Grim tales from Kyiv's modern-day gulag
By Olga Kryzhanovska, Kyiv Post Staff Writer

Post photo by Viktor Suvorov The more prisoners complain the more praise wardens get from their chiefs. Prison is for the scum of society, so let them have a dog's life. When everyday life becomes unbearable for the prisoner, he is much easier to talk to at the 'discussions."

Andrew V. Kudin, "How to Survive in Prison.

Post photo by Viktor Suvorov
A view of the entrance to Lukyanivska prison.
The sign in the foreground says,
"Yulia, keep your spirits up, we're with you."

 

"The more prisoners complain the more praise wardens get from their chiefs. Prison is for the scum of society, so let them have a dog's life. When everyday life becomes unbearable for the prisoner, he is much easier to talk to at the 'discussions.'"- Andrew V. Kudin, "How to Survive in Prison."

Days before she was arrested, former Deputy Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko quipped that she was keeping a suitcase packed and ready in anticipation of a long prison stay. Tymoshenko may not have been so wry had she known what was waiting for her.

On Feb. 13, prosecutors locked Tymoshenko up in Kyiv's Lukyanovka prison, a facility notorious for being a hotbed of torture, persecution and psychological warfare both in Soviet times and in the decade since Ukraine declared independence.

The plight of Tymoshenko, whose health has reportedly deteriorated considerably since her incarceration, has thrust Ukraine's prison record into the spotlight, and the picture isn't pretty.

While Ukrainian authorities have boasted for years of improving conditions at the country's penal establishments, in the eyes of many citizens they still hold the awful, eerie mystique of the famed Soviet gulags.

Prisoners and rights organizations say the country's jails remain hotbeds of human-rights abuses. They say prison guards' attitudes toward prisoners has hardly changed since Stalin's years of terror. And they say that, as in the old days, prisons remain a key cog in the authorities' machine to systematically repress political opponents.

Forced confessions

Ukraine's opaque laws are another cog in that machine - under current law police have the right to send people to jails on the basis of "a strong suspicion" alone, without any backing by a court decision. A strong suspicion is exactly what landed Tymoshenko behind bars. She was hardly the first.

"In the Stalin era it was just more direct and simple. The hypocrisy and cynicism of the current situation is that it's being called 'democracy,'" said Andrew V. Kudin, author of "How to Survive in Prison." "The logic of the current regime is the same,"Kudin said. "All those not loyal should be discredited and eliminated."

Kudin, 36, is a writer with a doctorate in philosophy who now specializes in human rights problems. He was arrested in September 1997 on the basis of an acquaintance's letter linking him to a contract murder. The courts later acquitted him and determined that his arrest was illegal. But by that time the damage was already done.

Kudin was released from Lukyanovka prison in February 1998 with head trauma so severe that doctors declared him a second-degree invalid. He said the trauma was the result of repeated beatings at the hands of authorities who were trying to force a confession out of him.

But it was really a lot more complicated than that, Kudin alleges. It later became clear that Kudin had never been officially charged with a crime at all. A week after his arrest, the Parliamentary Commission Against Corruption and Organized Crime came to the conclusion that the real reason for his arrest was to put pressure on his father, Vyacheslav Kudin, a member of National Council for Radio and Television, which distributes airtime among private radio and TV companies.

Arresting people on trumped up charges and then forcing false confessions out of them is a common practice in Ukraine, human rights organizations say. Tetyana Shpak, wife of Lukyanovka prisoner Serhy Shpak, said that her husband was another victim of the practice.

"My husband went on a hunger strike for six months to protest being arrested based on statements made under torture," she said. "He couldn't walk, his teeth were falling out. Serhy was given only one glass of water per day and no medical treatment at all until I started complaining to the authorities."

Serhy Shpak was accused of robbery. He stopped the hunger strike last October and is waiting in Lukyanovka for the court to decide his future. His wife claims that all evidence against him was fabricated by prosecutors.

Pictures of squalor

Kudin's book, "How to Survive In Prison," outlines in detail all stages of the Ukrainian punitive machine. It includes tips on how to behave during the arrest and what to say and what not to say during interrogation. The book describes the various torture techniques and other humiliating means that policemen employ to get confessions out of detainees. Kudin wrote the book while in Lukyanovka prison.

"Practically all prisoners sleep fully dressed - and not because they want to: the temperature in the cell never rises above 5 degrees Centigrade," Kudin wrote. "Appalling conditions, no sanitation, the absence of ventilation, fresh air and daylight. All these cause various illnesses."

Officials deny abusing prisoners at Lukyanovka. They claim that inmates have yet to register a single complaint this year. According to the office of parliament's Human Rights Ombudsman, a checkup of the jail in mid-February revealed that conditions were normal.

Kudin's book points out, however, that commission members sent to check up on conditions in prison are shown the same model cells, "with regular bedsteads and linoleum on the concrete floor." Other Lukyanovka insiders also laugh at the authorities' claims.

"They must be joking. Like 10 years ago, conditions in Lukyanovka serve one purpose - to humiliate human dignity," said Stepan Khmara, a former dissident and the head of the anti-presidential Conservative Republican Party, who spent nine months in Lukyanovka between 1990 and 1991.

Another Gulag legacy in Lukyanovka are the solitary confinement cells, where prisoners are often held for up to 15 days.

"It's a small, cold cell with a concrete floor and a cot that is only provided for eight hours during the night. The rest of the time, a prisoner has to stand or move. Any attempt to lie down on the concrete floor results in pneumonia," said Yevhen Dyky, executive director of the Helsinki 90 human rights organization.

Conditions at Ukrainian prisons lag far behind world standards, according to Dyky.

Human rights watchdogs say that Lukyanovka prison doesn't correspond even to the minimum United Nations standards for keeping prisoners, to say nothing about the more stringent demands of the Council of Europe.

"Not a single new jail has been built in Ukraine since 1917," Dyky said. "Prisoner care in Lukyanovka jail has improved only slightly since the days of the Russian Empire. The major change is that cells designed for eight people now contain at least 18," Dyky said.

Some dispute Dyky's claims. Stepan Tkachenko, spokesman for the parliamentary Human Rights Ombudsman office, said conditions in Lukyanovka prison have actually improved in recent years.

"First, metal shields blocking the sunlight were removed from the windows, hot water became available and bare plank beds were replaced with normal beds," Tkachenko said. "Expenses for prisoner food were raised from 17 kopeks to Hr 2 per day."

But even Tkachenko conceded that conditions remain substandard. And he acknowledged the possibility that prisons are used to psychologically break perfectly innocent people.

"It's typical when people are thrown into jails on suspicion rather than facts. They spend a couple of years there and then it turns out they are innocent. These people come out completely crushed. They will never be the same again."

Flimsy laws

On paper, Ukrainian law precludes such abuses by obliging courts to resolve cases within two months; in practice, people often spend four to five years awaiting judgment.

Tkachenko blames the long wait period on the fact that courts are overworked and underfunded. Skeptics say politics often play a part. They say the arrest of Tymoshenko, one of President Leonid Kuchma's most hated rivals, is evidence of that.

Last year's arrest of top officials at Sloviansky Bank, which handled funds for Tymoshenko's former employer, United Energy Systems, was also widely believed to be a political witch hunt. The bank's president has been in jail for almost 11 months awaiting trial.

Guilty until proven innocent: It's the Soviet way, according to Dyky.

"It's been a tradition since Stalin's times - they simply don't know how to carry out an investigation if people are not jailed," Dyky said.

Tymoshenko's prospects of getting out of jail anytime soon look bleak. Lukyanovka is already affecting her health.

Vyacheslav Peredry, a professor at the scientific and research nutrition institute, said that Tymoshenko's health was "very bad" after examining her in her jail cell, according to a Ukrainska Pravda report on Feb. 27. He refused to provide any details, saying that he wasn't feeling well after visiting the prison.

The Prosecutor General's Office has repeatedly denied reports of Tymoshenko's ill health.