Checking Out The Russians In The Hoosgow

The unique thing about St. Petersburg’s new Holiday Hostel kept distracting me as I walked through, checking for bugs under the beds or other tell-tale signs of sloppiness (I didn’t find any). What I was hearing was shouting, and it was coming from…right…next…door. Look at it as a selling point or a travel agent’s nightmare, but it’s certainly unique that the Holiday Hostel’s building is adjacent to St. Petersburg’s Kresty Prison.

Kresty is St. Petersburg’s main holding prison; if you’re busted here, Kresty’s where they take you to await whatever it is that awaits you. And while news reports of a Mafia takeover of the 18th-century City on the Neva are preposterously overblown, crime has increased to the point that Kresty is doing brisk business indeed.

But what distinguishes Kresty from, say, New York’s Riker’s Island, is that Kresty is located on a main boulevard, and prisoners can get to the windows. Russian families are quite close, and in true Russian style, the families of the accused line the street outside, bonding with their inmates.

On any given day, you can see dozens of these well-wishers lining Arsenalnaya naberezhnaya. Mothers, fathers and sometimes even drunken friends stand crying. Wives and girlfriends stand close to the concrete fence, moving their arms in what may look like complicated dance moves, but what is in fact a crude code, known to inmates and prison guards alike.

The prisoner, let’s call him the receiver, makes himself known by holding an article of clothing out the window (they stick their arms through the bars or through holes in the steel mesh). When the sender, down on the street, identifies their man, they start waving their arms about, tracing Cyrillic characters in the air. The receiver waves up and down to signal “I understand”, and side to side to signal “repeat”. Under this method, after three or four minutes of waving, one can clearly discern the message, ‘I-c-a-l-l-e-d-y-o-u-r-f-r-i-e-n-d-M-i-s-h-a’!

The process, understandably, is time consuming (a message like ‘I called your lawyer but he was out to lunch’ could take half an hour or so), but the family and friends on the street below (again in true Russian style) bring along sausage, bread, cheese and thermoses filled with hot tea. Of course, some bring along a bottle of vodka – just to pass the time.

As I left the Hostel, I walked past some of the families waiting to send messages. A black Mercedes-Benz was parked outside; next to it stood an attractive Russian woman in a revealing dress. She was looking towards the prison window and waving. But this woman didn’t need no stinking codes: she was speaking into a cell phone, and as she looked across the prison yard, a tear formed in the corner of her eye.

This was written for Lonely Planet Online in 1995 and subsequently an edited version ran in Lonely Planet’s St Petersburg city guide. That version subsequently made it into the second edition of Lonely Planet’s Russia, Ukraine & Belarus guide. In the latest version, the author who updated the text said that the prison was currently running tours for a fee.