Ethnic Identity Construction among Muslim Prisoners in the USSR and Russia.

About half of Muslim prisoners practice Islam. Photos: Free access from

The Russian Federation is second to the USA in its imprisonment rate among industrialized countries. According to the Russian Prison Service (FSIN) one-quarter of prisoners belong to one of the country's 158 official "non-Russian" nationalities. Despite this, there is a dearth of empirical research about the treatment of ethnic diversity in the prison system, today or in the past. Notwithstanding societal fears of terrorism, ethnic-organized crime and the growing confidence of right wing and extreme nationalist groups, FSIN has long insisted that ethnicity is "not an issue" in its penal institutions. Russia, we must understand, is a model of the multi-cultural prison and a consequence of the centuries-long nationalities policy, which subordinated ethnic difference to class. So deeply embedded in penal culture did the subordination of race, culture and religion to class become, so the argument goes, that ethnic-blindness was internalized by penal personnel and prisoners alike and continues to the present day. The two decades since the Chechen Wars, however, have seen these comfortable beliefs challenged, at least at the societal level, as prison has emerged in the popular psyche as a site of Islamic radicalisation. FSIN, meanwhile, has remained silent about the size of the Muslim population in its prisons and its policy towards prisoners sentenced for religious extremism and terrorism can only be inferred from the reports of human rights monitors. Somewhat belatedly, FSIN appears to be putting some effort into fulfilling its Council of Europe obligations to protect minority rights, including religious rights, in its prisons. In a move that might represent an attempt to combat Islamic radicalization it has employed preachers of traditional Islam and initiated training among prisoner officers in how to identify supporters of radical Islam.

The project builds on previous UK research council-funded research on the Russian prison system, which resulted in numerous publications, media engagement and development of web resources. A proportion of the respondents interviewed for these research projects were drawn from ethnic minorities, although ethnicity was not the subject of these earlier investigations. Using funds awarded by the University of Oxford, Fell Fund, we ran pilot study to evaluate the feasibility of conducting interviews in the Russian Federation with Muslim ex-prisoners in Russia. In 2018, The Leverhulme Trust granted Professor Pallot an emeritus fellowship to write up and expand the pilot study.

Aims of project

The aim of the project is to examine the argument about the ethnic- and racial-neutrality of Russia's prisons by examining the experiences of Muslim prisoners in the period from the mid-20th century to the present time. The project does not focus directly on the process of political radicalization, although the findings will be of relevance to the on-going debates about "prison jihad". The project will ask more fundamental questions about how the history, structure and ideology of the exceptional penal regime that there is in Russia can shape the ethnic, racial and religious consciousness of individuals drawn into it.

The project's main objectives are:
  • To subject the imprisonment narratives of Muslim prisoners and their family members that surface in the interviews that have been already collected in the Fell Project to discourse analysis with a view to identifying the range of response of ethnic minority prisoners to the conditions that they encounter in Russian remand prisons and correctional colonies.
  • To fill out the interviews and bring them up to date by mining current web-based social media postings and internet chat-room discussions about the experiences of Muslim prisoners.
  • To integrate concepts and methods from prison sociology, Russian history and geography so that, empirically, the project will can contribute to broader discussions about the impact of encounters with criminal-justice systems on minority ethnic-identity construction
  • To publicise and disseminate research findings to the academic audience and policymakers through conference presentations and publications. The research will be brought to a wider audience through the radio and print media. The findings will be made available to potential beneficiaries through the network of contacts with prison reform NGOs in the Russian Federation and there will be a Russian research report produced for dissemination in the Russian Federation.

For information about the project contact: or

Relevant Publications to Date

Journal Articles
Book chapters
  • Moran, D., Piacentini, L. and Pallot, J. (2013) Liminal transcarceral space: prisoner transportation for women in the Russian Federation. Chapter 8 in, Moran, D., Gill, N. and Conlon, D. (eds.) Carceral Spaces: Mobility and Agency in Imprisonment and Migrant Detention. Ashgate. pp. 109-126. ISBN: 9781409442684.
  • Pallot, J. (2012) Sotsializm v ondom barake (Socialism in one barracks). Chapter 2 in, L. Omel'chenko (ed.) Do i Posle Tyurmy (Before and After Prison). St. P. Aleteia.
  • Pallot, J. (2008) Continuities in penal Russia: Space and gender in post-Soviet geography of punishment. In, Luhausen, T. and P. Solomon (eds.) What is Soviet Now? Identities, Legacies, Memories. Lit Verlag. pp. 234-256.