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2015-2016 Issue III Editors' Picks World

“We Live on the Edge of a Razor”: Inside Putin’s Prisons

On January 14 of e roois year, the non-governmental Russian news agency, Interfax, reported the passage of a ban on fenya, the traditional, curse-laden slang associated with Russian prisons. The law targets pretrial detainees–who constitute 20% of the prison population–and prohibits inmates from using “lewd, threatening, demeaning, or slanderous slang” to communicate with each other and with prison guards.

But fenya is not merely a random assortment of coarse expressions and foul language. As the language of camps and prisons, it carries powerful historical associations. Leonid Finkelstein, a prisoner in Stalinist Russia and later a reporter on Russian affairs, wrote extensively––and negatively––on fenya’s origins and partial incorporation into standard Russian. In “The Russian Lexicon,” printed in 2001, Finkelstein traces fenya’s origins from a dialect used solely in prisons and evolution to one that gradually infiltrated the Russian language during the mingling of classes in Lenin’s forced labor camps. Between 1917 and 1987, about one in every six Russian citizens served time in prison, allowing the use of fenya to trickle into the general population.

Fenya’s partial integration into the standard language is evident across social classes, with politicians publicly employing choice words derived from fenya. According to David Satter, a fellow at the Hudson Institute and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Russian President Vladimir Putin occasionally uses fenya himself. Nonetheless, despite its widespread use at all levels of society, the Russian government remains firmly committed to purging the language from prisons.

However, the new law’s effect is more symbolic than tangible.

“I think it’s just a way of giving the administration one more tool for controlling the inmates,” Satter said. “I don’t think there’s a serious possibility that they can eliminate prison slang. They won’t eliminate it in their vocabulary; it’s already in the culture.”

Considered in context, the fenya ban is part of a larger constellation of human rights challenges facing Russia, both inside and outside its prisons. Recent government crackdowns, including restrictions on advocacy organizations and media outlets, have weakened Russia’s civil society and narrowed the paths to reform.

A recent bill that human rights activists have labeled “the sadists’ law” is a clear example of recent efforts to expand government control. The bill, which passed the State Duma (the lower house of Russia’s Parliament) in 2015 and awaits further votes, would allow prison guards to use more severe punishments on inmates, such as electroshock weapons. Additionally, guards would be granted legal immunity in cases where inmates suffer injuries from “justifiable” violence and would have a full 24 hours to report a prisoner’s death. Satter sees the proposed law as just another way for the government to affirm its supreme authority.



Photos courtesy of Oksana Trufanova and Valeria Prihodkina, both public oversight committee members.


“They’re untying the hands of the prisons guards,” he said, “which is not to say they weren’t untied anyway.”

The so-called “sadists’ law” is a symptom of acrimonious guard-inmate relations in prisons across Russia. In an interview with The Politic, Russian human rights journalist Oksana Trufanova identified prison-guard behavior as one of the major obstacles to reform.

“Most of [the staff] do not believe in better days and in justice,” she said. “They put themselves above the law and can easily choose to violate it.”

Benedicte Berner, Chair of the Civil Rights Defenders, an international human rights organization based in Sweden, also pointed to the problem of guard impunity.

“The two core problems with the prison system are the violence within the prison and the impunity of the police and the guards when it comes to this violence,” she said. “This is because there is no independent judiciary in Russia. The appointment, promotion, and dismissal of judges is all subject to the authorities, which undermines investigation and the right to a fair trial.”

The toxic relationship between guards and inmates and the former’s relative impunity obstruct potential reforms.

“Employees are sabotaging all the government’s good reforms,” Trufanova explained. “The reforms in our country are often good, but under these conditions they cannot be implemented.”

In addition to poor relations between the prison staff and prisoners, the physical conditions of Russian prisons are often inhumane. In an email to The Politic Valery Sergeev, Deputy Director of the Moscow Center for Prison Reform, wrote that, “According to the prison department, by the end of 2015, in 54 pre-trial detention centers (out of 218 total) the minimum of 4 square meters per a person was not observed.”

In an interview with The Politic, Andrei Babushkin, Director of the Committee for Civil Rights in Russia and a member of Putin’s Presidential Human Rights Council, noted some main human rights issues in the penal system. He mentioned the poor physical conditions and the lack of effective medical treatment and blamed the excessively long holding periods as the reason for the overcrowding in pretrial detention centers.

Beyond the issues created and exacerbated by poor living conditions, prisons are often the sites of institutionalized human rights abuses. As Babushkin described, there is a “lack of effective mechanisms to check allegations of torture and other grave violations.” Indeed, pretrial detention centers are notorious for fostering environments in which physical abuse by prison personnel is allowed to thrive. Widespread allegations of torture have been the focus of human rights reports issued by international organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which have both highlighted a case of alleged torture of 12 prisoners in 2014. The Russian authorities refused to investigate these allegations.

However, this is not a singular case. Sergeev, for instance, cited another recent case at a pretrial detention center in Moscow. When torture allegations surfaced there, the prison service replaced the center’s director without admitting any beatings had occurred.

“They just silently changed the leadership of this prison,” he said.

These prison abuses reflect a declining state of human rights across Russia. Michael Posner, Co-Director of NYU’s Center of Business and Human Rights and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, discussed this trend in greater detail.

“There has been a cracking-down in a way we haven’t seen for a long time,” he said. “Human rights organizations shut down, foreign funding cut, journalists and bloggers attacked…it is a pretty grim environment right now, and prison issues are just a piece of it.”

Berner, who studies the intersection of media and democracy at the Institut d’études politiques (Sciences Po) in Paris, sees this crackdown on freedoms in the increasing restrictions placed on the media. She referenced several recent laws, such as the Undesirable Organizations Law (2015) and the Foreign Agents Law (2012), that restrict the few remaining independent media outlets. One such law, called the extremism law, has been particularly successful in shutting down independent media outlets because of the government’s propensity to broadly interpret the law’s vague definition of “extremist views.”

Berner also mentioned the law on treason.

“Again, this is a very vague law, which is a specialty of Russia,” she said. “[With] extremely vague laws…they can put anything into the basket.”

“Putin has realized that civil society in Russia is able to organize civil demonstrations, so a number of laws are being adopted that clean the system from all civil society influence,” she says. “Since 2012, we’ve seen a will of the Kremlin to clear the road from all impact of civil society.”

Posner shared this concern about the deterioration of civil society and the pernicious effects of human rights abuses targeted at advocacy organizations.

“On the domestic scene, there’s a tightening of the noose around civil society, with tremendous draconian restrictions on groups that are in any way critical of the government,” he says. “There is a sense of diminished possibilities for anybody to be opening a civil society organization that gets anywhere near touching on these sensitive ideas.”

These civil society groups are traditionally the most effective agents of change. However, NGOs and public oversight committees, which have often led progressive efforts on prison issues, are increasingly hampered by government restrictions.

Sergeev spoke about the role his NGO, the Moscow Center of Prison Reform, has assumed in the last few years as it navigates these draconian restrictions.

“We try to do our small work of helping the prisoners, and we need to be accepted by the prison administration,” he said, adding that the organization avoids conflict with the Russian authorities. The group’s need to preserve a cordial relationship with prison officials often limits its ability to advocate for change.

“We do not try to expose some human rights violations we see in these particular prisons because if we raise concerns publicly, our activities and our permission to visit these prisons will be stopped,” he said. “Of course, we try to solve some of our concerns with the particular prison administration that we visit just from the inside, and sometimes it works.”




In addition to traditional NGOs, public oversight committees also work to address these problems. The groups, which are region-based commissions, have human rights protection in their charter and focus on improving prison conditions. Babushkin said his role as a member of one such committee includes drawing up reports, making recommendations, and controlling the execution of these recommendations. Trufanova, also a member of a public oversight committee, pointed to the immediate results of prison visits by members. For example, she said a visit by a member to a neglected, severely ill prisoner enabled him to be transferred directly to a hospital.

“Or we go to a jail, and there we see a beaten prisoner–his back and legs covered with bruises and abrasions,” she explained in another example. “It happens sometimes that the officers beat him just for fun. We photograph his bruises, document the situation, and give a statement to the police after our visit.”

The public oversight committee’s actions often endanger its members, many of whom are the target of repeated threats.

“We’re actually saving lives. Because of this, we ourselves are sometimes in danger,” Trufanova said. “We live on the edge of a razor.”

Trufanova also stressed the importance of the public oversight committees in stemming human rights abuses.

“If public monitoring commissions are not in Russia, then we are back in the USSR,” she said. “Our prisons are only one step removed from the gulag system.”

Ultimately, Satter argues that these recent abuses fit clearly within the trajectory of Russian history, noting the deterioration of human rights in the early 2000s when Putin succeeded Yeltsin.

“After Putin came to power, the criminal ascendency was replaced to some extent by the ascendency of the government bureaucracy, which even under Yeltsin had shown a tendency to amalgamate with the criminal world,” he said. “That criminal KBG, FSB, bureaucratic ruling group continues to dominate the country to this day, and it has taken steady measures to eliminate the possibilities of free expression, political choice, and normal elections.”

The pernicious effects of this historical inheritance have been exacerbated by Putin’s increasing clash with and isolation from the global community. In many ways, the recent human rights crackdowns can be viewed as a grasp for strength by Putin in a moment of political weakness. While the sustainability of this approach is uncertain, the human toll is clear. Russian prison conditions are deteriorating, most recently manifested by the fenya ban, and the general state of human rights is declining. As the mechanisms of civil society become threatened by the law, any hopes of reform become increasingly dim.