The Topography of Incarceration: The Spatial Continuity of Penality and the Legacy of the Gulag in Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century Russia

Judith Pallot

Judith Pallot is Professor of the Human Geography of Russia at the University of Oxford. Address for correspondence: Christ Church, University of Oxford, Oxford, OX1 1DP, UK.

The aim of this article is to show how the penal estate inherited from the Soviet Union has reproduced specific penal experiences in the Russian Federation. The first part describes the evolution and current geographical structure of the penal estate showing how in the years immediately after Joseph Stalin’s death distinctive carceral regions became embedded in the Russian landscape. The second part discusses how this distinctive geography has become associated with a specific punishment form, “in exile imprisonment,” that merges incarceration with expulsion to the peripheries. In the final section it explores various ways that sending prisoners long distances to serve their sentences may be understood as punitive, adding to the familiar pains of imprisonment discussed by penal sociologists. The research on which this article is based emerges from two research projects conducted by the author among prisoners and their families during the past ten years.

Keywords: Carceral Geography; Gulag; Transportation; Penality; Exile

The dispatch in October 2005 of Mikhail Khodorkovskii to a penal colony 3,775 miles from Moscow is a reminder that sending people to the periphery is a deeply embedded response to criminality, political opposition, and social deviancy in Russia. Khodorkovskii’s was a special case; it was politically expedient for the Russian leadership to remove him as far from Moscow as possible. Most “ordinary” prisoners are not sent such extreme distances, but nonetheless, compared with other jurisdictions, prisoners in Russia serve their sentences in particularly out-of-the-way places, often separated from their “home” by hundreds or even thousands of kilometers. In the literature on penality it is customary to treat exile and incarceration as two separate punishment modalities (Castles and Davidson 2000; Kunz 1981; McClennen 2004). In Russia, these modalities have become fused over the course of two centuries into a single system of penality that can be described as “in exile imprisonment” (Piacentini and Pallot 2014). Prisoners subject to “in exile imprisonment” experience the regular pains of imprisonment, as described in the seminal work of Gresham Sykes (1958), with additional pains, or harms, associated with spatial and geographical dislocation. When prisoners are sent to remote regions, the friction of distance exacerbates the problems they face maintaining family and social networks and coping with the sense of loss, alienation, and isolation that incarceration brings. But, in addition, they can suffer from the “terrors of transportation,” geographical disorientation, and feelings of being “out of place.” These are responses to being uprooted from home and transplanted in an unfamiliar environment that have been described by refugees and asylum seekers in the twenty-first century, and they also surface in the descriptions of the experiences of prisoners transported to the New World and Siberia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and in the testimonies of victims of the Stalin-era terror sent into exile and to remote labor camps. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s description of the exiled person’s experience in the Soviet Gulag pre-visions the “living death” of Giorgio Agamben’s homo sacer:

Here we see that the threat of exile—of mere displacement, of being set down with your feet tied—has a somber power of its own, the power which the ancient potentates understood, and which Ovid long ago experienced. Emptiness. Helplessness. A life that is no life at all… (Solzhenitsyn 1974:340)

The aim of this article is to show how the distinctive geography of the penal estate inherited from the Soviet Union has reproduced specific penal experiences in the Russian Federation. The research on which it is based was conducted as part of two research projects that explored the impact of the Russian Federation’s inherited penal geography on the experiences of prisoners and their families since 1991. Researching prison systems, especially when this involves interviewing prisoners, is challenging since it requires gaining access to prisons and has to ensure that the interests of the vulnerable subjects are not compromised. In Russia, where the penal service is secretive and unused to scholarly enquiry, these challenges are particularly acute (Pallot and Piacentini 2012:20–25).

Two principal types of sources have been used in this article. The maps showing the geographical distribution of penal institutions and prisoners use data largely available in the public domain. For the post-Soviet period the major source is the websites of regional penal authorities that have appeared in the last decade as part of a public relations initiative by the Federal Penal Service (FSIN).[1] These sites give the postal codes of individual penal institutions, which allows the distribution of the latter to be mapped accurately, but there is a paucity of information relating to prisoner numbers by institution and region. Nevertheless, some sites refer to the capacity of specific colonies or, in passing, mention how many prisoners there are in the region. These can be checked against unofficial figures contained in the postings of prisoners’ relatives on prisoner support websites. The picture of the geographical distribution of prisoners that can, as a result, be constructed is, necessarily, approximate. For the Gulag there are data which, following the partial opening of archives, have become available in the past twenty years that have allowed a more detailed picture of the distribution of prisoners and camps to emerge than was available in the past. The NGO Memorial’s digest of camps (Smirnov 1998) is still the most comprehensive source for constructing maps of the distribution of camps at the national and regional scale, but the data relate only to the camp administrations, not individual subdivisions where the majority of prisoners were held. The creation of maps showing the distribution of all penal institutions facilities at regional and subregional level requires painstaking work in central and regional archives. Maps at the lower spatial scale and for two-year intervals at the national scale are available at the website of Mapping Gulag Research Project.[2] The maps included in this article are taken from this website.

The other source used in this article is interviews conducted as part of two UK–research council funded projects with men, women, and juveniles who were serving sentences in Russian correctional colonies and colony-settlements between 2005 and 2010, had completed a sentence in the ten years prior to the interview, or were a near relative of an adult man or woman currently serving a sentence.[3] These interviews generated first- and secondhand information about the experiences of a broad range of existing and former prisoners in the Russia Federation differentiated by gender, age, and nationality, as well as duration and severity of sentence. The interviews were conducted by both UK and onshore interviewers, and their specific type—whether structured, semistructured, or conversational—varied according to individual interviewer’s expertise and the circumstances of the interview.[4] Any interviews that involved the cooperation of the Federal Penal Service were closely monitored by prison authorities. The interviews with serving prisoners were exclusively with women and female juveniles. The eprisoner group included men, but the principal source of information about the experiences of men prisoners currently serving sentences is derived from interviews with their close relatives, supplemented by the numerous Internet social media sites for prisoners and eprisoners.[5]

The Historical Geography of Punitive Expulsion in Russia

In previous articles, I have discussed the continuities in Russia’s penal geography (Moran, Pallot, and Piacentini 2011; Pallot 2005; Pallot and Piacentini 2012, chap. 3). Recent research by the Russian geographer Kseniia Averkieva (2014), who has plotted the changing geography of penal institutions in relation to major development projects for the whole Soviet period, has confirmed that by the 1930s the fundamental geographical division of labor that has persisted to the present day had been laid down. This consists of remand prisons or investigatory isolators (sledstvennye izolia­tory or SIZOs) located in the populated centers and correctional colonies (ispravitel’nye kolonii) and other facilities such as the lower category colony-settlements (kolonii-poseleniia) in predominantly extraurban locations. At the time of Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953 there were few places that escaped being drawn into the Gulag. However, the Gulag unfolded in time and space as camps were founded and dissolved according to the priorities of successive five-year plans. Geographical shifts were associated with the exploitation of particular economic and natural resources, the development of communications networks, and the construction of power stations, industrial plants, and whole new towns. Iconic projects like the White Sea–Baltic Sea Canal, the felling of the vast coniferous timber stands of the Arkhangel’sk, Kirov, and Nizhegorodskaia Oblasts and the Republics of Karelia and Komi, the exploitation of the gold mines of Magadan, the Baikal–Amur and Pechora railways, and coal and oil extraction in Pechora and Ukhta, in their turn took vast numbers of prisoners and exiles to remote parts of the Soviet state. The decisions made after Stalin’s death to shrink the penal estate to a size commensurate with a reduced number of prisoners revealed the state’s commitment to peripheral sites of punishment. Many camps disappeared from the most remote locations, but so too did the majority that had been established in the large metropolitan centers in the European part of the country. The resultant pattern of what was left describes an arc of regions encircling, and just beyond the margins of, the more densely populated parts of the country, tapering into Siberia and the Far East. This “penal arc” containing large clusters of correctional institutions for convicted prisoners—essentially the rump of the Stalinist penal estate—was inherited by the post-Soviet state in 1991 and remains to the present day.

In the immediate post-Gulag years the economic functions that had given rise to the original networks of Gulag camps continued as before, but with the passage of time and new development priorities the original rationale of the now-renamed “correctional labor colonies” changed. Unlike in the past, this did not lead to their closure. In the Kuzbas and Urals, free labor replaced prisoners in the mines, so colonies reoriented their production towards engineering in plants constructed within their precincts. In contrast, penal labor remained important in the timber industry in the 1960s–1970s in remote parts of the European North and Urals, even though under Nikita Khrushchev there was a drive to modernize the timber industry on the basis of free labor (Pallot 2002; Pallot and Moran 2000). In Siberia and the Far East, some new camps were founded or added to existing complexes to realize major construction projects (such as the Baikal–Amur Mainline railroad in the environs of Taishet and Vikhorevka, the Boguchanskii Hydroelectric Station, and the aluminum complex on the Angara), for resource extraction and primary processing (such as coal in the Kansk-Achinsk basin and uranium in Khakassia and Angarsk), or urban construction (such as the camps encircling Yakutsk in the Sakha Republic). Meanwhile, former special settlements in the “penal arc” were “re-profiled” as agricultural correctional colonies.

The geographical distribution of colonies that the Russian Federation inherited from the Soviet Union is, therefore, uneven with the result that some oblasts are oversupplied and some undersupplied with penal institutions in relation to background population and crime levels (Moran et al. 2011). The oblasts and republics with clusters of institutions, consisting of Arkhangel’sk, the Komi Republic, Kirov, a cluster of oblasts and republics east of the Volga, Perm’ Krai, Sverdlovsk and Irkutsk Oblasts, and Krasnoyarsk Krai, mark out the same discontinuous arc as in Soviet times. In this arc, the imprisonment rate (the number of prisoners per 100,000 of the background population) is between 880 and 2,000, which is much higher than in the major metropolitan centers and more heavily populated central regions of the country. The imprisonment rate in such peripheral regions exceeds Moscow City’s and region’s by five to eight times. Together, over one third of all Russia’s prisoners were confined in just ten regions in 2012.

Figures 1 and 2 compare the distribution of prisoners by region in the years before Stalin’s death and at present. The distribution in Figure 1 is an average of the years for which figures are available in the period 1948–1953 and in Figure 2, for the period 2008–2013. The principal change the two maps show is a “hollowing out” in the number of prisoners in the European center and a contraction inwards of the penal margin from the most remote peripheries, such as Magadan and northern Siberia. The northern hinterland of West Siberia stands out as having a low rate of imprisonment today. This is because of the policy to use “imported” free labor to work the major oil and gas field development of the 1970s, which led to accelerated population growth. A handful of correctional colonies still exist in the Far North that are the physical legacy of the Gulag. The camps belonging to Noril’lag and Dal’stroi, which were founded to build the Noril’sk nickel and nonferrous metal complex in the Nenets Autonomous Okrug and to develop the gold mines in Magadan and which both claimed thousands of lives, live on in the Arctic Circle in colonies such a Kharp, where Yukos’s Platon Lebedev was imprisoned.

Figure 1
Figure 1. The distribution of the absolute number of prisoners in the Russian Republic of the USSR in an average year in 1949–1954.
Figure 2
Figure 2. The estimated number of prisoners per 100,000 population in correctional facilities and pretrial prisons in 2013.

The uneven regional distribution of penal colonies is only one element of the problematic geography of penality in Russia. Within regions, the distribution of colonies enhances the isolation and invisibility of Russia’s prisoner population. The Russian penal service does not produce data about the intraregional distribution of colonies, but it has been possible to map the location of colonies from their postal addresses. Figure 3 is of Perm’ Krai at the present time. The figure shows that the majority of the krai’s colonies are concentrated in its northern hinterland, at distances of more than 300 kilometers from the regional capital. These include all categories of men’s colonies, women’s colonies, colonies for prisoners with infectious diseases, and colony-settlements, the lowest category facilities. The facilities clustering in the north of Perm’ Krai, together with the settlements serving them, form a zone embedded within the Cherdynskii administrative district, but its population of penal personnel, guards, pensioners, and budget workers remains socially distant from the civilian community. The same is true in other regions, in the southwest corner of Mordovian Republic, the north of Sverdlovsk Oblast, and so on (Pallot 2012; Pallot, Piacentini, and Moran 2010). This type of closed, self-sustaining enclave is another direct inheritance from the Gulag when the NKVD effectively controlled whole swathes of territory, thereby creating the islands of Solzhenitsyn’s archipelago. In such regional penal complexes, several generations of prison personnel have served the prison service in its different manifestations and contributed to the strengthening of place loyalties that are expressed, among other ways, in annual commemorative celebrations of the local founding of the Gulag (Pallot et al. 2010).

Figure 3
Figure 3. The distribution of penal institutions of different types in Perm’ Krai in 2013.

There were three moments in the twentieth century when the leadership of the USSR and of its successor state, the Russian Federation, had the opportunity to break with Russia’s tradition of confining prisoners to the geographic margins. The first was in the 1920s when the concentration camps on the Solovetskii Islands were founded, the choice signaling a rejection of the metropolitan penitentiary that by then had become a fixture in European states. Although there were large tracts of “vacant” land beyond the boundaries of large cities that could have accommodated a concentration camp, the place chosen was remote and hostile for human life. This was to set the tone for what was to come. Whilst historians of the Gulag have tended to attribute the spread of the Gulag into the peripheries to the distribution of resources needed for the fulfillment of the USSR’s development goals (Gregory and Lazarev 2003; Ivanova 2000), it is important not to lose sight of the punitive element of the choice of camp locations. Victims of repression—prisoners and special settlers alike—were, indeed, sent to remote places for the purposes of resource mobilization, but according to the principle articulated by the leading Soviet criminologist N. F. Miliutin, expulsion to the periphery also should punish; serious offenders should not be confined in “home provinces” or in those with a clement climate but should be shipped east where the climate itself would “assist in hastening re-education” (Hardy 2012:103).[6]

The second moment when the state had the opportunity to break with Russia’s tradition of confining prisoners to the geographic margins was following Stalin’s death in 1953. In making the decision about what should be done with criminal offenders and those who continued to be found guilty of political offenses, it was obvious that, even in the conditions of Khrushchev’s Thaw, abandoning incarceration as the principal sanction was not on the agenda. Nor, it transpired, was abandoning the practice of exile. It would have been possible to construct the post-Stalin prison system in metropolitan centers using the sites and infrastructure that had been established in the 1930s–1950s, but this alternative was not pursued. Penal colonies disappeared from Moscow “overnight” in 1960, and the city does not have an institution for convicted prisoners within its boundary today. Miliutin’s principle was reasserted in 1961 when strict regime colonies were statutorily required to be located far from population centers (Hardy 2012:113).

The third moment was in 1991, when communism collapsed and the USSR dissolved. The circumstances were propitious for change; the post-Soviet government committed the country to prison reform and the pursuit of international best practice. Furthermore, it publicly distanced itself from its Soviet predecessors’ scant respect for human rights. The aim of bringing prisoners “closer to home” was even included in the schedule of reforms in the 1990s. However, the obvious means of achieving that aim—a reduction in the number of custodial sentences allowing the closure of the most remote penal colonies—was overlooked in the reforms that followed. There have been incremental changes, but none has destabilized the spatial division of labor in the penal estate as it was at the end of the Soviet period. Furthermore, post-Soviet Russia has reasserted the principle that the most serious offenders (which again today include those who the regime finds politically troublesome) should be sent to the most remote places; in the criminal correction code convicts sentenced to special and strict regime colonies are exempt from the provision that prisoners should be held in their own oblast. In 2010 the Federal Penal Service launched a new round of reforms, which held out the promise of a more proportional distribution of penal institutions among regions, but it failed to explain how precisely this was to be achieved.

There are, of course, “rational” explanations for why at each of these moments the leadership was disinclined to embark on a fundamental geographical restructuring of the prison estate. The most obvious is that the financial resources have not been available to relocate colonies closer to the metropolitan centers. The continuing tendency for the courts to hand out custodial sentences as a result of the failure of the prison service to develop alternatives to incarceration has kept prison population numbers high, which has prevented closure of the more distant and remote facilities. But there might also be deeper cultural explanations for the apparent attachment to dealing with criminality and political dissent by expelling it to the peripheries. Penal sociologists have long recognized the existence in different countries of “penal cultures” that valorize or legitimate particular punishment forms. These punishment forms are shaped by institutional and societal “penal sensibilities” reflecting broader societal ethos and concerns and that are deeply embedded in national cultures and are transmitted from one generation to the next, even though social, political, and economic contexts can change (Garland 2012; Smith 2008). The tenacity with which the Soviet and Russian state in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has hung on to the periphery as a place of incarceration may be because there is a popular consensus that this is an appropriate way to deal with people who violate societal norms. In fact, as we know, the practice of punishing offenders by expelling them from the ecumene originated long before the Soviet era, in the tsarist system of exile. Although historians of Russian punishment have tended to maintain the distinction in their work between “exile” and “imprisonment,” the boundary between the two punishment modalities was always blurred.[7] The nineteenth-century expansion of katorga, or hard labor, for serious offenders exiled to Siberia that saw them confined in prisons anticipated the expulsion of Gulag prisoners to the remote places in the north and east of the country, effectively merging the two punishment forms.[8]

Notwithstanding the fact that the Soviet Union retained the category “exile” as a legally distinct penal sanction, during the Soviet period exile in its broader, nonlegal sense became normalized as a category of imprisonment. Prisoners in the USSR lived and worked (and many died) under a giant universe of ideas about culture, crime, and territorial expansion, and were reminded daily that the consequence of committing an offence was being sent far from home, with a high probability of ending up in Siberia and the Far North. In this way, the movement of prisoners through distinctive spaces as they are processed towards confinement ever further from home became integral to Russia’s punishment culture. Sending people away as and for punishment was not altered by the ending of mass deportations or the removal of exile from the repertoire of punishments available to the courts after 1991.

Spatial Dislocation as Punishment

Russia’s inherited penal geography is, therefore, associated with a distinctive punitive order that elevates the role of distance and isolation in the experience prisoners have of incarceration. In order to develop this argument it is necessary to distinguish at the outset between what penal sociologists define as the “inherent” and “optional” “pains of imprisonment.” “Inherent” pains of imprisonment are those that any prisoner experiences by virtue of being deprived of freedom (loss of agency, loss of decision making, and so on), whilst “optional” pains are the practices of penal authorities that serve either to meliorate or intensify the inherent pains. During the Gulag the degradation to which prisoners were subjected at all stages of the penal process was so extreme that it masked the pains associated with Russia’s penal geography. Yet, there are strong grounds for believing that incarcerating people in unfamiliar environments a long way from home is sui generis painful, that it should be added to the list of inherent pains.

Punitive Transportation

People who are liable for transportation generally have already been through at least three or four stages of the criminal justice system: arrest, the charge, investigation, court, and confinement in an IVS [izoliator vremennogo soderzhaniia, temporary detention] and SIZO [sledstvennyi izoliator, pretrial detention]; that is, they are already well acquainted with what prison is. They will have been held for a minimum of three months in an overcrowded cell and learned firsthand about prison life. But the etap [the prison transport] exceeds everything that they could imagine, even with all this experience and knowledge. (Al’pern 2004:44)

As the quotation from well-known reform activist Liudmila Al’pern indicates, the transportation of convicted prisoners to the penal colonies is a painful experience. In this respect, the etap, the penal transport, occupies a similar place in the experience of penality today as it did during the time of the Gulag.[9] Gulag testimonies tell of the overcrowded, inhumane conditions of the motor vehicles disguised as bread vans, so-called Stolypin railway carriages, and ship hulks that delivered prisoners to camps in the Siberian north or to the deserts of Kazakhstan, journeys that could take months, that claimed lives, and that produced an indelible mark on the psyches of the people who survived. Today, journey times are shorter and railway carriages less crowded, but some of the everyday practices associated with the prison transports that we read about in testimonies have been carried forward. As in the past, the prison transport is a space where the standard degradation routines of confinement—including poor food rations, barking dogs, surveillance, flow control, loss of self and autonomy—are played out. Here is how one interviewee, a former prisoner, described her journey from Moscow to a penal colony in Mordovia in 2007:

We didn’t know where we were going. We were herded into these cells to wait for the convoy to arrive and collect the matrioshki.[10] They took us to the station; it was cold, winter, and we were left in these black prison vans in the freezing cold for nearly one and a half hours waiting for the train. Then the train came; first they took one load, then another—men, and then the women. There was a four-person compartment, but they put ten of us in along with our cases. Ten people there, all with suitcases in the compartment … we travelled like that on top of one another the whole way…. They gave us prison rations—a jar of dried potatoes and a jar of oats but no hot water … it was a nightmare…. And the guard was some young man and he told us we had to entertain him, tell him jokes. It was just awful … so demeaning… There was one girl who had a very high temperature, but the convoy said she was putting it on. She was dripping wet with sweat all the way there, and they wouldn’t let her go to the toilet alone—you had to be accompanied. But she took two steps and fell so they just pushed her back in.

The sort of humiliations described by this prisoner, a young woman sentenced to eight years for drug dealing, whom we interviewed in 2009 shortly after her release, makes it difficult to answer the question of whether lengthy prison transportations are inherently punitive. While they are in transit, prisoners vanish from the outside world, their whereabouts known only to the penal authorities. Prisoners in transit are unable to receive visits, letters, or telephone calls from friends and family. At the same time, the prison transport is the last occasion when prisoners are allowed to wear civilian clothes and to keep personal belongings with them. On arrival at the colony, these residual reminders of their former life are removed. The etap is a mobile penal “in-between” or liminal space: it is imprisonment accessorized with some of the material trappings of freedom. In his theoretical portrait of exile and madness, The Ship of Fools, Michel Foucault (2006:11) presents the exile as the “prisoner of the passage” stuck in “a barren wasteland between two lands that can never be his own.”

Convict transportations today are officially labeled the “escorted conveyance” (konvoirovanie) of convicted prisoners, but the Gulag-era “etap” or the more recently coined “estafeta,” meaning “relay race,” are the terms used by prisoners. The estafeta appositive is appropriate since it is not unusual for the journey to a colony to be punctuated by periods spent in transit prisons. It is a relay race, though, in which prisoners often do not know the whereabouts of the finish line.[11] The quotations below are from three women, former inmates, we interviewed in 2009:

In the first place, they don’t tell you where they are sending you…. We were in the dark about it, and when they fetched us for the transport, they didn’t mention it. It’s not talked about. I was told that it’s a secret. You get ready, and you go on transport, and that’s it.

We talked in Syzran’ about where we were going; the girls sat together with me and they asked what’s going on, where are we going? I could only say “I don’t know where we’re going.”

We were herded into these rooms, and the convoy arrived to collect us … When we asked where we were being taken to, he [the guard] said, “Where are you going? To Vorkuta[12] where people from the south like to holiday.”

Under the criminal correction code, prison authorities have up to ten days to inform relatives of prisoners’ whereabouts after their arrival in the colony. When this time is added to the duration of the transport, the result is that the prisoner can vanish from sight for weeks or even months. If even a high profile prisoner like Nadezhda Tolokonnikova can “disappear” for two weeks when the world’s media was searching for her,[13] it is not difficult to imagine that the words of this 16-year-old we interviewed in 2005 describe a common situation:

No one told me where I was going. My father and brother didn’t even know. My uncle found out through the police. I’d already been in Ryazan’ for a month before my family knew where I had gone.

Even when prisoners know their destination, there is never certainty about the likely duration of the journey or its route. Railway transports are organized to “gather up” prisoners from transit and remand prisons spread over a wide area and, as a result, individual prisoners can take circuitous routes to their destination colony. Table 1, using data from a 1999 census of prisoners (the question was not included in the repeat census a decade later), shows the average duration of the transportation for prisoners of different categories.

With only three colonies in the whole of Russia, juvenile girls have had to endure the longest transportations. Girls we interviewed in the L’govo juvenile colony in Ryazan’ Oblast spoke of two to three–month trips (Piacentini, Pallot, and Moran 2009). Figures 4 and 5 reproduce the journeys to colony of a selection of our interviewees.

Figure 4
Figure 4. The transportation routes of a selection of juvenile prisoners from their home region to L’govo juvenile colony for girls (Source: 2005 survey by author and colleagues).
Figure 5
Figure 5. The transportation routes of two women prisoners from Omsk pretrial prison to Ivanovo correctional colony for women (Source: 2010 survey by author and colleagues).

Regardless of how prisoners are treated on the journey to the colony, prison transports subject prisoners to acute sensory deprivation. Stolypin wagons have no outside windows, and prison vans are entirely windowless. Today, the latter are not disguised as bread delivery vans, but we were surprised by how many times we were told that the final leg of the journey to the colony from transit prison or railhead was made at night. The absence of windows means that prisoners focus their attention on interior spaces, which are characterized by the generic visual language of the prison—bars, locks, guards, and dogs. The inability during the long journeys to see out of windows deprives prisoners of the “waymarks” that tell passengers on normal journeys where they are. Furthermore, unlike transatlantic emigrants or refugees fleeing danger, prisoners are not afforded a last “glimpse of home” to take with them on their journey into the unknown. This reification of the visual, which researchers into different modes of travel have observed, suggests that the experience of travel without the accompaniment of the changing external landscape vista through a window is likely to have a significant effect. Unlike normal train passengers, prisoners have no visual references to estimate the speed of their travel, they cannot tell whether they are travelling north, south, east, or west by the rising or the setting sun, and they cannot guess their location by the nature of the surrounding landscape. This contributes to the prison transport being experienced as a liminal space.

Table 1. The average length of time spent in transit from pretrial prison to correctional colony for men, women, and juvenile prisoners in 1999 (Source: Mikhlin 2001:61).
Length of journey to colony All Men Women Juveniles
standard strict special life
< 10 days 77.2 81.4 81.0 49.5 14.7 66.0 74.6
10 days–1 month 12.2 10.0 9.9 30.1 25.5 22.4 15.0
> 1 month 10.6 8.6 9.1 20.4 59.8 11.6 10.4
Total 100 100 100 100 100 100 100

Our interviews confirmed that it is correct to consider the modern penal transport in Russia as “transportation” in the historical, penological sense—a version of the convict ships and route marches that were integral to the “punishment of exile” in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe and Russia. The time taken—the circuitous routes and the suspension of communication with home—creates in prisoners a sense of estrangement that intensifies the harm already inflicted on them during their period on remand. Long prison transports, such as have always existed in Russia and the former Soviet Union, underline for prisoners their physical separation from significant others and from their former identities. They also create an impaired sense of geography. It has to be remembered that a large subset of prisoners in Russian colonies belongs to the lowest socioeconomic groups. For the majority of juveniles we interviewed, the prison transport was the first long journey they had taken; many had not previously been out of their region. As an example, Ukhta, the home of one the subjects I interviewed in L’govo, is a long way from the colony. The relative location of the two places was difficult enough for a young girl to place in her hazy knowledge of Russia’s geography, but when it had taken two months to get from one place to the other, the sense of being “far away” was multiplied several-fold. Small wonder that some prisoners talked of being in a foreign country or sent into exile; one juvenile from Perm’ Krai, when asked about the location of the colony Novyi Oskol in Belgorod Oblast to which she had been sentenced, answered, “I don’t really know where I am.” One of her companions noted that as far as she could tell, she could be on the coast of the Black Sea.

Here, I find myself in agreement with those penal historians who argue that the disciplining power of exile and banishment expands punishment by taking the capillary of power into the arena of transportation through space (for example, Beckett and Herbert 2010). The giant penal monolith the state created in the 1930s–1950s expanded excessively and grotesquely beyond conventional incarceration. It built itself into the landscape of the USSR, creating a “state within a state.” The conceptualization of this penal identity that surfaced in the talk of the prisoners we interviewed suggests that the historical experience of Russian penality informs their understanding of what awaits them. When prisoners talked about going to “another country” or said that it is normal for Russians to be sent to hard labor, calling it katorga, or that women from the south are “in exile” in colonies in the north and Siberia, they are positioning themselves within an historical stereotype about Russian incarceration as exile. But these comments also reinforce the point that alternative interpretations of what is happening to them cannot be found during the arduous journey to the penal colony.

Historical stereotypes do not just inform the perceptions of the prisoners themselves; interviews with prisoners’ relatives show that they too draw on Russia’s long-standing practice of exile to construct their identities. Wives and partners of today’s prisoners call themselves dekabristki (Decembrists’ wives) after the women who followed their husbands to Siberian hard labor in 1825 (Katz and Pallot 2014).

As on numerous other occasions during my investigation of the experiences of prisoners in the Russian Federation today, I was forced to ponder whether the treatment of prisoners whilst being transported is a conscious strategy on the part of the prison service to render the “contingent” docile or whether it is just the conservative behavior of the inherited penal behemoth. When I asked a male eprisoner for his view in the spring of 2013, his answer was unequivocal. Its purpose, he insisted, is to punish. He went on to list the transport’s familiar “terrors”:

You are absolutely unsettled; you do not have any stability; you are in motion—and—you have these searches … always these searches … on the etap you can’t access any of your own food … you have to eat what they provide or what they don’t provide—that’s all suffering. At the same time you are surrounded by people you don’t know. So it’s a very nerve-wracking environment. After all you never know where you’ll end up—so that’s why it’s punishment.

A member of one regional penal authority was anxious to tell us that the process of resocialization begins as soon as a prisoner arrives at the colony, a comment that begs the question of what precisely he thought the penal service had been trying to achieve in the months leading up to this moment. Liudmila Alpern’s answer that I quote above finds an echo in the words of one eprisoner interviewed in 2009:

You see they are already victims, broken and therefore compliant with the regime they find there. This contemptible system means that the person who is humiliated just wants to escape, for it all to stop. She comes, shall we say, like fresh meat; those who have been through it once know what’s going on and they hate it but do nothing, they do nothing. Why? Because it’s a vicious circle, you understand? That is, when she arrives in the colony, she’s already done for. Her personality is already broken; she’s lost her reason.

Punitive Nature

In the Russian penal context, the physical attributes of space take on particular importance. During the height of the Stalinist repression, large numbers of the people sent to the camps and special settlements of the Gulag were confined to places with extreme environments. It is one of the common, although not invariable, consequences of penal exile that its victims are relocated to environments that expose them to alien climates, landscapes, and cultures. The testimonies of Gulag victims give harrowing accounts of their encounters with nature. Eugenia Ginzburg (1967:272–273) in her memoir of her arrest and transport to Kolyma describes how women emerging from the holds of prison ships were struck by “night blindness” and how the physical environment hemmed in the prisoners, the surrounding “purplish hills” reminding her of prison walls. Whilst northern camps meant prisoners had to cope with extreme cold in the winter and flying insects during the short summers, in the deserts of Kazakhstan the environmental challenges were sand storms and excessive heat. Prisoners had a complex relationship with the physical environment. For example, after a panegyric to the beauty and wealth of Russia’s forest, Solzhenitsyn bemoans how being forced to fell timber when the snow was chest-high resulted in the convicts coming to hate the forest (1974, 2:185–186). In contrast, Andrei Sinyavsky, who was incarcerated in Mordovia, writes of the calming effect of falling snow (Tertz 1976).

The Gulag inheritance means that these extremes of temperature and climate can still pose practical problems for prisoners in adapting to new physical conditions and serves to stretch the distance from home. The partner of one prisoner held in Arkhangel’sk Oblast, notes that the convicts in the correctional colony in Iangory village need “everything”:

warm clothes (it’s cold even in the summer), blankets, medicines, kettles, utensils, and, in the summer, antimosquito cream—there are so many flying insects there that it’s impossible to see more than three meters in front of your face. On maps this place is shown as uninhabited.[14]

And the following extract from a 2005 letter from a newly arrived prisoner in the north Perm’ Krai to his mother indicates that experiencing environmental shock can still be a feature of expulsion to the periphery. The facility described is a colony-settlement at Ust’-Tsepel at the end of 30 kilometers of dirt road:

I have arrived at the edge of the world in a settlement of the type typical of the 1940s…. A god-forsaken place … they get water from a well here, the buildings are falling down from age, the electricity supply breaks down nearly every day because the lines … are rotten. We only get electricity three days a week…. It was minus five last night, ice is already on the ponds, and snow fell. There’s nothing strange about that in this region. From here you can see the Urals and snow permanently lies there. It’s very cold! If it’s already this cold in the autumn, what’s it going to be like in the winter? That’s the Urals for you!... Nature is top class here … at night you can see the sky like nowhere else. Even the smallest stars are visible…. Of course, when I arrived I fell ill. It was because of the change of climate. I’ve also made my acquaintance with bedbugs—they won’t let me sleep—I’m so fed up.[15]

The swarms of mosquitoes in the north of Russia and Siberia that tormented Gulag victims did not disappear with the end of the USSR any more than did prisons located in out-of-the-way places.

As with prison transport, in order to determine whether transplanting prisoners into an alien physical environment is punitive, we have to disentangle the experience of systematic cruelty common in the Gulag from the “everyday” problems that particular environments can cause a captive population; if prisoners are provided with appropriate clothing, rules on work conditions are adhered to, minimum standards pertain in living blocks, and food is sufficient (all quite large “ifs” in respect even to the current Russian penal system), does it matter when someone brought up in a temperate climate is transplanted to serve a sentence in the desert or the tundra? Or as is common today, for people from the desert environments of Central Asia or mountains of the Caucasus to the Arctic? My argument is that it does matter, just as it matters whether the sounds and smells that come over the prison walls are familiar or alien to the people incarcerated inside. Here is one prisoner who counted herself fortunate to be serving her sentence in her home town talking in 2010 about why place matters:

It makes it easier…. It isn’t just a question of the material support relatives can give or the fact that it’s easier for the relatives. Actually, even though I live here, my Dad has to travel a really long distance to see me and has to send parcels by post. No, that’s not what it’s about. It’s simply that emotionally it’s easier. It’s emotionally easier that you are in prison in a familiar place. You know, they bring transports with women who don’t even know where [this town] is. We have women here from A______ and B_______. They can’t even imagine where this town is and what sort of place it is. They know it’s somewhere way up in the north, but they have no idea of where precisely. Yes, for them it’s very difficult, they don’t understand anything; it’s as if they’ve arrived in a foreign country … they think they are in a strange land. But for us locals it’s easier, we understand each other. I don’t know how best to explain it but we have our ways of doing things, we talk about the same thing, we’re like relatives. They are foreign; so it matters, this way of life.

This prisoner’s comments indicate that knowing she is in her home town is important even though she, like other prisoners, might have no way of seeing over the perimeter fence. The reverse of these feelings of comfort associated with a familiar place is the feeling of “placelessness” when prisoners are sent out of their home region. The geographer Yi Fu Tuan (1980:3–8) was among the early theorizers of the importance of “place identity” in knowing “who we are.” Uprooting people from “their” place is the source, in this view, of major psycho-pathological problems (Akhtar 2007). Everyone has a “natural place” in the world, so that uprooting them touches upon the very essence of their existence and leads to feelings of being “out-of-place.” Here is one prisoner interviewed in 2010 trying to articulate the feeling of not belonging:

I don’t know how to explain it; it’s just that you’re taken out of society and transplanted who knows where. I deserve it, though three years would be enough. For my whole sentence I’ve had one foot here and the other, there. In other words, I don’t actually “live” here…

For prisoners the negative feelings associated with being out-of-place are exacerbated by the fact that penal institutions are quintessentially “troubled” or “spoiled” places characterized by violence, danger, and deprivation. During the period of the Gulag the “strategy of displacement” was at its most destructive and effective in creating trauma and docility and removing from prisoners any sense of agency. Among today’s prisoners these effects of distance may be muted by comparison with the 1930s–1950s, but the etap and the location of colonies in unfamiliar environments still subject prisoners to more intense feelings of isolation than would be the case were the colonies nearer to home. The damage this inflicts is most obvious in the difficulties prisoners have of maintaining relationships with people on the outside.

Punitive Distance

There is consensus among penal sociologists that maintaining family contacts is a factor in the successful rehabilitation of offenders and reduction of rates of recidivism (Codd 2007; Hairston 2003; Markel, Collins, and Leib 2009; Mills and Codd 2008). It is also a factor in prisoner adaptation and patterns of compliance with regime rules; if they are able to feel that they are still valued family members and are able to take part in family decision making, prisoners are motivated to stay out of trouble. During the late Soviet period it was a stated goal of the penal service to reeducate offenders to return them to society as better socialists. The instrument of reeducation was labor. When in the early 1990s the Russian Federation became a signatory of international conventions on the humane treatment of prisoners and against torture, thereby committing itself to taking seriously the rights of prisoners to a family life, it had a lot of ground to make up.[16] The revision of the criminal correction code in the early 1990s improved prisoners’ visitation and other communication rights. Today, prisoners in standard regime colonies are entitled to four three-day residential visits a year and six four-hour nonresidential visits, and there are now generous rights to receive letters and parcels and to make telephone calls.[17] Inevitably, there are prisoners who have nobody with whom to communicate on the outside, but for those who do there are a variety of obstacles that prevent the uptake of these extended rights, chief amongst which is distance.

Table 2. The frequency of visits to prisoners in Russian correctional colonies in 1999 and 2009 (Sources: Kazakova 2011:51–54; Mikhlin 2001:63, 65, 69; 2010 survey of Novyi Oskol juvenile colony by author and colleagues).
% of prisoners not taking up their rights to receive: 1999 2009
Men Women Juveniles Men Women Juveniles
Parcels 30.4 43.7 28.8 18.4 33.1 31.9
Small packages 53.7 61.2 55.6 56.5 90.5 93.6
Telephone conversations 98.0 85.3 82.1 56.9 26.0 35.0
Short visits 49.4 71.7 39.9 53.0 63.6 53.5
Long visits 61.1 79.2 55.6 62.1 73.7 66.9

Table 2 shows changes in the uptake of these rights to communication between 1999 and 2009 according to an official census of prisoners (Kazakova 2011; Mikhlin 2001). It shows that the percentage of prisoners who do not take up their rights has generally fallen in the intercensal period, although there are some exceptions. The low rate of visitation is striking. Our own questionnaire survey of 150 women prisoners in the Correctional Colony no. 2 in Mordovia confirms the official figures. In the sample, only 41 percent of respondents had received one or more visits since they arrived in the colony. We calculated the relationship between the actual visits for these women against the theoretical number to which they were entitled.[18] The result paints a dismal picture of visitation: a miniscule 3.4 percent of the entitlement to short visits and 11.6 percent to long visits had been taken up.[19] Setting the total number of visits against the total number of years served by the women up to the point of the survey, it was possible to calculate that the average annual number of short visits for the visited women is 0.4 and 0.5 for long visits. It is obvious that visitation is not part of the routine of prisoners in Russia. The consequence is a predictable distancing of prisoners and their families. There are many reasons for the low frequency of visits: the age/health of loved ones, limited budgets (easier to send food and product parcels than make a visit), time, work, and others, but distance is an underlying factor that prevented visits that are genuinely desired.

Table 3. The frequency of telephone calls between correctional colony inmates and their families in 2009 and 2010 (Sources: Kazakova 2011:54; 2010 survey in Novyi Oskol juvenile colony by author and colleagues).
Number of telephone calls made in past year Adult women (% of sample population) Adult men (% of sample population) Juvenile women in Novyi Oskol colony
2009 2009 2010
1 7.1 5.1 0
2 6.2 5.0 11.5
3 5.7 4.1 3.8
4 6.1 4.2 3.8
> 4 48.9 24.7 61.7
0 26.0 56.9 19.2
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0

The impact of distance on the experience of imprisonment goes deeper than “just” disrupting prisoners’ family relationships; the absence of outside contacts means that prisoners turn their attention inward to other prisoners for their social relationships. In men’s colonies, the absence of alternative social reference points is a contributory factor in the reproduction of prison subcultures that dominate the “society of captives.” Russian researchers (Anisimikov 2003; Antonian and Kolyshnitsyna 2009; Oleinik 2003) attribute the low level of regime compliance and of prisoner-personnel trust in Russian penal institutions to the strength of criminal subcultures. In women’s colonies the situation is different than from men’s; we found a “hothouse” atmosphere where the prisoners are constantly reminded of their failure to fulfill their role as wives and mothers (Moran, Pallot, and Piacentini 2009; Pallot and Piacentini 2012, chap. 12). “Corrective” interventions—“emotion therapy” and the organization of interventions such as beauty contests and “best mother in the colony” competitions—are deeply gendered. The paradox is that the distribution of women’s colonies takes them much greater distances from home than men, thus making the ability to sustain family links particularly challenging. Very few of the women we interviewed were visited by their children (Pallot and Katz 2014).

Returning to the question of whether distance intensifies the pain of imprisonment for prisoners, it is sufficient to quote one woman prisoner interviewed in 2010 who reflected on the worst thing about being in a colony:

It’s the loss of the people dear to you. The loss of your loved ones, when loved ones for some reason or other stop writing or phoning. When your family isn’t in contact, it’s very difficult. I was terrified about it after the court when I knew I’d be sent a long way away. That’s the worst thing that can happen here—to lose your loved ones. I’ve seen lots of women who have lost contact with their mothers, children, and other relatives and they all suffer so, and we all suffer when we see this happening, even though they are complete strangers to us. Yes, it’s terrible, the loss of loved ones.

Officially, the Russian Federal Penal Service recognizes that sending prisoners long distances to serve their sentences is a problem, hence the criminal correction code’s aim to incarcerate prisoners in their home region. When we asked them about distance, penal personnel in the colonies mostly reproduced the “official line” about the importance of sustaining socially useful contacts and that the distances from home were, indeed, a problem. Often, however, there were contradictory notes that indicated an underlying commitment to the existing “culture of exile.” For one deputy governor, the distance problem was “exaggerated”: prisoners could keep in contact by phone and letter, and being imprisoned away from home was not so very different from “going away to university or the army.” Others, while supporting the idea of reducing the distance between colony and home, nevertheless argued against metropolitan locations; their justifications ranged from the fear that officers and guards would be vulnerable to threats and bribes from relatives and that some degree of isolation is needed if rehabilitation interventions are to work. A more self-interested reason why personnel in remote locations support the existing geography of the penal estate is that the penal fiefdoms that developed in Russia’s periphery in the Soviet period still exist and deliver a comparatively high standard of living for their inhabitants, jobs for local people, and power to the local penal hierarchy. These constitute a lobby opposing any reforms that would see peripheral colonies closed.


The historical tendency in Russia to send convicted offenders long distances to serve custodial sentences has created a distinctive punishment form, or penal mode, in Russia that we may label “in exile imprisonment.” The movement of prisoners through distinctive spaces—the remand prison, Stolypin carriage, and colony—stretches the distance from home, rupturing social ties and forcing adaptation to unfamiliar environments. This punishment form is not considered exceptional but, rather, has been normalized over two centuries, although its specifics have differed at different times. It thrives as an institutional form and as a cultural practice because it articulates the specific message that the state will deal with criminality, political opposition, and social deviancy by expulsion to the periphery. In this respect, it is a direct heir of the Gulag and Imperial Russia before that. If the cases of Mikhail Khodorkovskii and Pussy Riot tell us anything, it is that under Vladimir Putin the power of the prison to affirm state values is never so potent as when high-profile figures are sent far from the capital to serve their sentences and when, by granting amnesty, they are allowed back.

The sufferings of prisoners during transportation and the extreme isolation that they encounter at their destinations are but elements of a much deeper and problematic Gulag inheritance. It turns out that the principles of prisoner management at their destination colonies have also been handed down from the past to the present (Pallot, forthcoming). These include collectivism in the organization of prisoners (including communal living arrangements and a group approach to rehabilitative interventions), the compulsory use of prison labor to fulfill institutionally set targets, a reliance on prisoners’ self-organization for the fulfillment of a variety of housekeeping tasks, and disciplinary practices such as krugovaia poruka (mutual responsibility), intra- and intercolony competition and prisoner-on-prisoner informing. These are underpinned by a pervasive militarism and notoriously harsh system of “penal backup.” The pillars upon which the current Russian system of punishment is constructed have remained remarkably constant over time.

Prison reform has taken place in the Russian Federation, although this has been episodic and is stalled at present. Since the collapse of the USSR, the Federal Penal Service has had a declared intention of developing alternatives to incarceration that would lead to a reduction of the size of the prison population. In the recent past, there has been a contraction of the overall prison population (although this is as much a product of politically inspired amnesties as of changing sentencing practices). Barring a reversal in policy, the size of the prison population is set to fall further before it stabilizes at level below the average for the first two decades of the post-Soviet period. As the prison population continues to fall the penal service will be in a position to abandon some of its most remote colonies which, it admits, are a drain on its resources. However, any such inward contraction will be accompanied by the further entrenchment of the multiple facility complexes in the “penal arc” described at the beginning of this article. The current minister of justice, Aleksandr Konovalov, has made clear that the reestablishment of the authority of the penal order must be the priority of any reform.

The disappointing feature of the Russian case is that the post-Soviet policymakers have failed so abjectly to take up the challenge posed by the country’s size and geography—to take the steps necessary to allow the islands of Solzhenitsyn’s archipelago finally and irrevocably to be evacuated. More particularly, it means that no real prospect is in sight that would bring to an end the obscenity of sending teenage girls serving overly long sentences thousands of kilometers from their home town. The islands of the archipelago are still populated and, sadly, seem set to remain so in the future.


Топография мест заключения: преемственность пространственной организации пенитенциарной системы и наследие ГУЛАГа в России XX и XXI веков

Джудит Пэллот

Джудит Пэллот – профессор социально-экономической географии России в Оксфордском университете, Великобритания. Адрес для переписки: Christ Church, University of Oxford, Oxford, OX1 1DP, UK.

Цель данной работы – показать, как унаследованные от Советского Союза особенности географии мест тюремного заключения определяют специфику пенитенциарного опыта в Российской Федерации. В первой части статьи описываются эволюция и особая пространственная структура уголовно-исполнительной системы, сложившейся в первые годы после смерти Сталина, когда особые «тюремные» регионы стали неотъемлемой частью характерного географического разделения труда в СССР. Во второй части обсуждается, как эта своеобразная география стала ассоциироваться с определенной формой наказания, «карательным изгнанием», которое сочетает лишение свободы с высылкой на окраины. В заключительном разделе статьи автор разбирает вопрос о том, почему отправка заключенных на большие расстояния для отбытия наказания может быть понята как дополнение к неизбежным тяготам лишения свободы. Статья основана на результатах двух научно-исследовательских проектов, которыми автор занималась в последние десять лет.

Ключевые слова: тюремная география; ГУЛАГ; транспортировка заключенных; ссылка

  1. The Federal Penal Service website is found at The regional authority (UFSIN) websites are found by clicking the “Territorial’nye organy” link.
  2. The mapping project ( grew out of the two research projects on prisoners’ and their rela­tives’ experiences and is ongoing. The site contains maps for 1929–1960 and for the post-Soviet period. There are no data available, so there is a gap in coverage, for the period between 1960 and 1991.
  3. The first project (funded by the Economic and Social Research Council [ESRC]) was titled “Women and Penality in Post-Soviet Russia.” The project took interviews with 60 adult prisoners, 55 juvenile prisoners, 25 eprisoners, and approximately a dozen personnel in correctional colonies in European Russia (and one juvenile colony in West Siberia). The results are written up in Pallot and Piacentini (2012). The second project (supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council [AHRC]) concerns prisoners’ relatives in contemporary Russia and has involved interviews with 25 family members of prisoners currently serving sentences in Russian colonies. Interviews have also been conducted with former political prisoners Igor’ Sutiagin and Zara Murtazalieva.
  4. A full discussion of research methodology and a description of the interviews are to be found in Pallot and Piacentini (2012, chap. 2).
  5. The most useful are;;
  6. Sending prisoners to a remote place of course began with Vladimir Lenin who commanded the Cheka (NKVD’s predecessor) to hold class enemies “outside the city.” Escapes of prisoners near cities led, starting in 1918, to prisoners being taken ever further away and to the founding of SLON (Solovetskii lager’ osobogo naznacheniia, Solovetskii Special Detention Camp) in the remotest part of the European North (see Jakobson 1993:39–40).
  7. Andrew Gentes, the principal historian of the tsarist exile system, for example, is reluctant to collapse the binary between exile and imprisonment, arguing that the two systems were coeval; katorga, he argues, was a “version” of exile but fell short of “prisonization” per se (see Gentes 2008, 2010). Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was similarly reluctant to abandon the idea of a pure form of exile, though he acknowledged that katorga laid the foundations for the Gulag. As Jan Plamper (2002) has observed, Michel Foucault, following Solzhenitsyn, failed to understand the carceral nature of tsarist exile and, as a result, posited the French system of relégation as the inspiration for the Gulag.
  8. Recent empirical scholarship on the Gulag has produced further evidence of the blurring of the boundaries between exile and imprisonment. We now know that camp inmates could earn “non-convoy status,” which allowed them to spend long periods outside the confines of the camp, and that exiles and deportees shared many of the experiences of convicted prisoners (see, e.g., Barnes 2011; Bell 2013; Brown 2007).
  9. The etap was the staging post where convict convoys spent the night on the overland trek into exile. By the twentieth century the term had been generalized to cover the whole transportation process whether on foot or by train or boat or motor vehicle. The word denotes the prisoner convoy as a physical entity, whilst the word etapirovanie refers to the physical process of moving prisoners from one institution to another.
  10. Matrioshki are nesting dolls. This type of doll is a symbol of Russian womanhood (see Goscilo 1996 on the “matrioshka ethos” in the construction of gender identities in Russia).
  11. Courts in Russia sentence prisoners to particular categories of penal facilities and regimes, which determine the prisoner’s entitlements to visits and so on, but not to particular places. This is ultimately decided by FSIN, although normally decisions are deferred to a lower level and involve the allocation of prisoners within established catchments linking particular remand prisons and colonies.
  12. Vorkuta is in the north of European Russia and was one of the remote Gulag camps. There are still colonies in the town today, although none for women.
  13. The member of the punk rock group, Pussy Riot, imprisoned on charges of hooliganism for her part in singing a “punk prayer” criticizing Vladimir Putin, was transferred from her colony in Mordovia early in January 2014 when she had gone on hunger strike in protest against her treatment by the penal authorities in Correctional Colony no. 14. Her husband and defense lawyer were not informed to which colony she was being taken or when she would arrive. There were two weeks of media speculation about her whereabouts and destination. For an account of Pussy Riot’s protest see Elder (2012).
  14. “Tat’iana,” November 4, 2004, Settlement Colony no. 27, Arkhangel’sk Oblast. Tat’iana’s words are from a posting she made on one of the earliest prisoner-support websites, Arestant, that in 2010 was to be found at The site subsequently was suspended due to the death of its founder but has been replaced by many analogous sites. I was able to download and save the postings that had been made by 2010. The source was used and checked for Pallot (2012).
  15. This posting was made by “Mariia” on the website Arestant (see footnote 14) on October 5, 2005, whose son was in Perm’ Settlement Colony no. 8.
  16. It is worth noting that it was only two decades ago that the Russian penal service was able to report “positive results” from an experiment to allow women prisoners to make intercity phone calls to family. For the changes in the early 1990s see Mikhlin (1991:15–17).
  17. The entitlement, especially to visits, is reduced in strict and special regime colonies, as well as in prisons and in colonies for prisoners on life sentences. But in every type of colony entitlements can be changed according to the conditions of confinement on which prisoners are placed. At the present time, colonies are experimenting with systems similar to the UK’s Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme (in Russia it is known as “Social Lift”), which differentiates privileges according to a series of indices that include behavior, family connections, and even evidence of religious observance.
  18. The figures were calculated by adding the total number of years served to the total sample at the time of the survey 393 years and 6 months and dividing this into the total number of visits to which they were entitled over that time at the rate of 4 long and 12 short per year. The total long visit entitlement was 1,574 and the short visit entitlement 4,723. The percentage rate was then calculated. This is a very approximate measure of the rate because entitlements vary.
  19. Whilst our survey was not comparable to the FSIN 2009 census, it was to the earlier 1999 census. Disaggregating our survey results by the type of visit (short or long), we found that 28.9 percent of women in our survey received short visits as against 28.5 percent in the 1999 census, but that a greater proportion of our sample received long visits, 25.8 percent, compared with 20.1 percent in the 1999 census.