Daily devotion

Belly of the Beast

Zagorsk Prison, oldest in Russia, was constructed in 1832. The builders set its stone wall below ground to cut down the need for heating. To reach the prisoners’ quarters, we went through four steel gates, down, down, down worn stone steps that led progressively toward the source of an oppressive stench, the prisoners’ cell on the bottom level.

The first cell we entered was about the size of my bedroom in Chicago. Eight teenage boys–the youngest was actually twelve–jumped to attention when the door opened. The room hold only four beds, so two boys shared each bed. There was a rickety table, but no other furniture. A thin, soiled blanket covered each bed, but there was no sheets or pillowcases. 

In one corner of the room was a ceramic-lined hole in the ground, with two footpads marked out for squatting. This hole, open to view on all sides, functioned as both toilet and “shower”, although the only water came from a single cold water spigot and arm’s length away. The basement cell had a single six-inch window, which was frosted over and did not open, at the very top on one wall. A bare bulb hung on a wire from the ceiling.

I saw no board games, no television or radio sets, no diversions of any kind. For security, Zagorsk observes a permanent twenty-four hour lockdown. All day every day for a year, two years, maybe five, these boys will sit in their tiny dungeon cell like animals and wait for freedom. Most of them, I learned, are serving time for petty thievery.

The warden of the worst prison in the Soviet Union turned out to be a dedicated, even courageous man. Two years before, when the government cut off his supplies of food, this warden approached the monks at the famous Zagorsk monastery for help. Out of their own storehouses, the monks supplied enough bread and vegetables to feed the prisoners throughout the winter. Their selfless response impressed the warden, a Communist at that time. In 1989 he authorized the monks to rebuild a chapel in the prison basement–an act of remarkable boldness for a Communist functionary in the atheistic state prevailing then.

to be continued……..

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