At this prison, 'it's all darkness'


OGNENNY ISLAND, Russia - The prisoners arrive here after riding for hours past abandoned villages in a gray truck with barred windows, finally crossing a rattling log bridge.

Most will leave only when they die. Inmates whose bodies are unclaimed are interred in a small village graveyard not far from the island, under markers bearing serial numbers instead of names.

This is Pyatak Prison, on an island in a lake in the midst of the thickly forested Vologda region, about halfway between Moscow and the Arctic Circle. Here, in a whitewashed brick 16th-century Orthodox monastery, decorated by coils of barbed wire, live about 200 of this nation's most dangerous criminals.

Almost all are guilty of multiple murders. All would have been executed by firing squad under the Soviet system. Now they serve life terms because of Russia's nine-year-old moratorium on the death penalty.

Their stories are as chilling as they are illustrative of the chaos that swept Russia before and after the Soviet collapse. And the story of Pyatak hints, perhaps, at how far Russia's penal system has come - and how far it has to go - since the end of the Soviet Union.

Vyacheslav Sharoyevsky was a 29-year-old prosecutor - a rising star who had investigated large-scale corruption in Uzbekistan - when he and his brother stabbed two women to death in 1989.

The Smolensk region official had, he said, godlike powers in the godless world of the former Soviet state. Like Raskalnikov, the anti-hero of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's classic Crime and Punishment, he decided that no laws applied to him.

Why did he kill one woman and order his younger brother to kill another?

"The main reason was that I was bored," said Sharoyevsky, now 47.

The U.S. State Department's 2004 annual human rights report called conditions at Pyatak "extremely harsh and frequently life-threatening." AIDS and drug-resistant tuberculosis are endemic. Inmates frequently attack one another or are beaten by guards.

Prison officials say prisoners swallow teapot handles, spoons and bundles of nails so that they will be sent to the relative peace of prison wards in hospitals.

But inmates say Pyatak - the name means "slash five," a reference to the prison's serial number, 256/5 - is an island of somber tranquillity.

There is no crowding; prisoners live two to four to a cell. The food is simple but decent, inmates say. None of those who spoke to The Sun said they were beaten.

The main thing that distinguishes Pyatak - along with Russia's four other maximum-security prisons - is the isolation. Inmates are permitted to walk around the windowless halls outside their cells one hour a day. Visitors are restricted to four hours a year. Convicts who violate the rules are locked in solitary confinement for up to six months.

The outside world is visible from cell windows only in the form of gray-and-black Siberian crows, carrion-feeders that float in the breezes over White Lake, the name of which describes its color during the long winter. Most prisoners are considered escape risks. None has succeeded.

"It's necessary to understand one thing," said the chief guard, Vasily P. Smirnov, 37. "The difference between this prison and others is that in other places, prisoners see the light at the end of the tunnel. Here? It's all darkness."

In a 2004 report, the human rights group Amnesty International said the isolation in Russian maximum-security prisons such as Pyatak "amounted to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and in some cases possibly torture."

The loneliness and hopelessness drive some insane. One recently woke his cellblock at 2 a.m., screaming that he had to see Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to warn him that the world was in peril.

Others cope with the pressure but never stop feeling it.

"Probably the most difficult part is to realize that you will never get out of prison," said Aleksei V. Tsibikin.

The 25-year-old led a gang of thieves who went on a rampage in the fall of 2001 in Nizhny Novgorod, 240 miles east of Moscow. Over the course of six weeks, he and his friends stalked, raped and strangled six young women with their pantyhose. They were caught when Tsibikin's terrified girlfriend called the police.

In an interview a few steps from his cell at Pyatak, Tsibikin told The Sun that he regrets the killings. But not because his conscience bothers him.

"They deserved it; they were rude to me," he said. "It's just that paying them back was not worth my life here."

When he was first imprisoned in a juvenile facility nine years ago, at the age of 14, "the guards beat us," he said. He paused, smiled and added, "And we beat them."

Guards at Pyatak leave him alone, he said. His goal now, he says, is to follow the rules and become eligible for parole after 25 years.

Although he never finished high school, Tsibikin spends much of his time absorbed in books. He has committed part of Goethe's Faust to memory and is reading volumes of Russian history.

Most Pyatak inmates are voracious readers. Recently, guards delivered books containing the texts of ancient Russian manuscripts.

"If they had a Russian-Chinese dictionary, they would even learn Chinese," said Anton A. Kuznetzov, an official with the Federal Services for the Execution of Punishments.

Many residents of Pyatak are notorious in Russia. Boris Bezotechestvo, a convicted killer, led an escape by three inmates from Moscow's three-century-old Butyrka prison in 2001. Another inmate was hired by separatists in a Caucasus region to drive a truck bomb into a southern Russian city in March 2001.

Many of the inmates say they have become more religious behind bars.

Skeptical guards say derisively that most prisoners are interested only in receiving money and parcels from foreign evangelical groups. "Many use the pages from religious books as toilet paper," Smirnov said.

But Sharoyevsky, the former prosecutor, says God has helped him reconcile himself to spending the rest of his life on tiny Ognenny Island.

His family still lives in the Smolensk region, west of Moscow near the Belarus border. His son, 20, and daughter, 21, are both students. His wife lives alone.

All stopped visiting a few years ago. Now he doesn't want them to.

"Why?" he asks. "What's the point?"

Death is all that the future holds.

"I no longer believe in this life," he said.

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