Inmates & Artists

The piece is made up of tiny Mickey Mouse figures and dogs playing basketball, kittens practicing their aim at weapon ranges and other toylike figurines, many of which are busy at uncharacteristically grim undertakings.

But these brightly-colored dolls are not children's playthings - they are works of art made by the youngest prisoners at Moscow's Matrosskaya Tishina Prison.

The dolls, part of a work of art called "Tyurma Budushchego," or "A Prison of the Future," are made of the only material available to inmates of Russia's financially strapped prisons - bread - and are a part of an exhibit of prisoners' artwork at the Polytechnical Museum.

"Tyurma" was created by a group of 13-year-olds who share a single small cell at the Moscow prison. They later gave the piece to collector Olga Akudzhava as a gift.

The piece is "one of the more romantic interpretations of the future I've seen," Akudzhava said. "I've often asked the young prisoners to make some traditional children's toys, like Pinocchio or Little Red Riding Hood, but they always end up making monsters in handcuffs. It's as if they're totally unable to create something positive."

Organized by Russia's Obshchestvenny Tsentr Sodeistviya Reforme Ugolovnogo Pravosudiya, or Public Center for Judicial Reform, the exhibit includes paintings, carvings, sculptures and a number of educational displays, including instruments used during interrogations, an 18th-century wooden prisoner's yoke, 19th-century leg irons, an electric chair and a model of a typical prisoner's cell - four square meters for four men, one fourth the space required in European jails.

According to statistics compiled by the center and available at the exhibition, every fourth adult male in contemporary Russia is either an ex-convict or in prison.

"Twentieth-century Russia has more incarcerated men than any other country in the world," said Valery Abramkin, exhibition organizer and director of the center.

But, according to Anatoly Pristavkin, head of the Presidential Commission for Pardons, only a small percentage of these prisoners are classified as "dangerous" criminals.

"The members of the European Pardon Commission were amazed to hear about a Russian woman who was sentenced to six years in prison for stealing three cucumbers from her neighbor's garden," Pristavkin said. "And this is only one example of many."

Even Lenin spent time in a Russian prison. According to legend, Lenin, too, used bread to sculpt - an inkpot - while he awaited release from a tsarist jail. He filled the pot with ink (milk) and wrote his theories on socialism. His wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, later used a hot iron to burn the milk until it became legible.

But milk is a luxury contemporary inmates are rarely allowed. Many of today's prisoners write their letters and poems in blood. A number of such documents are on display at the exhibition.

"There have been several times when I felt so bad that I asked God to kill me," one reads. "I'm sure that the real hell isn't as horrible as the one made by men."

According to organizers, the great majority of Russian inmates - both male and female - draw, paint or sculpt when overcrowded cells and work schedules permit.

"I think that there is a certain therapy for them in the art," said Itta Ryumina, a psychologist who has used art in therapy with inmates. "Prison protocol forces inmates to hide all of their emotions. They have to stay inside this closed world with very specific rules and, in such cases, they can only express themselves by creating something."

"It's no surprise that often the subjects of prison art are either religious or erotic," Ryumina said. "By drawing paradise, they are trying to make their closed world more beautiful."

Indeed, according to Pristavkin, who has visited prisons in Britain and Spain and viewed inmate art there, paintings by incarcerated men very often show either sexual or religious scenes (a number of the exhibit's bread sculptures depict Jesus Christ).

Besides bread sculptures, the exhibt features pocket-sized prisoner diaries and songbooks full of poetry, handmade playing cards, paintings and one particularly memorable piece - a pair of socks emblazoned with a spider, Russia's universal mascot for the prison. Next to the socks lie a photograph of the inmate who knit them and his prisoner's identification number, one of only a few pieces which provide more than the artist's name.

Next to other pieces, there is only a small card on which is written the artist's name. But everything else about the artist - the charges, the sentence, what prison the artist is incarcerated at, even whether he or she is still alive - is a mystery.

In at least one other instance, however, this is not so. Another bread sculpture - a berobed judge - was a gift to Moscow lawyer Karina Moskalenko by its creator, Armen Airapetov, who was convicted of theft but released six weeks ago, thanks to Moskalenko's efforts. Another, a wooden candle stick, was also a gift to the lawyer for her efforts to free its maker, Alexander Baulin, who Moskalenko said was wrongly convicted of murder.

Baulin, who was acquitted of his murder charge, specializes in wood carvings. But popular opinion holds that many of the other men and women whose convictions have not been overturned are gifted painters. Due to attitudes like these, art produced by inmates, despite its unusual origins, has a surprisingly high street value. Prison officials even occasionally provide art supplies for inmate artists because, according to data available at the exhibit, doing so is often in their own best interests.

"They sell the art," Olga Yestikeyeva, who reads inmate correspondence to the Center, said. "Sometimes, the money goes into the prison's account, but most often it goes into the officials' pockets. Either that, or they hang the art in their own homes."

Although many of the first visitors to the exhibit have been, like Moskalenko, involved in convict advocacy, organizers said that officialdom has not yet taken notice.

"We've had many visitors, but none of them have been politicians," museum employee Tatyana Sergeyeva said. "This, despite that this is an important issue at election time."

But Prime Minister Vladimir Putin recently announced plans to hold a mass amnesty for incarcerated men and women. On Dec. 19, the day of Russian parliamentary elections, Russian prisons will release 26,000 inmates - nearly 70,000 less than the 94,000 lawmakers originally intended to release. Another 300,000 inmates will be released on June 19.

"Tyurma i Chelovek" runs at the Polytechnical Museum, located at 3/4 Novaya Ploshchad, entrance 1, through Dec. 18. Metro Lubyanka. Tel. 923-0756. Open daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., closed Mondays.