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Russian Prisons: From GULAG to FSIN


Russian Prisons: From GULAG to FSIN

Society for Cooperation in Russian and Soviet Studies

SCRSS Digest. No 1, Spring 2017, pages 12-14

Bill Bowring, President of SCRSS

On 8 December 2016 President Putin met his Council for Development of Civil Society and Human Rights (Human Rights Council), which includes several leading Russian human rights activists and prison reformers. Some of them have been active in the independent prison Public Monitoring Commission (ONK), created in 2008 during Mr Medvedev’s presidency. The ONK, inspired by the British system of Prison Visitors, has rights to visit all places of detention, interview prisoners and report on conditions. The transcript of the meeting is published on the President of Russia website (

One of the members of the Council, the veteran human rights defender Ludmila Alekseeva (founder of the Moscow Helsinki Group), raised the issue of controversial recent elections to the new fourth composition of the ONK by the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation. President Putin replied that he agreed with her on every point. She was followed by the journalist and former ONK member Elena Masyuk who made a forceful presentation about the fate of the ONK, and the attempted legal proceedings by her and others to overturn the Civic Chamber’s decision. She had written that the Civic Chamber was replacing all experts on the penitentiary system and human rights activists with unknowns from the penitentiary system itself, as well as former criminals. President Putin also agreed with her. She was followed by Andrei Babushkin who, together with the former Duma Deputy Valery Borshchov, had helped to create the system of ONKs, and by Igor Kalyapin, founder of the highly successful Committee Against Torture.

On 3 January 2017 President Putin published a list of orders (poruchenii) arising from the meeting of 8 December. One of these ordered the General Prosecutor of the Russian Federation Yuri Chaika to check the compliance of the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) with public control of guarantees for human rights in prisons. His report must be submitted by 1 September. He also ordered the Civic Chamber, together with the Council for Civil Society and Human Rights and the Federal Ombudsman for Human Rights, to analyse the effectiveness of the mechanism for appointing members of the ONK by the end of March.

What is the background to this? In part, it is the legacy of the GULAG (Chief Directorate of Camps), the USSR’s system of correctional labour camps whose population reached 100,000 in the 1920s, and in which it is estimated that 14 million people spent time between 1929 and 1953. The Russian Federation still has a prison population of more than 633,000, the third highest in the world after the USA with 2,217,947 and China with 1,649,804. In terms of its incarceration rate (the number of prisoners per 100,000 of population), Russia is now eighth in the world, having previously held the highest ranking: its rate is 439, compared with the USA’s 693, and 145 in England and Wales (the highest in Western Europe).

Indeed, Russia has experienced a dramatic fall in prison numbers – from more than 1,000,000 in 2000 (a rate of 729). Russia’s membership of the Council of Europe since 1996 has been one of the main drivers of reform. A condition of membership was transfer of the penitentiary system from the Ministry of the Interior (police and internal armed forces) to the Ministry of Justice, and Russia complied. In 2002 a new Criminal Procedural Code came into force (I was one of the Council of Europe experts working with senior Russian officials on the drafts), requiring judges rather than prosecutors to rule on bail or custody pre-trial. And there is a post-Soviet Criminal Code that has been amended many times. However, most prison officers are former servicemen and the service is highly militarised.

Convicted persons serve their sentences in 717 Correctional Colonies (IK), with compulsory paid work (much less well paid, relatively, than in the USSR). In many cases these are former GULAG camp establishments, in remote parts of Russia. Nearly eight per cent of prisoners are women, and 0.2 per cent are juveniles (under 18 years). The age of criminal responsibility in Russia is 14 years. According to a report published in January 2017, ten per cent of prisoners have HIV and four per cent drug-resistant tuberculosis. Narcotic abuse is rife in Russian prisons. Russia is presently suffering from what is described by officials as an HIV and AIDs epidemic. A major contributor to this crisis is the number of addicts and infected persons released from prison.

Russia’s greatest problem is the system of 217 pre-trial detention prisons called Investigative Isolators (SIZOs), which account for 17 per cent of prisoners. The most famous and notorious are SIZO No 1 (Matrosskaya Tishina), dating from the 1940s and where Mikhail Khodorkovsky was held during his trials, and SIZO No 2 (Butyrka), dating from the eighteenth century. I have visited both. SIZOs, which are obliged to accept every person sent to them by the courts, suffer from chronic and extreme overcrowding.

Since the case of Kalashnikov v Russia in 2002, the European Court of Human Rights had by 2012 ruled against Russia more than eighty times for violations of the right, under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, not to be subjected by reason of overcrowding to inhuman and degrading treatment. Cells with fifteen beds were at times holding forty-five prisoners, who were obliged to sleep in shifts, with an open toilet in the corner (horrifying conditions described in 1994 by Professor Nigel Rodley, then UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, as comparable only to Dante’s circles of hell or Hieronymus Bosch’s depiction of the sufferings of the damned). In 2012 the Strasbourg Court issued a ‘pilot judgment’ in Ananyev v Russia, ordering Russia to submit an Action Plan for reform of the SIZOs within six months. Russia submitted a Plan in time, but implementation is hampered by shortage of funds and corruption. The head of FSIN from 2009 to 2012, Colonel-General Aleksandr Reimer, was arrested in March 2015 and charged with embezzlement from FSIN on a grand scale. He is still in custody awaiting trial. He was appointed by Mr Medvedev, following the scandal of the death of the anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in custody in November 2009. FSIN is now led by a former intelligence officer.

The latest scandal concerning Russian prisons was the case of 34-year-old activist Ildar Dadin. In December 2015, he became the first person to be convicted of a new offence of ‘repeated demonstrating’ and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, reduced on appeal to two and a half years. Amnesty International recognised him as a ‘Prisoner of Conscience’. He complained of serious torture while in an IK in Karelia and was transferred elsewhere – for a long period his lawyers and ONK members were unable to find out where he was being held. He was transferred to an IK in Altai. This case was widely reported. He has since been released.

However, on 8 January 2017, an article in the daily newspaper Vedomosti compared the responses to a survey on the Russian penitentiary system from 2000 and 2016. In 2000, 82 per cent of respondents said that they knew about problems in the penitentiary system, while 18 per cent did not know. By the end of 2016, 68 per cent said they knew nothing, while 32 per cent knew. This is due not only to the dramatic fall in the number of prisoners, but also to the fact that – with very few exceptions – the mass media in Russia are state-controlled, with news of prison conditions ‘filtered’.

That is why the future of the ONK is so controversial and at the top of the list of President Putin’s recent orders.


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