The KGB-FSB prisons system
In the Russian Empire those suspected of a crime were held in separate facilities from condemned criminals. Prisons were intended only for suspects and political enemies of the regime, and after the trial the condemned had to be sent to katorga (remote camps in the vast, uninhabited areas in distant Russian regions like Siberia and Sakhalin, where inmates were forced to perform hard labor).
In Soviet times that tradition continued. Suspects were imprisoned in so-called SIZO (Sledstvenny IZOlyator – criminal investigation isolation wards), and after the verdict they were sent to Ispravitelnie Kolonii - correctional colonies, which, in late Soviet times, were modernized version of the Gulags camps, where those convicted passed their years in jail.
Being designed with Soviet know-how, colonies were usually constructed in empty fields, mostly in distant Russian regions like Mordovia. SIZOs were quite the opposite. Surviving old tsarist prisons were turned into SIZOs, and thus they were mostly old fortresses, built in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
This complicated system was further complicated by the intrusion of the CheKa (the first communist secret service). In the Russian Empire prisons were under a special department of the Ministry of Justice. After the October Revolution Soviet rulers kept the department inside the Soviet Ministry of Justice (later this department was transferred to the Ministry of Internal Affairs). But simultaneously a parallel system of prisons was formed – the network of CheKa prisons, where suspects in political crimes were imprisoned, questioned, tortured and sometimes killed.
The two prison systems have co-existed ever since: the first for average criminals and the second for political enemies. The jewels in the latter’s crown were the Lefortovo prison, the Lubyanka HQ’s internal jail and Sukhanovo - a former Russian women’s monastery which was turned into a political prison in 1937.
Lefortovo enjoyed the special status of being the main prison of Stalin's secret services and had some peculiar detention methods. In the early 1930s Checkists believed that the prison was able to re-educate, and they even arranged boat-trips on the Moscow River for Lefortovo’s inmates. But such ideas were soon abandoned.
Writer Yevgenia Ginsburg, who was kept at Lefortovo during Stalin's Great Terror in the late 1930s, wrote in her book "Steep Route" that loud tractor engines were often kept running in the prison’s courtyard to deaden the screams of prisoners being shot in the basement.
Nobel Prize laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his groundbreaking work "Gulag Archipelago", wrote that in the 1940s there were "psychological" cells at Lefortovo, painted all black inside and with an electric light that was never turned off. Inmates were also tortured with the roar from a wind tunnel built at the nearby Central Air and Hydrodynamics Institute.
The treatment of inmates at Lefortovo was so extreme that it was not uncommon for them to look forward to their trial, and even their Gulag sentence.
The decline of this system started only in 1959, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev announced his decision to reform the KGB and to reduce its ranks. Following Khrushchev's order Anatoly Shelepin, then chairman of the KGB, proposed a reduction in the number of KGB prisons. In his letter to the Central Committee of the Communist Party he admitted: “At this moment we have 72 prisons, where 1388 inmates were imprisoned.”
In June 1959 the special prisons department within the KGB was disbanded. In 1960 the internal prison in the Lubyanka was closed and Sukhanovo was turned into a militia school.
But the Committee of State Security managed to retain Lefortovo, the most crucial prison in its possession. During Soviet times it became the only unbroken part of the KGB as the secret service added a new block to the old tsarist fortress to house the headquarters of its investigative department. There are few more suitable options than to interrogate arrested suspects directly in prison, but it was possibly even more suitable for dealing with people not yet arrested. Those invited for interrogation to Lefortovo never knew whether they would be freed or just moved to another part of the same building – to the prison. Psychologically, it proved to be an effective method of persuasion.
Thus Lefortovo prison was retained and used by the KGB for the detention of political enemies of the regime and those suspected of espionage. As the main KGB successor in early 90s, the FSB was given Lefortovo as a part of its legacy.
Since then the FSB had used the jail for the detention of its most important inmates: spies, oligarchs and political enemies.
Yeltsin's opponents, whose attempted coup in October 1993 saw the Parliament building being shelled by tanks, were sent to Lefortovo. Later the prison hosted the National Bolshevik leader and famous writer Eduard Limonov, who was accused of attempting a revolution; diplomat Valentin Moiseyev, suspected of spying for South Korea; metals magnate Anatoly Bykov, accused of ordering the murder of a former business partner; as well as Alexander Litvinenko, the FSB officer who later fled to Britain only to be mysteriously poisoned in 2006; Platon Lebedev and Alexei Pichugin, senior YUKOS managers and partners of the oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who fell foul of the Kremlin by seeking to influence politics; and the scientist Igor Sutyagin who was convicted of spying for the United States.
While all of Moscow’s main prisons are described by historians or experts, - even including the internal jail in the FSB’s Lubyanka this is not the case with Lefortovo.
Even the design of the prison is a mystery: nobody knows exactly why architect Kozlov in 1881 chose to design this military prison in the form of the letter “K” – with the four houseblocks connected in the center. Some speculated it might be in the honor of Catherine II the Great (Ekaterina or Katerina, in Russian), Empress of Russia.
Eduard Limonov gave the most detailed account of the prison in his book "A Captive of Dead Men” written while he was there: “in a place where three parts of the letter K … all converge, there is a command and control room... There are always five, six, ten jailers, there are screens of computers, and there are microphones… We sit on two, on three in stone bags-cases, and the neighbors are changed in few months”.
Former inmates say the guards took great pains to prevent inmates even from seeing other prisoners. While escorting them to interrogations or as they were moved from one cell to another, the guards used tiny clackers – a circular piece of metal - or just clicking their fingers - to inform other guards of their movement. The other way they communicate is by knocking on hollow pipes – which are attached to the walls at each door and along corridors. If two escorts were about to meet, one would put the inmate he was guarding into one of many black wooden cabinets that stand along the prison passages. It had been the practice since Tsarist times. In the nineteenth century there were special boxes for praying in the prison’s church that were designed to prevent Lefortovo inmates seeing each other even during a church service. Under the Soviets the church was turned into an execution chamber.
By Limonov’s estimates, there are 15 exercise yards on the prison roof in which a few prisoners can aimlessly walk, and three changes of convicts passed daily through them. Those walks begin at 8 am and convicts are moved in two lifts. There are 50 cells on each floor of the four-storey prison, but only two floors are manned. Although the prison has a capacity of up to 200, it usually contains no more than 50 detainees.
Most cells are designed to house three people but rarely are there more than two. There are also a few solitary cells and two cells for six inmates. This is a striking difference with other Moscow prisons where inmates were usually crammed into cells. Even lawyers note that it is practically the only corrective establishment in the country where drugs cannot be found and where there is a rope telegraph – it’s a Russian prison’s tradition to use a crude ''mail rope'' for transmitting notes and small packets of tea and tobacco from cell to cell. But it is likely that Lefortovo's prisoners would rather swap their apparently higher status to be in a regular jail.
There was only one short period in modern Russian history when Lefortovo’s authorities changed. In 1993 the FSB temporarily lost its investigative apparatus. As a consequence, in early 1994 Lefortovo was handed over to the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD). The humiliated FSB was keen to raise the question of Lefortovo and in 1997 the prison was taken away from the MVD and returned to its former owner. Along with Lefortovo 13 regional prisons were given back to the FSB.
At the same time the Council of Europe demanded that Russia separate its investigating agencies from their detention facilities on the grounds that inmates could be subject to pressure from investigators.
The Interior Ministry transferred its prisons and other penitentiary facilities to the Justice Ministry in 1998. But the FSB struggled fiercely against European pressure.
In 2004 Vyacheslav Ushakov, the deputy director of the FSB, explained at a meeting with representatives of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly that it is absolutely crucial for the FSB to possess a prison guaranteeing “a high level of safety”. Finally, in July 2005 Vladimir Putin signed a decree promising that all FSB prisons, including Lefortovo, would be transferred to the Ministry of Justice by January 2006.
The FSB's jails were reported to have been transferred to the Federal Penal Service (FSIN) where a special Directorate of Centrally Subordinate Detention Facilities was even created, headed by General-Lieutenant Vladimir Semenyuk.
However, it turned out that the FSB had managed to work a way out of a seemingly hopeless situation. The prison personnel who had previously served in the FSB were quickly transferred to the FSIN as so-called officers of APS (Apparat Prikomandirovannih Sotrudnikov – apparatus of attached officers, a practice invented in Soviet times when KGB officers were sent to other state bodies under cover). As a result, while they were formally on the staff of the Penal Service, these officers remained subordinate to the Lubyanka.
In March 2008 the St Petersburg military court sanctioned the arrest of FSB colonel-lieutenant Alexander Nogtev and FSB major Pavel Chelepenok, respectively chief and deputy chief of prison SIZO ¹3, both suspected of taking bribes. This prison was previously attached to Saint Petersburg’s FSB department, and according to Presidential Degree, was transferred to the Penal Service in 2006. Both officers previously served in the regional department of the FSB, but when the Penal Service took over the prison both retained their posts. Officially they were transferred to the Penal Service, but they kept their FSB ranks as APS officers.
Ultimately the FSB even managed to expand its prison facilities. In June 2006 Vladimir Putin signed Decree N 602 making changes to the status of the FSB. The Decree changed only one paragraph. This recognized that the FSB "establishes the procedure for organizing the activity of temporary detention facilities, as well as the procedure for performing criminal investigations in them and ensures that those who have been detained, are under suspicion or are accused, are held under guard."