1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Stalin's legacy

Olga Kapustina / db October 2, 2013

Physical violence and emotional stress - human rights activists complain of poor conditions in Russian penal colonies. Former prisoners denounce the situation.

Watch tower in Mordovia DW/O.Kapustina
Image: DW/O.Kapustina

Forced labor, lack of sleep, fights: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, one of the two imprisoned member of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot, is harshly critical of conditions in Russia's penal colonies. "Everyday life in the colony is set up in such a way that prisoners who head a brigade and take orders from prison managers break a person's will, bully them, and turn them into silent slaves," she wrote in an open letter published last week (23.09.2013).

Her comments unleashed a wave of outrage. The inhuman conditions in Russian penal colonies have been targeted by former prisoners and human rights activists for years.

Stalin's legacy

According to Russia's Federal Penitentiary Service, more than 585,000 prisoners were serving sentences in the country's penal colonies in 2012. An additional 260,000 were held in detention centers. The many penal colonies in the republic of Mordovia date back to the Stalin era. That's where "enemies of the people" were imprisoned in Stalin's days.

Mordovia is situated about 5,000 kilometers southeast of Moscow. Eighteen penal colonies surrounded by forests dot the paved road that starts at the Potma train station. Gold-domed churches stand tall behind barbwire fences. Countless watchtowers line both sides of the road. These are the colonies for Russians sentenced to life in prison, for foreigners, women, men, former police officers, mothers with young children and the chronically ill.

building at Colony No . 14 DW/O.Kapustina
Rights activists have repeadedly raised concerns about the facilitiesImage: DW/O.Kapustina

Second-class humans

The two penal colonies for women - numbered 13 and 14 - are across the road from one another. Muscovite Svetlana Bakhmina spent two-and-a-half years in Colony No. 14, where Nadezhda Tolokonnikova is currently serving time. Bachmina, who previously worked as a lawyer for Russian oil giant Yukos, was found guilty of embezzlement and tax fraud - as was her ex-boss, billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Bachmina remembers how shocked she was when she arrived at Colony No 14. About 100 women were housed in a building, and they were only allowed to shower once a week. "Women would draw water from the radiators in order to wash," she says. "You had to watch out so the guards wouldn't catch you." There was but one toilet in the barracks, but it was non-functional so the women were forced to use the outhouse.

Penal colony No. 14 DW/O.Kapustina
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova is imprisoned in Colony No.14Image: DW/O.Kapustina

Filth, abuse and incredible pressure

Interaction among the prisoners was even worse than the harsh everyday routine. "You are treated like a second-class human being," Bakhmina says. Forced labor was abolished in Russian penal colonies, but time and again, the women were punished for allegedly refusing to work, the ex-prisoner says, who was released prematurely in April 2009. "We put in a lot of overtime," Bakhmina says. "It's like an assembly belt, and there is a production plan you must meet." Those who don't manage their quota are attacked by the other women, Bakhmina says.

There is a strict daily routine in the colonies. "Get up at six, exercise outdoors, hand in personal items at the clothing check, have breakfast. Work starts at 7 a.m.," Zara Murtazalieva describes the grind in Colony No 13. In 2005, Murtazalieva, a Chechen activist, was sentenced to eight-and-a-half years in jail for preparing a terrorist attack. According to the Memorial human rights organization, she is a political prisoner whose charge was invented by the intelligence agencies.

Svetlana Bakhmina, DW/O.Kapustina
Bakhmina was shocked by conditions in the women's prisonImage: DW/O.Kapustina

"We sewed all sorts of things, army uniforms and gloves, even tents. We labored day and night," the 30-year-old says, adding she earned an average of 700 roubles (15 euros, $20) per month. They guarded her, as a Chechen, especially well. She was also beaten several times. What she missed most in the colony was peace and quiet, and a chance to be alone. "There are video cameras everywhere. You experience incredible emotional pressure," Murtazalieva says. After her release last year, she went to France, where she was granted political asylum.

A different world

The penal colonies in Mordovia are a world apart, says Soja Svetova, a Moscow-based journalist and human rights activist, adding that neither prisoners nor inhabitants can break out. The corrections department is the most important employer in the region. Entire families have worked in the facilities for several generations. Mordovia prisoners often call her to complain about violence behind bars, Svetova says.

In the meantime, however, there have been improvements, the journalist notes. First-timers are separated from prisoners who have been convicted several times. But most importantly, she says, Russian society is slowly beginning to take an interest in the conditions in their prisons.