Thursday, March 20, 2008

Window on Eurasia: GULAG Has Been ‘Reborn’ Under Putin, Rights Activist Says

Paul Goble

Baku, March 20 – The GULAG, created by the Soviet system to punish those it identified as its enemies, chronicled most famously by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and largely dismantled by Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, has experienced “a rebirth” under President Vladimir Putin, according to a leading Russian human rights activist.
Of the 700 prison camps in the Russian Federation, Lev Ponomaryev says, 50 are places of torture. And “while they do not compare with the Soviet GULAG in their size or number of prisoners,” he adds, “they are rapidly approaching it in terms of their cruelty” (
Even before the regime’s opponents are sentenced by a court, the longtime activist continues, the authorities subject them to cruel and inhumane treatment. They are confined in tiny rooms, not given access to toilets, and moved about in very hot or very cold vans, depending on the season.
Not only are those with serious diseases such as tuberculosis denied any treatment, but healthy prisoners are put in the same small cells with them, thus increasing the likelihood that those who were entirely healthy when they entered the Russian penal system will not leave it the same way.
As in Soviet times, the camps are classified in terms of severity. But in addition to the “general,” “strict,” and “special” regimes known to students of the Soviet GULAG, there is now a fourth category – and it is “the most terrible,” Ponomaryev says. That includes “medical corrective institutions,” which inflict pain rather than ameliorate it.
He describes the situation in one such “torture colony” not from the village of Yagul in Udmurtia, some 800 kilometers east of Moscow. There, new arrivals are forced to run the gauntlet passing by guards ready to beat them and dogs that threaten to inflict serious wounds.
Because the prisoners are shackled, they cannot run fast, but nonetheless, they are hurried along by both the guards and the dogs. Unfortunately, the human rights expert says, “this is only the beginning,” and anyone who dares to complain about conditions which violate both international and Russian law can count on being mistreated.
At least one prisoner, Zurab Baroyan, made that mistake. After writing a letter to human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin, he was confined to a punishment block, where the wounds the guards had inflicted on him “putrefied.” But he was not allowed access to camp doctors.
According to Ponomaryev, conditions in some of these “torture” camps are now so bad that many inmates try to commit suicide. Those who try in various ways but who do not succeed are not given any medical help, something that often means their self-inflicted wounds turn them into invalids.
And sometimes, the guards simply behave in a sadistic manner. One prisoner suspected of smoking in a punitive cell in violation of the rules was doused with water and left in that condition, even though the temperature there was minus 11-13 degrees centigrade (11-14 degrees Fahrenheit).
Not surprisingly, Russian law does not make any provision for such “torture colonies,” Ponomaryev notes. But they do now again exist. “Under Yeltsin, the prison system was more humane, as part of the effort by his government to distance Russia from the Soviet past.”
“But when Putin came to power,” the human rights campaigner says, things changed in a fundamental way and in the wrong direction. The Russian president set “a new tone,” and “sadistic” guards who under Yeltsin had been forced to behave no longer “restrained themselves” in their dealings with prisoners.
Complaints about the new wave of brutality in Russian penal institutions are “systematically ignored” by officials at all levels, even though, thanks to the efforts of various human rights organizations, the deteriorating situation in these camps is far better documented than ever before.
Those who find it difficult to accept Ponomaryev’s argument, the news portal said, should look at the “Yekaterinburg Prison Camp” film which is widely available on YouTube and has been broadcast by the BBC. “It is not easy to watch,” the site says, because it is “the latest version of ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.’”
“But this film is a unique testimony to what Russia has become in the era of Putin, the Man of the Year.” And while the extent of these torture places remains “much smaller” than in Stalin’s time, Ponomaryev argues, “it is entirely correct to call it a GULAG,” for “if we do not root it out, it will spread throughout the entire country.”

UPDATE on March 22: Father Alexander Dobrodeyev, a senior official of the Russian Orthodox Church’s prison outreach program, dismisses Lev Ponomaryev’s claims as an exaggeration, arguing that if such conditions were truly widespread, he, Dobrodeyev, would have heard about them from the more than 1,000 of his fellow Orthodox priests now working in Russia’s prisons ( But Ruslan Badayaev, a human rights activist in the North Caucasus, says that the evidence of torture in prisons there and elsewhere is overwhelming, despite efforts by officials to cover it up by punishing prisoners who tell anyone about it or activists who report it (

UPDATE on March 24. The BBC film on prison conditions noted above can be online at

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