Igor Kalyapin on the threat of a return of the GULAG

26 May 2021

Igor Kalyapin, head of the Committee Against Torture, member of the Presidential Human Rights Council and a Moscow Helsinki Group laureate for human rights, talks to Advokatskaya ulitsa

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Адвокатская улица]

In May, the leadership of the Federal Penitentiary Service proposed the idea of sending prisoners to carry out forced labour as a solution to the problem of labour migrants leaving Russia. The idea was, as expected, approved by the Investigative Committee and, unexpectedly, by the Ministry of Justice. According to Kommersant, the first 600 prisoners will go to work on the Baikal–Amur Mainline in the near future. “This will not be a gulag. The conditions will be absolutely new and respectable” said Aleksandr Kalashnikov, head of the Federal Penitentiary Service.  Igor Kalyapin, head of the Committee against Torture, told Advokatskaya Ulitsa that he was not so optimistic. He agrees that most of the prisoners would like to work in a normal fashion but doubts that the  Federal Penitentiary Service will be able to provide them with acceptable living conditions on construction sites. In addition, it is highly likely that labour rights and safety measures will be violated. This has already been happening where people are set to work in penal colonies. What’s more, the remoteness of construction projects, away from public supervision, will finally untie the hands of officers of the Federal Penitentiary Service. The human rights activist fears that these factors point to the real threat of the return of the Gulag. 


My view of the  Federal Penitentiary Service leadership’s decision is mixed. After all, prison labour is a complex and multi-vectored problem. First of all, you need to understand that many convicts really want to work. It’s pointless to sit in a colony for years, it’s boring, one can just go crazy. In conditions such as these, work gives at least some meaning to existence, because a person generally tends to want to produce something. Of course, that is, if the work is something real, not something Sisyphean and also if we are talking about working under normal conditions and not in a convict sweatshop.  It also provides a salary.  Of course, salaries in prison are extremely low but this is due to the poor way in which work is organized. If production is well set up then a prisoner receives some money. This can be spent in the prison store, enabling a prisoner to diversify their food at least somewhat. We all know how important this is for those convicts to whom no one sends parcels.

In addition, any material damage that the criminal inflicted on either the state or a private individual is gradually paid back from his prison salary. Even if these payments are symbolic, they affect the possibility of getting parole. It would seem that there are some pluses but in reality most of the prisoners are not able to work because the production facilities in the Federal Penitentiary Service system are low-powered and often either broken down or non-existent. As a result, less than 50% of convicts work in prisons. Therefore, from the point of view of creating new jobs, the initiative looks reasonable. But it is here where the pros end and the cons begin.


Let’s remember how officials and law enforcement agencies explain the need to provide work for the prisoners. In Russia, for many years there has been an exodus of migrant workers and important construction projects have been stopped. So let’s replace those who left. At the same time, for some reason, everyone forgets where and how these migrants worked.

Imagine a typical large-scale unfinished building on the outskirts of a city. Or remember the Baikal–Amur Mainline (BAM), after all we have discussions about how great it would be to complete the BAM with the help of prisoners. None of these premises are intended for permanent residence. Migrants worked in such places on a shift basis: two weeks, a month, two and then they left anyway – to wash, eat and rest until the next shift. But nobody lived there permanently for years.

I am absolutely sure that at these construction sites no one will bother to create human conditions for the convicts.

Do you think I’m exaggerating?  Let’s take a look at what we have now. In Russia, there are about 500 convict colonies; they are monitored by a special unit of the prosecutor’s office, they are checked by the Public Monitoring Commissions (PMC) and lawyers are able to visit there. Nevertheless, the vast majority of these institutions have not been able to provide normal living conditions for convicts for decades. The administrations of the colonies always complain about the lack of money or problems with finding builders. Even if someone tries to change the situation for the better, after a few years everything slides back to ruin.

We are talking about “permanent” colonies, with solid housing. Imagine what will happen on the “temporary sites”. Take the BAM – after all, the construction of the railway does not stand still. Therefore, the facility where working prisoners will be placed will exist for a maximum of six months or a year and then they will need to prepare a new place for them. Do you really believe that with all this in mind the Federal Penitentiary Service will be able to provide people with at least minimal conditions?

If a migrant worker does not like working in such conditions, they can pack a suitcase and leave. The prisoner has nowhere to go.


Lawyers working on protecting the rights of convicts will have to seriously study the Labour Code. New everyday problems will appear at these “shock construction sites”. The arbitrariness of prison officers will continue (or even worsen) and the number of violations of labour rights will inevitably increase. After all, a business project must be cost-effective, that’s why they prefer to use cheaper migrant labour. And no one will fuss about the prisoners at all. We already see a lot of violations at the Federal Penitentiary Service production facilities – constant overtime, lack of days off, underestimation of the number of hours worked, small salaries below market rates, disregard for safety… This is how the profitability of new construction projects will be ensured.

Of course, in these conditions it will become more difficult to protect the rights of convicted people. Not every lawyer or Public Monitoring Commission member will go to BAM. Not to mention the fact that they simply might not be allowed onto the construction site, they will come up with some kind of legislative ban.

The officials from the prosecutor’s office might not go there at all or perform the checks less frequently. The less public and prosecutorial control, the more outrages. This means that the convicts themselves will have a worse attitude towards this form of serving their sentences. If everyone knows that there is chaos on the construction sites, terrible conditions and meagre payment, then no one will go there voluntarily. This means that people will have to be forced and then, of course, it will be possible to talk about the revival of the GULAG.


I hope that this idea will now be discussed a little more and this will all end there. It looks simple: we’ve got lags sitting here not doing a damn thing, so let’s send them to work on the Baikal-Amur Mainline, and they’ll thank us too. But if we consider this issue as a serious business project, then it will immediately become clear that it will require huge investment and outlay. Which will most likely never pay off.

The main problem here is who, in fact, will have to go to the BAM? Those who have “compulsory work” included in their sentence? So we have a negligible number of them – a few per cent of the total number of convicts. This punishment is extremely rarely applied in Russia, and there are no grounds for a change in the situation (in 2020, 5,400 people were sentenced to forced labour).

Yes, recently those convicted of a number of crimes have the right, after serving part of their sentence, to petition for a mitigation of punishment – a transfer to forced labour. But it is not the Federal Penitentiary Service that decides. And if now the prosecutor’s office and the court are constantly denying parole, then why would they behave differently in a case of forced labour?

But even if they are “given the go-ahead” for the mass transformation of convicts into workers, these people will still remain convicted. This means that construction sites will have to turn into secure facilities. They need to be fenced off, provided with security, and there must be serious investment in questions of security. Transport for employees of the Federal Penitentiary Service, provision of civilised temporary housing for them, employee benefits, and so on.

All this is very expensive – it’s cheaper to hire workers. And they don’t need to be guarded.

And do not think that it will be possible to economise by closing a part of the prison colony. It is impossible to transport an entire colony to the construction site. Some prisoners will refuse, others will not be allowed to go because of their health and age, and still others have unsuitable or varied records. And so it will turn out that the old prison colony remains, and there’s a new one at the BAM – a mobile one. The Federal Penitentiary Service will also have to hire additional employees.


Plus I am very concerned about the fact that our officials regularly have the crazy and populist idea of plugging some hole in the economy with prisoners. They say, let them build BAM, clean up oil spills in the Arctic, or just dig lawns. Each time this initiative receives support from the security forces, but this time approval came from both the Ministry of Justice and the head of the Presidential Council for Human Rights. I am afraid that one day such a project will indeed be launched – and this will lead to very bad consequences.

We need to pay attention to prisoners; we need to find out what led them to their crime. Yes, a person must be isolated from society – but not from people. Useful connections – family, friends – must be maintained. Relatives should be able to visit a prisoner, and not two or three times a year, as now, but more often. For this reason, people should serve their sentences not at the BAM, but in more accessible places.

Every criminal should be viewed as tomorrow’s freed person. It’s already time to think about where they will go, where they will work, what to teach them. And this should probably be resocialisation.

Those who wish should be given real job specialties, and not exotic skills that will be useful to them only on the Federal Penitentiary Services production line. Men sew sleeves to police jackets every day for ten years. Naturally, they will not do this once at large – there is simply no demand for so many tailor-mechanics.

Prisoners can be viewed as sick people, only their illness is not caused by a virus or bacteria. It is a disease of behaviour. They may have psychological problems, difficult upbringings, and in some situations they cannot control themselves. They were not taught to nourish themselves in a normal way, to do something useful without feeling disgust. These are the problems that need to be addressed. Then there is a chance that the person will not return to prison.

But in our country, in the old-fashioned way, they try to consider prisoners only as free labour. But these days economic reality is completely different. Gone are the days when slaves built canals, bridges or hydroelectric power stations. Nowadays, such forced labour is simply ineffective.

You know, we can argue for a long time about the idea of ​​a perpetual motion machine – but there are fundamental physical laws that say it cannot be built. The same economic laws that say that in the 21st century no construction site manned by forced labour will be effective. It will be expensive and of poor quality.

Translated by Matthew Quigley, Ecaterina Hughes and Anna Bowles

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