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Book Reviews "Women in/and the Military" (2 titles)

Людмила Альперн, Сон и явь женской тюрьмы, Санкт-Петербург: Алетейя, Серия «Гендерные исследования» [Liudmila Al’pern, Dream and reality in women’s prisons], 2004, 446 с.

Anton Oleynik

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Prison, Women



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1The dream of any author – especially of a book with the word “dream” in the title – consists in having his or her text reviewed by somebody who at least understands the theoretical approach structuring the book’s content. How often writings based on qualitative methods are destroyed by reviewers who “deconstruct” them in perspective of quantitative methods and vice versa!

  • 1  Geertz, Clifford (1996), Ici et là-bas: l’anthropologue comme acteur, Paris : Ed. Métailié, p. 18

2The identification of the theoretical perspective adapted by the author of Dreams and the reality of prison for women does not represent a puzzle for the reader. As the title of the series –  “Gender studies” – suggests, the book should be interpreted and judged according to the criteria set by feminist researchers and writers. Some concerns about the way in which the author presents and discusses the statistical data (see, for instance the table on p. 36: it is difficult to understand its organization and whether the numbers correspond to percentages or to something else) appear irrelevant from this point of view. Even the lack of clearly stated research questions and hypothesis and loosely connected parts of the text (in fact, the book contains a number of previously published essays) do not potentially decrease its value for a true connoisseur. Feminist research has another order of priorities: focus on mechanisms of masculine domination, predominantly qualitative and ethnological methods, the author’s involvement into the movement for improving women’s conditions and, consequently, a subjective and partisan character of arguments. The message sent by the author is embodied not in “neutral” arguments and “robust” causal relationships – the first and foremost it is embedded in the personality of the author herself. Judged according to these criteria, the book does send a message: the author succeeds in persuading the reader of her commitment to the feminist cause and, in particular, to the task of improving the conditions of motherhood in prison. (The fact that sometimes the personality of the author overshadows her personages is excusable: after all, it is extremely difficult to write a text that would be simultaneously “an intimate confession and an impartial report”1).

3However, the opinion of a reviewer who does not share feminist values may also be instructive. First, not all potential readers of the book are partisans of feminism, especially taking into consideration the number of its copies – one thousand – and the fact that several essays included in the book have been previously published in the Russian edition of Index on Censorship that has a large and diversified readership. Second, the “outsider” views and interprets the text otherwise than the “insider” does and his or her opinions may help discover new dimensions in the text that even the author has been unaware of. Here are several observations that could have been made by a “sympathetic outsider”.

4The reader who gets used to the language of hypothesis, causal relationships and logical demonstrations will find the book full of paradoxes. On the one hand, Ludmila Al’pern fights against all forms of gender discrimination in prison, this ‘male’ institution because of its mere constitutive idea of institutionalized violence and the spread of the public sphere, this “kingdom of men”. She convincingly points out the cases of gender discrimination during transfers from one penitentiary to another (it is worth noting that problems related to the organization of transfers are often neglected in writings on Russian prison), in questions of personal hygiene, health and motherhood, work and so forth (pp. 43-72). On the other hand, the solution proposed by the author sounds surprising: she seems to argue in favor of the return of women to the sphere of privacy where they feel more comfortable while playing traditional female roles. “It is worth thinking about making the conditions of women’s detention more corresponding to their female role, their vocation for motherhood, their role of mothers, real and not fictitious, and helping them find elements of the privacy in the everyday life in prison” (p. 29). In other words, the author proposes to reduce gender discrimination by acknowledging and even strengthening gender asymmetries.

5The logical contradiction – it should be kept in mind that we are speaking about an outsider’s attempt to deconstruct the text – suggests nevertheless that there is a more substantial and real problem behind it. Does a violent and unsuccessful attempt to reduce – one can put ‘erase’ instead – gender asymmetries, in prison as in Soviet society as a whole, mean that no other alternatives than the return to the point of departure – a traditional and pre-modern situation – are available and/or feasible? The author intuitively acknowledges the existence of a strange similarity between the social organization of Russian prisons for women and the constitution of a society that some Western feminists dream about. In both cases women go beyond the narrow boundaries of their traditional home, the sphere of privacy, and assume more active public roles. “New forms of woman’s self-perception rudely produced by Russian prison with its system of collective detention transform her into a kind of personality promoted by the feminist education among Western female intellectuals. There is a convergence between the two cases: despite the apparent dissimilarity of ways [towards emancipation], they lead to the same results” (p. 22). Soviet society in general and prison in particular derived from a particular – and mostly unsuccessful – attempt of modernization (gender a/symmetry is just one of the sides of this process). Does this failure call for abandoning attempts to find alternative and less violent strategies of modernization, including strategies for reducing gender gaps? Does the assumption that “Russians would prefer to live, like all other European peoples, properly and wealthy, yet they cannot because of referring to a completely different set of values” (p. 200) gives us a really satisfactory excuse for not taking seriously any feasible alternative?

  • 2  Волкова, Татьяна (1998), Женщина в зеркале криминала, Москва, с. 143-148

6The solution proposed by L. Al’pern lies not ahead, but behind. And it is hardly satisfactory not only from the point of view of those who argue in favor of alternative strategies of modernization. The problem is that modernization in its Soviet version did not leave the past untouched, be it traditional values or the archetype of woman opposed to violence and machismo. For instance, let us have a closer look at sexual relationships among women in prison. Al’pern’s book is one of the rare sources about prison in which this question is not bypassed. The author argues that women are much more sensitive and attentive to their homosexual partners than men are in heterosexual contacts. “At the purely physical level a women is a more interesting partner for another women: she knows well her own erogenous zones and is able to find them quickly on the girlfriend’s body” (p. 148). The results of some other studies2, including my own, conduced in two prisons for women located in the region of Moscow and the region of Perm’, allow drawing a more nuanced picture. While they assume men’s gender roles in prison it is not rare to see women reproducing patterns of macho behavior: they resort to violence, impose double standards, start fighting to assert their “maleness” and use the coarse language, mat. The rich raw data included in the book, especially transcripts of in-depth interviews, suggest very similar ideas. For example, the term “macho-women” (baby-muzhiki) used by one of the young interlocutors (p. 46) seems appropriate for describing the reproduction of machismo in a society populated exclusively by women. The interview No. 1 (pp. 304-323) was probably conducted with one of these “macho-women”: the interlocutor does not feel any reciprocal obligations with regard to her much younger partner and feels free even to physically impose the will (p. 320) on the latter.

  • 3  Lukes, Steven (2005), Power: A Radical View, Houndmills, Hampshire and New York: Palgrave Macmilla (...)

7Such a less partisan look leads us to believe that probably no actor, including women, in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia escaped from harmful effects of the failed attempt of violent modernization. All of them tend to reproduce the same model of power relationships (that the author accepts to see only when it is embodied in the state and its representatives). The idea of S. Lukes that subordinates and dominants can be equally considered as “functions” of a dominant model of power relationships, regardless whether they reproduce it consciously or unconsciously, looks especially promising in this context3. To put it differently, men and women are equally involved in the process of the continuous reproduction of the dominant model of power relationships in their everyday life, in prison and outside its walls. If true, this statement contains bad news and good news at the same time. It is the bad news because it prevents us from seeing the situation in black-and-white and reduces the number of leverages available for changing it. On the other side, the good news resides in finding additional arguments for changes and in the understanding that there is no way back, only ahead, to escape from the impasse.

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1  Geertz, Clifford (1996), Ici et là-bas: l’anthropologue comme acteur, Paris : Ed. Métailié, p. 18

2  Волкова, Татьяна (1998), Женщина в зеркале криминала, Москва, с. 143-148

3  Lukes, Steven (2005), Power: A Radical View, Houndmills, Hampshire and New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 2nd edition

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Electronic reference

Anton Oleynik, “Людмила Альперн, Сон и явь женской тюрьмы, Санкт-Петербург: Алетейя, Серия «Гендерные исследования» [Liudmila Al’pern, Dream and reality in women’s prisons], 2004, 446 с.”The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 4/5 | 2006, Online since 27 January 2009, connection on 14 July 2024. URL:; DOI:

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