Society / Issue April 25 2011, 44

412 Latter-day Decembrists wives



About a million people are languishing in jails and prison camps in Russia.

In this new series, however, we will turn the spotlight not on those on the inside, but on those on the outside waiting for them.

What happens to the wives in the absence of their husbands? What makes them tick, where do they get the strength to endure their ordeal? We know that those who have not abandoned their husbands do not keep silent and do not surrender, and they invariably end up as civil rights activists.

They hire lawyers, create websites, appeal to the press, help one another and organise open brotherhoods or sisterhoods. They become public figures and fight for the rights of their husbands (and simultaneously the rights of all victims of miscarriage of justice). They do it actively, openly and boldly, without hiding their position. The Russians refer to them as the Decembrists wives,an allusion to the wives of 19th-century Decembrist revolutionaries who followed their husbands to exile in Siberia. Our series is devoted to them.

We start with Olga (Olya) Romanova. Olya is our colleague, she runs a column for Novaya Gazeta called Olga Romanovas prison zone and she is a friend. Olyas husband, Alexei Kozlov, was arrested three years ago. In her column Olya describes her husbands life in jail, in the labour camp and in internal exile. (Readers in the know are aware that the management of the Federal Penitentiary Service reacted to these publications in the most dignified way possible by inviting Olga to join their panel of experts).

Today, however, we would like to tell you about Olya, her life, her feelings, experiences, her struggles and her expectations. And most of all, about her hopes.

Biographical details

It was not until our fifth meetings with Olya, our conversations lasting five or six hours each time, that at I decided to ask her: Is Alexei your first husband? Olya laughed: My fourth.

Her first husband was her first love and the marriage never got off the ground. Her second marriage was a fictional one, he was about to go on a tour of duty in America representing the government oil export agency Soyuznefteexport. He had all the right credentials, he was a Party member, but he was unmarried. Olya was not a Party member, she had no husband and no future. However, in America they soon divorced. She didnt stay there long. In August 1991 there was the revolution in Russia and Olya promptly returned to Moscow. (I had to be on the barricades, I couldnt imagine not being there). Her third husband, Andrei, is the father of her two children. He is the best: decent, still supports her and the kids. An angel. But she could not live with an angel.

She and Alexei had been friends for a long time. Then one day he said: Enough, will you marry me? At first she asked, Why? and then it dawned on her: Why not marry a strong, successful, charming man who was madly in love with her? In retrospect, she understands that the marriage couldnt have lasted long. I began to get in a rut in every sense of the word. Especially intellectually: my perception of the world around me was blunted, I lost the quality that makes a journalist what he or she is. You cant be a journalist if you are happy all round. You cant be a journalist if you live on Nikolina Gora [an affluent Moscow suburb] in a three-storey house with a swimming pool.

She was on the verge of choosing her career over her husband when something happened: Alexei was arrested. If Olyas husband had been a different person he might have accused her of all his troubles. This is what happened: Olya wrote a viciously stinging article about the oligarch [Alexei] Mordashev. Either Mordashev himself complained to somebody or Alexeis partner felt a sudden surge of solidarity with another oligarch, the latter told Alexei: Now listen, either you divorce your wife or you and I go our separate ways When Alexei conveyed these words to Olya she shrugged her shoulders: Of course we will divorce. You cant afford to lose your business. (Olya had in mind a fictitious divorce. Quitting her profession was out of the question: I knew that I couldnt do that. It was like promising to lose 60 kilogrammes by Tuesday; what am I supposed to do? Seal off my mouth with scotch tape. And you know, it was at that moment that I realised that I had met knight in shining armour. He said he wouldnt divorce me, even fictitiously, Olya said proudly. Immediately after that conversation Alexei broke things off with his business partner and started his own business. But that did not save him: Alexei was arrested fifteen months later, in July 2008. Their marriage was in its third year.

A man from a calling card

After his arrest, Alexei called Olya: There is an envelope in the draw, open it and see whats in there. In the envelope she found the calling card of a high-ranking government official. She still carries it in her purse. Her husband had attached a note to the card saying that the bearer would mediate between her and the investigator. And the note went on: We settled on 1.5 million dollars, get it at such and such a place and give it to the man if I am arrested. As it turned out later on, Alexei had mortgaged the house and deposited the money in a bank. In the evening the man from the calling card rang me up. We met. Then we met again and again The price kept growing. I already had to pay not $1.5 million, but 3 million. The 1.5 million was to get her husband out of jail, and the other 1.5 million to have the case dropped.

She had three days, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, to raise the money. She begged the bank to let her withdraw all the money from the account, she borrowed from friends, her husbands colleagues, from the security service, from drivers and eventually had to go cap in hand to eke out the necessary sum Many refused, but about thirty people gave her some money. Incidentally, none of the thirty people asked for a receipt.

Thereafter the man from the calling card quickly left his job and disappeared.


Everybody was telling me not to give bribes. You will need money to support your husband in prison and to support yourself. And I said: I know theyll cheat me, but imagine that I dont pay a bribe, I will then be guilt-ridden that my husband is in jail because of me.

Of course you shouldnt give bribes. I know that for sure. My dear friends, if they lock you up, dont try to bribe your way out, because you were put in jail precisely to take bribe money. But when a persons health or life are at stake, yes, paying bribes is still wrong, but you cannot stand on principle. If you dont bribe you wont be able to pass some home-cooked food on to your husband, if you dont pass a repellant for fleas, he will be bitten by fleas.

The first bribe I paid at Butyrka prison was 60,000 roubles for my husbands power of attorney to have control over his estate. Such a power of attorney, issued in prison, has no chance of being certified by a notary public, but I had to urgently sell the mortgaged house. Then I paid a bribe of 120,000 roubles to pay for heaters and computers for the prison. I dont know where they ended up, but I know that my husband was placed in a good cell as a result.

During the first nine months of her husbands time in jail Olya spent a million roubles on bribes and another two million roubles for bare necessities (food parcels, clothes, money for the prison stall, and subscriptions for ALL the papers). As for bribes themselves, after talking with other prisoners wives Olya realised that they were in the same boat, only the sums differed.

Now I am the one giving the warning: dont pay bribes hoping that your husband will be set free, no way. I am met with the same deer-in-the-headlights look. These women have one great aim: to get their man out of prison. I think now that there is something pagan about it. Its in the genes. Ill bring a lamb as an offering God will take mercy on me Ill hang all my gold on this icon, Ill make this sacrifice and everything will be fine Actually, the jailers just take advantage of all this.

The choir singers pass and the Bible

When did the investigators allow you to meet with your husband for the first time? I asked. Olya smiled: They never allowed a meeting with my husband. It was the court that allowed me to meet my husband. He was arrested in July and the court allowed me to meet him six months later, in February. And you didnt see each other before that time?

Youve got to be kidding. I immediately bribed the Russian Orthodox Church. They have their own church at the Butyrka prison. The church elder arranged our meetings. My husband said he was going to confession and I used the pass of a member of a church choir to get into Butyrka.

Alexei use to be was ambivalent toward religion. But then in prison he became an ardent believer. He always has a Bible with him. He reads and reads, and he tells me interesting episodes from it. I know them all, but he interprets them so well. He has the time, the opportunity and, most importantly, the need to read the Bible. It happens only to somebody who grows up in a religious family or who lands in jail.

The harm of segregation

Now about the Decembrists wives. Olya is furious when the women whose husbands are in jail are divided up between Decembrists and non-Decembrists.

If you are a refined and a spiritual woman, if you are prey to doubts and soul-searching, then you are a Decembrist, but if you simply fill your bags with food and haul ass across a snow-covered field to the prison or labour camp, then you are not a non-Decembrist and you are not behaving heroically? And I thought to myself: it takes me 10 minutes by metro to get to the prison, but some women come from remote villages, they leave their children at the train station, they hardly speak any Russian, they dont know their way about, but they still go to the bloody jail and try to separate the whats true and whats not about their husbands. They, however, are chased away and insulted. How about talking to them about exalted love and a high sense of duty What else is it then, Olya? That isnt fair. A person cannot be left alone in jail. Period.

Olya herself is of course spiritual, but she knows that many spiritual women leave their husbands. You have this woman standing in the queue in prison and tells the other women: they searched our place, they smashed two Chinese vases, stole four diamonds, six sable fox coats and they made such a mess with their footprints in the hallway And then she calls you and asks you to pass on a parcel to her husband because she has work to do (as if I didnt), then she drops by your place at midnight and gives you a book How to Win Friends for her husband. In the meantime, a young man is waiting for her in a BMW, and she waves her hand and disappears, not only from me, but from her husband. I reacted very strongly to the first such woman I met (Yulya, the bitch), but then I met so many of them that I stopped reacting.

Not much choice

Olya, do you feel an affinity with the wives of Decembrists or is that irrelevant, and you have no time for them? I probe Olya. No, I do have time for them. But honestly I dont think about the women. I think about the men. Men who are so good, so noble and so attractive, a mans men. You could follow them anywhere. Really, I dont understand how one could give up on Prince Trubetskoy. And how can one think (she raises her voice), Ill stay in Petersburg and marry Prince Stupid instead of making the long trek in a horse-drawn sled across snow-covered Siberia. And I will be fine. They were normal women, and they knew the difference between Prince Trubetskoy and Prince Stupid. It was always the best who came out into the square to protest. And those who captured them were always the worst. How can one marry a nobody after having been married to Khodorkovsky? What will you have in common with this nobody? Youll have nothing to talk about. Then she becomes animated: We young women dont have much of a choice: we are married either to a Khodorkovsky or to a Putin. After a pause, she explains: Khodorkovsky and Putin, of course, are symbols. You are either on one side or on the other.

Toilet brush and nail file

About some simple and essential things that you never think about when you are free: You know what struck me most in the Magnitsky case? A ban on toilet brushes. Why cant prisoners file their nails. They grind them against the wall. There are soft nail files that are not made from metal. Still, they are forbidden. And the same goes for hair trimmers. I dont know how people manage not to look like Count Montecristo before they meet the Abbot. Of course, hair trimmers are smuggled for one or two guys who are in with the prison authorities, and they then share them with one another.

Olya kept trying to pass a nail file to her husband in jail for nine months. One could give birth in that time. Her husband frets that Olya is completely obsessed with that nail file. He says he could well do without it. How so? Well, I could use a bread knife.

On herself then and now

She hates the way she used to be. Three years ago I thought I was smart, good, honest and kind. Now I hate to remember myself at the time. I was stupid, selfish and dishonest. I could pout that we were going to one resort and not another for our holiday. I could have remained like that, wearing jewelry and sable fox coats and lead the meaningless life of an flea. I would have missed everything and I would have known nothing about the old women in the prison queue, about presidents, parliament, Novaya Gazeta or guest workers I do not claim that I understand all this now, but at least I have a chance.

You know, Alexei and I have a friend named Sasha Gordeyev. He was always with me when I went to the courtroom and he visited Alexei in the labour camp. By the way, he spent a whole day getting permission to enter the camp and he told me, You see, I have the chance to go to any country I want, but you can go to a place where I am not allowed and see what very few people see, an experience money cannot buy. He was genuinely envious of me because I had access to what was inside

Her husband then and now

She loves Alex more as he is now than as he was back then. In a word, he was a spoiled brat. A man who could throw a fit in a hotel because of the fluffiness of the towels, very picky about food, clothes, climate and services, and who was mean to his subordinates. These qualities dont make your life in jail any easier. And all of a sudden, instead of a spoiled brat I discovered in him a very interesting man. Very wise, very patient and very free on the inside.

They tried to extract testimony from him against people who were squeaky clean Many of them live happily and dont have a clue of what is going on (I am not going to tell them that my husband had refused to testify against them under duress). These people have turned their backs on us, but my husband did not betray them in spite being promised the moon and stars to do so.

Once I pressed him: you know if you plead guilty they will let you be in internal exile, why dont you pretend that you are guilty? He replied: I will not admit to something I am not guilty of And I said to myself, thats a real man.

Most importantly, he learned to treat me the way he never did before. I am a piece of work: I can slam the door or say something rude if lose my temper. He used to react to this kind of behaviour very sharply, but now, whenever it happens, he sees me as a little girl in a bad mood, you know, because of hormones, an awkward age in life, or else because she is hungry or cold.

It takes me 24 hours to get to Perm, I hardly get any sleep, I haul my bags through snowdrifts and I fall asleep upon arrival. Just imagine, I do nothing but sleep during one of the three days that are allowed for us to meet. And he never wakes me up. He cooks the food himself, tucks in my blanket and pours me some tea. I come to visit a the sufferer, but he ends up taking care of me.

The neglected lot

Olya is sure that in her former life her brain was not mature and her inner world was immature. She wonders what did they give me two TEFI awards for? For example, she was afraid of the security services and bureaucrats. Now when she finds herself in high offices as part of her struggle for rights and freedoms she is so calm and confident that the officials sense it and become less aggressive. She thinks, this must be how civil society begins; it grows from deep inside you. And she repeats like a mantra: you should foster civil society inside yourself. I think she has already done so.

We have a whole class of people who are totally apolitical, whose minds are in a mess and whom nobody needs. They are the true middle class, not us, though we may think we are. He does not have one stall selling gyros, but 80 or 100 KamAZ trucks carrying sand to a construction site. This is not a small business, rather a medium-sized business. You and I, on the other hand, do not deliver any goods.

They do not attend rallies. They watch RenTV and Crime news on NTV. We do not write for them. Nobody writes for them. Nobody makes films for them. It is as if they did not exist. Actually, half the people in Russia are like them. Owners of restaurants, shops and gyro stalls. These are the ones, for the most part, who are sent to jail. Take the verdict passed on us: the verdict says: no victim, no damage. And yet he was given an eight-year sentence. He caused no damage to anyone, individuals, legal entities or the state. Our lawyers and I have been demanding that the alleged victims provide documentary proof of their right to be called victims. There are no such documents. My husband was jailed for the sake of being jailed. To destroy someone in order to snatch up his or her property. That is all there is to it. But this is what 98% of economic cases are all about, according to the Supreme Court.  Having said that, the presidential amendments, although directly concerning us, so far they have made no difference. But I do not keep silent, and my husband does not keep silent, and we cannot stop But the majority of those who have been jailed and forgotten do not protest. They are used to keeping their heads down. And they keep their heads down in jail. They are easier to subdue But lately they too have been trying to understand something. They write to me: After all, its unfair.

They have not read the The Three Musketeers, you see? If you have not read The Three Musketeers, you are likely to have some pretty strange idea of what honour, dignity, conscience, justice, your country, service, duty, mission, friends, enemies and betrayal are. I am not suggesting that our ideas of all these things are right, the same as the musketeers had. But those people certainly have wrong ideas, they know the words but they apply them with a totally different meaning

When we say a high-profile case we do not say that the man who went to jail used to own 100 gyros stands. Is that a high-profile case? Who is he? My husband probably had an income that equaled that of the owner of several hundred shaurma stalls, the difference is that my husband is an intellectual, while a stand owner is a neglected man. Money-wise, they are practically the same. And the way that property has been taken away from them and the way they are treated in prison and the ordeal that their women experience, that is all the same. It is another matter that our husbands are musketeers and theirs are just nothing.

Internal exile colony

Alexei and Olya see each other three days a month. He is in internal exile at Polovinka station in the Perm region. An internal exile colony is the best. It is almost freedom.

About the Perm region Olya says: It is a region that wants to be different, to change, it wants to do something for people. Just imagine, I saw graffiti, written in a childs hand, that, instead of four-letter words,  read, No to education reform.

Still, even in the free settlement on Polovinka station Olya had to stick up for her rights: As soon as I came there I saw a notice, Women without sanitary certificates not admitted. But this was not the first or even the second prison for me, and I said, Say that again? They reply: If you have no sanitary certificate, get lost. Imagine, it was 8 oclock on a Sunday morning I started calling everyone I could, the governor, the deputies, I really made a scene. The notice was not removed, but they no longer demand sanitary certificates from me or from others (at least not in my presence). On my second, third and fourth visits to Perm I was told: Take off your clothes, take off your panties too. You are going to be frisked. I say, You have no right to take off my pants. Show me the rules. They argued that I could be carrying forbidden objects in there. But I kept saying Show me the rules that allow you to look inside me, I am not a convict or a suspect. They gave in. So by now I have at least managed to get them to stick to the rules.

The use of publicity

Ever since Olya started writing about Alexeis life in prison, in the labour camp and in the colony,  solicitations for her to give bribes have stopped. She laughs: For two years nobody has even uttered a word about a bribe. I dont even buy cigarettes for my husband. He doesnt smoke. Cigarettes are the currency in jail. You can barter them for something. But now I have no need for that currency. No more bribes. While Alexei was in labour camp after jail for a year, it cost Olya $5000 every month. Her spending now that he is in a colony is as follows: 10,000 roubles for food, 10,000 roubles for kiosks, another 10,000 for parcels once every three weeks, 7,000 for the plane ticket from Moscow to Perm and back, 5,000 for a taxi from Perm to Polovinka station and 5,000 back (there is no other way you can get there), and 5,000 for a telephone card for her husbandNothing to sneeze at, and to earn it Olya has to write for many publications and websites; however, when it comes to her husband, everything is official, not a kopeck in bribes.

About the return

Returning is the most terrible thing that happens to you. She does not yet know of a single case of a happy return from jail. There is some mystery about it, but families just dont seem to work after jail, even if the couple were madly in love with each other before and during the imprisonment The Storchak and Bakhmina families are exceptions. But Storchak spent less than a year in prison. Psychologists say that those who have spent more than three years in prison undergo irreversible changes; they become one with prison.

And what happens during this time to those who wait?

At first I felt that all I wanted was to have him back, no matter how and no matter what he would be like But look: you are away from him for three, four and five and eight years, the early years are very hard, but then you get used to living alone and taking care of yourself, you make new friendships, you have a new job, you sleep across the bed or watch television at 4 a.m., I always have trouble with my sleep. My nerves are jaded And then the life you have been putting together from little pieces, from rubbish, but this is anyway your life, your vase and it is invaded by the same man who smashes your life it is a very trying moment and the men who are in jail must understand it and the women who wait for them must understand it too. The man who returns is your man, he is much loved and you have waited for him for so long, but he is a totally different man from a different life and he joins you and your different life. And for all that, he is your old husband, and you are his old wife and romance is not on the agenda, and that is somehow wrong In short, Alex and I are discussing that delicate topic already and we have agreed that when he returns he will rent a flat next to mine and will start courting me with all the romantic trappings: flowers, movies, the theatre We want it to be very gradual The outcome is important not only in terms of events, but in terms of what happens to our feelings and relations. If you dont live happily after all you have gone through, what is the point of all this?

Alexei Kozlov may be eligible to apply for parole starting 31 December of this year. The application will be considered in late January 2012. The answer will come in late February. He may be set free in late March. If he is not released, then another application may be filed within six months.

As she fills me in on this, Olya says, We will petition for parole We will be released.

PS This publication is the first in our new feature The New Decembrists Wives              


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