The Independent has been trying to gain access to a Russian prison to follow up complaints by human rights activists that inmates, including many awaiting trial, are being held in terribly overcrowded conditions. The authorities say they have been overwhelmed by a crime wave and the last thing they want is a queue of journalists trying to get into jail. So this week I have made do with reading the country's increasingly gripping crime news.
One sensation was the arrest of a Russian businesswoman for running a scam similar to the notorious MMM pyramid scheme which collapsed last summer leaving thousands of investors with worthless tickets instead of shares. Valentina Solovyova, the head of a company called Vlastilina, which was promising depositors cut-price cars, was dragged off to Lefortovo Prison, used in the past by the KGB to accommodate spies, when evidence emerged that she had embezzled trillions of roubles.
The newspaper Izvestia reported that a businessman, on hearing about Ms Solovyova's fate and feeling the hot breath of the tax police down his own neck, ate his company's financial records to prevent incriminating material being found.
Crime statistics for the first half of 1995 show fraud has risen by 45 per cent compared with the same period last year. Violence is up too - there were 2 per cent more murders, 100 per cent more kidnappings and 600 per cent more cases of attacks by armed bandits this winter and spring than last.
In Soviet times, the Communist-controlled press ignored crime in the hope that people would believe none existed. But since Mikhail Gorbachev ordered glasnost, all the grisly details have been available.
On Wednesday, the media were full of reports about Sergei Ryakhovsky, alias "the Hippopotamus" being sentenced to death for killing and committing necrophilia on the corpses of 19 men and women between the ages of 14 and 78. Ryakhovsky earned his nickname because he weighs 20 stone. He intends to appeal.
Perhaps even more astonishing was the story of Sergei Maduyev or "Lover Boy", who was also sentenced to death this week for a string of murders and robberies. Maduyev, 39, is a St Petersburg gangster who has spent a total of 18 years in jail and escaped five times. His most dramatic escape came in 1991 when he seduced his female investigator and persuaded her to give him a gun so he could break out of Kresty prison. He was caught shortly afterwards.
A book has been written and two films made about the "love affair" between Maduyev and Natalya Vorontsova, who was sentenced to seven years in jail. Perhaps she fell for his lean good looks, as illustrated by press photographs, but Interfax news agency thought a bribe of several hundred million roubles may have affected the investigator's judgement.
Maduyev's defence lawyer said his client was an "unconventional criminal" who once called an ambulance to a man he had injured in the course of a robbery. Maduyev himself begged for clemency, saying he had "golden hands which could be useful to my country".
But the prosecutor warned against seeing Maduyev as a "Robin Hood" figure. Certainly, he cut no ice with with Judge Lyudmila Sukhankina, who handed down the death sentence. He too is to appeal.
Human rights activists may be dissatisfied about the length of time accused citizens spend in jail before their cases come to court. But in Russia, unlike America, there is no long agony on Death Row. If "the Hippopotamus" and "Lover Boy" lose their appeals, a bullet in the back of the head will come to each with terrible swiftness.
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