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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

History Cries From Kresty Prison

ST. PETERSBURG -- This city, woozy with its bygone glory, bursts with splendid palaces, wondrous art, impressively noble monuments. And then there's the basement museum at Kresty prison. No gold or glitter there. Just a raw, unflinching reflection of recent Russian history.


The one-room museum was founded three years ago with a humble goal: to commemorate the centennial of one of Russia's most notorious prisons. But as the volunteer curators discovered, tracing the history of Kresty's dank cells requires delving into decades of Russian repression.


"It's our history, and we can't ever escape from it," said curator Lyudmila Karneyeva, who worked for 29 years as a prison librarian before teaming with a colleague to create the museum. Kresty officials gave them the basement room, and the pair did the rest -- volunteering after hours to assemble the collection and putting up their own money to organize the exhibits.


Now, for the first time, Russian citizens and foreign tourists will get the chance to view the result. After denying the public admission to the museum for the past three years, citing security concerns, Kresty Director Stepan Demchuk recently agreed to open the doors to visitors who apply for admission in advance.


Disquieting reminders of the past pop up in odd corners of the Kresty museum. Take, for example, the mundane descriptions of prison beds. Simply by cataloguing the sleeping conditions for Kresty inmates, the curators documented the waves of repression and reform that have rippled through Russia over the past century.


Early Kresty prisoners -- including the future Communist leader Leon Trotsky -- could stretch out in spacious cells of 80 square feet. Tsar Nicholas II prided himself on running "the biggest and most comfortable jail in all of Europe,'' museum co-founder Alla Kaufman explains. Each inmate had a bed, a desk and plenty of room to pace.


But when the Communists took power in 1917, they quickly put an end to such bourgeois luxury. Stalin packed Kresty with so many political opponents that prison officials had to rip out the tsarist-era cots and install two levels of planks across the width of each cell. The inmates slept side by side on the makeshift beds, jammed ever closer as fresh victims joined their ranks.


In the current chaos of post-Soviet Russia, even that arrangement has proved inadequate. The political terror has lifted but the crime rate has soared. Kresty, designed for no more than 3,000 inmates, is now a pre-trial detention center housing 11,000 prisoners, some who wait months or even years before their trials begin.


Each cell holds 10 or 12 prisoners. They sleep in shifts. They live on porridge, brown bread and the occasional slab of meat. They shower once every 10 days. And they must bring their own clothes and blankets to their meager cells. Kresty can no longer afford to keep inmates warm. To prevent them from conferring with potential witnesses, Kresty inmates are barred from communicating with friends or relatives: no visits, no letters, no phone calls.


The hapless political prisoners featured in the museum's photo gallery would certainly empathize.


Scientist Lev Gumilyov, for example, spent three lonely stretches in Kresty. He was imprisoned in 1935 for a typical Stalinist crime -- being related to his father, who had been shot for subversive writings more than a decade earlier. Gumilyov was tossed in jail again in 1940 -- this time for being related to his mother, the poet Anna Akhmatova. In 1949, he returned to a Kresty cell, denounced as an enemy of the people in his own right.


Frantic for information about her son, Akhmatova held vigils on Kresty's doorstep every day for 17 months during his second imprisonment.


Only too aware of the prison's choke-hold on innocent and guilty alike, the museum curators make a point of emphasizing the horrors of life in Kresty -- not only in the gloomy past, but in the uncertain present. Just possibly, they say, visitors may be scared into law-abiding rectitude.