Friday, December 16, 2005

Life in a Kyrgyz Penal Colony

Felix Kulov, the current Prime Minister of Kyrgyzstan, a former Mayor of Bishkek and KGB officer, was sent to a Soviet-style penal colony by the country's former ruler, Askar Akayev. Now, he tells what life was like as a political prisoner. It reminded me of Natan Sharansky and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Kulov concluded that the prison experience made him sterner, but not crueler.
Ferghana.Ru: A question to a former policeman and an ex-prisoner. What did imprisonment teach you?

Felix Kulov: I have never thought about it. I do not think it changed me much. Why? Because I never lost touch with my friends beyond the prison walls. I had different sources of information, you know. This prison experience, I'd say that it gave me a lot. There were few hardened criminals behind the bars, you know. Most prisoners were ordinary men jailed for all sorts of reasons. Say, for tax-evasion... They all were different. For example, some prisoners were brilliant software specialists, others were businessmen. Different people. I mean, they were not the scum of society, you know. Just ordinary men... Sure, there were criminals as well, professional criminals. They went on stealing from others right there. Men like that, they cannot help it. Some were junkies. I saw them all. From the point of view of knowledge of life, it was really an experience. It was interesting as well from the point of view of proving oneself. What would I do under the circumstances? How would I behave? What am I?

As a matter of fact, I'm not ashamed for my behavior. I did not stoop. It was all very open and transparent there. Whether or not a man commanded respect and what treatment among other prisoners he got depended on the man himself. Do something venal, and you will be treated accordingly no matter who or what you were in the past life. You begin with scratch over there. I will only tell you that I commanded respect among my fellow prisoners.

There were 600 prisoners in all, including 50 or 60 who were what was termed "reds". That means ex-servicemen of the Internal Troops, former policemen, etc. The rest were the so called "blacks" and they all were divided into two categories. I was a political prisoner. "You are fighting for your truth, and we respect you for that," I was told by both camps or whatever they were. I had their respect but I never meddled in their affairs. They live by their own laws there. I did not set these laws and rules in the first place and knew enough to keep my distance.

As a matter of fact, that's an interesting subject. What is a penal colony? A territory fenced in, with watchtowers and soldiers on them, with people living inside that territory. It is absolutely deserted by night. Just two men somewhere on the tower, warrant officers on duty. They are unarmed, but have a radio to make their reports. A Soviet system, you know. A penal colony, not prison. In Western movies all cells open simultaneously, prisoners take their daily walk, and get herded back in later on. That's probably how things are done there, I do not know. It is different in our penal colonies. You get in, there is not one other prisoner around, you are on your own. Decades of the Soviet regime and this penitentiary system resulted in appearance of certain rules.

Say, a prisoner is not supposed to carry a knife openly. No fights are permitted. Whoever has to settle some issue in that manner, they have to go to the so called forbidden zone beyond the barbed wire. The survivor comes back. That's logical, or there will be endless fights. Sure, they occur too, but they always incur a punishment. A prisoner who got drunk should not show it because not everyone has access to booze. Prisoners do get drunk, but they are supposed to behave themselves. They'd have killed each other in no time at all otherwise. They are all "heroes" there, you know. Shortly speaking, it took many generations of prisoners literally decades to work out all these rules.

Some men become thieves by statute which elevates them to the highest status of the underworld hierarchy. It is they who see to it that these rules are observed and enforce them whenever necessary. Here is one of the rules. Whenever someone puts someone else on drugs, makes this someone else a needle-freak, then this man is in real trouble. He'll be beaten to the inch of his life, until he wishes he did not do it. Whenever it is done in that other life, beyond the barbed wire and fence, it's all right. In a penal colony it is forbidden.

There was not a single episode of rape when I was there. There were the so called "hurt" among the prisoners, and even some gays. Fifteen or so, they lived separately. So far as I know, only two were bona fide homosexuals. As for all others, most of them chose to be thought of and treated as such because, for example, they thought life would be easier. Well, these people did all dirty work - sweeping outdoors, cleaning lavatories...

Not one prisoner was taken by force. This practice is becoming history too - not because it is not "civilized" or something but because reasons must be grave and valid indeed. If the rules are not observed, the rapist will find himself in trouble. He may even get killed for it. That's risky.

I do not perceive any romanticism in all of that. It's just life as it is, life that forces its own rough laws on us. I cannot say that I liked absolutely all rules and laws. Say, all these so called "suits" - thieves, punks, workers, etc. There were episodes of crying injustice as well, and I even tried to do something about it every now and then because I just could not remain a disinterested observer. I had my share of enemies among junkies there. Well, life is life. Neither could I interfere directly. I had to come up with something, some device that would help whoever I was trying to help and at the same time concur with their rules and laws. It was not easy at all but I just could not keep silent.