Are there still gulags in Russia?

Putin system The Navalny case and Russia's dark prisons

Navalny: A prisoner makes the world sit up and take notice

The Russian penal institutions are seen by many in Russia as the sinister heirs of the Soviet gulag system. The official designation of "camp" and "colony" alone is reminiscent of dark chapters in Russian history. Former prison inmates and human rights activists have reported physical abuse and torture, dilapidated accommodation and inhumane working conditions for decades.

Huge prison network

In fact, the Russian prison system is a vast network of more than 670 camp prisons, around 300 pre-trial detention centers, and eight high-security prisons. There are special prisons for minors, women's prisons and special facilities for former police officers and security staff. The number of prisoners has halved since the turn of the millennium. More than 470,000 people are currently in prison. This puts Russia in third place among the countries with the most prisoners in Europe. Converted to the number of inhabitants, there are five times more people in prison in Russia than in Germany, but only half as many as in the USA.

Hierarchies enforced by force

A central difference to European prisons is the internal organization. "Russia inherited prisons from the Soviet Union in which prisoners are housed in large barracks or residential units, often with more than 100 men," says Xenia Runova, a sociologist at the European University in Saint Petersburg. A typical warehouse is divided into a living area with double bunk beds, a commercial zone with businesses such as a sewing factory or a furniture workshop, and an area with other facilities such as a church, training rooms, sports hall, kitchen block and library.

Some of the prisoners can move freely in the individual zones and residential buildings. However, because the inmates are divided into large groups, they cannot be kept under constant surveillance by the guards. This promotes a system in which the guards have to fall back on informal and sometimes official helpers from the ranks of the inmates, according to Runowa. Such a system also favors unofficial hierarchies among prisoners, which are often enforced by force. In the early years of the Soviet Union, these types of prisons were considered efficient because few guards were enough for many prisoners. A system that has not been fundamentally reformed since then.

Timid reforms

Almost 90 percent of the inmates are currently housed in such camps, which are not always far from civilization, but sometimes in the middle of cities or on the edge of industrial areas. Unlike in Soviet times, most prisoners also serve their sentences in the region in which they previously lived. One of the most important reforms in recent years is the segregation of first-time prisoners and repeat offenders.

Corruption flourishes

Alexander Afanasyev belongs to the first group and has spent the last seven years in a colony in the outskirts of Saint Petersburg. The reason: a brawl in which the other person fell unhappy and died of his head injuries. Afanasjew describes his arrival at the prison camp: "We had a rather rough reception, we had to crouch for an hour with our hands over our heads when we arrived at the camp," recalls the 41-year-old. But shortly afterwards, other inmates pointed out ways to "sweeten" your everyday life. "The relationship between inmates and the administration was purely commercial," reports Afanasyev. "Anyone who paid a good 140 euros a month could live in four-bed rooms, own a private cell phone, not go to work, use the kitchen, watch films and receive unlimited parcels from relatives."

Instead, those who did not pay money or could not afford it had to strictly follow all regulations. "Corruption only flourished," says the ex-prisoner, who has since served his sentence. So-called "activists" are responsible for collecting the money, prisoners who lend a hand to law enforcement officers, who also act as informants and question other inmates. "There was no violence from the officials, the activists were responsible for that if someone didn't want to pay, for example."

Another way to make your life easier is to work in prison. Ex-prisoner Afanasyev, for example, worked his way up to the shift supervisor of the sewing factory in his camp and took private orders from his supervisors. "Once I repaired his wife's expensive leather bag for a law enforcement officer, and in return I asked him to turn a blind eye to minor offenses."

Different categories of prison

The majority of prison inmates in Russia are in such camp colonies. The judiciary also divides the camps into those with a strict or general regime. However, the differences are mostly limited to the number and length of visits from outside and the weight of the incoming parcels. The severity of the crime determines who is placed in a "strict" or "general" camp.

In contrast, the situation is very different in so-called camp settlements. At first glance, these resemble a residential area, without watchtowers and barbed wire. Inmates can receive visits from relatives for several days, look for a job outside the institution, and use private money to go shopping in normal shops. However, these camp settlements are only reserved for convicts who have not been guilty of violent crimes and who have been sentenced to imprisonment for the first time. According to official statistics, there are 106 such settlements with around 30,000 inmates.

The other extreme are closed prison complexes. There the inmates live in smaller cells, alone or a maximum of four, but are not allowed to move freely outside the rooms. Each inmate is accompanied and guarded by a security guard. Unlike in most camps, there is hardly any work or other employment opportunities in such institutions. The approximately 1,300 inmates of a total of eight such institutions across the country are almost exclusively serious criminals with years of imprisonment. Especially in such prisons, the inmates are exposed to the guards without protection, says the sociologist Xenia Runova.

And then there are the special colonies for repeat offenders, where camp administrations are regularly suspected of using force to ensure iron discipline and punishing the smallest offenses with beatings and solitary confinement. Blatant violations in such institutions regularly reach the public.

The most recent scandal occurred in Colony No. 6 in the city of Irkutsk, not far from Lake Bajkal in eastern Russia. The opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta learned from relatives of one of the inmates that other inmates had tortured him and raped him with a broomstick. Apparently, according to media reports, the camp management instigated the inmates with the aim of extorting confessions for further crimes. At the beginning of March, the now former head of the colony was arrested.

Miserable medical care

In addition to direct violence, poor medical care is also one of the risks to prisoners' lives. Prison medicine is not subordinate to the Ministry of Health, but to the law enforcement agency. There is an acute shortage of staff and poor equipment. Those who need special medical help often have to wait weeks and months for approval to be treated outside of the prison or special hospital. In 2018 alone, the year of the most recent statistics published, nearly 2,800 people died in Russian prisons. "About ten percent of the prisoners are HIV-positive and only 60 percent are receiving therapy," writes the St. Petersburg prison expert Runova. Hepatitis C and tuberculosis are also common.

Incidentally, it is precisely the lack of medical care in prison that also worries Nawalny's followers. According to Navalny's lawyer Olga Michajlowa, the politician's back problem has worsened in the past few days to such an extent that his right leg is going numb. All that is said from the prison camp is that Navalny's condition is stable and satisfactory. One of Navalny's colleagues wrote on Twitter that it means that nothing good is happening with Navalny at the moment. Uncertainty about the fate of the inmates is also typical of Russian prisons.