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Interview With Prison Alphabet Series Director Andrey Silvestrov

Andrey Silvestrov, director of the Prison Alphabet series
Andrey Silvestrov, director of the Prison Alphabet series

Russia’s sprawling prison network is a world unto itself, but not one that exists in complete isolation from everyday Russians’ lives. Russian filmmaker Andrey Silvestrov’s Prison Alphabet series, premiering on Current Time on May 28, shares the stories and vocabulary of this world through interviews with 40 ex-inmates.

Current Time spoke with Silvestrov about the concept for the series and what it took to explore the psychological dynamic of Russia's prison system.

-How did the idea for the Prison Alphabet project come about? What’s the relevance of this topic for you and for today’s society?

-Probably, the most important thing is that very many people have appeared who, through one handshake or somehow otherwise, are linked with a prison experience. And this already has become a problem – not something very distant, that’s in some far-off, marginal zone.

There’re law-abiding guys like us who follow the law and who work in, let’s say, art, science, or politics, or something else, but they do this [work] legally, and don’t connect their fate with people who can end up in prison. It doesn’t factor into their plans, but, nonetheless, it works out that, for various reasons, they receive this experience [in prison].

In our series, it was very important for me to talk with various people. With people who, on one hand, deliberately did something and understood that their fate can be linked with prison, that they can be sentenced for these actions. And, also, to talk with people who didn’t imagine such a life at all, and, for them, this [prison] experience is extremely unexpected.

And this lack of preparation for this [prison] life … in some sense, there’s a psychotherapeutic effect for us all here. For example, I’m now reading discussions about our trailer on YouTube. There’re active discussions there. People write: “And how is this? We don’t have innocent people in prison. They’re all guilty, so that means that they deserve such a life.”

I want to say that we don’t talk at all about this issue in our series – guilty, not guilty – aside from some egregious cases about which I’d like to speak concretely.

-What are these cases?

-There’s one case that we cannot not discuss: Ruslan Vakhapov. A guy leaves a car to pee. As a result, he’s accused of the sexual abuse of minors, which is a very unpleasant and harsh article [of Russia’s criminal code] for prisons. We’ll also talk about this.

Those people who write comments can always have some kind of assumptions that it’s not that simple. Yes, OK, maybe it’s not that simple, but that’s not the point. The point is that accidents, in which we’re guilty, which lead to imprisonment, can happen to each of us, for one reason or another. Some idiotic confluence of situations happens that also leads to this, and so on.

That is, in this sense, when we assert that everyone can end up [in prison], we’re not talking about everyone can end up there because the Russian system of law enforcement is so bad. We don’t discuss this question at all.

We talk more about that fate that hangs over all of us: Each of us can die at any moment for very different reasons. We can’t guess for which reasons. We can’t say about every person who’s died that, “It’s his own fault.”

Let’s look at how this world is set up, and at how very different people with very different life experiences go through this [prison] experience. Some of them are absolutely ready for such a path [as going to prison], but, for others, this is a total shock and a very complicated life situation.

For each person, this arrival there is totally unique. We call prison one thing, but, in reality, it’s a large number of very different situations. It’s not a certain, uniform evil. The sum of [these] very different experiences is the basis of our outlook [on Russian prisons].

Prison Alphabet: Series Trailer
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-How did the concept of an alphabet come about? Is this an attempt to reflect on topics for a broad range of people who never went through such an experience or did it emerge as a result of working [on the series]?

-Yes, really, from the start, we had the concept that every world has its own vocabulary and, in some sense, a language in which we converse. In some sense, [this language] reflects our everyday life, and, in some sense, it also gives birth to our everyday life.

But, at the same time, in a surprising way, the words from “the world of the zona (penal colony)” very actively migrate into our world. They’re not always used in the same way as there, but, nevertheless, an interaction exists.

The very first big wave of prison vocabulary, I’d say, spilled into the Russian language after the 1953-1956 amnesty, after the closure of the camp system, when an enormous number of prisoners were released.

It’s understood that this process was pretty active in the ‘90s, when bandits were in fashion, and now we’re also experiencing such a moment.

For example, the word “zashkvar” (banned products that everyone has) is very actively used in the modern lexicon. You can read it in blogs, magazines, and so on. And it came into use, obviously, from prison vocabulary.

At the first stage [of work on our series], we met with two wonderful people: Zarema Zaudinova and Yegor Skovoroda. Zarema works actively with Teatr.doc (a non-profit documentary theater in Moscow). Yegor is an editor at Mediazona (an independent Russian news site).

I requested them to consult for me, and the three of us finished this alphabet concept, and understood it through language, through such a seemingly detached means of presenting the material.

Here there’s an alphabet, there’re different understandings, several of which belong only to the prison world, several of which are totally used in general, but they’re also used in prison.

Through this alphabet, our protagonists present their experience with each letter. Each letter corresponds with a certain experience. As [prison] life is, so is the “alphabet.”

Our producer, Masha Gavrilova, liked this concept, and, together, we could turn it into a living project.

-Who are your protagonists? How did you get acquainted with them? Was it difficult to record such interviews when people are sharing with you such a complicated experience?

-In theory, there wasn’t anything especially unique in our search for the protagonists here. We just defined a certain pool of people with whom we have to talk. We want to talk with a certain number of people about the economic articles [of the law under which Russians are imprisoned], with some other number of people about the [law’s] criminal articles.

At the same time, right away I want to say that, in the course of our preliminary discussions, we excluded two categories that are not in our series: We don’t have thieves-in-law in our series at all as a class for very different reasons. So, we don’t have any hard-core criminal guys. This is connected with two reasons.

The first one is that it was important for us not to transform our series into PR for a criminal romance. It’s understood that if these guys would agree to talk with us, then they, more likely than not, would advance a certain type of position.

And that’s how it worked out. It turned out that this wasn’t doable for us.

We interviewed several migrants, but those who’re now on the territory of the Russian Federation refused to show their faces, and we decided not to include their interviews simply because they’re very afraid that this interview will lead to them having problems.

Meanwhile, this is also a very important moment that I should mention because there probably will be complaints toward us that we didn’t say something or didn’t mention something: Our principle was “Do no harm.” We’re not publishing some of the things that we were told that [the interviewees] later requested us not to publish. Because these things can harm those people who now are in custody, can worsen their situation.

-How did the engravings of [18th-century Italian engraver Giovanni Battista] Piranesi appear in the series?

This image ... is important for us because this image of the world as a prison … it’s not that it’s very modern; we see it back in the 18th century, during the Baroque era. In some sense, [such images] respond to our statement that, in reality, a prison is not a problem of Putin’s modern Russia. This problem has always been around and has been everywhere. Our question is about how we relate to it, how we relate to those people, and their experience, who are, it would seem, “on the other side” (in prison).

This prison is an eternal theme. And in this sense, I hope that we make some kind of production that relies also on this timeless experience. This could happen with people in both the 18th and in the 17th century, and in another country, and so on.

But, of course, there’re certain specifics connected with our country, and with our language, and with how [our country] is set up, and we talk about the general experience through our own experience --as is characteristic of art because it’s impossible to summarize the general. All the same, you’re talking about your own experience, which, one way or another, is part of the universal experience.

-You produced the projects of [Russian avant-garde artists and filmmakers] [Vladislav] Mamyshev-Monroe, Svetlana Baskova, and Oleg Mavromatti. These are all experimental films. How did you decide to create a classic documentary series?

-Look, as a director and producer, I really always work, and always have worked, on the border with modern art. My interest was to make films that are between modern art and the art of cinematography. For me, film is a way of getting to know the world. For me, this is such a project, about getting to know the world, the way that all the previous films that I worked on also were.

Before this, I actually had experience in documentary film. I made more or less classical documentary films dedicated also to modern art: Yakimanka, the ‘90s and The House on Furmann, which were important for me as an investigation into how modern art developed in Russia in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. It was interesting for me to speak with all the participants in this, to form my own, definite picture. In this sense, I can say that I did one thing, and now I’m doing something fundamentally different.

-How did your work with the artist Andrei Mitenev begin?

-We met completely accidentally. It was a moment of absolute crisis. Each project – I know this from my own experience – has a moment when you realize that nothing is working out. We originally had thought that there should be a lot of animations in the project, but all the animation that significant artists have done is just staggering.

I didn’t like it. For some reason, it didn’t work.

And one such sleepless night, I was scanning through Facebook probably for many, many hours, and suddenly saw a drawing by Andrei Mitenev. We weren’t acquainted. The next day, we spoke with him, and I was looking at his drawings.

On the other hand, Andrei is a person who works with modern art, just like I do. That is, he’s a person who ponders about art like about some actual zone and not a decorative zone. He makes things real.

And on yet another hand, his life worked out so that he had an unfortunate prison experience. In this sense, all of his drawings, despite his wild imagination, are absolutely documentary. And this documentary quality we couldn’t obtain with artists who haven’t had such an experience.

Andrei was somewhat distrustful toward us at first, but then became very involved [in the project]. It’s very important that Andrei is also a person who has had several experiences.

On one hand, he was brought up in a classical school, he graduated from some classical academy [of art], and he’s a wonderful draftsman.

When you’ll watch the series, there’s also an interview with Andrei there. He has incredibly precise eyes. He sees incredibly precisely. Everything that he describes adds up right away to an image.

In this sense, I think that our project, all the same, is on the border between classic documentary film and modern art since we took a lot of techniques and moves from there. It speaks, with the language of media, about very relevant things for today.

And we’ll still think -- this is a separate story -- that this project won’t end as a series. We spoke about this with our colleagues from the very start; that this is a certain kind of first stage for us, releasing a series.

Then, a feature film will follow, and, then, it’s possible, some kind of digital exhibit story that we’re also thinking up.

That is, [the Prison Alphabet project] can end up in very different media, be presented in various venues. It seems to me that this is very important, so that this topic is discussed, and they talk about this story in various venues.

-What did you feel, plunging into the prison world?

You know, I’ll be honest. Of course, this was sometimes difficult, but sometimes it was just incredibly interesting to chat with people. In some interviews, a tear was welling up, stinging [my eye]. And there were interviews where we couldn’t refrain from laughing.

When [ultraleftist activist] Olya Shalina started [talking] about her own experience [in prison], the group was just sitting there, and periodically we were like, “Stop! Stop! Everyone laughed. We’ll go on [with filming] later.”

Or there’s a bit of an interview with the wife of Ruslan Vakhapov. This experience was real enough to bring you to tears because there were experiences, which we barely touched on, of people who are close [to a prisoner] -- of wives who weren’t in prison, but had an incredible burden on them, on the family. [These were] the experiences of those [prisoners] who have good families and friends.

Of course, it’s easier to be in prison, but it’s not easy for their families, of course. And what they say is even more emotionally colored than those people who were behind bars.

There were several interviews with criminal guys, after which I went out, and I had the feeling that I had unloaded two carloads of bags after these two hours of conversation. These are very emotionally difficult guys. When [former imprisoned anarchist] Aleksei Polikhovich tells us that in the penal colony (zona), there are these people called “akuls” who go around and look for what to get you with, what to get out of you, so that they can then blackmail you with this, oppress you with this.

I’ll go back again to the story of Ruslan Vakhapov. A person who’s in prison for a very difficult article [of the Criminal Code], for such an article that, in general, turns out very badly in the prison world. But we have this in the film at the very beginning, that the criminal guys looked at his sentence, laughed at it, mocked it, but they didn’t judge him for this. That is, he spent time in prison like a normal inmate, and not like people who are in prison for the article on sexual violence [against minors].

And how many people are there like this? In general, this fellow … you can see that he’s a strong fellow with a very good family who strongly supports him. A wife, children, mother, friends. You know, such a correct, good man can happen. And how many such people are there with whom we just couldn’t ever get an interview, who aren’t such strong people, who’re broken? In this sense, it’s understandable that we can’t pretend to any degree that “OK, we have the last word.” For that reason, we chatted with those who are not afraid.

Absolutely all our protagonists preserved their own “I” in this world. And in this sense, we see a bit more than 40 different personalities, for whom this was, it’s possible, not the simplest experience. But, at a distance from it, almost all of them speak about it like something in Piranesi’s pictures. We see how light, which comes out of every human being, breaks through the prison’s morose world.

-After finishing the shooting, did your view on the reality around us change?

First of all, we still haven’t finished filming. We’re now completing the filming of a special series connected with the Sakharovo [detention center for migrants]. I already said in this interview that, for me, every project is, above all, a project connected with finding out about and getting to know the world. In this sense, I understood a lot for myself about how, in reality, the world is set up, to what extent fate stands near us, to what extent some simple cause-effect ties don’t work.

There isn’t anything like “I’m an excellent female student. Therefore, I’ll be a professor and I’ll have a happy family.” This is a convergence of an enormous number of unpredictable circumstances connected both with how the system itself is set up, and how that the system is set up in such a way that this law of fate prevails over human law. This is very important.

For the first time, I’m now putting forth this [idea]. Before this, I didn’t say this -- that, probably, one of the discoveries is that this law of fate prevails over the law.

The system is organized in such a way that you don’t have cause-and-effect ties. You can’t say: “I will act this and that way, and I’ll receive such and such for this.” It doesn’t work that way. You can take on a certain strategy and try to follow it, but anything at all can happen with you. And the same in our big life -- there, where a fate stronger than the Federal Penitentiary Service rules over us. ​