The Enigma of an Old Castle: 245 Years of Butyrka Prison

PHOTO by Grigory Sysoev / TASS
A tale of Butyrka’s first prisoners, tricks of Houdini and a prison-hotel

Cold breezes off the gloomy stone walls on which one short word remains: Butyrka! It is the house of bitter human fate. Just how many lives – both innocent and guilty – were ruined behind these walls? MOSLENTA tells us all about one of Russia’s most notorious prisons, today officially known as “Investigative Detention Centre No.2.”

On Catherine’s Orders

Butyrka is a riddle wrapped in an enigma. It’s not even clear when the prison was first founded. The most popular version stipulates that it was built in place of a wooden jail on the orders of the Russian Empress Catherine the Great on February 22nd, 1771.

The order was sent from St. Petersburg to Moscow’s governor Zakhar Chernishov. Catherine’s order precipitated the creation of official prisons in Russia, replacing makeshifts prisons in monasteries or at army barracks.

Historians claim that Yemilian Pugachev, the leader of Russia’s biggest peasant revolt, was held here before his execution on Bolotnaya Square. However, Alexander Pushkin writes in his "Pugachev’s Stories" that “he was held at The Moscow Mint for two months, so passers-by could see the restrained rebel, powerless in chains. They say that 'women would faint from his fiery stare and fearsome voice.'”

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Soldiers guard Butyrka prison, 1917

But Pugachev was most likely imprisoned here – the names of the prison’s towers serve as proof of this. The towers, built under the supervision of master architect Matvey Kazakov, are called Police Tower, North Tower, Clock Tower, and the fourth was originally called South Tower, but was renamed Pugachev Tower in 1775.

There were even rumors that the Empress herself came to Butyrka to catch a glimpse of the villain. She couldn’t take her coach and had to sneak in through a secret passage that supposedly leads from the tower straight to the Kremlin.

But why would Catherine dirty her shoes? At that time, Butyrka was located more than four miles away from the centre of Moscow…

A Samovar in a Prison Cell

The architect Mikhail Kazakov did his best – the castle was gloomy but awe-inspiring. The architectural ensemble of the four towers is complete with the Church of the Veil of Mother of God in the middle of the castle. On the second floor, the balconies are connected to the prison’s corridors used by inmates to go from their cells to the church service.

For a decade and a half, Iosif Fudel served as a priest at the Butyrka church. He was once asked what it was like to live amongst prisoners, to which he replied – “sometimes I am amazed that they are here and I am free…”

The prison was always full of protestors, bandits, counterfeiters, political prisoners and many others and would hold up to 3,000 convicts during Tsarist autocracy. But how many people suffered these cramped and squalid conditions during Soviet times?

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Butyrka prison in 1902

The behavior of the prisoners would often astound officials. One account from the overseer reported that once they bought a giant samovar (the Russian traditional self-boiling aggregate used to make tea) and held a tea party. Another report claims that they received Karl Marx’s manifest in both German and Russian (although it did not clarify whether or not they actually read it or used the pages to roll cigarettes). But prisoners didn’t have much time on their hands – they would work in carpentry, bookbinding, shoemaking and tailoring workshops making bentwood chairs among other things.

In 1868, almost a century after it was founded, Butyrka became a holding prison and was used to house prisoners in transit. In a year, it would see about 30,000 prisoners. After hearing their sentences, the condemned souls would be shipped to any one of the thousands of other prisons across the vast empire. The investigative process was slow and tedious, and cases would pile up meaning prisoners could wait up to half a year and sometimes even a year or two, or more…

Death of a ‘Red Factory Worker’

In the late 19th and early 20th century, Butyrka housed all kinds of people of interest. Members of the Polish uprising of 1863, radicals and first Russian terrorists from the Narodnaya Volya party, sailors who mutinied aboard the Ochakov cruiser during the First Russian Revolution and many others were held here.

Gleb Krzhizhanovsky, who later became a famous Soviet official of Polish descent, was also a prisoner. However, he did not spend his time here in vain and translated the famous Polish revolutionary song "Warszawianka" into Russian.

Another infamed person held at the prison was the terrorist Ivan Kalyaev, known as the “red factory worker.” Either by committing suicide, or being killed by a guard, he died at the prison, but his death, as well as his life, remains a mystery confined to the Butyrka walls.

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Questioning in Butyrka prison in 1988

The castle walls bear homage to Leo Trotsky, Ukrainian anarchist Nesto Makhno, and future founder of VSNKh secret police Felix Dzerzhinsky, also of Polish descent. Legendary Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky was an inmate in cell No.103. He even wrote poems here, but admitted later that they were not his best.

Stalin’s time at Butyrka is still a matter of dispute. Some historians claim that the future Soviet ruler was arrested in Baku “by the police for visiting places frequented by criminals.” The man who presented himself as a noble Keiso Nizharadze, was in reality a peasant by the name of Iosif Dzughashvili (Stalin’s real name).

From Baku he was sent to Rostov, then Kursk and then Tula. From there, the leader of the world proletariat ended up in Butyrka. Some claim he spent four days here, others say it was two months.

The Full Experience

Leo Tolstoy definitely was here, but as a guest, and not a prisoner. The great author was writing his book "Resurrection" and wanted to get a sense of real prison life. He was visiting his friend Egor Lazarev, who became the prototype for the book’s protagonist, the revolutionary Nabatov.

Tolstoy had tea with Vinogradov, the head of the prison, and asked him about the inmates. The author was allowed to walk with the prisoners to the rail station, from where they were sent to other prisons.

Another famous Butyrka “prisoner” was the world-renowned escape artist Harry Houdini, who was imprisoned as part of a publicity stunt to either prove the possibility of escape. The guards put Houdini in a box with his hands and feet cuffed, locked the box in a cell and waited.

The wait, however, wasn’t long. Just half an hour later, Houdini walked out of the cell with a smile on his face. Everyone was shocked. The magician, despite incessant requests, never explained how he managed to free himself.

This begs the question – has anyone ever escaped from Butyrka?

Looking at the Sky from a Jail Cell

After the Communist Revolution the number of Butyrka residents grew exponentially. During the Great Terror of the 1930s, you could barely move here – the cells housed up to 20,000 prisoners.

For breakfast they had bread, hot water and two pieces of sugar. For lunch they were served light vegetable stew and cereal and for dinner they were offered watery fish soup. The only things they could look forward to were books which were given out two at a time for ten days. At other times, all they could do was look at the sky from their jail cell. Workers, farmers, engineers, Prince Vladimir Trubetskoy, Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, Holy Martyr Sirafim (Leonid Chichagov), scientist Sergei Korolev, poet Osip Mandelstam and writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn were all prisoners here.

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A poster in Butyrka reading "The first condition of redemption is the admission of guilt"

Famous architect Aleksei Dushkin was also sent here for some kind of “crime.” However, as luck would have it, Anthony Eden, then-Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, was visiting Moscow during his imprisonment. On his tour of Moscow, he was taken to the “Palace of the Soviets” metro station designed by Dushkin.

The British leader was astounded by the station and asked to meet the architect. Obviously, taking a foreign dignitary to prison was out of the question and Dushkin was immediately released and taken to Eden. Stalin then asked the architect to start work on designing another metro station as soon as possible.

The Sweet Smell of Freedom

The ancient prison, now officially referred to as the “Investigative Detention Centre No.2” is still working to this day. The city has grown, and a once rural castle is now surrounded by central streets. You can walk into a square or a playground and marvel at the prison’s stone walls.

To this day, people go to Butyrka to visit friends and relatives who are spending hard time inside the walls. The conditions at the prison are not as bad as they used to be during Stalin’s era, but not as good as they should be.

The cells are full, and there is little air, especially during the summer. The prisoners are angry, and the smell is rancid. But after all, prison is prison, and all people here dream of is the sweet smell of freedom.

During Tsarist and Soviet times, no one ever escaped from the prison, but that "tradition" was broken in late 20th century. In 1992, two suspects disappeared. Four years later, a woman detainee, Natalia S., managed to vault over the wall only to be returned to her cell a few days later.

After that, there were some more escape attempts, but each time the prisoners were caught. Unfortunately, in this day and age, everything can be bought and sold – even a guard suddenly looking the other way.

A few years back, there was talk of transferring the prison to farther regions of Moscow. The new jail would be modern and have better conditions for the detainees, while the old castle would be made into a museum with shops and even a hotel in its old cells.

However, those ideas were never realised, and Butyrka still stands where it has for two and a half centuries, bringing sorrow to all those it houses. As an old Russian saying goes, “you never know when you might end up in poor or in jail...”

Author: Valery Burt