“I had begun to feel I was born in prison and just had been released for a short time”
Alexei Polikhovich talks about spending three years behind bars for the right to think freely
November 5, 2015
Alexei Polikhovich, one of the few defendants in the Bolotnaya Square case who had actually been politically active before the ill-fated protest rally of May 6, 2012, has been released from prison. (We now understand this was the reason people were jailed: on suspicion of having vigorous civic stances.) Before Bolotnaya Square, Polikhovich, for example, had defended the Tsagovsky Forest and been involved in the antifascist movement. Some of those now spending their fourth year in prison after being convicted in the case had ended up on Bolotnaya Square by accident, but Polikhovich had chosen this way of life, a life of open struggle, consciously. It is a dangerous way of life to lead in our country, even if the way you fight your cause is ten times within the law. But Polikhovich consciously chose this way of thinking, and marched to Bolotnaya Square in the antifascist column.
However, on Bolotnaya Square on May 6, 2012, Polikhovich caught hell just as randomly as other protesters. Police pulled them from the crowd in the heat of the moment without looking .
Polikhovich insisted on his innocence at his court hearings. He knew he was being tried for his convictions.
Three years in prison were supposed to reform what? Polikhovich’s beliefs? He remained, however, true to his beliefs throughout his imprisonment. If reform meant betraying them, then Polikhovich has not been reformed, as he himself says. But he still learned something.
After his release, Polikhovich talked about the lessons he learned in prison.
I have not seen people in color for three years. I have forgotten what it was like to have women and children around. Simple things seem new right now. After being in the penal colony, I think Moscow is quite beautiful.
When I got to Petrovka [38, Moscow police HQ], I did not understand how serious things were. I took everything as an excursion, a rough excursion, but an excursion nonetheless.
The wording “actively involved in destructive youth organizations” was included in my arrest sheet. The Center “E” officers [“anti-extremist” police] did not have a clear opinion about me, whether I was a rightist or leftist. What group should they assign me to? What mattered was that it should sound terrible.
The police investigators found us interesting. They had been used to dealing with Islamists and neo-Nazis. But leftists, social democrats, and liberals, everyone who had been arrested on trumped-up political charges, were something unfamiliar to them. The investigators enjoyed chatting with us. I remember one such conversation. A crowd of investigators was standing before me, and I was telling them why I was in jail. I explained I had not wanted to hit anyone, that had not been the objective. Well, I expressed it simply.
They immediately tensed.
“What was the objective? Who set the objective?” they asked. They think crudely.
Other inmates knew about our case, and I never encountered flagrantly negative attitudes towards us in this connection. On the contrary, sometimes they would see articles about us and come running with the newspaper: “Oh, it’s about our rock star.” I also encountered not very well-educated people who thought that since I had been jailed for a protest rally that meant I was a nationalist. Several times, I quite seriously cussed people out for saying this: it offended me.
I had expected remand prison would involve total isolation, but it was like a rural village in there: everyone was connected with everyone else. It was its own society. In Butyrka remand prison, they explained to me how to “spur the horses.” In prison, “the horses” is the rope that connects cells and works like an intercom. Books were soaked with narcotics and passed on to those who needed them. Because of this, by the way, the flow of regular books into the prison slowed down. According to the internal code of inmates, formal channels for getting groceries and cigarettes into the prison should not be compromised.
The penal colony, where you are not locked up in eight square meters, seems like the regular world compared to the remand prison. You can see the sky. You can spot newcomers to the colony immediately: we all arrived looking pale. We had almost turned into mushrooms after two years of hearings and trials. I drank up the sunshine with my skin. I got a dark tan right away.
At one point, I even thought I had been born in prison. It was just that I had been let out. I had quickly found myself friends, a wife, and parents. I had screwed up somehow and gone back to prison.
In the colony, you can learn to be a tailor, a lathe operator, an electrician or an auto mechanic. The phrase “Labor liberates” is written on the gates of the manufacturing zone. I studied sewing for six months, then I studied to be a lathe operator while also working as a sewing machine operator. Convicts sew sheets, pillowcases, suits, blankets, and bags. In anticipation of my release, I sewed a rucksack for myself and Tanya, my wife. I had also sent her an apron and some bags.
In prison, people have no way of filtering incoming information. They mainly read bad newspapers. They also would take out the [philosophical and] literary journal Logos, which has no pictures, have a gander at it and be amazed. If you put convicts on a diet of [the national newspapers] Novaya Gazeta, Vedomosti and even Moskovsky Komsomolets for a month, they would catch on to something. But they would watch TV constantly, then would come to me and dump on me about how bad things were in Ukraine and what a trooper Putin was. They particularly liked all the trash on REN TV about reptilians and conspiracy theories.
Few people read good books in prison. They mainly read fluffy stuff, detective novels and bad sci-fi. Books from the outside are rarely “reeled in.” Falanster bookstore and I organized a book fair of sorts: beginning with my time in the remand prison, they sent me an endless stream of books. They sent so many books I would have had to serve another sentence just to finish reading them! When I was released, I took only a single rucksack with me, containing only books and letters. When you leave prison, you have to leave as much behind as possible. Not everyone in there has two pairs of warm socks. I took the books I was certain would interest no one: William Zinsser’s On Writing Well and [Ditmar] Rosenthal’s Russian language textbook. I thought I should finally learn Russian properly, so I would not be ashamed to print what I wrote. I also brought out an anthology of lectures from the Priamukhino Readings.
These three years have happened. I cannot cut them off or cross them out. I probably would not have wanted to spend them in prison, but I spent them there. This foundation, this experience on which I now stand, I cannot push it out from under my own feet. Not because I would fall, but because I just cannot do it physically. It is difficult. It is a rock.
Am I angry at anyone? I did not suffer catastrophically over these three years. I can be angry at the system on behalf of my loved ones. They certainly did not deserve it and are not guilty of anything.
I probably have become angrier over the last three years. And a little weary.
Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Gabriel Levy for the suggestion