'People Would Scream For Hours': Former Inmates Shed Light On Recent Russian Torture Revelations

By Sania Yusupova

Robert Coalson

Earlier this month, the nongovernmental Gulagu.net -- which tracks human rights abuses by Russian police and in Russian prisons -- disclosed the existence of more than 40 gigabytes of video material graphically documenting beatings, rape, and torture of inmates in prisons and pretrial detention centers.

Within hours of the story breaking, the Federal Prison Service (FSIN) announced it had fired the head of the prison service in the Saratov region, as well as several other top prison officials there. FSIN announced it was investigating the torture videos, which were allegedly shot in prisons and detention centers in the Irkutsk, Vladimir, and Saratov regions between 2018 and 2020.

(Because of the graphic nature of the videos, RFE/RL has decided not to post them or to link to other sites that have done so.)

"Torture again," Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer and activist associated with imprisoned opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, wrote on Telegram on October 8. "Irkutsk Remand Prison No. 1 (SIZO-1) is the main torture center of the country. One of the perpetrators had admitted on camera to everything and speaks about the torture and rape of prisoners. This is pure hell. The whole FSIN system needs to be dismantled and prosecuted. Fascists."

Sobol was referring to former Irkutsk SIZO-1 inmate Denis Golikov, who told Gulagu.net that he was part of a gang of some 30 "razrabotchiki" -- a noun based on the Russian verb "to work over" that has quickly become common usage as a result of the torture videos -- whose members tortured hundreds of prisoners at the direction of prison officials.

"At the request of prosecutors, detainees who refused to 'cooperate' with investigators were sent to us," Golikov said in his video statement. “We were forced to 'work' with them so they would give the 'necessary' testimony that investigators wanted.

"In exchange, they promised not to touch me," Golikov added. "And the investigator promised to somehow 'settle matters' with the judge to get me parole."

Vladimir Matushkeyev is an entrepreneur from Irkutsk who served time at Irkutsk SIZO-1, the main pretrial detention center in the eastern Siberian city. He told RFE/RL that during his time in custody, prison workers extorted money from him on threat of torture and rape.

"I gave the money to an FSIN officer -- 30,000 rubles [$420] for food and steroids for the cell's senior razrabotchik, Denis Golikov, and other torturers," Matushkeyev said. "After the rapes, the prisoners were forced to sign false confessions, self-incriminations, and also to 'cooperate' further with investigators -- that is, to give false testimony not only against themselves but against other prisoners, too. They were blackmailed by the fact that their abuse was recorded, and they threatened to release that material."

In his testimony to Gulagu.net, Golikov said that he was given steroids by FSIN guards and that he nearly doubled his body mass while he was in custody. In their commentary, Gulagu.net wrote that guards "disfigured him with drugs and steroids and turned him into a torture machine fueled by steroids."

Matushkeyev also told RFE/RL that, under threat of violence, he agreed to participate in the torture of other inmates under the supervision of FSIN guards.

"I was in the 'working over' isolation cells for more than a year and participated in tortures," he said. "I saw how SIZO-1 operatives gave Denis Golikov a video recorder through the food slot and how Golikov and others recorded the tortures and rape.

"Afterward, they gave the recorder back to the operative as a report of their special operation to collect compromising material," he added.

In Russian prison culture, if an inmate is known to have been raped, he is assigned to the lowest caste in an internal hierarchy and given the dirtiest and most humiliating tasks, such as cleaning out the toilets and sewers.

"In order to survive, I paid more than 30,000 rubles [$420] every week to an operative," Matushkeyev said.

Gulagu.net founder Vladimir Osechkin told RFE/RL that based on Golikov's statement, testimony from three Irkutsk SIZO-1 employees whose identities have been withheld, at least 10 other razrabotchiki, and 30 tortured inmates, the NGO estimates that more than 400 inmates underwent torture at Irkutsk SIZO-1.

"More than 100 of those 400 endured depraved, violent acts," Osechkin said.

One of the torture victims, a prisoner who served two stints in Irkutsk SIZO-1 in 2014 and 2018, as well as serving time in two of the region's prisons, IK-14 and IK-15, and who asked that his name be withheld, described his experiences to RFE/RL.

"Both times I was in the SIZO, I was immediately handed over to the razrabotchiki," the former prisoner said. "I had already been convicted of robbery, and I was waiting there to be shipped to the prison. Nonetheless, the razrabotchiki beat me and kicked me until I was all bruised. There was no reason for them to do this. They just wanted to get out some aggression.

"They were black from their bruises. There wasn't any white skin on them. Af"But when they needed to beat out a confession, they had other tortures," the prisoner added. "People would scream for hours that they were being murdered…. You'd sign anything just to avoid listening to those screams -- to say nothing about when they started working on you."

The prisoner was doing time at maximum security IK-15 near Angarsk in April 2020 when a mass uprising of prisoners occurred. Since that time, activists and prisoners' relatives have said that hundreds of prisoners were tortured to extract confessions of organizing the riot.

"I still don't understand how I managed to get out alive. It is a miracle I survived," the prisoner said.

He said that masked FSIN officers came to the prison and "beat everyone."

"And they were raping people right there in the prison, although not as many as in the SIZO," he added, saying the officers wanted "to take revenge."

"After several months, some of those who'd been taken to solitary or moved to other prisons for 'reeducation' started to return," the prisoner said. "They were black from their bruises. There wasn't any white skin on them. After their return from the SIZO to IK-15, nearly one-quarter of all the inmates were in the lowest caste. More than 1,000 had been beaten, and hundreds had been raped."

The FSIN press service in Irkutsk did not answer telephone calls from RFE/RL for comment on this story. Prison officials in Angarsk did not respond to written queries.

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting by correspondent Sania Yusupova of Siberia.Realities of RFE/RL's Russian Service.