Wives of the Decembrists. Gate of Fate. Sculptural composition by Zurab Tsereteli. 2008. Tsereteli Art Gallery. Moscow, Russia. www.tsereteli.ru

Wives of the Decembrists. Gate of Fate. Sculptural composition by Zurab Tsereteli. 2008. Tsereteli Art Gallery. Moscow, Russia. www.tsereteli.ru

  • Principal Investigator: Professor Judith Pallot, School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford.
  • Researcher: Dr Elena Katz, School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford.

Project Description

The inherited geography of Russia's penal system means that the relatives of prisoners have to endure long journeys to reach the penal colonies in which their husbands, brothers and sons are incarcerated. The stories the women narrate about their experiences en route to the colonies and about what awaits them when they arrive, continue a tradition of prison camp testimony in Russia stretching back to the nineteenth century. The testimonies not only reveal much about the current practices of imprisonment in post-Soviet Russia and its continuities with the past, but they also provide insights into how the identities of people inhabiting the 'space' between 'incarceration' and 'freedom' are shaped by their relationship with a prisoner. As in the West, prisoners' relatives in Russia have to decide whether to tell their friends, neighbours and children about their situation and whether to undertake the often long and arduous journey to the penal colony, the latter requiring them to submit to the disciplinary control of the penal authorities. Although criminologists and sociologists have examined the impact of incarceration on the identity and feelings of self-worth of prisoners, much less attention has been paid to the impact of incarceration on those 'left behind'. In the many penal reforms introduced in order to comply with international standards for the treatment of prisoners, the Russian government has failed to address the plight of prisoners' families.

The aim of the project is to investigate the impact on the women who were 'left behind' when their husbands and sons are incarcerated in Russia's remote penal colonies and how the experiences of women today compare with those of previous generations. The focus will be on how the women's identities are transformed by their attempts to navigate penal Russia and by how they are viewed by society. Our aim is to make maximum use of the women's own voices to narrate their experiences for which, it transpires, there are rich and, as yet, untapped resources. These include the archives and current postings on a self-help website Arestant for people involved in all stages of the penal-justice process and for, an earlier period, the numerous written and oral memoirs of the victims of the Soviet repression collected by The Human Rights Centre, Memorial. These sources will be supplemented by interviews with twenty five prisoners' relatives in Moscow and Perm'. The findings from the survey of prisoner relatives will be situated in a broader discussion on penal sensibilities in Russia as revealed from the media representations of prisoners, such as in the television serial Zona set in a remand prison in a provincial town, and in popular journals. The project will draw on debates in the humanities and social studies on gender, identity discourses and penal cultures in the post-Soviet transition. The project is interdisciplinary, drawing upon the Area Studies background of Prof. J. Pallot which includes experience conducting interviews among marginal social groups, including women prisoners, in Russia and Dr E. Katz's background in history and literary-cultural analysis. The principal outcome of the research will be a book and academic papers and it is envisaged that there will be media interest in the issue. The project has synergies with on-going ESRC funded research into the experiences of women prisoners in Russia in which Prof. J. Pallot is involved.

Aims of the project

This project investigates the impact of Russia's inherited geography of prisons on the experiences and identities of the family members - predominantly women - of Russia's more than three quarter of a million male prisoners. The project will use a combination of written narratives, media representations and interviews with prisoners' relatives, to explore how such people navigate penal Russia in their attempt to maintain contact with their 'loved ones' in jail, how they are viewed (or marginalised) by society and how their experiences of the Russian penal system shapes their identity. In the USA the term 'quasi-prisoner' has been coined to describe the prison visitors who are forced, by their status, to conform to dress and behaviour codes when visiting penitentiaries.

With the broad aim of investigating such quasi-prisoners in Russia the project's main objectives are:

  • To analyse the postings (currently about one thousand) made by prisoner relatives on a self-help website Arestant with a view to identifying commonalities in their experiences of navigating penal Russia, including the journey to visit the colonies, and to pick up pointers to the 'transformative affect' on their identity associated with their status;
  • To organise and conduct in-depth interviews with twenty-five women who have a male family member in a penal colony in order to explore how decisions are made with respect to 'whom to tell', domestic finances, relationships with other family members, friends and employers, and to follow up the insights from the documentary sources of the practical difficulties and feelings associated with maintaining contact with the prisoner;
  • To analyse how media representations of penal Russia (the penal colonies and their inmates), including popular TV series and documentary reports, address the question of prisoner families;
  • To contextualise current experience with respect to the history and literature of Soviet and Imperial Russian penal practices (which, as today, predominantly sent convicts to peripheries);
  • To co-author a book entitled 'Where the husband is, so is the wife'. Continuity and change in the experiences of prisoners' relatives in Russia from the 19th to the 21st Century;
  • To produce a series of papers (in both Russian and English) addressed to both an academic audience and to policy-makers involved in penal reform on the impact of imprisonment on the identities and lives of prisoner relatives;
  • To publicise the issue of prisoner families by presenting our work at conferences and on the media (such as on Women's Hour or Thinking Allowed); and
  • To advance debate in the humanities and social sciences concerning penal cultures and the construction of identities.
Mosaic panels depicting Decembrists at station - Decembrists, Petrovsky Factory[Zab], Transbaikal territory, TRS (5784 km), 1998. Author: Book 'Transbaikal rl. 100 years'. 1998-2009, Trans-Siberian Web Encyclopedia, Sergey Sigachyov. All rights reserved. http://www.transsib.ru/Eng Mosaic panels depicting Decembrists at station - Decembrists, Petrovsky Factory[Zab], Transbaikal territory, TRS (5784 km), 1998. Author: Book 'Transbaikal rl. 100 years'. 1998-2009, Trans-Siberian Web Encyclopedia, Sergey Sigachyov. All rights reserved. http://www.transsib.ru/Eng

Mosaic panels depicting Decembrists at station - Decembrists, Petrovsky Factory[Zab], Transbaikal territory, TRS (5784 km), 1998. Author: Book 'Transbaikal rl. 100 years'. 1998-2009, Trans-Siberian Web Encyclopedia, Sergey Sigachyov. All rights reserved.

Work in Progress

  • Article on representations of women as 'perfect' wives and mothers in the Russian cultural tradition and current legal debates on women's criminal culture;
  • Review of Western scholarly literature on experiences of women visiting their incarcerated male members of the family;
  • Setting the agenda and provisions for interviewing twenty-five Russian prisoners' relatives;
  • Survey of historic and literary sources, both in Russian and English, on the experiences of Imperial, Soviet and post-Soviet prisoners and their families;
  • Analysis of relevant data on maintaining contact between prisoners and their families and friends 'beyond the wall' from the interviews conducted during the ESRC-funded project Women in the Russian Penal System: the role of distance in the theory and practice of imprisonment in late Soviet and post-Soviet Russia; and
  • Fieldwork in Russia (including interviews with prisoners' relatives).

Relevant Publications to Date

Book in progress

  • Study of prisoners' families in Russia with tentative title Where the husband is, so is the wife, on continuity and change in the experiences of prisoners' relatives in Russia.

Selected Publications

Live Broadcasts

Relevant Presentations to Date

  • E. Katz (November 2013) 'Quasi-Prisoners: The Invisible Victims of the Russian Carceral System, Yesterday and Today.' ASEES 45th Annual Convention, Boston, MA.
  • E. Katz and J. Pallot (April 2013) 'The Rights of Prisoners' Children: How the Russian Penal Service Performs.' BASEES European Congress, Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, UK.
  • E. Katz (March 2009) 'Gender and Crime in Post-Soviet Russia' (on materials of Post-Perestroika legal journals). BASEES Annual Conference. Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge.
  • J. Pallot (January 2007) The geography of penality in post-Soviet Russia. The Moscow Higher School of Economic and Social Sciences in the Academy of the National Economy. 14th annual conference 'Which Direction Russia?'.
  • J. Pallot (April 2008) 'Reproducing Russia's geography of penality.' Annual Association of American Geographers Annual Conference in Boston.

The following photos are reproduced with the kind permission of Carl de Keyzer. Zona: Siberian Prison Camps. Magnum, 2003.

© Carl de Keyser. Zona: Siberian Prison Camps. Magnum, 2003.

© Carl de Keyser. Zona: Siberian Prison Camps. Magnum, 2003.

© Carl de Keyser. Zona: Siberian Prison Camps. Magnum, 2003.

© Carl de Keyser. Zona: Siberian Prison Camps. Magnum, 2003.

© Carl de Keyser. Zona: Siberian Prison Camps. Magnum, 2003.

© Carl de Keyser. Zona: Siberian Prison Camps. Magnum, 2003.

© Carl de Keyser. Zona: Siberian Prison Camps. Magnum, 2003.

© Carl de Keyser. Zona: Siberian Prison Camps. Magnum, 2003.

© Carl de Keyser. Zona: Siberian Prison Camps. Magnum, 2003.

© Carl de Keyser. Zona: Siberian Prison Camps. Magnum, 2003.