minute productively.” Unfortunately, I had little free time, and it was largely taken up with pointless tasks.

After a gentle warm-up on the sports ground, I elbowed my way to a broken sink with six taps, where I washed my top half with relish. Then came dinner, another hour of free time, lights out. The day flew by in a flash.

I was sleeping badly and kept on waking. Each morning I rose, still drowsy, and like a zombie went through the same motions as the previous day. The day after and the day before were as indistinguishable as pebbles on a beach. I could no longer remember what was happening and when. The exception was Saturdays and Sundays, when the industrial zone was closed. I began longing for the weekends. Time was passing more quickly.

To avoid the scrum for the sinks, I got up half an hour early and went off to wash with icy water. There was no hot water in the unit. When all the other prisoners went for their wash, I made my bed.

I began adapting to life in the unit. I was enjoying learning to sew, which did not escape the notice of the administration keeping an eye on me. Someone was unhappy that things were relatively good for me. I was transferred to another area. Now I was a packer of caps. The caps were sewn in the adjacent workshop — in vast quantities and catering to every taste. We were swamped with prisoner caps and deluged with military ones. I barely had time to trim off the threads, brush the caps with a wire brush, and fold them away into the boxes I made. The conveyor belt worked nonstop. Clouds of dust and synthetic wadding hung in the air, leaving us nothing to breathe. The caps began to take on a life of their own, crawling toward me from all sides. I had only to dash to the toilet for a few minutes to find a horrifying mountain of hats on the worktop when I returned. I did not get a moment’s peace, let alone a proper break.

There was one advantage to this new job: the shifts would whiz by in a blur. For my first month of zealous labor, I earned 700 rubles. Finding out from the foreman what the production norms and quotas were, I quickly deduced that the camp administrators were skimming off money from the prisoners’ earnings, while documenting the payments as bonuses. Something clicked in my mind: the penal code articles on fraud and the use of slave labor. “Good Lord, they’re the ones who should be locked up, not us!” I thought. But those men compensated the prisoners fairly and freely with “air.” Instead of money, the convicts received commendations, and by and large they were happy with that.

CATS

There were gazillions of cats in the colony. They were loved by the prisoners, who were disenchanted with humankind. Some of the inmates became so attached to their little companions that when they were released, they took their beloved cats with them to freedom. For the prisoners, cats could sometimes be their only love and their last comfort. The convicts cherished and pampered them in every possible way. The cats could move freely around the camp, crossing from one local zone to the next, and, fed lavishly by the prisoners, they felt a lot better than the men did. I often envied the old black cat called Bruiser who lived in our unit. Bruiser would lazily stretch his arms out in his sleep whenever the top brass entered the barracks. He didn’t need to stand up and greet every inspector — the sergeant or warrant officer constantly wandering around our barracks. He could do anything he liked.

All the units, all the workshops, all the buildings in the colony had their own pride and joy, and sometimes more than one. Almost without exception, the cats were given human names. Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, at the door to the dining room, a great big beautiful cat called Senya would greet the prisoners. On those days, eggs were served for breakfast, in accordance with the dietary intake requirements set by the Research Institute for the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service. To the sheer delight of the prisoners, who were giving him the last of their rations, the cat guzzled the eggs, shell and all, in huge quantities. Despite his size and appetite, Senya was an underdog in the cat hierarchy. In the countless battles over turf and for the love of the few lady cats around, Senya would always be slow off the mark. But old Bruiser from our unit was the recognized leader.

A high-priority directive came through from the main office: “All the cats in the colony are to be counted, listed, and registered.” A time frame of three days was set. Too bad if you missed the boat. Any cats without registration would be exterminated. “How nice they won’t be shot by firing squad,” I said acidly. Although as it turned out, an even worse fate awaited those unregistered cats. They were gathered into a big sack and driven out of the grounds by a jailer with the military rank of an officer. History is silent on what happened next to those poor animals. Danger also lurked for the cats that remained in the colony. An officer in the industrial zone with the rank of captain, who enjoyed kettlebell lifting in his spare time, would amuse himself in the camp by hunting for cats. He would turn up to work with a slingshot, load it with steel ball bearings, and, rapt with pleasure, lob shots at the cats, rejoicing at each one bagged. A year of his service was deemed the equivalent of one and a half, as was the case for soldiers in war zones.

The caretaker for the sanatorium wrote a petition addressed to the head of the camp: “I request that you give a black cat going by the name of Bullet leave to remain in the sanatorium of the penal colony.” The petition was endorsed by the operational officers, security officers, and reeducation workers. Similar petitions came pouring into the main office from all the units, as well as from the social club, the bathhouse, and the medical unit. The foreman of the cap-sewing workshop, my former boss from among the convicts, came up with a rationale for needing to live with his beloved cat: “In the interests of preventing the caps from being destroyed or damaged by mice, I ask you to permit the abovementioned workshop to keep a cat by the name of Barsik.” Some time later, I would see Barsik proudly strolling about the cap-sewing workshop with a collar bearing the inscription: “Tomcat Barsik. Sewing Workshop No. 3. Caps Department.” Barsik was unable to read, and he lived by his own feline code. From time to time, he would deviate from his assigned duties as mouse destroyer and spray the finished products with his scent.

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Vladimir Pereverzin was a Yukos manager imprisoned in Russia for seven years on fraudulent charges of embezzling $13 billion. He now lives in Berlin and campaigns for human rights.

Anna Gunin is a translator from Russian.