Oleg Galaktionov, “Overcoming”, Kiev

November 2009


Russian transcription: Olga Zelinska

Translation and editing: Sophie Pinkham

Oleg Galaktionov: I was born in Gorlovka [in Donetsk oblast].  At the moment I have two areas of work: the first is work with current and former prisoners; the second, a big piece, is work with drug dependent people…If you look at them in terms of types of work, they fall into these categories: advocacy, mobilization and training.  And work in places of detention.  And participation in various coordination mechanisms: the social council to the Department, the HIV/AIDS coordination council for Donetsk oblast.

“Overcoming” is [an organization] comprised entirely of activists who are former prisoners…people who have personal experience of this problem.  Plus, the majority of them are drug users and HIV-positive.  So they’re representatives of the target group.

I work in two prison colonies in Kiev oblast—Berezan’ and Martusovka.  They’ve asked us to work in a few more…we’re thinking about it.  We’re doing research with the support of the Open Society Institute.  The project aims to increase access to HIV, TB and drug treatment.  The main context, of course, is drug addiction, because it’s a vicious circle—people don’t go to prison just for drug use, but at the same time, according to official statistics there are now 35,000 people doing time just because they used drugs.

In Ukraine, out of 180,000 people, 35,000-40,000 are people who, in principle, didn’t have to do time.  That’s one problem we’re bringing attention towe’ll finish our research, take our data and lobby the Department to start reforms.  Or to allow substitution treatment inside [prisons] or some kinds of programs, because there’s no access to quality programs in prisons.  Even projects going on now usually just give psychological help.  It’s not important whether it’s a harm reduction project or care and support, it makes no difference.  In principle….the only service people can get is counseling, blah blah blah.  It’s all more counseling for convicts.  And yes, if you’re bored you can go socialize, if you haven’t seen your family in a long time or if girls come, then yes.  But what’s the point of these projects?  The main focus is lost.

The situation with prevention, with harm reduction in prisons, is especially incomprehensible.  They talk about how there are loads of projects in prisons that attract a large number of prisoners.  Yes, that’s true.  But the main component is missing.  As I understand it, harm reduction is not a way of getting a person to stop using drugs, but a way of changing a person’s life.  A person imagines the possibility of gradually changing his life.  He doesn’t necessarily have to stop using drugs in order to do this.

Here [in Ukraine] everything is upside down.  Most people who work in projects are former users, maybe [from] Narcotics Anonymous, maybe just…I call them “Remissioners.”  They’re in remission [from addiction] and they try to pass what’s inside them onto others, not understanding that it’s wrong…because of this, people often move away from these programs…

A person doesn’t need to be ordered to listen, he needs something completely different.  And as it is, projects are working but there’s no syringe exchange.  And the tendency is not towards harm reduction—overdose prevention, safer use—which is what’s needed, or how to use the instruments available in real-life circumstances.  They [prisoners] use illegal drugs all the same, and they think of something.  Those who can afford it buy syringes for themselves.  But it’s easier to get drugs in prison than to get syringes…So they inject with what they have: one [syringe] for two or three people…and people do this consciously.  There are cases when a person say “I’m HIV-positive.  There’s one kit.”  He injected.  They give him the kit.  “I have HIV.”  “Yeah, it doesn’t matter to me. Let’s go.”   Or, “Me too.  Let’s go.”  Because there are the drugs, and you have nothing to inject them with.

Sophie Pinkham: And that happens often?

OG: I don’t know.  From my experience, from cases I know about, in practice, about 80% of cases, roughly speaking.  Even more.  That’s a reduction.  People have their own kit about 3 in 20 times.  The rest of the time there are either three kits for five people, or two for eight.  And people who cook drugs [prepare home-made drugs], if cooking happens directly in prison, they cook them using their own kits.  So twenty, ten people are using the same [syringe].  And no one sterilizes them, for lots of reasons: first of all because there’s nothing to do it with, second of all because no one’s stressing out about it.

SP: So you can prepare drugs in prison.  How does that work?

OG: It’s very simple.  In the promzone [industrial area].  Every prison has a promzone or, to call it by its correct name, surzha  That’s a place closed to most prisoners, where janitors stay, or activists–representatives of the administration, that is, prisoners who work in the administration.  They have privileges, they have access to the warehouse, to various workrooms.  They just shut themselves in there or make agreements with low-level guards, not officers, who do checks at certain times, and you can agree with them, pay money—50, 100 hryvnia and the guard will close his eyes.  Or you choose a specially trained person who stands watch from a place where he can see the guards coming and warns you when they’re approaching so you can shut everything down.  The guard passes by and you start cooking again.  As a rule, they cook at night.  At night…or in the promzone.  In the promzone in general…that’s where everything happens.

SP: And are they usually cooking shirka [opiates]?  Оr vint [amphetamines]?

OG: Vint.  You don’t have to cook boltushka [methcathinone/cathinone with amphetamine-like effects].  It’s easier with boltushka.  And vint…and “straw.” …more after the season.  Depending on the circumstances…Straw is poppy straw.  Either they extract [the opiate] with bandages–with bandages it’s easy, you saturate bandages or socks, twist them and that’s it.  You beat it out.  Nothing complicated.  Or they score malyaz [a home-made opiate].  It’s really easy to score drugs.  Especially during the [economic] crisis, when workers make 1000 hryvnia [$1200], and you’re offering him five times his salary.  And he has a family, children, hunger, cold—ruin.  Of course he brings it [drugs].  There’s no problem with marijuana.  They bring it.  And how do they start?  Mostly these guards are young, about 20.  After the army [mandatory army service] they have nowhere to go.  And that’s it.  In the beginning they take 5 hryvnia, then 50, just for this.  They develop a taste for it.  Then they start bringing in a little weed, or taking letters, or bringing in money…and that’s how they get brought in.  Then they start bringing in narcotics.

It’s always been like that and it always will be.  It doesn’t depend on directors or official orders.  It comes from the bottom…it’s just that no one wants to talk about it…but the problem isn’t going away.

In women’s prisons the situation is absolutely different.  In women’s prisons there are practically no drugs.  It happens, but very rarely.  A woman died recently of an overdose.  By the way, we did a training on overdose…there were colleagues from the Ministry of Justice we’d invited for interaction with the Department, and when he was at the training we explained the problem, and he said, “Yes.  There’s a problem.  Here’s a case that confirms it…”  At the training he said, “They informed [us] that a woman died of an overdose.  Injected with a pen.  They make kits from pens, sharpen the point.  Anything.  Ball-point pens.

SP: That’s done often?

OG: No.  Well…very rarely.  But nevertheless, she miscalculated and overdosed.

SP: Why are there so few drugs in women’s prisons?

OG: First of all, fewer women do time.  And then the circumstances, everything depends on the ability to pay.  In men’s prisons there’s money, one way or another.  If it’s medium security, mom and dad pay, bring packages for young people who are in prison for the first time.  So it’s all good in prison, there’s money.

If it’s a high-security prison…there’s still money.  There’s gambling.  And, again, there’s manufacturing, people work.  Guys who work a lot bring something in.  Understanding and values are different there.  No one expects anything from anyone and they work.  So there are fewer resources, but they’re still there.

If there are blatnye people [from the organized criminal world]—and there are very few left in Ukraine, but it happens—there’s also the thieves’ tradition [vor v zakone].  If a «blatnoi» ends up in prison somewhere…the prison is automatically independent, it automatically gets the support of the thieves’ tradition.  Because when this person shows up, the situation changes.  Where they are there’s obshak [communal funds]…one way or another, money is in circulation.

You need money for bribes.  You have to pay to receive visits, to be released early, for encouragement, for additional food, for additional benefits.  Of course, not officially…

I started [my involvement with these programs] in prison, in the 27th colony, in Gorlovka.  There was a pilot project that picked volunteers to start the harm reduction strategy in prisons.  This was in 2004 or 2005.  They gathered activists, gave them information about HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and drug use, trained them in counseling basics, and started [work].  And according to the principle of peer counseling, we were already spreading the information we’d been given.  Then they organized some actions in the prison.  We regularly organized three actions: in May, the day in remembrance of people who died of AIDS, December 1st, the day of tolerance, and June 26, the day against drug addiction.  In the summer, soccer, quizzes, discussions, cultural activities, more educational.  We gave out condoms.

SP: And this was inside the prison?

OG: Yes.

SP: And was it easy for the programs to work in prison then?  What was the situation with officials?

OG: I don’t know…in the prisons where I did time and where I worked, it was easy for me.  [For] the people around me, it was also easy.

It might depend on the quality of individual leaders and teams, if there’s a leader who can create a team. There has to be something, otherwise it’s not possible to work.

And the Department doesn’t let just anyone into prisons.  Nonetheless, they let us start working right away…though I was told, “No!  It’s not realistic!  It’s impossible.  Don’t even think about it.”  …As soon as I was released, or maybe after a few months, I went to trainings.  Then I started working right away and no one objected.

I was released in 2006…on March 2.  In May we had already organized our organization and started working at Your Choice, a charitable organization in the city of Gorlovka.  We started as a mixed initiative group.  We had former prisoners, drug users and people living with HIV.  The group ended up being mixed, rather big and powerful.

Then we had a lot of youth volunteers.  We started as an initiative group, as volunteers who organized actions.  We did lectures in schools about HIV/AIDS and drug addiction.  We also had thematic actions, participated in them and ran them.  The emphasis was on education.  It was PR and useful work at the same time.

And this…created self-confidence, improved self-esteem…I started a process of resocialization.  I satisfied all the lowest requirements and then new ones appeared, already more spiritual and ideological.  More ideological than spiritual.

SP: How did you end up in prison?

OG: The last time or in general?  [Laughs]

SP: Can you talk a bit about your life?  You were born in Gorlovka, right?

OG: …I was born in Gorlovka, lived in an orderly family.  I was a good kid until I was 13, a normal boy: I was a good student, modest, obedient.  Then it started, the transitional times, the tumultuous 90s, the romantic wave swelled up…and carried me to another shore.

This was mostly connected with the economic crisis.  My father is a miner.  For several years he didn’t receive his pay, there was nothing to eat.  Everything was sad.

And it happened—I started stealing.  And went to prison.  Into the juvenile prison, when I was 15.  Then I was released.  Then I was sent back.  Then I was released.  Then I went back.  But the last time I was sent to…a special “narcozone.”  They take your profile, your status, and it’s mostly drug addicts who do time there.  There are people who aren’t drug addicts, but most of them…It’s high security…life-long drug addicts…mammoths who haven’t died out yet.  It’s a good school of life.

SP: Describe it.

OG: [Laughs.]  You can’t describe it, you have to feel it.

SP: Why?  Try.

OG: In a word—I don’t know—hell, insanity, but…nevertheless, people are animals that can adapt to anything, especially drug addicts, they’re like invertebrates, they can accommodate themselves to anything.  I adapted fine.  I’m not going to say that I did badly in prison.  I did OK.  Complaining is a sin.  Maybe I was lucky, maybe God took pity on me because he saw how much I suffered and thought, “Well, he’s good.  Maybe I should…”

One day…in the end of spring, beginning of summer, a warm time of year, I was standing and smoking near the medical unit and some free people walked by.  And girls passed by…I paid attention to the girls, I was interested, and they went into the medical unit.  I went over to them.

It turned out that they were giving out information about healthy living, as they said, prevention.  But I hardly understood what “prevention” meant at this time.  Mostly it was just that one of the girls was cute, but the word “prevention” also interested me.  [Laughs.]  So that’s how I got involved…nothing happened with the girls.  I married someone else.  But I stayed with prevention till now.  That was five years ago.

SP: And how have prison conditions changed since the first time you were there?

OG: If you look at it as a whole, it’s much, much better.  And if you don’t look at the whole…in my opinion, it should be much different and it should be changed very quickly.  Because if you compare other spheres of life—again, you can make an analogy with release from prison, for instance the last.  Every time you’re released, you haven’t seen anything for a long time, everything is new.  For instance, I’ve lived here for a long time, I’m used to seeing the same buildings around me for years.  And I’m released, and the buildings are gone.  It’s a colossal change…everything is sparkling, [it’s like] New York, Los Angeles, a casino, slot machines everywhere, neon, ads…

Medicine hasn’t changed at all.  I was first in prison in 1995, in 2006 I was released for the last time, and in that period nothing changed at all.  It was miserable before and now it’s become even more miserable.

Education is better…living standards are better, food is better.  Not extreme changes, but definitely better…but not medicine.  Because for medicine you need money.  With education it’s simple, because you need very few people.  You can take care of it with the efforts of the colony itself.  The political officers and the supervisors decide.  Find money for notebooks—either religious people bring it, or NGOs, or parents.  Find notebooks…textbooks…it’s not a lot of money.  And that’s it.  Pay teachers from the budget…you can even study in the institute.  That didn’t used to be possible.  Now you can do time and receive a higher education.  Your rights are all respected….but with medicine it’s very sad.  Even if you have money, it’s ridiculous, it’s not certain that you can provide for a qualified doctor or for medicines…

SP: And do people often die in prison?

OG: Well…for prison, not often, but by comparison often…Lots of people die of tuberculosis.

Now they’ve started to die of HIV.  The wave has come, they’ve started to die.  They died before, but now…people are progressing [to AIDS] and not everyone gets treatment.  Even the treatment that exists leaves a lot to be desired.  Nobody’s too concerned about treatment plans… “You’ll take the medicine.”  “Yes.”  “That’s all.  Take it like this.”  That’s all you hear about adherence.  “If you want to live, take it this way.  If you don’t want to, you’ll die.”…That’s the best case scenario. A little window opens, someone comes over, says, “Here, drink this.”  “What is it?”  “Just drink it!”  That’s it.

SP: And how did you start using drugs?

OG: …I was 19.  I first encountered drugs in prison.  I never used vint or boltushka.  I used shirka.  I liked to drink “straw,” kuknarchik.  To avoid getting hooked on those volatile mixtures.  And I got hooked without even noticing.  The first time I went into withdrawal I didn’t even understand—somebody had to tell me.  Classic…And I quit with 12 steps.  I quit in prison, of course…NGO workers ran the group.  I was released and I knew the address.  Then I created a group in Gorlovka.

Lots of people showed up.  I met a lot of people through the group…and then I got acquainted with harm reduction, and it suited me much better.  You don’t need to stress out so much…failures aren’t so fraught with serious consequences.  Though in my case they are very serious.  So I don’t drive myself crazy.

I’m not going to say that I’ve achieved controlled use—I don’t like that term.  But I’m OK with what happens in my life.  I don’t shoot up.  I very rarely drink vodka.  I try to replace it with wine or beer.  Pure harm reduction…I started coughing, so I started smoking lighter cigarettes or quit, I didn’t smoke for a month…

I do good trainings.  I’m not ashamed.  I know what I’m talking about.  Even though I still go to group meetings.  There’s nothing bad about it.  The most important thing is to be strong, not fanatical, and not to go in cycles.

I’m happy about everything except that my work isn’t really work—it’s been a way of life from the beginning.  Then I started trying to become professional.  People started telling me that I had to develop, become professional.  Then my optimism started fading into the background.  I don’t know if it was a crisis or what.

Maybe six months or a year ago, in the fall, I started studying, changing…and there are results, but I understand that I lost the most important thing, the main thing that made me work.  Because I had an idea, ideological motivation.  Then this motivation became something else.  And the people around me changed accordingly.  Now…I’m trying not to stress out.

Everything’s simple—I have work, I’ve made clear boundaries for myself.  There’s my job, and then there’s my activism and that’s what I do for myself, for my soul, for ideas.  It’s separate.  And I try not to merge them, but all the same they become intertwined.  I don’t know, the more I work the easier it is to find the boundary between work and activism.  It doesn’t always work out, but it’s already much easier.

I used to stress out about how to define work, about what attitude to take toward work that pays kopecks [pennies] or business that just brings me some additional income.  There are various attitudes you can take toward this, and your behavior changes accordingly…

But now it’s simpler.  I understand it better, I don’t know.  It’s probably just experience and greater professionalism.  Because I didn’t complain about how everything’s bad, and if you approach the situation in a healthy, sober way, everything will be fucking great.  Not just good, fucking great.  Of course there are cons, problems in life, but how can you escape them?  Overall, I’m content.  Except, probably, that my work is reflected in my private life…

It doesn’t suit the people around me.  They just don’t understand this work.  I’ve lived with my wife for eight years now, we’ve been officially married for three years, we have a child…she doesn’t understand me.  When I say that I have to go on a business trip, she says, “And where’s the money?”  And I say, “For free, I have to use my own.”  She says, “Are you an idiot?”  And I say yes.  I tried to explain it to her.  She can’t understand it.

SP: Is the difference between activism and work that activism is done for free?

OG: Yes.

SP: And that’s all?

OG: No…not only that.  Activism is more for your soul.  It’s not even for self-confidence because that isn’t even necessary anymore.  It’s for the soul.

I imagine that—maybe not about the Last Judgment—but in any case, in my life I caused people harm.  I used to want so much to compensate for that.  And now I’m not so worried about it anymore.  But I can’t get away from it, and I try, if possible, to do good…not because I’m such a spiritual or religious person…but nonetheless.  For some reason that’s how it is.

And with work, that’s something that I do, I don’t like it, but as a professional I understand why I do it.  And at the same time there are things that I don’t understand and don’t welcome.  I do those too…

SP: And this work you don’t like, is it also connected with HIV/AIDS?

OG: I don’t have any other work…but when I was an activist, it thrilled me.  It doesn’t anymore.  It’s all work.  I don’t get a lot, or a little, but now, thank God…I watch as my professionalism grows.

What is “professionalism”?  It can be measured by your salary—the higher your level of professionalism, the higher your salary.  It’s simple.  Now I understand that I have a higher level of professionalism than I did three years ago, when I started.  Because then I worked mostly for free…then I didn’t have enough money to live on, now I do.  Not as much as I want, of course.  But it’s enough to live on.

There are interruptions…sometimes a project is supported, sometimes it isn’t.  That’s the stress of projects arranged under donors—not even under donors, under managers…sometimes you also suffer, people can get kicked out, the organization can be closed, but the worst is…you work with people for a year or two and then, out of the blue, you tell them, “Get out of here!  There’s no money!”  It happens rarely, but it happens.  How do you explain it to people, how do you look them in the eyes?  It’s very hard…It’s easier for me to cave in to some manager than to explain to people that some Global Fund or some network or somebody didn’t give money…Well, that’s how it is…


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