Monday, July 22, 2019

Russian Prisons Still a GULAG Where Jailers Believe Torturing Inmates ‘Saves the Motherland,’ Rights Activist Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 19 – Olga Romanova, the director of the ‘Russia in Jail” organization which seeks to ensure that prisoners in Russia are treated humanely, says that GULAG-style torture continues to this day because jailors “sincerely believe that by torturing people, they are saving the Motherland.”

            The activist, who was forced to flee Russia two years ago because of trumped up charges by the Russian penal administration, tells Meduza journalist Sasha Sulim this is only one of the ways in which Russian jails even now “live according to the principles of the GULAG” (

            Romanova urges that the Russian penal system be transformed according to the European rather than the American model. The American system, she says, “if it is not worse than ours, is approximately as bad.” Bad prisons in Russia and the US lead to high rates of crime in both; better prisons in Europe, to much lower levels.

            The problem in the Russian and American systems is that they are more concerned with inflicting punishment rather than reeducating those who have been incarcerated, Romanova says. Russian jailors can’t change the system because almost all of them believe that their task is “to impose punishment.”

            In Russia, she says, the GULAG continues with the current system having taken shape in the 1930s and having remained largely unchanged since that time.  “The country has changed, the system has changed,” but prisons haven’t. And she insists that “there is no need to drive people from Moscow to Magadan or incarcerate them in Norilsk or Labytnangi.”

            There is one important difference, however. Russian prisoners “now work not for the economy but for the uncle, the boss and the head of the jail. However, slave labor has been preserved and the system in that way has retained the same shape.”

            According to Romanova, “the motherland of the GULAG is South Africa. The English dreamed up the concentration camp during the Anglo-Boer campaign. At the beginning of the 20th century, concentration camps were terribly popular in many places. But they adapted themselves only in Germany and in Soviet Russia.”

            “How all this ended in Germany, we know,” Romanova says; “but in Russia everything has remained and nothing has yet happened.”

            Because the system has not changed neither have the values of those who staff it. Many of them think that “by torturing people, they are fulfilling their duty and saving the Motherland. They sincerely think that” in some cases because the guards today are the sons and grandsons of guards from the past. 

            In some of the camps of Mordvinia, there are guard dynasties extending back “almost 100 years” to someone who was recruited from the peasantry for these jobs. Most do their jobs because they think what they do is right, but of course there are many sadists among the guards who don’t reflect upon why they are doing what they do.

            At present, Romanova says, “there is no political will for change because the powers that be need fear to be widespread in society. Prison must be horrible and irreversible, and people must be afraid of landing there. People must not go to meetings lest they fall into prison. That view isn’t mine,” she says; It is Putin’s or more precisely “the collective Putin.”

            Tragically, the situation has become worse in the last decade because the powers that be have closed off the jails from the eyes of society. As a result, the activist continues, those inside feel they can do whatever they want with little risk that they will be held accountable by anyone except others like themselves.

            Romanova says that she is completing a book about her experiences of working with the Russian penal system.

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