Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Window on Eurasia: High Rates of Incarceration Shaping Russian Life and Moscow’s Image Abroad

Paul Goble

Vienna, September 3 – Nearly 25 percent of Russian men have passed through their country’s prison system at some point in their lives, an enormous share of the total and a group whose experiences are shaping Russian society, politics, and even the country’s image in foreign capitals, according to a retired Supreme Court justice.
In yesterday’s “Rossiiskaya gazeta,” Vladimir Radchenko provided extensive data to support his argument that the percentage of Russians who are in or who have passed through what he calls “our ‘prison population’” has reached a critical level in terms of its impact on the broader society (
The impact of those who returned from the GULAG in the 1950s has received a great deal of attention, but that of those who were convicted or jailed at the end of the Soviet period or since 1991 has received less, Radchenko notes. But he points out that the numbers in each case are large and current judicial arrangements suggest the numbers and impact are on thel increase.
Between 1992 and 2007, more than 15 million citizens of the Russian Federation were convicted in criminal cases, and five million of them served time in the country’s prisons or camps, figures that constitute more than 10 percent and three percent of the population respectively.
These figures represent a huge jump from the late Soviet period, Radchenko points out. Between 1987 and 1991, statistics show, only 2.5 million Russians were convicted, a figure almost 50 percent lower per year than in the post-Soviet Russian Federation, although higher than the immediately preceding period because of a tightening of republic legal codes.
At present, the jurist continues, Russian society is being flooded with those – one quarter of the adult male population – who now have “a jail education” either in Soviet or Russian penal institutions. Not only does this show that draconian laws do not cut crime – indeed, they may result in more crimes being registered – but it points to other developments as well.
Radchenko focuses on the first of these consequences and urges both a revision in the country’s criminal code to reduce the number of those convicted incarcerated and to improve the ways in which the penal system prepares those it is about to release for re-entry into the larger society.
But others are highlighting Radchenko’s argument about the impact of such massive prison experience in Russian society and are extending it as well. In a commentary on the portal yesterday, Yuri Gladysh notes that such experience is leading to “the criminalization of Russian society” (
Not only are prisons and camps leading their graduates to commit more crimes, he writes, but the release and return of those who have served time “is contributing to the rapid transformation of the country into an enormous ‘zone,’ with all the ensuring consequences” that are increasingly on public view.
Ever more widely are individual Russians and Russian leaders using “criminal terminology,” the former because so many of them have experience with the prison system and the latter because this allows them to portray themselves as being close to the people. Vladimir Putin’s comments about the Chechens in 2000 and the Georgians now are classic examples.
But that is far from the worst consequence of former prisoners on Russian society, Gladysh insists. On the one hand, their attitudes are having a rapid and large impact on the values of that society, undermining much of the “social-cultural” foundation on which Russian society has rested “for several centuries.
And on the other, the criminalization of Russia, especially as it has affected the actions and statements of Russian leaders, has now had a serious impact on the image of Russia abroad, both among its competitors and more recently among its supposed closest friends, an impact that is reducing Moscow’s influence.
That has become especially obvious during the Georgian crisis, the commentator says. And it can be clearly seen in the ways Russian leaders have talked and acted over the last few weeks and Moscow propagandists have regularly accused the West of wanting to act as “international gendarmes.”
“But how could it be otherwise?” Gladysh asks rhetorically and with obvious bitterness. “After all, when they are confronted by hooligans, law-abiding citizens usually call the police. That is a completely natural reaction.”

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