My Fellow Prisoners

Konstantin Koutsyllo/Reuters
Mikhail Khodorkovsky appearing on a TV screen installed inside a courtroom, Moscow, January 2004


I’m writing these notes because I want people who care about these things to know what I have personally experienced in prison.

Over time I’ve turned from an ordinary victim into an interested observer, and I’ve discovered that for many people the prison world remains terra incognita. And yet in our country one in every hundred people is currently in prison; one in ten (maybe by now one in seven) of the male population passes through prison at some point in their lives.

Moreover, prison has a terrible effect on the majority of both prisoners and guards. It’s not yet clear, in fact, which group is affected more.

Society has to do something about this human tragedy. And for a start people need to know about it.

This story is about the guards.

The people who feel most uninhibited in prison are the police investigators, known in the vernacular as the “operatives.” Their official duty is to prevent crimes that someone might be thinking of committing, and to uncover those that have already been committed. As a result they’re not much constrained by prison regulations. Facial rearrangements and endless interrogations, mobile phones and drugs—these form just a small part of their standard arsenal.

The operatives usually know how to work with people and are good at it. They know how to talk, how to listen. But there are exceptions.

Take the head of the police investigation unit, a twenty-seven-year-old called Pelshe, whose first name and patronymic are so hard to pronounce that by common agreement he’s long been known simply as Sergei Sergeyevich. He’s not a man for small talk. He fixes his transparent, ice-cold eyes right into yours and lurches about desperately, caught in a verbal trap of harrumphing and interjections. When he’s sober, that is.

In fact, he’s rarely sober. When you see those slightly protruding ears glowing red like traffic lights and catch that faint whiff, you know he’s in a good mood and his speech will flow smoothly. But at the same time it’s a signal to the unwary: “Keep your mouth shut.” Alcohol has no effect on the professional operative’s memory.

However, Sergei Sergeyevich is just as likely to treat the most taciturn prisoner to a dose of his none-too-gentle fists. He hits people like a true professional, leaving minimum trace, though the recipient spends a week groaning and pissing blood. But no one reckons this “talking to” is particularly bad. The general opinion is that he’s not an animal; “freelance operatives” are far rougher.

As well as applying his fists, Sergei Sergeyevich can also treat you to tea and sweets, and give you cigarettes; he’ll even let you make a call on his mobile. Though you can be sure he’ll make a note…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.