National Geographic recently broadcast a documentary, “Russia’s Toughest Prisons,” featuring three prisons: Prison Camp 17 in Siberia where the temps reach 50 below and it takes three days for visitors to reach the camp; Vladimir Central, where Stalin’s son was imprisoned; and the prison I found the most fascinating: the Black Dolphin, which is quite different from American prisons, at least from other documentaries I’ve seen. Not having ever been incarcerated, nor having visited a maximum security prison, I could be mistaken. But prisoners here in the US seem to keep their swagger behind bars. They are relaxed, sauntering around in their orange jumpsuits, just kicking back, putting in their time and living day to day.
Within the Russian prison the Black Dolphin, the inmates do not saunter. They have no swagger. When they are out of their cell, they are bent at the waist, head down, arms handcuffed behind their back. When they are transported from one building to another, they are also blindfolded to ensure they do not get the layout of the prison, that they do not know where the guards are, or even how many guards there are watching over them. The Black Dolphin houses inmates that are there for life, inmates that are convicted murderers, serial killers, cannibals, terrorists…
They interviewed an inmate convicted of murder and cannibalism. (Please note: if details make you squirm, skip to the next paragraph!) He’d been out drinking, gotten into a fight with a guy outside his apartment building and killed him. So he dragged him into the bathroom and cut him up. And then he just thought he’d try it so he boiled a piece of the guy’s thigh. He didn’t like it so he fried it. And then he gave some of the meat to his friend and told him it was kangaroo because they don’t have kangaroo there. The friend took it home and his wife made dumplings with it and fed it to her children. This is how he talked in the interview: simply stating the facts without much emotion. His conviction is for two murders (and cannibalism), but I’m not sure where the second murder fits in to the above story.
What I can’t get out of my head is the family he considered his friends. What was their friendship like? Did he (Vladimir is his name) and the father work together? Perhaps the friendship started when they were boys, growing up in the same neighborhood, riding bikes, teasing girls. Why had he done this to his friend? Could Vladimir have been mad at the friend because he’d lost a bet or a card game and the friend had teased him about it? Was it revenge? What was the friend’s (and his family’s) reaction when they found out Vladimir had killed his neighbor? Were they surprised he could be violent? Did they nod their heads in understanding, remembering the time he’d gotten drunk at the husband’s 21st birthday party and broken some furniture?
And then what was their reaction when they found out Vladimir had tricked them, involving them in his crime? Does it haunt the mother at night? Does she sometimes find herself unable to eat, the memory of that meal causing her throat to close in disgust? Does she turn away from her husband, disappointed in him for exposing their family to such a sick person? Maybe the husband had been out of work for some time and putting food on the table was a hardship. Maybe they’d said extra prayers for their friend Vladimir, grateful for the gift of food, relieved that their children’s bellies would not growl for a couple of nights. And what about the kids? Were they old enough to read the papers, to learn of the details of Vladimir’s crime? Do they know? How has this changed them as a family?
It is details like this that fascinate me as a writer. I think it’s because it is the very opposite of me, that darkness that lurks in some people’s souls. I’m not saying I’m all rainbows and flowers and sunshine-y days, but my novels tend to explore the darker side of life. Currently I find myself juggling four books right now, all in varying stages of creative disarray, but maybe my fifth will be about a crazy Russian…Or maybe not. Cannibalism might even be too dark for me!