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The everyday violence in Russia’s prison system has to stop

Shocking revelations of the conditions faced by a political prisoner should remind us of the dominant principle inside Russia’s prison system — violence in all possible forms. Русский

Prisoners at Easter Festival in St Petersburg's Kresty prison. (c) Igor Russak / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.This week, a letter from civic activist Ildar Dadin, who is currently serving a three-year sentence for violating legislation on public demonstrations, has forced Russian society to look again at the practices that dominate Russia’s penitentiary system. The letter describes the humiliation and torture Dadin has faced as a new arrival at Penal Colony 7 in Segezha, Karelia, including group beatings, being hung up by the handcuffs and having his head thrust down the prison toilet. 

There’s nothing particularly new in Dadin’s letter. What, we didn’t know that people are tortured in Russia’s prison system? That people are illegally placed in punishment cells, and have to face unbearable living conditions every day? Since the era of the Gulag, the use of physical force against a prisoner has been a means of making him or her obedient and dependent on the prison administration.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Nobel laureate and a former prisoner himself, remembers in The Gulag Archipelago how Soviet prison guards had 52 forms of torture in their arsenal. “Their branch of service does not require them to be educated people of broad culture and broad views — and they are not. Their branch of service does not require them to think logically — and they do not. Their branch of service requires only that they carry out orders exactly and be impervious to suffering — and that is what they do and who they are.” 

Today, the range of tortures in Russia has expanded. We all remember Vladimir Putin’s famous use of criminal jargon (“We’ll waste them in the outhouse”), which Russia’s future president used to describe the swift vengeance of the Russian state in 1999. It soon became Putin’s main slogan, and helped him win the presidential election a year later.

In Russia’s prisons, the successor to the Gulag, prisoners aren’t afraid of beatings, but the humiliation that accompanies them

Indeed, after that now-infamous press conference, this idiom acquired the meaning: “To catch someone off guard and then deal with them mercilessly, wherever it might be.” Vladimir Bukovsky, another Soviet dissident, noted that this phrase has its roots in the violent Gulag uprisings of the late 1940s, and referred to “killing an informer and throwing his body into the latrines”. 

This form of “settling accounts” has come to feature all too prominently in Russia’s prison system also. In recent years, there have been several scandalous cases where prisoners have revealed that they haven’t only been beaten, but prison officers have put their head down prison toilets as punishment.

In 2011, in Chelyabinsk region, prisoners in Colony No 1 in Kopeisk were forced to crawl naked on their hands and knees upstairs to the toilet block, where prison employees thrust their heads into the latrines. They were then brutally beaten. Four prisoners died as a result, and the coroner’s office found up to 140 bruises from prison officers’ batons on their bodies. Eighteen prison officers, including the head of the regional penitentiary service, were put on trial, and eight received prison sentences of between nine and 12 years. 

In 2015, in Sverdlovsk region, according to the journalists at, prisoners who refused to pay a monthly sum to the prison administration of Ekaterinburg Colony No 2 were tortured by having their heads put down all the latrines. After this, prisoners were forced to write a petition to the prison administration claiming that they would never discuss illegal practices at the colony. If this information was revealed, the prisoner could be raped and forced into a prison “harem”.

As we can see, the power vertical in Russia’s penitentiary system works better than on the outside. If a prison administration gives the order, then it is carried out without question — even zealously. The most important consideration is not to leave any bodies, as they can’t be covered up. 

This kind of humiliation is fixed on CCTV — if a prisoner doesn’t wish to “negotiate”, then the video can be distributed on the internet, shown to other prisoners or sent to his family

In May 2016, in the southern region of Krasnodar, 10 employees at the Belorechensk Prison Colony stood trial in connection with humiliation faced by young prisoners. According to the investigation, prison officers brutally beat new arrivals at the colony on the orders of the prison administration while wearing balaclavas (to ensure both anonymity and the desired effect). The officers then stripped the new prisoners naked, forced them to urinate on one another and then put their heads down the prison latrines.

All this was done while shouting abuse at the prisoners, who were forced to do physical exercises constantly during the episode. Vitaly Pop, a 17-year-old Ukrainian prisoner, did not withstand the torture. He died from the 17 punches and kicks against his vital organs. 

Anastasiya Kopteeva, head of the Zabaikalsky Human Rights Center, notes that former prisoners often turn to her for help. In their letters, they describe how this toilet block humiliation is used to force them to cooperate with the prison administration. “We expected that after the episode of mass beating of prisoners in Colony No 10 [in October 2016, eight prison officers from Krasnokamensk were convicted in relation to this case], the situation would change, but everything has stayed the same.” 

Ildar Dadin’s letter is testimony to the continuing use of this practice: “After the third beating, they lowered my head into a toilet right there in the holding cell.” 

As a rule, this kind of humiliation is fixed on CCTV — if a prisoner doesn’t wish to “negotiate”, then the video can be distributed on the internet, shown to other prisoners or sent to his family.

There are places where the Gulag has remained practically unchanged, where violence remains the defining principle of “order”

Thus, this technology of “flushing” places a prisoner at the very bottom of Russia’s prison hierarchy. He becomes “lowered down” (opushchennyi, a specific term in criminal slang) and has to do dirty and unpleasant work, including cleaning out the latrines. The path back “up” the hierarchy, towards the middle-ranking and top prisoners is closed forever — you can only move further down. Thus, in Russia’s prisons, the successor to the Gulag, prisoners aren’t afraid of beatings, but the humiliation that accompanies them. It’s a cross you have to bear for the rest of your life in prison. 

For the first time ever, the European Court of Human Rights is now examining a complaint by nine former prisoners from Kostroma who wound up among “lowered” prisoners for different reasons. One of the prisoners, for instance, accidentally fell into a wooden toilet. These prisoners are now requesting that the informal hierarchy that dominates Russia’s prison system be recognised as inhumane and degrading to human dignity.

Vladimir Rubashny, former director of Tatarstan’s penitentiary psychological service, believes that, in certain situations, a prisoner’s “fall” down the hierarchy can be beneficial for a prison administration. “In my experience, these kind of situations [where it was beneficial] came about,” said Rubashny in a recent interview for MediaZona. “Prisoners (both young and adult) admitted that it was the prison administration that provoked such situations, including with the help of ‘activists’ [prisoners who cooperate with the prison administration]. This practice is alive and well today.” 

Of course, there are regions in Russia where beatings and psychological pressure are a thing of the past. But at the same time, there are places — in my opinion, Karelia, Mordovia, Chelyabinsk and Sverdlovsk regions — where the Gulag has remained practically unchanged, where violence remains the defining principle of “order”.

An episode of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, where an officer in Stalin’s secret police addresses someone under investigation, comes to mind: “‘You think we get any satisfaction from using persuasion? We have to do what the Party demands of us.’”

Translated by Tom Rowley. 

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