Russia's new liberalism fails death row man



Russia's accession to the Council of Europe last month came too late for Nikolai Pozhedayev, the death-row prisoner featured in the Independent at the start of this year. After waiting five years for an answer to his appeal, he was executed in the middle of January, weeks before Russia was admitted to the European club.

Among various requirements for democracy, it expects members to abolish the death penalty. But Pozhedayev may not be the last person to be executed in Russia: this week President Boris Yeltsin urged parliament to ratify the Council's four conventions on different aspects of human rights but said Russia could not implement all its recommendations immediately. In particular, he said, Russia was "absolutely unprepared" to give life sentences to murderers, as in the rest of Europe.

Part of the problem is that Russia lacks the accommodation to keep dangerous criminals locked up for life. It has a few prisons, mostly built before the Bolshevik Revolution, but generally uses the Communist-era network of labour camps, which gives prisoners fresh air and occasionally the chance to escape. If a court decides a convict deserves worse than the maximum labour camp term of 20 years, the only alternative is death by shooting.

The head of the Russian penal service, Yuri Kalinin, was quoted in Trud newspaper as saying the country has 710 people on death row, all of whom might hope to have their sentences commuted, but there was only one jail able to take them. Russia needed five or six more high-security prisons.

The other problem is public opinion. Violent crime has overwhelmed the country since the collapse of Communism and most Russians want the authorities to be tough. With an election looming, Mr Yeltsin cannot afford to seem softer than opponents such as the nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who calls for the summary execution of gangsters.

Anatoly Pristavkin, a writer who heads an independent commission which advises Mr Yeltsin on individual appeal cases, said he had spared fewer death-row inmates since last year's murder of the popular television broadcaster Vladislav Listyev, which shocked the nation. Before that, Mr Yeltsin had shown mercy more often than he had endorsed death sentences, in contrast to Soviet leaders, who executed an average of 700 convicts a year.

For example, in 1993 he spared 149 and had four executed. But in 1995 he gave the go-ahead for 86 death sentences to be carried out and commuted five. It was in this atmosphere that a decision was taken in Pozhedayev's case.

As the Independent reported in January, he was no saint. He was nicknamed Ogonyok (Flame) because, with other thugs, he set fire to a lorry after robbing and murdering the occupants. But he paid for his crime with an agony of uncertainty which even the guards at his prison in Yelets, central Russia, had come to feel amounted to torture.

He was sentenced to death in December 1989. When Mikhail Gorbachev refused his appeal for mercy he knew he could expect a bullet in the back of the head and prepared himself to die as best he could. But in 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed and he was encouraged to appeal again, to Mr Yeltsin. But he received no reply: his file was apparently lost.

For five years he was in limbo, fearing every footfall in the corridor could be the arrival of his executioner. When I met him last November had said: "I thought it would be quick but it has dragged on. I hear noises in the corridor and think the moment has come. When you came, I thought `Maybe this is it'. My mother comes to see me once a month. Each time I have said goodbye to her for the last time."

Pozhedayev, who had been in and out of custody since the age of 11 and whose father was a convicted murderer, was kept in solitary confinement. He had heard the death penalty might soon be abolished and had hoped for life imprisonment on the grounds that "while there is life there is hope".

But on 11 January he was transferred to a special prison in Novocherkassk, southern Russia, with what the authorities called "facilities for carrying out the sentence". He was shot on 18 January. He was 31.

This information was obtained by Igor Chichinov, a reporter in Yelets who had written several articles about Pozhedayev and helped to arrange my interview with him.

The prison service refused to comment further and the authorities' precise thinking in the case remains a mystery. But it seems the intervention of the press may have sealed Pozhedayev's fate.

An official at the courthouse in Yelets told Mr Chichinov: "We received so many letters and phone calls as a result of your articles that we thought it was time to decide the matter of Pozhedayev. Thank you for your useful work." Mr Chichinov had thought he was defending the prisoner. He said: "You can imagine how I feel."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty

Arts and Entertainment
Life and Style
Designer Oscar de la Renta takes a bow after showing his Spring 2015 collection in September, his last show before his death
fashionThe passing of the legendary designer has left a vacancy: couturier to America’s royalty, says fashion editor Alexander Fury
Life and Style

Company reveals $542m investment in start-up building 'a rocket ship for the mind'

Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album