The British Library has recently acquired a collection of articles called Punishment as a Crime? Perspectives on Prison Experience in Russian Culture. In this guest post the volume co-editor, Andrei Rogatchevski , introduces the book and its topic, in both the Russian and a wider context.
Cover of Punishment as a Crime?
The volume consists of seven articles by scholars from Italy, Sweden, the UK and the USA, and is devoted to the subject that has primarily been familiar in the West through Stalin’s Gulag. Back then, as a bitter joke had it, Russians could be divided into three categories: those who were imprisoned, those who are imprisoned and those who will be imprisoned. However, Russian prison experience had not begun and would not end with the Gulag. None other than the current Russian Minister of Justice Alexander Konovalov admitted publicly in September 2011 that the modern “Russian prison system has retained some features of Stalin’s Gulag and even the pre-revolutionary katorga” (see http://echo.msk.ru/news/813876-echo.html). The number of those in Russian jails, however, is not always in reverse proportion to how liberal the ruling regime is. A former adviser to President Putin, Andrei Illarionov, points out that in 1989-91 there had been 699,000-723,000 convicts in the USSR, yet in the mid-1990s, in what became the Russian Federation (i.e. much smaller territory), their number exceeded one million (http://aillarionov.livejournal.com/339267.html). According to the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN), as of 1 December 2014, there were 671,700 prisoners in Russian colonies and jails, 54,700 of them women (for information on a relatively recent documentary film about women’s experiences at a post-Communist Russian prison, see http://www.kinokultura.com/2013/39r-missgulag.shtml).
Today’s situation is at variance with a popular pre-revolutionary Russian belief that “the punishment of criminals is not the business of man, but of God” (Fyfe). In the opinion of a Russian prison official, interviewed by a journalist, “our state and our nation have created only one efficient industry: putting people behind bars. It’s the only thing that works at present” (Svinarenko 190). To quote Allison Gill, director of the Human Rights Watch office in Russia, Russian prisons “are widely acknowledged to be troubled institutions with poor conditions, torture and ill treatment” (see here). It is not yet clear whether the ongoing Russian penal reform will lead to any improvement in a foreseeable future.
Some would say that harsh conditions are necessary for prisons to serve as a deterrent, and criminals only get what they deserve anyway. Others would insist that such conditions only harden the criminals, instead of reforming them. Punishment as a Crime? examines the complex phenomenon of Russian prison culture from various angles, mostly on the basis of the evidence provided by the well known individuals with a first-hand knowledge of Russian penal institutions, from Fedor Dostoevsky and Vlas Doroshevich, via Andrei Siniavsky and Sergei Dovlatov, to Eduard Limonov and Igor Sutyagin (who has supplied the book’s opening participant-observer piece). Prison humour, film and popular songs, as well as theories of human motivation and philosophical musings by Arendt, Foucault, Cioran, Kierkegaard, Agamben and others, also have a role to play as material and/or methodology for analysis. An exercise in comparative penology is in evidence too, juxtaposing Russia and the UK in the 2000s (and finding quite a few things in common).
Needless to say, many penal systems across the globe face the same problems, such as overcrowded prisons and high reoffending rate (see, for example, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-23958223 and http://www.bra.se/bra/bra-in-english/home/crime-and-statistics/crime-statistics/recidivism.html, showing some 2012-13 data for the UK and Sweden respectively). Moreover, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s famous 1962 book describing a typical day of a Gulag convict in the early 1950s), has been perceived, by some at least, as “a day in anybody’s life. The majority of the human race are trapped in a monotonous daily routine which differs from that of a concentration camp only in the degree of its unpleasantness and hopelessness” (Hayward). Furthermore, John Hillcoat’s 1988 Australian film Ghosts of the Civil Dead provides an ”existential vision of prison [in an unnamed country] as a metaphor for the human condition” in general (Johnston).
According to the proponents of such a view, prison (defined by Joseph Brodsky as “a shortage of space made up for by a surplus of time”, see http://www.nytimes.com/books/00/09/17/specials/brodsky-prison.html) does not do anything to human beings that the society at large could not do, when coercing them into submission. In prison the coercion process is merely accelerated and takes a highly concentrated form, not unlike radiation overdoses speeding the ageing process. Can incarceration serve as an answer to the challenges presented by crime? Many observers seriously doubt it. In the opinion of one, “Deprivation of freedom is a symbolic murder, a symbolic annihilation. Part of a person’s life is taken away. It’s like a temporary partial reversible murder, which doesn’t solve the problem” (Svinarenko 242). Using the example of a notorious Sao Paolo prison, demolished in 2002, Hector Babenco’s 2003 Brazilian film Carandiru seems to suggest that dispensing with prisons altogether is the only reasonable way forward.
However, it is highly unlikely that Russia (or any other country, for that matter) will be prison-free any time soon. Meanwhile, as the question mark in the volume’s title implies, readers are invited to form their own opinion about the pros and cons of the balance between the punitive and the reformative particularities of the Russian penal system from the 1840s onwards, in comparison with elsewhere.
Andrei Rogatchevski, University of Tromsø
Punishment as a crime? Perspectives on prison experience in Russian culture, edited by Julie Hansen and Andrei Rogachevskii (Uppsala, 2014). Uppsala Studies on Eastern Europe; vol. 5. ZA.9.a.1917.
Hamilton Fyfe, “Russia: The Genius and Simplicity of Its Peoples”, Peoples of All Nations: Their Life Today and the Story of Their Past, ed. by J. A. Hammerton ( London, 1922), W50/0816. Vol. VI: 4309 .
Max Hayward, “Epilogue,” in Soviet Literature in the Sixties, ed. by Max Hayward and Edward L. Crowley (London, 1965) X.909/8120. P. 206.
Ian Johnston, Bad Seed: The Biography of Nick Cave ( London, 1996) YK.1996.a.20413. P. 223
Svinarenko, Igor’. Russkie sidiat: Po zonam Rodiny [Russians in Confinement: Motherland’s Penal Institutions]. (Moscow, 2002) YA.2003.a.34306.