I recently spoke to a Russian historian who gave me his prognosis on the consequences of the war in Ukraine for human rights in Russia: “Mass repression and concentration camps.” Already nearly 15,000 people have been detained in Russia for participating in demonstrations against the war. What future awaits these brave citizens, as well as Ukrainians captured in the occupied territories?
Since its occupation of Crimea in 2014, Russia has escalated the punishments for people exercising their right to freedom of speech and assembly. The most recent manifestation of the clampdown on civil rights is the law rushed on to the statute books to punish citizens spreading “fake news” about the military, with custodial sentences of three and a half to fifteen years. Marina Ovsyannikova, who held up an anti-war poster during a news broadcast on Russian state TV Channel One on Monday, may be among the first to fall under the new law.
The Russian criminal justice system has practiced in handling mass protest. Protesters grabbed on the streets are bundled into overcrowded avtozaks and taken off to detention centers, where they can be held for up to 15 days. Most get away with a fine if it is their first arrest, but those against whom criminal charges are brought face prolonged periods in overcrowded pre-trial prisons (sizo). Eventually, they will come to trial, be found guilty, and then transported off to some remote corner of Russia. Here they will join other people imprisoned for their political beliefs, as well as the large numbers convicted for drug-related or other offences.
The custodial sentences handed out to people opposing the war will not be served in typical western-style cellular prisons, but in “correctional colonies” (ispravitel’nie kolonii). These house in prisoners barracks-like accommodation blocks, which were originally introduced to manage the millions of forced laborers who passed through Stalin’s Gulag. International human rights organizations have condemned communal dormitories for their association with high levels of inter-prisoner violence, and lack of privacy. The large cache of internal prison service videos smuggled out of Russia in November of last year shows that torture and inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners is systemic in Russian correctional institutions.
As the war produces large numbers of detainees and captives in occupied territories, the question arises of whether there are sufficient spaces for them in existing prison facilities. It is inconceivable that Putin’s monstrous plan to rebuild the Russian empire did not factor in the need to reserve places in the country’s penal institutions to accommodate the new generation of political prisoners.
In recent years, Russia has boasted that it has reduced the number of prisoners in the country, presenting this as evidence of the humanization of its justice system (this is a myth, but that is another conversation). Today, there are about 380,000 people serving sentences in different categories of correctional institutions, with another 100,000 or so awaiting trial in sizoyes The total prisoner population of just under 500,000 is more than half it was twenty years ago.
The intriguing fact is that the number of prison facilities has not correspondingly halved. The prison service has closed 90 correctional colonies and remand prisons since 2019, but these closures have made only small inroads into total capacity of the facilities that remain. Analyzing the available figures on prison population and capacity, it is clear that Russia has spare places for tens of thousands of new prisoners. This is confirmed by official figures showing that facilities for convicted prisoners are currently only 66% full. Currently, I estimate that there are 400,000 places free in Russia’s penal facilities – with a new reform, which would transfer prisoners nearing the end of their sentence to newly constructed forced labor centres, creating the potential for another 180,000. Not quite the millions of the Gulag, but heading in that direction.
Ukraine has its own network of prisons and there are unknown numbers of secret penal facilities in the previously occupied territories, which have been used for illegal detentions and are sites of alleged war crimes. We know from the wars in Chechnya, Georgia, and in the last eight years in Ukraine, armed combatants captured in the battlefield will be treated by Russia as zaderzhanye (detains), not prisoners of war. The aims of Putin’s “special military operation” is demilitarization and, absurdly, denazification. His rhetoric of him thus downgrades the Ukrainian professional armed forces to the status of terrorists, while the status that will be afforded to Ukrainian paramilitaries, volunteers and the civilians who aided in the making petrol bombs, for instance, remains unclear.
The evidence of the past eight years is that Russia’s preference will be to transfer the people it seizes in Ukraine to the Russian heartland. Crimean Tatars, for example, who have passively resisted Russian rule since 2014 by refusing to take part in elections, have been vulnerable to accusations of belonging to radical Islamic groups. Their leaders have been transported from Crimea to remand prisons in neighboring Rostov Oblast and, after conviction, transported to correctional colonies in the Russian interior to serve up to 20-year sentences.
In a chilling article a few days ago in RIA Novosti, Russia’s domestic news agency, we learned that Ukrainians resisting the invasion are supposedly suffering from a generalized case of Stockholm syndrome; and that after liberation, “a whole complex of measures will be required to bring this mentally unhealthy population to their senses”. The fear must be that Russia will revert to measures gestated in the Gulag to correct those who are judged too slow in coming to their senses.
Judith Pallot is emeritus professor of geography at the University of Oxford. She is currently director of an ERC-funded project researching the Russian prison system in the Aleksanteri Institute, the University of Helsinki
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism