sher_crime_280The Trans-Siberian Railway and a concrete wall along its right-of-way separate the Nikolaevka neighbourhood from downtown Krasnoyarsk (Siberia). At the turn of the 20th century, it was a working class suburb named after Czar Nicholas II. Today’s Nikolaevka is a sort of a ghetto densely inhabited by those with a criminal past and present.

“Devout thief” Andrei Perets lives here. To find his house you just need to ask anyone in the street – they will tell you but only after getting to know when and where from you’ve been released, if at all. Andrei is the owner of a malina – a hideout where those released from jail may come and live for a while deciding what to do or where to go. At the time we came to visit Andrei, there were three “passengers” in his hideout.

Andrei’s past is obscure: he had a few convictions for robbery and spent a long time in jail. He’s been out of prison for a few years now. After release – around 2002, he met Father Valery Soldatov, an Orthodox priest who, at that time, was a chaplain for regional prisons, and began working for him as an acolyte, wore a cassock and Father Valery even arranged a room for him in a low-income dorm-like complex where he himself lived.

Today, all this is in the past. For reasons only Andrei knows of, he returned to his underworld he was used to. He says, however, he is no longer involved in grave crimes, earning his living by petty fraud such as selling fake drugs to passengers of Trans-Siberian trains. For the Orthodox Easter, Andrei still visits Father Valery to take communion and the last time he even offered him an egg – a traditional Easter gift – with a touching, childish marker-written dedication: “To Our Father from Perets and Valentos” (Valentos is Valentina, Andrei’s girlfriend).

Life of a former convict is an ongoing struggle for survival. Half of Andrei’s house recently burnt down: someone threw Molotov cocktails into his yard. “That’s fine” – he says – “I’m like Saint Job, eat the dust and live on”. Then, a murdered woman was discovered nearby and police, according to Andrei, immediately wanted to pin this on him – he barely escaped another prison term. When he talks, it’s always about the injustice of the “system” and an eternal resistance.

The nature of criminal relationships, argot, culture and habits have long ago poured out of prison gates and entered the flesh and blood of the Russian state and society. Many traits that characterise today’s Russia stem from the prison: informal hierarchies, a cult of force, money, distrust and suspicion and unlimited hedonism leading to alcohol and drug abuse. Yet this society seeped in criminal culture and habits has not developed any measures to socially reintegrate those released from jail.

“Nobody needs problems” – said one local businessman answering a question on whether he was prepared to hire former convicts. Hard-core criminals would never work for a modest salary if faced with a prospect of easy money. After being released, they face an invisible wall of alienation and are forced to seek support from their like to survive. Just as Nikolaevka is separated by a concrete wall from the city, Russian criminals are isolated in their parallel anarchic universe. An obscene motto which may loosely be translated as “You never get a blowjob from a cop, you never escape from Kraslag” (Kraslag is an acronym for ‘Krasnoyarsk Prisons’) is tattooed on Andrei Perets’ feet to reflect this reality.

While the Russian government has recently initiated a large-scale prison reform aimed at putting an end to Stalin-era penitentiary practices, many experts remain skeptical as to what this reform is going to produce.

Max Sher