Press intervention snuffs out “the Flame”
On a beautiful autumn day, I motored through golden countryside to the town of Yelets in Lipetsk region. But the purpose of my trip was a disturbing one. I was going to interview prisoner Nikolai Pozhedayev, known as “the Flame”, who had been in limbo on death row for six years.
Local reporter Igor Chichinov brought Pozhedayev’s case to my attention. He had been one of a gang that robbed a lorry and set it alight, burning the driver and two other occupants alive. For this, in December 1989, Pozhedayev had been sentenced to death and, since his appeal to then President Mikhail Gorbachev had failed, he’d prepared himself to take a bullet in the back of the neck.
But then President Boris Yeltsin had come to power and Pozhedayev had been encouraged to apply to have his sentence commuted to life imprisonment. Yeltsin, it seemed, had lost this application somewhere in an overstuffed drawer or behind a radiator and the death row inmate was living on tenterhooks, waiting for a clear answer. Even the prison authorities felt his human rights were being abused, Igor said, and fixed up for me to have access to “the Flame” in Yelets jail.
What can you ask a man on death row? “How do you feel?” I felt very unsure of myself.
As I was taken into his cell, I remembered that Pozhedayev had seen no woman except his mother for six years. Palefaced and dressed in the regulation navy and grey striped uniform of a smertnik (death row prisoner), he stood to attention as I entered. The guards hovered in the doorway.
But there was no threat. He was infinitely more afraid of me than I was of him. Perhaps I had come to announce his death.
Timidly, I asked for an interview. He begged an hour to marshal his thoughts. I just had time to notice the tight mesh over the window, blocking out all natural light, the narrow bed and toilet hole in the cell he never left.
The guards organised a tour of the prison to pass the time until Pozhedayev was ready. They told me they were “strict but humane”; that they welcomed the government’s drive against corruption; that they had not been paid for five months. They even offered me the chance of a drink and a sauna bath with them when they finished their shifts but I declined that hospitality.
We tramped the corridors of the fortress-like jail, built in 1830. In one cell, I saw muscle-bound former bodyguards, reduced to assembling chandeliers. The pain in their eyes was unspeakable.
My own ideas of Russian prisons came from Alexander Solzhenitsyn: icy cells, guard dogs and watchtowers. But Yelets prison was in fact unsettling in its attempts at cosiness.
The cells had black and white televisions and the prisoners were allowed to put posters on the walls. The library was perhaps a little overstocked with the works of Lenin but soft pornography was available too. In the kitchen, young men peeled potatoes into bath tubs under the motherly eye of a former factory canteen manager, who said that meat was on the menu every day. Daily exercise was also guaranteed.
The privileges of the ordinary prisoners were not for Pozhedayev. Thirty-one years old, he had been in and out of custody since he was 11. His father was also a convicted murderer.
Igor said “the Flame” had come to resemble an animal. “He smelt me through the metal door. He said he recognised my aftershave. He will smell you too.”
But in the interview, Pozhedayev was all too human. He spoke softly, haltingly, obviously overwhelmed by the space of the conference room where he had been brought for our 10-minute talk. The time was short but enough for him to convey his agony.
“I thought it would be quick,” he said, “but it has dragged on. Each time I hear a sound in the corridor, I think the moment has come. When you came, it was strange. I thought, ‘maybe this is it’. My mother visits me once a month and every time we say goodbye.”
Pozhedayev said he passed the time like a caged beast, “pacing to and fro”. His cell light was always switched on but he said he had control over the radio switch and sometimes listened to pop music. He once gave up smoking for two weeks but then thought: “What’s the point?”
He said he was hoping for a life sentence because “while there’s life there’s hope”.
His other requests were modest. “Tell the civilised world I need medicines for my stomach ulcers. And say I want magazines, magazines with coloured pictures.”
Igor and I left the jail and walked out into the pretty streets of Yelets old town. If we thought at all, we assumed that our intervention would secure a life sentence for the prisoner. Russia was about to accede to the Council of Europe and one of the conditions was that it should abolish the death penalty.
But in January 1996, Pozhedayev was executed. It was an election year and President Yeltsin could not afford to appear soft on crime.
An official at the courthouse in Yelets wrote to Igor, saying: “We received so many letters and phone calls as a result of your articles that we thought it time to decide the matter of Pozhedayev. Thank you for your useful work.”
I received a commendation from Amnesty International for my “useful work”. I was accustomed to my writing in the newspaper being used the next day to wrap up fish and chips and suddenly my article had killed a man.
You can imagine how Igor and I felt.
“The Flame” haunts me still.