Torture is common practice in Russia's Gulag

Torture is common practice in the penal colonies of nowadays Gulag. Activist Ildar Dadin, emprisoned in Karelia, sent out an open letter. After that he disappeared. Recently he contacted his wife Anastasiya Zotova and told that he was transferred to another prison. Zotova, a journalist and human rights activist, tells about human rights violations in the colonies. The authorities are aware of it, but nothing will change as long as prison guards and officers will keep their impunity.

by Anastasiya Zotova

Ildar Dadin, a well-known Moscow activist (and my husband), was transferred from a penal colony in Karelia after he wrote a a letter complaining about maltreatment, humiliation and beatings, causing public outrage in Russia. The phrase 'Where is Ildar Dadin' became a top trend on Russian social media on January 3, after I and other family members pleaded with authorities to tell them where he is being held. A month went by without anybody knowing his whereabouts. At long last, on January 8, Dadin contacted me, telling he was transferred to a penal colony in the Altai Province in Siberia.

One year ago he was sent to prison: the court sentenced him to three years for carrying out solitary pickets. Later his sentence was cut to two and a half year. After a lengthy imprisonment in a Moscow investigation prison, Ildar was transferred to a prison colony — and disappeared. His family wasn’t told where he’d been sent. A month and a half later, Ildar was found in Karelia, in Prison Colony No.7 in the town of Segezha, where he told his lawyer how prison officers were torturing and beating prisoners. This story caused a scandal both in Russia and abroad.

Gde Ildar DadinMoscow-activist Mark Galperin on Red Square asking 'Where is Ildar Dadin?' Source:

Letter from Ildar Dadin, written down by his lawyer on October 31 2016

Nastya! If you decide to publish this information about what is happening to me, then try to distribute it as widely as possible. This will increase my chances of staying alive. Know that there is an entire mafia operating at penal colony 7. It involves the entire administration, among them the colony’s head Major Sergey Leonidovich Kossiev and the vast majority of its employees, including the doctors.

Upon my arrival at the colony on September 10, 2016, I had practically all of my things taken away from me. Two razor blades were then planted [amongst my remaining possessions] and subsequently 'discovered' during an inspection. This is a common practice here — this gives them grounds to throw all newcomers into solitary confinement, to ensure they immediately understand the hell that they found themselves in. I was put into solitary confinement without any official orders. All of my things were taken away, including soap, my toothbrush, toothpaste, and even toilet paper. In protest of these illegal activities, I went on a hunger strike.

On September 11, 2016, the colony director Kossiev came to me with three employees. Together, they started beating me. Over the course of that day, I was beaten a total of four times, by 10-12 people at once. They would kick me. After the third beating, they lowered my head into a toilet right there in the cell.

On September 12, 2016, [several] employees cuffed my hands behind my back and hanged me by the handcuffs. Being suspended in this manner caused terrible pain in the wrists, twisted out my elbows, and caused horrible back pain. I was suspended like that for half an hour. Then they took off my underwear and said they would bring another prisoner to rape me unless I stopped my hunger strike. After that, I was brought to Kossiev’s office, where he said to me in the presence of other staff: 'You have been beaten up slightly. If I give orders, you will be beaten much worse. If you try to complain, they will kill you and bury you under the fence.' After that, they beat me regularly, several times a day. Regular beatings, bullying, humiliation, insults, intolerable detention conditions – this is happening with the other prisoners, as well.

All subsequent punishments were based on blatant lies. All of the videos in which I was being 'penalized' were staged: before filming, they would tell me how to behave and what to do — not to argue, not to protest, to look at the floor, [etc.]. Otherwise, they said, they would kill [me] and no one would know about it, because no one knows where I am. I cannot send letters without going through the administration first, and the administration has promised to kill me if I write any complaints. Nastya, in my first letter from penal colony 7, I wrote to you about the European Court of Human Rights in order to circumvent censorship and give the slightest hint that I was not all right and that I needed help (Note from Anastasia Zotova: I did not receive any of Ildar’s letters from prison.)

I ask you to publish this letter, because there is a real 'information blockade' in this place and I see no other opportunities to break that. I am not asking you to get me out of here or to have me transferred to another facility. I have repeatedly seen and heard how other prisoners are being beaten, so my conscience will not allow me to run away from here. I am going to fight to help others. I am not afraid of death. Most of all, I am afraid of not being able to withstand the torture and surrendering.

If the Anti-Torture Committee [a Russian human rights NGO] has not yet been destroyed in Russia, I ask for their assistance to guarantee my right to life and security and those of other prisoners in Russia. I ask to you to openly reveal that Major Kossiev has directly threatened to murder me for any attempt to complain about what is happening. I will be glad if you find an attorney who will be able to reside in Segezha and provide legal support.

Time is against me. Surveillance footage would be able to prove [that such] torture and beatings [are happening], but it is becoming less and less likely that such footage remains intact. If I am again subjected to torture, beatings, and rape, it is unlikely that I will last more than a week. In case of my sudden death, you may be told that I committed suicide, had an accident, was shot while trying to escape, or [died] fighting with another prisoner, but this would be a lie. [My murder] would have been planned in advance to eliminate witnesses and victims of torture.

I love you and I hope to see you someday. Your Ildar.

Ildar DadinIldar Dadin holds solitary protest on Red Square, the reason why he was imprisoned Source:

When you talk about torture in Russia, the hardest thing is explaining why it’s so difficult to deal with. For instance, someone asked me today: 'Nastya, if the prisoners in Karelia Colony No.7 have been tortured for several years now, why haven’t they complained?' My response that letters from prison rarely make it to their intended recipients, and that the state prosecutor is a good friend of the colony director (the chief sadist), meets with an iron logic: 'But they should...'

Yes, they should. They should observe human rights. They shouldn’t beat prisoners. But that’s all in theory. In practice, they tell prisoners that if someone complains, they’ll kill them. And prisoners know that prison officers can do that. They can, because there will never be any punishment: investigations won’t find any violations in the actions of the killers, and the courts will let them off.

To be blunt, many people know about the situation in Russia’s prisons. In one way or another, prisoners’ testimony finds its way into the newspapers, accompanied by terrifying pictures where you can clearly see signs of force and torture. But this changes nothing. When the story of Vitaly Buntov (a prisoner in the Tula region whose fingernails were pulled out) hit the media a couple of years ago, the authorities’ reply was simple: 'He bit them off himself'. Despite the demands of the European Court on Human Rights to defend Buntov, the prison officers told him: 'We’ll continue until you die.'

Ildar Dadin arrestedIldar Dadin arrested. Source:

'I wrote several letters about the torture, but after official representatives and representatives of the prosecutor’s office left, they began to beat and torture me with double the cruelty,' Zelimkhan Geliskhanov, a prisoner at Karelia’s Colony No.7, tells me. He’s still there. When Zelimkhan’s mother wrote a letter to the General Prosecutor’s office, he was beaten even harder. They shouted at him: 'The prosecutor’s office doesn’t mean anything here! Your mother doesn’t mean anything here! You mean nothing here! Understand?'

Why did the story of my partner — one among many — provoke such a response? Possibly because journalists and politicians know Ildar personally, from his activism. Even if you have seen Ildar only once, you know that a person like he doesn’t lie. The public outrage was particularly strong because Ildar was imprisoned on a political charge, for opposition protest. It’s not enough that they sent an innocent man to prison, now they’re torturing him.

Symbol against torture

Over the last month, Ildar has changed from a normal guy into a symbol of Russia’s struggle against torture. Not only for defenders of human rights, but also for the prisoners in Colony No.7 in Karelia. Prisoners who were afraid to reveal the torture and humiliation are now giving evidence. The issue may have reached the higher levels, but this is still a brave step — prisoners who complain are in the full power of the prisoner administration. And nothing, not even the attention of the Russian and European public, can protect them from the administration’s revenge.

Former prisoners have also responded, taking part in a press conference in later November where they confirmed that torture is taking place. People who live in regions across Russia and knew nothing about each other tell the same stories about what’s happening inside this Karelian prison.

Listening to these stories is unbearable. The process of humiliation begins as soon as prisoners arrive in the colony. 'Get out of the van, animals,' they are told. And indeed, they are not treated like people. Prisoners who try to defend their rights are cruelly tortured.

After prisoners arrive in Colony No.7, prison officers remove all their belongings, and, of course, beat them up. Anyone without exception is subjected to this, and then the prisoners are forced to repeat that they are worthless. Those who get scared quickly and lose their pride are beaten rarely, just to keep them in line. According to the administration, this is what prisoners should look like — scared and broken.

Those prisoners who try to defend their rights are tortured cruelly. They are thrown into a freezing cell where the temperature is far below zero. There’s no clothing, they have nothing to get warm. As a rule, when a prisoner spends a long time in the cold, they start to suffer of spasms, and they call the prison doctor. Ofcourse that is useless. The doctor is laughing and tells him: 'Just grin and bear it, that’s what you should do.'

Prison guard lookout tower 157541738 837x1255Prisoncamp watch tower. Photo free of copyright

Prisoners are beaten during inspection every morning and every evening. They are walked through a corridor without camera's and forced to spread their legs and, with prison officers pressing on their backs, are made to do the splits until their genitals touch the ground. This can cause the breaking of ligaments. If a prisoner collapses and falls down, he gets a severe beating: officers jump on him and trample him with their boots.

'During the medical inspection, my hands were cuffed behind my back, I was put on the floor and they began to beat me. In stead of a gag the doctor tried to stuff my slipper into my mouth to muffle my screams. That’s the doctor who should examine me for signs of bodily harm...', Ali Islamov tells me. He’s still detained at Colony No. 7.

What happens to a prisoner next? That is easy: broken bones, compressed fracture of the spine. People become invalids at the will of prison sadists. Some are forced naked into the cold, covered with urine, forced to clean the latrines — you can bully and humiliate a prisoner however you want.  'In Cell 35, the one next to mine, they beat Koba Shurgaya a minimum of three or four times a week,' Murat Nagoyev remembers. Murat, an accountant by training, is sober and meticulous, and remembers all the details. 'When they came in to beat Koba up, they demanded that he shout out his name, date of birth, conviction — that’s why I remembered his name so well. When they beat him, they forced him to do something, to sign something. He would shout: "No, no, I won’t do it!" and they beat him even harder. They beat him like that the whole of December, in the end they damaged some organs.'

Broken ribs

When Murat told me this, he didn’t know that Koba Shurgaya, the fellow prisoner he’d never seen, was lying in the cell next door with broken ribs.This is what Shurgaya himself told me: 'Around ten officers used force against me. They kicked and punched me. They made me bend me legs so far that they could push my head against the floor. Then they took me into the office to see the head of the colony. He would threaten me that they’d lock me up outside naked, where I’d die from the cold "like a dog". After the beating, I felt a strong pain in my chest. Touch this spot and you can still feel my broken rib sticking out. My legs were damaged. My left leg healed after a while, but my right is still all swollen up. After the beating, a local lawyer came to see me — I asked him for advice on what to do. But this lawyer recommended me not to write a complaint about the prison officers at the colony. This would only make things worse for me.' I don’t think I have to explain that this prisoner with broken ribs did not receive medical help.

Nationality is a frequent punch line in prison. Here’s the testimony of one witness: 'A Tajik was in Cell 7. I don’t remember his details. He spoke Russian very badly, and they laughed at him for this, mocked him, forced him to write a confession. One of his hands was broken, and the prison officers beat this hand in particular, he shouted of pain. They forced him to sit in the corner, put his hands in the air and imitate a monkey.'

Sometimes the prison officers threaten you with rape, and that’s not just a threat. They’ll rip your trousers and underwear off, wave their genitals in front of your face and you think it’s going to happen... Men will open their veins to stop this humiliation. But even that doesn’t save them from the bullying: it’s a rare occasion when the administration sends an injured man to the hospital.

Humilation and rape

'To avoid the humiliation, and frightened of being raped, I opened up my veins in my cell. They stopped the blood, bandaged my hands and then, under the pretense of taking me to the medical block, they took me to the corridor without camera's and continued to beat me. They left me behind the entry door on the concrete floor and opened the door. They cuffed me to the door. I lay in that position for days, periodically receiving a blow from the door being opened. When my hands began to turn blue, the prison officers loosened the cuffs.'

A few years ago, one of the prisoners in Colony No. 7 was brutally raped. Sixty prisoners opened their veins in protest, and then another 40. But the ensuing inspection, of course, did not find any violations. The administration also resorts to other forms of torture: they force a prisoner’s arms behind his back, cuff him and then hang him on a hook. Ildar told us that this torture was the worst. It puts such pressure on your hands that you want to scream from pain: your back goes wooden, tears, snot, spittle are uncontrollable... At this point a prisoner is ready to do everything just to make sure they let him go. And this is the torture described by George Orwell in 1984, when a prisoner is ready to shout: 'Take my wife, my mother – torture them, just not me, not me!'

To force some naked into the cold, to cover them in urine, to make them clean the latrines — you can bully and humiliate a prisoner however you want. Send them to tuberculosis hospital? Easy. Throw them in a dark cell without food and water? Thats even easier.  . Prisoners have no rights, and there’s no one to intervene. Relatives aren’t allowed to meet prisoners who are beaten, and their correspondence is blocked.

The more cunning officers use prisoners as a free work force. There’s a famous phrase doing the rounds at Colony No.7. It was said by Sergei Kossiev, the head of the colony, who owns a small pig farm: 'Why should I order equipment to clear up manure when I’ve got 500 slaves?'

Now the situation at Colony No.7 in Segezha has changed somewhat. If the prison administration used to be completely sure of its impunity, then now that confidence has been shaken. The guards walk around scared, they’ve stopped beating the prisoners, and even stopped swearing. Often, they’re not even let into work — inspections! But the idyll can’t last. When the door slams behind the last human rights activist, the times of the inquisition return. Those who have made complaints are facing the officers’ revenge. The administration wanted to open a criminal case against Ildar, whether it was for a 'fight' with a cellmate, or the 'libelous' story of torture.

If only it was a problem of one prison colony! I get phonecalls from colonies from all over Russia - my numer is available on the Internet. Most of them are from colonies in Karelia, where the problems seem to be incredibly huge.

According to rumours, Ildar has been transferred to Kirov region. Someone managed to call me from there — they say it’s no better than Karelia. I don’t want to believe them, but it’s hard not to. I’ve seen my husband, who aged by more than a decade in the course of a month. I’ve seen grown-ups beginning to shake at the very mention of Karelia. I’ve seen the wide eyes of lawyers after they come back from meeting prisoners in these colonies.

Just a concentration camp

'It’s just a concentration camp!' I shouted after a conversation with one of the former prisoners. 'Yes, that’s what we called it,' my interlocutor confirmed. It’s hard to say that Russia’s investigative authorities are burning with desire to hold inspections, and this is why we, Russia’s human rights defenders, have to do them ourselves — send experienced lawyers to meet prisoners, collect testimony on what has happened.

No one else is going to do this. The prisoners who call me from their cells say it bluntly: 'There’s no hope for anyone but you.' Their words provoke laughter through tears: 'When I heard that they’d beat up Dadin, I thought – thank God! That is, of course, I’m sorry that your husband had to go through that, but at least now people hear us!'

You can’t help but agree. And then run to the Investigative Committee, the General Prosecutor’s Office, the Ombudsman, to ring human rights defenders endlessly and hire lawyers. The result? The Presidential Council on Human Rights has taken the situation under its control. Even Vladimir Putin has declared publicly that prisoners cannot be tortured. Under the conditions of the power vertical, this kind of statement means a lot, and could have a serious effect on the fate of prisoners, and the sadists – the prison officers.

It’s impossible to live in a country where the concentration camp, the Gulag, the Inquisition is back. But you have to fight it, otherwise it’s impossible: listening to prisoners’ complaints, you are ready for anything, just to break this inhumane system.

I answer the endless telephone calls from prison, making my way down the street past passers-by, ruddy-faced, laughing. In the streets there are windows of shops and restaurants. New Year is approaching, and people in Russia are cheerful, they buy presents, go to have fun — and they prefer not to think of those who, at this very moment, will be hit by the heavy hand of a prison guard.

This article was published first at

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