Skip to navigation – Site map
The Evolution of Prisons and Penality in the Former Soviet Union - Book Reviews (4)

Judith Pallot and Elena Katz, Waiting at the Prison Gate: Women, Identity and the Russian Penal System

London: I.B. Tauris, 2017, 352 pages
Gwénola Ricordeau
Bibliographical reference

Judith Pallot and Elena Katz, Waiting at the Prison Gate: Women, Identity and the Russian Penal System, London: I.B. Tauris, 2017, 352 pages

Index terms

Keywords :

Prison, Women, Gender

Countries :

Russia

Research Fields :

Sociology
Top of page

Full text

1Over the last three generations, nearly every Russian family have had a family member in prison at some time. Meanwhile, wives and female relatives of prisoners have been ignored by research, while there is abundant scholarship on Russian crime and prison subcultures, especially on the so-called Thieves-in-Law (vory-v-zakone). Finally, Judith Pallot and Elena Katz, in Waiting at the Prison Gate: Women, Identity and the Russian Penal System, encapsulate the experience of wives and female relatives of the 640,357 individuals (as on the 1st October 2016) held in prison in Russia. Their research draws upon 26 interviews, but also upon 28 websites that reflect the virtual community of prisoners’ relatives. In fact, in the past twenty years, many websites have been created that are dedicated to providing practical information (such as visiting times at particular colonies, how to get to them, etc.), legal services and emotional support for prisoners and their relatives.

2Waiting at the Prison Gate begins by exploring the mythic figure of the dekabristka (“Decembrist wife”). The dekabristka myth influences the meanings that wives of prisoners bring to their experiences, especially how they combine love, religion and duty in constructing a “stand-by-my-man” narrative. While 21st century dekabristka do not follow their husbands to Siberia any more, they are often pivotal to their survivalby providing them with emotional support, a monthly parcel – the basic survival kit –, and documents needed for appeals and release. Additionally these women have to overcome formidable obstacles when they visit an incarcerated relative in one of the 752 penal institutions that exist throughout Russia – correctional colonies (ispravitel’nye kolonii), open prisons (kolonii-poseleniia), juvenile colonies, isolation colonies etc. Prisoners may serve their sentences far from family and due to Russia’s penal geography, visiting an incarcerated relative often involves an exceptionally long journey.

3The book explores many aspects of the lives of prisoners’ relatives, especially how they support them through sending parcels, writing, social media and the telephone. The book provides an extensive description of visits. The interviewees detail their long and exhausting journey to the penal colonies, laden with parcels. They describe both the visiting rooms for short visits and the “hostel” that many facilities have for overnight family visits (usually three days). The book describes their entrance in a hostile physical and political environment and how women are subjected to humiliating treatment by prison personnel. Meanwhile, in the visiting rooms, women domesticate this quintessentially male space and perform the role of a homemaker and a loving partner.

4The book proposes an insightful typology of prisoners’ wives. The first type is the “bandit’s wife”. Even if the gangs and hierarchies that exist in today’s correctional colonies bear only a distant relationship to the original Thieves-in-Law, many still lay claim to living according to the code. The second type is the so-called zaochnitsa or “social media wife”. This name is given to women who seek to date prisoners and sustain long-distance relationships with them through (typically illicit) mobile phone calls. Despite President Vladimir Putin’s claim that there are no political prisoners in the Russian federation, the third category consists of the families of political prisoners.

5Waiting at the Prison Gate gives pause for reflection on the status of women in Russia. The image of the dutiful, submissive wife prepared to suffer for the sake of her man and the discourse on the redemptive power of woman’s love (conjugal, maternal, filial and familial) are deeply embedded in Russian culture (p.34). The dekabristka trope allows the Russian Prison Service to ignore the needs of prisoners’ relatives while transferring to them much of the responsibility for keeping prisoners well-fed, healthy and safe. So the dekabristka trope normalizes the woman’s lot and reinforces traditional stereotypes of women’s roles. The dekabristka trope has also been used to defeat new stereotypes of modern womanhood such as the ambitious and successful independent businesswoman imported from the West or upwardly mobile trophy wives of the nouveaux riches.

  • 1 M. Comfort, Doing time together: Love and family in the shadow of the prison, University of Chicago (...)

6The book contributes to a growing scholarship on female relatives of prisoners all around the world1. The similarities of women’s narratives in various countries are striking. They include forms of rationalization of their marital choice, resistance to the penal system and empowerment that may result from their engagement in community building with other prisoners’ wives. Waiting at the Prison Gate indicates that in Western research, visits occupy a central place in the life of prisoners’ wives. Judith Pallot and Elena Katz convincingly argue that, in this aspect, the situation of prisoners’ wives in Russia is very different due to the many challenges involved in journeys to remote prisons.

  • 2 See also: J. Pallot, L. Piacentini, Gender, Geography and Punishment: The Experience of Women in Ca (...)

7A woman “waiting at the gate”, either a dekabristka or a matreshka, is a powerful image in Russian penal culture. Waiting at the Prison Gate goes beyond this image and gives voice to the narratives of women that are seldom heard. The book serves as instructive reading both on the penal system and women in Russia more broadly. More importantly, Judith Pallot and Elena Katz explain the prominent role that the penal system has played in shaping gender identities in Russia2.

Top of page

Notes

1 M. Comfort, Doing time together: Love and family in the shadow of the prison, University of Chicago Press, 2009; N. C. Padovani, “Confounding borders and walls. Documents, letters and the governance of relationships in São Paulo and Barcelona prisons”, Vibrant. Virtual Brazilian Anthropology, v. 10, #2, 2014; G. Ricordeau, “Between Inside and Outside: Prison Visiting Rooms”, Politix, vol. 97, #1, 2012.

2 See also: J. Pallot, L. Piacentini, Gender, Geography and Punishment: The Experience of Women in Carceral Russia, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Top of page

References

Electronic reference

Gwénola Ricordeau, « Judith Pallot and Elena Katz, Waiting at the Prison Gate: Women, Identity and the Russian Penal System », The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 19 | 2018, Online since 15 November 2018, connection on 23 September 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/pipss/4477

Top of page

About the author

Gwénola Ricordeau

California State University, Chico

Top of page

Copyright

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Top of page