In the center of Moscow lies a prison infamous for the inhumane treatment of inmates. Since its first incarnation 250 years ago, Butyrka Prison has been home to a long history of harsh living conditions, human rights violations, and spectacular escape attempts. While long notorious within Russia, in 2009, the death of Sergei Magnitsky brought global attention to Butyrka and became a focal point of rising international tensions between Russia and the West.

“Russian Limbo” is produced in cooperation with the public historical project “It Collapsed” and hosted and distributed by the Center for European Policy Analysis.



Matthew Orr:02Hello, everyone, this is Russian Limbo, a podcast about some of Russia’s most notorious pretrial detention facilities, or more simply jails. Thanks to lawyers, human rights defenders, and prisoners, you have an opportunity to learn about the formal and informal rules of conduct and pre-trial detention facilities in Russia are those from behind bars that really joke that in this way, people on the outside can understand them a little better. For more details, such as photos, videos, and texts, please visit our Patreon page. You can find a link in the podcast description. Your donations will help us improve and expand this project.

Matthew Orr :37This is our second episode. The first was about the famous St. Petersburg prison Kresty, and the music you just heard was a track by Butyrka a band that creates songs based on criminal lore. A genre is known in Russia as “Chanson.” The genre characterized by acoustic guitar and synthesizer romanticizes the image of the prisoner and promotes a criminal lifestyle. The band chose his name in 2001, inspired by three inmates who escaped from the Butyrka jail.

Matthew Orr 1:18On September 5, 2001, at 7 am, a jailer of Butyrka was walking down the corridor to check on the prisoners jingling his keys. Passing by the cells. He looked into the peoples and observed the inmates. Behind one of the doors that were supposed to be three lifers. a lifer is a term used to describe inmates sentenced to life imprisonment. They had been waiting for the final decision on the approval of their sentences for three months. When the turnkey reached the lifers’ cell, he could not believe his eyes. For a full minute, he peered through the people but could not see any of the three residents. The cell was empty. In the corner behind the toilet, next to the rags and utensils, there was a hole in the floor.

30-year-old Boris 37-year-old Vladimir and 34-year-old Anatoly had shared the cell. The driver, Anatoly, received a life sentence because, during a car theft, he killed its owner, an elderly man, and the owner’s two young daughters. Vladimir, having served two terms for theft, tried to rob an apartment again. But a married couple happened to be inside. He hacked them to death with an ax and stole their valuables and money. For Boris. This was not his first stint in prison either. In the early 90s. He served as a sailor in the Russian Far East. One day he got drunk with the officers, stole a car, and during the arrest rushed at the policeman with a knife. As a result, he was sentenced to seven years in a maximum-security prison. Boris was released in 1998, returned to a provincial city in Siberia where he secured a job as a gravedigger. All was well, relatively speaking until he had an argument with a colleague. In an act of retaliation, Boris broke into the man’s house and stabbed his daughter and mother. Before leaving, he stole things as well. Boris was sentenced to life.

The inmates made a plan to escape from Butyrka accidentally. While exercising in the compound, they found a thick wire. When they began to sharpen it against the floor, a small hole appeared. “Boris jumped and the floor collapsed. There was a hole 60 by 60 centimeters,” recalled Vladimir about the escape in an interview to a tabloid in the summer of 2019. The inmates began to dig with a pin and their bare hands. Under the concrete plate., they found sand, lime, bricks, and heating pipes, all of which they use to escape. “In order not to get lost, we had two plans for the jail. The first one we received from the inmates who stayed in the cell above us. The second was the evacuation plan in case of a fire. It showed where the inhabitants of each cell had to go. An officer gave it to us. We bought it for a thousand dollars. Back then you could buy the most feature-packed gaming computer for this money. Two weeks later they caught Vladimir and Anatoly. The third escapee, Boris, was captured only a year and a half later when he tried to rob a store and steal vodka, wine, and cigarettes. This time, Boris was caught in the robbery.

There were a few escape attempts from good to circa, which is located in the heart of Moscow. The most famous, and the only legal escape, was made by American illusionist Harry Houdini. In May 1908, he bet that he would be able to escape from Butyrka. The Illusionist was thoroughly searched, chained, and shackled, and locked in a metal shipping box, which had previously transported prisoners from Moscow to Siberia. It took Houdini only 28 minutes to break free. The 90s and early 2000s saw a number of escape attempts worth mentioning. In 1996, Natalia, accused of illegal exchange operations, just walked out of the prison. She managed to do it because she looked like her cellmate, who should have been released that day. In the same year, two inmates while in the compound bent back the bars and climbed down to the street using a rope on the roof. On March 24, 2000, a robber from the caucuses escaped from Butyrka. He forced his cellmate to change identities on the day when the latter was supposed to be taken to court for sentencing. In the end, the bandit received a suspended sentence and was released. In October 2001, Ivan escaped from Butyrka. He was convicted for an infringement on the life of a policeman. The inmate got out of the meeting room and disappeared. All the escapees were able to be out for less than a few weeks before they were returned to Butyrka. On March 22, 2010, the last escape from Butyrka happened. A Belarusian citizen, Vitaly, ran away from the prison mental ward. He pushed aside the escort guard and jumped over the high fence and the barbed wire. The media wrote that the prisoner was good at parkour. “A fantastic escape, supernatural abilities. Prison guards still wonder how the inmate managed to get across that flat five-meter wall at the infamous Butyrka. He did it in the blink of an eye. He was caught only in 2012 and Finland and returned to Butyrka. Since then, custodial supervision has been increased in the facility. The corridors of Butyrka are equipped with about 400 cameras. No one has been able to escape from the pre-trial detention facility in the last 10 years.

Pretrial Detention Facility Number Two is situated in the center of Moscow, where a train Depot was previously located. In 2021, this modern monument of pseudo-Gothic style, which still houses people, will turn 250. Dating back to 1771, Butyrka was a wooden jail in the hussar barracks located in the Butyrsky Hamlet. In 1775, the leader of a peasant revolt, Yemelyan Pugachev, found himself there and was one of several dozen imposters posing as the Emperor. In 1784, a reconstruction of the prison began. The project was led by the famous architect, Matvei Kazakov, the designer of the parliament building and the royal residence near Moscow. Butyrsky castle was equipped with four towers, and the Pokrovsky temple appeared at the center of the prison. By the mid 19th century, Butyrka turned into the central transit prison with an annual flow of 30,000 people. In the late 19th century the prison was rebuilt yet again, but the interior of some of the cells has been preserved even to our time. Today, 40% of cells in Butyrka violate the inmate accommodation standards. Every person has less than four prescribed square meters at their disposal. The roof is leaking in some places. Secretive video shot by the inmates and spread on YouTube show that the walls and ceilings are covered in mold. Mobile phones in the jail are informally called “crystal ware”. Because they are expensive to get and the possession is fragile, recalls a political prisoner and anarchist Alexei who spent time in Butyrka. You can only buy one for big money, and it is easy to lose. A search can be conducted at any time, and it is difficult to fix unless there’s a handyman in the cell who has a clue about such devices. According to the rules, an employee of the federal penitentiary service who finds a phone must file a report. However, they almost never do. It is more profitable just to take them. Antifascist Alexei recalls in an interview, “I used to think that Butyrka was a prison, but compared to the penitentiaries of Russia’s regions, Butyrka is a health resort. There are more people in the central prisons in the capital and services better established there. So the conditions are more or less decent.” Not only phones but also alcohol, drugs, and food are smuggled into the detention facility. But in order for the federal penitentiary service officer to turn to crime, one needs to notice them and establish good relations. First, you give them a pack of cigarettes for a small favor. During a search, inmates joke with them. Talk about life, other matters, buy them cigarettes, chocolates and any food they like. Gradually, it becomes clear who can be smooth-talked and who is more loyal. Then you carefully drop a hint. How much would it cost? What if we would do it like this, or maybe do it like that? Sometimes it’s the lawyers who try to bring the contraband. A lawyer carrying drugs has been detained at Butyrka recently. Astoundingly neither the convicts nor the majority of prison staff is interested in having the working and profitable system cease to exist.

Let’s return to the history of Butyrka. At the beginning of the 20th century, Butyrka jail and its staff found themselves in the center of the revolution, before the Communist Party came to power. During the Moscow uprising of 1905, workers decided to take control of the jail and release political prisoners. They made several attacks, but each time the guards fought off the assault. The papers at the time wrote: “Today’s shooting was heard over Miussky Park in Lesnaya and Bronnaya streets, where there are still barricades installed. Revolutionaries broke into the apartment of a secret police chief, pulled him into the garden, and, despite the pleas of the children, shot him dead. From 1910 to 1917, new political prisoners ended up in Butyrka. Among them were anarchist Nestor Makhno, revolutionary Yvonne Kalyayev, and 16-year-old poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. Mayakovsky said about the period: “It was a most important time for me. I scribbled my entire notebook with verse. Many thanks to the guards, they took it from me when I was released. I could have published it.” wrote Mayakovsky about the detention in Butyrka. In the 1930s Butyrka hosted Varlam Shalamov, a famous writer, who, along with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, revealed the truth about the Gulag. Shalamov told about the amazing Butyrka library which, despite the Stalinist era, characterized by all kinds of seizures, destructions, and confiscations, for some reason preserved rich literature banned in the rest of the Soviet Union. In her book “Journey into the Whirlwind”, repressed journalist, author, and enemy of the people Yevgenia Ginzburg described the Butyrka jail as such: “For breakfast in jail, we were given bread, water, and two lumps of sugar. For lunch, thin broth and porridge. And in the evening, fish soup. We were allowed to read books, two per ten days, and 16 hours of free time could be used at our discretion.”

In the late 30s, before departure to Kolyma, a region with very harsh conditions in the Far East of Russia, where prisoners were exiled. The mechanic and mastermind of the Soviet space program, Sergei Korolev spent time in the Butyrka. Korolev was called an accomplice of the counter-revolutionary Trotskyist organization whose aim was quote “the weakening of the state’s defensive power in favor of fascism.” After the war writer and Nobel Prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn spent three months in Butyrka, from which he was later transferred to Stepnoy camp. In the 1970s Butyrka had definitely turned into a detention facility. And by the 90s and 2000s, the cells of the pre-trial detention center had become overcrowded. “The limit of our detention facility is 1,847 inmates,” said the warden of Butyrka, Sergei, in an interview in 2019. “In fact, now when we are talking there are 2,292 people here.” According to human rights activists, the quota of those arrested and currently in Moscow pre-trial detention facilities is exceeded by 700 people. According to Wikipedia, Vladimir Gusinsky, who stayed in a detention facility for three days, the former head of Serpukhov district of the outer Moscow, Alexander Shestun, and football players, Aleksandr Kokorin and Pavel Mamaev can be considered the most famous Butyrka inmates of the 2000s and 2010s. Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov was kept here too. But most often human rights activists and lawyers associate a different name with Butyrka; Magnitsky. Accountant and auditor Sergei Magnitsky was arrested in November 2008 on charges of assisting businessman William Browder in tax evasion. He ended up in the Butyrka jail in July 2009, where he had been transferred from Stepnoy detention facility. Four months later, Magnitsky died. His lawyers were informed that Magnitsky died of pancreatic disruption at 9 pm on November 16, 2009. A representative of the investigative committee under the interior ministry reported that the death of Sergei Magnitsky was a surprise to them. According to him, at the last hearing, where Magnitsky’s arrest term had been prolonged, he did not complain about his health condition, and similar complaints are not found in this case file either. During the court hearings in September 2009, Magnitsky complained that he had not received essential medical care for several weeks. Prior to imprisonment, he suffered from a serious gastrointestinal tract disease. Moreover, Magnitsky complained about the inhuman detention conditions at the Butyrka jail, the lack of toilets, hot water, and windows. The defendant in the case of Magnitsky’s death, former deputy warden of Butyrka detention facility, Dimitri Krotov, was acquitted in 2012. The only case that was brought to a close was the posthumous trial of Magnitsky himself, who was convicted of organizing the tax evasion scheme. Six countries have adopted Magnitsky legislation providing for personal visa and financial sanctions against human rights abuses in Russia and around the world. In the US, the Magnitsky sanctions list includes many Russian officials. For example, the head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov. Strangely enough, the lawyer of Magnitsky’s mother recently fell out of the window of the fifth floor of her apartment building. Here is what Zoya Svetova who was a member of the Moscow public monitoring commission from 2008 to 2016, recalls about Magnitsky his death and its consequences:

Zoya Svetova 14:58″For me, Butyrka is of course associated with Sergei Magnitsky. When I read in the Vedomosti newspaper that the Hermitage capital auditor died in Butyrka, me and my colleague human rights activist Lydia Dubikova went to Butyrka and tried to figure out what happened. It was the first stage of our public inquiry, which resulted in a fairly lengthy investigation into the death of Sergei Magnitsky, which we published later on. I think it was food for thought from Magnitsky’s colleagues and those who lobbied for the Magnitsky sanctions. We were the primary source of information on the Magnitsky case. We looked at these cells to the eyes of Magnitsky tried to communicate with the cellmates, but it was clear that they had been prepared by the guards for our conversations. Just like the prison stuff, we managed to learn very little information from them.”

Matthew Orr 15:53The information about the bad detention conditions and violations of the human rights of inmates has been known since at least the late 2000s. Butyrka blog played a big role in exposing them. In the summer of 2007, businessmen Alexei Kozlov ended up in pre-trial detention facility number two. Back then, businessmen were arrested quite often because of special provisions of the legislation that were interpreted in favor of the prosecution. He was arrested and charged with fraud, a very popular crime amongst Russian entrepreneurs. The indictment said that in 2007, using forged documents, Kozlov transferred over 600,000 stock shares of the company he had worked for to an offshore account, with the aim of reselling the shares later. While in the detention facility, Kozlov started to keep a diary in which he described his rest, the inmates living conditions, and tariffs for services and concessions. In 2009 Kozlov and his wife, journalist Olga Romanova, decided to publish his notes in a blog under the name Alexander N. This is how the public learned about the so-called Butyrka blog. And after a few posts, the blog turned into a collective platform. Convicted entrepreneurs, their relatives, lawyers, journalists published their materials there. In 2010, Kozlov’s wife and the founder of the convicted Russia NGO, Olga Romanova, published the book Butyrka. Let me read a small excerpt from the Butyrka blog. Alexei Kozlov writes:

Alexei Kozlov 17:22″I landed in Butyrka on August 4, 2007. It was a Monday. The first thing that strikes you is the attitude towards the inmates. By default, everyone who gets here is considered guilty. The arrestees remarked that they were just accused before the trial are dismissed by the standard response. There are no random people here. If you end up in jail, you are guilty. There’s deplorable sanitation, it’s hard to find words to describe it. Mold covers all the walls, the ceiling peels away. The walls are a depressing dark brown color. There are cracks, stains all over. The left corner, by the window, is their religious corner. Icons, hagiography, the Bible, all set up by the inmates. Everything that can be characterized as humanly acceptable, food, equipment, such as the TV and fridge, and other things exists thanks to inmate’s money or initiative. In sunny weather, the sun never visits the cell. But vitamin pills are prohibited. There’s only cold tap water, they bring you to shower once a week. Care packages containing food and other things for the inmates are delivered the next day at best. It is the parcels that relieve the inmates as local food is just not enough to survive. It turns out that during the Stalin repression period, the cell I stayed in was intended for those sentenced to death. The weight of that atmosphere is felt here to this day.”

Matthew Orr 18:43Trying to understand what Butyrka was like in 2013. We called Nikolai Kavkazsky, a socialist and a participant of the demonstrations against Putin’s third term, who, like many others, spent a year in pre-trial detention facility number two, for participation in those protests.

Nikolai Kavkazsky 19:00″In Butyrka, I stayed in a large building, at the time containing triple cells. In my opinion, the conditions were better than in the common large cells that fit 12 people back then. As far as I know, there are even more people there now. The cell I was in fit four people, while the bigger ones fit 20 instead of 12 inmates. The bunks are very small there. When I returned home and looked at my bed, a standard single, it seemed to me a double. The bunk was a rigid grate with large holes in it and given the thin mattress that is provided it is hard and painful to sleep on. The food was extremely bad. It was impossible to eat anything. This is considering the fact that I’m a vegetarian. The only thing I could eat was cereal in the morning and salad served on holidays made with cabbage and onions. The cell was a little larger than 20 square meters for three people. At the expense of Rosuznik an organization helping prisoners. We got a fridge, fan, kettle, steamer which is very important for cooking. There was a synagogue in jail. I went there although I’m an atheist. I visited it just to mingle with people to come outside of the cell one extra time once a week. We were allowed walks once a day if there were no court hearings or visits that day. Washing was once a week. But if you had a court hearing on the day scheduled for washing, it was unlikely that you would be provided another day to have a wash. And so you went around dirty for two days. Thus, the conditions were not in line with Russian legislation. I read dozens of books out there. It was everything from the Russian classics like Dostoevsky, the ideological literature like the Frankfurt School, Marcuse, Fromm. I read fiction, the Hunger Games, the Swedish trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and so on. I read so many different books.”

Matthew Orr 20:42We talked to Zoya Svetova who worked in the Moscow public monitoring commission from 2008 to 2016 and visited Butyrka among other detention centers. In Soviet times, her mother, a well-known human rights activist, was kept in the neighboring prison. Zoya shared what the detention facility was like in 2009:

Zoya Svetova 21:00″I remember the so-called valley of thieves very well, a place where major crime lords were staying. This unit was in the basement, and the cells were in deplorable condition. The cells were so dirty, I think there were even no partitions between the toilet and the living area. But now it is changing because many things are repaired. After Magnitsky’s death, the worst cells that Butykra were shut down and repaired. But because it is a very old jail, it doesn’t matter how much you repair it there’s still mold on the walls. This is what we were told by the wardens. Of course, there are huge cells, we have seen cells fitting 40 people, and when you come in and see people crawling on the beds, making some structure from scrap materials and sheets, and this is not even the second tier, but the third one, of course, the people are just stuffed in there. There are people who even sleep on the floor. You see this and it produces a terrible impression. Of course, I recollect the photos of famous photographer Valerie Abramkin who captured cells with 60 people. The cell is designed for 20 inmates but fits 60 people. But in general, Butyrka is scarier because we know that there were, and I think they are still in place, so-called pressure houses. Cells were at the request of the prison administration; loyal inmates mercilessly beat the arrestees who refuse to cooperate. These prisons are old, they keep the spirit of those who did time there. When you come there, it makes an impression. From the human rights and detention conditions perspective, I think it would be good to have modern prisons. But it is important that people who work there treat prisoners as people and not criminals, especially when it comes to pre-trial detention. Because the inmates are under pre-trial investigation, they have not been convicted yet. But the guards tend to treat them as dead men walking.”

Matthew Orr 22:51There’s news constantly arriving from Butyrka about someone having committed suicide. Someone found dead with marks of violence on their body, someone complaining of torture. For example, the communists refused to accept the collapse of the Soviet Union and reject current Russian laws. One of the former prosecutors recalls: “On average, there were three corpses a week. Heart failure, suicides, accidents, all the materials have been dismissed, you couldn’t prove anything. When I occupied that position, only one case was started on a murder at Butyrka.” Being part of the prison staff is not easy. This is proven by the fact that in 2017, the deputy head of Butyrka good detention facility was arrested for murdering his family. In January 2014, the Moscow newspaper Bolshoy Gorod wrote that the Moscow investors club wanted to take possession of Butyrka because of its prime location in the city center. To get a bargain they were even ready to build a new detention center far away from the city and transfer all the inmates there. In 2017, historians and activists proposed to make a museum of Butyrka, for example by merging it with the Gulag museum on Petrovka street and the memorial complex of Butovo firing range where thousands of people were executed during the Stalin era terror. In 2018, the press secretary of the Moscow Directorate of the Federal Penitentiary Service, Sergey Tsygankov mentioned for the first time that the oldest in Moscow pretrial detention facility number two would be moved from downtown to the suburbs. Presumably, the detention facility will be relocated from Novslobodskaya Street to the territory of new Moscow 15 kilometers away from the Moscow beltway next to the village of. But after five years of talks, the jail is still there. And instead in autumn of 2019, members of the Moscow PMC, found two inmates in the old tower, which in fact has long not been maintained. PMC is the public monitoring commission. They were created to control the enforcement of prisoners’ rights. However, when human rights activists begin to publish shocking facts from the prisons, most of them were gradually removed from these organizations. For example, a former warden of Butyrka became a member of the Moscow PMC. Here’s what an executive secretary of the Moscow PMC Ivan Melnikov calls about Putin: “When checking the information received, the commission members revealed that one of the towers has operated and two inmates accused of robbery have stayed there. Melnikov said that there was just one bunk bed in the cell and just next to it a squatting pan. It’s like a toilet with no seat.” If the Butyrka population eventually leaves, the building will be given to Moscow’s mayor’s office and it will be up to them what happens next to the jail.

Matthew Orr 25:32This has been Episode Two of Russian limbo. In the next episode, you will learn about Pechatniki, the only female pre-trial detention facility in Moscow. We will explain what men do in women’s detention centers, what food is available at Pechatniki. How many defendants fit in a cell meant for 40 people, and why the inhabitants of the detention facility use different toilets. Russian Limbo is written by Alexey Yurtayev narrated by Matthew Orr, produced by Dmitry Okrest, and Translated by Valeria Khotina. This program is sponsored by the Human Rights Project Team 29 and the historical project about Russia in the 1990s titled “It Collapsed.” For more details, including links, photos, and stories, please visit our Patreon page, you will find a link in the podcast description. Your donations will help us continue bringing you new stories and sounds from Russia’s prisons. Tell your friends and relatives about the Russian Limbo podcast because no one knows when and in what circumstances they may find themselves arrested. It is worth it to be prepared. Please rate this episode and leave your comments on Apple podcasts and on other podcast applications. If you enjoyed this episode, check out the Slavic connection podcast. A fresh talk show on events in the Slavic world and beyond. Find us at Slav x