Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The little prisoners of Mozhga Colony

They are frightened and away from home. Some are as young as 14 years old. They miss their mothers and sing songs about their families. But these little prisoners are no babies when it comes to crime. Some are rapists, several have killed. Mozhga is where they come to get cured. MOZHGA, Udmurtia -- Keeping close watch from behind a dark glass window, the camp guard pushes the buttons one by one, unlocking the gates leading through the short passageway. Four times the barred yellow doors creak open and slam behind the visitors. As the last gate opens, light shines onto the white snow, and the group steps into the Educational Labor Colony for juniors, in the central Russian republic of Udmurtia. In the row of punishment cells to the right of the entrance, small, shaved heads, just visible through the peepholes on the black metal doors, turn with curious eyes towards the group in the narrow corridor. One of the heavy doors swings out, revealing the interior of a tiny cell. With its bare cement walls and floors, and metal fold-down beds, the cubicle could date from tsarist times. "These are Ivanov, Kuznetsov, and Karlyakov," says Viktor Styashkin, deputy head of the colony. The three inmates, in soiled canvas tunics and trousers, jump to attention. "What are you in the special sector for, Kuznetsov?" Stayshkin asks. "A fistfight," replies the tiny 15 year-old. He looks about 10, and is serving time for repeated theft. Styashkin gestures toward Ivanov, a grinning boy with dark hair. "Now this clever one thought he could run away, didn't he?" Styashkin says, laughing. "He and his mate only got a few kilometers away before we found them, drunk on some vodka they got in the village." Ivanov, 16, giggles nervously. The third one, Karlyakov, is taller and has huge, expressive blue eyes and a quiet voice. "What statute are you in on?" asks the accompanying prosecutor, Airat Mardanshik. "One hundred seventeen," Karlyakov replies."Third section?" asks Mardanshik. Karlyakov, 18, nods. "Gang rape of a minor," says Mardanshik. We move on. There are 304 juvenile offenders behind the high walls of the juvenile colony, 150 kilometers to the southwest of Izhevsk, the Udmurtian capital. Almost all are from Udmurtia, and a third from Izhevsk, a defense industry town and the home of the Kalashnikov gun factory now struggling with the specter of widespread unemployment. Almost half the boys, who range in age from 14 to 20, are imprisoned for theft. Twenty-five are serving sentences for rape, 17 for assault, 11 for grievous bodily harm or manslaughter, and three for premeditated murder. Most have police records from before the age of 14, the earliest they can be sentenced under Russian law. Dressed in brown, blue, or black uniforms, the boys spend their days marching from work to school to dormitory and back again, inside the high-walled compound. They get up at 6:30 A.M. and the lights are out at 10 P.M. "It's like a conveyor belt," says one boy. Outside the colony, composed of a quadrangle of white two-story blocks, beautiful but inhospitable snow-covered fields and woods stretch for miles around. A tall tower overlooks the compound, and 20-foot high red steel doors draw back mechanically to allow passage into the living zone, which is separated by tall barricades from the working zone. The possibilities for a successful escape are not promising -- all recent breakouts have ended like Ivanov's. The colony may be a descendant of the infamous GULAG system, but the administration's emphasis is on reforming its charges', rather than simply punishment. Administrators call the boys vospitanniki -- wards, or pupils, and never zaklyuchyonnyie -- inmates, like the inhabitants of adult colonies. The long, wooden dormitories where the wards sleep -- unless they are serving up to three months in a punishment cell -- resemble the sleeping quarters of an old British boarding school. Most free time is spent playing chess, reading, and listening to music on a battered old tape machine. The food is pronounced to be good, although the uniforms are unpopular and no one likes the ill-fitting standard-issue boots. But conditions are not the main source of complaint. The boys say it's the endless routine that gets them the most. "Every day, it's the same thing, over and over," says Yury Atanov, 17, the blond, strapping son of collective farm workers. He is in for vandalism and stealing parts from the farm motorbike. "Time goes really slowly," he says. When asked how much longer they have to "sit," the Russian expression for serving time, the boys answer instantly. "Two six," says Sergei Sazonov, a spotty, shy 16 year-old. "I mean, two years and six months." Almost all correctional facilities in Russia are labor camps -- although, like everywhere else in Russia, finding industrial labor for inmates is getting harder. Jails in which the prisoners are kept locked in cells are reserved for Russia's most dangerous criminals. Only 12 inmates from Udmurtia went into national jail cells in 1993. The work the boys do in six-hour shifts in a dark, gloomy workshop is monotonous: putting nuts onto bolts and making starters for the Izhevsk motorcycle plant. For inmates with an academic bent, school comes as a relief: The eight honor roll students in the 11th grade class in the colony school say the teachers are pleasant and the work rewarding. "There isn't much else to do anyway," says Dmitri Zhukov, 17, "so you end up doing homework. When I came here I realized that studying could be useful." Zhukov says he wants to go to university, but it will be a long time before he takes an entrance exam. He still has five years to serve for manslaughter, after brutally beating another boy with his fists and feet when the boy refused to join his gang. The boy later died in hospital from multiple head injuries. Zhukov's disarmingly polite, quiet persona contrasts starkly with the grotesque nature of the crimes in his personal file, but it's typical of young offenders in Mozhga. "The two most important things to remember here," says Mardanshik, "are these. One: that they are children. Two: that they are criminals." As the prosecutor in charge of Udmurtian penal colonies, Mardanshik has fought many battles to reduce the chance of child thieves becoming adult convicts; under the vagaries of the Soviet criminal code, juvenile offenders were permitted fewer visits per year than adults. Juveniles were separated from their visiting parents by a blurry glass window, only allowed to converse with them via telephone. Adult offenders, however, were allowed to have visitors stay for up to three days. Why? "I asked myself that question many times," says Mardanshik, shaking his head. "It just didn't make sense." In 1987, he appealed to Moscow to be allowed to conduct an experiment in which juveniles were allowed increased visiting rights for good behavior, and face-to face contact with relatives. Moscow agreed, and the reform experiment has been in place ever since, to the relief of both wards and their families. In 1992, thanks partly to the Udmurtian experiment, the law was finally relaxed. Boys nearing the end of their sentence are allowed outside the gates to raise animals in the adjoining village, and a special half-way house was built in nearby Mozhga for older wards working at the Krasnaya Zvezda ruler-making factory. Rewards for good behavior also include family visits to Mozhga -- an exercise Mardanshik views as essential given Russia's rapidly changing face."They come in here for four years," he says, "and the country they go back to is totally different. They can't cope." It is hard to measure the success of Mardanshik's methods. The only available figure is that 10 percent of young offenders are imprisoned again within a year. Even if they do get a glimpse of post-Soviet Russia, the inmates' expectations for life outside are none too high. Blue, self-inflicted tattoo rings on their fingers mark the Mozhga boys out immediately as criminals. "Who's going to hire them?" asks Mardanshik. A parent committee formed as part of the reforms takes an active interest in the colony, and participates in decisions regarding punishment and completion of sentences. It's regarded as particularly effective. "The boys are more frightened of facing the parents than they are of facing us," says Anatoly Rozhin, the large, kindly head of the Mozhga colony. The boys explain that they feel "ashamed" in front of the parents. Sitting in a group with a female visitor, without any guards present, the boys are at first shy and reluctant to speak, but they gradually relax. They are shocked to hear of the sentencing late last year of two 11 year-old English boys for the murder of toddler James Bulger. "They can't have known what they were doing," they protest. "They'll be ruined for life," says Vassily Markin, 15. Ivan Vassilevsky, 16, insists that the boys must have been "parrots," merely repeating something they saw on TV. Given that over half the boys come from problem homes where often one or both parents are alcoholics, the boys display a strong attachment to their parents. Parental influence sometimes works in strange ways. Alexei Pantyukhin, 18, is serving two and a half years for rape at Mozhga -- the same crime his father was imprisoned for in an adult colony supervised by Viktor Styashkin. "Sitting here," says Dmitri Zhukov, "you have a lot of time to think about things. I appreciate my mother a lot more now." According to the colony psychologist, Galina Filipova, there are cases where the boy's parents won't take him back. The boys are shocked by the possibility. "How can a mother not want her son?" asks Atanov, whose mother is a collective farm dairy worker. In an 11th grade class, the subject for the day is the theme of motherhood, and there are pictures of the Madonna stuck on the blackboard. The students read poems about mothers, and the teacher plays them a song about a mother burying her dead child during the Leningrad blockade. The same topic is introduced to the wards during group psychology sessions with Filipova. In a room decorated with pictures of Alpine lakes, colored lights and a rock garden, the boys sit in armchairs and listen to relaxation tapes and lessons about motherhood and the Motherland. Whether such methods actually succeed in turning juvenile rapists into model husbands and fathers is unclear, but there is one threat that deters the boys from attacking their guards -- an extension of their sentence and being sent on to the adult colony. They claim not to be scared of the group punishment cells or even the isolation chambers, where they are not allowed books, or bed linen during the day. But no one wants to "sit" any longer than they have to, and the majority of Mozhga's boys serve less than their allotted sentence. If they fail to get good behavior points, they can end up like Alexei Grigorovsky, 19, a small, sweet-looking blond boy who graduated to the neighboring Adult Labor Colony No. 6 after he got drunk on parole and "forgot" to come back to the juvenile center on time. A talented singer and guitarist as well as an experienced thief, Grigorovsky is pictured in old shots of the rock group "Chance," the boys' group at the juvenile colony. He is now playing in the "Zona" band at Colony 6, along with Sergei Buldakov, 30, who has almost completed a 10 year sentence for assault. When asked why he got such a long sentence, Buldakov smiles bitterly. "I hit a local party boss by mistake," he says. Grigorovsky, whose fingers are covered in the tell-tale blue tattoos of Russian convicts, is asked by the camp director, Ivan Muravyov, to sing. In a soft, quavering voice, he performs his own song. "Mama, dear, Mama ... you who gave me life ... please don't worry, our problems will go away... I give to you all my love ... with flowers." Back at the juvenile colony, Styashkin remembers Grigorovsky's mother. "Both his parents are drunks," Stayshkin says. "They sold their house to get money for booze. Grigorovsky will be back in the colony." Mardanshik nods grimly. "He's one of ours."