In the center of Tyumen is a prison. Next to it is the city park, where in the evenings music plays and people go walking. The prison building is grim, with thick walls befitting of such an institution. It is guarded by the entirely faceless soldiers of the interior forces. One could not comprehend or get a real feeling for this world simply by reading a book. The inner experiences of a prison inmate are very subtle. Only those who have been to prison can comprehend it, and only then if their senses have not yet been completely deadened. If we simply take and say for example that prison destroys lives, that one has to fight to survive there, that grief lives there, then there is almost nothing to say.
On the fourth floor of the prison is a so-called hospital, where tuberculosis sufferers go to die. On the third floor are the women. It is said that the women’s rules and codes of honor are determined purely by physical strength. The girls in orange vests with their sledgehammers, who worked on the railways, would probably wield authority there. On the second floor are the youths, the wickedest creatures on earth, especially those of them who come from so-called well-off families. In 1986, the death penalty was still in effect and there were special cells for death row inmates. A prisoner would remain on death row for one year after his trial and await a pardon or execution. The pardon of a death row inmate meant that from the beginning of his sentence they would give him another five years of covered, where he would most likely catch tuberculosis, and then ten years of special, where he would most likely die. Then there were the isolation cells. These were cells for those who went against the regime or expressed their discontent with the regime to the prison staff. Mealtimes were hit and miss. Today they might give you boiled water and half a bread roll for breakfast, cabbage soup for lunch, then boiled water again for dinner. Tomorrow would be the same, only without the soup, because they’d miss lunch.
In prison, everything is thought out methodically and to the tiniest detail, so that anyone who ends up there should be in no doubt but that he has arrived in hell.
We brewed chifir in half-liter aluminum mugs. The mug is moistened from the outside and laced with tooth powder, otherwise you can’t wash it off after. You tie string to the top of the mug, giving you a pot, called the chifirbak. The string is dipped in the water to keep it from burning. You then pour in cold water and hang the chifirbak in a convenient place. An aluminum plate of cold water is placed on the floor nearby, just below the right hand. You then tear a strip of cloth about fifteen centimeters wide from a sheet or a piece of clothing and fold it into four layers. You set fire to the cloth and hold the flame under the chifirbak. Once a part of the cloth has burned up, you lower the fingers of your right hand into the plate of cold water to avoid burning, tear off the burnt cloth with the same hand and then throw it into the plate, where it will hiss and fizzle out. Once the water is boiling, you throw a tablespoon of tea leaves into the chifirbak before once again bringing the water almost to the boil, but without boiling it, waiting until a head begins to rise. You conduct the flame along the base of the chifirbak so that the head turns over and sinks. If you want to make the chifir stronger, you add one or two tablespoons of cold water and repeat the whole process with the head; you might call it a matter of taste. Then you give your chifir a few minutes. Pour it bit by bit into another mug and drink with your cellmates, taking turns, three small sips each at a time. And then enjoy heartfelt conversation until morning.
This was how I passed eight months, on the juvenile floor one moment, in the isolation cell the next, with trips to Novy Urengoy for the investigation, pre-investigation, investigative experimentation and face-to-face interrogation. After eight months I was brought before the investigator, who cunningly, suspiciously began to smile. I did not believe in miracles, but a miracle had taken place this time. The investigator slipped me a written undertaking not to leave town, I signed it, and he opened the door to my freedom.
When it suddenly seems that a miracle has happened, it’s just some ordinary bullshit disguised as a miracle. I went out to work, to give me the right sort of character for the court case: I was a patriot and a hard-working Stakhanovite. On my fourth day out, the cops came and put me in handcuffs. It was all very simple, like everything ingenious in this world. The sanction for my imprisonment needed to be renewed by the office of the prosecutor of the republic, but this would have raised too many questions. It was much easier to release me for four days and then shut me up again. Somewhere around this time, my last ounce of faith in humanity died.
I came to the prison, told all the staff to go to hell and went to the isolation cell. Had I known then that there were such things as spiritual and mystical practices, I would have practiced them twenty hours a day. But I didn’t know anything back then, and simply sat in that isolation cell, shivering from the cold, and from anger at the rest of the world.
I was brought into court and, oddly enough, given a suspended sentence. I was free to go. I knew very well that this was just someone’s nasty game, but I had no idea of its meaning. Human meanness knows no bounds. And there it was—six days later the prosecutor issued a notice of appeal. I was free for three months before I went back to court again. This time Dmitri and I were tried together. It turned out he had been on the run the whole time and had only been taken into custody in the last month.
They sent us down for five years and we went off to Tyumen. Six months passed while we wrote our appeals and waited for answers. The appeals didn’t help.