Imprisoned political activist Ildar Dadin reported this week that he has suffered torture and brutal conditions while incarcerated at Penal Colony 7 in the northwestern town of Segezha.
Dadin, who was sentenced last December to three years under a new law that criminalizes “repeated breaches of public-assembly rules,” reportedly dictated the letter to his lawyer and addressed it to his wife. The independent Russian news website Meduza published the letter on November 1, 2016.
The letter, which is graphic and may be disturbing for some readers, describes the systematic torture and abuse of prisoners under the guidance of prison head, Major Sergey Kossiev. In his first week at penal colony 7 (the same facility that once held former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky), Dadin says he was beaten by about a dozen people at once, suspended by handcuffs for half an hour, threatened with sexual assault, and told that he would be murdered if he complained about his conditions to the outside world.
This treatment of prisoners will be familiar to anyone who has read the canon of Soviet-era GULAG literature—including classics like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s GULAG Archipelago, Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales, and Vasily Grossman’s Everything Flows, all of which detail life in Soviet prison camps. While citizens of the USSR interested in the topic had to rely on samizdat (illegally printed and distributed publications) to read these stories, modern Russian activists use social media to share such information.
And some are even using technology to take matters into their own hands, in a way. Russian political activist Vladislav Zdolnikov, who is active with the oppositionist Progress Party and the protest- geared Newscaster.TV, has been targeting the prison director himself with the help of social media.
Since the release of Dadin's letter, Zdolnikov has been tweeting information about Major Kossiev, whom Dadin named as being complicit in his torture. He has also been pointing others to Kossiev's Vkontakte page:
Кажется, настоящая страничка начальника ИК-7 https://t.co/LxEOdQBP1k
Давайте расскажем ублюдку, что с ним случится после смены власти
— Vladislav (@unkn0wnerror) November 1, 2016
This appears to be the real social-media page for the head of prison colony 7. Let’s tell the bastard what’s going to happen to him after a big changes politically.
Russian opposition leader Aleksey Navalny also shared the link to Kossiev’s Vkontakte profile, including a few photographs of him in normal situations—relaxing, and spending time with his family on the beach—juxtaposed with Dadin’s description of Kossiev ordering the prisoner to be tortured.
— Alexey Navalny (@navalny) November 1, 2016
Here’s the Vkontakte page of the torturer Kossiev.
Zdolnikov has publicly identified members of Kossiev's family, including his wife and children, and pointed to their social media pages. He has urged his followers to contact them and write that Kossiev is a “bastard.”
@nemtsovmost конечно считаю. Писать родне о том, что их муж или отец — ублюдок — это хорошо и правильно.
— Vladislav (@unkn0wnerror) November 1, 2016
[In response to being asked: “Do you consider yourself better than the torturer?”] Of course, I consider myself better than him. Write to his relatives about how their husband or father is a bastard. This is the right thing to do.
RuNet Echo's Aric Toler spoke to Vladislav Zdolnikov and asked him what he hopes to accomplish by exposing Sergey Kossiev's personal information.
RuNet Echo: Why did you decide to bring attention to Kossiev and his family on social media?
Vladislav Zdolnikov: When we're talking about massive violence against prisoners that has clearly been organized by the prison colony administration, one of the few ways to affect change is to publicize the event widely.
I think that it's important to bring this information to the attention of those close to the administrators who committed the crimes, including their friends and family members. They should know what this person, with whom they're living and socializing, is doing.
So we're translating what has happened from the professional to the personal realm. I'm sure [the prison administrator] doesn't come home and say, “Today, I tortured a prisoner, suspending him in the air by his handcuffs.” He doesn't say to his wife, “Today I threatened to rape a prisoner,” because he knows she won't understand why.
I think this kind of moral pressure should positively influence Dadin's situation.
But I should clarify that I don't think that his family should be held responsible or suffer for his actions. I would never call for them to be “poisoned” by this information or negatively affected in any way.
RuNet Echo: Reading your tweets and looking at the social-media pages of Kossiev, juxtaposed with Dadin's letter, reminded me of the “Banality of Evil.” What impact on the average Russian, on public opinion, and the situation in the prison colonies can be made by raising this juxtaposition?
Vladislav Zdolnikov: I think that this definitely has an effect on people's relationship to this person. They recognize that this person, who tortures people at work, might be lying next to them at the beach. This, at a minimum, makes you think.
Social media gives us the ability to act in situations when it seems like we can't do anything. We don't have any hope of an audit from the prosecutor's office, or of the guilty parties being fired or punished. When you feel empathy for what's happening, when you get worried, it makes you think about what you might be able to do to help a person. I know Dadin personally, and I am especially worried about what he wrote in his letter. So I needed to think up something, the result of which was this action. I don't know how better to call it.
RuNet Echo: In the West, we know about Soviet prison camps thanks to literature of the time. Now, we don't know much of anything about them, except for what we saw from the Pussy Riot case. What would you tell a Western audience about the current situation of modern Russian prison colonies, and through what channels could we (in the West) learn more about them?
Vladislav Zdolnikov: The situation that we learned about in Dadin's letter is an absolutely familiar one for the majority of Russian prisons. Prisoners are not treated like people, and they're kept in constant fear, in order to subdue and suppress their willpower.
We learned about the situation with Ildar Dadin only thanks to the fact that he and his wife have a certain prominence in opposition circles. This helped the text of his letter be disseminated quickly.
A quick Google search turns up hundreds of stories like Ildar's. Here, for example, is a letter from a prisoner from 2012 from a prisoner in the same penal colony. The torture described there is exactly the same as the torture described in Ildar's letter.
Less than 24 hours after Meduza published Dadin’s letter, the move already already seems to have had an impact. Activists and demonstrators have assembled outside the Federal Penitentiary Service office in Moscow to hold protests in support of Dadin and prison reform.
Акция против пыток над Эльдаром Дадиным рядом со зданием ФСИН pic.twitter.com/p0PnlBVgnL
— король тушканчиков (@Romenskiy) November 1, 2016
A demonstration against the torture of Ildar Dadin near the Federal Prison Service building.
Also on November 1, the Russian television station REN TV published a photograph of Dadin reportedly taken earlier the same day, showing no obvious bruising or signs of violence. Dadin's wife, Anastasiya Zotova, contends that her husband was injured in mid-September, and that the wounds would have healed by now.
Federal penitentiary officials have promised to allow “independent medical specialists” access to the prisoner, in order to confirm the government's claims that he has not been subjected to any form of illegal physical abuse.