Ognenny Ostrov (Russian: Огненный остров, literally: Fiery Island) is a small lake island in the central Russian Vologda region. It hosts a high security prison for formerly condemned and other dangerous inmates called Vologodskiy Pyatak or simply Pyatak (Russian: Вологодский пятак, literally: Vologda's nickel coin). Ognenny Ostrov is located about 400 kilometers north of Moscow, on Lake Novozero.
A Russian Orthodox monastery was founded on this island in 1517 by St Cyril of Novozero after he witnessed "a column of fire" hitting the island. The monastery buildings were used as a backdrop in the 1973 Vasily Shukshin movie Red Roses and in some stories by Russian writer Alexandr Yashin.
Following the October Revolution in 1917, the monastery was converted into a prison to hold “enemies of the revolution”. During the 1930s and 1940s it functioned as a penal colony for victims of the purges of Joseph Stalin. After Stalin's death in 1953, it was turned into a regular prison for non-political dangerous criminals.
In 1997, the prison was converted into a facility housing only prisoners serving life sentences and those formerly sentenced to death; the latter group had their sentences commuted to life following the 1996 moratorium on the death penalty in Russia. The prison, formally known as Prison No. OE 256/5 (ФКУ ИК-5) – and “Pyatak” amongst the inmates (named after the last digit of the formal name) - currently holds approximately 193 prisoners.
A useful Western description of the prison states: "In a country where brutality and hopelessness are common currency, Petak is as bad as it gets. There is none of the communal fighting, rape and drunkenness common in some Russian prisons, but the regime is so unbending and inhuman that it eventually crushes even the toughest inmates.", "Each prisoner is kept in a small two-man cell for 22.5 hours a day, every day. For an hour and a half they stand, or pace like predatory animals, in a small cage outside.", "There are no lavatories, no proper washing facilities and you spend your whole life in a cell.", and, longest of all: "There is no way anyone can spend 25 years in a place like this without being psychologically destroyed. The homosexuals are the ones who come off best - at least they are not starved of physical and emotional contact."
There are only two ways into and out of Petak: by foot along two rickety wooden bridges, or by prison boat. Armed guards stand at watch towers on each corner of the building. German shepherds are kept in a special pound.
In stark contrast to the grim brutality inside, the White Lake surrounding Petak is one of Russia's most beautiful. Gulls fly overhead, the water is rich with fish and the trees and bushes are reflected in the shimmering water. Vasily Smirnoff, the head guard, said: "There are prisons in Russia where the prisoners are in control, where even the governor has to consult with the head criminal before he can do anything, but not here. Here we're the bosses.
"Of course sometimes I worry about sending my guys into a room with only a notebook and CS gas against some of the toughest guys on earth. But nobody's ever escaped. If they dig they hit water. If they try to swim the guards will shoot them."
For the first 10 years of a man's sentence he is allowed two visits a year, of two hours each. After that he can have two long visits and two short visits. But by the time a decade has passed most men have lost contact with their families, who often live many days' travel away. Parcels are allowed twice a year.
Half the prisoners have tuberculosis, and at least two are clinically insane. When men die, their bodies are taken to a small graveyard nearby and buried in the presence of one or two of the guards. No prisoners can attend.
Misbehaving prisoners are sent to punishment cells to be locked in a small, dark room with only a metal bucket and a fold-down bed for 15 days. No books are allowed. In the daytime the bed is stowed and they must stand, or sit on a tiny wooden perch a few inches wide.
The pens are very small and only the most determined stay in good physical condition."
- Three Days and Never Again (Last Visit). Video. 53 minutes. Director: Alexsandr Goutman, 1998.
- Google Maps Location. Last accessed August 8, 2006.
- "ФКУ ИК-5." Federal Penitentiary Service, Vologda Oblast. Retrieved on 9 November 2011. "Россия Вологодская обл. Белозерский район пос. Карл Либкхнехт "
- Medetsky, Anatoly. "Sentenced to Life on Fire Island." The Moscow Times. 23 December 2004. Retrieved on 28 April 2012. "OE 256/5, about 400 kilometers north of Moscow in the Vologda region[...]"
- social film about life imprisonment in Russia Sentenced to life Russian: Приговоренные пожизненно by V. Mikeladze)
- Julius Strauss (10 August 2004). "Waiting for death in Russia's Alcatraz". Telegraph.co.uk. Retrieved 18 December 2015.