According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, there are currently 671,700 Russians serving sentences in penal establishments, of whom 59,000 are women. Only the USA and China have more female prisoners (over 200,000 and 100,000 respectively). According to human rights organisations, conditions in Russian prisons and prison camps are among the harshest in the world. The harsh climate is one obvious factor, but inadequate nutrition, physically demanding and low paid work, isolation in a punishment cell for the slightest misdemeanour, bullying, beatings, and other violence from prison staff are all also the norm.
Russia’s female prisoners
Women prisoners are usually too frightened to complain to the legal authorities or human rights groups, as this might trigger immediate and severe punishment. And it is not just the camp administration that exercises power over its population; there are also the ‘overseers’ – prisoners who take charge of the others in the same barracks. Some of these overseers work with the administration, but others refuse, preferring to observe their own ‘criminal code.’
A group of Russian female prisoners. ‘Overseers’ collect ‘tribute’ from their fellow prisoners and are responsible for ‘order’. But this ‘order’ has nothing in common with either the law of the land or the normal rules of human interaction. These are the rules of the criminal world, according to which it is shameful to work and honourable to thieve.
Women prisoners are usually too frightened to complain to the legal authorities or human rights groups
Female criminals usually live in ‘families’. Lesbian relationships are common, and young and attractive ‘new girls’ often become objects of sexual harassment from more hardened women prisoners. Most Russian prison camps are also breeding grounds for potentially fatal illnesses, with HIV/AIDS now added to the traditional TB. The prisoners most likely to contract HIV/AIDS are young women serving long sentences for drug-related crimes.
A women's workshop in a penal establishment.Unlike male prisoners, who often receive visits from their wives and children or even manage to initiate relationships through lonely-hearts columns, women prisoners are often abandoned by everybody from their previous lives. Their husbands divorce them. Their lovers don’t want to wait for them. Their children are ashamed of them, and their friends forget them. These ‘outcasts’ are only ever visited by their mothers; and they find it very difficult to regain their previous job status after their release. Often they are unable to find any work at all.
All too often, the easiest road for these ‘criminals’ is straight back to prison. At least there everything is familiar, there is food to eat and somewhere to have a bath and sleep. A woman sent to a ‘penal colony’ for even a petty crime such as shoplifting or vandalism will most likely be unable to get back on the ‘straight and narrow’, and will become a hardened criminal – a ‘repeat offender’ as the courts call it. These women serve sentences of not just a year or two or even ten. They are prisoners for life.
The women’s zone
Even veteran guards prefer not to work in the women’s ‘zone’ – a term Russians often use for a penal colony.
'There’s no animal worse than a female!’ a member of the prison riot squad told me. ‘Today she’ll be making eyes at you and tomorrow she’ll stick a shank into you. You never know what to expect from these bitches!’
'You never know what to expect from these bitches!’
I met one of these ‘bitches’ in a prison camp near the small town of Omutninsk in the Kirov Region, about 1000km east of Moscow. Her name was Valentina, Valya for short, and she had spent 36 out of her 53 years in similar places.
Valentina spent 36 out of her 53 years in Russian prisons. ‘I was a headstrong kid right from the start’, she happily told me after asking for a smoke. But she didn’t care for my menthol cigarettes, and after cheerfully cursing me she lit up one of her favourite rough, filterless ‘Belomor.’ Valya was a chain smoker, stopping only now and then to clear her throat, and was known throughout the camp as ‘Valya Fag-end’ – a good nickname for her as she was tiny (no taller than a child), skinny and fidgety. But she was also bent over like an old woman and appeared to be of indeterminate age and gender. A kind of human fag-end, chucked out of normal society but not yet burnt out. Her voice was hoarse and throaty, like a man’s. She was a thief of long-standing, and feared nothing.
A life in and out of crime
‘I started off in juvenile’, she told me. ‘I was 16. We lived in a village with a shop on the edge of it, and the lads and I robbed it – as a test, a dare. We found about 500 roubles in the till – old, Soviet roubles, and also made off with beer, vodka, tinned stuff, sweets, and a blouse with lace on it.
'It was the blouse that got me caught by the cops – one of the lads grassed on me. Bastard! But I know who it was and I’ll get the prick! Just give me time, Katyusha!’ (Valya had taken an instant liking to me, started calling me by a pet name, ‘Katyusha’, a diminutive of Ekaterina. I had no objection).
‘Have you ever been in a prison wagon, Katyusha?’ she went on. I shook my head in fright, shocked by the very idea. ‘You haven’t, have you? I remember travelling in one with a girlfriend who had 48 bodies on her conscience. She was an interesting woman, a real passionate type. She would sleep with a man and then bump him off in the morning – either strangle him or knife him right in the heart. But I wasn’t into that then.’
‘Did you ever love anybody, Valya?’ I asked cautiously.
‘I was married once. His name was Alikhan – he was a Chechen. There was an army base at the village, and he was doing his military service there. We met at a dance and I took a fancy to him – he was smitten, he fought for me. He would see me home and we would kiss and cuddle and then one evening I brought him in to meet my parents. My dad asked him if he wasn’t scared, and he said, “Vala and I (he called me Vala) are in love! I’ll take her back home to Grozny!” Dad chuckled: “If she doesn’t take you to Bystritsa first!” Bystritsa was where the local cemetery was …’
He went back to Grozny and I never saw him again.
‘So we got married and started living together, but as soon as we got in to bed together I felt like I was allergic to him … I didn’t need all that sex! And my Mum said, “At least have a kid with him, Valechka, then at least we’ll have a grandchild!” Then I realised my periods had stopped, my breasts were getting bigger, I felt sick and couldn’t even look at food. Mum said, “That’s it, you’re pregnant!”
'So I threw Alikhan out the same night. “What are you doing?” he asked, “I’m your husband! We’re going to have a baby!” But I got his stuff together and threw it out of the house. “Get lost, I don’t need you anymore! It’s my baby!” So he went back to Grozny and I never saw him again.
‘When I went into labour, they got me to the hospital and there I was, yelling and swearing! The doctor came running and said, ‘The baby’s too big; she’ll never push it out!’ So they took me off into surgery and I had a caesarean. When I woke up in the morning I immediately said, “Show me what I gave birth to!” They brought me my baby girl, who weighed 5kg and was 54 centimetres long, with her head covered in black curls! I turned her over – she had arms, legs, a wee-wee – everything was where it was supposed to be.
‘I left my daughter with her grandparents and took off! I started hanging about, partying, thieving!’
'For four months I didn’t leave her once, and fed her every three hours. I had loads of milk, and she was really plump and red-cheeked. But then I just switched off – it was like the devil whispered to me! I left the house, left my daughter with her grandparents, and took off! I started hanging about, partying, thieving! I stole 70 roubles and got four years for it … Ah, it’s a pity we can’t have a drink together, Katyusha, but Mr Prison Governor doesn’t allow it! We could always sing, though!’
And Valya Fag-end began to sing a sad prison song. She sang in a throaty, cigarette-stoked voice, but with perfect pitch.
‘Let me tell you all a tale
Saw it with my own two eyes
A little girl was being tried
Though she only was a child ...
She asked the court if she could speak
The judge said yes, go on my dear!
As soon as she began her tale
The room began to fill with tears.
“I knew him since I was a child
I’d go with him to rob and thieve
And in my seventeen short years
He was the only one for me!”’
At the last line Valentina burst into tears herself, obviously remembering her own sad life, although it wasn’t a husband or boyfriend that she loved, but the free life of crime.
From robbery to violence
‘Have you ever killed anyone, Valentina?’ I asked.
‘I did, Katyusha. I told you I was headstrong. One day I came home, and my dad was sitting crying and his eye was all bloody. My dad didn’t smoke or drink. He worked all his life and brought up six children; and I was the only jailbird, the black sheep of the family. “What happened, Dad?” I asked. And he said, “My brother got drunk and came to ask me for some money to buy vodka. But I wouldn’t give it to him, so he hit me.” I just flipped! How could someone hit my dad – the person who gave me life, showed me the world? So I went to sort it out with my uncle.'
‘When I got to his house my auntie was pounding potatoes for the pigs with a wooden mallet, and my uncle was sitting washing a snack down with vodka. I said, “Hair of the dog, eh? I’ll give you a real hangover!” And I grabbed the mallet from the table and brought it down on his head – once, twice! His wife was screaming, “You’ve killed him, you’ve killed him!” Then I went home. The next morning the cops turned up: “Did you kill your uncle?” And I was, “Yes! ‘Cause nobody hurts my dad!”'
The next morning the cops turned up: “Did you kill your uncle?” And I was, “Yes! ‘Cause nobody hurts my dad!”
‘I got six years for my uncle – he survived. Turns out I hadn’t killed him after all. I did the full six years, every day of them. When I got out my daughter was growing up, she was shy of me, didn’t recognise me, and my mum had turned into an old woman. And I didn’t get to see my dad again – he had died when I was in jail. I gave him a proper burial and got myself a job as a caretaker. And I worked, made enough to keep us, lived quietly; didn’t bother anybody.'
'But I could see that my mum had become very down; she was always wiping away tears when she thought I wasn’t looking. I asked her about it and she told me: “The cops have been hassling us, Valya! As soon as you got back they were round here – pay up, old girl, for your jailbird daughter! At first it was 1,000 roubles, then 3,000, and now they’re asking for 5,000! Where am I going to get that sort of money? I asked. I’ve only got my pension”. And they were like, “Pay up, or we’ll send her down again! We can always find a reason!” And they used such language as well! They said they’d be back and if the money wasn’t there they’d send you back to jail”. I said, “Don’t cry, Mum, I’ll sort it out!”'
'So I went into town and found some old friends of mine, and we sorted them. I finished one of them myself – a shank right in the heart! Why should my mother be living in fear? This time I got the full whack – 15 years. Why so long? ‘Cause I killed a cop, and ‘cause I was a repeat offender, in other words a hardened criminal!’
Valya laughed, revealing her half-toothless mouth; then her laugh turned into a cough. She cleared her throat and started singing another sad prison song ...
‘The sparks in the hearth burn up like rubies,
And disappear in wisps of blue.
Once I was a handsome lad,
Now I’m sick and lonely too.
What can I do, I’ve lost my youth,
What can I do, where can I roam?
I’ll follow an untrodden path,
Away from you and far from home ...’
‘That song was written by one of the friends that killed the cops with me, Katyusha. He’s dead now. He had TB. Well, what else can I tell you? I got released early – I have TB as well, and asthma too. I went home. My mother had died. My daughter was married; she lives a respectable life – her husband’s a cop. The last thing she needs is an old lag for a mother. And I wouldn’t have wanted to go there anyway – why should I ruin the girl’s life? I got another job as a caretaker in a warehouse. My rich little brother fixed me up with it; he didn’t forget his sister. So this is how I lived: I didn’t get paid much but then I don’t need a lot – just enough for bread, tea and smokes.
Pig farm on the grounds of the women's prison where Valentina was serving her sentence.
My daughter’s respectable – her husband’s a cop. The last thing she needs is an old lag for a mother.
'But I’m not used to being beholden to anyone! I’m used to being my own woman! My brother’s a good egg, but his wife’s a right bitch! One day she said to me, “You should pay us something – we cook for you! You live in our house!” And I was like, “I live in my own house; my dad left it to me! And you don’t have to cook for me; I’ll eat in a cafe! I never asked you to cook for me!”’ But she wouldn’t leave off – she was always on at me about something! She would shout and scream and tell my brother tales about me! I had it up to here with her! So I decided to get rid of her.'
'I hit her over the head, but it didn’t finish her off, just left her brain damaged. She lost her wits, turned into an idiot. So I got done for attempted murder with aggravating circumstances, plus GBH, plus I was a repeat offender – 10 years altogether! There you go, Katyusha! But I’ll get her some day!’
The end of the road
Valentina gave me a crafty look, obviously pleased with herself at having reduced this journalist to silence. As I was leaving she took my phone number and promised to get in touch when she got out. Many years later, I got an unexpected call.
We met at a centre for homeless and unemployed people on the outskirts of Kirov. Valya had just been released and had nowhere to go. Her parents were dead and her family wanted nothing to do with her. Her brother had refused to give her any more help after what she did to his wife, and her daughter was ashamed of her jailbird mother. When she left she was given a certificate of release and 700 roubles, which she had already spent on a train ticket to Kirov. She was delighted when I gave her a pack of her beloved Belomor and a packet of tea. We sat in a corner at the centre, made ourselves tea in grubby mugs and recalled old acquaintances.
‘How are you going to live now, Valya’, I asked. ‘As God wills,’ she answered, ‘if there is a God, that is! The priest always said there was, but I have my doubts.’
Two weeks later Valya was dead. She had been suffering through the final stages of TB, and died in the homeless people’s ward of a hospital on the outskirts of Kirov. She was of no use to anyone, like a cigarette end dropped on the ground. Someone will step on it, someone walk past; the wind will carry it who knows where, turning it to ash.
All images via Ekaterina Loushnikova. All rights reserved.
Translated by Liz Barnes.