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Life in a female prison

A new book offers chilling insight into the grim conditions at Russias female penal colonies.

Published: December 5, 2012 (Issue # 1738)



  • Inmates standing in a yard at a womens prison in the Udmurtia republic.
    Photo: YURY TUTOV / AP

A group of St. Petersburg sociologists have published their insights into the lives of Russias imprisoned women. Titled Before and After Prison: Womens Stories, the book (in Russian) blends uncensored stories written by prisoners with a professional assessment of the plight of the countrys female prison population.

There were thirty of us sharing the same room in the colony, recalled Galina, a prisoner whose story is included in the book. It was awful, and really felt like barracks. And there was only one toilet room with two toilets in it per one detachment of three hundred people, who had a total of half an hour in the morning to use this toilet. It was surreal. [] We hardly ever had hot water, and the toilets, if they broke, would not be repaired. It was a concentration camp.

I remember we did not have any water at all for a few days, and it was raining. We collected some rainwater that was falling from the roof in a basin, and then boiled it and drank it, Galina said.

According to official statistics, Russias total prison population in 2012 amounted to 714,000, with women representing 59,000 of them, or 8.3 percent. Conditions in Russian prisons have been examined before but the research has mainly been carried out by lawyers and human rights advocates. The studies have also been general and have not touched on gender aspects at all. However, as the St. Petersburg-published book clearly proves, Russian prisons feature a series of ordeals that appear to have been designed to suppress femininity, the authors say.

A Kafkaesque lack of privacy and inexplicable humiliation was what the books authors said shocked them the most in their interviewees sobering accounts.

One complaint that was repeated over and over again in the interviews was a devastating lack of personal space, said sociologist Yelena Omelchenko, a co-author of the book. Whether you are eating or working or sleeping or showering, and even when you are using the toilet, you are exposed to others.

Toilets and showers in prisons do not have partitions. Remarkably enough, this shameful element is preserved in them even when the premises undergo full renovation. The principle of full deprivation of personal space is being kept intact.

When I discovered, during the course of my research, how they renovated a toilet in one colony, I was stunned, Omelchenko recalled. In front of a row of holes in the ground not separated by partitions they placed a large mirror. I am still not fully convinced that the person who was responsible for that interior design solution was not in fact a moral sadist.

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ALL ABOUT TOWN

Thursday, July 31


Develop your leadership abilities during a lecture by famous Russian author and coach Radislav Gandapas. The event starts at 9 a.m. at 5 Lodeinopolskaya Ulitsa. The price for entry is 20,500 rubles ($570).


Relax and enjoy a Parisian atmosphere with some romantic and laidback jazz tunes during the Night of French Music at Lenny Jam Cafe, 63 Ligovsky Prospekt. The entrance fee is 250 rubles ($7).


The Womens Business Club is hosting a Beauty Brunch where participants are invited to discuss the latest news in the beauty industry and listen to lectures by professional stylists in the business.



Friday, Aug. 1


Bikers from all around the world will gather to take part in a parade, extreme shows and rock concerts during the International Biker Festival that revs its engines today and runs through Aug. 3 near Olgino Hotel, 4/2 Primorskogo Shosse.


The Peter and Paul Fortress will be turned into an open-air cinema today and tomorrow as part of the 5th International Short and Animation Film Festival. A huge screen across the fortress walls will air short films non-stop with board games, photo sessions and other activities also on offer for visitors. For more information, visit www.opencinemafest.ru



Saturday, Aug. 2


Gatchina Palace Park Museum will host its second annual Night of Light, an impressive audio-visual show across the night sky. Tickets are 600 rubles ($16).


If graphic design is more your thing then check out Illustration Day, where you will be able to visit an exhibition, attend lectures by professionals and even show experts some of your own work. The event starts at noon at Zona Deystvia, 73 Ligovsky Prospekt. The entrance fee is 350 rubles ($10).



Sunday, Aug. 3


History lovers shouldnt miss the chance to see reenactments of World War I battles in Pushkin at noon. Besides exciting war scenes, visitors can enjoy live music, historical costumes, an equestrian show and a fancy-dress parade starting from the Moscow gates.


Garage Sale, the popular and growing flea market where nothing is priced over 500 rubles ($14.11), starts today at noon in Loft-Project Etagi, 74 Ligovsky Prospekt. Be sure to get in early to score a bargain. Entry costs 50 rubles ($1.40)



Monday, Aug. 4


Continue the working week with a calm and steady mind with a free yoga lesson at 7 p.m. in the Bukvoyed store at 23A Vladimirsky Prospekt.



Tuesday, Aug. 5


Visit The Romanov Dynasty doll exhibition today, where more than fifty porcelain dolls depicting Russian rulers, and made by Olina Ventzel, will be on show. The exhibition continues through Aug. 31 in Sheremetyev Palace, 34 Fontanka Naberezhnaya.



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