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Holiday resort, industrial site and prison camp. reports from Sol-Iletsk

13 May 2013 

Vera Vasileva

Hidden amongst the plains of the Orenburg Region, Sol-Iletsk is a paradoxical town, where an industrial site sits alongside a holiday resort, which in turn is right next to the 'Zone' - Federal Governmental Institution Penal Colony № 6, or the Black Dolphin, the largest prison in Russia for those serving life sentences.
The journey from Moscow's Kazan railway station to Orenburg is a little over 1,500 kilometres, which the Orenburzhye, a high-speed, deluxe train, covers in just over 26 hours.

While the train is still in the Moscow region, at one point the luxury dachas almost immediately make way for the typical Russian scenery of tumble-down rural houses and miles and miles of uninhabited space.

After passing through Syzran, once one of the outposts of YUKOS' oil production, where the disgraced oil company built the modern Nadezhda ('Hope') health and fitness complex, you travel past derricks topped with gas flares. These now belong to Rosneft, as testified by the lettering on the hangars. In places, however, there are still oil transportation wagons on the line that carry the name of the defunct company.

This railway was laid in 1877, and one of the first passengers to use it was a certain Count Leo Tolstoy. Travelling in a comfortable coach to a destination next to the gates of one of the harshest prisons in Russia undoubtedly arouses cognitive dissonance.

However, the same can be said of the location of this prison camp for offenders serving life sentences. It is set right in the midst of a holiday resort that welcomes hundreds of thousands of holiday-makers every year, and which at the start of May is awash with colour - lilac and apple green.

To get there, you have to travel about 70 kilometres by car beyond Orenburg station. The Ural River passes through Orenburg, tracing the border between Europe and Asia, which is commemorated with a monument. Almost all of Orenburg is in Europe, but the road to Sol-Iletsk takes you into Asia.

The Iletskaya Zashchita fortress was built here in 1754. In 1865 it became known as the 'independent township of Iletsk'. In 1926 it was recognised as an urban-type settlement, and then in 1945 it became the town of Sol-Iletsk. It is now home to 27,000 people, and is located about 15 kilometres from the Russia-Kazakhstan border. Border guards are stationed at the railway station. 

The town has retained some of its old buildings. Legend has it Yemelyan Pugachev stayed in one of these, 3 Pugachevskaya Street, a story that historians are currently investigating. The present owners of the building claim to have found historic coins there. 

Holiday resort 

The main attraction in Sol-Iletsk is what locals call the Solyonka, a collection of seven salt and mud lakes. Some of these, according to the town's inhabitants, were once owned by Yelena Baturina, the wife of former Mayor of Moscow Yury Luzhkov. However, nobody has seen any documentary evidence of this.

The locals proudly equate the healing powers of their lakes with the Dead Sea in Israel, and they will gladly share stories of how bathing and taking mud-baths here has helped cure a whole range of illnesses. But, unlike Israel, where world-famous brands have developed, here the wealth that literally lies beneath people's feet has not been converted into a cosmetics industry. 

Three of the lakes - Razval, Dunino and Tuzluchnoe - are 120 metres above sea level, and cover a total of 53 hectares (130 acres).

The salt concentration in Lake Razval is similar to that of the Dead Sea or, according to some sources, may even exceed it. The density of the water is greater than that of the human body, so anyone trying to dive is pushed straight back up to the surface. Due to its salinity, the lake never freezes over, even during extremely intense frosts, and it does not sustain any life. Lake Razval covers an area of approximately 7 hectares (17 acres). It is 300m wide at its widest point, and in places its depth reaches about 20 metres. This lake has a permafrost floor, and the water temperature at a depth of four metres is below 0 °C. Lake Razval caught the attention of director Alexander Proshkin, who filmed the 2003 adventure film Trio here.

Lakes Dunino and Tuzluchnoe are moderately salty and muddy. The holiday park, Sol-Iletsk-kurort LLC, presides over four other lakes - Maloe Gorodskoe, Bolshoe Gorodskoe, Teploe and Novoe.

In the summer there isn't room to swing a cat, but at the beginning of May the place is deserted. However, it would be stretching it a little to call it peaceful. For all the charm of the lakes of Sol-Iletsk, tourists' ears and nerves may find it hard to cope with the non-stop pop music, of debatable quality, which booms out from the ubiquitous loudspeakers. 

Industrial area 

The first part of the town's name bears witness to the area's key natural resource - salt (the second part of the name refers to the nearby Ilek River, a left tributary of the Ural).

The Tustebi (Kazakh for 'salt mountain'), a mountain with abundant reserves of this mineral, was known about in Russia as far back as the 16th century. Geologists believe that this deposit was formed in the Permian Period, in the Palaeozoic Era, when the Orenburg Region was the bed of a warm Permian sea. An intensive sedimentation process took place in its bays, producing huge quantities of salt.

In 1744, when the Orenburg Governorate was formed by tsarist decree, its first Governor, Ivan Ivanovich Neplyuev, sent a military reconnaissance detachment to the Iletsk deposit. Soon, a salt management office opened in Orenburg, and salt shops sprang up in the fortified settlements across the plains.

Later, in the 18th century, Mikhail Lomonosov carried out a chemical analysis of the region's salt, and found it to be the highest quality salt in the world. 

Today, Sol-Iletsk's food industry is represented by the salt mining company Iletsksol JSC, one of Russia's largest suppliers of high quality rock, table and common salt. 560,000 tonnes of salt are extracted every year, consumed in Russia, the former USSR and further afield. But it is impossible to get hold of Iletsk salt in local shops, and the local residents pull no punches in their complaints about the "robbing middlemen". 

As well as edible salt, Iletsksol also produces industrial salt for boilers and roads.

The prison camp

The regime of the institution should seek to minimise any differences between prison life and life at liberty which tend to lessen the responsibility of the prisoners or the respect due to their dignity as human beings.

International human rights standards for the treatment of prisoners condemned to long-term or life sentences

Sol-Iletsk’s local history museum informs you that a fortress first appeared here back in the 18th century, shortly before Pugachev’s Rebellion. Sources reveal that it was first built by a Kazakh centurion, who locked up four convicts. These convicts started work on erecting the fortress and worked in the salt mines. Later, during Pugachev’s Rebellion, Pugachev's comrade, Khlopusha, freed the convicts and demolished the fortress. 

Nevertheless, the idea of building a jail for criminals found guilty of serious crimes remained. Once Pugachev’s Rebellion had been quashed, the need arose to build a prison for exiled robbers in the area. Empress Catherine II familiarised herself with the layout of the region, and signed a decree authorising the building of the fortress.

The convicts worked in the salt mines. The lumps of salt were broken up using pick-axes and 'panthers' (logs with metal-coated ends), and dragged in tubs and handbarrows or pushed in wheelbarrows. 
‘The house where Yemelyan Pugachev purportedly stayed’ 

Later on, a holding prison and a hospital for prisoners with tuberculosis were built in Sol-Iletsk and, finally, a prison for those on life sentences was constructed.

As an historical note on the website of the Orenburg Region Directorate of the Federal Penitentiary Service (UFSIN) makes clear, the basic layout of the camp was in place by 1912, when two three-storey prison buildings were constructed by decree of Emperor Nicholas II.

The modern, pink, two-storey camp headquarters, enclosed by a low fence, with two sculptures of black dolphins at the main entrance, can be seen directly from the holiday park.

It is located on Sovetskaya Street, a name found in virtually every settlement within the former USSR. And Sol-Iletsk's Sovetskaya Street can be seen as an extremely succinct metaphor for all the contradictions inherent to our life. Here tourists in their beachwear lazily peruse the stuffed animals, pictures, wooden handicrafts and other souvenirs made by the prisoners, which are sold right next to the gates that lead to the world behind the walls. The horror concealed on the other side of the barbed wire even seems apparent in the motionless, smiling faces of the soft toys. 

A row of shops and houses face the wall on the other side of the narrow road. But the locals are used to the prison's proximity, and pay no attention to it, especially since it is the town's main employer. Here virtually everyone has a friend or relative who either works or has worked at the Black Dolphin, if they don't work there themselves.

On the other side of the prison camp, the houses almost come right up to the fence. No more than a three metre gap is left, down which little boys pedal bicycles, and mothers push their babies in prams. 
‘Entrance to the resort’ 

The prosecutor's office and the court are close at hand. The latter, a memorial plaque reveals, was where the Supreme Court of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic "administered justice" during the evacuation between January 1942 and February 1943. 

The current official title of the prison is UFSIN Russia Orenburg Region Federal Governmental Institution Penal Colony № 6. At present it holds 708 prisoners on life sentences.

In addition, the low security penal ‘settlement’ holds 60 convicts, while there are 108 prisoners held under 'strict regime' conditions.

The institution employs approximately 900 staff members. 

Construction of a new 160-capacity high security structure began in 2003, and was completed in December 2006. Today it is one of the tallest buildings in Sol-Iletsk, visible from everywhere, including the beach.

The institution's unofficial name, the Black Dolphin, came from the sculpture of black dolphins that forms part of a fountain within the prison grounds, which was designed and created by one of the prisoners. The name caught on, and entered the history books.

The Orenburg Region UFSIN states that conditions for prisoners inside the prison "meet international standards". 

Along the corridors, the doors to each cell display who is imprisoned there, and what crime they were ‘Lake Dunino’                                                   found guilty of. 

The cells contain bars which separate the prisoners from the door and the window. Convicts can open the window using a special stick. The beds are made of metal, and there are benches on which the prisoners sit during the day. Sitting, and especially lying, on the bed is prohibited in the daytime. There is a sink and a toilet.

As well as the bed and bench, each cell is furnished with a table and a small shelf, complete with a plastic mug and wooden spoon. No metal objects are allowed into the prison for security reasons.

Prisoners can make use of the library, and can keep a certain quantity of books and other printed materials with them.

Each cell contains a radio speaker. The author of this article managed to talk to a former prisoner, E., who was held in the 'strict regime' section, and meanwhile worked in the radio cabin, broadcasting to the whole colony.

"When I was there, all they had was Radio Mayak. It included an hourly news bulletin, and then music, especially 1980s music. The broadcast followed a strict time schedule. Those who were working had constant music via a separate line. In fact, ‘chanson’ (a music genre associated with crime and criminals) was strictly forbidden. There were also the programmes from Radio Radonezh; ‘Mine against the backdrop of Lake Razval’                             many programmes for different religious groups", he said. 

Inmates are forced to sleep with their head facing the door, with their faces uncovered and in quite bright light.

Within the prison building, the prisoners are moved in a bent over position, blindfolded, with their face down and their hands in handcuffs behind their back, for example when they are being taken upstairs.

Newly arrived detainees are led into the Black Dolphin in the same way. It is believed that these measures prevent prisoners from mapping out the prison and planning escapes. The last group jailbreak took place almost 50 years ago, in summer 1967, when prisoners dug a tunnel under one of the walls.

When taken for their exercise, each prisoner is accompanied by at least two guards. The exercise consists of an hour and a half in a stone, covered courtyard. 

Meeting relatives is also only allowed through bars and with handcuffed wrists.

The Criminal Correctional Code outlines three different forms of punishment: strict regime, general regime and low security punishment.

To begin with, prisoners with life sentences fall under the former. Under these terms, they are allowed ‘Salt strata on the banks of Lake Razval’                     two four-hour meetings, one parcel or delivery and one smaller packet every year. 

Prisoners can be transferred to the general regime once ten years have elapsed, assuming they have a clean disciplinary record. The main difference between the strict and general regimes is that under the latter extended meetings of up to three days with relatives are permitted.

After another ten years, a prisoner can be placed on a low security regime. And after a further five years, they can request release on parole. This is only allowed if the prisoner has not broken any rules in the previous three years. If parole is refused, it can be requested again three years later.

E. is very sceptical about the chance of prisoners on life sentences being released on parole:

"Imagine a person living for 25 years in a prison cell under constant moral pressure. He will come out into another world, where he is an alien. I was inside for five years, and I had a constant link with my home, family and friends. I had meetings, letters and phone calls. I was always up-to-date with what was going on. And yet, once I was released, I found it unbelievably difficult to find work. I went to the job centre. But that was no use. I would approach an employer, mention my conviction on the application form, and… arriverderci.

Why do people relapse into criminality? Well, this despair leads a person to start self-medicating with ‘Lump of salt extracted from the mine’                     alcohol. As a result they have no money, and this leads directly to them committing crime". 

Those on life sentences are made to wear prison uniform - a dark blue or black boiler suit with three white stripes on the sleeves and legs. Each prisoner has the letters ‘ПЛС’ written on their back, which stands for ‘pozhiznennoe lishenie svobody’ or 'life imprisonment'. 

Some of the inmates work. They were used in the salt mine until World War II.

Clothing production, their current main occupation, started in 1965. The institution specialises in producing footwear - military and work shoes and slippers. The footwear produced by the prison is distributed under the brand name Orenburg, with a small dolphin logo on the sole. As well as this and the souvenirs, the prisoners make flour, bakery products and pasta. The prison also has an agricultural section, where cattle, pigs, rabbits and chickens are reared.

The courtyard of the prison's headquarters is idyllic - clean, beautiful and orderly. The paths are tarmacked, everything has been whitewashed and painted, and it has flowerbeds and trees.

One way of judging the atmosphere inside is the research carried out by Doctor of Psychological Sciences Valeria Mukhina. 

‘The prison camp headquarters’ 

"It is unbearable for people to be forced to live in an enclosed space, facing constant punishment and without hope for the future. People deprived of their future lose sight of the meaning of their existence", she wrote in her work 'Prisoners on life sentences: motivation for life'.

"Life for prisoners in cells is determined by the lack of variety of their conditions. From day to day, for many years, they hear the same commands, they see the same grey walls and the same 'scenery' through their bars. They can only smell a limited number of smells, and their sense of taste is dulled by prison food. In the small spaces that two or three prisoners share, they constantly feel the same thing - the stereotypical existence within strict limits and rigid conditions, and one another... But if prisoners were resettled, it would lead to catastrophe... These people, as individuals, are never given any time to themselves. Boredom and the constant presence of others provoke a state of alarm, and lead to extreme outbursts of irritation, which must always be suppressed, placing an enormous and continual strain on them".

E. also noted the lack of variety, extreme regulation and the incredibly tough conditions:

"You can guess right now what a prisoner will be doing five or ten years down the line".

‘Dolphin sculpture near the headquarters of the prison camp’ 

Valeria Mukhina cites the opinion of prison workers: "Out of the total number of prisoners on life sentences, only between five and seven percent try to retain their sense of identity. Only a few hold onto the capacity to make sound judgements and act as sociable human beings". 

In reality, the conditions for people on life sentences in Russia are much tougher than in Europe.

As Candidate of Legal Sciences, lecturer, member of the Council of Europe Council for Penological Co-operation and the Council of Europe Committee for the Prevention of Torture Natalia Khutorskaya notes, in Europe a life sentence does not mean that someone is necessarily kept behind bars for the rest of their life. Instead, it means that that person keeps the status of prisoner for life.

Depending on the specific case, their life before and after the crime and other factors, a punishment programme is developed for each individual. Once a certain number of years have passed (for example, in Germany 'life' imprisonment means 15 years) the prisoner receives (or does not receive) the right to leave the prison for a certain period of time, or even to live at liberty.

Moreover, Europeans consider the prisoner's participation in society to be important. Their penal system is built on respect for the individual.
‘Notice board next to the main entrance to the prison’ 

In Russia, meanwhile, the issues being examined for reforming the penal system are things like preventing those on life sentences from being given books and newspapers, from having access to television and so on.

This approach has already been applied practically in certain cases, and not even for those on life sentences. Olga Kryshtanovskaya, Director of the Centre for Elite Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Sociology and founder of the Otlichnicy association reported a case in March 2013 where it was applied to children.

She described how Otlichnicy had collected over two thousand books for the Ryazan Women's Young Offender Institution. They had already worked successfully with the institution the year before under a similar scheme, called 'Read freely!' Hundreds of people from various Russian cities responded to the request for book donations on social networks. But after dragging its heels for two months, the institution refused to allow Otlichnicy to make the donation.
‘Town street adjacent to the wall of the prison camp’ 

In another case known to the author of this article, prisoners were prevented from reading anything, including newspapers. Even the Russian Criminal Code, the Criminal Correctional Code and the Criminal Procedure Code were put in a warehouse, from where their owners can collect them only on release. 

This is effectively prohibiting socialisation. 

Unlike in Europe, it seems that in Russia the penal system does not take into account that eventually, even after 25 years, prisoners may leave prison and settle down nearby. And it is in society's interest that these neighbours are fully fledged human beings. 

Moscow - Sol-Iletsk - Moscow, 1 - 7 May 2013

‘Souvenir emblem of prison, by prisoner out of bread’       ‘Prison camp watchtower’                                                            'Shop run by prison camp, selling souvenirs made by prisoners'                                                

‘The fence around the camp’                                                             ‘New prison building’                                                                     ‘Red brick building in background is old prison building’ 

‘New prison building. Windowless exercise enclosures for prisoners are positioned around the whole perimeter of the building at the  level of the highest side window’