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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The New Russian

Jailhouse Diary

By Peter Singer

Special to (insert name of newspaper here, mom)

Of the four months I have lived in Russia, I have spent one in jail. It seems I am accused of espionage for writing some analytical pieces that hit too close to home. But the case hasn't come to trial yet, so I think I shouldn't write about the charges. Anyway, there is enough to write about after spending four and a half weeks in jail.

You may have heard about the inhumane conditions and the overcrowding in Russian prisons. For the first couple of weeks I didn't encounter the overcrowding because I was in solitary confinement. But my lawyer thought keeping me in solitary constituted discrimination, so he fought to have me moved. I had no idea then of what a general cell could be like, but I soon learned.

The first thing that hit me was the smell. The 60 men who live in this cell, which was meant to house 20, are taken to the showers once a week. There is almost no ventilation, and no one changes clothes. A lot of men stand around with their shirts off. I say "stand" because there is no place to sit. The 20 bunks are always occupied by inmates, who sleep on them in shifts. While they sleep, the other 40 stand.

My lawyer, who had fought to have me moved to a general cell, now fought to get me out. I couldn't figure out why he hadn't just left me well enough alone in the solitary cell (pardon the pun). But when I moved after a week in the general cell, I understood.

I now live in a two-person cell. The first thing that struck me were the carpets. There was a lush red Persian rug on the floor and an identical one hanging on the wall. There was also a fan in the room, which I noticed very soon because I'd forgotten what fresh air was like. There was also a television set with a VCR, a CD player and, most amazing of all, a cellular phone.

My new roommate was lying on his bed wearing an adidas running suit and talking on his cellular phone. When he hung up, I was so shocked by everything that instead of introducing myself, I asked directly, "Who are you?"

"I'm a New Russian," he answered in English. "And who are you?" I should explain that the term "New Russian" usually refers to shady businessmen who have made a lot of money since the end of the Soviet Union.

"I'm a journalist from America," I said."I don't like journalists," he grinned. "Sometimes I even kill them."

"I'm not here as a journalist," I hurried to explain. "I'm here as a spy. But I'm not. A spy, I mean."

"So we are in the same business." He sounded happier now, but I wasn't really feeling at ease.

"What do you mean?"

"I'm here for arms smuggling. It's very close to spying. Related professions. You like James Bond?" He pointed to a stack of videotapes he had on the table next to the television, and I saw there were quite a few of James Bonds.

"Not really. I find them too formulaic," I answered honestly but immediately regretted it, because I wasn't sure this was the kind of situation when you start doubting someone's tastes in movies. Fortunately for me, he didn't seem to understand what I said, because he put in a tape of "Octopussy."

"Is your name James?" he asked.

"No. Pete. Peter Samuel Singer."

"That's OK."

My roommate's name is Alexei, it turns out. He is 35, a former engineer and semiprofessional boxer (he definitely looks the part). He was arrested 10 months ago when the police found three handguns and a Kalashnikov in his car. He says they've been dragging their feet on the investigation because they just can't crack the crime ring he's at the center of. Though, I don't understand why it's so difficult when he is clearly running his business out of his jail cell, and it shouldn't be that hard to tap into cellular phone conversations. I remember that scene from "Pulp Fiction" when John Travolta's character calls up his drug dealer because his date has overdosed, and the drug dealer has a fit when he learns that the caller is talking about drugs on a cellular phone. So I bet former Soviets have ways of using mobile communications.

Alexei explains that he has access to everyone in the prison and that's why he has all his stuff. He says his brothers have brought it and paid off the administration to be able to bring it in. We also have very good meals in this room, which Alexei orders. He says his brothers pay for the food, so he treats me to it too. He says he can even arrange a furlough for me.

I guess I'm learning something about the lifestyles of the rich and famous in this country.