It’s said that many Russians are more afraid of going to prison than to the war. Why?

The simple answer is that they are much better informed about what’s going on behind the bars rather than in the war.

Gigabytes of Pain

In 2021, thanks to ex-imate Sergey Savelyev who spent two years secretly copying hundreds of videos of rape and abuse — 40 GB in total — recorded torture in a Russian prison hospital was published by several well-known media outlets.

Later that year, Vladimir Osechkin, the founder of (or "No to the Gulag"), the prisoners’ rights group, claimed he obtained 200-gigabyte video archive showing prison torture in three different regions: Krasnoyarsk, Zabaykalsky Krai, and Primorye.

Some of the videos were followed by high-profile lay-offs and criminal investigations. Nevertheless, the torture seems to stay an integral part of the Russian penitentiary system.

The Letter of the Law

You can kill accidentally, but you cannot accidentally torture. Olga Sadovskaya, the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee Against Torture (CAT)

The freedom from torture is one of very few rights that cannot be limited or restricted in any way.

No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Article 3 of European Convention on Human Rights, Prohibition of torture

However, there is no specific article for torture in Russia. Instead, in such cases Part 3 of Article 286 of the Russian Criminal Code ‘Exceeding Official Powers’ is mostly used:

Deeds stipulated by the first or second part of this Article, if they have been committed 1) with the use of violence or with the threat of its use 2) with the use of arms or special means 3) with the infliction of grave consequences, shall be punishable by deprivation of liberty for three to ten years, with disqualification to hold specified offices or to engage in specified activities for a term of up to three years. Part 3 of Article 286 of the Russian Criminal Code

Lack of Statistics

It is a widely held axiom that Russian prisons are places where people get regularly tortured. Unfortunately, this cannot be backed up by any solid statistics, and this is why:

  1. Aforementioned absence of specific law for torture. According to Novaya Gazeta, the article quoted above can be used in many different cases, including a car crash.
  2. Strong ties between all branches of the system of punishment where officials tend to have close connections and cover up for each other. It leads to the lack of reaction to complaints and very low real jail-time sentences for FSIN (Federal Penitentiary Service) employees (between 2011 and 2017, in more than a half of cases officials got a suspended sentence).
  3. Inmates on the job. Prison workers often use several inmates to do the dirty job for them.
  4. All reasons mentioned above create the atmosphere of fear and hopelessness when the prisoners choose to suffer silently to avoid more problems.

Prisoner Rights Defenders

Against all odds, some prisoners dare to contact Russian human rights organisations, and some of them, after years of hard work, even got compensated for sufferings as a result of the European Court of Human Rights rulings in their favour. Even though, after full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, this is not an option anymore, many human rights defenders stay in Russia and keep working.

Here are several Russian human rights organizations providing pro bono legal assistance to convicts who suffered from torture and other violations of their rights.

Crew Against Torture (former Committee Against Torture)

The team of human rights defenders has been working under constant persecution of the Russian government since 2000.

“Over 21 years of work, The CAT has received more than 3178 reports of human rights violations in Russia, has achieved compensation payments of more than 297 million rubles to victims, has won 78 cases in the European Court of Human Rights and has convicted 159 law enforcement officers guilty of torture and ill-treatment,” states on their website. This numbers count both police and prison torture cases.

On June 11, 2022, the Committee against Torture was liquidated as an organization as it could not keep doing their job as a proclaimed “foreign agent”. They changed the name but kept working under even greater pressure.

Russia Behind Bars

This charity project helps convicts and their families get professional legal support and ensures officials respect human rights and follow all the procedures without flaws. Currently the foundation is closely working with families whose relatives were recruited to the private military company Wagner. (No to the Gulag)

This project meticulously gathers evidences of corruption and torture in Russian prisons, spreading the truth about the systematic violations of inmates’ rights, reporting to international human rights organizations, and pushes the government to open criminal cases against the officials.

Zona Prava (A zone of the right)

Zona Prava is a prisoners’ rights organisation that was founded by Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot who know very well what it is like to be behind the bars.

The Famous Inmate

Physical torture is not the only option. If a prisoner is constantly under the spotlight, the methods of torture can be more subtle. In many cases, it can be lack of medical attention or punishment for every tiny “offence” like not greeting the guard or swearing. In this Twitter thread, Alexey Navalny describes this in detail:

2/22 If you open any book by a Soviet dissident, there will be endless stories of punishment cells, hunger strikes, violence, provocations, lack of medical care. In short, nothing new.But my story about the psycho is really new - at least I've never seen or heard anything like it

However, there are many other ways to make the undesirable person suffer. For example, Sasha Skochilenko–who is now in pre-trial detention for spreading “disinformation” about the Russian military after replacing price tags at a local grocery store with anti-war messages– is on a strict gluten-free diet. According to her girlfriend Sofia Subbotina, the jail administration restricted the number of packages that could be sent to Sasha and provided the proper meal only after the media drew attention to the issue and only every other day, which puts Skochilenko’s life in jeopardy.

Another example is Alexey Gorinov, a Moscow municipal deputy convicted for “spreading fake news about the Russian army”. In the mid December 2022, he was transferred to a prison hospital with an ill fame of a torture chamber. It is hard to get any information about Gorinov’s condition, even for his attorney.

The one who is not written about will die quietly on their hospital bed, the one who is not forgotten might get their medicine Alexei Navalny on the Gorinov case

Tip: Did you ever wonder what it’s like to walk in Navalny’s shoes? If you happen to be in Berlin, you have a chance to learn it now. Don’t worry! It’s safe, like literally. It’s a big grey box. A replica of Alexei Navalny’s solitary confinement cell is placed in front of the Russian Embassy.

To learn more:

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