Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, signed a decree, in June 1999, commuting the death sentence for all 716 convicts on Russia’s death row; their sentence was reduced to life. Holding a world record with 140 executions in 1996, Russia was fulfilling, with this decree, the commitment she had made upon joining the European Council, in 1996, to establish a moratorium on capital punishment and to abolish the death penalty.
Ivdel is a jail in the middle of taiga forests. After a four hour-long flight from Moscow, going east, you arrive in Chelyabinsk, located right in the center of the Ural region; it is the most inscrutable city of the Soviet era, known for its weapons industry. The trip continues two more days on a jeep. When you finally spend a night in a cell-turned-into-a-guestroom, you know that you are in the Gulag Ivdel now, surrounded (and isolated) by thick taiga forests. This place is a prison-city. During the Stalin era, artists and intellectuals (political prisoners) were sent to camp Ivdel. Today, there are 7,000 criminal offenders, both women and children, serving time for various crimes such as assault, burglary and homicide. At the center of the execution system at Ivdel is the crime camp No.56. This is a high security prison section of the camp for former death-row convicts who got commuted to life or 25 years in jail. Its special feature: sentences here never get reduced.
Camp No.56 is encircled by a wood wall, protected by watch towers and barbed wire. There are 350 convicts within. No escape attempts have ever been successful here, because the taiga forests surrounding camp No.56 form a natural security-wall, impossible to surpass. During short summers, the heavy clouds of Siberian mosquitos would kill any fugitive; and during long winter months, the temperatures of below 50 degrees would end any escape attempt in death. The only road that connects The Gulag Ivdel to the outside world is under constant watch, both day and night, by armed squads and the attack dogs of the ministry of justice. Convicts at camp No.56 live in cells, up to four inmates per cell… There are no sinks, the windows are boarded up and a tiny hole in a corner serves as a toilet. Convicts wear striped prison uniforms like in the past Soviet era. Because of the camp’s remote location, visitors are rare. Most of the inmates here have never been visited by anyone. Convicts’ meals consist of stale bread, water, and soup with very little meat in it. Those in good standing can have television put in their cell, but they can’t go out for fresh air, for more than half an hour a day, to the concrete courtyard surrounded by tall walls with barbed wire. Convicts with best conduct will earn the right to go out to the big yard, for a smoke or some exercise, or perhaps to do some carpentry or gardening, only after 15 years of good behavior.
Those who do not obey the rules at the camp get severe punishment: Six months in isolation, and only stale bread and water for meal… The dimensions of the isolation cells are: 2.20m. x 1.40m. Jail administrators have the authority to extend the six-month isolation for an indefinite period of time. Most of the convicts at camp No.56 say that with no hopes of ever being released from here early, they prefer the death penalty to this figurative “burying alive.” On the other hand, they are also pondering over the possibility of resumed executions with fear. Because, although a moratorium on capital punishment was established with the decree Boris Yeltsin signed, the Russian parliament always opposed a total ban on the death penalty.