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Russia to shut down 200-year old prison in central Moscow after city agrees to fund replacement

Russia to shut down 200-year old prison in central Moscow after city agrees to fund replacement
One of Russia’s oldest prisons, Butyrka, is to be closed after its inmates are transferred to a new detention facility, the construction of which the Moscow mayor’s office has agreed to fund.

It is good news for people held in pretrial detention in the prison, which is old enough to count among its earlier cellmates Yemelyan Pugachev, the famous leader of the 18th century peasant rebellion.

The idea to shut down Butyrka with its outdated cells has been hanging in the air for decades. According to deputy director of the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN), the decision to finally get rid of this facility has now been taken. Another less archaic pretrial prison in Moscow, Presnya, will see the same fate, he told Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper.

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“At first we planned to build a new facility instead of Presnya, which would house 2,000 inmates, with our funding. But the mayor’s office suggested another option – to shut down Butyrka and also Matrosskaya Tishina and build a new modern 80-hectare 5,000-bed pretrial facility with the city’s money,” Valery Maksimenko said.

The fate of Matrosskaya Tishina, yet another historic prison in Moscow, is still under deliberation, he said. The prison is to be built somewhere on the outskirts of Moscow as part of the large development project called “New Moscow”, he said. The work may begin as soon as in January.

Butyrka, or officially Pretrial Detention Facility No 2, started its long history as the barracks of a hussar regiment combined with a jail. In 1771, Empress Catherine the Great ordered a large prison castle built in its place. The four towers of that building still exist as part of the prison, preserved throughout the rebuilding projects. One of them, where Pugachev was held in chains in 1775 before his execution, is named after the notorious rebel.

Among other famous inmates of Butyrka is poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who spent 11 months there in 1908-1909 when he was suspected of political crimes and ties with anarchists. Dreaded Bolshevik security chief Felix Dzerzhinsky was held in the prison after being convicted in 1916, but was released in February next year after the Russian royal family was ousted from power. Others include space engineer Sergey Korolev, poet Osip Mandelstam and author and political activist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

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Some people visited Butyrka as guests. Harry Houdini staged one of his famous escapes in the Moscow prison. Singer Feodor Chaliapin is said to have given a concert there in 1920. And in 2009 actor Mickey Rourke visited it as he was preparing to play a Russian villain in Iron Man 2.

FSIN has been looking for ways to replace Butyrka for years. The old prison can hardly be called suitable for comfortable living. A private developer reportedly wanted to buy the prison in the late 2000s, but was scared off by the price tag of a new modern prison, which FSIN wanted in return.

With Moscow agreeing to foot the bill, the old fort is to become property of the city once all the inmates are transferred, according to Maksimenko, the deputy head of FSIN. He said he hopes that the buildings are preserved for their historic value and not torn down for the expensive land they stand on.

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