In September 2013, 30 Green Peace activists manned the Arctic Sunrise, and attempted to scale a Russian oil platform in protest against drilling in the Arctic. This did not please the Russian powers that be. The crew were arrested at gun point and jailed. Ben Stewart, who was Greenpeace’s Head of News at the time, has written a sensational book all about the experiences of the Arctic 30- Don’t Trust, Don’t Fear, Don’t Beg. Ben made us gasp and giggle as he told us about the experience of one of the activists, Frank Hewtson…
I sat down with Frank Hewtson after he had been released and he told me about his time in prison. It turns out Russian jails are the most insane place. On one of Frank’s first nights his Russian cell mate dragged him off his bed and pulled him over to the toilet. The Russian guy yanked off the U-bend and pushed Frank’s ear to it. Frank heard a voice saying ‘Is this Frank from the Arctic 30?’ The voice came from the Mafia boss in the cell above who controls the prison thorugh the toilet system – which acts as the internal telephone. The Mafia boss told Frank that they had ultimate respect for him because he was a victim of Putin’s injustice. Violence was meated out in the prison as retribution, but the Mafia promised to protect the Arctic 30 because they were “special” prisoners.
The Mafia taught Frank and our other guys to use the internal communication system called The Doroga or The Road. It is a system of ropes and string that are strung up every night on the walls of the prison. It’s a prison internet. You pass messages on socks that fly about. They send contraband- sugar, mobile phones, drugs. None of it is paid for. If you ask for it you get it, if you’re asked for something you give it. The Mafia bosses run the role thing and in return, they take a tax. Occasionally The Road was dragged down by prison officers, but the ropes were made again within hours. They take the plastic bags the prison bread comes in, tie it together and push it through a paracetamol tube. Then they knock a pen through, and use it as a spinner. Drag, pull, drag, pull. They produce ropes hundreds of metres long caught on long poles with biro lids. Within hours they recreate another physical prison internet.
Communication is what keeps people alive. It’s as important as water and air.It was through The Road that our guys were able to communicate with each other and get everything they needed. Our guys ran a prison news paper called the Gulag Chronicle through The Road.
Then, we found a way to communicate with our friends in the prison. A Russian conduit, Mr Babinski, passed our messages in, and brought their messages out. Through him, we spoke to them. We gave the letters the Arctic 30 wrote to the global media. They were on front pages around the world. The Babinski channel was knocked down when Frank did a fake Trip Advisor review of the prison. He gave it 0 stars and said the food wasn’t good enough and that he was going to complain to the prison Governor. That letter was headline news. That afternoon Frank was dragged to the Prison Officer’s office who showed Frank the front of the Indepenant on Sunday. The Officer asked Frank how he could dare criticise the prison food and give the prison zero stars on trip advisor. It was because of that they then shut down the Babinski channel.
It’s remarkable how much motivation and ingenuity people can muster at times of need! The whole system of the ‘official’ prison powers seems erratic and chaotic in compared to the underground control of the Mafia. It’s easy to imagine to understand how much violence plays a part in such an establishment- as everyone try to ensure they’re top dog. Ben told us about the events that occurred after Frank had a run in with the prison officers.
Once Frank was getting shit from the prison officer who told him that everything they knew, they learnt from the Gustapo. Frank freaked out and had a panic attack. He was wheeled to hospital by an armed guard at 20 miles per hour. The guard had a gun pointed at Frank. The guard stopped running to asked Frank if he knew Depeche Mode. Frank told the guard ‘Of course I know Depeche Mode.’ Then they teared through the prison, a gun still to Franks head, singing Depeche mode together.
Oh my, maybe the guard was Frank’s own, personal Jesus. You’ll be relieved to know that these mad Russian run ins didn’t last Frank’s life time. In late November, that year, they were released.
Putin gave an amnesty. He released the most controversial prisoners just before Christmas on the lead up to the Sochi Olympics in Russia. He let Pussy Riot and Mikhail Khodorkovsky out, and he let our guys out. Some people say we lucked out, but we had to ensure they were viewed as some of the most controversial prisoners in Russia in order to have a leverage point to get them out. It was a crazy insane time. Within a couple of hours we went from thinking they were going inside for a long time, then it flipped back, and they were getting realised.
There is something in Russia called telephone justice where the Kremlin calls up the judge to tell them the verdict- it’s all fixed. The first telephone call didn’t get thorugh to the judge, so Colin Russell was told he wasn’t getting out and we’re thinking ‘shit we’ve lost him for years. There were tears, and wailing. Everyone was holding each other. However, when the next call from the Kremlin, they were told that they were all getting out. The whole thing blew up.
I have written a book about it all called the arctic 30, and now, David Putnam is making a film version starring Emma Thompson. It was reward enough to get the activists out of jail but it’s fun to write a book and have people read it. I wont deny it, it is reward. If you work in climate change you don’t want to be in the Guardian ghetto all the time, only communicating with like mided souls, you want it to be out there with the masses. The ultimate satisfaction would be if a lot of people were to hear about climate change through the medium of my film.
Interview by Alex and Bella
Words by Bella Spencer