Ponomarev on the Neo-Soviet Gulag

Paul Goble reports:

Forty of Russia’s 700 penal institutions have features which resemble those of Soviet-era concentration camps, according to a leading Moscow human rights activist, who warns that “as long as concentration camps and torture exist, the spectre of totalitarianism will continue to hang of the country.”
In an article in Yezhednevny Zhurnal, Lev Ponomaryev argues that Russian “society must finally understand that no democratic transformations are possible until a radical reform of the penitentiary system and of the law enforcement one as well takes place” and eliminates such institutions.

According to numerous human rights activists, he continues, “there are approximately 40 places of confinement in contemporary Russia which have the reputation as torture zones or ‘press-zones,’” including colonies, “closed prisons,” “investigation isolators” and some “internal sections of colonies.”
And it is these “press zones,” Ponomaryev continues, that he feels he can “with complete justification compare with the concentration camps” of the totalitarian past. Indeed, he reports, “old Soviet dissidents and former prisons with Soviet experience” say that conditions in these institutions “is significantly worse than under Brezhnev or in the first post-Stalinist times.”

The term “’press zone’,” the rights activist says, “arose by analogy with the so-called press chambers or press huts in which specially selected criminals were kept to put pressure on those being investigated or already sentenced to confinement.” Such zones don’t exist everywhere, but their existence anywhere gives the jailors a powerful weapon to intimidate all.

Indeed, Ponomaryev insists, “their existence changes in a principled way the entire system of punishment. It is sufficient to have a single ‘torture’ colony in a region in order that every prisoner in any other colony will understand that in the case of a struggle for his rights, he will be immediately transferred to that ‘torture’ place and be subjected” to its features. The current system did not arise immediately, he recounts. In the 1990s, “under the constant observation of rights activists, a humanization of the system of punishment took place and the number of ‘torture’ colonies was sharply reduced. But after 2000, with the coming to power of [Vladimir] Putin and others from the KGB,” the situation changed fundamentally.

On the one hand, rights activists lost much of their access to the prisons and to the media, reducing their opportunities to observe and expose torture. And on the other, the jailors, “sensing ‘the winds of change’” in the country as a whole “began to introduce a militarized order in the camps.” And as a result, “if the Putin regime could not put up with a principled opposition” and did everything to subvert or destroy it, Ponomaryev continues, “then the jailors could not tolerate inmates who living by ‘the thieves’ law’ sought in an archaic way to achieve justice for themselves.”

“As soon as the struggle or more precisely real war of the jailors became ideological,” he writes, “it began to be conducted according to all the rules of the struggle of a totalitarian empire with its opponents” with “some of ‘thieves in law’ were drawn into corrupt relations with the administration” which then deployed them against other prisoners trying to fight for their rights. Special “Sections of Discipline and Order” were set up, Ponomaryev recounts, institutions that “by their organization and many of their functions recall the prisoner-overseers – the ‘kapos’ – of Hitlerite camps.”

All these actions violate Russian laws, but any prisoner who tries to bring a case against the authorities is likely to be punished. And consequently, the Moscow activist says, it is entirely appropriate to say that “within the Russian penal system, these zones form an internal concentration camp system, a new GULAG archipelago.”

Over the last decade, thanks to “the rain of petrodollars,” Russian officials have improved some aspects of the camps, providing prisoners with better food and in some cases better housing and even computers. “But this in no way reduces the cruelty of the regime,” Ponomaryev says, however much nicer it makes some of these places appear. And there is the risk that more Russians will experience these illegal arrangements in the future or will be intimidated into silent acquiescence to whatever the regime does. Today, Ponomaryev notes, Russian judges find fewer than one in a 100 of those charged innocent, while Russian juries decide not to convict about 18 percent of those charged.

“The Russian government has been seeking to reduce the number of people tried by juries as a result, because if jury trials were allowed in all cases, there would be “at a minimum, 200,000 fewer people” in the penitentiary system, and the intimidating qualities of the latter would be reduced.
And to make his point that the world of Ivan Denisovich that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn described so brilliantly almost 50 years ago, Ponomaryev devotes the remainder of his article to providing a composite picture of today’s Ivan Denisoviches whose experiences show “the hell which the system of the reborn GULAG” constitutes not only for him but for all Russians.

4 responses to “Ponomarev on the Neo-Soviet Gulag

  1. Vladimir Putin used the fifth anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo Bay to try and convince the world that Russia is morally superior to the United States: “Russia, hopefully, will not have a Guantanamo. The world community is marking five years since this camp was formed, where people are held without trial or investigation. It is a lamentable situation,” Putin told the presidential Council for Assisting Civil Society and Human Rights Institutions.

    Clearly Putin has forgotten the “filtration camps” in Chechnya where extreme torture, gang rape and murder (with the bodies disposed of) were rampant.

    And in a regular Russian “prison colony” (read: GULAG leftover) in 2006:

    • Memorial about the concentration camp system that existed in Chechnya (now replaced with “regular prisons” and Kadyrov’s not-so secret private prisons and improvised torture chambers in “sports clubs”):


      The murdered lawyer Stanislav Markelov on the “policemen” bringing back their Chechnya tactics to the Russia proper and the “legal basis”:



      The “Blagoveshchensk case” turned out to be the most prominent and largest example of the spread of the Chechnya syndrome throughout other regions of Russia. Along with the length and the mass character of the crimes, the beating lasted 4 days, had an unmotivated character, extended to the entire city and nearby villages, and involved significant police forces, including some that had previously served in Chechnya. A very large number of victims (officially 342, realistically over 1000). A punitive mechanism known as “filtration”, which has been widely encountered in Chechnya, was officially used during the course of this “mopping up operation”.

      Officially, by order of the police superiors, a “filtration point” was created on the territory of the former Blagoveshchensk sobering-up station. All detainees were brought here, forcibly detained here, beaten and abused. The police refused to notify relatives or lawyers about the detentions.

      Until the “Blagoveshchensk case”, despite the wide spread of the practice of filtration, on a single official had ever admitted the existence of filtration points.

      For the first time, in the “Blagoveshchensk case”, a document was uncovered on the basis of which the “filtration points” were created and “police mopping-up operations” were conducted.

      This is the secret order of the MVD [Ministry of Internal Affairs] of Russia No. 870 of 10 September 2003. According to it, the police invented for itself the concept of an “extraordinary circumstance”, which does not exist in Russian law. This concept includes practically all events that substantially impact the lives of people, society, and the state. Such a wording allows the police to introduce emergency measures of a police character arbitrarily, at the pleasure of the MVD forces themselves, even without informing the citizenry of this.

      In addition to this, the order officially entrenches the concept of “filtration point”, which also does not exist in Russian law. This allows police officers to apply practically any unauthorized unlawful methods, without bearing any liability whatsoever for this. So it was that in the Blagoveshchensk case the organs of the procuracy acknowledged the fact that citizens had been unlawfully deprived of liberty in the “filtration point”, but refused to file charges against police officers on the basis of this fact.

      • And fragment from the Memorial report:

        The exact number of the people having passed through the filtration system is impossible to be identified – those are thousands of citizens.

        When asked about the number of detentions and arrests, the official structures usually give as statistics to the press and public the number of persons having gone through the SIZO in Chernokozovo and now in Groznyy – these are about ten thousand.

        However, the real number of the persons detained and arrested in Chechnya is many times as high. According to the communiquйs, during the first years of the “CTO”, the units of the Chechen Ministry of Interior used to detain 1.1-1.2 thousand persons a month. If we add here the number of people detained by other security agencies, the overall number of the persons officially detained during the “CTO”, even by minimal estimations, made about 20 thousand a year.

        However, during each “zachistka” the majority of the people having been delivered to the temporary FPs were not registered. Only some of those who, for some reason, interested the “competent bodies” during the “filtration” became officially registered as detained persons.

        Here should be also added the people held in the territory of military units’ deployment.

        Thus, by the most modest estimations, the overall number of those having passed through the “filtration system” reaches 200 thousand. For Chechnya, with its population at present being less than one million, it is an enormous number illustrative of the state terror scale.

  2. On a sidenote, earlier this month the rebels in Chechnya shot dead a prominent turncoat named Musost Khutiyev.

    And here’s his story, which included something more than the “filters” to torture and terrorize – many young Chechens were also abducted and murdered only for their transplant organs:


    Among the insurgents fighting in Chechnya’s long-running war for independence, Musost Khutiyev is known as a “national traitor.” This is because he forgave the Russians whose troops seized his 18-year-old son, removed his vital organs, and then ransomed the body back to Khutiyev for $1,500.

    Khutiyev, who commanded the Chechen rebels’ Argun unit until 2002, is now deputy mayor of the city; his security forces are fighting the rebels in collaboration with Russian troops; and when he goes to the polls in today’s presidential election, he will cast his vote for Alu Alkhanov, the candidate the Kremlin wants to see installed as Chechnya’s next president.

    “I have no moral right to accuse the entire Russian people of killing my son,” Khutiyev said Saturday from his heavily secured office at City Hall. “Maybe if we had honest and very decent people as our leaders, Chechnya could function on its own. But right now we can’t live without Russia.”

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