It's 'Prisoner Pop Idol', 'Fame Academy in Handcuffs' - a competition in which incar cerated Russian killers and crooks can win the ultimate prize: their freedom. In Moscow, Rose George meets the jailhouse rockers hoping to be released (especially on CD)

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Day One

The first sound of the contest isn't particularly musical. Boots on the stairs, heavy feet, much thumping. I lean over the grubby banister and see seven shaven heads atop seven meaty bodies in fatigues, surrounding one slim girl with bleached hair. This is Yelena Kozlova, and - because she's currently serving an eight-year prison sentence for theft - she needs a little company on her way to the toilet. Probably not an extraordinary sight in a court-house or prison, but hardly usual in this unlovely cultural centre on the outskirts of Moscow.

But then this is the first day of one of the most unusual events in penal history: Kalina Krasnaya (Red Snowball Berry), the "concert for prisoners singing", as the press release describes it. Named after a famous Soviet film about an ex-con, it's been called "Prison Pop Idol" and "Fame Academy in Handcuffs". Whatever the nickname, it's indisputably unique. For the past eight months, 800 of Russia's serving prisoners have been sending their audition videos to a jury in Moscow. The 23 who have been chosen as the finalists will, three days hence, perform in a televised concert. The prize changes according to who's describing it. Some say the winner will be freed. Some say the six finalists will be freed. Some say one of the contestants is free already. As all these conflicting stories are offered to the gaggle of journalists outside a soundproofed door that is the barrier to the Soyus recording studios, my only consolation is that the Russian journalists look confused too.

The confusion is due to a battle of wills. Soyus is one of Kalina Krasnaya's two main organisers. The other, inevitably, is the Russian Federation's Ministry of Justice, in particular, its fabulously named Department for the Execution of Penalties (Guin) - the prison service to you - which is supplying the meat-heads, and the hostility. This being a record company, there are several men dressed all in black, but one of the men - bland features, and an aura that's anything but - is FSB (post-Soviet KGB). "The organisers want more press," says the stressed press secretary Igor, a television and radio producer in his day job. "But the ministry is against it." This is such a tightly run operation, the majority of journalists first heard of the concert only a week ago, and the most common conversation-starter is, "What time have you heard it's at?"

A man in one of those oversized Russian military caps comes out from behind the soundproofed door. "These are prisoners," he says, dourly. "You are not allowed to give them anything. You are not allowed to promise them anything. You are not allowed to let them use your mobile phone." He returns from where he came, slams the door, and is immediately nicknamed Mr Happy.

An hour later, we're permitted to enter a small room stuffed with men in fatigues and three serving, singing prisoners sitting on a couch. They are, says Igor, the "most famous": Vladimir Volshkii, who has already released two CDs (from prison, it seems), blonde and pretty Yelena, and Ruslan Anufriev, a murderer.

The contest was apparently barred to murderers (the word "apparently" will appear again and again in this story - truth in post-Soviet Russia seems as hard to grasp as in the Soviet one) but Ruslan slipped through. "I killed my friend," the handsome, cocky lad in a flat-cap says bluntly. "But it was self-defence. I'm fond of music - I never thought of killing anybody." He's serving six years in Chelyabinsk prison, 1,000km away in the Urals, which makes him the furthest-flung of the competitors. (For logistical reasons, the competition was open only to inmates of prisons in European Russia.) Months ago, Ruslan sent his demo tape in to be judged by a jury which is never properly identified. "There are guards and prison directors on the jury," says Mr Happy. "There are great Russian composers and poets on the jury," says a Russian MP, on another occasion. Either way, they have supposedly judged both according to talent and to the crime committed. "But we don't want to tell you what penal articles they are in for. We promised the prisoners this would be about their future, not their past."

There is much rhetoric about rehabilitation, about talent surviving behind prison bars, and how every prisoner is a human being. Less is said about the infamously harsh sentences handed down in the Russian Federation - four years for theft is usual, not counting the several years you're likely to have served pre-trial - or the TB rate in prisons being about 40 per cent higher than among the general population, or the chronic under funding and equally chronic overcrowding (20-strong dormitories are common, as are women having to cut up clothes to use as sanitary towels). But Ruslan won't comment on such things. "Life is harder outside," he says, unconvincingly. "There are more jealousies, more difficulties. Prison is hard, but it's all right."

Yelena says even less, glancing nervously to the nearby female prison guard after every question. Eventually she admits she'll be singing a popular folkish song in the final. Ruslan, who graduated from Kazan conservatoire, won't be performing his own music either. He loves hip-hop best - Tupac, Cypress Hill - but doesn't think Russia is ready for it. "I'm going to record a CD and it'll be a huge hit. Write that down!" For now, he's going to sing about winter nights, and he won't be wearing bling bling. "My mother bought this suit. It symbolises the simple Soviet man on the street, from the days when you could walk on the streets and not worry about getting killed." I look up to see if there's any irony evident on his face when he says this. There isn't.

Day Two

The auditorium supplied by Guin is perfectly nice, though the presence of 12 sacks of potatoes in the cloakroom is disconcerting. As * is the presence on the dais of a buxom woman with a nest of dyed blonde hair. She represents, she says, the Moscow City Commission on a Healthy Way of Living. My translator Daria fails to understand its purpose, even after a 10-minute explanation. Only when big blonde lady mentions the commission was formed two weeks earlier, and how rich people need to take notice of prisoners too, does some light fall. She's a Russian lady who lunches.

It's easy to ridicule, but not fair: the UK's prison service may have agreed to Feltham Sings (the Bafta-award-winning documentary featuring singing juvenile offenders), but I doubt it would agree to serve up inmates for a nationwide pop contest, or hold its cool for eight months of auditions. But Vitaly Polozyok, vice-head of Guin's department for the social and behavioural work of prisoners, doesn't see much unusual about it. "This event shows that everybody has a talent but not everyone knows how to use it. We hope that this event will help us organise future ones, and that no competitor who is freed will return to their past life." As for who that might be, he refuses to say. "The question of liberating them will be according to law."

That's because Guin's aspirations to Pop-Idolesque largesse - freedom, rather than a Docklands flat - are actually restricted by the courts. "If they have served two-thirds of their sentence, and if they are eligible for parole, and if their prison governors have taken their cases to court, then they can be freed. But you'll find out tomorrow." Never mind that Igor has said that it's already been decided that six finalists will be freed; or that at the concert, a parliamentary deputy says three prisoners got their freedom three hours earlier; or that a contestant, Vladimir Bazykin, tells me that he had been freed a few days ago, when actually he had been paroled weeks earlier. (When I was in Siberia for three months in 1993, on Operation Raleigh, the acronym TIR came to soothe frequent moments of bewilderment and frustration. TIR: This Is Russia. This seems an appropriate time to resurrect it.)

It will go according to plan, believes Polozyok, because it's been done before. "We had a contest for juvenile prisoners a couple of years ago called, 'Mum, I'm Singing You a Song'. That was a great success and a CD was released." Like the planned Kalina Krasnaya CD, it's unclear who gets the proceeds. And there will certainly be some: prison songs sell well, perhaps because one in four Russian males has been in jail. In the taxi back from the press conference, the driver has, despite the Ministry's best attempts to wrongfoot the press, heard of Kalina Krasnaya. "They'll make a fortune from that CD - 60 per cent of Russians have been in prison." Have you? "Yes: I got into a fight during my military service and served three and a half a years in Murmansk. I could tell you a lot about prisons."

Day Three

Rehearsal day at the concert venue. The Old Olympic Village isn't exactly central, as I realise when, after an hour of driving, the combined knowledge of native Muscovite and an Azerbaijani taxi driver still haven't found it. "Where would you want us to hold this?" asks Polozyok. "In the Kremlin?" I suppose the Olympic Village is appropriate: two days after Kalina Krasnaya, the winners from the real Russian Pop Idol/Fame Academy-type shows- Factory and Roots - will be performing here too.

Security is tighter still today. We're herded through corridors, past bored soldier after bored soldier. "Aren't you scared of us?" one asks Daria. "Should we be?" "Hell, yes."

Today's rules are spelled out: no approaching the prisoners, no helping them to escape, no closer than 5ft from the stage. Not a rule you'd want to break, anyway: the amount of dry ice being spat out is off-putting enough. So is the garish scenery: a silvan scene - some water, one tree - and a staircase up to heaven, which the singing prisoners must descend.

The first on are Elena Maslova and Larisa Slitkova. Elena dances; Larisa doesn't bother. The lyrics aren't novel: "Goodbye my friend/ Now you've been released and I'm in prison", and by the fourth rendition I resort to guessing their crimes and trying to see whether Elena is really missing all her top teeth (she is). From then on, I play spot the scars and tattoos. Most prisoners can oblige with some, as well as sallow skin, skinniness and other symptoms of years of a bad diet and not enough fresh air.

Ruslan comes on and manages to hip-hop his way through a folk-song, while I try to figure out whether he loves the stage or himself more. But even his swagger is easily tamed: as each prisoner walks off stage, a camouflaged arm reaches out from the wings to take the microphone, and then the person.

That evening, we take a trip to a suburb even further away than the Olympic Village. This is where Naum Nim lives, in a "typical Russian intelligentsia flat," says Daria - many books, not many fripperies (despite the Ikea catalogue in the corner). Nim is the editor of the Russian edition of Index on Censorship, the last issue of which was called "Return of the Gulag". He's a nice man with a patient manner which he's had time to perfect, given his two-and-a-half-year imprisonment for the penal code's infamous "political article". He was released when Gorbachev abolished the crime of political dissidence, after serving most of his sentence on "special regime", the harshest form of punishment, and one that's replaced the death penalty for lifers. "I wasn't particularly a rebel, but some people think it's humiliating to have to sing while they're marching." For his mild but stubborn objections, he spent most of his time in a damp concrete cell, in special regime clothes - thinner than usual - in central Russian winters, which aren't much better than the Siberian kind. "You just sit there. That's it."

He's mildly amused by the concert. "Look, it's like the North Pole. Wherever you go, you go south. With the state of our prisons, whatever Guin does, it's positive." Anyway, he says, it's not new. In the 1920s, the vile Gulag island camps of Solovki - where a favourite * treatment was to tie a prisoner to a tree and let the black flies bite - had a famous theatre (Maxim Gorky went to visit, and wrote a glowing report). "But the prisoners were acting in their plays and, at the same time, they were being shot. What's more important - the decorative façade or the tortures? There's all this talk about reform, but it's just make-up.

"For the special regime, they've developed a technique of handcuffing the prisoner's hands behind his neck and making him run. Can you imagine that?" Not easily, but I later find a human-rights report corroborating this. Even so, Russia's alarmingly high prison population (611 per 100,000, or six times the UK rate) has been reduced from over a million by 200,000 in the past three years, and new laws are in progress. Baroness Vivien Stern, of London's King's College International Prison Studies Centre, and just back from Moscow, calls Deputy Minister of Justice Yuri Ivanovich Kalinin "a hero. There's absolutely no doubt that he's making genuine attempts to reform."

Even so, with Russian president Vladimir Putin saying recently that if democracy leads to chaos, Russians don't need it, it's permissible to be sceptical. And when surveys show that a quarter of Russians feel their rights have been violated by the police or courts in the past year: "If you're in the street at night and you see a police car," a young woman tells me, "you're probably less safe than you were without it. Everyone knows that."

"The prison system isn't getting worse," says Nim, "but it isn't getting better. Instead of serious reforms, we're getting champagne bubbles. Look, we can make our prisoners sing!" But he relents, a little. "Maybe the concert will make prisons more transparent. Maybe pop stars will visit prisons. But the best thing is that 23 people will get out of prison, at least for a few days." Will he be watching the television screening the next day? He grins. "No need - I can already imagine it perfectly."

Day Four

Red Snowball Berry day. The concert is to start at 6pm, we get there at 2pm in case access to the prisoners is suddenly granted. Unlikely: Mr Happy gets so annoyed at our presence, he bans us from even the press room. We are escorted up and out, to stand where the first snow of winter is falling, and where a trio of women in headscarves are waiting glumly. They've travelled 16 hours to see Salavat Ogly, a convicted hooligan serving five years, perform a duet with a drug dealer. One of the women, Salavat's mother, Louba (Russian for "love") won't say much, so I resort to my standard question: "Didn't you think this concert was a crazy idea when you heard about it?" and she gives the standard reply. "No, not really."

The Oglys don't have tickets - this concert is invitation-only, with most guests being prison staff or police, those from vague "social organisations" and a few relatives - and I doubt they'll get in. It's something of a surprise, later, to see Louba marched on stage by a kind-hearted politician to kiss Salavat. (It's more of a surprise to Louba when after such a display of public magnanimity, her son is promptly returned to prison for another year.)

We are let back inside when the guests start arriving. It was a year ago yesterday that Chechen rebels invaded a Moscow theatre and started a siege, and I wonder whether an auditorium stuffed with soldiers is a temptation or a deterrent. But the Volgograd Orchestra has kicked off with a lively medley of big-band tunes, and I forget about Chechens and try to work out if the musicians are prisoners or guest performers. They seem to have all their teeth but their short hair gives them away.

Diplomas are handed out and I notice that they are presented to convicts by dolly birds in eveningwear, while the guests get women in mini-skirted military uniform. (TIR.) Instead of cringing in anticipation of unseemly tears or speeches, I'm dreading one of the prisoners doing a runner. But they behave impeccably, thieves, murderers and the unidentified kriminalny avtoritet, crime boss, who's reportedly taking part (as do the rumoured mafia thugs in the audience). Only a few get slow-clapped - Russian for "Bravo!" - though in vain. "Sorry," says the MC, when yet another popular prisoner fails to reappear for an encore, because they are - literally - in the hands of the backstage meat-heads. "This is not a usual concert, and these are not usual participants."

Two hours of unusual entertainment and the contest is over. The stage fills with dignitaries and prisoners, and the truth finally outs. Six prisoners have fulfilled conditions for parole and are to be released (though it's unclear who will take home the main prize, a brown crystal guitar). Each gets 5,000 roubles (about £100) in cash, and all the finalists get a television. (The women win a basket of make-up, too, even women in prison are women.) It's hard not to feel sympathy for the unreleased (though I later find out that one of those nice orchestra boys is in for rape and torture), but Ruslan had put a brave face on it, earlier. "I won't be released. I haven't done enough time. But coming to Moscow is a little bit of freedom."

As Ruslan, Yelena and Vladmir head back to jail, the released singers attend a press conference. They look dazed and knackered. "Prison is an awful dream," says Elena Maslova, who's done three years for theft, and missed half of her daughter's life. "Imprisonment is like snow," says Vladimir Bazykin, who has served over six years. "It goes on and on, and then it becomes nothing, like water."

I see them later, at an after-show gathering - vodka and red wine, an accordion-player and some hearty singing - looking aimless. After getting the full attention of Guin for years, and after benefiting from its public generosity, they are now getting the full force of its rehabilitation: nothing.

The day after the contest, Russia's richest man - oil billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky - ends up in the Moscow jail where the Kalina participants had been housed. From private jet to cockroach cells, from cockroach cells to Pop Idol parole. TIR. Anything can happen.