Lyosha Badayev

OPINION; Notes From a Russian Penal Colony

By Mikhail Khodorkovsky
Published: April 1, 2012

Penal Colony No. 7, Segezha, Russia

I am writing these notes because I want to convey to caring people what I have experienced in prison.

With the passing of time, as I've turned from an ordinary victim into an interested observer, I have discovered that for many people the prison population remains a terra incognita.

Yet three-quarters of a million people, one out of every 190 inhabitants of our country, are here. Moreover, prison has the same nightmarish effect on both prisoners and prison guards. And it is not yet clear which of them gets it worse.

Society needs to do something about this calamity. For a start, people need to know about it.

Lyosha Badayev, a normal Siberian Buryat kid from a distant village. Broad, round face, black eyes in a constant squint. Doesn't remember his parents, raised by an aunt. Attended school for two years, then began working as a shepherd on the communal herd.

One unlucky day, he tangled with a thief who was trying to steal a sheep. He threw a rock at him and hit him in the head. The thief turned out to be tough and quickly recovered. Lyosha panicked and did something irrevocable: He hit the thief again with a rock. Then again.

Realizing what had happened, he abandoned the herd and bolted.

They caught him by accident after a few months, about 600 miles from home, when he tried to steal some food. Trial, sentenced to six and a half years. Not unfair, if you take the circumstances into account. Labor camp for minors, now "adult" prison.

I met with Lyosha at the sewing shop, where he had found a place. A hard-working kid, quiet, discreet.

Some time later I am punished for something, and I take the prison administration to court. Unexpectedly, I learn that Lyosha is being summoned as a witness. I have no doubt he will say what they want him to say. In the camps there are many ways to "persuade."

And so the trial. All the "main people" are there: the camp commander, the head of operations, deputies. The chairman of the city court presides.

Lyosha is summoned. He is clearly bewildered and scared, speaks haltingly -- but he tells the truth! I exchange confused glances with my lawyer. Our opponents also exchange glances.

The judge excuses Lyosha. Lyosha walks out, then promptly comes back. "He" -- Lyosha points at the head of operations -- "gave me two packs of cigarettes and told me to lie."

I look at the other side. The operations guy is outwardly calm, but turning livid.

"But I didn't lie," Lyosha goes on. "I said the truth. The cigarettes -- here they are." And he hands the judge a pack of L&Ms. "I smoked the other one," he admits. "I've never had such cigarettes."

Silence.

"Well, should I go, or is there anything else?"

"Go, go, you've already said it all," the camp chief says.

Lyosha leaves. Again silence.

Finally, the judge speaks: "It's all in the protocol. If anything happens to the kid, I will make the protocol public."

After the trial I approach Lyosha. "Why did you do that? You know there will be problems."

"You didn't do me any harm. I couldn't."

And he leaves.

There followed the inevitable reckoning. Sometimes, coming out of the punishment cell, I'd learn that Lyosha was also there. He was taken off the sewing job. But when we occasionally ran into each other, Lyosha would smile and say, "Everything's normal."

Of course what happened became known throughout the camp. And when I asked to be immediately told if anyone tried to beat up Lyosha (such methods are rather common), the reply was amazing: "Who'll take that chance? The administration is afraid; the zeks now respect him." ("Zek" is slang for prisoner.)

After six months I was transferred to another prison. Lyosha's sentence had ended long before that. What happened to him? I don't know and don't want to find out, so as not to cause him any problems. But I really hope that he is living his life without fear and with dignity.

To cut a deal with one's conscience -- to lie, keep quiet, "not notice," hiding behind the claim that it's "for my family." To convince oneself that "such are the times," or that "everyone does it." Who are we really dealing with? How do we find out that the other party -- the conscience -- refuses to deal? When we find ourselves face to face with disaster? Or later, when we are tallying up our life and become painfully aware that there's no more dodging the raindrops, that there remain only memories?

But by then you can't change anything.