15 December 2021
by Aleksandr Podrabinek
The intense public reaction to torture in Russian prisons and prison camps has reverberated in the prisoner world in a somewhat unusual initiative. A written appeal has begun circulating through the prison zones. In it, a group of thieves calls for not degrading, in the prison hierarchy, those who have suffered from the sexually inflected torture widely practiced by warders and their willing convict helpers.
The appeal (a progon, in criminal slang) says: “People who’ve been through all the screws’ lawlessness and torture, been raped and humiliated with broom handles and clubs, aren’t damaged. They’ve got just as much a right to live like men with the general population as the people who’ve been doused with urine… Humiliating and sneering at them isn’t what People do, because Men have to sympathize with them” (original syntax and spelling [in the Russian] retained. — Ed.).
One such handwritten appeal was published by the Baza Telegram channel. Of course, its authenticity might raise doubts, and no one can give any guarantees that the letter was composed at an authoritative thieves’ meeting and not cooked up by some witty reformer of prisoner traditions. But, in fact, that doesn’t matter much. What’s important is that this progon raises an important theme in the prisoner life and suggests a way to resist the lawlessness of the cops.
As the appeal rightly points out, videotaping rapes and humiliations is a way to manipulate political prisoners, a way to force them to cooperate with a prison or prison camp administration. This isn’t news, it’s always been like that. Often, just the threat of rape was enough for a political prisoner to agree to turn informant. After all, a rape victim, regardless of the event’s circumstances, has always automatically moved into the “rooster” caste. And that made his prison camp life unbearable.
In fact, prison camp bosses, who purport to stand up for the equality of prisoners before the law, have always encouraged the caste system among prisoners; this gives them an effective instrument of intimidation and control.
The current prisoner initiative is a direct attack on the cops’ system, an attempt to de-energize the continuous machine of internal prison camp repressions. If it weren’t for the prisoners’ harsh rejection of those made “roosters” by the cops’ lawlessness, much of the point of torturing recalcitrant political prisoners would vanish. No, this is hardly going to end torture altogether (there will always be a significant sadistic component, mercantile interests, and operative calculations), but one motive for it will fall away. Most important, prisoners will feel more confident in the face of state tyranny.
To put it in lay language, the prisoner world is fairly conservative. There, traditions reign, and the rules change slowly and laboriously. In part, this is due to the lack of a generally recognized procedure for making changes. Nonetheless, prisoner laws are still subject to spontaneous changes, of which there are quite a few examples.
During Stalin’s Terror, the criminal world perceived “politicals” as an alien element. This is described authentically in Varlam Shalamov. Probably the greatest role in this attitude among criminals toward “fascists” was played by the fact that in those days a significant number of politicals were people loyal to the regime or who had even served it loyally. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn rightly called them “political scum.” Gradually, though, times changed, and by the 1960s-1980s there was a completely different attitude toward politicals in prison zones – well-meaning and respectful, as toward enemies of the Soviet regime, which was harsh and unfair toward the prisoner world.
At one time, someone convicted of hooliganism (a baklan) was despised in the criminal world; he stood on one of the lowest rungs of the social hierarchy in the prisoner community. Later, though, the Soviet regime began to concoct hooliganism cases against just anyone, sometimes simply because they couldn’t imprison him due to lack of evidence, whereas hooliganism is a poorly defined concept, and the law is also elastic. When the prison camp world realized that, the attitude toward hooligans became the same as it was toward everyone else.
The same goes for rape. In the 1960s-1970s, they started applying that article of the law at the slightest pretext and practically without any proof of guilt. They used rape charges to settle scores or solve other problems. Someone falsely accused of raping a woman was put behind bars without delay, securely and for a long time. And if, previously, rapists most often even in the remand centre fell into the “rooster” cast, then now the criminal world’s attitude toward them was more tolerant. Everyone realizes the regime made a habit of manipulating that article of the Criminal Code.
The laws of the prisoner world are harsh, as harsh as the prisoner’s life itself in a Russian prison. Those laws aren’t always fair and are sometimes cruel and often based on traditions and prejudices, but they are adapted to survival in inhumane conditions. And they are capable of changing. This is important because when they change, so does the prisoner world.
Translated by Marian Schwartz