On Tuesday 4 August 2009 the St. Petersburg City Court examined the appeal in the case of Alexei Bychin, a young anti-fascist arrested in the summer of last year. According to witnesses, the trial lasted around three minutes and upheld Bychin's sentence: five years in a maximum security prison. From three to five, as people say in jest. But this time the story isn't funny at all.
At the beginning of the white nights season in the middle of June 2008, a group of young punk rockers were walking around in the centre of Petersburg. Among them was Alexei Bychin, who had the ironic punk nickname Tolsty (Fatty), because he is thin and small (50 kg, 165 cm). There were girls in the group too.
Not far from the department store Gostiny Dvor, Bychin and the girls encountered two tough guys who decided to pick on them, and in a very peculiar way: they raised their right arms and shouted "Heil Hitler!" These two guys had picked up on signs that the group were anti-fascists. It's not very difficult - punks in Moscow and Petersburg are practically all anti-fascists nowadays, and not just in these cities. A slanging match ensued. Soon, words became actions. The skinheads made a ‘rose' (you knock out the bottom of a bottle and get a real weapon, quite a dangerous one) and hit Bychin. It was one scrawny kid against two big guys (the tradition in Russian society is that girls don't take part in street fights). Bychin took out a knife and stabbed one of them. The nazi sympathizers were not morally prepared for the knife and fled. The girls sighed with relief.
About a month later the police picked up a punk friend of Bychin's. He
was handcuffed to a radiator in an uncomfortable position and held there for
many hours until he broke down and grassed on Bychin. He rang and asked Bychin
to come and meet him. Not
expecting to be framed, Bychin turned up and was immediately arrested. The
Petersburg police displayed such zeal in this rather trivial case for the understandable
reason that the injured man was a colleague, a trainee in the Special Police
The journalist Tatyana Likhanova has unearthed the fact that he is also a
former neo-nazi, who was in an extremist political group before he joined the
army. A former neo-nazi or a current one, given the "joke" with which Bychin's
night incident started?
The question arises: is Bychin paranoid? Why did he grab his knife? No, Alexei's not paranoid, his mental state is quite healthy, as the forensic medical assessment established. They also found a knife wound on his arm that was received at the time of the fight near Gostiny Dvor. But Bychin didn't go to hospital to get his wound treated and the former (?) neo-nazi did. Alexei must have remembered previous encounters between neo-nazis and anti-fascists, while he was being attacked. One in Petersburg ended very badly indeed. In the autumn of 2005 a 20-year-old punk musician and student at the philosophy faculty of St. Petersburg State University Timur Kacharava, was killed by neo-nazis. The killers shouted "Anti-antifa!"
In January 2007, Ivan Yelin, a young anti-fascist, was attacked: he had 21 knife wounds, but miraculously he survived. He managed to make a telephone call and the doctors arrived on time.
If we go further afield, we can continue the list: on 16 April 2006 anti-fascist Alexander Ryukhin was killed on the outskirts of Moscow. He was almost 20 (just a few days short of his birthday), and was going to a concert with a friend. Six neo-nazi killers armed with knives attacked them shouting "Anti-fa! Lets get 'em!" His friend Yegor who was walking next to him managed to run away. The killers caught up with Alexander, and stabbed him in the head and the heart. We note in passing that the investigating officer tried to charge three of the (six) killers who had been caught at the scene of the crime with public order offences. It was only the efforts of the lawyer Stanislav Markelov, now deceased, that ensured they were given a real prison sentence. But only three of them - the other three are still are out there somewhere.
In July 2007 at night on the outskirts of Angarsk neo-nazis attacked a small environmental antinuclear camp, where there were anarchists and anti-fascists. The outcome: seven injured, one killed - Ilya Borodaenko from Nakhodka. The attackers were arrested at the scene of the crime, but released on parole less than a year later. There hasn't been a trial yet. Under the currently fashionable "juvenile justice", consideration is given to the fact that the poor neo-nazi killers were under 18 at the time of the crime, or at least one of them was.
In the spring of 2008 Alexei Krylov was stabbed to death in the centre of Moscow, not far from the Russian presidential administration building. Like Ryukhin, he was going to an anti-fascist punk concert. There were around 15 attackers, and the girl who was with Krylov was also stabbed several times, but she was saved by her backpack, which was cut in several places, and also because she was able to evade some of the blows. Alexei Bychin, without a doubt, knew about all these incidents, as he is part of the same environment as those who were killed. He clearly simply didn't want to be the next person on the list of victims. But he fell victim to the corporate solidarity of the Petersburg police, who twisted the investigation in such a way that the two neo-nazi thugs became the innocent victims. The result was a sentence of five years in a maximum security prison.
However, the story of street confrontations between fascists and anti-fascists doesn't end there. In October 2008 Fyodor Filatov, the leader of the anti-racist skinhead group MTS was stabbed to death in the stairwell of his own building. MTS stands for Moscow Trojan Skinheads. It's worth emphasising once again that not all skinheads in Russia (and the world) are racists and neo-nazis and that the history of the skinhead movement in England began in 1969 with multi-racial groups of young workers. It was only 10 years later, with the beginning of the economic recession and the growth of unemployment, that they began to be recruited by the National Front. Fyodor was also not a racist or neo-nazi; on the contrary, he was an anti-fascist. His four killers have yet to be found. But the secret police were diligent in their pursuit of the anti-fascists: less than a month after Filatov's murder, his best friend, anti-fascist Alexei Olesinov, a former student of the Moscow State University philosophy faculty, was arrested at home.
On a trumped up charge of fighting with the security guards at the club Kult, he was sent down for a year. There were no injuries in the fight, though it wasn't even a fight, more of a scuffle, to club property or the security guards, which is incidentally what they themselves stated at the investigation and at the trial. Stanislav Markelov agreed to represent Fyodor Filatov's relatives in court. He became Olesinov's defence lawyer, but for understandable reasons (his death on 19 January 2009 from a shot to the head in broad daylight, not far from the Kremlin) he did not appear in court. Olesinov was defended in the final stages by lawyer Mikhail Trepashkin.
I am only listing the anti-fascist victims of neo-nazi terror, not the victims of retaliation attacks. This is for a good reason. Despite the established stereotype that "neo-nazis and anti-fascists are one and the same thing", Russian, Belarussian and Ukrainian anti-fascists, young men and women of direct action, do not engage in murder. They may rough their enemies up, but they don't kill. In this sense the murder of the Ukrainian neo-nazi Maxim Chaika in Odessa was the tragic result of neo-nazi actions. 15 neo-nazis attacked 5 anti-fascists, who naturally got out their knives. There were no international conspiracies, no intrigues by Russia or any external forces acting against Ukraine, as President Yushchenko unworthily tried to prove during his election campaign. The war between neo-nazis and their enemies goes on all over the world. Now it has affected Ukraine as well.
In fact, and this is also quite well known, anti-fascists are not the only, or even the main, victims of neo-nazi killings. The main victims are foreigners, immigrants from other Soviet republics, gypsies, representatives of other non-Slavic (I almost said "non-Aryan") peoples of Russia. The champions of racial and national homogeneity spare no one. Among episodes laid at the door of the Voevodin-Borovikov gang, whose members have been on trial for six months in Petersburg, there are also murders and attempted murders of children. According to press reports (see for example the article by Natalya Shkurenok in "Vremya Novostei" last week), Voevodin is not ashamed to preach neo-nazism to the jury, and sympathizers of the accused appear at hearings with swastika tattoos on their arms and legs (as it's summer, they can wear shorts to show the Nazi symbol to the people of Petersburg, including survivors of the blockade). During the hearings several members of the gang have brought up episodes that are nothing to do with the case, or accomplices who don't figure in the case files. The judge usually interrupts the eloquence of the accused to say that these details are unnecessary.
Forgive me for a note of pathos: isn't this a farce?
At the beginning of August, the jury in the case of the Voevodin gang went on holiday (Borovikov, the son of a high-ranking Petersburg policeman, who was the second man in the criminal organisation was killed when under arrest in 2006).
Also at the beginning of August in the court of appeal the trial of Bychin took place, which is where I began this article. I don't know where the judges at this hearing were in a hurry to get to - on holiday or to the toilet - but they spoke so unclearly and so quickly that Alexei Bychin's lawyer Olga Tseitlina didn't even catch their surnames. The hearing, I repeat, lasted about three minutes. Bychin's sentence - five years in a maximum security prison - remained in force. For exceeding the limits of justifiable self-defence. At the same time, the accomplices in the murder of Timur Kacharava, with one exception, received laughable prison sentences of one and half, two and two and a half years... Of course, Tseitlina will appeal the sentence (as soon as she receives a copy of the verdict in the post and finds out the names of the judges). But the persistence of the law-enforcement systems in cases where the police esprit de corps has been piqued (in this case the esprit of an OMON trainee who raised his arm in a nazi salute) is also well known.
The day before the trial there was a protest demonstration in support of Alexei Bychin on the embankment of St Peterburg's Griboyedov Canal. The dummy of a cop hanging from the railings was a clear indication of how young antifascists feel that their government and its legal system play along with the neo-nazis. They will continue to feel this until there is some change in the courts
Rapporteur Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger's PACE report of 23 June 2009 on politically motivated abuses of the criminal justice system in Council of Europe member states.
There is strong evidence, especially that gathered by Professor Alena Ledeneva of University College London, that the practice continues to the present day. In her words (2008): "Experts largely agree on the following formula: although it is ridiculous to suggest that every court case in Russia is decided according to directives from above or on the basis of alternative incentives, it is perfectly possible to imagine that a way to influence a particular case can be found if necessary."
But that does not mean that Russia has no history of judicial reform. Indeed, the first full professor of law in Russia, S E Desnitsky, obtained his Doctorate in Civil Law from the University of Glasgow in 1767, studying under Adam Smith and others. He took the ideals of the Scottish Enlightenment back to Russia, proposed the abolition of serfdom and a constitutional monarchy to Catherine the Great, and died in his bed in 1789, the year of the French revolution and the Declaration of Rights of Man and of the Citizen..
But genuine attempts at judicial reform have occurred twice in Russia's history, on each occasion following terrible defeats.
Twice in its recent history Russia has considered itself to be invincible, only to find itself humiliated. Most recently, the Soviet Union, effectively Russia, perceived itself to be the victor of World War II, at the head of an unstoppable worldwide movement, triumphant in space exploration. Within only a few decades the USSR was defeated in Afghanistan and could not compete with the USA in weapons development. Its economy was based largely then as now on oil export. The USSR collapsed and Russia, on its own, relapsed into a new "time of troubles", and became an international basket-case, a condition from which Putin seeks to rescue it.
Russia felt itself similarly invincible after its defeat of Napoleon in 1812. Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy and many others represented the world class culture of a world power. Defeat in the Crimean War (1853-1856) was a rude awakening. It was plain that the old order could not continue.
The great reforming Tsar Aleksandr II saw this clearly. He was born in 1818, a few years after the defeat in 1812 of Napoleon in Russia's Patriotic War, and was assassinated in 1881 by a member of Narodnaya Volya, the "Peoples Will". He came to the throne in 1855, and was forced to negotiate humiliating peace terms for the Russian Empire, which gave up pre-eminence in the Black Sea following the Crimean War.
Then Aleksandr turned his attention to domestic reform. On 3 March 1861 he signed the law emancipating the serfs. It should be noted that Russia was ahead: slavery in the USA was not abolished until the passage of the Thirteenth amendment to the US Constitution in 1865. In 1864 he carried through a series of radical legal and judicial reforms. These included a unified courts system, based on the French model; a radical reduction in the importance of the Prokuror, whose function henceforth was to present the state's case in court, rather than act as the "eye of the Tsar" for all aspects of life as previously; a system of justices of the peace to hear less important cases; an independent judiciary; and finally trial by jury, with 12 jurors.
The acid test came in 1878, when a St Petersburg jury acquitted the revolutionary Vera Zasulich of attempted murder, despite the fact that she had shot the governor of St Petersburg, Fyodor Trepov, in front of witnesses, intending to kill him. The judge was the great Russian jurist A F Koni (1844-1927), who refused to respond to state pressure, and conducted a fair trial. He directed the jury that Zasulich had no defence in law; but they acquitted her anyway. The acquittal was respected. She later took part in the Bolshevik revolution. Koni made a splendid career, and continued to lecture and write following the revolution. The jury members were not punished.
Despite the reaction which set in after Aleksandr's assassination, these reforms were respected until the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917. For a short time in the 1890s Lenin practised law, unsuccessfully, and his enemy Aleksandr Kerensky, leader of the Provisional Government in 1917, was the defence lawyer in a number of political trials of enemies of the Tsar,
In December 1917 the Bolsheviks abolished jury trial and the justices of the peace, and restored the Prokuratura to its pre-revolutionary status and power. Only the Bar (Advokatura) retained formal independence from the Soviet state and, despite constant interference, a number of fearless lawyers continued to represent the "enemies of the people". Some, outstanding advocates like Karinna Moskalenko,Yuri Schmidt and Semyon Ariya, continue even now to fight on behalf of enemies of the Kremlin.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 opened the way to a renewal of legal and judicial reform. On 22 November 1991 a Declaration of the Rights and Freedoms of the Person and Citizen was enacted. An unprecedented Constitutional Court, created as the USSR reached its death-throes, started work in January 1992, followed by enactment of a law on the status of judges, and a law giving citizens the right to challenge activities and decisions which violate their rights. On 16 July 1993 a great experiment began with the introduction of jury trial, in nine Russian regions. And in 1996 Russia consented to interference in its internal affairs and joined the Council of Europe, ratifying the European Convention of Human Rights in 1998.
But the full restoration of the reforms of Aleksandr II, at least on paper, did not take place until after Russia's humiliation during the Yeltsin period. This ended on the stroke of midnight 2000, with the appointment of Vladimir Putin as Acting President. Putin's project is to restore Russia's status as a Great Power. For example, the Second Chechen War; and the "Five Day War" with Georgia in August 2008. This policy has continued "in tandem" with his appointee as successor President following the end of his own two terms, the maximum possible: Dmitrii Medvedev,
From 2000 to 2003 President Putin expressly referred to himself as following in the footsteps of the great reforming Tsar, Alexander II, and his law reforms of 1864. Putin too presided over creation of a system of justices of the peace; installation of jury trial throughout Russia with the exception of Chechnya; enhanced judicial status and a greatly enhanced budget for the judicial system; and a much reduced role for the prosecutor in criminal and civil trials. He even cited Judge Koni.
However, the initial phase of legal reform from 2000, which included enactment of new procedural codes for the courts, came to an abrupt end in late 2003, with the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the destruction of his YUKOS oil company. Putin began to talk about "sovereign democracy"; by which he actually meant a highly authoritarian and capricious regime.
The judicial system remains in the state described in my first paragraphs above. In her recently published Report, the Rapporteur of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly, a former Minister of Justice of Germany, has said: "... the traditionally subservient attitude among many judges and prosecutors inherited from the past has not yet been fully overcome; on the contrary, after an encouraging new beginning in the early 1990s, judges are subjected to an increasing level of pressure aimed at ensuring convictions in almost all cases brought to court by the prosecutor's office."
In May 2008 the new President of the Russian Federation, Dmitrii Medvedev, a former law professor, acknowledged that the Russian criminal justice system, and the Prokuratura in particular, still had structural defects that lead to the accusation and conviction of many innocent persons. He used the evocative term "legal nihilism". He promised bring about real reform.
However, in March 2009 this term came to the Rapporteur's mind when she attended a hearing at the second trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his colleague Platon Lebedev. Mr Khodorkovsky was sentenced to 9 years imprisonment, reduced to 8 on appeal, in 2005, and this conviction is now the subject of a case at the European Court of Human Rights. Fresh investigations were launched against him as his first trial proceeded. The Rapporteur tried to understand the reasoning behind the accusations. As she pointed out "As a matter of fair trial, any accusation must fulfil minimum standards of logic in order for a meaningful defence to be at all possible." She was struck by the following: "... the new charges apparently amount to attaching a different legal qualification to the same facts rather than prosecuting the accused for a different set of facts." She analysed the new allegations and her conclusion was that "In essence, Yukos, in effect its senior executives, is ... accused of stealing its own oil and of committing the crime of money laundering by selling it on the world market and using the proceeds for normal company purposes." The mind boggles.
The Rapporteur documents a large number of cases in which defence lawyers are subjected to intimidation and reprisals. More worrying still, jury trial is under threat. It should be noted that the acquittal rate in ordinary criminal cases is less than 1%, whereas in jury trials some 20% of accused are acquitted. But recent legislative proposals seek to exclude jury trial in cases involving terrorism, treason, violations of state security and secrecy, and "extremism". A very wide range of activities is now characterized as "extremist" in Russia. At the same time, murders such as those of the investigating journalist Anna Politkovskaya in October 2006, and of the lawyer Stanislav Markelov and the journalist Anastasia Baburina on 19 January 2009 go unpunished, and indeed there are no signs of prompt or effective investigation.
The sad fact is that where the subject matter of a trial, criminal or civil, is of importance to the Russian state, then a fair trial is unlikely. This has been recognized by the British courts in a series of cases, most recently in December 2008, in which they have rejected Russia's requests for extradition of Russian citizens charged with criminal offences in Russia. In the eyes of the British judges, these requests are politically motivated; and there is a high risk that the persons whose extradition is requested will not get a fair trial in Russia.
There are honest and independent judges in Russia. In December 1999 the St Petersburg judge Sergey Golets stood up to intense pressure from the authorities and acquitted the former nuclear submarine commander Aleksandr Nikitin of charges of espionage and treason, for environmental activities. In my own case in 2006 for judicial review of deportation the previous year, a woman judge in the Khimki City Court refused to accept the authorities lack of evidence against me, and I have since returned to Russia.
But the system as a whole has not yet been reformed. If anything, sadly, it has regressed.
What was so distinctive about incarceration under the Communist regime was not that the prisoners worked on ambitious economic projects, but that prisoners' work was regarded as central to the advancement of the Soviet economy.
Political ideology was fused with subverted and supplanted legal norms to create an economic camp-industrial complex. Definitions of crime and punishment were faithful to the utopian destiny of the USSR: all crime was capitalist excess and punishment must seek to change deviants from being anti-Soviet to perfect proletarians and (therefore) loyal Soviet citizens. Hooliganism was a crime because smashing shop windows and causing street disturbances wrecked the harmony of Soviet society. In this way jailed criminals took their place alongside teachers, doctors, mothers and fathers to commit to labour that would create the long cherished dream: a kingdom of heaven on earth.
From a criminological perspective, the myth-making was audacious - a penal fantasy. Prisoners would work on grand economic projects elevating their status not as profaned convicts, but as builders of communism. The reality, however, was that millions of citizens were arrested on the street, at home, on their way to work and subjected to clandestine trials before being sent to prison camps and forced to work, often to death, as slaves in industries as diverse as building railways to making class-room furniture.
If loyalty to the USSR was the ideological foundation of penal policy and criminal law, then the Gulag (Glavnoie Upravlenie Lagerei - Central Administration of Camps) was the repository of Soviet ideology: a giant industrial camp complex managing all economic projects. Created in 1934, the Gulag operated way beyond crime control in the usual sense by providing State functions. Indeed, the Gulag penal system became the exaggerated microcosm of Soviet bureaucracy and social control.
Therefore, it could be argued that the conventional demarcation between criminal justice and society was obscured in Russia. Prisons, for all their horrors, were about loyalty to the cause, about honour, about glory. For the entire Stalin period (1926-1953) prisons were everywhere in the USSR. The precise number held in Soviet prisons during that period has become a matter of guesswork. The figure of 12 million is widely accepted as accurate because the figure is based on actual numbers incarcerated and not total numbers ‘repressed' (which includes many millions who were not sent to the camps).
Prisoner memoirs time and again reveal the brutality of penal repression, relating the pains of imprisonment to the politicisation of the self. The Soviet prison, we learn, existed neither as a single unified experience, nor as a single unified institution. Andrew Meier argues that millions of Russians, including victims, believed passionately in Marxism/Leninism and the national psyche it espoused and he adds further that Russians have not come to terms fully with their past.
Ultimately, the Soviet national psyche created contradictory juxtapositions. Cities built from the Stalinist terror became the heirs of the Gulag. Gulags, argues Meier, created impressive national industries where captives and captors shared a sense of affinity.
There has been some discussion of how former prisoners, brutalised by the system, were left with no feeling of what it means to be either Russian or a victim of penal atrocity. Neither was there any significant progress in penal ideology in the period after Stalinism. Real rehabilitation - admitting that the state had made a mistake - came some time after the Gulag was dismantled following Stalin's death in 1953. For the victims this was piecemeal apology. With judicial reform delayed until well into the 1960's and ideological reform stalled, the system remained untouched for years after Stalin's death.
By 1991 Soviet Russia had binged on imprisonment. Society was fed on a diet of propaganda and fear, so that deeply ingrained feelings about the real contribution work can make to society later became part of the national psyche. Thus, the prison ethos actually strengthened the powerful cultural symbolism of the Soviet work ethic.
Three phases can be identified in the contemporary development of the Russian penal system: the immediate aftermath and the exposure of degrading conditions (phase 1); the turbulent mid-late 1990's when a process of indigenisation of criminal justice emerged (phase 2) and the present day, marked by an externally driven human rights import which aims to deliver new international priorities in the area of prison management and the confinement of prisoners (phase 3). We might also posit a fourth: a post-disciplinary society.
Phase 1:a system in chaos
The impact on the penal system of the collapse of the USSR in 1991 was monumental. When the doors of the prisons were opened, the reality was shocking. Human rights abuses, massive overcrowding, disease and torture were commonplace in the Soviet penal system. TB was rife, prisoners died of overcrowding and malnutrition. Victims of AIDS have now joined the prison population. The problems remain particularly acute in the remand prisons (SIZO). The Soviet system of imprisonment had become notorious from the writings of dissidents, campaigners and the international human rights community. The horrifying scale of the brutality was reported by United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture as follows:
"The Special Rapporteur would need the poetic skills of a Dante or the artistic skills of a Bosch adequately to describe the infernal conditions he found in these cells. The senses of smell, touch, taste and sight are repulsively assailed. The conditions are cruel, inhuman and degrading; they are torturous" (The United Nations, Economic and Social Council, 1994: 19).
With the collapse of the Soviet economy, prisons could no longer function as an industrial monolith. Not only was the penal system in a scandalous state physically. It was in ideological chaos too. In terms of political ideology, a vacuum had been created.
In 2001 the prison population in Russia was the second highest per head of the population in the world with 670 per 100,000 of the population (979,285) being held in all places of confinement. This compares to 130 per 100,000 (67,056 total) for England and Wales for the same year. At the beginning of 2006 there were 209 remand centres, 7 prisons and 141 institutions holding pre-trial prisoners, 767 correctional colonies, and 62 educational colonies for young offenders (14-17 years). Of the 763,000 in detention in 2005, 600,000 were serving sentences in closed institutions with barracks known as correctional colonies.
Phase 2: the indigenisation of criminal justice
In 1999 I looked at how the penal system experienced the collapse of the Soviet prison monolith. Aspects considered included what kinds of work, programmes and initiatives had replaced the camp industrial complex. Also how prison personnel allocated and administered imprisonment in a ‘modern day' Russia now that the penal system was no longer driven by a dominant ideology.
A deep ideological upheaval was taking place: the central prison authorities in Moscow, with the best of intentions, were struggling to control the entire penal system as a unified entity. Ideas about imprisonment were contradictory and confusing, as Russian society under Boris Yeltsin was in the midst of a turbulent and chaotic transition.
In western Russia (Smolensk), for example, westernised notions of imprisonment (punishment and rehabilitation) and of crime (criminals are innately bad) formed the basis for new interventions. Behavioural psychology, cognitive behavioural therapy and soothing words transmitted over a Tannoy system were among new approaches being rapidly taken on board. Many prison officers and managers were experiencing significant difficulties in grafting a western rhetoric of human rights and offender-focused interventions onto their existing practices. Confused and concerned voices were struggling to be heard in the ruins of industrial penal colonies.
Organisationally, the prison system had developed into a quasi-devolved management structure. The regions (oblasti) were responsible for facilitating and overseeing practices and resources. Nowadays, the prisons are connected at the federal level with the central administration in Moscow. However, the turbulent political and economic transition, coupled with the sheer magnitude of managing the entire penal infrastructure from Moscow, resulted in the emergence of many disparate regional practices and ideas.
Some prisons in Siberia presented a radically different picture from Smolensk. Omsk retained the Soviet ethic of work as the foundation for prisoner reform. The respondents there viewed crime not as an innate flaw in the individual, but as a consequence of complex social and economic factors: prisoners, I was told, were influenced by their environment and not by their personality. The prison authorities in the oblast targeted the social harm that crime causes. Prisoners engaged in a range of community programmes, work and training initiatives that arose from partnership programmes with local schools, councils, universities and businesses. Guiding principles came from reformed Soviet concepts such as ‘inculcating the work ethic', ‘taking responsibility for one's labour' and ‘giving back to victims through work'.
Different ideologies and practices have arisen since the collapse of the Soviet system. The industrial sector in Russia is weak and the prison system has experienced mixed fortunes in capitalising on low-level industry. Regions in the east are able to exploit natural resources such as forestry to provide for prison labour. In western Russia, however, natural resources are in less abundant supply, so the regions are left to compete in the light industrial sector. Cheaper imports from the Far East have made it almost impossible for the prisons to offer competitive labour on the market. In the face of a declining industrial sector, it is no wonder that alternative penal discourses are emerging. In addition, western Russia is often referred to as European Russia. Prisons located there have become more exposed to cultural influences from the west than the rest of the country, where ideas have taken longer to permeate.
There has been a sustained international effort to hold the prison authorities to account for human rights abuses in Russian prisons. Adapted versions of westernised programmes offer instant universal credibility because of their ‘western' origins. Many prison officers in the western prison establishments felt under the glare of both the Moscow authorities and the Council of Europe Parliamentary delegations who visit Russian prison to monitor human rights.
The penal microeconomy
In many regions, prison labour is necessary if the prisons, and the prisoners themselves, are to survive. Although prisons are expected to rehabilitate prisoners as well as punish their law-breaking behaviour, a prisoner in Russia has to work in order to live, and not for the sake of the national economy, as was the case during the USSR. Central government funding and resources improved under President Putin, but funds are not always guaranteed, so it is left to the regions to provide for the prisons. When the central government allocates resources, it does so on the basis of what the prisons can do for themselves, bearing in mind their access to raw materials and markets.
Many prisons use a system of barter to provide these extra items. For example, a local farmer may need farming equipment repaired. The farmer will visit the prisons and offer dairy products from the farm in exchange for repairs to the equipment. Since barter has everyday currency in Russia, its emergence in the prison realm is unsurprising. But it does demonstrate how instrumental the private sector (in a less commercial format) has become in the provision of resources (Piacentini 2004).
On the other hand, prison barter adds an interesting dimension to the notion of community justice. It can be considered a unique form of social inclusion: local communities are kept informed of daily work and manufacture in the prisons and prison personnel actively seek opportunities to barter with locals. This tests the conventional wisdom of joined up community partnerships so often called for in the UK criminal justice system.
Our study discovered no rural idyll of pristine community-prison relations. Prisons were, and remain, first and foremost under-resourced and poorly maintained. Obvious economic and social benefits aside, the practices of prison barter pushed the proverbial envelope of what prison officers are expected to achieve as custodians of captives.
Phase 3: the emergence of human rights
What do all these practices mean for increasingly important concepts like human rights in a complex country such as Russia?
After a decade of transition and chaotic political, economic and social turbulence, the penal system is moving towards modernisation through reform and the implementation of the rule of law, minimum standards and human rights. It is undoubtedly the case that the path of penal modernisation has been aided by external organisations, NGOs and monitoring. Inspections by ‘Special Rapporteurs' ensure that Russia can be shamed into global integration or political isolation. But this strategy brings its own dangers.
In the case of prison barter, Russia appears to violate human rights norms in prisons because the daily challenge for officers is to find resources to feed prisoners. Rather than work for rehabilitation, prisoners work to live.
For the majority of prison officers, however, human rights are irrelevant. They are not regarded as a concept appropriate for Russian prisoners, but one that has been imported by ‘outsiders'. One officer told me: "It's all about making us feel bad. ‘Have you done this procedure correctly?' ‘Yes.' ‘Have you treated so and so fairly?' ‘Yes.' If I said no, I'd receive a dressing down."
Such views cannot be assumed to be representative of the entire system. But a more distinctive and effective penal system based on local sensibilities is undoubtedly finding difficulty in establishing itself. Human rights may be advocated cogently from the corridors of power in Geneva, but they are interpreted cynically by some on the ground as illustrative of a new politics, which demarcates nations based on whether they have ‘good' or ‘bad' prisons.
Soviet penal research
Perhaps one of the most significant findings of my work in Russia concerns the quantity and quality of research scholarship that was carried out up until 1991. An enormous amount of material has been written about imprisonment in Russia. Most notably these are texts linking the ideology of Marxism/Leninism and the political and economic benefits of the prison labour system. Twentieth century data has been largely discredited for being unreliable and invalid. To my knowledge no twentieth century Russian publication offers a critical account of any of the standard sociology of punishment questions (including ideologies of punishment or the politicisation of imprisonment).
Imprisonment was seen as the norm; prisons are necessary for political correction and prison labour essential for Soviet society. Twentieth century Russia, therefore, needed prisoners. The task of research was to speak to this need. But in actuality, prison personnel and prisoners were cogs in the huge political machinery of the Soviet regime. And it is this closed research environment that has created such a complex set of challenges for researchers seeking to produce evidence to try and influence penal policy.
Perceptions of a Western sociologist
The biggest task facing the prison sociologist from the West working in Russia is the thorny issue of sometimes being seen as a spy and at other times as an EU monitor. This boils down to the issue of hypocrisy and the political processes that shame societies with appalling human rights track records into adhering to international norms. Western institutions are seen as auditory, sanctioning and employing what are widely perceived as negative deficit models to ensure accountability, without providing clear guidance on protocols as to how to develop bottom-up approaches to reform and human rights (for example meeting the standards of the ECHR). I continue to sympathise with those inside Russian prisons who perceive the West as interfering.
Nonetheless, if Russia continues to reap the benefits of membership of such bodies as the Council of Europe, then it must remain committed to the path to penal reform and human rights. In the way it is administered and interpreted from below, the human rights project might have its flaws. But Russia has accepted that it should and must form the backbone of much of its national legislation. Respect for human rights is essential not only for those held captive in prisons, but for the creation of civil society more generally.
Phase 4: punishment in a post-disciplinary society?
Some commentators writing about the problems facing penal reform in Russia remain concerned about a possible backlash against the Europeanisation project embraced in the 1990s. Sadly, the re-emergence of authoritarian political power in Russian society can also be seen in the penal realm. Although the evidence remains patchy, the uncomfortable truth is that as human rights and other modes of reform have been ‘imported', this has coincided with Russia seeking to re-establish her position as a world super-power. Outside prisons, a stronger and more centralised mode of political governance has replaced the chaotic mode of governance of the 1990s.
Parallel to international demands to treat prisoners more humanely has been a corresponding and fundamental shift in how international interventions are viewed, which has been mainly as codifications of Western ideals. Political tensions between Russia and Europe have been reported in the Western media over the past few years and this has implications for the penal system.
Prison numbers remain very high and conditions continue to cause concern. Indeed in many places prison numbers and conditions have changed only marginally since 1991. For example, in 2005 up to 300 prisoners at a men's penal colony in the Kursk oblast engaged in a disturbing mass protest of hunger strikes and self-harm (cutting their wrists, stomachs, faces and legs) in apparent protest over conditions.
Things have changed since the penal vacuum of the 1990s was filled with a vision consonant with Europe. Yet not all the effort has been in vain. Some successful initiatives at training and developing a social work service for criminal justice have been piloted. Further good news is that prisoners continue to have their rights judicially recognized. Prisoner access to European Courts has been speeded up. International prison scholars such as Professor Dirk van Zyl Smit at Nottingham University and Professor Andrew Coyle at King's College in London have stated on numerous occasions that Russia has shown great promise in developing rights-based frameworks in its penal environment.
Compared to the situation 30 years ago, a huge change has occurred. This is a direct result of engagement with the European initiatives that seek to use imprisonment with restraint and improve conditions for all - prisoners and personnel alike. Russia is not alone in its reluctance to implement recommendations and take change forward.
In looking at Russian jails through the lens of ‘Western eyes', the benefits of embarking on a transition that is committed to human rights have become clear. Degrading conditions and abuses have been exposed, where otherwise there would be silence. The government has been held to account over appalling conditions and prisoners' rights are judicially recognised.
As we have seen in the Kalashnikov case, human rights have also created a new actor in the form of the Russian prisoner whose position has changed now that s/he is armed with international rights.
With regard to the role of prison officers in Russia, it is to be hoped that prison personnel might change their views of themselves and become members of an internationally recognized profession of guarding.
Russia has improved penal conditions and raised standards. But changes on the wider political stage have also served to blur rather than to clarify the most pervading questions that should be asked of all prisons: why do we punish? And what do modern, democratic prisons look like?
Past penal atrocities are acknowledged within senior circles in Russia. But there is no operational process of reconciliation that can measure, understand and resolve past state harm.
Ironically, despite the impetus towards human rights impetus, structural frameworks have remained intact. The human rights agenda seeks to improve society through an authentication of institutions and norms. But authentication is a complex business. For it is the politically dominant states that process the authentication of less powerful states and their criminal justice systems. This is a particular problem in prisons as they remain largely unseen institutions. If human rights are to matter in Russia - and elsewhere - there must be an ongoing commitment to the context of the local culture. Local people must become involved in penal politics. Otherwise, particularly for societies in transition, human rights in prisons will become a mere illusion.
The new year in Russia
Russia's new economy
Russian rights at the crossroads
Beyond the gastarbeiter: post-Soviet migration
Madeleine Reeves (Manchester University, UK) presents the other side of post-Soviet migration.
Russia's year of elections
Women, tradition and power in the North Caucasus
Privatizatsiya, twenty years on
Russian economy: trying to please people doesn’t help, Dmitry Travin
Privatisation, but no private property, Andrei Zaostrovtsev
Is corruption in Russia's DNA?, Pyotr Filippov
Russia’s crony capitalism: the swing of the pendulum, Vladimir Gelman
Russian reforms, twenty years on. Introduction to the series, Dmitry Travin
Russian economy: trying to please people doesn’t help, Dmitry Travin
Privatisation, but no private property, Andrei Zaostrovtsev
Is corruption in Russia's DNA?, Pyotr Filippov
Russia’s crony capitalism: the swing of the pendulum, Vladimir Gelman
Russian reforms, twenty years on. Introduction to the series, Dmitry Travin