The KGB interrogated my turkey

John Kampfnerrecalls 25 December 1991 in Moscow - the day Gorbachev resigned

I had a question for the British ambassador. What country were we in, I wondered? He stopped, frowned, and replied that he was as lost as I was. This was 1991 and a run-up to Christmas like no other.

I had arrived in the Soviet Union at the start of that year for my second posting there. Mikhail Gorbachev was facing a pincer movement. On the one side were the liberation struggles of the Baltic republics and the pro-democracy activists in Moscow; on the other was the Communist Party and the security apparatus that supported it - the army and the KGB. That was the year when it all unravelled, a year of extreme hope and fear.

Each day brought startling developments. As Gorbachev's power slipped away, Boris Yeltsin, the president of the Russian Federation and his arch enemy, slipped off to a hunting lodge near the Polish border. It was there in early December that he and the heads of Ukraine and Belorussia agreed to kill off the USSR. After that it was a matter of when, rather than if, Gorbachev would stand down and the Soviet Union would formally cease to exist. And in those intervening days, no one knew who was in control of what or where one country's jurisdiction began and ended.

Gorbachev decided to do the decent thing on 25 December. For Russians, it is just a normal day - under the Orthodox calendar Christmas falls two weeks later. For western diplomats, journalists and the growing number of businessmen, Gorbachev's timing was inconvenient, to say the least.

In those days the western community was small enough for most people to know each other and to do the rounds of the parochial Christmas parties. Christmas brought certain rituals. For those with a weekend to spare there was the trip to Helsinki in early December, to a department store called Stockmans. From there crates of food, household goods and clothes would be brought by lorry over the border and to your front door in Moscow, no questions asked by customs. But greater invention was required to get the two most essential items for a British Christmas - the turkey and the Christmas pud.

My wife, Lucy, was returning from a quick trip to London and decided to bring a giant turkey and a Marks and Sparks pud with her. Anyone arriving at Moscow airport is familiar with the vagaries of customs there, and this time they decided to have some fun. She was told to take the bird out of its special deep-freeze container. The officers could not believe anyone would go to such lengths to bring in an oversized bird. They were particularly perturbed by the plastic bag containing giblets. Was she not hiding more dangerous substances? Sufficient "duty" was paid to make it worthwhile for all. While the country was teetering on the brink, business was continuing as usual.

The biggest frustration that Christmas was that my newspaper, like most of them then, did not have a Boxing Day issue. So I would have to witness one of the most momentous days of postwar history without being able to write about it. We decided to spend the first half of the day normally. Our traditional Christmas lunch was followed not by the Bond film or any of the usual British TV fare, but by a televised statement at 3pm. "Dear fellow countrymen, due to the situation which has evolved, I hereby discontinue my activities in the post of president of the USSR."

A few minutes later Gorbachev signed a decree handing control of nuclear weapons to the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. As he did so, his pen ran out, and he had to borrow one from the head of CNN, who was standing by for an interview.

I called various friends who were finishing work that day. We went to Red Square where at 7.30pm the Soviet flag was lowered and the white, red and blue tricolour of Russia raised in its place. The symbolism left them unmoved. Later that evening I went to the home of Lev Kerbel. He was the country's most celebrated socialist-realist sculptor. Just about every giant Lenin worth its marble around the world is his creation. It seemed appropriate that on the day the Soviet Union died, I should go and see a man proud to have been born on the day of the Bolshevik revolution. He was hunched in his small kitchen watching a re-broadcast of Gorbachev's farewell on his flickering screen. He made tea, poured some brandy and tried to make sense of it. "We fought fascism, we fought for the Soviet Union, and now we are told it's no longer there," he said.

The following few years would see more breathtaking events under Boris Yeltsin, and more strife and instability. We spent subsequent Christmases at our country dacha, our weekend retreat. That, in itself, testified to change, good and bad. The village had always been closed to foreigners. Its large houses and the forests that led off them down to the Moskva river were for the scientific elite. But they were running out of money and needed dollars. A new elite was emerging, based entirely on wealth. Even my old friend Lev Kerbel was learning to adapt, turning his mind from heroes of Soviet history to heroes of earlier Russian history. This was the new Russia; there was no need to go to Helsinki to get decent provisions - or to charm the customs men to let our turkey through.

John Kampfner was the Moscow bureau chief for the "Daily Telegraph" and "Sunday Telegraph" from 199l-94. He is now a political correspondent for the BBC

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition

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“The guards WANT you to mess up”: meet the prison wives of Instagram

How memes featuring Disney Princesses, Spongebob Squarepants, and saggy jeans have empowered women with incarcerated partners.

During a recent trip to visit her boyfriend in federal prison, 27-year-old Makenzie wore a floor-length black skirt and a grey shirt that completely covered the top half of her body. After a brief inspection, the guard on duty deemed her outfit appropriate and waved her through, and she was able to spend a happy eight hours with her incarcerated boyfriend and her six-year-old daughter. The next day, she came back to visit again.

“I wore the exact same outfit the second day of visitation because I didn’t want to fight with the guards about any other clothing,” says Makenzie, who had to drive five hours out of her home state, Texas, in order to visit her partner. “I was sent away by a guard who had seen me the day before.”

Makenzie felt “belittled and humiliated” by the guard, who forced her to go to the nearest shop to buy a new shirt. “I wore the exact same outfit down to my shoes and earrings,” she explains. When she confronted the guard, Makenzie says he said: “I honestly don’t care.

“All I’m telling you today is you’re not going in there dressed like that.”

Being a “prison wife” can be isolating and confusing. When wives and girlfriends first go to visit their newly-incarcerated partners, the rules and regulations can be overwhelming. When visiting her boyfriend, Makenzie has to place her money in a clear plastic bag, go through a metal detector before a smaller metal detector is used on her feet, and be patted down by guards. If her clothing is too loose or too tight, she is sent home.

“The guards WANT you to mess up,” Makenzie tells me over email, emphasis hers. “They want to make you mad, make you get in trouble.” For wives and girlfriends isolated by these experiences, the internet has become a haven.

***

Makenzie’s Instagram account has 1,123 followers. Under the handle “Texas Prison Wives”, she has been posting memes, photographs, and advice posts for five years. After incidents like the one above, Makenzie can use her account to vent or warn other wives about changes in clothing rules. Followers can also submit text posts to her that she screenshots, overlays on scenic pictures, and publishes anonymously.

One, imposed on a city skyline, asks if anyone wants to carpool to a prison. Another, overlaying a picture of a nude woman, reads: “I’m wondering if I can get some ideas on sexy pics I can take for my man. I’m about 85lbs heavier than I was the last time he saw me naked.”

The prison wives of Instagram recently went viral – but not on their own posts. A Twitter user discovered the community and tweeted out screenshots of prison wife memes – which are formatted with an image and caption like all relatable memes, with the crucial difference being that not many of us can actually relate.

“The life that we live is not widely accepted by families, friends, and the general outside world because people hear ‘inmate’ and automatically assume the worst,” says Makenzie, whose boyfriend was sentenced to two fifteen year sentences for drug possession.

“This account has given women a safe space and anonymity to seek personal advice, ask questions, and seek other women within their area if they want to reach out.” Her account, Makenzie says, also allows prison wives to laugh during tough times. She both makes her own memes and shares those from similar accounts. One, from May 2016, features a collage of four celebrities rolling their eyes. The caption reads: “When you hear ‘Babe, we are going on lock down again…’”

To outside eyes, some prison wife memes can seem flippant or – to those who retweeted the viral tweet – laughable. “My Life As A Prison Wife” is an account with over 12,000 followers that posts a wide array of memes, often using stills from Disney movies to portray emotions. A post featuring an image of a crying Belle – from Beauty and the Beast –  is captioned “that feeling when… when your visits get suspended”. Yet though many online criticise what they see as the glorification or normalisation of a life choice they don’t agree with, Makenzie emphasises that memes – especially funny ones – are important.

“I think it’s fun to have so many people relate to funny memes even though the direct meaning behind it is about being lonely or the hard things we go through to make this relationship work,” she explains. “It’s a reminder we aren’t alone in our struggle and we can laugh through the pain.”

Jemma, a 22-year-old from London who runs an account called “Doing time too”, concurs. Her profile – which has 1,369 followers – showcases memes featuring puppies, Disney princesses, and stills from Spongebob Squarepants.“I'm sure ordinary members of the public would disagree with our light-hearted way of looking at our loved ones being in prison and I would totally understand that,” she says – also over email.

 

HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY LADIES  #prisonwife #prisonwifelife #doingtimetoo #inmatelove

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Before I was in the situation myself, I would have probably reacted in the same way to an account like the one I now own. But sometimes you end up in situations you never expected to and you deal with things in a way that others won’t understand.”

***

Prison wives don’t use Instagram just for memes. Makenzie’s account helps women in need in an array of ways: they can find out if there have been riots in their partner’s prison; get advice on gifts to send a loved one; and even find out how to appeal sentences. Alongside her Instagram, Jemma also runs a website called www.doingtimetoo.co.uk

Via @TexasPrisonWives

“I started the website because I was in a relationship with someone a couple of years ago who ended up going to prison. It was totally out of the blue for me and something neither of us saw coming,” she says. “I had no idea how to deal with it.” Her site provides information about individual prisons, what to expect from a prison visit, and what to do after release. She also provides tips on how to send creative gifts made out of paper to incarcerated loved ones.

“I believe the internet has been a massive help in supporting prison wives,” says Jemma, who finds most people don’t understand or relate to her situation. Her boyfriend was charged with GBH (grievous bodily harm) and sentenced to two years in prison, after getting into a fight.

Jemma also feels that Instagram can provide prison wives with information that the prisons themselves withhold. “I can't speak for everyone but in my experience, prisons and the visit centres are far from helpful in providing any information, support or advice,” she says. “Sometimes people won’t hear from their husband when they expect to but through interacting with other ‘prison wives’ they may find out that that particular prison is currently on lock down, providing an explanation and reassurance as to why they hadn’t heard from their husband. Without the internet, this wouldn't happen.”

 

Advice! @mothafukn.irvin

A post shared by OFFICIAL N. CALI SUPPORT (@north_cali_prisonwives) on

When Jemma reached out to prison visitor centres in the UK to promote her website to those in need, she never heard back. When she emailed her boyfriend’s visitor centre prior to her first visit to ask what to do, what to wear, and what to expect, she also never received a reply. “There is no communication with family and no support offered… It’s important to remember that the families themselves did nothing wrong or illegal and so don’t deserved to be punished or treated like criminals themselves.” In such circumstances, information shared online is crucial.

Makenzie also believes that the US prison system has it faults when it comes to visitors. “While I know and understand that inmates are being punished for a crime they committed, the guards treat their families disrespectfully and unfairly almost as if we are being punished as well,” she says. “Being a larger woman, I have gotten in trouble for my clothes being too tight AND for my clothes being too loose. It’s a lose-lose situation.”

Makenzie explains that sometimes visitors are forced to wear gowns similar to those worn in hospitals if their clothes are deemed unsuitable. In the past, she has even been sent away to buy a new bra after she wore one without underwire in order to get through the metal detector. In one prison her boyfriend was incarcerated in, visitors had to wait outside to be signed in, one-by-one, regardless of the weather. “We had to wait two hours several times, sweating, drenched in rain, they don’t care…

“The guards degrade your loved ones right in front of your face, they are mean, hateful, and over the top rude, even to the inmates who are the most well behaved and respectful.”

For these women, Instagram has become an invaluable network of support.

***

There are hundreds of Instagram accounts just like Jemma and Makenzie’s. Many often take memes from each other, but Jemma explains there is no competition. In fact, she says, the network is incredibly supportive. “I spoke to one lady regularly about her situation and I remember counting down to her boyfriend’s release date with her,” she says. Jemma and Makenzie also use their accounts to help lonely prisoners find pen pals.

Instagram allows prison wives to find likeminded people, free from judgement. Yet the accounts can also be incredibly informative to outsiders. By using the “When…” format, memes provide a detailed insight into the lives of prison wives. “When you’re kissing baby towards the beginning/end of the visit and the CO yells ‘enough’,” reads one. “When you check your phone and see… not only did you miss 1 call, you missed two,” is the caption on an image of a crying child.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Nobody understands this long distance, no physical intimacy, and then the added stresses of dealing with prison politics, corrupt guards, and the worry of riots, lock downs, and retaliation like women who are living through the same thing,” says Makenzie. Yet thanks to these Instagram accounts, outsiders do have an opportunity to understand.

For prison wives, memes are an easy and fast way to talk about a topic that many deem taboo. The fact that Jemma and Makenzie wished to communicate with me over email, and the fact many more prison wives didn’t want to speak to me at all, shows how difficult it can be to talk about these issues. For many, memes are just a bit of fun. For prison wives, they can be a lifeline.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

 “None of us enjoy prison visits or being treated like we are criminals ourselves. We don't enjoy waiting for phone calls that never arrive or having to deal with situations all on our own but if we can laugh about it, that’s something,” explains Jemma.

“Memes allow us all to laugh at the situations we are in, rather than cry.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition