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1 This special issue is dedicated to the issue of the evolution of punishment in the former Soviet Union (fSU). This is a particularly timely topic. Carceral institutions, whether investigation isolators, remand prisons, prison colonies or resettlement centres, play a hugely important role in the political and social dynamics of former Soviet countries. In Tajikistan in the last year, prison breaks, riots and suspicious deaths in custody have threatened to completely destabilise the country. In Russia, horrific videos of prisoner abuse leaked from prisons in Yaroslavl served as the backdrop for the wave of social solidarity that helped free Ivan Golunov, the journalist arrested on fabricated charges and allegedly beaten while in custody. Similar videos of prison torture were the catalyst for political protests and the ultimate removal of Mikheil Saakashvili and the United National Movement from power in Georgia in 2013. Those fSU states that have joined the Council of Europe and are subject to the European Court of Human Rights often find themselves subject to rulings against them due to violence, negligence and poor conditions in their places of detention. In 2017, over half of all cases that involved torture, inhuman treatment or ineffective investigation of these crimes heard at the ECtHR involved Russia1. Many of these cases involved the treatment of prisoners. In quantitative terms, in 2018 seven out of the top ten countries with the highest prison rates in Europe were in the former Soviet Union – Russia, Belarus and Georgia top the list. The region holds less than four percent of the world’s population but ten percent of the world’s prisoners2.

  • 3 G. Slade, Gavin, M. Light. "Crime and criminal justice after communism: Why study the post-Soviet r (...)
  • 4 In their discussion to this emerging new branch, eastern Europe is not mentioned. See – K. Carringt (...)
  • 5 Gurinskaya, Anna. "Russian criminology as “Terra Incognita”: legacies of the past and challenges of (...)
  • 6 On legal culture see especially the work of Kathyrn Hendley, e.g. K. Hendley, "Who are the legal ni (...)

2 Thus, for policy-makers and practitioners the issue of prison reform is a pressing one. In many countries in the region, concept papers for a radical revisioning of the prison system have been drawn up. Surprisingly, given the practitioner focus, the topic of punishment in the former Soviet Union has not been brought into the wider scholarly debates in criminology about the role of prison in the development of political economy and state-society dynamics3. These debates drive much of Western research in criminology. Moreover, the discipline in the West has developed comparative, international, global and even "Southern" strands, where, unfortunately, the former Soviet Union remains conspicuously absent4. Despite a rich history of Soviet criminological theory and research, and notwithstanding the excellent work by activist groups such as Public Verdict and practitioner-led studies of prison within Russia (see Karetnikova’s new book reviewed in this issue), the fSU for academic criminology has today fallen by the wayside. In the words of one Russian scholar the region has become a disciplinary ‘terra incognita’ for sociologically grounded empirically driven criminology and penology.5 Outside criminology, area studies research has focused on the issue of legal culture and police reform but papers and books on the topic of prisons are relatively rare with some notable exceptions6. This special issue aims to try to rebalance these disciplinary trends somewhat, attempting to appeal to criminologists interested in comparative penal research and area studies scholars and political scientists analysing the mechanisms by which political and administrative power is wielded in the fSU.

3To be sure, the dearth of research on prison in the fSU is to some degree due to the difficulty of doing research on the topic. The authors of many of the papers in this special issue deal with huge bureaucratic obstacles in attempting to analyse what remains a closed system in most fSU countries, unwelcoming of outside analysis and observation. Researchers in the region often have to work without direct access to prisons themselves, instead interviewing and observing from a distance. These papers and their authors should be applauded for the tenacity, inventiveness and drive it takes to collect data at all on prisons in the former Soviet Union.

4This introductory paper aims to present these papers as a coherent set of work. In doing so, it will provide a broad overview of what is meant by the term "prison reform" in the context of the former Soviet Union. It then goes on to provide an overview of the special issue, highlighting the ways that the various contributions speak to these various meanings of prison reform.

Prison Reform in the Former Soviet Union

5The phrase "prison reform" is frequently heard in the former Soviet Union, yet it can refer to a huge range of policy fields. This introduction aims to unpack some of the meanings of the phrase in the region. It identifies four major vectors of reform: first, the issue of prisoner numbers; second, the restructuring of physical prison space; third, the reorganization of governance and the distribution of power within prison; fourth the question of control from outside individual prison institutions, both jurisdictionally and in terms of the participation of society in the civic monitoring of spaces of detention. These reform vectors are all macro level and systemic. They reflect changing philosophies concerning the purpose of punishment. In the Soviet Union punishment was used as a means of production for the economy, a source of deterrence from crime as well as ideological indoctrination of wayward citizens. Today, a broad shift towards what is often referred to as "humanization" aims to provide greater rights and privileges to prisoners and to utilize work and intervention programmes to help rehabilitate and resocialize them. The move towards humanization is often patchy, at times regressive, and often takes controversial forms as will be discussed below.

6The impulse towards specific penal reforms emerges within policy streams the flow of which is influenced by large networks of actors. The power of these actors depends on the context they work in but can include the heads of the prison services and the ministries of justice and the interior, parliamentarians, human rights defenders in civil society, prosecutors, judges and of course, in super-presidential systems such as Russia or Kazakhstan, from within presidential administrations. The adoption of reform agendas by policy makers and their implementation impact the daily lived experience of prisoners. The articles in this special issue attempt to understand that experience in these conditions of change and evolution. My aim here is to situate the empirical papers within the broader dynamics of prison reform. In a subsequent section, I then discuss the papers and link them to these dynamics.


  • 7 N. Christie, Crime control as industry: Towards gulags, western style, New York: Psychology Press, (...)
  • 8 G. Slade, " ‘A return to Gulags'?: Explaining trends in post-Soviet prison rates", In D. Melossi et (...)

7In the year 2000, the prominent criminologist Nils Christie asked whether we should expect a return to "Gulags" in the former Soviet Union7. His question was a pressing one: in the context of steeply rising prison populations in the US and parts of the Global South such as Brazil and Thailand penologists believed that the "end of history" victory of deregulated globalised capital had created a vibrant penal politics that utilized the institution of the prison as a means to deal with the marginalized underclasses produced by precarious labour markets and shrinking welfare states. Throughout the 1990s prison populations across the fSU also grew unrelentingly against a backdrop of weak state capitalism and rising crime. However, since that year of 2000 almost uniformly (with the exception of Georgia under Saakashvili) prison populations in the region started to drop and have continued dropping8. To explain these processes, we must go beyond political economic approaches and also examine policy streams, networks of influence among decision-makers, as well as discourses of crime and criminals, culture understandings of punishment, and the frameworks used by actors in the region when aiming at reform.

  • 9 P. Maggs, O. Schwartz & W. Burnham, Law and the legal system of the Russian Federation, Huntington, (...)
  • 10 A. Trochev, G. Slade, "Trials and Tribulations: Kazakhstan’s Criminal Justice Reforms"., in Kazakhs (...)

8The first meaning of prison reform here then concerns the quantity of prisoners and how to use prison more sparingly as a form of punishment. There is variation in the primary method by which this is achieved. Usually it involves some mixture of amnesty, the rewriting of criminal and penal codes, and the development of alternatives to punishment. For example, at the beginning of 2014 the Georgian Dream coalition effectively halved the prison population in Georgia through a mass amnesty. This was intended to signal a change to the Saakashvili years. In other cases, such as Russia, decarceration has been primarily achieved through changes to the criminal and penal codes. The recategorization of many economic crimes and changes in the use and length of pre-trial detention during the Medvedev presidency reduced the number of Russian prisoners by thousands9. The top decarcerator in the region, Kazakhstan, has also recategorized a large number of crimes as administrative offences, deserving only of fines or administrative detention. More than this, Kazakhstan’s justice system has institutionalised prosecutorial and sentencing policies of diversion from the prison system by means of alternatives to prison such as the use of mediation and the development of the probation service.10 The results are striking. In 2000, there were 520 prisoners per 100,000 of the population in Kazakhstan, by 2018 this stood at 168 - a 68% decrease. In all these countries, a further important mechanism is the increasing prevalence of conditional early release. This mechanism is not new but in some cases, such as Ukraine, with the development of probation it has become less difficult for prisoners to achieve through good behaviour. Moreover, the process and consistency with which decisions are made as to an offender’s suitability for early release have been improved.


  • 11 Quoted in J. Pallot, "The Gulag as the crucible of Russia's 21st-century system of punishment", Kri (...)

9 In 2011, the Russian Minister of Justice, Aleksander Konovalev, reporting to a Duma committee on the current Russian penal system and plans for its reform, noted the dominance of "criminal leaders who try to spread the thieves’ idea. The widespread nature of the criminal culture…is clearly a product of the collective system of holding prisoners"11. In 2015, the then Deputy Prosecutor General of Kazakhstan and one of the main authors of Kazakhstan’s policies that had led to declining prisoner numbers stated that:

"there is no greater problem: detachment-barrack confinement, when in one room there is from 50 to 100 prisoners, it makes individual resocialization impossible. It was precisely these conditions that served as a source of the prison subculture and its unwritten rules, the appearance of the criminal hierarchy, the overseers, the vory v zakone [thieves in law who head prisoner hierarchies] and so on. There is only one antidote: cell confinement. International standards, those of developed countries, demand this".12

10As these quotes demonstrate, the issue of how prisoners are held in space is a particularly important question in the evolution of penality in the fSU.

11Thus, across the region the second vector of prison reform involves the restructuring of the spatial experience of punishment. This includes both the geographical place a prisoner serves their sentence and the architectural design of the prison. In terms of the former issue, laws in countries such as Russia and Kazakhstan have changed to allow those serving terms for less serious offences to serve their sentence closer to home. This, in principle if not always in practice in such huge countries, reduces the time spent on etap, that is, transfer through the system in torturously slow trains and transit prisons. In terms of the latter issue, the word prison (тюрьма) in Russian denotes cell-based accommodation found only in remand centres (the СИЗО) and the highest security regimes. Only a tiny percentage of prisoners are held, post-sentence, in prisons. The vast majority are incarcerated in so-called "colonies".

12Life in a post-Soviet colony is completely distinct to that of Western prisons. For prisoners arriving from the overcrowded, cell-based remand prison, the colony is often described as a little bit of freedom. Colonies are spatially divided into local sectors made up of prisoner detachments that inhabit dormitory style collective accommodation within a barrack. Within a local sector there is a yard and prisoners are left to their own devices. They can move relatively freely and associate as they wish. Staff presence is relatively minimal. In Soviet times, prisoners would have also worked within their detachment. Each detachment was held collectively responsible for production outputs. Due to this, detachment members would mutually monitor each other’s behaviour and work performance.

  • 13 Interview with author, Altyus correctional facility, January 2015.

13Prison reform often refers to moving away from the use of these detachments and colonies towards cell-based forms of punishment. From Lithuania to Moldova to Kazakhstan radical reform policies declare an intention to end the colony system and create prisons in their stead. In Russia, a 2010 white paper on the development of the prison system until 2020 envisaged building over forty new penal institutions, cell-type, and destroying all Soviet-era colonies. The development plan was scrapped a few years later as the penal system was sent into crisis by prisoner riots and corruption scandals at the very top of the prison service. In Kazakhstan, as colonies close due to the steep decline in the number of prisoners to fill them, discussions continue about creating public-private partnerships to build new, smaller, cell-based prisons. In Lithuania, the target of creating a prison system based on cell confinement by 2022 was met with a great deal of scepticism, not least by prisoners. Indeed, prisoners usually express a preference for barracks over cells. The official discourse for the move to a cell system is one of prisoner management; creating the conditions for resocialization through individualized sentence planning. Prisoners themselves see the change as one of order and control. Jonas, a prisoner in Alytus colony in Lithuania expressed it like this: "They don’t want to manage us, no - they want to slowly put us in cells so they can control each person, close them in"13. In the post-Soviet context, cells are associated with the pressures of the remand prison and the extra hardship of the segregation unit.


14Ruslan is 32, a former prisoner who lives outside Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. In 2015 he explained the power dynamics inside correctional colony number 8, Petrovka, during his seven years there.

  • 14 Interview with author, Novopokrovka, Kyrgyzstan, May 2015.

"When we were inside [2000-2007] there was nothing, there was no rezhim [formal control] whatsoever. [The administration had] the possibility to stop khod [mobility] but it wasn’t used. In the Soviet period they had the local sector walls, but when we were inside they just didn’t exist, there was a mutual agreement between the staff and prisoners: you can’t stop khod"14.

15Establishing a "regime" over prisoners is the goal of the prison administration; to produce formal order and govern prison life. Khod is slang for mobility, it implies the self-governance of prisoners who are able to access and control each other freely regardless of physical location within the space of the prison colony. The goal of reform in this area, in common prison parlance, is to reset the balance from khod in black (prisoner controlled) prisons in favour of rezhim in red (administration controlled) prisons.

16This move from black to red is a third broad vector of prison reform: the reorganization of power within prisons. The colony system of punishment, based on Soviet philosophies of collectivism, produced distinct governance problems from the perspective of prison administrations. How to govern wide open spaces populated by large groups of freely associating prisoners? The answer was to disperse the responsibility for order onto the prisoner themselves. A system of co-governance emerged: prisoners produced their own informal hierarchies to enforce strict inmate codes of behaviour – the elite caste of vory-v-zakone and those who followed their so-called "understandings" - the prison administration created aktivy or aktivisty, prisoners who openly helped produce "discipline and order", and stukachi - informants who secretly provided information to the regime. Power in the colony was defined by the uneasy relations, existing on a continuum of formality, between the prison administration and vory, aktivisty and stukachi.

17The most striking legacy of this style of penal governance is the profound lack of trust between staff and prisoners and between prisoners themselves. To address the latter issue, the informal prisoner hierarchy functions so as to raise costs precipitously on surreptitiously providing information to staff, deterring snitching and inducing trust. Hierarchy operates here as a mechanism of informal punishment. Prisoners produce and police status positions that determine specified access to material resources – the showers, the canteen, physical position within the dormitory, security from predation – being demoted down the hierarchy is a constant threat, particularly for those collaborating with the administration. As well as operating through fear, the criminal hierarchy builds its own forms legitimacy. Oleg Navalny, the brother of Russian anti-corruption campaigner Alexei, describes this very well in his recent memoir about his three and half years in Russian prison.

  • 15 O. Navalny, Three and a Half: with a prisoner’s respect and brotherly warmth, Moscow: Individuum, 2 (...)

"Twice a month, on set dates, the cons remember deceased vory and celebrate the birthdays of the living. At these times there is a handout [razgonka]. During the handout, a brew is passed around, a few cigarettes, a few sweets so that the guys can get a little rush and have a smoke for a proper reason. The names of vory with birthdays are read out for that month. It’s not bad team-building, I’ll tell you that, and it’s a really nice tradition".15

  • 16 G. Slade, et al. "Crime and Excessive Punishment: The Prevalence and Causes of Human Rights Abuse i (...)

18While prisoners have created informal institutions to help develop trust among themselves, producing positive relations between prisoners and staff is much harder. Georgia made a disastrous attempt to remove the influence of the prisoner subculture and its informal hierarchies through force and segregation rather than an appeal to the greater legitimacy of the formal administration. This led to systematic physical and psychological abuse of prisoners16. Enhancing the power of prison staff through less coercive means - increasing their legitimacy and developing trust - takes a long time. It is particularly difficult in cases such as Kyrgyzstan where the prison service budget only reaches a third of the prison system’s needs. In most post-Soviet colonies, prisoners themselves provide much needed resources. Poor provision of healthcare, the quality of food and the persistent and systemic nature of violence in much of the region only undermines the legitimacy of prison regimes. Indeed, poor conditions and abuse from staff are often a cause of collective resistance from prisoners. Yet, from the perspective of staff, working in prison is considered low status and is poorly remunerated.

19The issue of abuse and torture in the penal system, all too prevalent across the region, is too big a topic to fully cover here. Suffice to say that, notwithstanding individual sadistic tendencies, the main structural cause of the systemization of torture in former Soviet countries concerns information flow within the penal system. All systems of governance operate through monitoring and information collection. In the extreme low-trust environment of post-Soviet colonies, information between staff and prisoners does not flow freely, therefore it is often coerced. Formal power in a post-Soviet colony is primarily possessed by the operative sector of the prison administration. Operatives run a divide and rule system of informants and collaborators that sews mistrust among prisoners. Operatives treat colonies as an extension of law enforcement seeking new information on unsolved crimes outside prison as well as breaches of the regime within prison. This has produced a rigid "us and them" culture. Due to the presence of operatives, unless formally recruited, prisoners are loathe to talk to staff of any stripe, including doctors and psychologists, about anything for fear of the informant label. Moreover, where operatives are concerned the distinction between "black" and "red" power in prison should not be drawn too sharply. A large number of prisoners neither wish to collaborate with prison administrations nor demonstrate overt support for prisoner subculture. These prisoners can find themselves squeezed by collaboration between informal and formal power structures: violence can be carried out against prisoners on behalf of staff by other prisoners in return for privileges. Indeed, in the remand prison certain cells known as press-khata are maintained where prisoners apply "pressure" to new arrivals to break their spirit and give up information to the administration.

20This system of operatives and informants and the blurred lines between resistance and collaboration produces perverse outcomes: in Moldova prisoners visit doctors and psychologists in twos, one to receive treatment or care, the other to watch and ensure no operatives were met or operative information was given up. What Western prison practitioners call "dynamic security" – the maintenance of good staff-prisoner relations in order to maintain a steady information flow between staff and prisoners – is unattainable without significant reconfiguring of the methods of information collection and meaningful investment in staff and staff training. For now, colonies run on the principle of cooptation and recruitment of sections of the prisoner mass alongside a heavy emphasis on "static security" (the walls, barbed wire and guards that defend the colony from escape and outside penetration). Most colonies employ more people to guard the perimeter fence (with automated weapons and watch towers) than to work as guards within the prison walls. As an example, 38% of guards at Branesti general regime colony number 18 in Moldova work defending the fences, while only 25% actually work as "heads of detachment" or "controllers" within the walls (the rest make up administrative and support staff as well as social workers).


21The balance of power and the main mechanisms for the production of order within the colonies is influenced to some degree by which ministry has jurisdiction over the prison system and to what degree there is oversight and transparency. This is a fourth aspect of prison reform. Here we see a great deal of variation across the former Soviet Union. In line with CoE recommendations some countries, such as Moldova, the Baltic States and Russia have moved the prison system from the Ministry of Internal Affairs to the Ministry of Justice. The reasoning goes that this should relieve pressure on the system to act as a lever of law enforcement. However, given the consistent levels of torture and abuse in, say, Russia, simply transferring control to the Ministry of Justice is clearly not sufficient for decreasing violence. Other countries, such as Kazakhstan, have kept the system under the MIA and still others, such as Kyrgyzstan, have the prison service independent and separate from either ministry. In Georgia a separate Ministry of Corrections was created to manage prisons, probation and legal aid services. Similarly, whether such goods as healthcare, educational opportunities and psychological services are provided by the Ministries for Health or Education or within the prison service varies by country.

22Related to this, a critical aspect of prison reform regards the openness and transparency of the system. In most former Soviet countries, new laws have instituted formal civic controls over the prison system. In its most basic form this involves public councils that oversee the prison service, public monitoring commissions (PMCs) that should have, in principle, free access to places of detention as and when requested and in some cases – the Baltic States, Georgia, Moldova and Kazakhstan for example - a National Preventative Mechanism. The latter is also a monitoring body, but one that focuses specifically on ill treatment and instances of abuse and is often managed by the Public Defender’s Office or Ombudsman. The application of these innovations vary. Russia, for example, since the late 2000s has had PMCs while Kazakhstan has both PMCs and the NPM. In practice the operation of these institutions is often limited, in Kazakhstan PMCs give prior warning of visits and must be accompanied by a prosecutor before they can enter the system. PMCs in Russia have been criticised for appointing too many former prison staff and insiders who have split loyalties. Moreover, despite the PMCs and the streamlining of complaints procedures official statistics suggest that very few prison staff are ever found guilty of abuse and those that are found guilty are not punished to the full extent of the law. In Georgia, for example, despite overwhelming evidence that torture was systematic and widespread for years, hardly any prison workers were brought to account. A new law that would establish independent investigation of crimes committed by police and prison staff has stalled in parliament, most likely blocked by the law enforcement lobby. In Russia, those found guilty of ‘exceeding their authority’ – the only law through which prosecution for torture is possible – are often simply dismissed from their positions or fined17.

Inside Prisons in the Former Soviet Union: Introducing the Special Issue

  • 18 L. Waquant, "The Curious Eclipse of Prison Ethnography", Ethnography, # 3(4), 2012, pp. 371-397.

23 The four vectors discussed above are systemic aspects of reform that are taking place to greater or lesser extents across all the countries of the region. Each country has its own specificities in regards to prison reform depending upon the form of political system and economy, the size of government budgets, international influence and membership of the Council of Europe. Reform impacts the daily lived experiences of prisoners and their keepers within individual penal institutions. The contributions to this special issue in the main investigate this everyday experience through grounded empirical research. Each contribution touches on how penal institutions structure trust, time, space, identity and personal relationships. It bears repeating that even in countries such as the US and the UK there has been an "eclipse" of grounded empirical prison research and penal ethnography18. Both criminology and area studies are crying out for more work like the articles discussed below, particularly in the fSU. I now provide a brief overview of the special issue linking this to the vectors of reform identified above.

24Beginning in the Soviet period, the issue of the identity of prisoners and of penal institutions themselves is explored in Tcherneva’s article on visual culture and photography in Soviet colonies and camps. The author compares three sets of photographs of prison life in the Soviet Union produced by three very different sources – the official, the professional and the amateur photographer-prisoner. Tcherneva demonstrates how the photographs and their framing reveal understandings of penal functions, interpersonal dynamics and a struggle over to what or whom prisoners belonged. Official photographs aim to position prisoners as belonging to the colony, the photos offer successful versions of the prisoners themselves thanks to the corrective work of the camp. In contrast, photographs taken and consumed by prisoners attempt to produce sub-group boundaries as inmates navigate the multiple identities that emerged and structured the social space of the prison camp: the prisoners’ position in relation to formal authorities; their rank in the informal prisoner caste system; their level of belonging and loyalty to national and sub-national groupings. Tcherneva’s work reminds us that the role of penal imagery and iconography has always been a constitutive part of contestation and struggle over prisoner identity and perceptions of prisons. Her article is an important reminder of that fact in today’s world where media savvy prisoners upload YouTube videos of prison life, production companies spend huge sums in producing slick prison dramas, and the violence and abuse from the side of staff is leaked onto the internet.

25Tcherneva’s study reprints some fascinating images of Soviet camp life, including prisoners at work and play engaging in a range of activities. On this theme, Vaicuiniene’s survey of Lithuanian prisoners shows how time is utilized within Lithuanian correctional houses. Only around a third of prisoners actually work, this is now around the average for much of the former Soviet Union. Yet, many more prisoners in Lithuania engage in official programmes of education and training. This is no longer aimed at production targets or even correction of deviance so much as making time meaningful through career planning, a form of engagement framed in the responsibilizing discourse of self-development. However, the freedom of association that the space in colony style of confinement brings provides an alternative source of passing time to official programmes of work and education. Moreover, in Lithuania’s colonies prisoner self-governance remains present in the provision of recreational equipment and space, producing inequalities in distribution of leisure resources.

26Similarly, Dvornikova provides evidence of contradictions between state-run programmes of reintegration in social adaptation centres and former female prisoners’ sense of identity and self-understanding. She demonstrates how the "double deviance" of breaking the law as a woman attaches a heightened sense of stigma that government run adaptation centres do not manage to remove. Indeed, to the contrary, these centres can heighten, prolong and intensify the feeling of judgment and control long after a sentence has been served.

27Both Vaicuiniene and Dvornikova’s articles speak to the way penal reform reveals wider shifts in the societies and economies within which prisons are situated. Many fSU countries today are state led or liberal market economies where cultures of consumption and individualism are becoming embedded. This is reflected in prison reform. Whereas in the past prisoners were situated within a collective that self-monitored though a community responsibility system, the ultimate goals of prison reform now reflect growing atomization and individualisation. As well as cell confinement, prisoners are to be given, if they do not already have, behavioural ratings with rewards and benefits – visits, telephone calls, limits on spending - commensurate with good self-conduct. Work is now scarce and is a means of self-development rather than simply a cheap labour force producing goods for the wider needs of the economy. The greater the promise of conditional early release, the less inclined the prisoner is to engage in acts of social solidarity – support for the thieves’ subculture for example or involvement in mass protests. Similarly, on leaving prison former prisoners are expected to reintegrate and become law-abiding citizens often with little substantive support from state structures. In such individualising and responsibilizing conditions, recidivism remains an unrelenting problem across the region.

28Interpersonal relations and trust are at the heart of Runova’s investigation into the changing role of healthcare professionals in Russian prisons today. She shows how, with healthcare still provided in house by the prison service situated within the Ministry of Justice, doctors face dual loyalties which undermine their ability to provide highly needed care. Despite reforms which make prison doctors independent of the individual institutions they work within, informal relationships and dependencies impede the work of doctors. Doctors are often "attested" and thus socialized into the subculture of prison staff; they find their loyalties to the principles of providing care tested by those of remaining loyal to situationally more powerful prison officers. As a result, prisoners receive nowhere near the standard of healthcare that those outside prison do.

29Runova finds that doctors negatively perceive human rights defenders just as much as prison officers do. This chimes with the role of public monitoring explored in two further pieces in the special issue. Firstly, the issue contains a transcribed interview with a member of a Russian Public Monitoring Commission (PMC) in Nizhny Novgorod, Oleg Khabibrakhmanov. While praising the creation of the PMCs, Khabibrakhmanov describes the obstacles to their successful operation. He is unequivocal that the work of the PMCs has been worsening over time, mainly due to the process of appointment of PMC personnel. Former prison workers and government toadies are intentionally selected over genuine human rights activists. This chimes with Talgatova’s book review of Anna Karetnikova’s new publication Marshrut a reflection on the latter’s time working within a PMC in Russia. Karetnikova describes the deprivations prisoners still live with, her own experience of threats and hostility from prison staff and the ultimate decline in influence of the institution of the PMC.

30Two further book reviews, by Ricordeau and Slade respectively, appraise recent publications by prominent researchers of Russia – Judith Pallot (with Elena Katz) and Mark Galeotti. Both publications investigate in their own ways the central place that punishment occupies in Russian culture and society. Pallot and Katz investigate the experiences of women whose male partners are incarcerated. Among other narratives, the historical trope of the dekabristka, the long-suffering wife who travels into exile to support her man, is a peculiarly Russian way of making sense of the distance and suffering produced by a prison sentence. The book ultimately positions the experience of prisoner wives in the broader dynamics of gender norms and women’s roles in Russian society. The book describes how penal experiences suffuse, shape and reinforce Russian gender relations. In a somewhat similar vein, Galeotti argues that prison society, in the form of the organized crime groups that emerged from the Gulag, has become a constituent part of Russian society and politics. The governance logic, as well as the culture and mentality, of the vory can be seen from the shared practices of predation utilized by the state and organized crime, down to the use of prison jargon on the street and prison music on the radio. A final book review by Barenberg directs us to a new introduction to the Gulag that unusually mixes both historical narrative with memoir.

  • 19 L. Piacentini, "The Russian Penal System", in Punishment in Europe. A Critical Anatomy of Penal Sys (...)

31This special issue reveals both the inertia and the dynamics of the penal systems in the fSU. There is an overt focus on Russia here however and more comparative work is required to fully assess reform and change in the rest of the region. The empirical data in this special issue speaks to issues concerning the structure of trust, identity and relationships within an exceptional penal context in the shadow of the Soviet Gulag. As Piacentini19 writes: "in [the Russian penal system’s] sheer scale, its geographical shape, its landscape domination, brutalizing history and the culture of punishment and politics…it is unique". Against this backdrop, I have argued that four vectors of prison reform can now be observed in most of the former Soviet republics. These are the quantity of prisoners; the provisioning of space; the struggle over who governs and their legitimacy; and the issue of oversight both in terms of institutional structuring and public control and access to prison. These processes of change now shape the evolution of penality across the region. Evidence of these processes, as well as the contestation that surrounds them, can be found throughout this special issue.

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1 See

2 All data on world prison rates and numbers can be found at:

3 G. Slade, Gavin, M. Light. "Crime and criminal justice after communism: Why study the post-Soviet region?", Theoretical Criminology, 2015,

4 In their discussion to this emerging new branch, eastern Europe is not mentioned. See – K. Carrington, R. Hogg & M. Sozzo. "Southern criminology", The British Journal of Criminology, # 56.1, 2016, pp. 1-20.

5 Gurinskaya, Anna. "Russian criminology as “Terra Incognita”: legacies of the past and challenges of the present." International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice 41.3 (2017): 123-143.

6 On legal culture see especially the work of Kathyrn Hendley, e.g. K. Hendley, "Who are the legal nihilists in Russia?", Post-Soviet Affairs, # 28.2, 2012, pp. 149-186. On police reform, B. Taylor, "Police reform in Russia: The policy process in a hybrid regime", Post-Soviet Affairs, # 30.2-3, 2014, pp. 226-255. Judith Pallot and Laura Piacentini are the foremost scholars of the sociology of Russian prisons in western criminology. See e.g. L. Piacentini, Surviving Russian Prisons, Willan, 2012. J. Pallot, L. Piacentini & D. Moran, Gender, Geography, and Punishment: The Experience of Women in Carceral Russia, Oxford University Press, 2012. One of the few books to discuss male Russian prisons sociologically is A. Oleinik, Organized crime, prison and post-Soviet societies, London: Routledge, 2003.

7 N. Christie, Crime control as industry: Towards gulags, western style, New York: Psychology Press, 2000, p. 15.

8 G. Slade, " ‘A return to Gulags'?: Explaining trends in post-Soviet prison rates", In D. Melossi et al. (eds), The Political Economy of Punishment Today, London: Routledge, pp. 185-204.

9 P. Maggs, O. Schwartz & W. Burnham, Law and the legal system of the Russian Federation, Huntington, N.Y.: Juris Publishing, Inc., 2015.

10 A. Trochev, G. Slade, "Trials and Tribulations: Kazakhstan’s Criminal Justice Reforms"., in Kazakhstan and the Soviet Legacy, Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019, pp. 75-99.

11 Quoted in J. Pallot, "The Gulag as the crucible of Russia's 21st-century system of punishment", Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, # 16.3, 2015, pp. 681-710, 709.


13 Interview with author, Altyus correctional facility, January 2015.

14 Interview with author, Novopokrovka, Kyrgyzstan, May 2015.

15 O. Navalny, Three and a Half: with a prisoner’s respect and brotherly warmth, Moscow: Individuum, 2018, p. 81.

16 G. Slade, et al. "Crime and Excessive Punishment: The Prevalence and Causes of Human Rights Abuse in Georgia’s Prisons", Report, Open Society Georgian Foundation, Georgia, 2014.

17 See

18 L. Waquant, "The Curious Eclipse of Prison Ethnography", Ethnography, # 3(4), 2012, pp. 371-397.

19 L. Piacentini, "The Russian Penal System", in Punishment in Europe. A Critical Anatomy of Penal Systems, Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2013, pp. 157-182.

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Electronic reference

Gavin Slade, « Unpacking Prison Reform in the Former Soviet Union », The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 19 | 2018, Online since 13 July 2019, connection on 24 November 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Gavin Slade

Nazarbayev University

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