This week’s Russia Magazine column, “The Gulag but Now with a Brutal Commercial Grin,”
The political and moral power of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s letter describing the living and working conditions of her prison, Penal Colony No. 14 in the Mordovia, is immeasurable. The letter immediately made her a candidate for the pantheon of Russian chroniclers of prison life—Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov and Danzig Baldaev,—and brought into view the daily existence of Russia’s lowliest outcasts. Dostoevsky wrote in the House of the Dead (1862) that “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” That maxim, unfortunately, still rings true.
Historically, the prison has served as a metaphor for Russian society writ large. The soviet gulag, argues Steven Barnes, a historian of the camps, mirrored soviet society. Soviet social structure, deprivations, strictures, and transformative impulses of daily life were replicated in the camps, albeit often in extreme form. The bare life of the soviet prisoner was revealed in the state’s naked power to exploit his or her labor. The slogan of the Soloveskii camp in the 1920s read: “A prisoner is an active participant in socialist construction.” The prime directive of the soviet prison camp, Barnes quotes, was that “every prisoner must work as appointed by the administration of the camp.”
Tolokonnikova describes a similar world where the inmate is ruled by the rhythms of the prison-industrial machine. “My whole shift works sixteen to seventeen hours a day in the sewing workshop, from seven-thirty in the morning to twelve-thirty at night. At best, we get four hours of sleep a night. We have a day off once every month and a half. We work almost every Sunday. Prisoners “voluntarily” apply to work on weekends. In fact, there is nothing “voluntary” about it. These applications are written involuntarily on the orders of the wardens and under pressure from the inmates who help enforce their will.” Today, instead of serving as a constructor of socialism, today’s Russian prisoner is an active participant in the construction of capitalist profit. Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) and private companies alike benefit from that revenue.