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Russian groups unite for prisoners

Leaders of Russia's major Jewish organizations and prison officials at a recent ceremony announcing the groups' gift of sewing machines to a Russian prison. (Matt Siegel)

Leaders of Russia’s major Jewish organizations and prison officials at a recent ceremony announcing the groups’ gift of sewing machines to a Russian prison. (Matt Siegel)

MOSCOW (JTA) – In a rare display of public unity, Russia’s three main Jewish organizations came together for an unlikely recipient: the Russian penitentiary system.

The Russian Jewish Congress, the Federation of Jewish Communities and the Congress of Jewish Religious Organizations and Communities of Russia, known as KEROOR, are donating 33 machines for a new sewing facility in Russia’s only prison camp for foreigners.

The gift to IK-22, the infamous prison in Potma, some 350 miles east of Moscow, marked the first joint effort by the three groups in several years. Their relationship of late has been marked more by infighting than a spirit of cooperation.

At a joint news conference recently at the Moscow offices of the Russian Jewish Congress, representatives from the groups and the prison service talked about the donation.

RJC chief executive Nikolai Propirniy said it was important that it go to “a place that was previously closed from society, that was a place of extermination of people,” before adding a Russian proverb warning that “no one is safe from jail or poverty.”

Potma, in the autonomous region of Mordovia, is a somewhat anachronistic relic of the Soviet gulag system. The camp is still guarded by a wooden prison tower and remains surrounded by aging barbed wire. In the Soviet tradition of reform through labor, Russian prisoners are still expected to atone for their sins through the crucible of production.

The donation, Propirniy said, is a sign of the “humanization of society” in Russia.

Yuri Savoskin, the head of the prison, told JTA that the machines would provide jobs for 66 of the 180 inmates from 40 countries serving terms in IK-22. Seven are listed as Jewish – from the United States, Israel and Belgium.

According to a questionnaire sent to prisons this year, 242 Jewish prisoners are incarcerated in Russia, although Federation of Jewish Communities’ emissary Rabbi Aron Gurevich believes the number is probably closer to 1,000. Gurevich believes that many prisoners may not want to disclose their Jewish background, while some others may have falsely indicated they were Jewish in order to receive additional humanitarian aid from the Jewish community.

“The Russian federal prison service has for a number of years been working with FJC and other organizations helping individuals of Jewish faith to meet their religious needs,” said Vitaliy Polozyuk, deputy director for education at the Russian federal prison service, or FSIN.

Polozyuk said the donated equipment would be used toward helping the inmates adapt to society once they leave the prison. The new machines are expected to allow both the prison and its inmates to earn some additional money. Inmates of IK-22 have no source of income and can only participate in handicrafts, such as wood carving, in their free time.

Gen.Viktor Malkov, head of the FSIN in Mordovia, told JTA the system mostly is producing work clothes for miners, oil workers and private security agencies.

At the news conference, the Jewish delegation bantered playfully, if not somewhat uneasily, with the two prison officials, who looked a bit out of place in their drab green guard uniforms.

The laidback atmosphere was permeated by a sense of unease, perhaps owing to the intra-organizational tension. Indeed, during the news conference, the Jewish representatives often looked considerably more uncomfortable with each other than the prison officials.

Gurevich of the Chabad-led FJC – the largest and most powerful Jewish group in Russia – fidgeted uncomfortably throughout the meeting. Still, the group’s military and prison authorities liaison said, the project created an opportunity to bring together the organizations “despite their uneasy relationships.”

Prison officials presented the representatives with an official certificate of gratitude from the state. Then, following a group photo requested by journalists, the emissaries quickly fled the fourth-floor offices – by themselves.

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