Aleksandr Podrabinek: There has always been torture in our prisons and it has differed only in intensity and scale

22 October 2021

Aleksandr Podrabinek

 Source: VotTak TV Belsat

In criminal law, there is a concept known as “general prevention.” This is when crimes are averted owing to the potential criminal’s fear of inevitable punishment. In civilized countries, serious criminals are punished with incarceration. In barbaric countries, with physical torture, the severing of hands, stoning. I’m talking about the present day.

The prison system in Russia is barbaric. The state threatens criminals with incarceration, by which it means intolerable living conditions combined with torture, harassment, cold, hunger, sexual assault, and constant humiliation. Officially, it is believed that torture in the law enforcement and penitentiary system is an exception worthy of condemnation and punishment. But, in fact, it is a commonplace phenomenon to be found everywhere, imperishable.

Some silly Russian human rights activists say this all started in the last 20 years, that there was no such thing in the Soviet Union before. They’re the ones who there weren’t before! There was no mass media where torture could be written about. There has always been torture in prisons in Russia, and it has differed only in intensity and scale.


The torture conveyor belt in investigations and prison camps in the Soviet 1930s and 1940s had no equal for cruelty since the day of Peter the Great, probably, and never in general for its scale. In the late Soviet era, the extent of torture decreased, but its refinement and cruelty remained as before. People were beaten and tortured during investigation and humiliated and assaulted in ‘press-huts’ on instruction from operatives and investigators.

Many times in the 1970s, I met people in prisons who had gone through a torture investigation and had signed everything their investigator demanded of them. And not in some remote province but in Moscow, at that same 38 Petrovka where prisoners would be taken from the remand centre for a couple of weeks for “investigative actions.” They would come back lifeless, beaten up, with bruises and injuries, and tell approximately the same story that torture victims tell today. No one was surprised at that, it was a common thing then.

In the prison colonies and closed prisons, prisoners were tortured with one clear goal: to break their will. A reason was unimportant and was always found without difficulty. The prison/colony administration and their bosses in the GUITU (the successors of the GULAG and a precursor of our FSIN [Federal Penitentiary Service]) used to call this “reeducation.” For sadists in epaulets, the purpose of torture was in acquiring undivided power over defenceless people, in satisfying their sadistic inclinations, in slaking their bestial instincts and consoling their inferiority complex.

For top officials and the entire Soviet system, the purpose of torture came down to intimidating society with prison. So that everyone understood that this wasn’t just a loss of freedom but unbroken suffering and intolerable physical pain. “You’re not going to any resort,” they liked to say, this way justifying their unmotivated cruelty. The state struck such terror in society that it would never occur to anyone to protest.


Since torture was and remains state policy, it makes no sense to seek the law’s protection. In individual, overly high-profile instances, the state reacts to scandals with trials and even sentences for the executioners. Actually, those sentences are increasingly probation because the convicted sadists are soon released early.

The state gets what it wants out of these trials: once again society is reminded, in this sophisticated manner, what a Russian prisoner is. This is yet another warning to dissidents. No one has ever effectively countered torture. The state has always turned a blind eye to it. The prisoners settled scores with anyone they could get their hands on. But they couldn’t get their hands on very many, mostly other prisoners who had helped the administration in the torture. They maimed and killed them, if they could. More often, during transport and in transit prisons.

Sometimes prisoners who had been tortured, once released, would find executioners who lived near the prison zone and settle scores with them. Often when they were returning, demobilized interior ministry soldiers were tossed from train cars between stations, although these prison zone guards were the least guilty in the torture and humiliations. Hatred is rarely rational, though. These demobbed soldiers even started ripping off their crimson epaulets so people wouldn’t recognize them by type of force, but that didn’t help much; a ripped-off epaulet speaks for itself.

There is only one way to genuinely curtail a torture system: by applying the law systematically and irrevocably to the perpetrators and organizers of the torture. To do this, a country has to have an independent judicial authority. But for this, in turn, there has to be a removable government responsible to a parliament and society and afraid of legal prosecution for putting illegal pressure on the court. And all this ensured by civic freedom, an independent press, public zeal, and political competition. You’re not going to come up with anything new. You have to change the whole system.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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