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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

Friday, Aug. 22


Get ready to pledge allegiance to the flag during National Flag Day, paying tribute to when, 23 years ago today, the iconic hammer-and-sickle was replaced with the tricolor that now flutters in the wind. Petersburgers will be treated to a free concert on Palace Square, a military parade and a culminating air show featuring Russias Russian Knights stunt pilots.



Saturday, Aug. 23


Uppsala Park plays host to Fairy Noon today, a performance of five separate fairy tales ranging from folk classics to more haunting selections. There will be three different renditions of the tales throughout the day and tickets start at 500 rubles ($13.80) for adults and 300 rubles ($8.30) for children.


Classic Finnish cartoon characters the Moomins expect to receive a warm welcome from Russian fans during todays Moomin Festival at the Pearl Plaza Shopping Center at 51 Petergofskoye Shosse. Become a kid again or introduce a new generation to the beloved creation of Finnish writer Tove Jansson.



Sunday, Aug. 24


The tortured genius of Dutch master Vincent van Gogh gets his day in the centers Konnushnaya Ploschad during Make Art Like Van Gogh, a daylong celebration of the artist that will allow amateur artists to try and replicate the work that made the famed painter world-renowned.


Experience a variety of dances highlighting the diversity of the world around as at the final day of the Ethno-Dance International Dance Festival that has been at the St. Petersburg Humanitarian University of Trade Unions this past week. Tonights performance will feature Egyptian dancers accompanied by local orchestras.



Monday, Aug. 25


Today kicks off the Elena Obraztsovoy International Competition for Young Vocalists in the large hall of the Shostakovich Philharmonic. Talented youngsters will showcase their range over the next six days before a winner is chosen on Aug. 30.



Tuesday, Aug. 26


Love movies but hate all those words? Then check out Rodina Cinema Centers Factor of Consensus film forum this evening. Silent movie classics from the beginning of the 20th century will be screened and accompanied by a pianist, who will provide the soundtrack for the ongoing action. The screenings begin at 7 p.m. Check Rodinas website for more details.



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