1 May 2020
Dmitry Bykov, writer
Why is it in Russian society, especially among the so-called elite, people are so disdainful of prisoners? I am constantly running into opinions on the net and in my milieu that Europe is wrong to spend money on human resources and conditions in prisons. The majority in my milieu don’t consider prisoners human beings. Where does this hatred, snobbery, and short-sightedness come from? When it comes to short-sightedness, you’re right because in Russia people have to be prepared for the worst, especially people who for some reason are sure this will never concern them. The more self-assured someone is in this sense, the less he fears, and the more he disdains the unfortunate, then the greater the odds that he’ll be joining them. I well remember a drunken bunch making fun of a poor old woman in a cafe. I couldn’t stand it and went up to them – they were very insulted – and I said, “Someday you’re going to be standing right here and no one will serve you.” They were Nashi members, or maybe not, those very sleek and self-opiniated young people.
When it comes to this kind of attitude toward prisoners, then in Russia the main spiritual binding force – I’ve spoken a lot about this – is the fear of prison, which is why the three main books in Russia are Gulag Archipelago, Sakhalin Island, and Resurrection, the three great anti-prison novels. But it is perfectly obvious that if there are humane conditions in a Russian prison there won’t be that main unifying fear, the fear of ending up there. So far that fear is stronger than any coronavirus. You see, the pandemic in and of itself could never give rise to the wave of panic there is today inside officialdom. Just look: medical directors are jumping out of windows because they could be accused of negligence, blamed for someone’s death. Theirs is the most terrible fear: they’re afraid the same way Soviet military leaders were afraid during the war of being blamed for defeats. As before, the domestic enemy is more frightening than the foreign one, and I don’t understand what this is connected to.
Remember that series of jokes about the Chukchis . . . I hope no one considers this fomenting ethnic discord, since this is part of the folklore of the 1970s. So, two Chukchis are sitting at the edge of the earth and dangling their legs. One says to the other, “Want me to tell you a political joke?” The other one says, “Don’t, they’ll send you to Siberia.” Oh, Siberia is a great place compared with where they are now, it’s civilization, it’s leading edge. But no, you mustn’t go that way. You see, in Russia, prison can panic anyone because you stop being a human being there. There they look at you like an insect, and they can do anything at all to you, judging from the pictures of torture we observe including in present-day Russian literature, including in several recently published novels, including the new novel by Sasha Filippenko, and so forth.
No matter what we read in Russia, what frightens everyone is prison, and basically that’s right, because nothing worse can happen to a Russian person in this context. Death in this context is a great deliverance. Therefore, it’s natural that never in Russia, at least present-day Russia, which is holding on by fear, will there be a reform of the penitentiary system, never will there be humane conditions. In prisons, the Federal Penitentiary Service is never going to listen to human rights activists. In some ways it does listen, this federal penitentiary system, but for the most part, never, because prison isn’t a sanatorium. “Why, in fact, improve prisoners’ lives?” Please, tell me, what incentive will there be in Russia then to behave like a human being? What other than terror can frighten anyone here? First of all, life is such that there’s not really anything to frighten people with, and secondly, this fear resides in our genes, it’s been pounded into our bones.
Translated by Marian Schwartz