Home Commentary Op-ed Inside a Russian Women's Prison

Inside a Russian Women's Prison


The Rev. Nikolai Aksyonov is the archetypal legend in his own time.
I first met him 15 years ago on a bitter cold, sleeting northwest Russia winter night, when he insisted I accompany him to see the ruins of his parish church, which had been dynamited in Josef Stalin's pitiful failed attempt to rid Russia of religion.
Nothing about his appearance or manner is remarkable. His quintessential Slavic face, covered with the ubiquitous Orthodox beard, is not highly expressive. But he smiles readily, his voice is soft, he walks with a determined, rather ungraceful gait. His astonishing stamina in the wide-ranging enterprises to which he has committed himself have more than once left me exhausted after a couple of days trying to keep up with him.
A few kilometers from his village of Sablino is the largest women's prison in Russia. Fr. Nikolai decided the prison population needed a chaplain, and he appointed himself to the task. Undeterred by political indifference and administrative resistance, he prevailed. He is widely known for prevailing.
He took me there.
Of the hundreds of inmates of this prison, stuck out in the boonies of Northwest Russia, about two-thirds of them are doing time for murder. In most cases, the victims were their husbands.
The high rate of husband-killing in the former Soviet Union is proportional to the high rate of alcoholism among the men. A cultural tradition of male dominance, unemployment, frustration, anger and vodka — plentiful and cheap — all add up to a volatile mix exploding in widespread wife and child abuse.
There was a time when the Mrs. might have taken her lumps and allowed the children to take theirs from a husband/father turned brutal. But this is a changing breed of Russian women. They are certainly not strident feminists on the American model but, trapped in desperation, they are more likely than previous generations to act in visceral violence and knock off their mates.
Among the inmates are a special group of about 60 who comprise what Nikolai calls his Chapel Congregation, women who have openly embraced the faith and meet weekly with the chaplain for worship and spiritual camaraderie. He took me to meet them.
I was surrounded by murderers. A few gray hairs among them, but mostly late teens to early 30s. Most of them appeared to be women you would be pleased to have as a neighbor or to babysit your kids. The vibes given off as we mingled and talked were warm, friendly, open and courteous, with not a hint of hostility, or even sullenness. Their gratitude and trust for Nikolai were palpable.
Valentine Lebedev was the head warden. A big, friendly-but-tough, barrel-chested man, wearing the ubiquitous fur cap and leather jacket, with a voice that can be heard a mile away when he whispers, he welcomed me with a crushing bear hug. We talked. He was surprisingly more open and forthcoming than most holdover Soviet aparatchniks I've met.
I expressed to him my pleasure and, frankly, my surprise at being permitted in the place, given what I had heard about Soviet criminal justice. Was this a new Glasnost-induced policy? And the absence of tension between staff and inmates, was this typical of such places?
The warden answered, "The policies we follow here are not common throughout the system, and would not have been found here, until he came," pointing to an embarrassed Fr. Nikolai.
"When this man came here, it was over my strong objections, but the change his presence has made includes me," the warden said. "I am a lifelong communist and atheist and am not one of his converts. I will retire next year after 27 years in this business. But if I were to continue, I would never again want to work without someone like him around."
So much for religion being dead in Lenin's empire. And I think the warden is a convert.

Editor's note: W. Jackson "Jack" Wilson is a psychologist, an Episcopal priest, a sometime academic and a writer living in Colorado. He writes with humor, whimsy, passion and penetrating insight into the human condition. And in Pushkin, Russia, a toilet is named in his honor.

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