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From Prenzlauer Berg to the gulag

Last April, Alexander Egay became one of tens of thousands of businesspeople imprisoned in Russia on fabricated charges. His wife is now struggling, caught between Berlin and Moscow.

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UPDATE (August 24, 2012): After 16 months in Moscow’s infamous Butyrka prison, Alexander Egay was finally released yesterday. Hurray! Long before the Pussy Riot injustices captured the public’s attention, Egay’s wife Nelli went from a normal modern day cosmopolitan woman to involved crusader against Putin’s corrupt regime. Injustices in Russia obviously steamroll on, but once in a while comes some good news!

Here’s a true story that bears witness to a disturbing reality overlooked by the western media: Russia’s ongoing imprisonment of tens of thousands of businesspeople on fabricated charges.

Last April, Alexander Egay – who until then had been living with his wife and daughter in Berlin – became one of them. His wife Nelli is now immersed in a fight for survival, torn between her motherly duties in Berlin and the surreal existence of a woman whose husband sits without trial inside Moscow’s most infamous jail.  

Nelli’s in a hurry. Although she knows damn well there are still seven hours until she departs the tiny flat in northern Prenzlauer Berg for the airport. First she will give a kiss to Glasha, who will be asleep, or pretending to be, or crying or stoic, emphatically stoic.

“Mama, don’t forget to kiss me before you leave. I’ll cry. Still, you’ve got to. You promised.”

“Oh yes, Glashenka,” I say, “you’ll cry, torrents, cats and dogs, you surely will, you wicked little drama queen.”

The three of us laugh as if there were something funny about it. Glasha is a 13-year-old ballet pupil always praised for her dramatic expression. Her parents moved to Berlin last year after she was accepted at a prestigious Berlin ballet academy. That’s when we met and became close friends.

Now Glasha’s father is in a Moscow prison and her mum’s about to fly there to take care of things. Glasha can’t go. A ballerina must work hard.  Like last time, no one’s really sure how long Nelli will be gone.

“When I came back, she cried the whole day. She said she thought I’d never return, poor thing,” Nelli told me. As for Sasha, no one knows when he’ll be back. It might take years.

On April 24, Alexander Egay (Sasha) – a sales representative for a Belgian architecture lighting company – was on a business trip in Russia. It was Easter Sunday, a day when most Russians go to church with holy cakes and coloured eggs.

Sasha was about to board a train from Moscow to Kiev when two policemen irrupted out of nowhere and clicked handcuffs around his wrists. He was immediately brought to a police station. There, he was stripped of all his personal items – including his glasses (he has -7 eyesight) – then escorted, half blind, to his cell and charged with fraud.

“I said that I did not understand the charges they presented,” said Sasha in the first of a series of letters to Nelli. “It was completely absurd. When I asked to call my lawyer, they smiled.”

He was consequently delivered to the Petrovka detention centre and thrown in a cell without windows lit by a glaring surgeon’s light, night and day. During his transfer to Petrovka, a policeman whispered to Sasha his one and only right: “You’ve got to ask for your one telephone call to your family”. That’s how Nelli found out.

Two days later, Sasha was brought to Moscow’s Khamovniki District Court, the place where Mikhail Khodorkovsky was sentenced to 13 years in prison. Like the famous oligarch, he was arrested under article 159 of the Criminal Procedural Code, whose wide-ranging provisions have made possible the arbitrary prosecution of thousands of entrepreneurs across Russia on dubious charges.

There have been about 100,000 of them, according to Yana Yakovleva of Business Solidarity, an NGO fighting unlawful detentions and rampant judiciary corruption.  According to the NGO, some 15 percent of Russia’s registered businesses faced criminal charges between 2000 and 2009. As a result, an estimated one in six Russian entrepreneurs is currently in jail (one in three prisoners in Russia is a businessman!)

They fall victim to corrupt officials, competitors and former associates, are typically arrested and prosecuted on trumped up charges and ultimately kicked out of the free market into a new one: the parallel economy of a thoroughly corrupt judiciary, in which prison officials and law enforcement bureaucrats live off of bribes at every level. Doing business in Russia has become risky, especially if you’re any good at it.

Sasha was a successful businessman in the 1990s as manager and co-owner of Labirint, one of the first companies on the Moscow furniture market, with an annual turnover of $6 million and 150 people on payroll.

Sasha’s luck turned when the company’s controlling shareholder decided to throw in the towel and sell the business. Following a long dispute and a doomed attempt to save the company by buying it over from his partner, Sasha had lost it all:  the company he helped found and had been managing – and his faith in doing business in Russia.

So he did what more than 40 percent of Russian businesspeople said they’d like to do, according to an April 2011 study by the Levada Center think tank: leave the country for good.

What he didn’t know was that it was already too late: an investigation for fraud was opened in 2008 and an arrest warrant against him had already been signed. Sasha believes he is the victim of another case of JOD or “Justice On Demand”, a common business practice in Russia these days when one wants to dispose of undesirable ‘business partners’.

Four years have passed since Labirint closed down. Sasha had left, conceding the Moscow business pond to bigger, mightier fish. But the contract had been sealed; money had been exchanged. Law enforcement authorities might be corrupt, but they’re utterly dependable, no matter how flimsy the charges – according to Sasha’s lawyer, there is no incriminating evidence.

Yet, Sasha could be sentenced to four to nine years out of a maximum of 20. That’s the average in similar cases.

“The longer they keep you in investigative custody, the worse,” Sasha said. “They’ll have to justify prolonged pre-trial detention with a proper sentence. If you’re there, you’ve got to be guilty. If you’re there for a long time, you’re even guiltier.” Sasha’s prospects are bleak.

Despite President Medvedev’s amendments to the Criminal Code last year, eliminating pre-trial detention for most white collar crimes, Sasha’s investigative detention has been prolonged from month to month.

Nelli goes to Moscow to attend each hearing – her only opportunity to catch a glimpse of her husband, be it for a short public moment. These moments have become a depressing routine, in which procedural details rule over a theatre of the absurd.

“Last time, on September 24, they first delayed the trial by one day. For no reason. The next day we waited for over seven hours,” said Nelli. It was 7pm when they finally brought Sasha. “He was handcuffed and he smiled when he saw us.”

The whole procedure was pure rhetoric. It was yet another new judge, the third in five months. Representatives for the prosecution and investigation (an ever-rotating cast) were asked the reason for Sasha’s ongoing detention. Everyone agreed they didn’t know anything about the Egay case but that investigation was positively underway.

The outcome was a foregone conclusion: “Good,” said the judge. “Detention prolonged by one month!”

“We left the court room – I felt like dying – my husband was handcuffed again and taken away – he gave us a sign with his hand. He was not smiling anymore.” 

In the first six months of his custody, no one seems to have done much to investigate the case.

“No one’s come to ask me any questions!” wrote Sasha in a letter in October. “Keeping you in jail is the most efficient way to ensure you won’t be able to do anything to prove your innocence. I can’t give power of attorney without authorisation by the investigator. My lawyer can’t access the documents that would immediately clear my name. All you can do is wait… and you know the result will be bad news.” Some of his fellow inmates have been there for up to four years without trial. “The average seems to be two years,” writes Sasha.

Once inside Butyrka, your chances of getting out quickly are indeed remote.

Tonight Nelli won’t sleep until it’s time to leave for the airport. “I’m too nervous.” She talks fast with that aloof cheerfulness you see among survivors. She giggles often. “You know, since it happened, nothing really matters…” 

Instead, she’ll stay up writing to Sasha – like every night since the ground opened up beneath her feet six months ago. Not that Nelli’s feet were ever grounded in earthly matters. A graduate of the prestigious Moscow Film School, she’s always been an artistic soul, a buoyant mind filled with literary quotes and movie references.

Sasha dealt with the day-to-day stuff. He speaks English. He gets things done. Since she’s been in Berlin, Nelli’s window to the world has been the screen of her Mac: Facebook and the 650+ friends, mostly Russian intellectuals and artists, who’ve been populating her exile. She used to spend her days with them, punctuated by chatter with Sasha.

Now that Sasha’s gone, her Mac is also where she spends her nights, in the solitary confinement of her epistolary conversation with him. “I write to him about everything, my days, politics, Glasha. He tells me about his cellmates, the books he reading, Russian politics. It’s almost like before, we talk all the time, only now there’s a time lag, the time we get the answer.” Somehow, in total synchronicity despite the distance.

They have preserved spontaneity by writing to each other as often as they would like to talk to each other. Sometimes I have the feeling that Sasha is more in touch with the outside world from the depth of his prison than she is, here in Berlin.

Week after week – that’s the rhythm to which the lawyer can convey their correspondence – he tells her what to think and do. A week into the E. coli scandal, I finally remembered to tell Nelli to be careful about buying fresh vegetables. To my surprise, she said, “We’ve been off tomatoes and cucumbers for a week now. Sasha wrote we shouldn’t eat them.” He’s got a TV in his cell.

Will she visit Sasha? I ask her. No, she won’t. For one, it’s only allowed once every three months. “But if they don’t want you to visit, you can wait for six or more months. At their discretion.” Last time it was so depressing.

She’d rather not descend those squalid stairs into the “grim, filthy cellar” where prisoners can meet relatives. You sit in a box – Sasha sits a metre away, handcuffed behind a glass pane. “They lock the door behind you,” says Nelli. “What for? Are you going to run away?” You speak through a microphone, once they connect you.

“The whole situation felt so absurd, Sasha and I, there, both locked up in that dirty cellar trying to talk to each other through a glass wall. I wanted to cry. Instead we started to smile. We ended up laughing like insane people for the whole visit.” Fifty-nine minutes later, they cut off the line and Nelli was escorted out.

“I left with such rage inside. I wanted to kill them all. Blow up the place, those people, the whole country.” Nelli continues, “You know, you’re brought up with ideas about human dignity, self-worth, respect. There you’re made to feel sub-human. As a relative of an inmate, you’re nothing and are supposed to feel lucky that they granted you a visit.” She won’t go again.

Every time I drop by her mini home – she had to leave her cosy two-room flat on Karl-Marx-Allee for 30sqm in an apartment block in Prenzlauer Berg – she’s with him, dropping a word or two onto the white screen between mindless chores. 

Nelli distractedly packs a book on how Google “thinks, works and shapes our lives”. Sasha wants to “keep in touch” with developments in the world. “I’m a zombie…” she giggles. “I’m a bad mother, leaving my girl alone all the time. And yet I need to be there to take care of things.”

The lawyer, the money to pay the lawyers – a flat fee of $10,000 until the trial actually starts – no one knows how long it will take.

And finding a ‘good’ lawyer takes time. The first one was useless. He was holidaying at his dacha when Sasha had his first court hearing. Then there was Gavrilov, a gem, a man of method and conviction, who believes in justice. But as luck should have it, he suffered a stroke and is fighting for his own life.

The next lawyer was a defeatist. “The first thing she told us was that with such bogus charges, little could be done. After talking to her, Sasha got so depressed. Why pay someone, to hear the case is a lost cause?”

Now they’ve got a new team, a tandem of motivated lawyers. Nelli’s sold their car, pretty much the last thing they owned. Savings are running thin. “Sasha is worrying about us.” Clearly she’s worrying about him. In the meantime, friends are taking care of the bills. She can’t deal with German paperwork.

In Moscow, Nelli is a different woman: there she can function, take action, do what needs to be done. Number one duty for a prisoner’s wife: drop off regular supplies of comestibles.

The food reception room in Butyrka looks like the famous Chilanzar market in Uzbekistan. Many inmates are illegal immigrants from central Asia locked up for petty crimes. Here, family members – mostly women – deposit the permitted 30kg of cereals, fresh fruit and sweets that they have dutifully unwrapped, weighed and repackaged in transparent plastic bags, filling out the three forms, line by line, the ones you get after the one-hour queue at the pick-up counter before queuing again at the drop off counter, where they inspect the provisions, and reject some of the products.

When we were there in August, a woman was plucking individual grapes off the stem to repackage them in a plastic cup. Nelli leaned over to me. “She doesn’t stand a chance. No grapes.”

Soviet-style bonbons are methodically unwrapped. Apples are legit. But no pears. “Last time, I brought cucumbers and tomatoes,” Nelli said. “I forgot; they’re forbidden.” But what appears to be mere absurdity is more pragmatic than it seems.

Visitors can buy the same and more products (including, pears cucumbers and tomatoes) on the jail’s web-shop (www.sizomag.ru) at twice the normal price. The oranges, lemons and grapefruit Nelli brought were chopped up, as a ‘security measure’.

“Once cut in pieces, they turn bad right away – it’s pointless. So you’re left with Sizomag – expensive and poor quality, but the only chance for Sasha to get some vitamins.”

For two weeks, Sasha was sick with a bad cold. They tried to pass some tablets, but that’s also forbidden. You’ve got to see the doctor first. Only he can prescribe them. “But he didn’t.”

Better not to get sick in Russian jail. The 37-year-old Hermitage Capital Management lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died in his 11th month at Butyrka two years ago after being denied medical assistance.

An executive with a UK-based investment fund that happened to be in a bitter dispute with the Russian authorities, he was jailed after he exposed a huge tax fraud scheme implicating Russian officials. The death was enough to finally attract some attention from the usually apathetic western media, if mostly in the business pages, and strain diplomatic relations.

The Russian government had little choice but to investigate, and two Butyrka staff members – the deputy governor and chief doctor – were arrested. “With pressure coming from the US, they had to blame someone, so they went for the small fry,” said Nelli. “But who told them to not treat Magnitsky? Why did they lock him up to begin with? Why did they beat him?”

Officially, there is a list of ailments that qualify for release. But Vasily Aleksanyan, a lawyer and former Yukos executive, was kept in pre-trial custody for five years and denied treatment although he had AIDS and developed cancer and tuberculosis. When international outrage, including a decision in his favour by the European Court of Human Rights, finally led to his release, it was too late. He died last month.

Butyrka is a transit jail known in Russia as a SIZO, i.e. where inmates spend their time until trial. Built some 240 years ago during the reign of Catherine the Great, it is Moscow’s biggest prison and one of Russia’s oldest and most famous.

Butyrka can claim many illustrious residents, from poet Vladimir Mayakovsky and writer Isaac Babel (who was executed there in 1940) to Alexander Solzhenitsyn. “It is so historical, like the Bastille in Paris! It should be a museum,” Nelli likes to joke.

Strangely, the three-hectare compound is barely noticeable to passersby on Novoslobodskaya street in downtown Moscow, hidden behind inconspicuous large Altbau facades. Pass through an old wrought iron gate and a vintage red-brick fortress awaits the visitor.

The place has always been famous for its dire conditions and brutal treatment, from the czars to Stalin to the Putin era. Magnitsky’s death sparked enough international uproar (he was working for a US investment fund after all) to justify some updates: the appointment of a new director and a much hyped programme of renovations.

The makeover was reported in the international press as including “spa facilities”, “sunbeds” and Skype for the inmates to “communicate with their families”. Walls were described as “mint-coloured and spotless”, the floor as “shiny”, the plumbing as “state of the art”.

Mickey Rourke, researching his role as a Russian supervillain in Iron Man II, gave the place his stamp of approval when, following a three-hour guided tour in March 2009, he tried a prison bed and concluded “my sofa seems much stiffer”. He didn’t comment on the food he enthusiastically sampled for a press snapshot. Neither did any of the many foreign diplomats and journalists who visited the prison.

Sasha is being kept in OKI, the special ‘economical’ section designed for detention of JOD victims, more than 300 people. “Officially we shouldn’t exist because Medvedev forbade arresting us,” said Sasha, “but we are here. They keep a show cell to impress visitors. It is like a Potemkin village. But the rest of the space is the same dirty shithole. It wasn’t renovated at all.”

No sunbeds in sight, “Maybe they keep them for their personal use!” And when it comes to Skype: “There is no way to contact family. Even phone calls are restricted according to our wardens’ whims. Showers are once a week.” But inmates were quick to improvise showers using the hole in what poses for a toilet.

As for the walls: “It’s a very special paint,” said Sasha, “an old secret Russian formula upgraded over the years by KGB experts with three really Russian components: the blood of prisoners, the tears of their families, mixed together with – and this is the national genius – an unknown quantity of KGB veterans’ shit. The last component is a problem, as the species is dying out. Nobody knows what to do when the last one’s gone. FSB shit is too liquid.” Sasha hasn’t lost his caustic sense of humour.

The food is inedible: “We take it in the morning, prison-made bread and sugar. The rest of the day, when they knock at the door with food, we normally say no. Prison food is difficult to identify: cat food stews, soups with that unique and complex smell of sweaty pig and floor rag which look as if someone ate it before.”

So Sasha mostly contents himself with a diet of sweets and tea, boiled cereals and potatoes Nelli sends to him. Twice a week she orders him some takeaway, i.e. food from nearby restaurants, for $10. In the kingdom of the corrupt, money buys everything.

Some say you can purchase your release from JOD Corp. the same way one can ‘order’ arrests. Sasha won’t be able to find out: they don’t have the $150- 200,000 it is rumoured to cost.

Since her husband’s arrest, Nelli has been spending up to $1000 a month on Sasha’s ‘room and board’. This includes the VIP cell (only two to three inmates, a TV, a fridge) and ‘bare necessities’ (food parcels, clothes, money for the prison kiosk), as well as pocket money for daily expenses: from the cigarettes, tea, coffee and chocolates that serve as currency around the jail, especially with the staff, to the right to use table tennis ($10 an hour).

Recreational activities are few. Six days a week inmates can walk around a tiny grey yard. “It is three by five metres. With a metal roof, no sun, just a narrow strip of sky. It’s a frustrating place, but I still love to go. Here I can do my tai chi. I also gave some aikido training to a friend.”

Once a month, there’s the possibility to go to church: “our only chance to see trees and green grass and to breathe some fresh air.” The other option is the brand new synagogue. “I refused to go, not because of my religious views, but it’s unfortunately indoors; poor Jews can’t have this piece of heaven that we Orthodox have access to. We are in Orthodox world now.”

At the entrance of the prison, just opposite the visitor’s entrance, stands a lonely kiosk filled to the brim with Orthodox books, jewelry and icons.

Although VIP cells do have a window, sunlight is scarce, so electric light is kept on all day. “We have been deprived of our right to natural daylight. We still have moonlight though. The best time is when night falls.” Then it is possible to read or play chess or do something private like write daily letters to Nelli and Glasha without being bothered by undesirable glances from unscrupulous mates or guards.

His new cellmate and friend, Anatoly, a 25-year-old real estate agent, made the mistake of doing business with a greedy FSB agent. Now she’s sitting in her brand new flat, and he’s sitting in jail under the same provision of article 159. Anatoly spends his days doing yoga and dreaming about India. He writes rap songs. They read them together in the twilight of their cell.

Meanwhile, Nelli has also made new friends – companions of misfortune, women like her whose husbands have been suddenly kidnapped from their lives to be thrown behind Butyrka’s deep walls, unless they’ve already been deported to remote camps, thousands of kilometres away.

Most have not lost just a husband, but the family bread winner. Cars and flats are put for sale, children taken out of their schools, relatives called for help. Many have jumped out of the conjugal boat, unable to cope with the destitute life, the shame, the solitude.

“Most people refuse to listen to these stories,” Nelli told me. “They’d rather not have anything to do with you once they hear such a disaster has hit you. Every Russian knows it could happen to them. They’d rather not be reminded.”

In Berlin, Glasha’s dad is officially “on a business trip”. Nelli never mentions the truth to anyone, unless she’s with people ‘who know’.

Nelli has joined the ever-growing, unofficial circle of ‘Butyrka wives’. There’s Tanya Kipiani, Yulia and Svetlana (wives of the Roschin brothers, both imprisoned), Valentina Kankiya… And then there’s ‘Olya’, Olga Romanova, the famous journalist known for her bold articles and unwavering fight for the release of her husband Alexei Kozlov, a prominent businessman arrested in 2008 and sentenced to eight, then five years in prison for fraud.

She’s a role model to the others, and around her gravitates a small constellation of activists, mostly former detainees or journalists who write for the (mostly online) independent press. Her energy – sustained by tremendous consumption of coffee and tobacco and superhuman adrenaline levels – is infectious.

Following three years of sleepless nights, relentless lobbying and thousands of blog posts and articles, she got her husband back last month, after the Russian Supreme Court overturned the verdict. A few months later, he would have been eligible for parole anyway, but it was nevertheless a great success, a first for such a case in Russia.

Also among Nelli’s allies are a few determined former inmates, like Business Solidarity founder Yana Yakovleva, who spent seven months in pre-trial detention under false charges before starting the NGO.

Another supportive ‘celebrity’ victim is Svetlana Bakhmina, a rather shy, soft-mannered woman whose striking, otherworldly gaze betrays some incongruous twist of fate. A former legal executive from Yukos, she went through the excruciating experience of being separated from her two small children, after being arrested and charged with tax evasion and embezzlement.

She served four-and-ahalf years under terrible conditions in a remote high-security penal colony, finally owing her early release to the public outrage following the birth of her third child in prison – a godsend that helped her go through the ordeal, she says.

Although she’s been out for two years and started a new law firm with friends, you can tell she’s not over the shock. She’s now “showing solidarity” for those who, like her, suddenly fell under the axe of Russia’s new judicial mores.

Another friend of Nelli’s is Vladimir Ossechkin, a friendly 30-year-old who was just released this year. The young entrepreneur lost it all: a thriving car business, his teeth and his wife, following a four-year stint in the Russian prison system. He is now a free man with a mission: to fight the system of impunity that plagues the country.

He runs a website, with an evocative name, gulag net, and a slogan wrongly attributed to Hemingway, but which nevertheless fits today’s Russia: “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” Here, information about Russia’s many prisons is collected from far and wide, victims’ cases are told, corrupt judges and prosecutors or guards who torture are named and shamed.

There’s something exhilarating about their struggle, like when they all showed up at the first review of Kozlov’s trial dressed in t-shirts scribbled with slogans. It was the idea of Katya Belyavskaya, a young Moscow artist currently working on a sequel to her Little Red Riding Hood comic series – a parody in which a Moscow belle falls for a powerful oligarch-wolf. This time around, Red Riding Hood is the Butyrka wife – the large canvases depict the daily ordeal of a former bimbo turned dedicated wife when her beloved wolf is locked up under article 159.

Butyrka wives, former detainees, journalists, friends and artists meet every Wednesday around Romanova. Last Wednesday, for the first time, Kozlov was there. They named their circle “Sedentary Russia”, a reference to those sitting behind bars.

When in Berlin, Nelli somehow shares Sasha’s captivity. She can go out but she doesn’t – unless it is to buy groceries, which more often than not she forgets to do. And then it’s Sunday and the shops are closed. She’s still not used to it.

In Butyrka, Sasha’s diet is really poor. The former martial art practitioner has lost much of his build. “With his long hair and emaciated face, he looks so skinny,” Nelli told me. “Like a child. Even his voice has grown thin.” She trails off for a moment. “What really kills me is that I can see he’s lost faith. He doesn’t believe he’ll ever get out of this inferno.”

Nelli too, has lost a lot of weight. The curvaceous woman I met 18 months ago now looks like a teenager. Perched on her Russian-style platform shoes, she resembles a Lolita who stole her mum’s heels.

Nelli doesn’t drink much anymore, and hardly eats anything. It doesn’t bother Glasha, who has been on a permanent ballerina diet since the age of 11 and was told by her Berlin teacher to lose another three kilos.

When I arrived that night, mother and daughter were in tears. They’d just read about Jasmine, a four-month-old who had just died in another Moscow pre-trial jail. An inmate’s baby daughter was left to the care of heedless penitentiary bureaucrats. On Nelli’s laptop is the photo of a tiny, bundled–up, doll-like corpse. An unbearable sight. Now, one of Sasha’s lawyers has taken the case pro bono – he’s trying to get the biological father to take custody of the surviving twin.

“That’s Russia,” says Nelli. “Everything’s possible, everything’s permissible, even letting a baby die. These people are not human beings.” She pauses. “You know, when I took my mum along to the last hearing, she was horrified. It struck her: the similarity to the Stalin era.”

Sasha’s grandfather was sent to a gulag in Uzbekistan, like many Korean-born Soviet citizens of that generation. His father was born there. “The dehumanisation of people – you know?”

The parallels don’t stop there. According to official data, a staggering 15 million Russians – one in six adults – have been through a Russian prison during their lifetime. If one thinks of the people affected – parents, families, spouses – few Russians have been spared. Conditions in some faraway prison camps haven’t changed since Stalin’s reign; some of his gulags are still used to this day.

With some 820,000 detainees (as of January, 2011) Russia has the second highest incarceration rate per inhabitant after the US. More than China. Even more striking: the huge staff. With 340,000 employees – most of whom are uneducated, underpaid and hence, easily corruptible – the Russian prison authority is a state within a state.

Meanwhile, cutthroat capitalism has been given free rein in Russia, a country where both the police and the justice system offer their services according to supply and demand, like any other business. The highest bidder is always right, and when it comes to law and order, money takes precedence over justice.

Sasha’s latest letter reads: Everyone understands but nobody says anything or does anything to protect the poor population of a poor country from the NEW GULAG. Here there are people who are in prison three to four years, waiting for a verdict that’s got to be ‘guilty’ no matter what. We’re left to watch, powerless, as they steal our money, destroy our businesses. We can go to church once a month to pray for our children who are growing up without us and for our wives, trusting they are still waiting for us when we get out. We’re losing our time and our professional abilities, left to watch debilitating TV, those police soap operas and other mind-numbing programmes that prepare our children to live in a gulag country. There are over 300,000 of us who were creating new business and technologies. We were paying taxes and creating jobs. We took risks to lift this fucking country up. We speak two or three languages, we have a university education. But we are here and WE ARE FINE! Our cell is one of the best, five-star with TV, fridge and fan. It is visited by VIP guests, administration bosses, journalists. WE ARE FINE, STILLBORN CHILDREN OF MODERNIZATION, presently prisoners of JOD Corp.

As I read these lines to Nelli, Glasha looks away, as if lost in deep reverie. I’m not sure she was listening. “All I know,” she says, “is that by the time he comes back, I’ll be a grown-up…”

A glance at her mum and she rectifies: “But we still have faith.” She kisses us goodnight and heads for the bed she and Nelli share, in the small mezzanine just above our heads.