In memoriam Valery Abramkin, Russia's prison reformer


Celebrated Russian activist Valery Abramkin has died aged 66. Here we republish extracts from a lecture delivered in 2006, which contains many fascinating insights into the rules of behaviour, hierarchies and relationships within Soviet and Russian prisons. (With a foreword by MaryMcAuley.) 

Valery Abramkin Mary McAuley
6 February 2013

Valery Abramkin: a foreword

In 1988, having himself spent time in prison as a political prisoner, Valery Abramkin set up an organisation to campaign for prisoners’ rights and prison reform. One of the new organisation's key slogans was taken from Dostoevsky’s notes on prison: ‘The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons’. Abramkin himself would find a place in a novel by Dostoevsky. Quietly spoken, thick glasses, still suffering the aftermath of TB contracted in prison, stubborn yet always courteous, he was respected by fellow activists, by prisoners and by the prison service.

‘In the 1980s it was my fate to spend six years in captivity. The strongest impression during the first year was that of the people who were there with me. Among the prisoners I hardly saw a single one who could be called a criminal. That does not mean that they had been put behind bars for nothing. There weren’t many of those who had been arrested and convicted, wrongly. But if, with the wave of a magic want, it had been possible to swap the prisoners with a random collection of people from outside, no one would have noticed.

That convinced me: it is the laws that need to be changed, the system itself which, quite incomprehensibly, compels so many people, who represent no danger to those around them, to be classified as criminals and imprisoned’ Subsequently renamed the Centre for Criminal Justice Reform, Abramkin’s group both monitored conditions and outbreaks of violence in the prison system. During 1990, it worked under the aegis of the Human Rights Committee of the Russian Supreme Soviet to produce draft legislation on penal reform.'

In the nineties, the Centre for Criminal Justice Reform led the field as regards penal reform for both adults and children. A weekly radio programme, Clouds, was put out for prisoners; brochures printed on how to appeal for a pardon, or parole; collections were made for children in prison, who were often hungry, and essay-writing competitions were organised. Exhibitions to portray the plight of prisoners, many sick with TB, and round table discussions with deputies and high-ranking officials from the prison service were held not only in Moscow and St Petersburg but in other cities too.

By 1998, Abramkin had succeeded in bringing leading figures in the Federal Prison Service on board. He held a joint press conference with the head of the Administration of Prisons at the opening of an impressive exhibition on prison conditions, where he presented the case for reducing prison numbers. The exhibition subsequently toured several cities.

Abramkin did not mince his words.

‘Let’s take a concrete case – a hungry kid stole a few packets of dumplings…and the investigator signs the order for his arrest, the procurator sanctions it, and the judge refuses to change the detention order – don’t they know what will happen to him? Don’t they understand that they are not sending him to a remand centre but to the scaffold? From whence he will return, crippled, or he may die. That’s not so rare. Don’t you feel anything in your hearts, giving a kid a death sentence for a packet of dumplings? I want to know – how do you explain such cruelty?... And if, yet again, you don’t hear the questions, then I’ll tell you – actually it is you – judges, investigators, the procurator who are answerable for the extermination of people in the gas chambers of the remand centres…’
By the end of the decade legislation on the implementation of sentences had improved, as had conditions in some of the prisons and penal colonies. 

Taken from Rights in Russia – One Step Forward by Mary McAuley (forthcoming)


On Russian prison subculture


The photograph you see is one of a cell in Matrosskaya Tishina pretrial detention centre, a few kilometres from the Kremlin. 36 bunk beds and 140 detainees in a cell of 70 sq m. Truly shocking.

We can only see those sitting on their bunks or at the table, but there are many more under the bunks. You’d think life in these conditions would be impossible. I don’t know who could survive them for more than a couple of days except the Russians. But people are holed up in those cells for years on end. 

Until about 5 years ago the population in remand prisons in Russia amounted to about 300,000. This is not the millions that were in Stalin’s GULAG camps. But the Stalinist and Fascist concentration camps were actually not too dissimilar. I remember this particular cell from my days as a researcher.  You couldn’t light a match unless you are standing near a window. Sweat would eat into the prisoners’ skin, producing painful ulcers.

The cell was actually a pretty good cell because it’s orderly. The inmates are not underage, not first-timers or women – they’re re-offenders. One of the men sitting at the table in the photo has a tattoo on his back of ‘5 church domes’.  Each dome is one term of porridge, so he’s been in prison 5 times ...  unless he hasn’t managed to get the sixth tattoo to bring him up to date.

The most terrible thing about prison is not the bad food or the appalling conditions. The worst possible aspect of life in prison is chaos. And life inside our prisons is more often than not characterised by chaos or something between complete chaos and orderliness.

When you think about it, it is hard to imagine how there can be order. Everyone here is sitting quietly: one’s reading a book, another a newspaper and a third is chatting to someone else. 140 people. Why are the hulks, who are almost certainly there, probably under the bunks, not jumping up and down, trying to sweep aside those who have sat down at the table?

Because the people sitting at the table have authority.  Those lying under the bunks are, of course, in a truly terrible situation, but that is better than mayhem, and the musclemen are of the same opinion.  In a prison situation there really is nothing worse than a complete free for all. Several time I’ve seen bad order disintegrating into chaos and it’s as if the whole world is collapsing around your ears! People grab you by the throat etc etc. The old lags in the photographs are at least not at each other’s throats.

'Subculture in prisons is based on the values that are most important in traditional Russian culture. This is what enables a prisoner to retain his sense of self.'

Our Centre for Criminal Justice Reform has been involved in researching prison conditions since 1988. Our first work was to try and identify what it is that enables a prisoner to preserve his sense of self. From the very first interview we took, it was obvious that our Russian prisoners manage to do this. Our first interviewees were former political prisoners, people who were from the outset personalities, fighting for the truth, an idea and who could rely on support and respect for themselves, or at the very least for their memory. Then we started interviewing ordinary prisoners, who had been in ordinary camps. I myself did time in ordinary camps, in conditions of both high and minimum security. I’ve been through transit camps, probably a dozen of them.

A paradox. The horrific conditions should break a person (and in prison everything is focused on that, in all countries, as far as I know), but they don’t: many people manage to preserve their sense of self.  To try and understand how this happens we decided to study the prison subculture.  We discovered, most importantly, that the Russian subculture in prisons is based on the base values that are most important in traditional Russian culture. This is what enables a prisoner to retain his sense of self. Order is maintained with the help of the system of prison justice, which in fact is not very different from the system in the world outside.

The untouchables

When we were investigating the prison subculture we came up against a very strange fact.  I am often asked if prisons today are the same as those described by Shalamov and Solzhenitsyn.  I can say for sure that they are not.  Today’s prison world is very different from those authors’ descriptions of life inside up to the end of the 1950s. At the beginning of the next decade a fairly strange and rapid transformation took place in the prisoners’ subculture: a new order emerged, which still exists today.

What was it that happened?  The second half of the 50s was the golden age of the GULAG.  After that the so-called ‘thieves in law‘ [the authorities of the prison world - oD], were gradually removed from ordinary camps and prisons. These ‘thieves in law’ had predominated in the period from the 30s (when the term first appeared), but at the end of the 50s they were isolated from the masses.  The prisoners, left without anyone in charge, had to devise their own order and rules – the right criminal codes. So where there were previously 3 layers or sub-groupings, a fourth now appeared: the new layer was the ‘untouchables’, the ‘bitches’, i.e. men who fulfil the role of sexual objects. What is an untouchable? Someone that cannot be touched: if you want to give him a cigarette, then you take it out the packet and throw it to him.  If you give him the packet, you can’t take it back because it’s dirty, filthy.  It may seem extremely cruel, and I don’t think this concept existed in Russia before, though in India it’s a caste. Its appearance in Russia is pagan, pre-Christian culture breaking through.

Yet this phenomenon is actually very well known to historians: the exile or exclusion from society of someone who has committed a crime of such magnitude that he is outside the bounds of society.  Outcast prisoners have nowhere to go, so no one will have anything to do with them.

The new subculture, including the fourth caste, spread rapidly to all camps and prisons of the USSR. By 1967-68 every one of our respondents (who were in prison after 1968) were describing the same situation and it exists to this day. This is unbelievably quick for a cultural shift.

What would make such a rapid change possible?  When a culture is threatened with extinction – and not just physical, as during times of war – people are forced to change, to become different, which goes against the grain.  Then the culture starts to use up its last reserves, devising punishments like the ritual of banning people to the untouchables caste. It’s not always rape, as people think: it could be some kind of substitute ritual.  For example, someone has really got up people’s noses and screwed up many times; he’s strong, a muscleman, so it won’t be that easy to rape him because he’ll floor anyone who tries.  At night, when he’s asleep, the ritual is carried out: a towel is soaked in sperm, for instance, and passed over his lips. That’s enough – he’s a now a prison 'bitch' and he gets this news as soon as he wakes up.  As simple as that, and there’s nothing he can do. It may seem like extreme cruelty and I agree that it is inhuman, but on the other hand it’s like a blister after a burn. The blister appears on live skin: the skin is not dead, it’s a culture which is resisting destruction.


Abramkin's research showed how Russian subculture had become an albeit peculiar reflection of the sociocultural norms and values of mainstream Russian society. Photo: (cc) Shutterstock/Andrey Stepanov

The reds

The beginning of the '60s saw radical changes in the camps.  Under the heading of the battle with crime, restrictions were introduced, for example the number of parcels and letters. Some of these restrictions didn’t exist even in Stalin’s time But, most importantly, a new caste emerged for prisoners working with the prison administration: they were known as ‘motherfucking narks’ (MFN) or, euphemistically, the ‘reds’. These prisoners were given 'positions' within the prison — chairman of the camp collective, or some other post.

The MFNs were unlike the collaborators of Shalamov and Solzhenisyn’s time: now it was a case of ‘once an collaborator, always an collaborator’. I saw this for myself: a person could leave prison ten times, having ‘mended his ways’, as would have been written in the early-release document. But as soon as he goes down again, he would be given his title back. And prison authorities tried to push everyone into that group: all new arrivals were forced to sign an application to join one administrative group or another. 

You see the same thing happening today - just read reports of the 2004-5 mass uprisings of inmates in Lgov.  It’s still going on. All the new arrivals are given official administrative positions in an attempt to turn them into ‘MFNs’, which is something shameful for a normal person and unthinkable for a man. Most importantly, he has to do this openly: make a show of putting on the armband and writing reports on his fellow inmates. These were the Politsai of the Nazi concentration camps.

There’s an interesting myth among the prisoners that the director of the prison camp, ‘the boss’, has a package in his safe that he has to open if war is declared. If he opens this secret package he'd read: ‘On the first day of war all the activists, the MFNs are to be eliminated.’  They are, after all, potential traitors.  According to the myth, the authorities understand that these people cannot be relied on and will betray everyone.  They have become MFNs out of self-interest, so they might well behave in a similar way in a war situation.

I don’t know if this package exists.  Perhaps it does.

It’s the warders that go mad...

As I have already noted, prisons have ways of preserving their sense of self, drawing support from the subculture.  Prison disputes are usually settled bloodlessly.  But the warders go through an ‘identity crisis.’  They don’t believe that their job is at all useful, that they deserve respect or that they should respect themselves for what they do. Strange, that the prisoners manage to hang on to their self-respect, but the warders (who are, after all, free people with the right to travel, go home to a normal life with wives and children) are so badly affected. Our research showed that prison camps live in a state of perpetual war, more often than not ‘cold war’, which from time to time flares up, and then the rebellions start. It’s like a clash of cultures, completely incompatible groups living side by side.

What does a prison warder do? He forces people, prisoners, to betray each other, to serve and to act in a despicable way in their own interest. Our research led us to conclude that the deformation in these communities goes much deeper than it does in similar institutions in the West. In our culture, treachery is worse than murder.

And when a prison warder does something that sticks in his gullet, it is repulsive even to him and breaks him as a person. Even good people who work in a prison are broken: at the best they take to drink, but the worst of them become sadists, deriving pleasure from tormenting people who are no better or worse than they are.

Only 13% of these warders consider their work to be prestigious. It is often said, especially by prison governors, that 'journalists' are to blame for this. 'They portray us in such a light that people don’t respect us.’  I think they are very mistaken. For almost 70 years of the Soviet Union there were all kinds of ‘Uncle Styopas’ [an exemplary policemen character in a children’s book series by Soviet writer Sergei Mikhalkov - oD]: in films policemen and investigating officers were simply marvellous people. On the other hand, revolutionary historians more often than not will talk about a 'bloodless February revolution’.  Not even the historians noticed the corpses of hundreds of policemen lying on the icy river Neva in St Petersburg.  They too simply regarded them as worthless.

Thumbnail: (cc) Polit.ru. Complete lecture first published on polit.ru

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