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

Anna Karetnikova, Marshrut. Obshchestvennyi kontrol’ za mestami lisheniya svobodi – vosem’let bez prava ostanovki

Moscow: Pravozashchitnii Tsentr, 2017, 268 pages
Malika Talgatova
Bibliographical reference

Anna Karetnikova, Marshrut. Obshchestvennyi kontrol’ za mestami lisheniya svobodi – vosem’ let bez prava ostanovki, Moscow: Pravozashchitnii Tsentr, 2017, 268 pages

Index terms

Countries :


Research Fields :

Human Rights
Top of page

Full text

1Conditions in pre-trial institutions are one of the most discussed issues for legal specialists, policy-makers, and human rights defenders. In this new book, Anna Karetnikova sheds further light on the dire situation that remand prisoners in Russia often find themselves in. 

2Karetnikova has been a member of the Human Rights Center “Memorial” and a member of the Moscow Public Monitoring Commission (PMC) for eight years. This book came as result of her work at the PMC and presents a portrayal of what she has been a witness to in the walls of pre-trial institutions. Although she is no longer a part of the PMC, she remains strongly involved in prison affairs - she is currently working as an analyst at the Federal Penitentiary Service (FPS), the authority responsible for the security and maintenance of penitentiary institutions in Russia.

3The title of the book, “Marshrut” or “The Route”, refers to the plan that the members of the Public Monitoring Commission design prior to every prison visit:

“The route is a list of cells created beforehand (in general, it is a list of any objects, including library, church, warehouses, common rooms, shower rooms and catering units) that we plan to visit. It is based on the complaints and appeals received by the members of the PMC from prisoners and their relatives. It, of course, changes as we go, as we hear screams, people calling us from the cells, as we peruse the complaint log, as our intuition guides us. Nobody could understand this: without knowing it, we went exactly where we were needed, where we were waited for”,

4Karetnikova writes.

5The subtitle of the book is “Public control over places of detention: eight years and no right to stop”. Indeed, the members of the commission did not stop, relentlessly standing up to injustice. This book’s primary goal is not to raise awareness and attract attention of the larger public to the problems, but rather to share the knowledge about the people and the situation, to help lead remand prisoners out of invisibility. In the discussion of the book that follows, I will explore the main argument of the book and the particular method by which the author attempts to pull the curtains aside and reveal the Russian prison world.

6The book offers a heartfelt account of the author’s experience as a member of the Moscow Public Monitoring Commission. In a detail-rich narrative, supported with excerpts from her blog posts, she describes vividly the challenges which the members of the commission had to face and the achievements that came as a result of their concerted actions. 

7Karetnikova describes how, while being a member of the PMC, she was faced with skepticism and distrust from both sides. The prison administration was wary of the commission members and at times resorted to intimidation and obstruction of access to key locations. Prisoners themselves did not trust the commission members which undermined the potential effectiveness of their actions. For Karetnikova, the behaviour of prisoners is understandable: prison is an environment usually closed to outsiders, where both prisoners and administration are tied together by omertà. The logic is “the commission is going to leave, but we [the prisoners] will stay here”, as the author puts it. Due to this lack of trust, the members of the commission had to learn how to discern hidden signs, hints and cues when communicating with the prisoners. Only later, the author acknowledges, was dialogue possible between the commission members and the prisoners once trust and credibility had been established.

8The behaviour of the administration, however, often presented a problem. Karetnikova recounts an encounter that she had in Matrosskaya Tishina prison in Moscow, when one of the prisoners went on a hunger strike. The prison administration, dissatisfied with the demands of the commission, attempted to intimidate the author into leaving the premises and abandon her attempts to see the prisoner by alluding to the possibility that, if they so wished, drugs could be found in her belongings. Karetnikova tries to demonstrate that the members of the commission should not be viewed as enemies in this way. Yes, the members of the commission usually come to monitor the performance of the prison administration. However, their primary goal is to ensure the adequate treatment of remand prisoners which in theory should be the primary goal of the Federal Penitentiary Service as well: in this game they need to be on the same side. As her experience described in this book shows, the members of the PMC understood this and did not try to expose the prison administration and the Federal Penitentiary Service. Instead, they wanted to establish cooperation in order to bring long-awaited improvements to remand prisoners. 

9A notable feature of the book is the author’s writing style: in this book Karetnikova tries to show the reader the prison world as it is, with its informal practices and survival tactics. She has accepted that she has to work with prisons as they are. Karetnikova accepts the system with its flaws and accepts the prisoners and their stories. The language in which she writes, the words she chooses speak to this. She uses prison language throughout the book, as if she has mastered it over the years working with the commission.

10The structure of the book, however, may seem somewhat scattered. The author describes her experience as she goes, as if bringing up certain encounters from memory, so the layout of the book can feel arbitrary. Nevertheless, several key topics can be identified. The focus of the book are the problems within the pre-trial system that are persistent and tenacious, so several themes which recur throughout the narrative are access to medical care, the quality of food and overcrowding of prisons. Regarding the first problem, Karetnikova repeatedly brings up the issue with medical assistance in prisons. Rather emotionally she describes how despite the efforts of the commission members and their numerous requests, prisoners in pre-trial institutions often have died in pain, because the long-awaited help in the form of medications and medical personnel did not arrive. Related to this issue is the problem of overcrowded prisons. As Karetnikova mentions, the number of people per cell at times is two to three times higher than the standards prescribe, which in turn contributes to a faster proliferation of tuberculosis and other contagious diseases. Proliferation of HIV because of the intravenous drug users is also an urgent concern, which often remains unattended to in remand prisons. For terminally ill prisoners the absence of palliative care becomes a death sentence, since releasing terminally ill patients, while stipulated by law, is very problematic because of bureaucratic red tape. Another theme that Karetnikova pays significant attention to in this work is the quality of food at the prison catering units. This is a source of frustration and a manifestation of how normative standards are often trampled on in pre-trial institution system, which Karetnikova documents with pictures, despite persistent efforts of the prison staff to prevent her from doing so.

11The book may be an eye-opener for a layperson. The graphic descriptions of the reality of Russian prisons cannot but make an impression of the unaware reader. The writing style Karetnikova adopts also facilitates greater understanding of the larger picture: Karetnikova writes simply and emotionally, avoiding academic embellishment. As she herself states at the beginning, she is no academician, but she knows what she writes about, because she has seen it from within. Yet, in terms of the value it brings to the professional discussion, this book has little to offer. In this book, Karetnikova gives bare truths to the reader: the system is flawed and suffers from substantial underfunding, personal factors are very important, efforts are often futile. Karetnikova does not offer a viable solution to prison grievances, but perhaps that is because there are none. A stronger and more active Public Monitoring Commission could have been an answer, but its decline over the past years threatens to erode the little progress achieved by its former members.

12As mentioned above, Karetnikova is currently working for the FPS. She is no longer a member of the Public Monitoring Commission: she could not become a member of the Moscow commission because she had served for three consecutive terms, and she has not been elected onto the commission for Moscow region. In the book, she hints that this might have been a result of her being too active, too loud. As a part of the FPS, she still follows the “route” with her new colleagues. The problems never disappeared: complaints may be left unheeded, medical assistance may not reach those who need it the most, standards may not be met. The book shows that no miracle happened, but it also shows how changes, however small, may happen, when some care enough.

Top of page


Electronic reference

Malika Talgatova, « Anna Karetnikova, Marshrut. Obshchestvennyi kontrol’ za mestami lisheniya svobodi – vosem’let bez prava ostanovki », The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 19 | 2018, Online since 13 May 2019, connection on 18 November 2019. URL :

Top of page

About the author

Malika Talgatova

Nazarbayev University

Top of page



Top of page