Freedom News

Book Review: A Normal Life

M Morrison takes a lengthy look at the autobiography of Vassilis Palaiokostas, better known as the Greek Robin Hood.


A Normal Life
by Vassilis Palaiokostas
ISBN: 978-1-904491-40-8
Paperback: 352pp
£15 (available here)


Illegalism is a practice that has its roots in the French anarcho-individualist movement of the late 19th century. The idea in, its initial form, argued that if the meaning of the social revolution is the redistribution of wealth, then the individual who does not want to wait until the day of the revolution also has a moral right to take back from the bourgeoisie. The Illegalist Anarchists argued that crime is an ethical solution worthy of a world that requires one to choose between being an exploiter or being exploited. But illegality quickly proved to be a dead end, the lofty idea led many anarchists to a tragic end behind bars or under the guillotine, but their short lives and violent deaths, created a myth that kept the flame alive.

Illegalism can be seen as a small anecdote within a larger, more famous movement, one that has excited humanity since the dawn of days, the Outlaws. I, among millions of other children around the world, were influenced by the outlaw character played by Clint Eastwood in the Spaghetti Westerns. On Purim, I dressed up as a cowboy or an Indian and dreamed of robbing a bank with guns drawn and a bandana covering my face. It took me far too many years to give up this fantasy and come to terms with reality and grow up. But now it turns out that there were other options and that 1,000 miles from Israel, a man named Vassilis Palaiokostas is fulfilling all my childhood dreams.

Palaiokostas, better known as “The Greek Robin Hood” is a bank robber, industrialist kidnapper, fugitive from the law, and now also a writer. His autobiography was published in Greece in 2019 and immediately became a bestseller. Now, the world’s oldest anarchist book publisher, Freedom Press, has released the English translation of the book A Normal Life. On the cover there is a painting of a man hanging between heaven and earth, clutching a rope thrown at him from a helicopter and beneath him the wire fences of a prison. It’s another “normal” moment in the life of Palaiokostas, who was twice rescued by helicopter from Korydallos Prison in Athens.

The book begins with Vassilis’s attempt to free his brother Nikos from Trikala Prison in the late 1980s. Every time Nikos was brought to court, Vassilis would hide knives, burglary tools, and even once a grenade for him, but Nikos never managed to get his hands on them. Finally, the brothers decided on a simpler plan of action. On a snowy winter day, Vassilis approached the prison walls with a rope in his hands. He tied one end of the rope to a lamppost and threw the other end over the prison wall, to a predetermined place. And like that, in a pastoral and naïve way, the first prison escape occurs in the book. Greece itself is portrayed at the beginning of the book as a magical Neverland where anything can happen: the police always miss their man, and no-one is ever killed. Now with Nikos by his side, the Palaiokostas brothers would carry out the biggest bank robbery in the history of Greece and make sure to pass some of the stolen loot to the poor. The 1990s for most part, passed smoothly for the brothers, with bank robberies, wild car chases in the mountains, and the kidnapping of a top industrialist. After another case in which they’d manage to fool the police, Vassilis allows himself to philosophise: After this terrible shock and emotional distress we suffered, it was now necessary to visit some places of worship. We purged ourselves by invading a handful of modern temples while heavily armed. And by modern temples, I mean banks.”

But the fun, as we all know, can’t last forever and towards the turn of the millennium the book takes a somber turn. Vassilis travels to blow up a maximum-security prison under construction, but on the way he gets into a road accident and is arrested. He will spend the next six years in Greece’s various prisons and discover the common denominator of all of them, brutality towards helpless prisoners. “Blood! On the floor, the walls, the dirty blankets; blood everywhere. Faces swollen, bruised and deformed from severe injuries. Tortured bodies, curled up inside sheets for weeks, unable to even use the bathroom on their own”.

Vassilis provides the curious reader with a rare glimpse into what is happening inside Greek prisons; we are exposed to the pro-fascist guards of the fascist party Golden Dawn, who torment Albanian and Kurdish prisoners, the junkies who work for the prison administration, and well-known figures from the Greek underworld who receive privileges by maintaining order in the jails. The attempts to escape are also very varied, Peter, one of Palaiokostas’ cellmates, is having an affair with the prison’s married psychologist who eventually smuggles him out the front door with a wig, glasses and a doctor’s false identity. Her dead body will be discovered a few years later in Colombia while Peter’s own corpse will eventually pop up in Venezuela. On the other hand, Prisoner Costas Passaris chooses a more violent path. Passaris smuggles a gun into the prison, fakes an epileptic seizure, and is taken to the hospital in handcuffs accompanied by two police officers and a prison guard; the handcuffs do not prevent him from killing both police officers and critically injuring the guard; his escape is just a prelude to a murderous crime spree that continued in Romania and cost him four life sentences in Greece and two in Romania [1]. Meanwhile in prison, Vassilis, who prides himself on never killing anyone, mentors his young cellmate Spyros Dravilas, in his socio-criminal philosophy and marks the lines that separate an anti-authoritarian outlaw from a common delinquent. “Mine (conscience) prohibits me from selling guns, protection of small businesses, drugs (…) They also forbid me from entering a house to steal, to kill an old lady, to become a snitch, to cooperate with a cop, a politician (…) What do they allow me? Only bank robberies, abducting rich people and being part of a revolution towards a more just world.” Later, Spyros, in his own short life, will also become an icon of illegality in Greece.

From where did Vassilis Palaiokostas take his moral code? He was born in the village of Moschofyto, nestled in the mountains of Greece, to a poor family of shepherds who lived without electricity and went on long journeys with their flock of sheep. When Vassilis was 13, his family moved to Trikala, the big city of the district and that’s where things started to get complicated for the family’s children. His shepherd father became a seller at a lottery stand, his older brother Nikos tried his luck as a sailor, and young Vassilis began working in a cheese factory. The employment opportunities offered to Greece’s lower classes in the early 1980s did not seem to appeal to the Palaiokostas brothers. Nikos returned from the sea with new ideas, and Vassilis decided to abandon his place on the assembly line for good, the brothers joined forces and embarked on a new path of “armed struggle” as Vassilis put it. The brothers’ social consciousness seems to stem from their years on the wrong side of capitalism, combined with the rich history of rebellion in Greece, a country where some of its heroes were themselves social bandits.

In the village of Moschofyto there was only one teacher who heroically survived the pranks of the village children and even gave Vassilis a gift that would affect his future: a book about the life of Antonis Katchatonis, a shepherd who became a well-known Klepht.

The Klephts, “thieves” in Greek, were anti-Ottoman insurgents and highwaymen who lived in the mountains. Antonis Katchatonis paid for his rebellion dearly, he was captured by the local Pasha, tortured and had his bones crashed with sledgehammer in a public execution. After the Greek War of Independence Katchatonis and the Klephts became national heroes, but Independent Greece remained a turbulent place; guerrilla groups on the left and fascist militias on the right clashed frequently and at the end of World War II, the social polarisation in the country led to a bloody civil war. After three years of fighting and 150,000 deaths, the military wing of the Communist Party, backed by Tito was subdued by the Greek army with the support of Britain and the USA, but the animosity between the two sides remains to this day.

The social “peace” did not last long, and Vassilis Palaiokostas grew up in the shadow of the military Junta that took over the country in 1967. The Junta years ended with the massacre of students at the Athens Polytechnic on November 17, 1973. The loss in the civil war to army forces backed by Britain and the U.S., and the support the U.S. gave for the junta dictatorship, left a strong anti-imperialist sentiment in the Greek Left, a sentiment that sometimes exploded in a rather violent way. For example, when an assassin of the revolutionary organisation November 17 (Marxists-Leninists) killed the head of the CIA in Greece or when “revolutionary struggle” (anarchists) fired an anti-tank missile at the US embassy in Athens. Vassilis Palaiokostas never defines himself as a communist or anarchist, but his book leaves no doubt that he is a firm believer in the social revolution. Signs of this can be found in the introduction, written by his friend, the anarchist Polykarpos Georgiadis, himself a prisoner in Korydallos Prison, who is now awaiting trial on suspicion of involvement in the urban guerrilla group Omada Laikon Agoniston [2]. Georgiadis says one of the first things that caught his eye when he met Palaiokostas was the red Che Guevara flag hanging in his cell.

Palaiokostas spent his time in Korydallos Prison making grandiose escape plans, one of which included, for example, a missile attack along with other heavy weaponry on the prison walls; when his protégé Spyros went on a prison furlough and did not return, the Greek police, in a typical move, found the body of a random junkie, declared Spyros death and closed the case. Now with Spyros out, Palaiokostas needed a new partner on the inside. Here we are first exposed to another celebrity in the Greek underworld, the convicted murderer and Albanian cultural hero Alket Rizai[3]. After some polite foreplay, Palaiokostas finally posed the question to Rizai, does he plan to remain in prison for the rest of his sentence? “Are you insane? Of course I’m not serving a life sentence! I’m searching for a hole or something to escape…”

The escape plan Palaiokostas offered Rizai did not include digging holes and crawling, but something much more daring. Spyros, the free partner, hired a helicopter to enjoy an aerial view of Athens and the Greek coastline, then mid-flight he pulled out a gun and directed the pilot to a new destination, Korydallos Prison. At the same time Palaiokostas and Rizai walk into the prison yard and lock the gate behind them with an improvised lock. In a move that would make Hollywood screenwriters blush, they waved the red Che Guevara flag in the yard so the pilot would know where to land. The guards assumed it was a surprise visit by a senior politician and withdrew their weapons as the helicopter landed in the prison yard, and flew away with Palaiokostas and Rizai.

Palaiokostas enjoyed freedom for three years, during which he managed to kidnap a Greek tycoon named Giorgos Mylonas, at the time the President of the Association of Industries in Northern Greece. The release of Mylonas unscathed cost his family a reputed 12 million euros. As usual, Palaiokostas did not spend his extortion money on luxury cars and extravagant life. It appears that while all the Greek police were searching for him and a prize of 1.5 million euros was placed on his head, he was watching Monty Python films in a safe house with Georgiadis, the same anarchist who wrote the introduction for the book. Just as they were about to watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail the anti-terrorism unit broke into the place and captured the two. Palaiokostas was returned to Korydallos but this time to the high security C-wing.

The Greek prison authorities, in a move that in the future would lead to conviction of negligence for some guards, decided it was a good idea to put Palaiokostas and Rizai back together in the same cell. While the trial for their previous escape took place, the two had already made new plans for relocation. Despite the heavy security and constant searches of their cell, they still managed to land a helicopter on the roof of the most secure wing of the maximum-security prison. This time there was a shootout with the prison guards and in a video documenting the incident and still available on YouTube[4], you can hear the applause and loud cheers as the helicopters fly away and the other inmates realise that Palaiokostas and Rizai have managed to escape for the second time.

Rizai was arrested nine months later, but Vassilis Palaiokostas is still on the loose today. It has been said that every Greek has a theory about his whereabouts, there are rumors of plastic surgery and that sympathetic communities are hiding him in the mountains. The authorities remain confident that Palaiokostas could come out of the shadows to strike again.

Despite the car chases and the spectacular prison escapes, the book is no ordinary crime autobiography, and it is evident that it was written first and foremost for “people who react and act,” sometimes it even seems to serve as a manual for people who want to join Palaiokostas’ “armed struggle”. In its pages, you can find explanations about the correct choice of a hostage for ransom (no women or children), the most important thing in planning an escape from prison (to have someone willing to sacrifice his life for you), and warnings about the many obstacles that stand in the way of those who choose Illegality as a way of life. In the book Palaiokostas himself seems to be portrayed as a self-righteous man with a bit of an obsessive tendency, who is well aware of his celeb status in the Greek underworld. One of the most beautiful chapters in the book however takes place away from Greece and from all of Vassilis’s illegal entanglements. In the early 1990s, when the authorities dropped a series of robbery cases on him, Palaiokostas was in the midst of a long bicycle trip with a fake Brazilian passport and a friend. The journey, which began in Germany and ended in China, provides the reader with a magical moment of rest from the stressful life in the shadow of Illegalism.

Alongside his admiration for the weapons made by the Soviet Union and the tough mentality of China’s peasants, Palaiokostas also possesses the anarchist temperament, which holds that the responsibility for oppression lays on the shoulders of the individual who does not rebel. He writes “Things are the way they are because you are the way you are, little man. If you were different, things would be different too.” One can understand why Palaiokostas inspires awe and admiration from the masses but only a few of them are willing to follow in his footsteps. Illegalism is not a movement that leads most of its members to prosperity or a long and free life. Palaiokostas is the exception that does not attest to the rule.

His brother Nikos was captured in 2006 after 16 years underground and spent the next 16 years behind bars. After 27 years of operation and 23 murders, members of November 17 were captured in the early 2000s, and most recently their top hitman, Dimitris Koufontinas, returned to the headlines because of a long hunger strike. Anarchist prisoners, some of them bank robbers, some of them members of urban guerrilla groups, and often both, are now flooding Greece’s prisons and receiving astronomical prison terms[5]. Spyros Dravilas, the young prisoner Palaiokostas initiated in prison, ended his young life in a tragic way that can teach us about the tangled ties between outlaws and anarchists in Greece.

Spyros was sentenced to 17 years in Domokos Prison, and decided again in 2013 not to return from his prison furlough and went underground. In addition to bank robberies, the police and the media also suspected him of being responsible for an assassination that happened in February 2015, when the Chief Warden of Domokos Prison[6] met assassins armed with a Kalashnikov who left him with more than 20 bullets in his body. Three months later, Greek police raided a safe house in Nea Anchialos, a small town which is a three hours’ drive from Athens. Two longtime wanted men were arrested in the raid, one with a rich criminal record including extortion, robbery and murder, who shared a cell with Palaiokostas in Korydallos and was connected with well-known anarchist prisoners, and the other, himself an anarchist with a 600,000 euro reward on his head, had been wanted since 2006 after being accused of membership in a gang of anarchist bank robbers dubbed by the media as the “thieves in black”. Spyros Dravilas was also present in the same safe house, but chose to never go back to prison. At only 34 years old, he put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger [7].

As I head towards a more stable phase of my life, with a steady job and organic cocoa in the morning, life underground seems further away from me than ever before. Last summer, I went to Crete with my partner and stayed at a friend’s yoga retreat. The paying customers at the retreat were a couple of high-tech workers from Germany who shared with us pictures of a picturesque pink beach at dinner. Between the morning yoga and the walking meditation workshops, I also managed to read in the local news about a bank robbery in Athens. It seems that Illegalism, unlike its adherents, will not die. A few days later the police reported that they were looking for two suspects with connections to the anarchist scene.

Later I managed to get to that well-known pink beach – hundreds of tourist buses stood at the entrance, chairs and water were sold at exorbitant prices and the feeling on the beach was claustrophobic. I took comfort in the fact that a short drive away there was a nudist beach with no pink sand and no crowds, and that in Greece itself there were still wild and untamed parts where anarchist bank robbers and fugitives on the run, like Vassilis Palaiokostas, could still be free in them. I hope they never get caught.

~ M Morrison


This article was first published at mekomit.co.il and translated before being sent to Freedom. No changes have been made to the text.


Notes

[1] https://www.ekathimerini.com/news/240286/notorious-greek-criminal-convicted-to-multiple-life-sentences-over-2001-murders/

[2] There is also an Israeli connection: in 2014, operatives of the popular rebel group opened fire with a Kalashnikov on the Israeli embassy building in Athens. No one was hurt. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/13/world/europe/israeli-embassy-attack-athens.html

[3] Rizai became a celebrity and hero to the Albanian youth in Greece. Many hip-hop songs were dedicated to him: Tus – Alket Rizai Prod. Jumper – Official Video Clip

[4] Jailbreak – Vasilis Paleokostas and Alket Rijai break-out!

[5] Nikos Mazotis, one of the leaders of the guerrilla group Revolutionary Struggle, was sentenced in 2016 to life imprisonment + 129 years in prison.

[6] https://greekreporter.com/2015/02/22/chief-warden-of-domokos-prison-killed/ Responsibility for the assassination was eventually taken by the Popular Justice Militia.”

[7] After his death, anarchists expressed their grief by burning the private cars of policemen in Athens.