For most people, spending years in a Russian prison camp would be a living nightmare. But one ex-prisoner has described how it can be a time of whisky, sushi and relative freedom – if you have enough money.
Andrei, a former assistant to a Russian member of parliament who was sentenced to nine years in jail in 2006 for embezzlement, says that from day one of his time in the camps, money was the only language. in an interview with Russian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, the former prisoner explains in detail how he paid his way through his years in jail, where he says that anything can be bought for the right price.
"We had whatever we wanted. I even ate sushi every day," he told the paper, to which he showed photographs that backed up his claims. "We had a great table laid on for us in the camp – sushi, champagne, whisky."
His allegations come just a month after photos were published of prisoners partying in a prison just outside Moscow.
The photos showed inmates dressed up in togas, sitting down to a lavish meal and having McDonald's delivered to their cell. The governor of the prison was sacked after the photos appeared on the internet. Both incidents show how corruption, endemic in Russia, has also engrained itself in the Russian prison system.
Andrei claimed he was allowed, for a fee, to live in the hotel used for conjugal visits, which is on the camp's grounds, and leave whenever he wanted so long as he returned at night. "I put up a bar, home cinema and brought back whoever I wanted," he said.
The newspaper printed a series of Andrei's photos from the camp, including one with him and a large plate of sushi rolls and one of him on his mountain bike.
Whenever he wanted to go to see his family, two guards would accompany him to Moscow.
Having a drink one weekend in Moscow, he said police came and started asking everyone for documents. "I said I am a runaway prisoner. They just laughed and left."
He says he once went on holiday to Italy for the weekend without the camp noticing.
Much of the money he gave went on repairs to the camp, he said, which are poorly funded by the state. "If I went for a walk in town to go bowling – I did that nearly every day – then I would ask what I should bring back," he said, "The [prison service's] principle is that all repairs should be paid for by the prisoners."
He claimed that two camp chiefs battled over him because they knew of his monetary worth for their camps.
Russian journalist Olga Romanova, whose husband is in jail on charges she says are false, has written of how she had to pay a series of bribes when her husband was arrested. As with Andrei, she sometimes bought items for the jail – a heater and a computer – and estimated that in nine months she paid out more than £20,000 in bribes.
Andrei spoke to the paper after it had run an interview with a prison guard who said that prisoners were forced to pay bribes. Andrei said he did not believe anything would change after his revelations. Somebody might be punished, he added, but not the system.