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‘These people believe that when they commit torture, they’re saving the Motherland’ A leading advocate for Russian prisoners explains why the Gulag system lives on and what she’s doing about it

Source: Meduza
Courtesy of Olga Romanova

Olga Romanova directs a nonprofit called Rus’ Sidyashchaya (“Rus’ Imprisoned”) that provides aid to Russian prisoners and their families. Nonetheless, she hasn’t lived in Russia for two full years: in the summer of 2017, she moved abroad after law enforcement officials had her organization’s office searched. Around the same time, reports emerged that Anatoly Rudy, the deputy director of Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN), had reported Romanova for embezzlement. He claimed that she had stolen funds allocated to her by the World Bank to run financial literacy seminars in the Russian prison system. The legal team for Rus’ Imprisoned successfully argued in an arbitration court that they had used the money to run even more seminars than they had initially planned, but the case against Romanova is still open. Meduza special correspondent Sasha Sulim spoke with Romanova about her legal situation, reforming Russia’s prison system, and why that system is still built directly on the framework of the Gulag. Their interview is summarized below.

Living in suspense

When she wants to visit Russia, Olga Romanova has to “read the signs.” With a criminal embezzlement case still open against her, the prisoners’ rights activist and nonprofit organizer could be forced into the very system she is fighting if she makes even a single false move.

However, Romanova’s work, which involves providing aid to families that have run afoul of Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN), both requires her to go to Russia on a regular basis and gives her the tools to do so with caution. “So many investigators, prosecutors, FSB guys, and other security officials have been put in jail that all of them understand that tomorrow, they might be in my care,” Romanova told Meduza.

“I’ve been working with this calamity for 12 years,” she explained, referring to the Russian prison system. “Someone will always be able to give me a heads up.” In early June, for example, Romanova’s organization, Rus’ Sidyashchaya (“Rus’ Imprisoned”), ran a seminar in St. Petersburg: they provided training sessions for Russian lawyers on how to work with official prison monitors and members of the public who are willing to provide free help to defendants. The seminar passed without incident, but Romanova received a tip that she should stay out of St. Petersburg until after the September 8 elections.  “Well then,” she responded in her interview with Meduza, “I won’t stick my nose anywhere until the elections. I’ll work from here.”

“Here” is Berlin. Romanova said she starts work at 8:00 AM daily: her organization’s easternmost office is in Novosibirsk, where it is already 2:00 PM when she starts her day. Using online chats, she does her best to coordinate Rus’ Imprisoned from afar.

Olga Romanova sits in the Rus’ Imprisoned office while law enforcement officials conduct a search. June 8, 2017
Dmitry Dukhanin / Kommersant

Being in Berlin means increased safety for Romanova, but that doesn’t mean she always avoids danger. During her most recent visit to Russia, she even attended a protest in support of Meduza correspondent Ivan Golunov despite a high risk of arrest. In Romanova’s case, risking arrest could mean risking a lot more: she said, “I could decide to come back to Russia, and while I’m on the plane, the latest decision not to move my case forward could be appealed, and I could be handcuffed as soon as I land at Sheremetyevo. That risk will always be there.” The embezzlement case against Romanova has been under preliminary consideration for two years. In her own words, “My case hasn’t been opened, but it hasn’t been closed.”

“My situation is perpetually in suspense,” Romanova explained. “The security forces know what they’re doing. They aren’t letting me make decisions so I can plan my life.” Even though Romanova proved in an arbitration court that the money she allegedly embezzled had been spent as planned, it will be a long time before her complaints against FSIN are able to wind their way through Russia’s appellate court system.

Unhappy in its own way

In the meantime, Romanova has used her time abroad to deepen the expertise on international prison systems that she had already begun to build before 2017. She described the Norwegian and Danish penitentiary systems as potential role models for Russia, saying she admires the high expectations they place on prisoners, prisons, and free citizens alike to improve themselves and society.

Romanova described one trip to a high-security prison in Denmark in particular detail. There, she met with a warden who came from a long line of well-respected government officials. “She and I were sitting and drinking tea in her office, which has glass walls, and two people walked by: a black man and a blond woman, both in civilian clothes, talking about something together, laughing,” Romanova told Meduza. “I asked who they were. And she answered that one of them was a convict and the other was a guard. I asked who was which. She said, ‘I don’t have the right to tell you.’”

While that kind of model — humane, demilitarized — is one Romanova would apply in any number of prison systems, she said dysfunctional prisons are much more difficult to compare. She pointed to the opening line of Lev Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina as a useful analogy for the task: good penitentiary systems, she said, are all alike, but each bad one is “unhappy in its own way.”

“Let’s cut out the American penitentiary system right off,” she said by way of example. “Things there are about as bad as here [in Russia] if not worse. That system is also in need of absolute reform, so we shouldn’t be taking the Americans as an example.” To Romanova’s mind, the U.S. prison system is “unhappy” in that violent and nonviolent offenders are imprisoned together, and the former can establish positions of control over the latter. She also noted that “in America, just like in Russia, someone who has just gotten out of jail can’t find a job anywhere. There aren’t resocialization programs there either, and society gives up on ex-convicts.”

Nonetheless, she explained, “the U.S. prison system is fundamentally different from ours. There, the percentage of judicial errors is very small — it’s minimal in comparison to ours.” Romanova also draws inspiration from groups like The Innocence Project, which provides free legal aid to demonstrate the innocence of those wrongly convicted in American courts.

Prisoners in Serbia walk dogs in a prison yard.
Oliver Bunic / AFP / Scanpix / LETA
The Norwegian jail cell that houses Anders Breivik. February 2016
Cornelius Poppe / NTB / Scanpix / LETA
A remote chess tournament between prisoners in Illinois, USA, and Espírito Santo, Brazil. May 2017
Scott Olson / Getty Images

Among other uniquely “unhappy” prison systems, Romanova pointed to the criminal justice system in China. “I’ve been told that in China, in the main office of [the penitentiary system there], there are big monitors where you can pull up a live feed from the cell of absolutely any prisoner,” Romanova asserted. “That’s not even Orwell: That’s post-Orwell or post-post-Orwell.”

While Romanova did not mention the possibility of prison abolition in her interview, she pointed to an “absolute correlation” between conditions in a given country’s penitentiary systems and that country’s crime rates. “The better the condition of the penitentiary system, the more we’re talking about [people like Norwegian terrorist Anders] Breivik serving time in a three-room apartment with Wi-Fi […] the lower the crime rate is for some reason. In America, there are bad prisons and high crime rates. We have bad prisons and high crime rates. In Norway, there are excellent prisons — they’re resorts compared to ours — and low crime rates.”

Modern-day Gulags

When Romanova’s conversation with Meduza turned to the Russian prison system, she was unafraid to draw historical analogies and go well beyond them. “We still have the Gulag system,” she said bluntly. “That might sound melodramatic, but the problem is that the system that came together in the 1930s still exists today — nothing’s changed.” The government in question has changed, Romanova admitted, and so has its economy, but “slave labor remains, and the system itself remains the same.”

Like her perspective on present-day prisons, Romanova’s view on the history of the Russian prison system is comparative. “The Gulag,” she explained, “was born in South Africa. The English invented concentration camps during the Boer War. In the early 20th century, concentration camps were frighteningly popular all over the place.”

In conjunction with their rising popularity around the globe, Romanova continued, concentration camps “really took root in Germany and Soviet Russia. We know how that ended in Germany, but in Russia, everything just stayed that way. Nothing happened to it […] we still live by the laws of the Boer War. Sure, [the system’s] been defanged, its tail isn’t so spiky anymore — sure, it’s not a fire-breathing dragon, but it’s a dragon nonetheless.”

That deep history, Romanova explained, plays a significant role in the mindset of those who work for FSIN. She said that Russians in certain remote areas have been working at the camps for generations: “They have commemorative plaques that say, ‘In 1937, this camp was ceremonially inaugurated at this spot. Glory to the veterans of our camp movement!’” It can be hard to draw a line between that kind of patriotism and outright sadism, she argued. “These people believe that when they commit torture, they’re saving the Motherland, that when they commit torture, they’re doing their part. They believe that sincerely. That’s another reason that we need to [demilitarize] and work on the system.”

Vladimir Central, one of the oldest penitentiary institutions in Russia. June 2013
Yury Martyanov / Kommersant
Prisoners sew World War II-style soldiers’ caps for Russian Victory Day celebrations. February 2019
Dmitry Rogulin / TASS / Scanpix / LETA
High Security Correctional Colony No. 3 in Russia’s Altai region.
Andrey Lukovsky / Kommersant

In her experience leading Rus’ Imprisoned, Romanova noted, those historically rooted attitudes often prove to be disastrously inflexible. “They don’t understand what we’re so angry about at all. They say, ‘So what do you think we should do with them, with the convicts?’ They really think that if a grown man hasn’t buttoned up his prison-issued jacket, he should be sent to [a penal cell],” she explained, recalling what appeared to be a typical incident in her line of work. “They tell him, ‘Strip, take off your boxers, sit down, spread your legs, and show us what’s up your ass.’ And this is with six other cells around. I’m sorry, but a lot of people wouldn’t comply with that command. A whole lot of people. I wouldn’t. So the man tells them no. And they’re like, ‘So that’s how it is?! Then we’ll have to apply physical force.’ Physical force because he didn’t sit down naked in front of six cells, you understand? That’s what the torture is for: it’s for forcing grown men to sit down naked in front of a full cell and show them his ass. And if not for that, then fuck, the Motherland would be in danger.”

“I always want to ask these people: ‘Do you have nothing else to do in this life than put other people in jail and make other people’s lives miserable?” Romanova wondered. “I mean, what the hell? Plant some chamomile, I don’t know, spend some time with your children.”

A new vision

About five years ago, Romanova herself encountered an opportunity to propose a series of changes to Russia’s prison system and the power dynamics that permeate it. Thanks to a contract from Alexey Kudrin’s Center for Strategic Development, Romanova was able to publish a report on FSIN and its flaws in 2016. While the report has been quoted by officials as powerful as Valentina Matvienko, the chair of Russia’s Federation Council, Romanova’s hopes for its full implementation remain low. “Let’s tell the truth like it is: prison reform is a matter of political will,” she said. “Right now, we don’t have that political will, but when we get it, we’ll already have a plan.”

When asked why that political will doesn’t currently exist in Russia, Romanova pointed to what she called “the collective Putin,” a ruling political class that requires its constituents to be afraid. That mindset, she continued, is the opposite of what a penitentiary system should embody: “Prison shouldn’t be scary — prison should be a remedial center. What should be scary is committing a crime and society having to put an enormous amount of effort into you afterward. What should be scary is departing from ethical norms. It should be scary to hurt a child; it should be scary to hurt an old woman. It should be scary to be a bad person,” Romanova said.

Olga Romanova visits a prison colony in Ivanovo, Russia. June 3, 2013
Vladimir Smirnov / TASS

Her proposed solutions include demilitarizing a large portion of the Russian penitentiary system, developing a resocialization structure for ex-convicts, and increasing transparency through civilian control over what is now FSIN. That final element is important, Romanova argued, because Russian prisons have actually gotten worse in the past 10 years “for one simple reason: they’ve become even more closed off.” With human rights advocates and journalists entirely unable to visit Russian prisons, prison officials “can do anything they want.”

That “anything,” she said, includes both torture and corruption. Romanova pointed out that “FSIN’s budget is bigger than the budgets for Russia’s prosecutors, the Foreign Intelligence Service, and the FSB. It’s right after the Defense Ministry budget. They’ve got loads of money in the hands of idiots. What are they doing with that budget if they’re feeding prisoners on a ruble a day? It’s obvious what’s happening over there.”

FSIN itself recently partnered with Russia’s Presidential Council on Human Rights to develop a series of its own reform proposals. Romanova mocked those plans, saying it would be absurd to hope that FSIN itself could implement them: “They want the sun to rise in the West, they want the rain to start and stop on a schedule, they want it to be spring all the time. I’m for it, guys, I’m for eternal spring. I want to be 22 years old forever and 20 centimeters taller.”

The catch, she said, is that “the system cannot reform itself. People in uniform cannot reeducate other people.” A system built to carry out punishments, she argued, cannot accomplish “the rehabilitation of human nature.” She concluded, “These people made mistakes. Let’s work with them. […] Take the uniforms out of the picture and put in doctors, teachers, engineers. Let people work with other people.”

Until Russia’s criminal justice system undergoes that kind of fundamental transformation, Romanova plans to continue what she started. Right now, she said, “the problem is that nobody sets aside money for lawyers, for care packages, for diapers, for canned food, for postage — for all these things that are directly connected to defending human rights in jails and prisons. Without tea, cigarettes, and sausages, it’s impossible to defend your rights. Just impossible!”

The Russian edition of this piece is part of a Meduza special project dedicated to resisting police brutality and reforming the Russian justice system. You can find other pieces from the project here.

Interview by Sasha Sulim; summary by Hilah Kohen