Rostov Prison Clash Highlights Growing Threat to Putin Regime

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 93

(Source: RIA Novosti)

Executive Summary:

  • The hostage taking in a Rostov detention center on June 16 has highlighted growing problems in the Russian penal system, including overcrowding, a shortage of guards, and a shift in the balance of power between ordinary criminals and political prisoners.
  • The Rostov action is part of a larger trend that likely means more and larger uprisings are ahead, as Putin weakens and especially when he leaves the scene.
  • If such revolts become widespread, they will spark demands in society and among elites not only for radical changes in prisons but in the political system as well, much as the Gulag revolts did in the months following Stalin’s death.

Six Muslim prisoners in Russia seized a senior penal official and a guard on June 16 in the hopes of being released. At least three of the attackers had been sentenced to lengthy prison terms but were being kept in a preliminary detention center in Rostov. After opening negotiations, the Russian authorities dispatched OMON special police units who freed the two captives and killed all six hostage takers. Russian media played up the religious affiliation of the prisoners, saying that they were linked to the Islamic State and promising an investigation. Russian officials then abruptly threw a blanket of silence over the events out of fear that they could further divide Russian society (Meduza;, June 16; Kavkaz-uzel, June 17). The prison clash is the latest in a series of developments that highlight growing domestic instability in Russia against the backdrop of President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine increasingly coming home to the Russian public (see EDM, December 21, 2023, January 19, 23, March 26, April 11, 16, 25).  

Such an action by so small a group of prisoners and the entirely expected response of the Russian authorities may seem to render the clash a minor event. Nevertheless, even the limited amount of information available highlights far broader problems within the Russian criminal justice system, including radical overcrowding and a serious shortage of guards. The hostage situation points to a collapse in the traditional Russian method of managing prisoners by using ordinary criminals to control political ones. This system has increasingly broken down given the rise of Muslim inmates, on the one hand, and the increasing number of Ukrainian prisoners, on the other.

These problems are already having an impact on Russian society as a whole and will certainly influence political elites as Putin weakens and then passes from the scene. Sergey Starovoytov, a political analyst at the Club of the Regions portal, says that increasing numbers of Muslims in Russian prisons, the departure of many ethnic Russian criminals to fight in Ukraine, and the influx of ethnic Ukrainians into the Russian prison system mean that the alliance between jailors and ordinary Russian prisoners against minorities has broken down. Consequently, control over prisoners as a whole is now worse than it was since the 1990s and hearkens back to the revolts in the Gulag at the end of Stalin’s lifetime and especially in the wake of the Soviet dictator’s death (Rosbalt, June 17).

Revolts and other actions in Russian prisons and camps have become increasingly frequent and, at times, extremely large under Putin (see EDM, October 21, 2021; Window on Eurasia, December 28, 2023). Most have attracted little attention, however, as Moscow has stopped publishing most of the data on the penal system, making it more difficult to access information about what occurs behind prison walls (, October 13, 2023). On the one hand, the current case is no exception, with regional officials taking down information about the kidnapping, claiming there are no serious problems (, June 16). On the other hand, hushing up the most recent clash appears to be backfiring. This has led some to suggest that the Kremlin orchestrated the kidnapping itself to fan ethnic feelings and gain support for further restricting information about and access to prisoners (, June 17). More independent journalists and human rights activists have even begun investigating the matter. Their findings suggest that Moscow’s problems with the penal system, already large, are only beginning to mount.

Conditions in Russia’s penal system have almost always been poor. The conditions, however, are now worse than they were a decade ago because Putin has cut spending on prisoners, closed camps and prisons, and created conditions in which actions by inmates against their guards are increasingly more likely (Window on Eurasia, June 11, 2023;, June 16). To save additional money, Putin has put more prisoners in almost all of the remaining prison institutions while reducing the number of guards to supervise them. In Rostov, more than 900 prisoners reside in the preliminary detention center, which was designed for only 500, and 30-percent fewer guards are mandated for that facility (RIA Novosti;;, June 17). This means that those incarcerated are not separated according to whether they have been convicted, which allows convicts to recruit those still awaiting trial. Not surprisingly, experts suggest that these two factors are primarily responsible for unrest in the prison population rather than it being the work of any outside agitators (, June 10;;, June 17;, June 18).

An even more important factor behind the rising challenges for Russian prison authorities is the changing composition of the prison population and what that means for relations between prisoners and guards. In the past, guards allied with those guilty of ordinary crimes and allowed them to rule over political prisoners. While that still happens, the balance is now shifting against the ordinary prisoners. Under Putin, the number of political prisoners has risen, including not only opposition figures but also more Muslims who may be guilty of nothing more than practicing their faith. Additionally, in the past two years, more Ukrainians have been taken prisoner during Putin’s expanded war and confined in Russian penitentiaries. The numbers of these groups are especially large in Rostov, where Muslim prisoners represent at least 20 percent of those held and Ukrainians that many or even more (, October 16, 2023; RIA Novosti, June 17). At the same time, coupled with fewer guards, many ordinary prisoners have volunteered to go to Ukraine, meaning that those who have not been viewed with increasing suspicion by the guards rather than as potential allies (Novaya Gazeta Europe, December 8, 2023).

All these trends point to more problems within the prison system, including corruption, as guards try to restore their own position by making deals. These developments are beginning to echo outside the prison walls as well. Almost all prisoners have families as well as co-ethnics and co-religionists concerned about them. As such, Moscow has played down any conflicts and launched campaigns against “politicizing” the breakdowns in the prison system (Nemoskva; Meduza, June 16). Many of these efforts have been ham-handed, however, including decisions not to release the bodies of those killed, an action that only leads to greater attention and greater anger (Meduza;, June 16;, June 17). Those frustrations are now spreading to people who are not linked directly to prisoners but are worried about what prison uprisings may threaten in the future. Some, including Duma deputies, are even demanding that prison officials be fired—demands the Kremlin may find hard to contain (RBC, June 16).

As a result, Russia’s penal institutions, long the Moscow regime’s first line of defense against any challenge, are becoming less effective and instead adding to the problems the Kremlin already faces.