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Boris Kagarlitsky: The Journey Continues

Boris Kagarlitsky at a 2013 rally “For the Social Rights of the Muscovites.” Courtesy of and Wikimedia Foundation.

Note from LeftEast editors. Our readers are probably familiar with the story of Boris Kagarlitsky, the best-known post-Soviet Marxist, a leftist dissident under Brezhnev and occasional political prisoner under Yeltsin and Putin, who was arrested in July 2023 on charges of “justifying terrorism,” aka opposing Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on his leftist media platform To isolate him, his trial was held in the remote northern town of Syktyvkar, but a powerful international campaign resulted in his release in December of that year. The regime had been hoping that he would then leave the country, but he refused take the hint and continued his political work in Russia, resulting in the reversal of his release and a prison sentence of five years. The international solidarity campaign for him continues and you can contribute your signature to it. In the meantime, Boris has written the following letter from his second imprisonment, which LeftEast is proud to publish.

After my return to Moscow from Syktyvkar, a journalist acquaintance suggested that I write about my prison experience. I liked the idea, I immediately got down to business, but after a while, I discovered that I still didn’t have enough material for a whole book. However, the problem resolved itself promptly. The Leviathan of the Russian state provided me with new opportunities to expand my knowledge of prison life. The appeal court, based on a complaint from the prosecutor’s office, decided to review the sentence passed in Syktyvkar and send me back to jail.

The new prison experience turned out to be much different than the previous one. In just over a month, I have changed three prisons and five cells before settling in “my long-term cell,” where I am writing these lines. I received very rich new material and met new people as a result. Many new thoughts came to me and I am gradually writing down (not always in connection with what is happening in prison, but clearly not without the influence of this experience). It’s good to think about philosophy and psychology here, but the richest knowledge is associated with the moves that I was forced to make from place to place.

Although the rules of prison life seem to be the same everywhere, practices can vary greatly. And not only from prison to prison, but even from cell to cell. In each place, distinct communities form, evolve, disintegrate and form anew, depending on changing situations. There are large and small prisons, provincial and metropolitan ones, rich and poor. Security can be friendly and even understanding, or it can be malicious. And the inmates themselves belong to different ethnicities, cultural groups, and social classes. There is always something to talk about here, although these conversations will not always be pleasant. Moving from prison to prison, prisoners exchange information about the situation in the previous place and what to expect in the new institution. What people are most interested in, of course, is food. The opportunity to eat decently remains one of the main pleasures of prison life, so the quality of prison cuisine is very intensely discussed.

After arriving in the Zelenograd prison, for some reason, I ended up in a quarantine cell, although my two weeks in Kapotnya was precisely quarantine. The problem with quarantine is that nobody could really contact me, I didn’t receive any packages, and my three new neighbors were in the same situation. And then I learned about the Medvedkovo Pretrial Detention Center, where, it turns out, they feed very well. What praises of the cooks of that prison I heard during the week of Zelenograd quarantine! What a dining hall! There’s so much meat in the soup! What large portions they serve for dinner! Judging by the reviews of my neighbors, this establishment should be awarded a Michelin star.

Once you get into a cell with a refrigerator and a TV, you begin to depend not so much on the prison kitchen, but on the packages and on your neighbors. Not everyone shares everything here, but it is still quite natural and reasonable to conduct a joint household. The cell where I was in Kapotnya generally amazed me because democratic procedures were established there, with some issues were decided by voting, and others by consensus. But the food was not shared, the inmates were divided into several groups (there were 13-15 of us in total, with people constantly arriving or leaving), and within these groups the socialization of resources took place. I came to see this order as a kind of anarcho-socialism, although there were individualists. For example, there was a former academic boss who had been jailed for corruption. The refrigerator was filled with his groceries, which he did not share with anyone. One day, however, he came up to me and offered me a piece of cake. I was amazed and gratefully accepted the gift. Alas, the reason for the generosity was revealed immediately: the cake had expired.

Here in Zelenograd, the cells are smaller, and establishing formal procedures, especially voting, does not occur to anyone. But informal communities inevitably form and live according to their own laws. There is noticeably more solidarity and mutual assistance between people here than outside.

Of course, I’m lucky. I got into cells with as decent neighbors as possible under the circumstances. This is not so surprising. Most of the inmates are not hardened villains, but ordinary people who find themselves in conflict with the law, having succumbed to some temptation or having lost control over circumstances. When I entered the cell in Kapotnya, one of the prisoners, who had been there longer than the others, immediately asked me: “Are you in for murder?” I was shocked: “Do I really look like a murderer?” The answer was even more unexpected than the question: “The people who are imprisoned here for unintentional murder are all very decent, intelligent, and kind.” But political prisoners do not always have as good a reputation: “Some of them are arrogant and generally prone to hysterics.” I hope I have been able to improve the reputation of political prisoners somewhat in the eyes of my cellmates.

The prison in Zelenograd, where I was eventually moved, is small, with limited resources. This is manifested in the quantity and quality of food, and in the fact that there is a constant shortage of prison staff. The guards constantly complain about this, and the prisoners treat the guards with sympathy and understanding. And in general, from the moment you get into a cell with a refrigerator, the quality of prison food ceases to concern you. And our cell was especially lucky: one of our neighbors was a graduate of a culinary college. He is a pastry chef by profession. He managed to get a multicooker for the cell, and every evening the room is filled with delicious aromas.

Alas, if the refrigerator becomes a source of positive emotions, then the TV produces negative ones. In a strange way, these two devices exist in some kind of organic unity. Either there is both, or there is neither one nor the other. Every day the TV bombards you with waves of propaganda, turning into a kind of sound background that is difficult to get rid of by switching channels – it’s the same everywhere. However, after some time, immunity is developed. The TV also has a positive function: through it you can find out the time.

By talking with people who happen to be my neighbors – for several weeks, and sometimes for several hours, I am gradually compiling a kind of encyclopedia of human types and life stories, based on which it will be possible to later write a good book. But all this experience and this knowledge still needs to be generalized and processed. And it is advisable, of course, to do this when free.

For now, I on his leftist media platform continue to accumulate knowledge. The journey continues.

Zelenograd, 25 March 2025