Six years on death row dims 'Flame' A day in the life of a death row convict

Russian justice: Soviet collapse leaves killer's appeal against execution in judicial limbo

HELEN WOMACK

Yelets

Imagine. You are kept alone in a narrow, windowless cell which you never leave, not even for a short walk in the prison yard. Every time you hear a footfall in the corridor, you think the guards are coming to take you for execution. Your relatives visit you occasionally and each time you say a tearful farewell. And this goes on for six years.

Such is the hellish existence of Nikolai "The Flame" Pozhedayev, on death row in the town of Yelets in central Russia. "Don't get the wrong idea," said Yuri Frolov, acting governor of Yelets prison. "This guy is no national hero. He is a real killer."

But even the prison authorities feel that the cruel limbo in which he is being kept is a violation of human rights.

Pozhedayev earned his nickname when he took the leading part in a brutal gang murder of three men travelling in a lorry. The killers robbed their victims before burning them in their vehicle. For this, in December 1989, Pozhedayev was sentenced to death. The other members of the gang each received the maximum jail term in Russia - 15 years.

The Russian justice system is much simpler than that in America, where death row inmates can spend years appealing to higher and higher courts. Here, the prisoner has one chance, a direct appeal to the President, and if that fails he can expect a bullet in the back of the head to follow fairly swiftly.

And so, after he was sentenced, Pozhedayev appealed to the then Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, and received a refusal. Knowing the system, he understood that he had, at most, only a few weeks left to live and he composed his mind as best he could. Then the Soviet Union collapsed. He was told to appeal again to the new Kremlin leader, Boris Yeltsin. He has been waiting for a reply ever since.

What can you ask a man in this situation? "How do you feel?" As I was taken into his cell to meet him, I remembered that Pozhedayev had seen no woman except his mother for six years. Pale-faced and dressed in the distinctive 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 requested an interview. He asked for 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 corner before I was ushered out.

The guards organised a tour of the prison to pass the time until Pozhedayev was ready. They wanted to tell me that they were strict but humane. They welcomed the Interior Ministry's new battle against corruption.They complained that the state had not paid their wages for the past five months.

We tramped the corridors of the the fortress-like jail, which was built in 1830 and which remains standing only because of the huge iron girders which hold it up. My own ideas of Russian prisons come from Solzhenitsyn - icy cells, guard dogs, watch-towers. But Yelets Prison is unsettling in its attempts at cosiness.

The cells have black-and- white television sets and the prisoners are allowed posters on the walls. The library is perhaps a little overstocked with the works of Lenin, but soft pornography is also available. In the kitchen, young men peeled potatoes into bath tubs under the supervision of a motherly former factory-canteen manager, who said that meat was guaranteed daily. As is physical exercise.

The privileges of the ordinary prisoners are not for Pozhedayev. Thirty- one years old, he has been in and out of custody since he was 11. His father was also a convicted murderer. A local reporter had warned me that Pozhedayev had become like an animal. "He smelt me through the metal door of his cell. 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 placed for our 10-minute talk. The time was short but he revealed something of his agony.

"I thought it would be quick but it has dragged on," he said. "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 his time like a caged beast, "pacing to and fro". His cell light is always switched on but he has control over the radio switch and sometimes listens to pop music. He once gave up smoking for two weeks but then thought: "What's the point?"

Pozhedayev said he had heard that life sentences could soon be available in Russia. He would prefer life imprisonment to execution because while he has his life he has hope.

His other requests were modest. "Tell the civilised world I need medicines for my stomach ulcers," he said. "And say I want magazines - magazines with coloured pictures."

Outside the jail, I can't forget Pozhedayev. The thought strikes me that my writing about him may bring him to the attention of someone in Mr Yeltsin's office and his execution may be hastened.

But the chances are that nothing will be decided in the foreseeable future. The Kremlin leader is reviewing the use of the death penalty, weighing up the need to protect society from rising crime against the necessity of satisfying the Council of Europe on issues of human rights if Russia is to become a member of the European Union. However, with presidential elections due in June, the latter is not a priority.

Accurate statistics are hard to come by, but it seems that fewer executions are now being carried out in Russia. The head of the regional prison service, Colonel Vladimir Mitkeyev, thinks the number may have been about 20 for 1995.

How many prisoners still await execution is unknown.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
News
Shami Chakrabarti
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites Star Wars 7 rumours
Sport
football
News
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker