Interview with Greenpeace Photographer After Release from Prison

November 22, 2013
Denis Sinyakov with his wife, Alina (center) at Pre-Trial Detention Center in Saint Petersburg. Photo by Aleksei Danichev/RIA Novosti

Photographer Denis Sinyakov, who covered the Greenpeace action at the Prirazlomnaya on assignment from, was the second person out of 30 arrested in the Arctic Sunrise case to be freed on bail. On November 21, he was released from Kresty Prison pre-trial detention in St. Petersburg and told The New Times how the foreigners and Murmansk detainees in prison adapted to each other; what seemed the most difficult for him while in jail; and how he would like to be like Khodorkovsky.

Do you have an explanation for this unexpected release?

Sinyakov: I can only guess what influenced the court decision, but I think there was an order “from above.” To be honest, I don’t believe much in justice. I think everything is decided outside the legal framework. On orders.

How were you treated in the pre-trial detention jail?

Sinyakov: In the jail in St. Petersburg, everyone was polite and proper. They understand that we were not recidivists or murderers, so therefore everything wasn’t bad. But in Murmansk, the treatment changed only at the end of our stay. At first they treated us like all the detainees – that is, as if you don’t exist. All those arrested are like a gray mass – it doesn’t matter who you were before, or what you were arrested for. But that isn’t the most terrible thing. What is more difficult is the psychological state and the awareness that you are threatened with 10 years in prison for nothing.

The foreigners were in a vacuum as far as communication, since no one at the jail spoke English. Moreover, they couldn’t understand why there was a shower only once a week for 15 minutes, or why they needed a boiling rod and how to use it. The women thought these were hair curlers. The food was, in principle, tolerable, but half the crew were vegetarians. When we were put in the cell, it hadn’t been heated yet. The temperature was at about zero, so everyone slept in their clothes. The foreigners were interested to find out how a Russian prison works – how, for example, letters get around from cell to cell. But again, the greatest difficulty for them was psychological. They felt themselves to be hostages.

How did they other prisoners at the Murmansk detention center treat you?

Sinyakov: At first, despite the fact that they had to crowd together more (they immediately began to throw them from one cell to another, and thus worsened their conditions of detention), they were wildly enthusiastic and began sending us little notes with questions and words of support. They were curious as to why foreigners ended up in prison. And they began to demand Russian-English phrase books at the library.

But then the attitude gradually began to change, because we were in jail for a long time, and their conditions did not improve. Human rights advocates would come and visit us, but not them. They began to envy us. During the exercise time, there would be a bunch of foreigners talking among themselves in English, and the rest of the detainees didn’t know what they were saying. Conflict began to grow gradually. So the decision to transfer us was fairly intelligent.

When you were told that you were being transferred to St. Petersburg, did the thought occur to you that there was more to this?

Sinyakov: I didn’t think that they would release us. I thought that the transfer to St. Petersburg would mean that we would continue to be kept in custody. Otherwise, why would they spend so much money and organize the complex process of transfer? For me, the release was a surprise. Especially because I had forbidden myself from hoping for anything better. Before that, I told myself many times that such stupidity can’t last forever, but each time I had been disappointed in my expectations.

Already in the St. Petersburg prison there were rumors that some boss had spoken to some one, and one of the detainees had heard that we would be released on bail. But everything was on the level of rumors.

What did you think when you learned that you were charged with “piracy”?

Sinyakov: Now I recall with horror the 10 years that hung over me like the Sword of Damocles. I understood that on the one hand, it was impossible to judge an innocent man. On the other hand, this was Russia; anything was possible here.

I had read Solzhenitsyn and thought about how Gleb Nezhin had served 10 years, but remained a human being. It was important to endure it. Solzhenitsyn helped me. But when they removed the “piracy” charge, everyone was encouraged. A “deuce” for hooliganism was no longer so horrible.

How did the investigators behave? Did they demand that you plead guilty?

Sinyakov: When the charges were brought, the investigator was absolutely proper, he immediately let me call my brother. The head of the investigative group was also not a bad man, he let me have a visit from my wife. It turned out that I was seeing a stupid, absurd charge, but even so, the investigators themselves were normal people. No, the investigators did not pressure me and did not demand that I plead guilty. Only FSB agents did visit…

How did your parents react to what was going on? Did they advise you to take up something less dangerous?

Sinyakov: I have middle-aged parents, they suffered a lot. Moreover, they are from a small town where unfortunately people are very susceptible to the influence of our state TV channels. But for some strange reason, my parents supported me. They found the strength to fight for me and this enabled our family to grow closer. We weren’t as close before.

Your wife Alina explained your absence to your son by saying that Papa is fighting monsters in the dark. How did you explain to your child when you met how you fought with the monsters so long and hard?

Sinyakov: I wrote a fairy tale for my son. They had sent it to him. Good defeats evil, of course. So he already understood everything and demanded that I come back sooner. I will give him a big green boat.

How would you explain in brief to Greenpeace activists about the place they spent so much time in? And why are prison conditions in Russia so inhumane?

Sinyakov: I couldn’t manage to explain in brief to foreigners why our prisoners are the way they are and why they haven’t changed for decades. I mean not the conditions of confinement, but the prison regimen.

Alright, but then what would you change in the Russian penitentiary system?

Sinyakov: I would ask the guards to treat people like people, and not like some gray personas without a first or last names. I understand that all kinds of people are in prison. But it’s not right to treat people who have not committed a crime the same way as murderers.

Journalists often go to trials and take photographs and write stories. Perhaps they sympathize with the defendants. But after work, they go home. And now you have been on the other side. Can you confirm that you now understand better, for example, Mikhail Khodorkovsky?

Sinyakov: As [the poet Anna] Akhmatova said, when [the poet Joseph] Brodsky was given a prison sentence, “Oh, what a biography they are making for our red-head.” On the one hand, a lot of people learned about me, and that’s a plus. On the other hand, it is a great responsibility; the main thing is not to get flustered and mumble during the trial.

I was at every one of Khodorkovsky’s trials. I don’t know what he did, but he behaved like a real man. I would also like to conduct myself with dignity.