In what country were there prisons known as gulags?

In Putin's Gulag: from Mikhail Khodorkovsky to "Pussy Riot"

On October 25, 2003, a special commando stormed Mikhail Khodorkovsky's private jet at Novosibirsk airport. A few months ago, the formerly richest man in Russia celebrated his 50th birthday in prison camp number 7 in Karelia in northern Russia. In the past ten years, one of the most capable managers in the country has become a work slave who spends his time welding plastic sheets together.

The conditions in Russia's detention colonies are outrageous - but only an issue in the West since Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, member of the feminist punk group “Pussy Riot”, pointed this out in an open letter on the “” website at the end of September.

“They're giving us rotten bread,” wrote the 23-year-old political activist, who was sentenced to two years in a prison camp in August 2012 for singing a song of protest against President Vladimir Putin and his connection to the Russian Orthodox Church for 40 seconds in a Moscow cathedral had sung.

700,000 people are in prison in Russia, almost 600,000 of them in penal colonies, where they are mainly busy sewing uniforms for the army and police. Some of the camps date back to Stalin's times, when the paranoid Soviet dictator covered his empire with a system of labor camps. The dissident Alexander Solschenyzin made this world famous in 1973 in his “Archipel Gulag”. The book won him the Nobel Prize and is "dedicated to all those who did not have enough life to tell this".

The way from Stalin's gulag to Putin's prison camps is shorter than expected. The incumbent president is not the first Russian ruler to punish the pacifist resistance in a draconian way. The country looks back on a long tradition of the gulag. Especially those who fight against the respective regime with intellectual means were and are considered particularly dangerous felons in Russia. Even the tsars sent troublemakers to Siberia in the 19th century. The author Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who is highly respected today, spent four years there, during which he was permanently bound with hand and ankle chains.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the prisons emptied, under Putin they filled up again - not least because the Kremlin ruler tried to curb the capitalist excesses of the 1990s by imprisonment. Tens of thousands of business people who either acted genuinely lawlessly or were victims of corrupt competitors wandered behind bars for years. In July 2013, the Duma, the Russian parliament, passed an amnesty law aimed at ensuring that white-collar criminals are released more quickly.

Putin's regime is proving its willingness to reform at certain points. However, the corrupt, sluggish civil servants have so far lacked the strength for a major prison reform.

Not only the gulag, but also resistance to it has a long tradition in Russia. In the meantime, ex-prisoners and human rights activists have set up groups all over the country that are fighting against the conditions in the prisons - not entirely without success, as Alexej Sokolov reports. The former convict founded the “Defenders of the Urals”, an association of civil rights activists who refuse to accept the unlawful goings-on behind the barbed wire.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova was also successful in a certain sense. Many had advised her not to revolt against the prison authorities if she and her "Pussy Riot" colleague Maria Aljochina, who was also imprisoned, really wanted to be released on March 2, 2014 after the official end of their prison term. But the mother of a young daughter did not let this deter her and went on a hunger strike. As a result, President Vladimir Putin sent a delegation of human rights activists to the camp to investigate the allegations. In the meantime, the government has at least announced that it will raise the salaries of seamstresses by a few rubles from January.

These are, of course, only small victories against a system whose unwritten laws are difficult to break. Most of the prisoners did not even want to speak to Putin's human rights activists. Some just gestured at the walls with their eyes in silence: No conversation should be kept secret, a wrong word could unleash the guards' anger.

profil has researched in Siberia and other regions and compiled reports from prisoners in Putin's gulag.

"You could kill without having to fear consequences."

Alexej Sokolow, 40, began after seven years in a camp to get involved with the NGO “Legale Basis” and the “Public Monitoring Committee” (PMC) in Sverdlovsk for the rights of prisoners - and was then imprisoned again. In the meantime he has founded a new organization, the "Defenders of the Urals".

I was arrested for the first time in 1993. Apparently I stole sports clothes. That wasn't true, I made them myself. They beat me for ten days. Then I should sign a confession. I refused. The judge didn't care, he sentenced me to seven years in a penal colony in Khabarovsk. There I found that inmates were completely at the mercy of the prison administration. They could be beaten, tortured, starved, even killed - without fear of consequences. I started helping prisoners claim their rights. I turned to the superiors, to the higher authorities. The only success was that I ended up in solitary confinement.
I was released in 2000. I found a job, raised a family, and stood up for the rights of inmates, citing a law that allows human rights defenders to review conditions in detention centers. After every visit to the prison camp, I wrote a report about the grievances. The heads of the Sverdlovsk prison authority, GUFSIN, were not pleased with my reports and invited me to speak with them. They threatened to arrest me if I didn't cooperate with them. I refused. So they arrested me.
The charge was absurd: inmates suddenly remembered that I had committed crimes with them eight years earlier. Russian and international human rights organizations protested my trial. I was told at the time that they couldn't beat me because of the general attention, but that they would “break me spiritually”. I was sentenced to three years in prison for alcoholics and drug addicts in Krasnoyarsk.
It was hard work there. We had two greenhouses for cucumbers and tomatoes and stables for pigs and cattle. Three of us got 500 rubles (around 11.50 euros) per month, the others worked for free at all. There were no export lists. We never saw our own vegetables in the dining room.
I later developed tuberculosis and was discharged. Nothing will happen as long as the prisoners know that there is no point in protesting the leadership because the higher authorities are making common cause with the guards. Prisoners continue to be abused as slaves in Russia. We have to fight back.

"Camp managers live from drug trafficking or blackmail."

After his arrest in 2003, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, 50, was sentenced to eight years for embezzlement in a first trial and a further six years in a second trial in 2010 for theft of his own oil. In 2012, the sentence was reduced by two years, so he could theoretically be released in August 2014. However, there is speculation that the authorities are preparing a third trial on murder charges to prevent him from actually being released. He is currently in prison number 7 in Karelia on the Finnish border.

“Lawlessness in the Russian regions used to be divided into 'red' and 'black' penal colonies. The management of the 'black' prisons usually made a living from drug trafficking. The 'red' camp bosses, on the other hand, simply benefited from blackmail. What they both had in common was that the administration and gangsters pursued their own selfish interests.
Lately, it is no longer so easy to distinguish between 'red' and 'black' penal colonies. The blacks used to be the criminal colonies ruled by criminals. The red ones, on the other hand, were controlled by the prison authorities. In the meantime, however, everyone has become more similar, there is generally less physical violence, but more paperwork and selective implementation of rules. "

(Excerpt from the series "Prison Brothers" published by Khodorkovsky in the Moscow magazine "The New Times".)

+++ Pavel Khodorkovsky on the conditions of his father's detention. +++

"My girlfriend committed suicide."

Natalya Tarakina, 37, is currently detained in prison camp number 14 in the village of Partsa Subovo in the Polyansky district of Mordovia - the same detention center as Nadezhda Tolokonnikova.

It is quite normal for us to have to work four or five hours of overtime. Younger seamstresses are particularly hard hit by everyday work. They'll be beaten if they don't work fast enough. But there are other humiliations as well. Sometimes the seamstresses are tortured by other inmates.
I was beaten a lot myself. The director of our penal colony, his name is Ryschow, was particularly brutal. When I complained about this, I ended up in solitary confinement for the first nine months. Not all can endure these conditions. For example, my friend Tatjana Chapurina committed suicide in May 2012. Her friend Alfiya Suhowa too.

(Testimony from Tarakina to the Presidential Commission on Human Rights)

"You are a slave"

Ilia Kotow, 33, was convicted of theft and fraud in Nizhny Novgorod in 2010.

Parliamentary elections were held in Russia shortly after my conviction. I refused to vote. Then I was beaten up. Then I was forced to vote for the United Russia pro-Putin party. The election observers looked away.
Work began at 4 a.m. in the penal camp in the Perm region. We always worked twelve to fourteen hours. For this we got 32 rubles per month (the equivalent of about 70 cents, note). A packet of cigarettes costs 35 rubles. There was no medical care. When I broke my finger, the officers beat me. One of them said to me, “You are a slave. You will work for free. ”This penal camp was a“ red ”camp, so it was under official control.
Later I was transferred to Colony No. 4 in Nizhny Novgorod - a “black” camp that was completely commercialized. You could get anything for bribes, but you had to pay for everything. If something broke, it was only repaired if the inmates' relatives reimbursed the costs. A mobile phone cost 10,000 rubles (the equivalent of around 230 euros, note). In 2013 one of the officers was convicted of corruption, after which it became more difficult to organize better conditions.
In mid-May 2013, already in a new warehouse, I was cleaning up the dining room when I heard a bang and felt a sharp pain in my hand. Somebody shot me. The nurse later said she couldn't remove the bullet. There was also no X-ray. She disinfected the wound and sent me to my barracks. One officer told me that there was little point in complaining. I was supposed to sign a statement that I was caught on a nail.
I was released in June 2013. The Nizhny Novgorod prosecutor tore up the statement about the crimes in the camp that I had handed over to him.

"Prisoners are mutilated."

Piotr Kurianow, 42, was detained in various penal camps in the Saratov region. Today he works for prisoners in need in the group “Russia is sitting”.

I spent most of the time between 1996 and 2007 in solitary confinement. I was in several prisons and penal camps in the Saratov region, the first time because of a juvenile offense. But since I didn't want to accept the conditions in the camp, I was quickly seen as a troublemaker. Whenever I sat in a normal cell for a day or two, the same thing always happened. A fellow inmate told me how he had been mistreated, I went to the superiors for him and then I ended up in solitary confinement again.
The simple guards are not the problem in the penal camps. Every second is actually quite okay. But the superiors are often fascists. They beat up inmates without batting an eyelid. They also aim to leave permanent scars, especially on the arms and stomach - as a memory, so to speak. The "red" camps, which are in themselves officially controlled, are terrible in the Saratov region. Prisoners are mutilated there and sometimes even killed.

"The workbench is full of your blood."

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 23, was arrested as a member of the feminist punk group “Pussy Riot” in February 2012 while a song critical of Putin was being performed in a Moscow cathedral and sentenced to two years in a prison camp for hooliganism. She is currently in custody at number 14 prison colony in Mordovia.

My brigade sews 16 to 17 hours a day. From half past seven in the morning to half past twelve at night. If we're lucky, we can sleep for four hours. We have a day off every six weeks. A 50-year-old woman asked to go to bed at 8 p.m. once a week to get eight hours of sleep. She felt sick and had high blood pressure. In response, a group meeting was held and the woman was humiliated and cursed as a parasite. “Do you think you're the only one who wants more sleep? You have to work harder, you cow! "
In order to maintain discipline and obedience, there is an unofficial penal system that is interpreted very broadly. Detainees are forced to stand in the lokalka (the fenced-off passages between two areas of the camp) until the lights are switched off: This means that they are forbidden to go into the barracks - regardless of whether it is autumn or winter. In the second unit, which consists of prisoners with disabilities and the elderly, a woman got so severe frostbite after a day in the Lokalka that her fingers and one foot had to be amputated. They "lose their hygiene privileges", that is, the prisoners are not allowed to wash or go to the toilet; or their “shopping and tea room privileges”, so they are no longer allowed to consume their own food or drinks.
In June I made 29 rubles (70 cents, note). My department sews 150 police uniforms a day. Two weeks ago, each department's work rate was increased by 50 - just like that. Your hands are riddled with pinholes and scratches, the workbench is full of your blood. Still you keep sewing.

(Excerpt from an open letter on the popular news website "", in which Tolokonnikova describes the conditions in the camp.)