Continued from page 1

“This place destroys these people. The first nine months or so they spend adapting. After three or four years their personalities begin to deteriorate,” said Svetlana Kiselyova, 29, the prison psychologist.

“There is no way anyone can spend 25 years in a place like this without being psychologically destroyed. The homosexuals are the ones that come off best — at least they are not starved of physical and emotional contact,” she said.

There are only two ways in and out of Petak: by foot, along two rickety wooden bridges, or by prison boat. Armed guards stand at watch towers on each corner of the building. German shepherds are kept in a special pound.

In stark contrast to the grim brutality inside, the White Lake surrounding Petak is one of Russia’s most beautiful. Gulls fly, the water is rich with fish and the trees and bushes are reflected in the shimmering water.

“There are prisons in Russia where the prisoners are in control, where even the governor has to consult with the head criminal before he can do anything, but not here. Here we’re the bosses,” said Vasily Smirnoff, the head guard.

“Of course sometimes I worry about sending my guys into a room with only a notebook and CS gas against some of the toughest guys on earth. But nobody’s ever escaped. If they dig, they hit water. If they try to swim, the guards will shoot them,” he said.

For the first 10 years of a man’s sentence, he is allowed two visits a year, of two hours each. After that he can have two long visits and two short visits. But by the time a decade has passed most men have lost contact with their families, who often live many days’ travel away. Parcels are allowed twice a year.

Half of the prisoners have tuberculosis. At least two prisoners are clinically insane. When men die, their bodies are taken to a small graveyard nearby and buried in the presence of one or two of the guards. No prisoners can attend.

Misbehaving prisoners are sent to punishment cells to be locked in a small, dark room with only a metal bucket and a fold-down bed for 15 days. No books are allowed. In the daytime, the bed is stowed and they must stand, or sit on a tiny wooden perch a few inches wide.

Vladimir, 45, killed two men and two women in St. Petersburg in 1994.

“I was drunk,” he said.

Soon after he was sent to Petak, he started painting with oil paints friends sent him. Today his cell is a gallery of rural Russian landscapes he paints from memory.

“I don’t want to leave here,” he said. “I’ve made this room my home. One day it will be my mausoleum. Who knows, perhaps after my death I will be famous and people will come and visit this cell. They’ll say of me, ‘He might have been a murderer but at least he was a fine painter.’”