Russian penitentiaries and prison camps—and even their reputations for brutality—are important props for President Vladimir Putin’s regime. Few Russians want to risk harsh incarceration, and, thus, most may be more willing to go along with the Kremlin’s demands. But for such threats to work, the notion of prison brutality must remain implicit—that is, it must be something people believe but have no direct evidence for. If Russian people were to explicitly know the details of this assumed brutality, those revelations could cause the opposite of obedience—protest. To that end, the Russian authorities have worked hard to throw a veil of secrecy over the prison system, restricting access to places of incarceration and moving against prisoner rights organizations. But three developments in recent months have torn this curtain of silence, turning what goes on in prisons from a tool of social control for the Putin regime into a potential threat to its continued rule.
First, a decline in the number of incoming migrant workers during the pandemic has caused labor shortages across Russia. As a result, officials in Moscow are lobbying for the use of prison labor in the public sector—a practice that often involves corruption and inevitably increases contact between those behind bars and those in free society (Nakanune.ru, October 13). Accordingly, more and more information about the reality of life in Russian prisons is leaking out to the Russian people, despite Moscow’s prevention efforts. And as such, Russians are likely to increasingly view prisoners as victims rather than threats—an attitude that in the 19th century and again in the wake of Joseph Stalin’s death forced the government on the back foot.
Second, again despite the regime’s efforts to suppress such information, some former prisoners have been able to produce films about the torture they experienced and other horrors in the Russian prison system. In the last few weeks, for example, the organization Gulagu.net has circulated dozens of clips documenting abuses, putting the authorities on the defensive (Meduza, October 5; Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, October 10). Unlike in the past, the government has been forced to launch investigations, bring charges, and even talk about making torture by jailors a criminal offense. Abbas Gallyamov, a former Putin speechwriter, said that the existence of video evidence has compelled the authorities to address the scandal. Had the regime not responded to the videos properly, it would have risked what little credibility it still has (Rosbalt, October 8; Polit Sovet, October 14).
Third, and ultimately most dramatically, Moscow has faced a rising tide of revolts in prisons— actions that have highlighted problems in the prison system and forced the regime on several occasions to dispatch spetznaz (special forces) troops to restore control. In recent months, there have been at least three major prison revolts in Russia—in Angarsk in April, in Khabarovsk Krai in September, and in Vladikavkaz (North Caucasus) in October. Prison revolts after the death of Stalin played a major role in forcing political change in the Soviet Union; but until last year, large and numerous prison revolts had been a rarity in Putin’s time. Consequently, Russian officials are paying close attention to these events.
In the spring of 2020, the Russian penal authorities were forced to call in 300 special forces troops to put down a revolt in a strict regime camp in Angarsk. The uprising involved some 500 prisoners, many of whom had been driven by deteriorating conditions caused by the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic into the prison system (Meduza, April 11, 2020; MBK News, October 4, 2020; Kasparov, November 4, 2020). The authorities denied there were any major problems, but the non-governmental organization (NGO) Public Verdict called for hearings about the prisoner revolt and its suppression (Vk.com, April 10, 2020). Later that year, the NGO Siberia Without Torture said that inmates in two neighboring colonies in Irkutsk Oblast were also on the brink of rebellion (MBK News, October 4, 2020).
This past September, prisoners at a camp in Khabarovsk Krai rose up against their jailors. Many were killed and wounded, and, again, the authorities were forced to bring in spetznaz troops to re-impose control. Reportedly, the uprising began first as a conflict among prisoners, but then the prisoners came together and attacked their guards (T.me/NetGulagu, September 5; T.me/rian_ru, October 5; Real Siberia, September 5).
Even more recently, there was a third major prison revolt, this time in the North Caucasus. According to preliminary reports, it involved 600 inmates, forced the authorities to bring in a variety of outside forces to suppress it, and left dead and wounded among both prisoners and guards (News.ru, October 15).
Just how serious this latest revolt may have been is best indicated by two developments far from the camp itself. First, a variety of politicians (including some allies of the Kremlin) and rights activists have stepped up demands for the criminalization of torture in prisons, an action that might lower the temperature behind bars (Polit Sovet, October 10; Rosbalt, October 12; RIA News, October 14). Second, there has been a rising tide of criticism of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church for it failing to speak out against torture—something many Russians feel is the Church’s responsibility (Ahilla, October 13).
While torture is a serious issue, it is only one of the causes behind these revolts. Others include poor food, conflicts among various ethnic and religious groups of prisoners (see EDM, April 15, 2020) and, especially in recent months, the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Unlike in many other countries, the Russian authorities did not release elderly or sick inmates at the start of the outbreak or take other steps to prevent the spread of the disease behind bars. As a result, the pandemic has unwittingly created a perfect storm of conditions for prison risings. It is certain that the events over the last few days in Vladikavkaz are not the last. They may even be a harbinger of a more general prison uprising that Moscow has good reason to fear.