Staunton, July 16 – For those of us who began studying the Soviet Union in the early 1970s, one of the most affecting and memorable books of that time was Valentyn Moroz’s 1974 Report from the Beria Reserve about his travails as a Ukrainian political prisoner in the KGB camps of Mordvinia.
Now, almost 50 years later, the Lenta news agency has provided another glimpse into the life of prisoners in Mordvinia, the republic with “the highest concentration of correctional institutions in the country.” On its 26,000 square kilometers are 14 labor colonies whose inmates make up four percent of the republic’s population (lenta.ru/photo/2019/07/15/mordovia/).
“The majority of those incarcerated there are from other regions of Russia,” the news agency says; “and many are in fact citizens of other countries.” The agency’s journalists, with the assistance of the federal penal agency, visited several colonies in Mordvinia and has now published 22 photographs with commentaries.
As one would expect from a report prepared under the watchful eyes of the jailors, the Lenta story contains no revelations, unlike its predecessor which did and had to be smuggled out and distributed via samizdat as a result. Nonetheless, the new one does feature some telling details:
· The prisoners’ beds are marked with colored flags so that their jailors will know what to watch out for – a blue flag means a drug user, a yellow someone inclined to suicide, an orange one to gay sex, and a red one to flight. “On the beds of several inmates,” Lenta notes, “there are several flags.”
· All the inmates work, most in factories that make uniforms for the defense ministry and other agencies.
· Every camp has its own cable television studio which is run by the inmates themselves.
· The inmates also maintain gardens where they raise fruits and vegetables that serve as fresh food in the summer and when canned as food in the winter.
· One woman’s camp, IK-2, has a special facility for children of inmates. (There are 13 such facilities across Russia.) In the Mordvinian one, there are 28 children. Their mothers or other inmates look after the toddlers. It is much like a kindergarten, Lenta says, “except outside the windows are high walls and barbed wire.” Older children are sent to children’s homes.
· The camps have both mosques and Orthodox churches.