Boris Kagarlitsky: the Journey Continues

In July 2023, the international left-wing community was shaken by the news of the imprisonment of Boris Kagarlitsky on the factitious charges of “justifying terrorism”, a code word for his staunch anti-war position. Karaglitsky, the well-known post-Soviet public intellectual, who was previously imprisoned under Brezhnev and Yeltzin, was abducted in Moscow and brought to Syktyvkar, 1,300 kilometers to the north of Russia’s capital. The aim was to isolate Kagarlitsky and cut him off support of his comrades. However, a strong international solidarity campaign led to the sociologist’s release back in December. Now, with his case reopened, Kagarlitsky who refuses to leave Russia as a matter of principle faces five years in prison. September Collective publishes this letter, which Boris wrote from behind bars, to call for reopening of the solidarity campaign for his immediate release with renewed vigor. Freedom to Boris Kagarlitsky and all political prisoners in Russia!

After my return to Moscow from Syktyvkar, a familiar journalist suggested me to write an article about my prison experience. I liked the idea, I immediately got down to business, but after dicker and a half of pages of text I discovered that I still didn’t have enough material for a whole book. However, the problem resolved itself promptly. Leviathan provided me with new opportunities to expand my knowledge of prison life. The appeal court, based on a complaint from the prosecutor’s office, decided to review the sentence passed in Syktyvkar and send me back to jail.

The new prison experience turned out to be much different than the previous time. In just over a month, I changed three prisons and five cells before I settled in “my permanent cell,” where I am writing these lines. I received very rich new material and met new people as a result. Many new thoughts have also appeared, which I am gradually writing down (not always in connection with what is happening in prison, but clearly not without the influence of this experience). It’s good to think about philosophy and psychology here, but the richest knowledge is associated with the moves that I was forced to make from place to place.

Although the rules of prison life seem to be the same everywhere, practices can vary greatly. And not only from prison to prison, but even from cell to cell. Peculiar communities form here, they evolve, disintegrate and form a new depending on changing situations. There are prisons large and small, provincial and metropolitan, rich and poor. Security can be friendly and even understanding, or it can be malicious. And the inmates themselves belong to different breeds of people, cultural groups and social classes. There is always something to talk about here, although these conversations will not always be pleasant. Moving from prison to prison, prisoners exchange information about the situation in the previous place and what to expect in the new institution. What people are most interested in, of course, is food. The opportunity to eat decently remains one of the main pleasures of prison life, so the quality of prison cuisine is very much discussed.

After arriving to Zelenograd, for some reason I ended up in a quarantine cell, although two weeks of staying in Kapotnya was precisely quarantine. The problem with quarantine is that nobody could really contact me, I didn’t receive any transmissions, and my three new neighbors were in the same exact situation. And then I learned about the Medvedkovo pre-trial detention center, where, it turns out, they feed very well. Hooyeah! What praises of the cooks of that prison I heard during the week of Zelenograd quarantine! What a mess! There's so much meat in the soup! What large portions they serve for dinner! Judging by the reviews of my neighbors, this establishment should be awarded a Michelin star.

Once you get into a cell with a refrigerator and a TV, you begin to depend not on the prison kitchen, but on the transmissions and on your neighbors. Not everyone shares everything here, but it is still quite natural and reasonable to conduct a joint household. The cell where I was in Kapotnya generally amazed me because democratic procedures were established there, some issues were decided by voting, and others by consensus. But the food was not shared, the inmates were divided into several groups (there were 13-15 people in total, some were constantly arriving or leaving), and within these groups the socialization of resources took place. I defined this order as a kind of anarcho-socialism, although there were individualists. For example, there was a former academic boss who fell for corruption. The refrigerator was filled with his groceries, which he did not share with anyone. One day, however, he came up to me and offered to eat a piece of cake. I was amazed and gratefully accepted the gift. Alas, the reason for the generosity was revealed immediately: the cake had expired.

In Zelenograd, which is smaller, and establishing formal procedures, especially voting, does not occur to anyone. But informal communities inevitably form and live according to their own laws. There is noticeably more solidarity and mutual assistance between people here than in the free.

Of course I'm lucky. I get into cells with as decent neighbors as possible under the circumstances. Although this is not so surprising. Most of the inmates are not inveterate villains, but ordinary people who find themselves in conflict with the law, having succumbed to some temptation or having lost control over circumstances. When I entered the cell in Kapotnya, one of the prisoners, who had been there longer than the others, immediately asked me: “Are you in for murder probably?” I was shocked: “Do I really look like a murderer?” The answer was even more unexpected than the question: “The people who are imprisoned here for unintentional murder are all very decent, intelligent and kind.” But political prisoners do not always have the same good reputation: “Some of them are arrogant and generally prone to hysterics.” It is to be hoped that in the eyes of my neighbors, I was able to somewhat improve the reputation of political prisoners.

The prison in Zelenograd, where I was eventually placed, is small, with limited resources. This is manifested in the quantity and quality of food, and in the fact that there is a constant shortage of prison staff. The guards constantly complain about this, and the prisoners treat the guards with sympathy and understanding. And in general, from the moment you get into a cell with a refrigerator, the quality of prison food ceases to concern you. And our cell was especially lucky: one of our neighbors graduated from a culinary college. He is a pastry chef by profession. He managed to get a multicooker into his cell, and every evening the room is filled with delicious smells.

Alas, if the refrigerator becomes a source of positive emotions, then the TV - negative. In a strange way, these two devices exist in some kind of organic unity. Either there is both, or there is neither one nor the other. TV daily bombards you with waves of propaganda, turning into a kind of sound background that is difficult to get rid of by switching channels - it’s the same everywhere. However, after some time, immunity is developed. The TV also has a positive function: through it you can find out the time.

By talking with people who happen to be my neighbors - for several weeks, and sometimes for several hours, I am gradually compiling a kind of encyclopedia of human types and life stories, based on which it will be possible to later write a good book. But all this experience and this knowledge still needs to be generalized and processed. And it is advisable, of course, to do this when free.

For now, I just continue to accumulate knowledge. The journey continues.

Zelenograd, 03/25/2024.