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Feature Story March 6, 2002
 
Too Fast Times
By Matt Taibbi Browse author
 
 

8:15 a.m., two Fridays ago. The temperature is -5 and I'm standing in a rapidly-growing line outside of Matrosskaya Tishina, one of Moscow's three main remand prisons. This is a daily ritual at the jail. Friends and family members of inmates show up to deliver packages and to buy cigarettes and other necessities for their loved ones from the prison commissary.

Like any other bureaucracy in this country, the system couldn't be organized any worse. The window opens at nine, but everyone shows up two hours early to get a spot in line. Though this is one of the biggest prisons in the city, there's no place to wait indoors, so everyone is stuck out in the cold.

"Even the juvenile prison at Rechnoi Vokzal has an indoor waiting room," complains Sergei, one of the kids I've come with. We're here to buy supplies for Konstantin Pankratov, who's inside awaiting charges for assault, kidnapping and car theft. Kostya's one of four kids I profiled two years ago for a story about a Russian high school, the amazingly-named public school #666, in the Varshaskaya region.

Last time I saw Kostya, he was looking like an alto in the Mormon children's choir, and was in the middle of being voted most likely to succeed by his class. But he's been in jail for almost a year now, and on March 19, he goes to trial on charges that could land him up to ten years.

Kostya was one of the first kids I met at p.s. 666. I'd made a deal with the school to spend a week in classes with the 10th grade, the equivalent to our junior class. They'd shoved me into a physics classroom early on a Monday morning, way in the back of the room, where I'd be less of a distraction. The teacher, a matronly old woman named Svetlana Babkina, was having trouble controlling a group of unruly kids at the front. There was so much noise, she couldn't even start to review the first equation from the previous night's homework assignment. About ten minutes into the class, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and there was Kostya -- clean cut, in a freshly-laundered sweatshirt, notebook, textbook and pencil laid out neatly on his desk. He appeared to be the only person in the room who'd done his homework. There wasn't a hair on his face; he had just turned sixteen.

"You take karate?" he asked me.

I said no. The usual conversation about karate belts unfolded; we determined that he was a green belt. It was a conversation so straight out of an American junior high that I felt transported. Kostya was young for his class. His parents had clearly made an effort to keep his head on straight and keep him out of the trouble that was all around the school. He didn't drink and was barely interested in girls. Most of his energy was put into his after-school karate classes and his remarkable regimen of personal hygiene; his books, his hair, his person, his homework, everything about him was kept in meticulous order.

While the other kids had no idea what they were going to do after they graduated, Kostya had a plan confidently worked out: he was going to enter automotive engineering school, a particular one he'd already settled on, and train for a pro karate career.

That was two years ago, in November, 1999. Things went wrong pretty fast after that for Kostya. Engineering school didn't work out. His family didn't have the money to send him to school, and his grades weren't quite good enough to get him into a school for free.

This is a pretty common theme at Russian high schools; only the very best students can get into a decent state school, and even the very best students have a tough time getting the state to pay. Kids complain that the sons and daughters of gangsters flood the rolls at MGU, while the straight-A students from little schools like 666 are left with invitations to study refrigeration or marine transport at third rate institutes in the sticks. In any case, Kostya didn't make it, and as his high school career wound to a close, he found himself hanging around the neighborhood at Varshavka, with nothing to do.


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