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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Prison Gates Open for Business

You don't have to rob a bank to go to prison anymore in St. Petersburg. The notorious Kresty prison has started offering hour-long guided tours every Sunday.

The tour is highly informative - historically and psychologically. "A person who has seen our dungeon will think twice before committing a crime," Kresty's acting director, Alexander Zhitinyov, said during the official launch of the tours last week.

Once a symbol of political repression that at different times held Lev Trotsky and Anna Akhmatova's son, Lev Gumilyov, Kresty today is simply an overcrowded pre-trial detention center. Representatives of all social classes of the city are here, Zhitinyov said proudly.

Kresty was built in 1893 to hold political prisoners in solitary confinement. In 1963, modern toilets and running water were installed in the cells, and the prison was remodeled to hold 3,300 prisoners awaiting trial. But as Russia's crime rate has soared, so has Kresty's population. With more than 10,000 prisoners, as many as 14 men are packed into tiny cells designed to hold only six.

According to Zhitinyov, the jail can spend only 2.9 rubles (11 cents) a day on food for each prisoner, although Russia's prison rules stipulate that the daily food allotment should equal about 13 rubles.

The tour starts in the main building, a four-story redbrick structure with a cathedral dome and four wings of 30 cells each. The popular name of the jail means "crosses," and originated from the shape of the building viewed from above.

The two sets of metal doors on 7 Arsenalnaya Naberezhnaya lock behind the visitors and the group is guided into the prison's church, turned into a conference hall by the Soviet government. After a 10-minute lecture on the history of Kresty, the visitors are ushered through the grim hall where prisoners meet with lawyers and investigators.

More metal doors clang shut, and the visitors are escorted into a cell wing where prisoners await trial. Guards order prisoners who happen to be in the hallway to face the walls and to avoid any contact with the tourists. Nonetheless, the guards allow the visitors to peep into a cell where a dozen half-naked men sleep or watch television.

Zhitinyov said that the prison officials are not concerned that a friend or relative disguised as a tourist will pass anything to the prisoners. "We do everything to exclude the possibility of such an incident," he said with a smile. He refused to elaborate.

The guards urge the visitors out of the main building. The smell of 10,000 sweating men oozes from the tiny windows in the redbrick walls and into the empty courtyard. Sporadically, people in police uniforms rush across the grounds; a bread truck passes. Cats, the only animals the inmates are allowed to keep, sleep in the sun.

Next stop is the prison museum, founded in 1993 on the jail's centennial. At first, only police could request a tour of the tiny room stocked with prison artifacts: knives made from sharpened spoons, a fake pistol made of bread, a nightstand made from cigarette cartons and the long pipes inmates use to blow tiny notes to friends and relatives through the window bars. The museum also exhibits portraits of famous political prisoners, a small model of the prison and the furniture owned by its first warden.

"We have much more in stock, but we need money to modernize and expand the museum," Zhitinyov said. He said the money charged for the tour - 50 rubles ($2) for Russians and $10 for foreigners - will be spent entirely on the museum.

"And if you want to get a free tour, you can do that through your district police," Zhitinyov said with a smile.

To visit Kresty, gather in front of the main entrance on 7 Arsenalnaya Naberezhnaya (across the Neva River from Metro Chernyshevskaya) at 11 a.m. on Sundays. Passports are required.