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Russia’s toughest prisons: what can the Pussy Riot band members expect?

By Judith Pallot


The onion dome of Russian Orthodox Church dominates the skyline of women’s correctional colony number 14 (IK14) in Part’sa. The Governor of the colony, showing Laura and me around, told us that five prisoners – all tuberculosis sufferers – who volunteered to help build the Church were miraculously cured of their disease.  It was a story we were to hear repeated several times on our research trip to women’s penal colonies in S-W Mordoviia.  How the community of believers in IK 14 will react to the arrival of members of the controversial rock-band ‘Pussy Riot’, recently convicted of ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’ is a matter of intense concern to their supporters.

Judith Pallot with co-author Laura Piacentini, various correctional officers, and research collaborators outside the entrance to IK14. The Governor of the colony (Kulyagin) is in the centre of the photo.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, one of the band members recently convicted, arrived in IK14 last week.  The colony is one of seventeen located along a now defunct single-track railway line  extending 60 miles north of the Pot’ma station on the mainline connecting Moscow and Siberia in the S-W corner of the Mordoviyan republic.  Prisoners have been brought here from the early 1930s, initially to work timber stands to produce wood for the construction of the Moscow metro.  Part’sa, the settlement that hosts IK 14, is in the heart of the penal zone; it is a strange place – everyone here is connected in some way with the prison service.

IK14 is more accessible now than it was in the past when permits were needed to enter the penal zone. However, for anyone wanting to visit one of the 14-15,000 men and women incarcerated here the cost in time and money can be prohibitive.  Small wonder that the statistics for visitation are so poor; 60-70% per cent of prisoners receive no visit during the course of a year, with the record is worse for women than for men.

Tolokonnikova will be among the more fortunate as she has a good support group around her.  However, she will only be entitled to ten visits per year; including four ‘residential’ three-day long visits.  The Russian prison service can boast that it is ahead of much of the rest of Europe in the provision of ‘residential’ visits, but it should be noted that the need for these has arisen due to prisoners being sent to such remote regions.

Prison residential visiting suits are rather like student accommodation blocks in the West.  They consist of a number of rooms off a corridor each with two/three beds, a kitchen for communal use and, sometimes, a common room with TV.  In the Mordoviyan colonies they have vases of plastic flowers and landscape pictures on the walls to ‘make it seem like home’.  But there are no outside windows, and both prisoners and their visitors remain inside for the 72 hours of the visit.

Visitors to the correctional colonies have to bring provisions sufficient to last three days. It is not uncommon to see a line of women laden with bags waiting to have their contents checked before entering the colony. Russian prisons allow a surprising range of products and goods into the colony compared with their American counterparts.  Further to this, whilst in the visiting dormitory prisoners can dispense with their uniform and headscarf, are exempt from parade ground head counts, and given dispensation from work in the colony’s ‘production zone’.

An issue for Nadezhda Tolokonnikova is whether her daughter Gera will be brought to visit her.  Not many children visit their mothers in prison – the journeys are often too long and, many believe that it is wrong to bring children into such a ‘dark place’.  Colonies organise Family Open Daysdesigned for children, but those who come are often told that the prison is a hospital, ‘secret factory’, or indeed, a convent.

A prison Church in L'govo colony Riazan.

Half of Mordoviia’s correctional colonies have a church like the one in IK14, and the Mordoviian penal authority is the first to have placed priests on its pay roll.  In 2001 the former Head of the Prison Service declared that the priest had become more important than correction officers in re-socialising prisoners. It would smack too much of conspiracy theory to suggest that the strong presence of the Russian Orthodox Church in Mordoviia’s colonies influenced the decision to send Tolokonnikova to IK 14 in Part’sa.   But, given the nature of the Pussy Rioter’s last encounter with the Russian Orthodox Church, we might be forgiven for wondering whether it is more than a coincidence.

Judith Pallot is Professor of the Human Geography of Russia at the University of Oxford, and Official Student of Christ Church. Judith Pallot is co-author (with Laura Piacentini) of Gender, Geography, and Punishment: The Experience of Women in Carceral Russia (OUP, 2012).

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 Image credits: Courtesy of Judith Pallot. Do not reproduce without permission.

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  1. [...] un destino común desde los años 30 para las mujeres condenadas en Moscú; la primera se utilizó inicialmente para producir madera para la construcción del metro de la capital. La segunda alberga en la [...]

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