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The Untouchables in the Prison Hierarchy

The issue of the prison caste system is often raised in the media, and recently it has been discussed in relation to political prisoners. However, almost everyone who writes on the subject knows about the matter from the stories of former inmates or use common social stereotypes at best. As a result, there are often a lot of blunders and false representation.

The aim of this article is to shed light on some aspects of such a complex and multifaceted phenomenon as informal hierarchy in Belarusian prisons.

People even write scientific works on this subject. And, of course, I do not mean to consider the phenomenon in all its diversity in one article. I'm going to discuss mainly one prison caste, the existence of which characterizes the system as a whole, and the knowledge of which is critically important for any person getting to jail in Belarus, especially for a political prisoner. These are so-called “petukhs” (‘downcasts’, ‘brats’, ‘punks’, ‘prison bitches’).

So, from this text, you will learn:

  • How did the ‘downcasts’ appear in prison;
  • How do people become one;
  • What are the conditions of these people in jail and correctional colonies;
  • What functions are performed by these people in penal institutions;
  • Why is the existence of this caste vital for the administration of penitentiary facilities?

Part 1. Blatnoy, muzhik, kozyol, and petukh

How did the caste of ‘petukhs’ appear?

Let’s make a retrospective journey into history. The caste of so-called ‘petukhs’is traditionally associated with homosexuality. And if you approach from this point of view, everything is simple: homosexuality in prisons has always existed, including tsarist prisons and the Gulag. Due to the extremely macho and homophobic nature of prison code (‘ponyatiya’) and convicts subculture, it becomes clear why a gay person in prison is automatically relegated to ‘downcasts’. Machismo is characterized by contempt for everything female, leveling of women to subhuman creatures that do not have the right to their own will. This attitude is transferred to homosexuals.

But the ‘downcasts’ only consist of homosexuals to a smaller degree. For the most part, the caste consists of people who have committed offenses against the informal prison law - ‘ponyatiya’. It should be pointed out that ‘petukhs’ as a cast with strict rules of entry and getting out of it (or rather, the impossibility of getting out) appeared not so long ago. It was not, for example, inherent to tsarist prisons and the Gulag. According to the sources I am familiar with, the emergence of a caste of prison untouchables (which also includes homosexuals) relates to the late Soviet period.

Some researchers believe that the emergence of a caste of prisoners whom you may not touch with hands is a reaction of the crime lords to ‘Bitches wars’[1]. To save themselves, the crime lords had to invent an alternative to murder as punishment of the guilty.

Others write that this was a reaction to the overcrowding of pre-trial detention centres: in a situation of overpopulation and being in plain view of other inmates 24/7 the most effective and severe form of punishment would be universal contempt and ostracism, an extreme form of ignoring.

About ‘masti’ (castes) — a rundown

Historically, there have been only three ‘masti’ (castes, or lifestyles) in the criminal world: a thief ‘vor’, a bloke ‘muzhik’, a brat ‘petukh’. In this hierarchy, you can descend from the highest (vor) to the lowest (petukh). You can’t work your way up the caste ladder. In the modern criminal subculture of Belarus, prisoners are divided into somewhat different castes, namely: a crime lord ‘blatnoy’, a bloke ‘muzhik’, a jackass ‘kozyol’, a brat ‘petukh’.

Blatnoy is a professional criminal who lives by conducting a criminal business on the outside. His mission is to promote the ‘thieves’ idea’, wherever he is, to establish ‘backdoor’ (encourage corruption of correctional administrators), transfer the life of prisoners from the line of official rules and concepts into the law of thieves (‘ponyatiya’), etc.

According to the ‘ponyatiya’, only they have the right to classify a prisoner as a downcast. However, due to the fact that not all Belarusian correctional colonies have blatnoys (‘thieves’ movement’ of Belarus, in general, is in a state of decay), this rule is not always followed, that’s why downcast downgrade is done by anyone: operating officer, ‘kozyol’ or sometimes simply by ‘muzhiks’ after a collective decision.

Muzhiks is the main part of the prison population. ‘Muzhik’ is not nosy, he works, is not interested in anything, except for how to leave on parole. He is in a situation of a ‘cross-command’ of several forces: blatnoys (if any), kozyols and prison administration staff.

Kozyol (activist) is a prisoner openly collaborating with the administration. It is usually a convict with a long term of imprisonment. Administration gives him duties and some power over other inmates. The amount of this power depends on the degree of correction officers’ laziness. I know some cases where ‘kozyols’ filed a violation report on the other prisoners and administration officials just signed it.

Often ‘kozyol” is allowed to beat other prisoners to maintain subordination. And, of course, quite officially ‘kozyol’s’ duty is to snitch on other prisoners. In one penal colony, for example, one ‘kozyol’ put it badly: ‘“Trash-cops told me to keep an eye on you’. At least two more didn’t come out, but performed their ‘work’ very actively.

In my own disciplinary case that led me being sent to prison the decision was made on the basis of a written testimony composed by my cellmate, which detailed how I was brought into the barrack, how I behaved, with whom I communicated, with whom I argued, what topics I discussed, etc.

There is a nuance

While discussing the ‘petukh’ caste it should be noted that apart from it there is another related ‘subcaste’ — the so-called ‘separated before clarification’, those who are ‘na kruzhke’ (on a mug).

The point is as follows: for example, there is a suspicion that someone had homosexual contacts on the outside, but there is no sufficient proof of this suspicion, there is only a rumour. In this case, until confirmation or refutation of this accusation will appear, the person is ‘na kruzhke’: he eats separately from the rest and uses only his dishes (thence the origin of the term - ‘to seat apart on a mug’).

A person can be in this status for years, until a ‘blatnoy (‘kozyol’ or operating officer — depending on the penal institution) confirms the accusation, i.e. transfers him completely into the caste of ‘petukhs’ or disproves it, i.e. transfers him officially to ‘muzhiks’ caste.

The position of a person ‘na kruzhke’ is very close to the position of a ‘petukh’, but not equal to it. He can not drink tea with other inmates and has no voice, but no one can call him ‘petukh’.

This is the only case when it is possible to upgrade from a lower caste to the higher one. A prisoner ‘na kruzhke’ is in a kind of quarantine - in order to avoid physical contact with other convicts: what if he is ‘petukh’ and can ‘infect’ others. Everyone, who, for example, drinks tea with a ‘separated’ person, automatically gets the same status.

In other cases, ‘separated’ or people ‘na kruzhke’ are equal to the notion of ‘petukhs’, and it’s quite easy to fall into this status.

How one becomes a “petukh”

Here is an exhaustive list of cases in which a person is downgraded to ‘downcasts’ (‘into faggot zone’, ‘into harem’):

Passive homosexual contacts. Persons who admit having experienced of homosexual contact, forever receive the label of ‘petukh’, ‘fag’, etc. Active homosexuality is however considered normal and is not viewed as homosexuality, it’s a normal behavior. However, it is noteworthy that in the last ten years this concept has been changing. Those who have sex with ‘petukhs’ are considered as suspicious.

I myself repeatedly heard the opinion, like — ‘“There is no difference who f*cks whom - both are fags’. But, of course, a person who was active in a homosexual intercourse can’t be called ‘petukh’.

Any non-traditional sexual relations with a woman. If the prisoner admits having performed cunnilingus or if she was performing a fellatio on him and then he kissed her, or was eating/drinking from the same dish - he is a ‘petukh’.

Naturally, it is almost impossible to learn about this against the will of the person. So in most cases, people fall into the ‘fag zone’ after their own revelation. You have to understand that no one has the right to inquire about your sexual life by threats or trickery. About it, by the way, in the 1990s there was a special message, ‘progon’ ( a kite, containing innovation in rules) from the thieves, who tried to decrease an oversized amount of ‘petukhs’ in prisons.

In some way, prison staff is trying to deal with this problem. For example, in Zhodino jail before a person was sent into a cell, the operating officer would instruct him, ‘Remember, you never sucked a dick or ate a pussy!’

This also includes communication with homosexuals on the outside. If someone suddenly mentions that his friend is gay, that person immediately is considered a ‘petukh’.

Any contacts with excrements/urine and contents of dumpster. A man splashed with urine or one who put his hands into the toilet automatically becomes a ‘petukh’. For this reason, for example, plumbers are considered ‘separated’ in most prisons.

There is a well-known incident from Ivatsevichi colony No. 5 that could be a good example. In one of the sections there was a supply clerk, zavkhoz’ (the main ‘kozyol’in a section - a person who controls conditions in a section and is a right hand man of the administration), who for a long time had severely bullied one guy, abusing him verbally in every way possible. In revenge, that guy splashed the zavkhoz’ with a jar of urine right during the morning check in front of the line of inmates. Of course, the guy was beaten and put in the de-seg. In theory, the fate of the ‘zavkhoz’ was foregone, but the prison staff intervened with the situation. Probably, zavkhoz’ was a ‘valuable asset’ for the administration. They announced to convicts that ‘zavkhoz’ was splashed with ... green tea. And those who would call him a ‘petukh’, would be beaten. Anyway, almost no one spoke with ‘zavkhoz’ ever again. And the guy was transferred to another prison.

I also personally knew a ‘petukh’ who fell into this caste because his head was struck against the toilet bowl during a fight in a youth colony.

As for the dumpsters, people can fall into downcasts when they want to smoke too much and search for cigarette butts in a dumpster.

This also should include such cases as unintentional touching of someone’s genitals, for example, when slipping in a shower room.

To be honest, it should be pointed out that an exception sometimes is made for people with health problems (depending on the sanity of the decision-makers). For example, if a man has urinary incontinence, he will not be categorised as a ‘petukh’.

Performance of any ‘petukh’s’ work. Strictly ‘petukh’s’ types of work are cleaning of toilets (this applies to the penal colony; in pretrial custody jail or prison any prisoner can clean the toilet in his cell), in some colonies - cleaning of wash basins, as well as taking out the garbage. Doing these actions automatically relegates the person to ‘petukh’ caste.

Here’s an example that happened in Mogilev colony No. 15, when I was there. A man was standing at a check line. Suddenly he really wanted to go to the toilet. He ran, as fast as he could, but did not make it — he shitted himself before reaching the toilet. Perhaps, being a shy and conscientious person, he decided to clean after himself. He took a broom, a rag... This was seen by some prisoners who called zavkhoz’ as a witness, who verified the transfer to the downcasts. Informal rules prohibiting cleaning of toilets is very convenient for the prison staff when they need to put any prisoner to the de-seg.

Every section has an official schedule of cleaning that, of course, doesn’t take into account the caste system. At the same time, everybody knows that only ‘petukhs’ clean the toilet. Political prisoner Igor Olinevich was many times put in the punishment cell for refusing to clean toilets. For sure, any prisoner in his right mind would prefer serving any amount of days in a tiny cold room without personal belongings to becoming a ‘petukh’. Prison staff know this perfectly well and gladly use such a convenient tool for pressure on the undesirable.

A similar incident happened to me in Gorky colony No. 9. Soon after I had made my time once again in the de-seg, I was approached by the section warden. He said that that day I was on duty to clean the washbasin and take out the garbage. I did some asking around beforehand and found out that in this prison only ‘petukhs’ can clean the washbasin. Probably, the section warden thought I did not know that and would go to clean the washbasin. So, ceremoniously, he gathered half of the prison administration and local ‘kozyols’ as witnesses, he pointed to a broom and a rag offering me to perform the ‘scheduled duty’.

Naturally, I refused, and then he said in a grave tone, that there will be a document drawn up about my refusal to perform the duty, and soon I again went to warm the desks in my beloved de-seg cell. Pedophiles almost always fall in the ‘harem’. People say that in prison rapists are always raped, but they’re not. Some prisoners can refuse to drink tea with some rapists, but nothing more. As for pedophiles, they have a more unenviable fate.

Until very recently, they were forced to be transferred to ‘petukh’ caste ever in custody, without even waiting for the verdict. However, the spirit of the times and the trend of ‘everything under the law’ take their toll. I myself have seen at least two pedophiles who were not ‘separated’ and lived almost the same as others. Of course, they were as quiet as lambs and not every convict allowed them to sit on his bunk or even to speak to them. But there is a tendency, especially in first-time offenders’ prisons.

The ‘harem’ receives everyone who spent some time in a cell with ‘petukhs’. The exact period of time varies. Sometimes it’s an hour, sometimes it is a day. According to ‘ponyatiya’, if someone enters into such a cell, one should make the ‘petukhs’ themselves ask for changing their cell and ‘muzhik’ should stay. But it is clear that physically it’s almost impossible.

Any man who had a physical (except sexual) contact with a ‘petukh’ or used his personal belongings is transferred to downcasts. In practice, it looks like this: picking up ‘petukh’s’ dishes or eating from them by mistake, using ‘petukh’s’ personal hygiene items, hugging or shaking hands, putting on his clothes (intentionally or unintentionally) and having a tea with a ‘petukh’ automatically qualifies you for this caste.

Giving something to a ‘petukh’is possible. Taking something from him leads to becoming a ‘petukh’.

However, these rules have some easings, especially in high-security colonies. For example, ‘petukhs’ can wash clothes of a ‘muzhik’, a ‘petukh’ is allowed to sit on ‘muzhik’s’ bunk and so on.

Often people write or say that convicts can be transferred to downcasts for any misdeeds against prisoner’s etiquette. Previously it happened, but not now. At least, I haven’t seen anything like that.

The one who steals from other prisoners, can be called a ‘rat’ and snubbed, the one who turned state’s evidence in court may be called a ‘suka’ (bitch) behind his back, and so on, but the transfer into downcasts due to such violation is a relic of the days when thieves’ code was still strong in Belarusian prisons.

Thus, the concept of ‘the contact’ (‘zashkvar’) is something akin to ritual blot of the Jews, Muslims, and Parsis. The characteristic features of custom are irrationality and superstitious fear of the ‘impure’. But if according to the Torah, a person who touches, for instance, carrion, will be ‘unclean until the evening’, according to the prison code, the man splashed with urine will be a ‘petukh’ for the rest of his life, even if he is released and goes back to prison after 30 years.

Part 2: Thieves code (‘ponyatiya’) in support of the state

Conditions of ‘petukhs’ in prisons

What is the life of a ‘petukh’in prison? In a nutshell, it is an absolute sheer hell.

According to ‘ponyatiya’, a ‘petukh’ has no rights. He has no right to argue, to retort, to defend his dignity because it is believed that he has no dignity. Others can beat, humiliate and mock him.

When an ordinary prisoner and a ‘petukh’ walk along the hall in the barracks, the latter is obliged to lean against the wall, in order to avoid touching the other prisoner, otherwise, he may be beaten.

‘Petukhs’ do all the dirty work: washing the toilets (imagine what it means to clean 8-10 toilet seats in a section of a hundred people), taking out the trash and that sort of thing. Some ‘petukhs’ provide sexual services to other convicts in exchange for tea and cigarettes (although I must say that in colonies where I was, prison staff fight against this, and if they find a ‘petukh’ and his client having sex, both will be placed in solitary).

‘Petukhs’ get female names, prisoners refer to them with ‘she’ or ‘baby’. Frankly speaking, it’s pretty savage and sickening to watch how young guffawing prisoners call, for example, a 60-year-old toothless grandpa ‘Alenka’ or ‘Marina’ (Russian female names).

‘Petukhs’ are never, even for a moment, allowed to forget who they are. They enter the dining room last, they are the last to wash in the shower room. In a club (the room for watching TV) they have a separate bench in the most uncomfortable place. The phrase ‘Get the fuck outta here!” towards them is something quite familiar and common. One convict persistently argued with me that ‘Petukhs are not people’.

However, prison staff have even worse attitude to ‘petukhs’ than inmates. Inspectors and often officers in every possible way disparage, publicly abuse, threaten and also can beat them.

Being powerless people with broken will they even less than ordinary prisoners fight for their rights. As a result - more than half of suicides that have happened during my presence in prisons and jails, were committed by ‘petukhs’, despite the fact that this caste is not more than 3-5% of the prison’s population.

Tellingly, the situation in pre-trial facilities is not better, where ‘petukhs’ stay in special cells. At ‘Volodarka’ (pre-trial facility in Minsk) ‘petukhs’ are held in cell 70. I heard from people, who have long lived in the neighborhood of this cell, that its inhabitants cut their veins almost daily.

What do they do?

Life ‘at the bottom of the heap’, constant hatred and humiliation from almost anyone can hardly yield a highly moral creature. According to my personal observations, most of ‘petukhs’ are totally unprincipled, low-down people, ready to do anything for their own benefit. Though, of course, these characters are not rare among prisoners in general, among ‘petukhs’ this is probably much more common.

The vast majority of ‘petukhs’ work for the administration: snitching, performing ‘operative tasks’, provoking, etc. The need to somehow survive in the over-aggressive and hostile prison atmosphere pushes them to ally with the strongest party — prison staff. Therefore, most of the functions that ‘petukhs’ perform anyway are imposed on them by an operating officer.

The official duties of ‘petukhs’ include cleaning toilets (no one except them will do this) and taking out the trash. Many of them earn their living by cleaning the rooms. ‘Petukhs’ are divided into ‘working’ and ‘non-working’. The former are those, who for a fee (tea, cigarettes, sweets) provide sexual services to other inmates. The latter are those who don’t, and this means they can not be forced. Many believe that a person becomes a ‘petukh’ through rape in prison or in jail. 15-20 years ago it was true. But today it basically does not occur in Belarusian prisons. At least, I do not know of any such a case, and none of those, who was inside with me, told me anything of this nature. Also, there were no cases of rape of ‘petukhs’ during my prison time.

Today’s prison is much more under the control of the administration than before, and a raped ‘petukh’ can write a statement against the rapist and his sentence will be then increased.

What is the benefit for the administration?

Surely you have a question: why the state, and, in particular, prison administration allows the savage medieval caste system with its untouchables, servants, and prostitutes to exist in prisons? Indeed, it’s inhumane, cruel and, finally, illegal, according to the penitentiary internal rules of conduct, all prisoners should toe the same line and any caste division is out of the question.

Can prison staff stop it and recover albeit strict and tough, but still discipline?

The answer is simple: they don’t need it.

For quite a long time spent in penal institutions I was in many places and saw a lot of people. I was in four prisons and in three colonies, talked to simple ‘muzhiks’, and ‘thieves’, bandits, drug addicts, ‘traders’ and ‘polozhenecs”, swindlers and murderers, ‘kozyols” and even ‘petukhs’ and, of course, had communicated quite a lot with prison staff.

Reflecting a lot on the establishment of Belarusian penal system, I came to a firm conclusion that thieves and police system of prison management are two pillars that support each other.

The informal system of ‘ponyatiya’ invented by thieves and official internal rules of conduct today are more likely mutually integrated, rather than in a state of war and conflict.

Yes, indeed, prison officials forcibly cleaned up the practice of ‘ponyatiya’ from those rules that prevent controllability and create inconvenience for them. Otherwise, the world of professional criminals and the Ministry of Internal Affairs world get on well with each other. They get from each other what they need: the prison staff — peace in a facility, no incidents, and control (why should they have to control hundreds of prisoners, if it is possible to control one ‘blatnoy’/ ‘kozyol’, who keeps others at bay?). Thieves / ‘kozyols’ receive privileges and power. Everybody is happy. Except, of course, ‘muzhiks’who, as usual, is a patsy in the middle, and is, de facto, in the situation of double subordination.

Many of the prisoners who have served time for more than ten years, and saw how all Belarusian prisons went from ‘black’ (under prisoners control) to ‘red’ (under administration) between about 2005 and 2010, told me openly, ‘Now it’s the same as before. The only difference is that instead of the thieves there are ‘kozyols’. If earlier ‘blatnoys’ had vodka and mobile phones, now activists have it. If earlier for screw-ups a ‘muzhik’ was beaten by thieves, now it is done by ‘kozyols’.

Tellingly, even faces of such informal leaders are often the same. During the active ‘breaking’ of prison and it’s reshaping, where from do you think the operating officers took loyal and dedicated activists — ‘zavkhoze’ and room orderlies, ready to fulfill any order? They were recruited from yesterday’s thieves, who quickly betrayed their criminal idea, because they were threatened with, for example, being sent to prison or loss of privileges, or just were put in a punishment cell a few times.

As a result, today Belarusian prisons are run by the ad- ministration together with prisoners who ‘firmly mended their ways’, but every inch of whose body is covered by criminal tattoos and whose fists are pumped with Vaseline.

Despite the formal contradiction in functions, the confluence of the criminal world and correctional staff is noticeable not only institutionally, but also on the linguistic level.

The officers use prison slang not less actively than convicts. As I'wrote, ‘petukhs’ are snubbed and humiliated by prison staff worse than by criminals. They even have their own ‘separated’ among prison workers, who are outcasts in a circle of colleagues.

When I was in Mogilev colony No. 15, there was a ‘separated’ inspector. Colleagues didn’t drink tea with him, he was the only one who could frisk ‘petukhs’. And such cases are not unique: in Novosady colony No. 14, according to my cellmate, there was even a separated officer, because his colleagues have found out that he has ‘wrong’ sex with his wife. As a result, they stopped drinking tea with him and began to defiantly despise him, moreover, even prisoners snubbed this officer with impunity. And there are a lot of such examples.

Interestingly, many prisoners on the wave of regime toughening and relative improvement of ‘petukh’s’ conditions (about 20 years ago they were beaten more often, and could also be raped) have expressed to me the opinion that soon ‘petukhs will not exist, because everyone will be forced to the clean toilets’. They often added, that authorities need to ‘look decent in front of Europe’ (yes, there were also these kinds of political analysts). However, it seems to me, that this will not happen in the near future. The reason is the same - the existence of ‘petukh’s’ caste significantly facilitates prison controllability.

Without any doubt, the administration of Belarusian prisons could force all prisoners to clean toilets and mix people at tables in the canteen regardless of caste.

There will be no riots or rebellions against it. This innovation will be fraught maximum with the consequences of like a few dozens of diehard supporters of ‘ponyatiya’, who will be sent to prison. Most prisoners in Belarus form such a downtrodden and speechless mass, that they could be easily forced to do anything. And if they are offered prospects of a parole for cleaning toilets, they’ll race each other at cleaning.

However, as we have seen, the administration doesn’t move on with doing so.

Another important point: the existence of this caste gives the prison staff an invaluable assistance in pressing on prisoners who refuse to obey.

In every colony and prison, there are always individuals who refuse to play by the rules established by the police. Either these are antisocial persons that try to live strictly according to the ‘ponyatiya’), or prisoners who try to defend their rights, for example, complaining to various authorities, or those who will be persecuted in prison only due to their status, such as political prisoners.

So, many people from these categories are no longer intimidated by the deprivation of parcels and visits, punishment cells or cell-type regime, or transfer to prison or the art. 411 article of the Criminal Code (deliberate disobedience to the lawful demands of the administration of correction facility). The question is what do you do with them? And here comes the last argument — ‘petukh’s’ caste. And then even those who are not afraid of the isolation ward, or batons, of course, will think twice. This is because life in this caste is the worst thing that can happen to a prisoner. A man with dignity can’t stay in a group with this status, it becomes almost impossible. And there is no way out of this caste.

I conversed with a former prisoner of Bobruisk colony No. 2, who got a response from the governor to his demand to comply with the law and non-infringement of his rights: ‘Have you forgotten where the harem is?’ And this is not an exception.

It’s needless to say about the use of this tool against political prisoners. I myself know about at least three cases in which political prisoners were transferred into the ‘petukh’s’ caste simply for the fact that they are political prisoners.

In all three cases, the operative combination was very similar. After arrival of political prisoner to a colony they find a respected convict (‘blatnoy’ or ‘kozyol’), who raises against the political prisoner an accusation of a ‘screwup’: that he sat previously in the same cell with a ‘downcast’ or drank from the ‘petukh’s’ mug, or he dealt with a ‘petukh’ outside. Naturally, this accusation has nothing to do with reality. But, with a wave of a wand, one or more witnesses appear and confirm: ‘Yes, he drank, I saw it myself’ or ‘Yes, he dealt with a fagot on the outside, I saw it myself?’, although the ‘accused’ doesn’t know these people. And now the decision can be made, everything according to ‘ponyatiya’! The result: the political prisoner is transferred into the ‘petukh’s’ caste, the actor (‘blatnoy’ or *kozyol’) gets a gratification like a visit or a parcel, and the cunning operating officer, who developed the whole plan, receives administrative carrot from higher-ups.

Fortunately, I avoided this fate, although attempts, as Iwrote above, were made. However, obviously, the administration had no specific ambition to transfer me into the ‘harem’, otherwise, they would certainly have done so.

Such unanimity of informal prison elites and administration against political prisoners, allows me once again to say that the hierarchical punitive system always operates in unity when they want to suppress and push out alien elements — potential rebels able to stand up for their rights.

And, of course, we can compare it with the analogy of 1930–1940s,when criminals have taken an active part in the elimination of ‘Trotskyists’, ‘betrayers of the people’ and other ‘58th’ (an article “Counterrevolutionary activity” of USSR Criminal Code) (see. V. Shalamov “Zhulnicheskaya krov’, E. Eppbaum ‘Gulag’, Solzhenitsyn ‘The Gulag Archipelago’, book 3).

Yes, these two heads of punitive hydra can sometimes squabble among themselves, but, nevertheless, they need each other, and at a time when they will need to destroy people like us — they will certainly go together.

Is there a way out?

Here, I think it would be appropriate to give some advice for what to do if you’re in prison and you see that an attempt is being made to transfer you to the ‘petukh’caste for disobedience or for ‘political’ status (which happens more often).

First and foremost, you should change your attitude to what is happening. All of us, men, have been taught that ‘fagot’ is insulting and disgusting, that it’s a shame to be so. And now a group of adult and kind of sane men tells you that you are one. First of all, you need to understand that your current situation has no shame and you should not blame yourself. You are not a pedophile, not a rapist. You are not necessarily gay. It’s just that feral caste norms prevailing in prison are being used against you in order to break your will and lower your status in the eyes of others.

What to do?

If the process has not yet entered irreversible stage, for example, you are thrown into a ‘petukh’s’ cell or convicts publicly provoke you by asking tricky questions, it makes sense to struggle till the end - fight, commit acts of self-harm, provoke any conflicts, but to get out of this situation, to show your unstoppable determination.

If the moment is gone, and you find yourself in this caste, you have to request the administration for your legitimate right to personal safety (Article 11 of the Criminal Executive Code of Belarus) - transfer to protective custody (usually in solitary confinement). According to this article, ‘in case of threats to personal safety of the convicted person, they are entitled to apply for personal security protection to any official body of institution which carries out criminal sentences. In this case, the official body shall immediately take measures for personal protection of the convicted person’.

I don’t know a single case when this convict’s demand was denied. However, everything is possible, and it may hap-pen that for stronger effect the person who was declared ‘sepa- rated’ and demanded to be removed from common barracks, is intentionally left there. For a night, for example, so that he can experience all the beauties of ‘petukh’s’ life. In this case, you need to be ready for humiliation, for a fight, for anything. Again, this is the situation when you should use extreme measures in the form of self-harm or self-protection in every possible way.

It is worth to remember that the more problems you create for the administration, the faster they will provide you with security because prison administration does not have a goal of the physical destruction of political prisoners, it is only about breaking them down morally. They don’t need a corpse or a disabled person in the colony.

Of course, it should be understood, that a request to the administration to put you in solitary is a ‘screwup’ in terms of ‘ponyatiya’. Such people are called ‘charged in’, ‘locked down’, etc. According to the same ‘ponyatiya’, if you think that you were ‘separated’ ‘with no code’ (i.e. unfair), you should find a superior in the criminal hierarchy (‘enforcer’ or thief-in-law) and ask him for appeal, and don’t ask the administration to put you in protective custody.

You decide yourself what to do. However, my opinion is: an appeal to ‘ponyatiya’ that is itself a tool of dissenters breaking,

is at least short-sighted. And operating officers will always find an approach, the easy way or the hard way, to any criminal decision-maker. And between saving your destiny or his own well-being, he unequivocally will choose the latter.

The very first thing to do in such cases is to make public what happened to you, inform the lawyer and relatives, so the information gets into the media. They are still a kind of shield for political prisoners from outright tyranny, so it is necessary to speak frankly and openly about everything that happened to you; talk without shame about castes and ‘ponyatiya’ and provocations of prison staff. Indeed, administration will put pressure on prisoners in this way, just playing on their male feelings and sense of shame for the fact that ‘now I'm like a fagot’.

Thereby the vast majority of similar stories that take place not only with political prisoners never come out. People are simply ashamed to talk about them, by that reproducing the vicious circle of silence and allowing prison staff to continue using informal prison rules for pressure on the undesirable.

We can stop it, only if we start to talk about the problem out loud, conquering this absolutely unreasonable shame and fear.

Like I said, I wasn’t in such a situation, but I considered all the time the likelihood that I will be put in ‘harem’ due to KGB orders. And by long reflection, observation, and analysis of experiences of others I came to the conclusion that in that case, I will behave exactly as described above.

I would like to conclude this text with something optimistic and life-affirming. But reality dictates a slightly different tone. The number of people ending up in prison for their beliefs is gradually increasing and with it grows the pressure in prison.

An important part of this pressure is precisely the caste system and informal hierarchy, which I described above.

It is not an individual, but a mass system of ‘practicing’ on special categories of prisoners being tested on drug-addicted convicts. Aninnovation was introduced in correctional colonies: the preventive registering of ‘extremists’ — they are forced to wear a yellow label. It is logical to assume, that in the light of the radical deterioration of the socio-economic situation in the country after they have created separated colonies for the drug addicts, they will separate the politicals.

All in all, I think that all of us, those, who stand today for changes and the overthrow of the dictator, should cast off illusions and realize that it would not be better and will only be harder. Of course, the prison administration will continue to use pressure against political prisoners by ‘ponyatiya’. This tool is easy to use and has repeatedly proved its effectiveness.

Only the demolition of the archaic caste system can change the situation for the better and as a first step, we should start with demolition of silence and taboo on discussion of the topic in society.

12—16 June 2016

The Smell

  1. This article is available in Russian language, and you can read it right here, which you’ll have to translate from Russian using whatever translator suits you best ↩︎