The seminar started with welcome addresses from the organisers.
Julia Taranova thanked the Oxford University seminar hosts on behalf of Russian Reading and the British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies (BASEES), and introduced the Russian Readings project and its aims: to organise a series of seminars in the area of social sciences relating to Russia; and, to bring together academics and practitioners, native Russians and those who study Russia as a foreign country.
Judith Pallot, Professor Emeritus at the University of Oxford and the current President of the BASEES, welcomed the speakers and guests of the seminar to Christ Church, Oxford. Prof. Pallot noted the extreme paucity of scholarly research on the contemporary Russian penal system, both in Russia and in the West, that may stem from the difficulties that scholars encounter when trying to get access to prison information and data or when interviewing prisoners. Prof. Pallot commented that the preoccupation of much of the Western research on Russian prison system has been with the punishment in Russia as geographical or spatial process. The question as to why Russia has such propensity for expelling its problem citizens to the peripheries of the country is the theoretical question that lies behind the theme of the seminar. Taking the audience through the programme of the seminar, Prof. Pallot pointed out that the seminar sessions are organised to reflect the different spatial scales at which the processes and phenomena are analysed, so that the discussion can proceed from global scale to regional scale and then to local scale, paying special attention to the processes that can operate at various scales.
Chairing the session, Judith Pallot introduced the first key note speaker, a lawyer, an activist, and a scholar Christopher Stone (OBE) from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
Christopher Stone provided a perspective of the penitentiary system in Russia and its attitudes to justice and injustice in a global context. As Prof. Stone argued, to deal efficiently with injustice, individual cases of injustice have to be aggregated, and classes of injustice have to be identified. These classifications will differ from system to system, and we need to consider what patterns we see in the decisions taken in the name of justice in different systems, and which institutional arrangements are controlling those decisions.
Comparing incarceration rates in different countries, Prof. Stone reminded that those rates do not directly reflect the crime rates, but can say much about politics and governing principles. Up to the 1990s, the incarceration rates in the USA and the USSR were among the highest in the world. Despite the campaigns and efforts aiming to end mass incarcerations in the USA, these rates remain high in the country. In Russia, to the contrary, the rate of incarceration has dropped dramatically, due to the sharp drop in the number of people convicted. At the same time, the Russian system retains its accusatory bias, and if people are convicted, the chances that they will have to go to prison are much higher there than in any other country. Similarly, comparison of incarceration rates in modern Russia with those in England and Wales shows that many more people are charged with offences in England and Wales, but the chance of those convicted being sent to prison is four times higher in Russia than in England and Wales. At the same time, Russia performs very poorly in regards to the effectiveness of investigations and government interference.
It therefore appears that Russia has never used the criminal justice system in the way that Western European and North American countries use it. However, harmonisation of criminal justice systems around the world could bring huge danger to Russia, since if people are brought to court at the same rate as in the countries in the West but the percentage of accusatory decisions remains very high, the penitentiary system in Russia would not be able to cope.
Posing the question of how international comparison and international experience affect decision making in a country, Prof. Stone suggested that the way the system behaves is not explained by crime rate or even by legislation, and there are always opportunities for people to shape, reshape, and change the ways justice is experienced, which is a source of enormous hope for the positive changes that can happen in any system.
The first key note lecture of the seminar provoked a lively discussion involving contributions from both practitioners dealing with penitentiary system in Russia and academics. Discussing the ways in which Russia attempts to copy penitentiary systems in the West (Kahn, Gefter), Valentin Gefter warned that an individual element of the system and practice, if transferred mechanically to another system, could lead to perverse effects. Prof. Muravyeva pointed to economic factors and their role in the incarceration rate in a country, as keeping people in prisons costs money. Activist Yana Teplitskaya reminded the audience that in Russia many instances of human rights violations take place before the criminal case is initiated, while lawyer Karinna Moskalenko commented that one of the most acute problems in respect of penitentiary system in Russia is the total lack of any national programme designed to help people adapt and re-integrate in the society upon release, which harms both the former convicts and society.
The first session that took place on the second day of the seminar was dedicated to Russia’s membership of international human rights organisations: consequences for crime and punishment, and was chaired by Dr Maria Smirnova (University of Manchester). The key note lecture was delivered by a leading human rights lawyer from Russia, Karinna Moskalenko, who took the audience through a series of cases where Russian lawyers involved the articles of the European Convention on Human Rights to make an appeal. Every individual case is of great value, both because it is human lives that are at stake in each, and because the successful legal defence helps to set a precedent to be employed while defending similar cases in the future.
The panel session featured four individual presentations by the specialists working on Russian law and its interactions with international law, and looked into Russia’s membership in international organisations, assessing the impact of such membership on the criminal law system in Russia.
Jeffrey Kahn, Professor of Law at Southern Methodist University, USA, examined Russia’s relationship with the Council of Europe since its acceptance as a member state in 1996. In his paper, he assesses the impact that Russia’s membership has made both on the country and on the Council, making two points. First, he stressed the indisputability of the fact that Russian criminal justice reform owes an enormous debt to the Council of Europe. There was no greater catalyst for the very tangible successes of post-Soviet codes of criminal law and procedure, and the development of new institutional values for the judiciary and other components of the system, than Russia’s membership. The second point he made referred to the price that the Council of Europe had paid for these reforms, which was not only extremely high, but grossly discounted against the then present value of post-Cold War stability. That cost is plainer to see today.
The contribution of Dr Sergey Golubok, an expert in international human rights law and public international law, who practices law with particular focus on criminal law and international human rights law in Russia and also appears as an expert witness in international courts, brought together academic research and legal practice. Dr Golubok’s talk focused on extradition as one of the most significant examples of mutual legal assistance. He reminded the audience that mutual legal assistance is a way for one state to meaningfully assess the quality of another state’s legal and judicial systems. UK courts examine dozens of Russian extradition requests every year and have built the relevant case-law, including concerning arguments raised by the defence teams under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (prison conditions). It was suggested that extradition cases may lead to very significant changes within the Russian penitentiary system. The presentation analyses the very recent trends in UK courts’ case-law in Russian extradition cases and suggests ideas on how it can develop in the future.
The third presentation of the panel was given by Marianna Muravyeva, Professor of Law at Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki. Her paper examined the Russian Federation human rights record in regards to gender and identity policy, focusing on the ways in which it both resists and strives to achieve compliance with the internationally accepted norms, which reflects complex attitudes towards the issues of gender and identity held within the country.
The closing contribution to the session was made by Gavin Slade, Associate Professor of Sociology at the Faculty of Social Sciences of the Nazarbayev University, Kazakhstan. Prof. Slade discussed the state of criminology in Russia, criminological approaches to understanding prison rates and punitiveness, and analysed the factors that drive qualitative and quantitative dimensions of punishment in a country, offering a sociological perspective in his talk. The presentation involves comparison with other post-Soviet states in regards to punishment practices, notably with Georgia and Kazakhstan. Prof. Slade also drew attention to the ESRC-funded project ‘In the Gulag’s Shadow’, that tries to bring together major strands of criminology to understand the trends in Russia, Kazakhstan, and across the former Soviet Union.
The session that featured these diverse contributions allowed participants to see the problematic aspects of Russia’s treatment of crime and punishment from the point of view of international law or in comparison with other countries, and was followed by an animated discussion on the topic.
The second session, The Historical Geography of Crime and Punishment: Regional Aspect, was chaired by Dr Sergey Golubok and featured a key note lecture from Valentin Gefter, General Director of the Human Rights Institute in Moscow. The key note lecture, entitled Crime and Punishment: Projects for Modernisation of the Penitential System and Its Dead Ends, reviews the current Russian penal and correctional system, noting that little has changed there since the 1990s. The paper highlights the main problems that hinder adaptation of the penal system in Russia to the new socio-economic settings in the country, and suggests a range of measures to reform approaches to criminal justice and to re-structure the correctional system.
The panel session was opened by Laura Piacentini, Professor of Criminology at the University of Strathclyde. In her presentation, entitled Shadowy prowler or reflexive scholar? : The precarious world of online prison research within and with Russian prisoners, Prof. Piacentini talks of the impact and challenges that the scant attention to criminology in the contemporary Russian penal system and to the absence of Russia in theoretical and empirical understandings of world penal development has had on methodological approaches to the study of post-Soviet punishment, not least researcher positionality, self-reflexivity, ethical ambiguities, and sample sizes. The paper seeks to both develop and disrupt conventional methodological frameworks for exploring the post-Soviet penal system by providing a critical, methodological account of new social media approaches to prison research in Russia. The findings draw down from a UK Leverhulme study into the sociology of rights consciousness amongst Russian prisoners who are engaging in online prisoner blogging using illicit communication devices.
The following paper was presented by Dr Ksenia Averkieva from the Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow. The talk dedicated to the topic of Territorial organisation of correctional institutions in Russia, their relationship with regional settlement systems and with regional economies highlighted that the network formation of correctional institutions largely reflects the geography of the industrial development in the country in the 20th century. In the late Soviet as well as post-Soviet periods, the prison economy has been closely associated with regional and local industries, institutional factors, as well as was dependent on the overall macroeconomic situation. The paper draws attention to the correctional institutions set in remote areas of the country where industry has become unprofitable which leads to the gradual closure of the institutions, resulting in complex socio-economic consequences. The paper also points to the current vague understanding of the nature of labour in correctional institutions in Russia as a prisoner’s duty or right, as well as the ways such labour should be regulated.
The session continued with the presentation by Dr Albina Garifzianova from Elabuzhskii Institute, Kazan State University. Based on research from the paper entitled The life of men after prison: the difficulties and risks of the “field”, she spoke about the pilot study conducted in the Republic of Tatarstan, which involved interviewing men aged between 25 and 45 who had served their sentences 5-7 years from the time of the interview. The pilot study focused on the ethnic and religious identities of the convicts and the latter’s relation to the prison experience of the respondents. The paper addressed the challenges and risks of collecting such data and points to the issues of security for both the sociologists and the informants as crucial for successful work in this ‘field’.
Heather McGill, who works for Amnesty International in London, gave the final talk concluding the panel. The presentation focused specifically on the Russian problems of transportation of the prisoners to the colonies where they are to serve their sentence, as the size of the country combined with the location of the penal colonies (many of which are located in sparsely populated parts of the country such as the Far North and Far East) mean that prisoners must be transported over great distances. The journeys in specially designed train carriages and prison trucks often last a month or more and prisoners spend weeks in transit cells at various destinations – or etap – on their way to the prison colonies. Prisoners are placed in overcrowded train carriages and trucks in conditions that often amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in violation of international human rights standards, with total lack of communication with their families and lawyers. As Heather McGill pointed out, such long journeys and the total lack of communication with the outside world is not an exceptional punishment, but standard practice within the Russian penal system.
The key note lecture and the panel presentations brought about a lively discussion. The questions suggested to view the issues under discussion in a comparative perspective, for example, to see if the adoption of Muslim identity by prisoners in Tatarstan could be compared to the Islamic wave in Kazakhstan (Gavin Slade), or, more broadly, to find out whether prisoners serving sentences in different countries would talk the same language and to what extent the notion of cultural boundaries of prisoners’ communities will hold true (Mary McAuley). The questions asked about the role of corruption in the penitentiary system (Chris Stone) and about the level and stage at which decisions are made regarding the details of serving a particular sentence and the principles taken into account in each individual case (Judith Pallot) prompted a comprehensive contribution from Karinna Moskalenko, who drew on her extensive experience as a practicing lawyer.
In his concluding remarks, Mikhail Khodorkovsky spoke about the penitential system in Russia through the prism of his own personal experience – that of a convict. He pointed out that the 10 years that he had served in penal institutions made up not only a substantial portion of an individual life, but also a period of time long enough to observe and analyse the changes in the system itself. During that decade three heads of the Federal Service for Execution of Punishment changed. The system hugely depends on the individual at its head, and this fact was further proved by the changes brought about with every new director of the Service. The dynamics were largely positive, and by 2010 the convicts did not suffer from hunger, cold, or the informal authority of the inmates collaborating with the prison staff as before. Among the crucial survival factors in prisons that Khodorkovsky mentioned were transparency, the ability to communicate, and the existence of connections with the world outside the prison known to the prison staff, and here the role of human rights campaigners and organisations could not be overestimated. Khodorkovsky agreed with the presenters who spoke earlier in the session that the inability to work or study while in prison is truly corrupting and poses additional problems for adaptation after the sentence is served. The latter partly explains the horrifying number of former convicts who commit an offence and get sentenced for the second time. Khodorkovsky believes that ability to work and receive some kind of education in prison, as well as protection from torture, could be achieved by the activity of human rights organisations. He further noted that law should be treated above justice, but mercy should be placed even above law, and expressed his gratitude and admiration towards the people present at the seminar who made law and mercy their lifetime projects.
Session 3, dedicated to The Historical Geography of Crime and Punishment: the local level, took place on the final day of the seminar and was chaired by Dr Mary McAuley. The key note speaker was Vladimir Pereverzin, a former Yukos official who spent over seven years in jail. Mr Pereverzin read from his book ‘Hostage. The story of a Yukos Manager’ the chapter entitled ‘Hara-kiri’, in which he contemplates taking his own life as a desperate measure to escape from the prison colony where the conditions were particularly intolerable.
The next panel session started with the paper presented by Elena Omel’chenko, Professor and Director of the Centre for Youth Studies based at the Higher School of Economics in St Petersburg. The presented study was based on 20 biographical interviews with men who had spent time in prison and five interviews with the staff of the penal institutions, and examined how statuses are built and hierarchies created in the context of the co-existing formal and informal authorities in Russian colonies. Focusing on gender and the ways masculinity models are constructed in situations of isolation and control, the study aimed to understand how the convicts fitted in the existing hierarchical structures and adapt in different types of colonies.
Then the floor was given to a member of St Petersburg City Public Monitoring Commission (PMC) Yana Teplitskaya. The presentation offered a detailed overview of the system of Public Monitoring Commissions in Russia, regional public organisations whose task is to monitor adherence to human rights in local penitentiary institutions. Talking about the activity the commissions are authorised to perform, and stating the restrictions and problems they face in their work, Yana Teplitskaya demonstrated the ways committees can and do help presenting individual cases from her own and her colleagues’ experience as active members of PMCs.
The paper by Dominique Moran, Professor of Carceral Geography at the University of Birmingham, dealt with the problem of deprivation of privacy in carceral spaces. Concentrating on the case studies involving carceral spaces in France and Russia, the paper suggests that, although the inmates living in small cellular accommodations in France and large communal dormitories in Russia are exposed to different types of pressures in respect of lack of privacy, both groups feel deprivation of privacy as acute problems they face during their imprisonment and employ similar tactics to find or create their private space.
The final presentation was delivered by Mikhail Nakonechnyi, currently a DPhil student at the University of Oxford, who talked about his doctoral research that studies mortality rates in the Gulag labour camps. The paper specifically addressed the challenges in assessment of the actual mortality rates associated with the Soviet labour camps, focusing in particular on the widely used practice of early release on medical grounds, which often meant that the harm caused to the people’s health while in the camp was grievous and led to death shortly after the release. The mortality rates among the newly released incapacitated people varied throughout the history of the Gulag system, and was much higher at the times of the nation-wide crises in the country. The speaker touched upon the situation with early release on medical grounds in modern Russia, and concluded that the current practice cannot be considered similar to the one that was employed in the Gulag to obscure the mortality statistics associated with the labour camps, as the prison conditions have much improved since then: malnutrition is far from being the most common problem in penitentiary institutions, and the numbers of people released is simply incomparable to the mass practice employed in the Gulag.
The discussion that followed featured follow-up questions to all four speakers. Among other things raised was the question of how the roles and status adopted or imposed while in prison can affect the adaptation of a former convict upon release. Valentin Gefter contributed to the closing session with the comments referring to the featured topics basing on his practical work with the convicts and his experience of dealing with penitentiary institutions. He stressed that the issue of early release on medical grounds has become a purely medical problem and is no longer a social issue as it was in the Gulag times. Furthermore, to a large extent thanks to the work of human rights activists, the list of diseases and conditions that qualify inmates for early release has been updated and expanded. Valentin Gefter followed the earlier discussion (Judith Pallot, Yana Teplitskaya) on the types of channels available to convicts and the principles on which they choose between them for making their complaints, and gave an overview of the existing procedures and mechanisms regarding filing complaints. Agreeing with the earlier discussion that up to now there is no universal solution regarding ways to resolve the problem of the lack of privacy in prisons, Gefter pointed out to the problems that he finds especially pertinent in Russia, namely the lack of individual approach to convicts and lack of choice in respect of conditions of detention. Regarding the status and roles that the convicts adopt in prison, Gefter mentioned that the sense of group identity is especially strong in Russia, was in a way inherited from the Soviet past, and is often used by prison administrations to strengthen their control.
The closing remarks were provided by the chair, Dr Mary McAuley, who contributed to the above discussion with recounting her own experience of visiting a colony in Krasnoyarsk.