Anna Karpova: The Unstable Prisoner, the Exclusion Zone, and Infinity

Alexei Gaskarov and Anna Karpova. Photo courtesy of Anna Karpova and PRI
Alexei Gaskarov and Anna Karpova. Photo courtesy of Anna Karpova and PRI

Anna Karpova
The Unstable Prisoner, the Exclusion Zone, and Infinity
Snob.ru
June 18, 2016

“Gaskarov has had reprimands both at the pretrial detention facility and the penal colony. There have been commendations, too. He works hard, studies well, and runs economics seminars for the inmates. But now he gets reprimands, then he gets commendations He is unstable somehow, unstable.”

Lieutenant Colonel Plaksin (I now always pay attention to such things) stared at the table. He was trying to explain to the judge why the wardens of the penal colony were opposed to paroling my husband.

I remember how I was invited to the studios of TV Rain the day the second wave of Bolotnaya Square defendants was sentenced to talk about we would do next. I put on a brave face and said the heck with the sentence. We would get everyone out on parole. But who knew Plaksin would be staring at the table?

There really is an outstanding reprimand in convict Gaskarov’s personal file: for not greeting an employee of the prison administration. When the judge was reading out the report on this terrible incident, I got goosebumps myself. Was this the man I had married?!

In short, the request for parole was denied.

The handful of people to whom the Bolotnaya Square case still matters send us rays of supports and remind us that, in the worst circumstances, we have a little less than four and a half months to wait.  They assure me the time can be done “standing on one leg.” It is nothing compared to the three years already served.

But that is not how it works.

Maybe I have been playing Fallout 3 (a video game about life on earth after a nuclear war) way too much, but I will say this. The trials and hearings, the pretrial detention facilities, and the penal colonies are like exclusion zones, places with elevated radiation levels that (I will tell you a secret) poison and destroy the individual. The more time you spend there, the worse the consequences are. Everyone involved in the process is irradiated. The prisoner and his family have it the worst of all, of course. Friends, acquaintances, and sympathizers are also affected, albeit on a lesser scale. The impact of the “radiation” does not end when the sentence ends.

The radiation sickness caused by the Russian penitentiary system can manifest itself in very different ways. For example, when it is quite hard to admit your absolute helplessness before court and prison functionaries, you might think there was “that one piece of paper” that could have fixed everything, but you fools did not bother about it. The thought eats into your brains and prevents you from working, sleeping, and communicating with each other. Worst of all, you look for someone to blame. Who messed up? The lawyer? The prisoner? His wife? His parents? The incident then comes up in every stressful situation, most likely, after release as well. The gulf between what prisoners have gone through and what their families went through fighting on the outside can be bridged only by the most patient and wisest. The former will never fully understand what it was like for the latter, and vice versa.

Each week spent there, behind the penal colony’s dilapidated fence, means the risk of sustaining all the major injuries and traumas that will make themselves felt in the most unexpected situations for a long time to come. Not to mention the fact that if you suddenly have the most ordinary appendicitis on the inside, you are probably a goner.

When I am asked whether everything is okay, whether there have been problems at the penal colony, it is enough for everyone to hear that my husband has not been transferred to maxim security, and that neither the wardens nor the inmates have been messing with him, but that amounts to only ten percent of possible problems. The other ninety percent have to do with how inmates and their families digest what has happened to their lives. And it not the done thing to talk about it, but an additional four and a half months feel like an infinity and keep on poisoning the lives of those who wait.

This means there is no “only” when we are talking about the remainder of a prison sentence. And it means we must fight for every month of freedom, even for a single month. By the way, that is how it is going to be with us.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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