Western eye on Russia’s prisons

laura piacentini
2 July 2009

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.

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