In the Soviet era, most Russian convicts were forced to serve their time in prison “colonies” and labor camps dotted across the country’s forbidding and remote regions, in a system immortalized by the Nobel Prizewinning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn as the “Gulag Archipelago.”
While the labor camps are now largely historical memory, Russia still confines prisoners in distant locations that many activists say allow authorities to continue the systematic human rights abuses perpetrated under the Gulag system with little oversight.
But that may be about to change.
A bill pending before the Russian State Duma (parliament) would allow prisoners to request federal authorities to let them serve their time in prisons located in regions close to their relatives.
In a move that carries echoes of similar efforts in the U.S., such as the “Close to Home” legislation passed in 2012 by the New York State Assembly for juvenile offenders, the bill is described as an attempt to ensure more “humane” conditions for both prisoners and their families, according to a report by Radio Free Europe (RFE).
As of 2018, over 458,000 individuals were imprisoned, the majority of them in 705 “corrective colonies” across the country.
Officially, under Article 73 of the Russian Penal Code, convicts are allowed to “serve their sentences in corrections facilities on the territory of the subject of the Russian Federation in which they lived or were sentenced.”
But like most Russian laws, a long list of exceptions to the rule means that the requirement has been typically ignored.
“Prisoners often find themselves thousands of kilometers from their families,” RFE said, citing a report by the official state newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta.
The proposed new bill would make a prisoner’s right to request transfer to a facility near his original residence more explicit,
The change would affect in theory thousands of families. In one example provided by RFE, one Moscow woman has been able to visit her fiancé only once in the two years since he was convicted on drug charges, because she couldn’t afford the cost of traveling to the “strict-regime colony” 700 kilometers away from the capital where he was housed.
For the prisoner’s elderly mother, who lives in Chechnya, things are even worse.
“In addition to the trip being very difficult and long, it is also very expensive,” the daughter-in-law said. “His mother’s pension is about 10,000 rubles [$156] a month. Every time we speak to the FSIN [Federal Penitentiary Service], we point that out.
“It would take her whole pension to buy tickets and cover the costs of one trip.”
If the proposal became law, he could in principle be allowed to serve out his sentence in a maximum security prison located in the village where his mother lives.
Olga Chmurova, the coordinator of Civic Cooperation, a project to aid prisoners from Chechnya and Ingushetia, said the new measure would also mean a significant improvement in the quality of life for Russian prisoners, who often face brutal conditions in environments whose remoteness means there is little oversight from authorities.
“Sometimes a prisoner or his relatives will write to us about some other problem and in the course of our communication we discover that they haven’t seen one another in years,” Chumurova said.
According to a report earlier this year by the Center for Eastern Studies in Poland, cited by RFE, “in the first seven months of 2018 alone, the Russian press revealed 24 cases of torture in prisons.”
“The [federal penitentiary service] operates as a unique ‘state within a state’ with no supervision mechanisms,” the report said, “but with a separate health care service, transportation system, education system, a unique system of trading in goods characterized by widespread corruption and the primacy of informal rules and hierarchies over formal ones.”
To anyone familiar with the history of the secret police-run Gulag —an acronym for the “Main Administration of Camps”—that’s an uncomfortably familiar description.
Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin was considered the main architect of the system, which transformed the Czarist penal colonies that had been used to house exiled dissidents in Siberia into a sprawling network of prisons. According to Russian and Western historians, between 14 million and 25 million Russians were confined to the Gulag between 1923 and 1953.
The camps were officially shut down in 1960, but the remote prison colonies continued to function under the control of the Ministry of Internal Affairs through the Soviet era and beyond.
Some of the information for this report was obtained through the services of Johnson’s Russia List, a non-profit digest of news and analysis about the Russian Federation and Ukraine, based at George Washington University.