MOSCOW — To an outsider, the decrepit hallways of Moscow’s Butyrka Prison feel like a gateway into the grotesque bowels of the former Soviet Union, frozen in time.
Among the rusty gated stairwells, the peeling yellow walls and thickset iron doors, a sign ominously warns inmates entering the still-active prison that how they behave will determine how they are treated. “What is worse than the crime is the lack of shame for the crime,” the sign greeting ex-prisoners upon their release says.
Butyrka’s guards — some of whom dressed in old-fashioned uniforms with medallions and cone-shaped hats, others in blue camouflage — jiggle rings of comically large keys. A Hollywood production on Cold War-era terror could only aspire to replicate Butyrka’s menacing air, and even then would be unable to reproduce the overpowering dank stench, which varied in texture from room to room, but not in potency.
But touring the prison with an Israeli entourage, a suited and stoic Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein scoffs.
In 1984, at 26 years old, when he was detained there for three months ahead of his trial for teaching Hebrew — though officially for “drug possession” — there were no cell bathrooms or showers and certainly no hot water kettles, Edelstein stressed repeatedly. The current solitary confinement cells were a dream compared to the cell where he spent 10 days for attacking a guard who crushed his phylacteries, he noted, recalling the wooden plank — covered in a sheet of ice — that was unlocked from the wall from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. His former cell 138, which now houses 22 prisoners, held 40 during his incarceration, he said.
And there certainly was no synagogue, the former refusenik said in the prison’s Jewish religious facilities.
Thirty-three years after his incarceration, and 30 years after his release from Siberian labor camps and immigration to Israel, Edelstein on Wednesday returned to the prison for a tour as a top Israeli official. In an animated retelling of his time in jail, Edelstein described in Hebrew his successful efforts to secure his status among the prisons’ criminals who he said were impressed by his spiritual resistance. He later proudly told of sculptures he carved out of bread while on a hunger strike, despite what he described as a distinct lack of artistic talent.
The prison experience, however difficult, could not compare to his later forced labor in Siberia for two years and eight months, Edelstein emphasized throughout.
“These are the gates of hell, but not hell itself,” he said.
Inside cell 138
Surrounded by bunk beds in his former prison cell, Edelstein — a soft-spoken and diplomatic Likud lawmaker seen as a likely future candidate for Israel’s ceremonial presidency — said he managed to earn the respect of his fellow inmates, ultimately receiving a coveted bottom bunk, and one closer to the window. The steely tale of the cell leadership was a surprising departure from Edelstein’s political image in Israel, where he is seen as a champion of parliamentary dignity and respect.
“You reach this status gradually,” he explained, in steps he said included rejecting cleaning duty to assert authority and sticking to his religious principles. “The criminals didn’t start respecting the Jewish religion, let’s put it that way, but they saw that here there was a person who being pressed in all ways, and he stands his own.”
“God arranges everything,” he added, focusing most of his testimony on his religious resolve behind bars.
That resolve saw Edelstein extract his phylacteries and prayer book from his Soviet interrogator, telling him his religion prohibited him from speaking before he prayed. But the interrogator “didn’t forget,” he said, and the day his questioning ended, the 40 prisoners of cell 138 were lined up outside as guards specifically searched for the religious items.
“The siddur [prayer book], they didn’t find, I guess I had enough prisoner ingenuity, but the phylacteries, they did find,” he said.
A Soviet guard then proceeded to step on the phylacteries, he said. Losing his composure at the sight, Edelstein pounced on him.
“Obviously, within seconds, I was — as they say — ‘eating the floor,'” he remarked. As punishment, Edelstein was sent to solitary confinement for 10 days, when he spent the nights crouched between standing and sitting, embracing a heating pipe jutting from the wall for warmth. By day, though he was on a hunger strike. He used his bread rations to take up sculpting, he said with a smile, describing a “boat with a dog” among his artistic repertoire. With a self-deprecating quip on his inability to draw a straight line, he insisted: “I promise you that from that bread I made some very nice things.”
Directly from solitary confinement, in December 1984, Edelstein was brought to court for his trial, which lasted all of a few hours, he recalled. When his sentence was read, Edelstein, who knew it was the Hannukah holiday, shouted out toward his wife Tanya, who passed away in 2014: “What candle is it? What candle is it?” When she finally understood what he was getting at, she cried back: the second, the second, he said.
That night in his prison cell, with the fresh sentence, he managed to scrape together two matches, holding them together until they burned his hands.
On Wednesday, when Edelstein walked into the blue-walled and domed prison synagogue with its Rabbi Aharon Gurevich, he paused before a shelf.
He softly lifted up a bag of phylacteries. Next to it, there is a menorah.
Whispering ‘Next year in Jerusalem’
Wednesday’s tour that culminated in the prison visit also included stops at the Moscow Choral synagogue, where a newly religious Edelstein attended services before his arrest, the courtyard of the apartment where he was detained, and the courthouse where his sentence was meted out.
The synagogue, in Edelstein’s description, was teeming with KGB informers, including at one point a man parked outside photographing all the worshipers, many of whom were refuseniks. Though attending the synagogue was sufficient grounds to be placed under KGB observation, hundreds came every week, he said.
He fondly recalled one Mottel Lipshitz, the ritual slaughterer, mohel and cantor every Yom Kippur.
“He would look around, when the prayer service ended and then would say, so that only those closest to him could hear: ‘Next year in Jerusalem.'”
In the courtyard of his old apartment buried behind a block of dreary Soviet-style apartments, he pointed up to the fifth-floor window, where KGB agents in September 1984 claimed to find a matchbox containing 1.8 grams of opium and hashish in their searches.
On the day of the raid, two ‘tourists’ from Sweden, namely Jews who came to gather information, arrived at the door with backpacks, he said.
“I saw the scene [unfold], and I started to scream in English: ‘They’re all KGB! Don’t come in. I’m Yuli Edelstein, this is a search, get out!”
The same people came back an hour later, this time without their backpacks, and again attempted to enter.
“The next day, I met them, because I wasn’t arrested [immediately] and I said, ‘What are you, crazy? Didn’t you hear what I said? They said ‘yes, but we saw that there’s a search and we knew you were Yuli Edelstein and they wanted to arrest you, so we came to save you.'”
“I told the story in Stockholm [in 2014], at a Shabbat dinner, and a man came up to me and told me ‘I’m one of those people.’ So I don’t know how the wheel turns,” said Edelstein. “We always talk about ourselves. We were the refuseniks and the Prisoners of Zion, but there were people supporting us,” he said.
In May 1987, after serving two years and eight months in Siberia, Edelstein was released. He immigrated to Israel two months later.
After entering politics in the Likud party in 1996 and holding a number of ministerial portfolios, including the Immigration Absorption Ministry, Edelstein in 2013 was appointed the Knesset speaker and has held that position ever since.
He was in Moscow for a three-day official visit at the invitation of Federation Council chairwoman Valentina Matviyenko.
‘I don’t want an apology’
Ahead of his 1984 show trial, which lasted just a few hours, Edelstein’s lawyer told him from the start there was nothing to do to fight the trumped-up charges, as the defendant well knew. But though his fate was all but pre-written, a telling typo slipped in the verdict, according to a translation of the original document provided by the Knesset spokesperson on Wednesday, who confirmed the error was in the original text.
“Upon giving our consideration to the testimonies of the eyewitnesses, the court finds that they are not [sic] true, and this is because they are objectively confirmed by the evidence gathered in the case,” it said.
In a meeting with the courthouse president, Edelstein was given back his original birth certificate and membership documents of a labor union, in a gesture that he emphatically rejected as an apology.
“I don’t want an apology from anyone. I don’t need it. These are not the same people,” he said.
But, he added: “I hope I am not getting the court president in trouble, but when I left, she told me: You are an example to other people, [that] everyone takes their lives in their own hands and must do what they want, not what others want. So if she at least thinks about that during a trial here today, then I’ve done my part, 33 years ago.”
Standing before a holding pen he said was not around during his trial, Edelstein paraphrased his closing statement during the December 1984 trial.
“‘I still hope the court will judge a just trial since I am not guilty of anything to do with the drugs… But since it’s also possible that it won’t, I am rest assured that my people and my God will help me get to the State of Israel,'” he said.
“In the end, the second version came true and the court was not just,” the Knesset speaker added, “but my people and my God helped me get to the State of Israel.”