Welcome to the Neo-Soviet Gulag

What follows are two articles from the Western press documenting, each in its own way, the rise of the neo-Soviet Gulag prison system, where anyone the Kremlin doesn’t care for can be tortured into oblivion.

First, Russia reporter Amy Knight, writing in the New York Review of Books online:

The horrors of Soviet prisons and labor camps were described vividly in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, Yevgenia Ginzburg’s Into the Whirlwind, and later, by the Soviet dissident and former political prisoner Anatoly Marchenko, in his 1969 memoir, My Testimony. To judge from a disturbing new report about the tragic death of 37-year-old lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow prison in late November, Russia’s current penal system is almost as bad as it used to be.

As was the case under Stalin and his successors, the treatment of prisoners reflects the deeper problems of a politicized law enforcement system that routinely disregards human rights. Now, the Magnitsky case seems to have persuaded Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to begin to address these problems—though his powerful Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, has a vested interest in preserving the status quo.

On December 28, the nongovernmental Public Oversight Commission—a Moscow-based organization mandated by Russian law in 2008 to monitor human rights in prisons—issued a twenty-page report about the treatment of Magnitsky, a former auditor and lawyer for the Firestone Duncan legal and accounting firm, whose clients included the international investment fund Hermitage Capital Management. As has been revealed by Hermitage executives, Magnitsky discovered in 2008 that Russian authorities had been engaged in ahuge tax fraud. Officials from the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) raided Hermitage’s offices in 2007, robbing the fund of three subsidiaries for which they then claimed $230 million in tax refunds. In November, 2008, shortly after testifying about this fraud, Magnitsky himself was arrested by the MVD on bogus charges of tax evasion.

According to the Public Oversight Commission report, Magnitsky was in good health at the time of his arrest. But less than five months after his incarceration at Matrosskaya Tishina began, he fell ill and ended up in the prison hospital, where he was given an ultrasound and diagnosed with gallstones and pancreatitis. The doctor ordered a follow-up ultrasound and possible surgery within a month. Disregarding these orders, prison officials transferred him in July 2009 to a maximum security facility, Butyrka Prison, which has no equipment for ultrasound or surgery. Magnitsky’s symptoms worsened. He developed excruciating pain in his abdomen, but his repeated pleas for medical attention were ignored. Not until November 16, 2009 did prison officials finally call an ambulance to take Magnitsky back to Matrosskaya Tishina for surgery, which might have resolved the problem had they acted on it immediately. By the time he arrived at Matrosskaya Tishina and was put in a prison cell, Magnitsky was flailing in agony and screaming that the authorities were trying to kill him. Yet instead of operating on him, the prison doctors called in psychiatrists, who diagnosed “psychosis” and ordered Magnitsky handcuffed. Within a couple of hours he was dead.

Magnitsky’s death was not an isolated case. According to Yevgenia Albats, editor of the independent weekly The New Times and one of Russia’s most respected independent journalists, the numbers of prisoners who die each year while awaiting trial run into the thousands. But the criminal neglect of Magnitsky by prison officials and doctors is only a part of the story. The fraud that Magnitsky had uncovered while working for Hermitage Capital implicated high officials in the Russian government, and the denial of medical treatment appears to have been a way to pressure him to change his earlier testimony against the MVD. According to Magnitsky, in a petition he reportedly sent from prison to the MVD, “Every time, when I repeatedly rejected these propositions by the investigators pushing me to be dishonest, the conditions of my detention become worse and worse.”

Albats produced evidence that the organizers of the tax scam uncovered by Magnitsky were employees of the FSB, the Federal Security Service, which has close ties to Putin. The officials in question, according to Albats, worked in the FSB’s Department K, which is charged with monitoring Russia’s credit and financial system and is headed by Major General Viktor Voronin, a long-time Putin associate from the St. Petersburg KGB. As Albats reported in her investigation of Magnitsky’s death, prison officials and MVD officers, as well as judges and members of the prosecutor’s office who ignored Magnitsky’s numerous complaints about his medical care and the appalling prison conditions, were getting their marching orders from the all-powerful FSB.

In early December, amid growing public outcry over Magnitsky’s death, President Dmitry Medvedev fired twenty senior officials in the Federal Prison Service, including the chief of Butyrka prison and the Moscow prisons chief, and ordered the Ministry of Justice, which oversees prisons, to investigate the case. On December 29, a day after the Public Commission’s report came out, Medvedev went higher up the ladder, dismissing the deputy chief of the Federal Prison Service, Lt. Gen. Aleksandr Piskunov. Medvedev also made it illegal to hold persons accused of tax and other financial crimes in pre-trial detention. This was an important step because those who are wrongly charged with financial malfeasance—a common occurrence when powerful people want to get rid of enemies—can languish in prison for a year, or even longer, if the court consents, without a trial.

Medvedev also moved against the MVD. In mid-December he fired the head of the agency’s tax crimes unit, Anatoly Mikhalkin, who in 2007 had ordered a subordinate to gather confidential information about Hermitage Capital’s holding companies. On December 24, Medvedev signed a decree mandating a 20 percent cut in MVD staff by January 2012 and calling for a series of organizational reforms in the agency.

Unfortunately, the main culprit in the Magnitsky affair, the FSB, has until now remained unscathed. Despite the dismissal of Putin’s close ally, Nikolai Patrushev, from his post as FSB chief in 2008 (apparently as a result of internecine feuds), this agency is filled with Putin appointees and continues to wield tremendous influence over the other law enforcement agencies, including the MVD. Medvedev deserves credit for taking some first steps toward cracking down on the terrible human rights abuses in Russia’s criminal justice system. But he does not have the power to openly challenge Putin’s FSB stronghold, even if he wanted to—and his larger intentions remain a matter of much speculation.

Robert Amsterdam translates Manfred Quirin from the German newspaper Die Welt:

In the narrow corridor between the steel door to the outside and the turnstile that opens the path into the prison, the correspondent meets, as if by fate, Father Constantine. The light scent of consecrated wine gently hovers over the tall, heavyset, bearded man in his black priest vestments. “You’ve come at a good time,” he grumbles. “Today is a holiday in Butyrka. We’re celebrating the patron saint of the prison.”

Butyrka, Moscow’s Detention Centre No. 2, constructed in 1771, enjoys an unsavory reputation. It must be said, however, that it hardly distinguishes itself from any other prison facility in this enormous country. Amnesty International has for years asserted that incarceration in Russian prisons and camps is the equivalent of torture. Visits by journalists to such facilities are therefore fraught with enormous difficulties.

Butyrka is no exception, although in this case, the visit is to the prison museum. It took almost three weeks to receive official permission. Things might have been slowed down by the fact that during this time the 37-year-old lawyer Sergei Magnitsky had died in a cell at Butyrka. The authorities claim it was due a heart attack, while Magnitsky’s friends say it was a failure to render medical assistance. His diary entries confirm the latter version.

“It’s too bad the holiday service is already over,” says Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Polkin regretfully. He holds the position of deputy prison director for cadre and training – head of personnel, if you will – and serves as the occasional guide through the labyrinth of Butyrka. We quickly walk through the entrance hall, passing locked cell doors, and go up and down a maze of steps. Polkin is constantly pulling out his master key, locking us in along the way. The steel doors slam shut when locked. Polkin calls this the “sound of Butyrka.”

The Lieutenant Colonel proudly shows us the entrance to the museum hidden behind a swiveling bookcase inside the Pugachov Tower. The museum, which displays three centuries worth of exponents, was set up in Soviet times and has hardly been altered since. The portrait of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Cheka, the Bolshevik’s infamous secret police, and inmate here under the Tsar, occupies a central place. Stalin was held here twice, informs Polkin with the tone of a tour guide who is proud of a particular sightseeing attraction.

There is no indication, though, that on 1 August 1946, General Vlasov and twelve other high-ranking former Soviet officers were executed in the prison courtyard for fighting on the German side during the Great Patriotic War. Nor does the officer responsible for training prison guards mention that Stalin’s henchmen shot people in the tiled ground floor of the Pugachov Tower. There is no evidence of prisoners such as Osip Mandelstam, Lydia Ginsburg, or Varlam Shalamov, one of the greatest Russian literary figures of the 20th century. “Shalamov?” asks Polkin, taken aback. “Never heard of him, but there were so many here.”

He has, of course, heard of Alexej Magnitsky, but he doesn’t want to talk about it. The Magnitsky case is typical of the Russian prison system, say experts in the field. They claim that it is not unusual to deny medical assistance to those in pre-sentencing detention facilities in order to extort the desired confession.

The living conditions for the approximately 875,000 inmates in Russian prisons and the country’s 755 prison camps are so horrible that even the Ministry of Justice had to admit in a report that they are demeaning to human dignity, lead to physical and moral suffering, and violate the human right to health and personal safety.” The figures speak for themselves: In 2005, there were a total of 540 deaths among 100,000 inmates and 686 became invalids. In 2010, the corresponding figures are expected to be lowered to 420 and 675, respectively.

President Dmitry Medvedev, himself a trained lawyer, had dozens of officials fired after the death of Magnitsky and is now calling for a fundamental reform of the prison system. Lieutenant General Alexander Reymer, recently appointed chief of Russia’s penitentiary service, has stated that he is pursuing an ambitious goal, namely, to free the institution he now runs from its Stalinist legacy. “We have to do away with the remains of the Gulag,” he said on television.

In its place, he wants to establish a modern, humane prison system. After the reform is completed, only two types of penal institutions should remain. Those convicted of minor or non-serious offences will have to work off their time in simple colonies or facilities with tighter conditions. Dangerous criminals will remain in prison. Reymer wants to keep both groups strictly divided from each other in order to prevent gangsters from recruiting a new generation while in jail.

Reymer, however, has no influence upon the justice system and its obsession to incarcerate people in detention facilities “to prevent escape or collusion,” even in the case of relatively minor infractions. The accused often sit for years under inhuman conditions before being brought to trial.

The way out leads across the courtyard along a five-meter high wall that is secured with a barbed-wire entanglement. Escape seems impossible. The last escape attempt was in 2001. Three inmates serving life sentences dug a tunnel under the wall. They were all later captured.

8 responses to “Welcome to the Neo-Soviet Gulag

  1. Some 90,000 Russian prisoners, or one out of every 10, have tuberculosis, the Interfax news agency reported Tuesday, quoting a justice ministry official. Some 30,000 new TB cases are registered each year, Vladimir Yalunin said, adding that 400,000 inmates, or almost half of all 890,000 Russian prisoners, have health problems.


    Russian prisons are a major source of multi-drug-resistant TB. As tens of thousands of infected inmates re-enter the civilian world every year, TB spreads when they cough and sneeze. Some experts fear that with the speed and frequency of modern travel, the resistant epidemic could spread to Europe and the United States.


  2. I’m afraid to get on a plane to Russia on account of the TB problem there. Do you think I’m overreacting?

    • Russia already has one of the highest rates of TB in the world. In parts of its Far East, the infection rate is three times what the World Health Organization considers epidemic levels.

      Preliminary state statistics show the rate of infection growing from 83.2 cases per 100,000 people in 2007 to 85.2 in 100,000 last year, and anecdotal evidence from hospitals and clinics around the country suggests that the numbers are still climbing.

      By comparison, the infection rate in the United States is about 8 in 100,000, with about 0.2 percent of American TB cases ending in death. In Russia, about 18 percent of TB patients die of the disease, according to WHO figures.

      “Because people are poorer and life is worse, the disease is progressing much faster now,” said Veronika Agapova, a tuberculosis specialist with the Russian Red Cross. “The Ministry of Health didn’t pay a lot of attention to this problem last year,” she added.


      • A spike in infections in Russia could have consequences well beyond its borders because about a fifth of all TB patients here suffer from drug-resistant strains — more than almost anywhere else in the world.

        In 2006, a Russian-born man infected with a strain of drug-resistant TB was jailed after moving to Arizona and ignoring a judge’s order to wear a mask outdoors. A year later, an American lawyer with drug-resistant TB set off an international panic and was quarantined after traveling across Europe and returning to the United States.

        “Like air pollution, it doesn’t see a border,” said Murray Feshbach, an expert on Russian public health at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars who argues that Russia understates its TB rate by as much as 50 percent.

  3. great article. as phobochka has pointed out–the communist party used to trump the kgb–stalin hired and fired and killed kgb bosses at will. the party was always superior—–not anymore.

  4. There are two classes in the world. The Elite class and then there is everyone else.

    That’s the way that it is no matter where you live.

  5. Ludwik Kowalski

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