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Hell and Back Again: Life, Death and Heroin in Russia

While small amounts of drugs in theory are decriminalised in Russia, in practise lack of treatment; crooked or overeager cops; a legal system prone to abuse and devoid of accountability; and outright hostility make it nearly impossible for many people to lead normal lives, as in this story of how a young woman was let down by doctors, police officers and those she should have been able to trust. 


Her name was Oksana Shpagina


A few years ago I translated a letter to the Global Commission on Drug Policy in Switzerland from a prison camp deep in the Russian wilderness. The letter told the story of a woman who was knocked down at every turn but kept trying to get up. Her name was Oksana Shpagina.

Oksana was a heroin user from the Russian industrial city of Tolyatti. If that doesn’t sound very Russian, that’s because it’s named after Italian communist Palmiro Togliatti. Tolyatti is Russia’s Detroit, the heart of the country’s auto industry.

Russia’s narcotic history is full of highs and lows. In Tsarist times you could buy damn near anything at the local pharmacy, but morphine and cocaine grew more popular during the Russian Civil War as alcohol was taken off the shelves. Cocaine, in particular, was popular among army officers, glamorous socialites, homeless orphans and the intelligentsia alike. But the communists saw their coke habit as a relic of the decadent past and in 1924, the first laws were passed against drug dealing.

After that, most people were happy drowning themselves in vodka. From the 1960s there was a small subculture of Soviet hippies: a few grew their own weed and opium, but the authorities were more concerned with dissidence. Dope only really began making a comeback in the late ‘80s during the war in Afghanistan (by which time the rest of the world was already high as a kite), and even then it was kind of an underground thing. But when the Soviet Union crashed after finding a planned economy wasn’t as cool as they thought it was, psychotropic highs filled the void.

“People were deprived of a future,” says Max Malyshev, an NGO worker with a long experience of heroin use. “In the Soviet Union you had an algorithm: school, university, they gave you a job and eventually you got an apartment. That all fell apart by the mid-nineties.”

By the 1990s Russia was in shambles. Crime rates had exploded: Tolyatti, like many other cities, was racked by fierce gang wars over the AvtoVAZ auto plant. And while Russians were used to heavy drinking, drugs were seen as another symptom of society’s moral decay since the glorious Soviet past.

Tolyatti lies in Samara, around 200km from the Kazakh border, putting it squarely on the ‘northern route’ for heroin coming up from Afghanistan through Central Asia. As a result, NGOs like Project April are at the front lines of Tolyatti’s heroin crisis.


No time for a life


“I don’t know why she took to heroin,” said Tatyana Kochetkova. “Perhaps, like everyone in our area, she wanted to get away from the wretchedness of being.”

Since Oksana’s no longer with us, this story’s based on her letter to the Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCDP), and someone who knew her: her friend and Project April worker, Tatyana Kochetkova.

“I first heard of Oksana through one of our volunteers. We first spoke on the phone, then met to draw up some documents,” Tatyana told me. “We quickly became close, or something immediately drew me to her: in her I saw courage, directness, and a healthy sense of irony and self-criticism.

“We were always either going to court, preparing for court, or wrote one another when she was at the [prison] colony. We didn’t really talk about hobbies. When you’re hooked on drugs and hiding from the police each day, you don’t particularly care about hobbies. Most of all, she just wanted to live: without cops, without addiction, without danger. To be loved.”

But there was one thing of which she’d always dreamed – having a baby. There was just one problem – she was HIV-positive. Oksana happily went to the hospital for a pre-natal exam, but when they found out she was pregnant, the doctors said she couldn’t have it thanks to her status.

“I had been addicted to heroin for several years, but I was coping,” Oksana wrote in her letter to the Commission. “I managed not to use drugs for two years before I became pregnant. In the hospital, I was stunned when I was told that I would not be able to give birth, because I had used drugs and was HIV-positive. I was upset, beyond words. My dream fell apart.”


The cruel play of the doctors


Oksana had no choice but to find money for an abortion. She was then thirty-years-old.

“Maybe there’s another way to have it done for free, but the doctors didn’t tell me,” she wrote. “I cried all the time and stopped eating. I wanted to kill myself. I got pulled back into drugs, and grew so thin my body was little more than a skeleton. I wrote a letter to my sister, preparing to die.”

To get an abortion after twelve weeks in Russia you need a letter from the narcology department (the Soviet branch of medicine dealing with substance abuse) certifying you as a “drug addict”. Oksana couldn’t even get certified at first – the narcology clinic were reluctant to take pregnant women and only agreed to help her after she promised to get an abortion. Then, the night before the procedure, after all of this this trauma had put her on the brink of suicide, she discovered the truth: it’s completely possible to have a healthy, normal child when you have HIV. Oksana’s jaw dropped.

“So that means everything I’d just been through was purely at the whim of the doctors?!” she fumed. “I announced that I was having the child! The staff at the clinic yelled at me, calling me an irresponsible junkie, and they didn’t want to return my money for the procedure. Due to everything I’d been through, I went into labour prematurely, and at 28 weeks I had a beautiful, healthy baby girl, Julia. It was such a joy, even though it came at such a heavy price.”


A young Oksana Shpagina. Source: Tatyana Kochetkova


Not only a Russian problem


Despite the Hippocratic oath to do no harm, the medical profession suffers the same prejudices as the rest of us. And not only in Russia.

Last year a shocking video emerged from the Philippines, where doctors and nurses apparently refuse to treat a victim with gunshot wounds as he lies writhing in agony. The Philippines is now in the grip of a deadly war on drugs led by President Rodrigo Duterte: up to 29,000 people may have been executed in the past four years by either police, vigilantes or unofficial death squads.

Surveys show the majority of Filipinos support the crackdown; so, it seems, apparently did the nurses. The man in the video, an alleged drug suspect, was caught in a police shootout. That was enough for hospital staff to write him off – he died in an hour from blood loss.

Even in war you’re supposed to tend to the enemy’s wounded.

Julia was born in the summer of 2011, but her mother’s bliss would only last two short years. Oxana recommitted to abstinence after her daughter’s birth and complained to the Ministry of Health about her treatment at the hands of the doctors, but the court threw out her complaint. It was then that the games really began.


A trip to rehab


“Oksana filed a complaint about the horrors of her pregnancy, the lies of the doctors, the threats – she’s a drug addict, she’s raising a freak!” recalled Tatyana. “Then to compromise her or force her to stop the process, there were anonymous tip-offs claiming she didn’t vaccinate the child, or she didn’t care for her and started injecting. But the inspectors came to her house and everything was fine.”

Oksana got a job as a driver, but the long hours and coming home to her scolding relatives, who looked after Julia while she was away, took their toll on her. Eventually, she began using again. She filed another complaint, this time with the European Court of Human Rights, and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, before checking herself into a detox centre.

“It was one of those new Protestant centres. The traditional religion in Russia’s Orthodoxy, so this is something new to us, but they’re very active with the youth, especially young people who use drugs,” Tatyana explained. “This place had a special feature. Most rehabs are only willing to take adults, but those who’ll take a mother and her child you can count on one hand, so Oksana was roped in. But the centre said they’d only admit her if she withdrew the complaint, so we had to put that on hold for a bit so she could relax.”

Oksana came out in November of 2014 and that same year, Julia’s father died. She relapsed again. It wasn’t long before she got a house call from some unwanted visitors.




One day our heroine was leaving her apartment with two friends, a girl and a guy, when just as they opened the door counternarcotics agents burst in. What happened next depends on who you believe. The cops say they found a load of drugs. This is Oksana and Tatyana’s version:

The feds scoured the apartment, but no-one had anything on them. Then one of the officers did something so flagrant and egregious it almost defies belief. He reached into a cupboard, took out some granulated sugar and poured it on the table, rolling a bottle over the mess to crush it into a finer power, before taking out a few empty syringes and scattering them on the table.

He showed this to the neighbours, who were there as witnesses, as evidence drugs had been found. Oksana and the other girl were taken down to the station where two more syringes filled with a narcotic concoction mysteriously appeared in their pockets.

“When I, as a defence witness, confronted one of the officers with this in court, he told me, as if he was making excuses: ‘but I’m not guilty… she really was a drug addict’,” Tatyana said. “What’s more, the other lad who was with them that morning was supposed to come to Oksana and leave a little of his stuff behind so the cops could use it as evidence there were drugs in the apartment. But he ended up using it all so the officers had to improvise.”

It’s common practice for cops to pressure someone they’ve caught into giving up their friends, as well as planting evidence: after all, they’ve got quotas to fill, and the more “good-for-nothing junkies” they catch the better (or so they tell themselves).




Set-up and betrayed, Oksana also had to endure the humiliation of having an article posted about her on the police’s website.

“The drug control service published an article on their website, portraying me as a horrible monster and revealed my drug dependency and HIV status,” she wrote. “The article was removed only after I wrote a complaint to the prosecutor’s office, but it was too late: almost all of my friends and relatives had read it.”

Oksana lost her job and was slapped with three years in a prison camp. Her mother-in-law agreed to help look after Julia only after genetic tests proved her kinship with her granddaughter. But there could be another reason for the set-up: Oksana bringing her case to the European court.

“We generally don’t like criticism in Russia,” Olga Romanova of the non-profit Rus’ Sidyashchaya (“Imprisoned Russia”) told me. “It is believed that if you criticise something Russian, that means you’re a traitor and do not love your homeland. And for sure you do it for money from the enemies of Russia. And the enemies of Russia are everywhere.”

Olga’s had a case filed against her too, for embezzlement. Framing is an easy way for officials to smear troublesome characters and dismiss their complaints. Who’s gonna listen to a “criminal out for themselves”?

“In Russia today there are around half-a-million prisoners – those convicted of drug trafficking, almost a third,” Olga explained. “People who use drugs are the easiest prey. As soon as drugs are found on such people, possession charges are automatically filed. If there’s evidence, real or not, that the person used drugs with someone else, distribution is added. For that you can get fifteen years – it won’t shock anyone.”

Olga says one of the most common cases is the cops catching two youngsters smoking a joint. The guys don’t take their arrest seriously – it’s just a joint. The police record how many drags they had – I took a hit, passed it to Vasya; I took a toke, passed it back to Peter; and so on, ten times in a row. But as a result, ten charges of drug distribution appear on the case, enough to put them away for years.

“Meanwhile, drugs can be planted on completely ‘clean’ people for revenge, on request, or just for the sake of stats,” Olga continued. “The first two groups – the consumers and those who were framed – make up a majority of drug convictions. The rest are small dealers. The big-time drug lords work under the protection of the FSB [Federal Security Service].”


Oksana Shpagina as an adult. Source: Tatyana Kochetkova

A broken system


It’s not the first time someone using drugs in Tolyatti has come up against the powers that be. In 2012 Ivan Anoshkin, who began using heroin when he was just fourteen, wrote to the Ministry of Health asking for opioid substitution therapy, internationally recognised as one of the most effective ways to manage dependency.

But methadone’s illegal in Russia, seen as “just another way for those beatniks to get their jollies”. The next day Ivan was arrested for possession and beaten up at a police station. He also took his case to the European Court of Human Rights, after which the NGO he worked at was apparently harassed and pressured to fire him. He later lost the case.

“Were they paying extra attention to her? 100%,” Tatyana said of her friend. “I even had the police round my house as reprisals for my work with the UN. A policeman just burst in and menacingly told me they got an anonymous tip-off my house was being used to sell drugs.”

In prison, Oksana complained about inconsistent treatment for her HIV, saying her treatment was irregular as the supply of anti-retroviral drugs at the camp was intermittent. According to Olga Romanova, conditions in Russia’s prisons are dire – torture, overcrowding and sometimes there’s not enough medicine to go round, but in theory, HIV medication shouldn’t be in short supply since it comes from large, well-connected conglomerates. However, HIV is a complex condition that requires constant check-ups, varying doses and frankly, no-one cares.

“I have been at the camp for one year now, two more to go,” the final words from Oksana’s letter read. “We work almost every day, with no days off. I’m worried about my health. I don’t dare to think about my daughter or I’ll start to cry. I only dream of one thing – to see Julia again. To never be separated again.”

In the end, Oksana lived just long enough to see her daughter. They were reunited for a few short months on her release. But the inconsistent HIV treatment she got in prison wore her down, and she began feeling worse and worse. Six months later, her long ordeal was over. Oksana Shpagina died in January last year.

“Julia’s being brought up by the mother of the late husband and goes trampolining,” Tatyana said. “She’s surrounded by care, love, and warmth. Oksana dreamed of this for her, but for them to be together.”

Russia doesn’t look like it’s softening its stance on drugs anytime soon. Last year, the arrest of reporter Ivan Golunov and his obvious stitch-up by the cops got a lot of attention (including from me). But a bid to lower the punishments after Golunov’s flimsy arrest was shot down, while a new bill against “narco-propaganda” looks like it could follow the infamous “gay propaganda” laws, making life more difficult for those who use drugs and the NGOs that advocate for them. In the meantime, for many ordinary Russians, stories like Oksana’s happen every day.


* Niko Vorobyov is a government-certified (convicted) drug dealer turned writer and author of the book Dopeworld, about the international drug trade. You can follow him @Lemmiwinks_III

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