What a Russian prison smells like

Peter Pomerantsev

Of all the pages of comment and analysis I’ve read since Mikhail Khodorkovsky was suddenly pardoned on Friday by Vladimir Putin after spending ten years in prison, a note on the Facebook page of the film critic Roman Volobuev stood out:

All day I’ve been thinking: 10 years in a Russian prison! You know what a Russian prison smells like? I’ve been to Russian prisons a couple of times for work and I still dream of that smell periodically. And now a man who’s been there ten years is in a nice hotel room, takes off his socks and walks barefoot on the carpet, or has a drink of Glenlivet and just lies down in the bath... and all that stuff about the Future of Democracy. That can wait.

‘The smell is the first thing that hits you when you enter prison,’ Yana Yakovleva once told me. ‘Mould, damp and cigarettes.’ Yakovleva had owned a medium-sized pharmaceuticals firm and was arrested when bureaucrats wanted it for themselves. (They were following the precedent set by Putin and Igor Sechin, BP’s latest business partner, when they jailed Khodorkovsky and took away his business.) Yakovleva spent eight months behind bars awaiting trial. When she came out she found that all the documents she had passed to her lawyers while inside, all her letters and witness statements, still held that prison smell. It was in the paper.

I spent several days working on a feature film at a prison in Moscow ten years ago. It was an old tsarist jail. Red-brick, built around a yard, from which you could look up and see the hands of prisoners sticking out of cell windows and swinging little bags of drugs and cigarettes to each on long strings. It took technique to swing and catch the bags. The prison guards turned a blind eye, presumably profiting from the business one way or another.

The film I was working on was a drama about an American lost in the Russian underworld. We needed to shoot several scenes in which the hero meets his boss, a Russian tycoon who has just been arrested, in his jail cell (we started production before Khodorkovsky’s arrest; he was seized and jailed while we were making the movie). A prison officer took me and the set designer to look for a suitable cell. The corridors were narrow and the walls of the prison were dripping with some sort of liquid. The guard opened a door. I retched from the smell. The cell was long and triangular. There could have been space for about eight bunks but there must have been more than thirty men inside, packed to the ceiling, all curled up at strange angles. The cell stank of socks, semen, mould, sweat, fear. A lot of the inmates were grinning. It was early in the morning and they were watching cartoons.

‘But this cell is full of people,’ I told the guard.

‘That’s no problem, we can move them,’ he answered.

The set designer said the room had good depth of field. One of the inmates asked whether they would get to see the film.

‘You won’t: you’re not getting out for a while,’ the guard said.

Everyone laughed.

I came across the prison smell often in the years that followed: in the billiard bars favoured by gangsters in Ussurijsk, in the station at Kiev and everywhere in Krasnoyarsk, in stairwells and unlicensed cabs and apartments. After a while I sort of got used to it, in a country where anyone from any walk of life, from an oligarch to a punk singer to a teacher to a poet can end up in prison on a whim. ‘The prison population,’ Khodorkovsky wrote in one of his prison letters to the New Times, ‘remains for many a terra incognita. But here you find every tenth (or is it now every seventh?) grown male. And it breaks the overseers as much as the inmates. I’m not even sure yet who it breaks more.’


  • 4 January 2014 at 1:08am
    sigoldberg1 says:
    Dear Mr. Pomerantsev, Referring to "But here you find every tenth (or is it now every seventh?) grown male." in the article above, can you provide a reference for the number? How does it compare with the US number of about 1% of the adfult population in prison at any given time, said to be extremely high. Could the Russian number be a cumulative number of those who have ever been in prison (lifetime risk)? Thanks.

  • 5 January 2014 at 6:51pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    I have the same question as sigoldberg above -- 10 to 14% of the adult male population might be something like 4 to 5 million men (an off-the-cuff estimate), perhaps more. Does Russia actually have this much cell space, even when inmates are packed together like sardines? And, as a follow-up question, are there any prison/work-camps left from the old GULAG system that are still in use under the present regime? If so, are there categories of crimes that lead to sentencing to such camps rather than prison?

  • 9 January 2014 at 12:30pm
    Peter Pomerantsev says:
    Dear Tim and sigoldberg1,

    MBK was referring to the amount of Russian men who have ever been to prison. Due to his location he might not have had reference to the latest stats: the figure one usually sees is that one in four grown Russian men have spent time in prison. I should have been clearer in the translation.

    US incarceration rates are in a league of their own, though in a somewhat different judicial framework: Russia comes next out of the major countries.

    Re prison conditions, Pussy Riot's Nadezhda has been the most eloquent recently.

    There's some pieces on Open Democracy Russia about prisons in general and the gulag legacy in particular. Here's one of several

    Hope this helps!