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Kalina Krasnaya: Red Snowball Berry


Day One

The first sound of the contest isn’t particularly musical. Boots on the stairs, heavy feet, much thumping. I lean over the grubby concrete staircase and see seven virtually shaven heads atop seven meaty bodies in fatigues, surrounding one slim girl with bleached hair. This is Yelena Kozlova, and – because she’s currently serving an eight-year prison sentence for theft – she needs a little company on her way to the toilet. Probably not an extraordinary sight in a court-house or prison, but hardly usual in this unlovely cultural centre on the outskirts of Moscow.

But this is the first day of one of the stranger events in penal history: Kalina Krasnaya (Red Snowball Berry), the “concert for prisoners singing,” as the press release describes it. Named after a famous Soviet film about an ex-con, it’s been called prison Pop Idol and Fame Academy in handcuffs. Whatever the nickname, it’s indisputably unique. For the past eight months, 800 of Russia’s serving prisoners have been sending their audition videos to a jury in Moscow. 23 have been chosen as the finalists, and will perform in a televised concert three days hence, in front of an invitation-only audience. The prize changes according to who’s describing it: Some say the winner will be freed. Some say six winners will be freed. Some say one of the contestants is freed already. As all these conflicting opinions are offered to the gaggle of journalists outside a soundproofed door that is the barrier to Soyus recording studios, my only consolation is that the Russian journalists look confused too.

The confusion is due to a battle of wills. Soyus is one of Kalina Krasnaya’s two main organisers, but the other – inevitably – the Russian Federation’s Ministry of Justice. In particular, its fabulously-named Department for the Execution of Penalties – the Prison Service, in English – who are supplying the meat-heads, and the hostility. “The organisers want more press,” says the highly-stressed press secretary Igor, a TV and radio producer in his day job. “But the ministry is against it.” As are others present: There are several men dressed all in black, this being a record company,

but one of them – bland features, and an aura that’s anything but – is FSB (post- Soviet KGB).

A man in one of those oversized Russian military caps comes out from behind a soundproofed door. “These are prisoners,” he says, dourly. “You are not allowed to give them anything. You are not allowed to promise them anything. You are not allowed to let them use your mobile phone.” He slams the door, and is immediately nicknamed Mr. Happy. After an hour, we’re permitted into a small room stuffed with fatigues and three serving, singing prisoners sitting on a leather couch. They are the “most famous,” says Igor: Vladimir Volshkii has already released two CDs (from prison, apparently) Yelena is blonde and pretty, and Ruslan Anufriev is a murderer.

The contest was apparently barred to murderers – the word “apparently” will appear a lot in this story, because truth in post-Soviet Russia seems as hard to grasp as in the Soviet one – but Ruslan slipped through. “I killed my friend,” he says bluntly, a handsome cocky lad in a flat cap. “But it was self-defence. I’m fond of music – I never thought of killing anybody.” He’s serving 6 years in Chelyabinsk prison in the Urals, 1000km away, which makes him the farthest-flung of the competitors. (The competition was only open to prisons in European Russia, for logistical reasons). He sent his demo tape in months ago, to be judged by a jury which is never properly identified. “There are guards and prison directors on the jury,” says Mr. Happy. “There are great Russian composers and poets on the jury,” says a Russian MP, on another occasion. Either way, they have supposedly judged both according to talent and to the crime committed. “But we don’t want to tell you what penal articles they are in for. We promised the prisoners this would be about their future, not their past.”

There is much rhetoric about humanisation and rehabilitation, about talent

surviving behind prison walls, and how every prisoner is a human being. Less is said about the infamously harsh prison sentences handed down in the Russian Federation – four years for theft is usual, not counting the several years you’re likely to have served in a pre-trial detention centre – or the TB rate in prisons being about 40 per cent higher than in the normal population, or the chronic under funding and equally chronic overcrowding (20-strong dormitories are common, as are women prisoners obliged to cut up clothes to use as sanitary towels). But Ruslan won’t comment on such things. “Life is harder outside,” he says, unconvincingly. “There are more jealousies, more difficulties. Prison is hard, but it’s alright.”

His fellow contestant Yelena says even less, glancing nervously after every question to the female prison guard sitting in front of her. She finally admits she’ll be singing a popular folkish song in the final, though Volshkii will be singing his own composition. Ruslan graduated from Kazan conservatoire, but won’t be singing his own music either. He loves hip-hop best – Tupac, Cypress Hill – but he doesn’t think Russia is ready for it. “I’m going to record a CD and it’ll be a huge hit. Write that down!” For now, he’s going to sing about Winter Nights, and he won’t be wearing bling bling. “My mother bought this suit. It symbolises the simple Soviet man on the street, from the days when you could walk on the streets and not worry about getting killed.” I look up to see if there’s any irony evident on his face when he says this. There isn’t.

Day Two

Press conference, Ministry of Justice. The Department of Execution of Penalties is a pleasingly Gothic name, but it’s a mouthful. I’ve adopted the Russian acronym of GUIN, though it sounds like a pointy-eared Lord of the Rings character. GUIN has supplied a perfectly nice auditorium, though the presence of 12 sacks of potatoes in the cloakroom is disconcerting. As is the presence on the dais of a very buxom woman with a nest of dyed blonde hair. She represents the Moscow City Commission on a Healthy Way of Living, she says, but my translator Daria fails to understand its purpose, even after a 10 minute explanation. Only when big blonde lady mentions the commission was formed two weeks earlier, and how rich people need to take notice of prisoners too, does some light fall.


She’s a Russian lady who lunches.

It’s easy to ridicule, but not fair: The UK’s prison service may have agreed to Feltham Sings (the Bafta-award-winning documentary of singing juvenile offenders), but I doubt it would agree to serve up inmates for a nationwide pop contest for in the first place, or hold its cool for eight subsequent months of auditions. But Vitaly Polozyok, vice-head of GUIN’s department for the social and behavioural work of prisoners, doesn’t see much unusual about it. “This event shows that everybody has a talent but not everyone knows how to use it. We hope that this event will help us organise future ones, and that no competitor who is freed will return to their past life.” As for who that might be, he refuses to say. “The question of liberating them will be according to law.”

That’s because GUIN’s aspirations to Pop-Idolesque largesse – freedom, rather than a Docklands flat – are actually restricted by the courts. “If they have served two-thirds of their sentence, and if they are eligible for parole, and if their prison governors have taken their cases to court, then they can be freed. But you’ll find out tomorrow.” Never mind that Igor has already said that it’s already been decided that six finalists will be freed, or that at the concert, a parliamentary deputy says three prisoners got their freedom only three hours earlier or that the contestant Vladimir Bazykin tells me he was freed several days before, when actually he was freed on parole weeks earlier, and on the rap sheet of the contestants’ crimes that I am later given, there is only his home phone number in the “location of prison” column. (When I was in Siberia for three months in 1993, on Operation Raleigh, the acronym T.I.R came to soothe frequent moments of bewilderment and frustration. T.I.R: This Is Russia. This seems an appropriate time to resurrect it.)

“Wait and see,” says Polozyok. It will all go according to plan, because it’s been done before. “We had a contest for juvenile prisoners a couple of years ago called “Mum, I’m singing you a song.” That was a great success and a CD was released.” Like the Kalina Krasnaya CD that’s planned, it’s unclear who will get the proceeds. And there will certainly be some: Prison songs – chansons, or blatnye pesni – sell well, perhaps because one in four Russian males has been in prison. In the taxi back from the press conference, the driver has actually heard of Kalina Krasnaya (despite the Ministry’s best attempts to wrongfoot the press). “They’ll make a fortune from that CD – 60% of Russians have been in prison.” Have you? “Yes: I got into a fight during my military service and served three and a half a years in Murmansk. I could tell you a lot about prisons.”

Day Three

Rehearsal day at the concert venue. The Old Olympic Village isn’t exactly central, as I realise when, after an hour of driving, the combined knowledge of native Muscovite and an Azerbaijani taxi driver still haven’t found it. “Where would you want us to hold this?” asks Vitaly Polozyok, when I query the location. “In the Kremlin?” I suppose the Olympic Village is appropriate: Two days after Kalina Krasnaya, the winning girl and boy bands from the real Russian Pop Idol/Fame Academy – “Factory” and “Roots” – will be performing here too.

Security is tighter still today, and we are herded through corridors and backstages, past bored soldier after bored soldier. “Aren’t you scared of us?” one asks Daria. “Should we be?” “Hell, yes.”

Today’s rules are spelled out: No approaching the prisoners, no helping them to

escape, no closer than five feet from the stage. Not a rule you’d want to break, anyway: The amount of dry ice being spat out by two machines is off-putting enough. So is the garish scenery: A sylvan scene – some water, one tree – and a staircase up to heaven, which the singing prisoners must descend. The first onstage are Elena Maslova and Larisa Slitkova. Elena can dance; Larisa doesn’t bother. The lyrics aren’t novel – “Goodbye my friend; now you’ve been released and I’m in prison,” and by the fourth rendition, I resort to guessing their crimes and trying to see whether Elena is really missing all her top teeth (she is). From then on, I play spot the scars and tattoos, and most prisoners can oblige with some, as well as sallow skin, skinniness and other symptoms of years of a bad diet and not enough fresh air. Ruslan comes on and manages to hip-hop his way through a traditional Russian folk-song, while I try to figure out whether he loves the stage or himself more. But even his swagger is easily tamed: As each prisoner walks offstage, a camouflaged arm reaches out from the wings to take the microphone, and then the person.

That evening, we take a trip to a suburb even further away than the Olympic Village. This is where Naum Nim lives, in a “typical Russian intelligentsia flat,” says Daria – many books, not many fripperies (despite the IKEA catalogue in the corner). Naum is the editor of the Russian edition of Index on Censorship, the last issue of which was called “Return of the Gulag.” He’s a nice man with a patient manner which he had time to perfect, given his two-and-a-half years of imprisonment for the penal code’s infamous “political article.” He was released when Gorbachev abolished the crime of political dissidence, after serving most his time on “special regime,” the harshest form of punishment, and one that’s now replaced the death penalty for lifers. “I wasn’t particularly a rebel, but some people think it’s humiliating to have to sing while you’re marching.” For his mild but stubborn objections, he spent most of his time in a damp concrete cell, in special regime clothes – thinner than usual, in central Russian winters, which aren’t much better than the Siberian kind. “You just sit there. That’s it.”

He’s mildly amused by the concert. “Look, it’s like the north pole. Wherever you go, you go south. With the state of our prisons, whatever GUIN does, it’s positive.” Anyway, he says, it’s not new. In the 1920s, the vile Gulag island camps of Solovki – where a favourite treatment was to tie a prisoner to a tree and let the black flies bite – had a famous theatre. Maxim Gorky went to visit, and wrote a glowing report. “But the prisoners were acting in their plays, and at the same time, they were being shot. What’s more important – the decorative façade or the tortures? There’s all this talk about reform, but it’s just make-up. For the special regime, they’ve developed a technique of handcuffing the prisoner’s hands behind his neck and making him run. Every time he leaves his cell. Can you imagine that?” Not easily, but I later find a human rights report corroborating this. Even so, Russia’s alarmingly high prison population (611 per 100,000, or six times the UK rate) has been reduced by 200,000 in the past three years, and new laws are in progress. Baroness Vivian Stern, of King’s College International Prison Studies Centre, and just back from Moscow, calls deuty Minsiter of Justice Yuri Ivanovich Kalinin “a hero. There’s absolutely no doubt that he’s making genuine attempts to reform.”

Even so, it’s permissible to be sceptical, when Russian president Vladimir Putin said recently that if democracy led to chaos, Russians didn’t need it. And when surveys show that a quarter of Russians feel their rights have been violated by the police or courts in the past year: “If you’re in the street and night and you see a police car,” a young woman tells me, “You’re probably less safe than you were without it. Everyone knows that.”

“The prison system isn’t getting worse,” says Naum, “but it isn’t getting better. Instead of serious reforms, we’re getting champagne bubbles. Look, we can make our prisoners sing!” But he relents, a little. “Maybe the concert will make prisons more transparent. Maybe pop stars will visit prison. But the best thing is that 23 people will get out of prison, at least for a few days.” Will he be watching the TV screening the next day? He grins. “No need – I can already imagine it perfectly.”

Day Four

Red Snowball Berry day. The concert is to start at 6pm, but we get there four hours early, in case access to the prisoners is suddenly granted. Unlikely: Mr Happy gets so annoyed at our presence, he even bans us from the press room. We are escorted up and out, to stand outside to where the first snow of winter is falling, and where a trio of women in headscarves are waiting glumly. They’ve travelled 16 hours to see Salavat Ogly, a convicted hooligan serving five years, who will performing a duet with a drug dealer. His mother, Louba (Russian for “love”) won’t say much, so I resort to my standard question: “Didn’t you think this concert was a crazy idea when you heard about it?” and she gives the standard reply. “No, not really.”

The Oglys don’t have tickets – this concert is invitation-only, with most guests being prison staff or police, some from vague “social organisations” and a few relatives – and I doubt they’ll get in. It’s something of a surprise, later, to see Louba marched up onstage by a kind-hearted politician to kiss Salavat. (It’s more of a surprise to Louba when after such a display of public magnanimity, her son is still promptly returned to prison for another year.)

We are let back inside when the guests start arriving. It was a year ago yesterday that some Chechens invaded the Nord-Ost theatre and started a siege, and I wonder whether a theatre stuffed with soldiers is a temptation or a deterrent. But the Volgograd Orchestra has kicked off with a lively medley of big band tunes, and I forget about Chechens and try to work out if the orchestra are prisoners or guest performers. Certainly, the hair’s short enough, but they seem to have all their teeth. Eventually, I realise that when diplomas are handed out , they are handed to convicts by dolly birds in eveningwear, while the guests get young women in mini- skirted military uniform. (T.I.R) The diploma moment is tricky: instead of cringing in anticipation of unseemly tears or speeches, I’m dreading the prisoners doing a runner. But they behave impeccably, thieves, murderers and the unidentified kriminalny avtoritet , or crime boss, who’s reportedly taking part (as do the rumoured mafia thugs in the audience). Only a few get slow-clapped – Russian for ‘bravo!’ – though in vain. “Sorry,” says the MC, when yet another popular prisoner fails to reappear for an encore, because they are – literally – in the hands of the backstage meat-heads. “This is not a usual concert, and these are not usual participants.”

Two hours of unusual entertainment, and the contest is over. The stage fills with dignitaries and prisoners, and the truth will finally out. Six prisoners have fulfilled conditions for parole, it is revealed, and were informed of this several hours earlier. They also get 5000 roubles (£98) in cash, and all the finalists get a TV. (The women get a basket of makeup, too, “even women in prison are still women.”) It’s hard not to feel sympathy for the unreleased (though I later find out that one of those nice Orchestra boys is in for rape and torture), but Ruslan had put a brave face on it, earlier. “I won’t be released. I haven’t done enough time. But coming to Moscow is a little bit of freedom.”

In an after show press conference, the ex-cons look dazed and knackered. “Prison is an awful dream,” says Elena Maslova, who’s done three years for theft, and missed half of her daughter’s life. “Imprisonment is like snow,” says Vladimir Bazykin, who served six years and four months. “It goes on and on, and then it becomes nothing, like water.” I see them a while later, at an after-show gathering – vodka and red wine, an accordion-player and some hearty singing – looking aimless. After getting the full attention of GUIN for years, and after benefiting from its public generosity, they are now getting the full force of its rehabilitation: Nothing.


They should get used to such insouciance. “People have this attitude to ex- prisoners,” Naum Nim had told me. “They act like it’s something you could catch. There’s a feeling that you could always end up there.” The day after the contest, Russia’s richest man – oil billionaire Mikhail Kordokhovsky – ends up in Moscow’s Matrosskaya Tishina jail, where the Kalina participants had been housed. From private jet to cockroach cells, from cockroach cells to Pop Idol parole. T.I.R. Anything can happen.

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