Moscow prison endures as holdover from Soviet days

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The prison drifted back onto the world’s television screens this last week, a backdrop once again to the spy games spun between the United States and Russia.

When Igor Sutyagin, a nuclear researcher and convicted U.S. spy, was abruptly taken from an Arctic detention and brought back to Moscow to be swapped for Russian spooks, Lefortovo Prison was chosen as the point of transfer. And so the dreaded detention site, known for decades as a place of isolation and torment, was tangled anew in the intrigues of Cold War distrusts.

Perched for more than a century on the outskirts of Moscow’s city center, the prison has long been one of Russia’s most secretive and sensitive facilities. For decades, Lefortovo was used by intelligence agents as an interrogation center. The list of its prisoners is a roll call of 20th century rebellion, notoriety and intellectual ferment.

The prison held Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the writer who exposed the horrors of the gulag. His writings immortalized Lefortovo for its psychological torments.

There was also Natan Sharansky, iconic refusenik, social theorist and eventual Israeli politician, and Alexander Litvinenko, the onetime Russian spy who was imprisoned in Lefortovo before he defected to London, where he was killed by radioactive poisoning.

There are stories and rumors about the prison: The tale of a massive meat grinder used to mash the bodies of those tortured to death. The remains, according to legend, were then dumped into the Moscow sewers.

Was it true? Maybe so; perhaps not. In a way, it hardly matters. The stories alone were enough to terrify.

Lefortovo was first wrested from the control of intelligence agents during the aberrant years of the 1990s, when the Soviet state collapsed, a nation floundered and so many steady trends in Russian history were temporarily upended.

But those days were fleeting. Lefortovo was soon restored to the FSB, the main successor agency to the KGB. Vladimir V. Putin, a longtime KGB agent who decried the collapse of the Soviet superpower, rose to power himself. The fledgling days of political competition, local elections and a raucously free press were efficiently squashed.

And Lefortovo continued to hold its prisoners. It was turned over to the Justice Ministry in 2005. By that time, critics of the Russian government openly griped that the entire country had fallen under the leadership of the FSB.

Today the prison sits just a skip away from one of Moscow’s trendiest arts districts. Outside its walls, Moscow has become a city bright with neon lights, thrumming with cutthroat capitalism.

This is not Soviet Moscow. But there is still some Soviet sticking around here.

Either through deliberate reverence or lack of anything newer, much of the infrastructure of the Soviet state has remained intact. Tourists gawk in the shadow of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, its walls replete with hammers and sickles, bundles of wheat and Soviet stars. It’s just one of the seven skyscrapers that tower over Moscow by decree of Josef Stalin, who was determined that the Soviet capital should not lag architecturally behind — or below — the world’s great cities.

These leftover monuments are potent, and they continue to rankle. When female suicide bombers, the enraged “black widows” of the Caucasus, attacked Moscow’s metro system this spring, it was Lubyanka station that suffered the first blast. Its blank edifice looming large and unflinching over the city center, Lubyanka has long been the fearsome headquarters of Russia’s intelligence services.

If it is difficult to place Russia now, it’s at least in part because, despite the widespread foreign perception that the Soviet apparatus has been relegated to history, remnants of Soviet bureaucracy and mind-set linger, adrift without the gravity of the powerful central state.

“It’s a bit depressing,” said Vladimir Bukovsky, a famed dissident who was deported from the Soviet Union after a dozen years behind bars. “Our world goes in circles like a blind donkey.”

Bukovsky says he spent a combined 2 1/2 years imprisoned at Lefortovo. During one of four incarcerations there, he went on a hunger strike. Determined to break his spirit, his captors repeatedly forced a large metal feeding tube up his nose and down into his stomach, splitting open his nostrils.

“You start suffocating with blood and it’s unpleasant,” Bukovsky recalled by phone from London. “But I sustained it, and I suppose many other people could sustain it.”

Despite his gruesome tale, Bukovsky is typically dismissive of the torments he suffered at Lefortovo. By the time he got to the prison, it was not nearly as bad as during Stalin’s purges, he pointed out repeatedly.

“The task of authorities in our time was to break you down. They’d bring you to a situation where you were on the brink of dying, but they didn’t push you over,” he said. “In Stalin’s time they didn’t bother. They just killed you.”

Bukovsky’s memories of Lefortovo are not all unpleasant. It was warmer than the prison camps, he says, and tight supervision left little opportunity for guards to steal the prisoners’ food.

He still enthuses over Lefortovo’s library, made great by the amalgamation of literature seized from dissidents and political prisoners.

“It was one of the best libraries in the country,” he said. “It was one of the absurdities of the communist system that you could read a book inside Lefortovo that you’d be arrested for reading outside.”