March 8 marks the hundredth anniversary of International Women’s Day celebrations in Russia. This is the second in a series of posts focusing on the work and plight of several different women involved in political and social activism in Russia today.
In August 2012, Taisiya Osipova, an activist in The Other Russia opposition party, was sentenced to eight years in prison on drugs charges. She and her supporters have always maintained her innocence, claiming that police planted the drugs found in her apartment in Smolensk during a search in order to pressure her into cooperating with them and testifying against her husband, Sergei Fomchenkov, a senior party activist.
In sentencing her to eight years in prison, the court not only failed to take into account the evidence of her innocence, but also ignored the fact that Osipova is the mother of a young child and suffers from several chronic illnesses, including diabetes.
Sergei Fomchenkov recently posted the following text on Facebook. In it, he describes the extreme difficulties Osipova and her fellow inmates at the women’s penal colony in Vishny Volochok have getting decent, humane medical care, and the recent family visit that he and their daughter Katrina made there.
“Scalding hot! Torzhok!”
By Sergei Fomchenkov
March 1, 2013
The title of this article is a partial quotation of a bit of prison humor at the women’s penal colony in Vyshny Volochok, where Taisiya Osipova is an inmate. This dark humor is associated with the medical unit, to be more precise, with its head doctor, Valery Moskvin, a colorful character and one known well in town, beyond the premises of the penal colony. The full version of the phrase goes like this: “Scalding hot! Torzhok! The way our medicine works, I can’t promise you Torzhok!” It is uttered by the women prisoners, every one of whom before work in the morning walks down the aisle between rows of beds carrying a liter mug full of boiling water. There is not so much time to get ready for work, and the women have to manage to drink a cup of tea or coffee before going, so they do everything quickly. Rushing down the narrow aisle between rows of bed to her section, the female inmate risks pouring boiling water on other women straying into her path. To keep this from happening, the person carrying boiling water is supposed to loudly repeat the phrase, “Scalding hot! Torzhok. . .” Its meaning is clear only to the local inhabitants, who have encountered the specific form of prison medical care at Correctional Colony No. 5. The fact is that the town of Torzhok is home to the Federal Penitentiary Service’s Tver Regional Hospital. Since the means available to the medical unit at the penal colony are quite limited—they do not have the necessary equipment, specialists, and so forth—comprehensive medical care is impossible. This is a problem common to such medical facilities. But the regional prison hospital in Torzhok has more means at its disposal (although things there are not ideal, either) in terms of equipment and specialists, and they say the staff there has a better attitude about doing their jobs.
“We’re all going there. Some sooner, some later”
Mr. Moskvin really hates referring sick inmates to the regional prison hospital. This isn’t simply a matter of the prejudice, often held in his profession, that inmates feign their illnesses. It also has to do with Mr. Moskvin’s personal character.
The following story characterizes this scion of Hippocrates. Upon her arrival at the camp, an inmate named Elena told him she had a history of cancer, and had undergone multiple surgeries for the removal of tumors. Moskvin responded, “Where did you get that idea? You make something up, and then you end up believing it.” She didn’t know what to say to that. Some time later, a growth appeared on Elena’s back, and she went to Dr. Moskvin to ask to have it looked at the prison hospital in Torzhok. Instead, without doing any tests, this man of medicine prescribed the following course of treatment: for a month, iodine was rubbed on the tumor. But since that didn’t help, he ordered the ointment Levomekol rubbed on it, again for a month. The tumor continued to grow, and the pain got worse. Three months after her initial request, Elena once again visited the head doctor, requesting that something be done. Moskvin once again suggested iodine. Elena asked him, “Will it help?” “It won’t get any worse,” was his reply. In the end, Elena was finally sent to the hospital in Torzhok, where they surgically removed the tumor.
This is just one story of many. I am quoting Elena verbatim, because I spoke with her personally. I am not a doctor. But the stories I heard during my prolonged visit with Taisiya confirm Elena’s account. For instance, when another inmate with cancer asked Moskvin to send her to the Torzhok hospital, he told her, “Why bother? Nothing will save you now.” The most proverbial of his sayings, which he likes to repeat to the female inmates who come to him for help, is, “We’re all going THERE. Some sooner, some later.” This is his way of saying that there isn’t much point in doing tests or getting treatment.
Several days after Taisiya was deprived, in January, of the pills she needs, and this was reported on the Web, a commission of high-ranking officials from the Federal Penitentiary Service came to visit the penal colony. On the day of their arrival, January 29, 2013, Taisiya was taken to the regular municipal clinic for an appointment with an endocrinologist. There is no endocrinologist on staff in the penal colony’s medical unit, and even the glucose tolerance test done before she was sent to the municipal clinic was done incorrectly. The endocrinologist confirmed this to Taisiya. She also explained that Taisiya needed a full slate of tests at a regular in-patient hospital. Upon Taisiya’s return to the penal colony, she found out that high-ranking authorities were visiting, which explained why she had suddenly been sent to an endocrinologist. Only one member of this “commission” met with her. This official admitted that the colony lacked the necessary resources for treating her illness, but promised her that by mid-February she would be taken to a real hospital, regardless of what head of the medical unit Dr. Moskvin wanted. At the same time, the official also expressed doubt that this would in any way benefit Taisiya, saying that with illnesses like hers it was “quite possible to live without receiving treatment.” Unfortunately, Taisiya did not remember his name.
Maximum Security Family Living
Almost everything recounted above I found out during my prolonged visit with Taisiya, from February 4 to February 7. Our daughter Katrina and I had come to the penal colony for a visit. The building where the visit was held was on the premises of the colony. It had four rooms, a common kitchen, and a bathroom. We had registered for the visit in advance. A prolonged visit, which entails living together for three days, is allowed once every three months. A short visit is allowed once every two months, through glass, and lasts four hours.
During a prolonged visit, each inmate and her relatives (only close relatives are allowed the privilege of such visits) are given a single room to share. In it, there are two beds, a refrigerator, and a television. Food is prepared in the common kitchen. Visitors and their groceries are thoroughly searched before entering the visitation building. A search is also conducted upon departure. During the visit, a check is made twice daily to ascertain that the inmates are in the building. At night, the building is locked from the outside.
Katrina and I arrived for the visit early in the morning. Leading us to the visitation building, the prison staff searched us (this was probably the first time Katrina had ever been frisked, although she had been present for two searches involving police in balaclavas), and they checked the groceries we’d brought. Everything was done politely and carefully. After that, Taisiya was led in.
Katrina glued herself to her mother for three days straight. She was jealous of every moment I had Taisiya’s attention. Katrina followed her mother from room to room, even to the kitchen and back. Taisiya promised her daughter she would be released soon. We only talked about what our life would be like after her release.
In moments when Katrina was either distracted or sleeping, we had the chance to talk. Taisiya told me all about her life in the colony, about being transported to the penal colony and her hunger strike in solitary confinement at the Tver pre-trial detention center. It had been impossible to drink the tap water in the cell at the detention center because of its high level of chlorine. Thus, her hunger strike was practically “dry.” As a result, upon being released from solitary confinement, her kidneys started to shut down.
Taisiya recounted the story of her arrest, and how Center “E” (“anti-extremism”) police, led by Savchenkov, visited her in jail, demanding she testify against herself and me as well as squealing on the [Other Russia] party. They threatened to deprive her of parental rights and put Katrina in an orphanage.
We were able to discuss the plans for appealing the verdict. Taisiya has high hopes for the supervisory appeal and the complaint to the European Court of Human Rights.
The most difficult time for Taisiya came when two days had passed, and only one remained before she had to return to the penal colony. That was when Katrina, just like an adult, in turn tried to calm Taisiya down, explaining to her mother that she would soon be released and telling her about how good everything would be when that happened. It wasn’t a scene for the faint of heart.
The next morning, the guards took Taisiya away. Katrina and I were searched and escorted to the penal colony gates.
P.S. Taisiya really was sent to the hospital in Torzhok on the night of February 16. She managed to write a letter where she said that, “As it turns out, there is no endocrinologist in Torzhok. And they’re not going to affirm my request, anyway. It’s all the doing of the Federal Penitentiary Service.”
On February 26, journalists were able to get in touch with [Taisiya’s] lawyers, who told them that the Smolensk Regional Court had refused to reexamine Taisiya’s verdict, but had not even informed her lawyers of this decision.
Translated by Bela Shayevich and Chtodelat News