Russian Limbo: Kresty Prison

Photo: Kresty Prison Saint Petersburg, Russia. Credit: Ninara, Wikimedia Commons.
Photo: Kresty Prison Saint Petersburg, Russia. Credit: Ninara, Wikimedia Commons.

Over the last century, Saint Petersburg's Kresty Prison has been home to some of Russia’s most famous political activists, authors, poets, and scientists. The red brick walls on the banks of the Neva house 200 years of stories of oppression, brutality, and torture. However, more recent stories reveal an institution, with an already bleak reputation, only worsening in the last two decades under an increasingly authoritarian Russia.

Matthew Orr 0:00
Have you ever been to a detention facility? I haven't. But I have an idea of what to expect three meals a day books exercise in the fresh air ancd conversations with cellmates. It's like an indoor summer camp. But the people and living conditions are far harsher. And you don't necessarily get to go home at the end of summer.

Hello, everyone. This is Russian Limbo, a podcast about some of Russia's most notorious pretrial detention facilities, or more simply jails. These institutions house people who are not yet convicted, but have been charged with the crime. Sometimes people are kept nice facilities for years, and yet few people know what it's really like inside one. In fact, what happens in a Russian detention facility usually stays there, only to be known to the guards and the detainees, just as is so often the case in the US in many parts of the world. However, Russian Limbo is here to change all that. We will explain how pretrial detention facilities work in Russia, and bring you the stories of those who have been inside those veiled institutions. We translated the original podcast into English so that a global audience can learn what a Russian pre trial detention facility is, what happens behind the walls of the most infamous locations, and why one should avoid landing in any of them at all cost. More details, photos, videos and texts can be found on our Patreon page. Your donations will help us improve and expand this project. You'll find the link in the podcast description. We look forward to your feedback.

What do we know about Russian pre trial detention centres? There are some 308 operational facilities as of January 1, 2019, they were inhabited by 99,722 people, and it's easy to wind up there. Moscow courts have granted 99% of petitions by prosecutors for the detention terms to be extended. In the regions of Russia, this number amounts to 98%. Seriously, in Russia, it is essentially impossible to be granted house arrest or bail. People are placed in controlled isolation for simply one reason, so that they don't abscond during the investigation or trial. It is both impossible and unnecessary to talk about all of the 308 detention centres, but there are several which have a distinctive story housing structures built in the 19th century, or adjacent to prisons in which some legendary convicts were held. First up is a prison in St. Petersburg known as Kresty. The music you hear in the background was written by rapper Sergei Kuznetsov, aka Ken, when he was held in the legendary St. Petersburg Kresty Jail.

In 2009, Kuznetsov worked for a furniture production company. Not much for education, he became addicted to drugs. In his own words, he smoked weed, you speed and then turn to harder narcotics in 2011. He was sentenced to four years and six months in prison under Article 228. In Russia. nearly a third of all prisoners are convicted under this article about drug possession. In 2019 alone, 78,000 people were sentenced and 53 law enforcement officers were found guilty of tampering with the evidence. The Rapper refuses to confirm the actual reason for his conviction. But while it Kresty, behind the fence as they say, he began to write about "the zone," which is the Russian slang term for jail or prison freedom and organised crime in St. Petersburg. This earned him the respect of other inmates. Who even asked him to write some verses to send to family. In 2014, Kuznetsov was led out on parole. It was then he announced the release of his album that had been illegally recorded at Christie. On Sergey Kuznetsov's social media profile it states, the tracks were created and recorded at St. Petersburg Kresty Prison. When I was doing my time, it was all done illegally, and therefore, the quality of the recordings leaves much to be desired. But this is not important. The main thing is that everyone should be able to feel the emotions experienced by people behind the fence. It might help someone to avoid making mistakes and paying the price. Appreciate freedom, free air for everyone. Kuznetsov is not the first rapper to produce music in a Russian prison. He is also not the first to dedicate his poetry to Kresty. Over the 200 years of the St. Petersburg prisons existence. Many artists, writers, poets and scientists call this place home at some point. Perhaps the most famous poem to come out of Kresty was written by Anna Akhmatova, renowned poet test of the Silver Age.

For Akhmatova, one could say Kresty was a family institution. In August 1921, her husband, poet and historian Nikolai Gumilev was taken from the St. Petersburg prison to be executed. Then, in August 1938, her son, orientalist and philosopher Lev Gumilev, also found himself in the same detention facility, and Akhmatova's life and poetry of an era gone by remain as testaments to the bondage and destructive power of this prison, which Sergei Kuznetsov's album verifies in this modern age. At the beginning of the 18th century, at the site of the detention facility on Arsenalnaya Embankment was the so called wine town. The exact origins of this name are uncertain, but it comes either from the Russian root for guilt or wine, which fittingly are identical in Russia. It was redesigned into a central transit prison in 1868. A few years later, the complex was demolished. And by 1892, a brick prison had been built instead. Kresty, which means crosses, got its name due to the shape of the building, two five storey cross shaped blocks containing about 1000 single cells. Thus, Kresty was designed as a solitary confinement jail. Made of dark red brick, it doesn't resemble a prison from the outside at all. In fact, in the early 20th century, it was considered very modern white walls, wooden floors, windows instead of thin panes. Kresty was the first of the Russian prisons to have electricity. The cells themselves were quite simple. A table, a stool, a bunk, and a shelf with utensils. The door had a small window, the guards would bring food and observe the prisoners through it. Any official reports about Kresty often quote the architect behind the prison, Anthony Osipovic Tomishko. He allegedly said that the cross shaped building would remind the prisoners of their sins, which would help them to repent faster. But in reality, there's a practical reason for the crucifix design. The guards who occupied one of the two buildings found it easier to watch the prisoners. Maybe that's why in 200 years only one person has ever managed to escape Kresty the legendary St. Petersburg Raider, Lenka Panteleev, who nevertheless was shot by security officers on the way out. Panteleev is neither the first nor the last to attempt to escape. But usually escapees were detained on Kresty territory. That is in isolation.

During the revolution, Kresty was mostly inhabited by political prisoners, such as Profiry Infantiev, prominent Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, Soviet Minister of Education and art historian Anatoly Lunacharsky, Military Commander and Hero of the Soviet Union Konstantin Rokossovksy, and others. In the early 20th century, Infantiev wrote that it was, quote, "the jail with spacious, bright, and extremely clean corridors. There wasn't a single speck of dust and everything shone. However, by the middle of the 20th century, the cells had ceased to be solitary, each of them crammed with several rows of beds. While the original sanitary environment harmed prisoners went without meaningful human interaction for a long time, the subsequent cluster conditions created more suffering for prisoners due to overcrowding. By early 1963, Nobel Prize winner and literature Joseph Brodsky found himself in Kresty. Here's what he had to say about the prison interview with Solomon Volkov.

Joseph Brodsky 8:36
Visually Kresty is a tremendous scene. I don't mean the courtyard, because it is pretty trivial. Actually, I didn't get to see it much when working in the more the inside view, because this prison was built at the end of the 19th century. And it's not exactly Art Nouveau, but still, all these galleries, springs, wire, just like the work of the Italian architect Piranesi absolutely, sort of a-la-Russe. No, not a-la-Russe rather, a German tendency, like an old factory, redbrick just everywhere."

Matthew Orr 9:10
In 2015, by what would have been Brodsky's 75th birthday. Prison authorities found the cell where the poet had served his time. Some journalists said that there was a nice view from it. Oh, and in that same year, a student tried to smuggle amphetamine into Kresty detention facility with a remote control toy helicopter. If you can believe it. In the 90s and 2000s, the prison deteriorated. Crowded and hot cells are simply dangerous for inmates. The European Court of Human Rights fined Russia $7,500 for keeping a Nigerian citizen in torturous conditions. By the beginning of the 21st century, Kresty detention facility had become one of the most famous pretrial detention centres in Russia. On social media and our websites dedicated to prisons, it is written that those who have passed through Kresty, are sometimes called Pakhan, aka Goomba, Bull goose or kingpin that is authority figures amongst prisoners. However, many of those did their time their laugh at this obsolete title. In the 2010s, due to the simplified access to information in the work of the human rights community, the public learned about high profile cases and deaths amongst the inmates. In 2011, Novaya Gazeta wrote about the case of Sergei Konoval. He ended up in Kresty detention facility on February 2 of that year. Just two days later, on February 4, he was found dead with a noose around his neck. Earlier the Investigative Committee opened a criminal case against him for sexual assault. This is one of the numerous cases of suicide amongst those charged with this article. It was at Kresty that an American accused of paedophilia was found dead. Another high profile incident happened in July 2015. St. Petersburg resident Evgeny Romanov was detained because he was allegedly drunk in the street. During the personal search at the police station, the police officers found a plastic bag filled with drugs. Romanov claimed that the prohibited substances had been planted since during the first inspection on the street, the police had found nothing. Romanov was sent to Christie on suspicion of drug trafficking, and five months later he died cause of death, heart failure, and arrhythmia. Romanov was found guilty in late 2017. But the case was dismissed because of his passing. Romanov's mother sought justice. She believed that the doctors failed to diagnose his heart disease and prescribe strong anti psychotics which amplified the underlying condition. Only in 2019 did the mother of the deceased prisoner win damages in the amount of half a million rubles against the infirmary, the Federal Penitentiary Service of Russia. Even President Vladimir Putin has noted that teeth are extracted without the use of anaesthetics in this facility. We talk to members of the public onitoring Commission and the human rights activists who visited Kresty in the 2000s and 2010s. Today, former police officers push human rights defenders out of the public monitoring Commissions, particularly those whose activities have led to the disclosure of torture in prisons. Here's what some of the human rights defenders who are now barred from entering these prisons say about Kresty.

Yana Kosaryovskaya was a member of a PMC from late 2016 to the end of 2019. She documented the use of electricity in torture methods that have been applied to Russian Antifa members convicted on the trumped up "network" case.

Yana Kosaryovskaya 12:48
The first time I visited Kresty was more than three years ago. Back then we arrived due to a problematic and unconfirmed report that a person was allegedly being tortured, but we couldn't go farther than the administrative building. The warden of Kresty told us that the person wasn't being held in the facility. But we saw the administrative building with portraits of Kresty's wardens from over the last hundred years. While the portrait of the warden who worked there in the 30s, the great terror period, was expressed the missing. After that we used to visit Kresty quite often. The detention facility is conveniently located in the city. So when we went inside where inmates stay, they told us a ridiculous legend that the architect who built Kresty is in cell 1000. He was locked in bricked up so there are only 999 cells. We noticed violations from the start and there were many. Generally in my experience, it is impossible to come to a place of forced attention and not to see violations. Sometimes they are necessary sometimes not. Because following the law in Russia is often impossible. Old Kresty was a disaster. Almost all cells were of eight square meters and in these eight square meters for strangers lived and had to remain together all the time. Such a room is smaller than most bathrooms, especially in the U.S. Of course, there is no hot water and according to the internal regulations, there should be different small tables and additional benches that don't even fit into the cell. A petition of grievances is not kept. And we tried to bring this up from the very beginning. There was a psychiatric ward which now exists in new Kresty, too, but the PMC members have not been allowed there. They also haven't been allowed in the facility outside the hours. This was always suspicious and quite scary.

Matthew Orr 14:39
In the 2000s, it was decided that the inhabitants of Kresty should be removed to allow for the construction of a bigger prison, which would accommodate 4,000 people on the outskirts of St Petersburg. Construction commenced in 2007 the prison department proudly announced that the new Kresty would be the largest pretrial detention center in the world. By 2017 the construction and ended in the prisoners were moved out of Kresty. Here's a fragment of a short TV news episode on the opening of the new Kresty detention facility

Reporter 15:14
By opening the sliding bolt the warden seems to lift the veil of secrecy over the interior of the new cells. 30 square meters almost a studio apartment. There is a refrigerator and a TV set, judging by the size of which it was transferred from the old Kresty jail, a separate toilet. Compared with the old Kresty the new detention facility can be granted several stars.

Matthew Orr 15:36
The jail in Kolpina was built in the image of old Kresty but in line with Western prison standards with spacious cells. Representatives of the Federal Penitentiary Service explained the preservation of the cruciform shape of the building as a matter of concern for the welfare of all prisoners. Quote, "during daylight hours, the sun, unfailingly attends all inmates said the agency despite the comfort of the new pre trial detention facility, there have been reports of torture. In August 2019, a large scale inspection of Kresty to began after the human rights organisation Gulag.net published a secret video, which two men be an arrestee with a stick in demanded 20,000 rubles from him. The victims claims of brutality made it to the local prosecutor's office. However, investigators concluded that the video had been fabricated, and the victim had been allegedly smeared with red paint. But the three men in the video were charged with extortion. Now the founder of Gulag.net, is forced to live abroad. Here's what Yana Teplitskaya says about new Kresty. She was also a member of the PMC from 2016 to 2019. Before she was deprived of access to penitentiaries, she published a report the name of which can be shortened to quote, "How the FSB conducts torture." The authors of the research collected medical reports and petitions among other things. This is the first comprehensive document on torture by the FSB, which is Russia's state security and intelligence service, and is the successor to the KGB.

Yana Teplitskaya 17:10
Almost all the new cells of Kresty house for people that is, of course, much better than in other detention facilities. There's less space for violence in this situation. We have seen an endless number of stories of violence and the Gorelova detention facility number six located in the Leningrad region. There are cells for more than 100 people, and all sorts of horrible things happen. Massive torture by the so called activists, inmates who at the request of the prison administration beat other inmates to obtain the desired information for the dealers. After the inspection, the arrested admit to beating another inmate. On the other hand, the new Kresty has seen new cases of violence. Unfortunately, modern confinement conditions, larger cells, more space and video surveillance are just not enough to prevent this and don't guarantee anything. And for the record, there are not that many video cameras that Kresty and when convenient they cut out. For example, we fought for quite some time for improved detention conditions of immigrants from Central Asia, the defendants in the case of terrorist attacks in St. Petersburg. The evidence basis was highly controversial and the defendants for persistently kept in cells with broken video cameras. The lack of video surveillance was used for provocations against them. We filed a lawsuit against the prohibition on questioning defendants about the torture. For some reason, Kresty has a strange attitude to cells. There's a special unit where inmates are kept in solitary confinement, people are placed there for so called bad behaviour. Sometimes it means that a person filed a lot of complaints. Sometimes it happens at the request of the investigators and sometimes it has something to do with the crime. In general, some people who according to the administration needs to be closely watched our place in segregation, where they stay in solitary confinement. Again, there is no hot water and no video cameras.

Matthew Orr 19:08
There are no more inmates in the old Kresty at the moment. city authorities are still discussing what to do with this cultural heritage site. Perhaps Christie will face the fate of the no less legendary boutique naval prison. Now look it on the New Holland Island, a mecca for St. Petersburg hipsters, sells returned into showrooms and cafes, prisoners were replaced with fashionistas, tourists and foreigners. Moscow wants to exploit the experience of St Petersburg. There are plans to move the arrestees from the Butyrka and Matrosskaya Tishina pre trial detention facilities to new centers in the suburbs. Prisons in the centers of large cities may soon disappear entirely. Interestingly, the deputy director of the Federal Penitentiary Service of Russia was charged with kickback schemes amounting to 44 million rubles during the construction of Kresty Two the accounts chamber claimed the inefficient use by the Federal Penitentiary Service of Russia of more than $20,000 including through the construction of new Kresty. This lack of control was not surprising because back in the day two convicts escaped from the construction site itself. In the next episode, we will talk about Butyrka Moscow's oldest prison, which has been expected to move out the center, the Russian Capitol for five years now. The conditions are not great, the roof leaks The walls are covered with mould. Cells are so overcrowded that the arrested are placed in the tower that is 250 years old. We will explain who and how escaped from Butyrka and bring you to the story of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, which began at Butyrka, and eventually influenced the relationship between the U.S. and Russia. This has been Episode One of Russian Limbo programme dedicated to Russia's most famous detention facilities and the stories from behind their walls. Russian Limbo is written by Alexey Yurtaev, narrated by Matthew Orr, produced by Dimitri Okrest and Maria Tchernyh, and translated by Valeria Khotsina. This programme is sponsored by the Human Rights Project Team 29, and historical project about Russia in the 90s entitled "It collapsed." For more details, including links, photos and stories, please visit our Patreon page, you will find the link in the podcast description. Your donations will help us continue bringing 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 might find themselves arrested is worth it to be prepared. Please rate this episode and leave your comments in the apple podcasts on other podcast application. 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 slavxradio.com