Who runs Russia's prisons? Judith Pallot, who transferred from Oxford to Helsinki, knows prison hierarchy

In Perm, Russia, Professor Judith Pallot met prisoners who were picking mushrooms. Most of the locals are current or former prison camp inmates.

In the great hall of Christ Church College in Oxford, portraits of English royalty, the philosopher John Locke and other major figures from the esteemed thousand-year history of the university look down upon the students. Last year, the hall gained a new portrait when Judith Pallot, professor emerita in Soviet and Russian geography, joined the row of luminaries.

Despite this honour as her farewell present, Pallot intends to carry on her research for at least five more years at the University of Helsinki. At the beginning of November, she launched a research project at the Aleksanteri Institute on prison administration in Russia. The European Research Council has provided a grant of nearly €2.5 million for the project.

Pallot developed her connection to Russia at the turn of the 1970s.

"In those days, British students tended to choose one of two ways to celebrate finishing their bachelor's degree. Either they went to India to experiment with some exciting substances, or they went to the US where they rented a car and drove across the country," Pallot explains.

She didn't want to go with the herd, and instead applied for graduate studies in Moscow. At the time, it was possible for students who had received a top grade for their bachelor's degree to proceed directly to doctoral studies.

Revolutionary fascination

During the Cold War, the British government had a student exchange programme with the Soviet Union which allowed 20 bachelor's graduates every year to travel to the USSR and study at a university in Moscow, Leningrad or Voronezh. Pallot had studied geography, anthropology and Russian history. She was drawn to Russia.

"As a child of the 1960s, I was intrigued by the revolution. I wondered whether socialism and Marxism could lead to something better."

In Russia, the only avenue available for a foreign scholar was to rummage through archives from imperial Russia, as the Soviet system was thought to have already solved all the social problems of its time. Pallot wanted to study a period as close to the revolution as possible and wound up researching the land reform of 1906.

A frightful and fascinating country

Student life in Moscow was rough for a young woman in her twenties. The political tension of the Cold War didn't make things any easier: just a week after the exchange students arrived, Britain deported 105 Soviet spies.

"When I sent a letter to my parents, it took three months to pass the censors. Meanwhile, I didn't hear anything from my parents during that time."

Only one post office on Gorky Street provided international calls, which had to be ordered in advance — and the call could be cut off at any time. The main place for students to buy food was the university canteen. 

Their time in the Soviet Union divided Westerners into two groups: those who grew to hate the country, and those who were increasingly intrigued by it. Pallot was in the latter group. She wound up spending several years studying the rural populace of Russia and the Soviet Union, using the methods of multidisciplinary area studies.

A temporary release in the woods

During the perestroika in the late 1980s, it was finally possible to conduct field research and to cooperate with Russian researchers. However, an official permit was still required if Pallot wanted to travel more than 30 kilometres away from the university.

After the fall of communism in 1991, Pallot became interested in the survival strategies of the people in rural Russia under the yoke of the transition economy. This led her towards her current research topic, the Russian prison system.

At the end of the 1990s, Pallot walked across the European side of Russia, from north to south, together with a Russian research colleague. Close to the Ural Mountains, north of Perm, the two women paddled a kayak along a river, visiting villages along its banks.

"I discovered that everyone I interviewed in that region was either a former prisoner or a descendant of gulag inmates — and some were prisoners out on temporary release, foraging mushrooms in the forest."

Penal transportation

Judith Pallot had found herself in the middle of the Gulag Archipelago, a network of prison camps established in the 1930s. More than 60 years later, many of these penitentiaries were still fully operational.

However, the system was entirely untouched by academic research in the 1990s. During the Cold War, the attention of the West had been focused on the Soviet Union’s political dissidents. Nothing was known about how ordinary prisoners lived.

There were 15,000 prisoners in the northern parts of Perm alone. According to practices established during imperial Russia, the prisoners were transported far from their homelands to make the punishment more intense.

It was very effective. The immense distances, along with the shame and fear associated with imprisonment, broke up families. The children of female prisoners were taken into care or given to their relatives. Few prisoners had visitors, even though they were technically allowed to spend three days and nights with relatives in a separate apartment four times a year.

Free labour

Why is Pallot so fascinated by this topic?

"I'm interested in studying the underpinnings of Russia's long tradition of pushing social misfits, criminals and political dissidents far away into the periphery. The framework for my research came from Michel Foucault: this method of discipline was based on excluding the maladjusted from society."

On the other hand, the gulags were a source of forced labour for the forest and mining industries as well as construction, particularly during Stalin’s regime.

Russia joined the Council of Europe in 1996 and promised to reform its prison administration. This has proven to be a complicated project. Hundreds of thousands of prisoners continue to serve long sentences in internal deportation.

Does ethnicity play a role in prison hierarchy? 

In Russian prisons with normal security levels, prisoners live in dormitories of a hundred or more individuals. Order in the barracks is maintained by head prisoners appointed by the guards. The prison system is based on an inmate hierarchy, which is only sporadically supervised by official staff. Corruption is prevalent.

"The hierarchy is determined by physical force and money. In our study we are examining whether the ethnic and religious backgrounds of the prisoners also play a role."

Five or six researchers are involved in the project in its various stages. They have been promised comparative data from prisons in Georgia and Romania.

Even in Russia, there has been talk of the impact of prisons on the spread of radical Islam. According to Pallot, this issue can only be determined once we know how prison conditions influence ethnic identities on the whole.

Frosty international relations

Conducting interviews is difficult in Russian prisons. Pallot's group is gathering information from former inmates on their experiences in prisons. They are interviewing prisoners of varying ethnic and religious backgrounds, including prisoners of Tatar, Caucasian, Jewish or Estonian descent as well as those from various Siberian peoples. The researchers are also delving into historical data from Soviet gulags.

Many have asked the professor why she chose to move from Oxford to the University of Helsinki.

"There are many reasons. The Aleksanteri Institute is one of the best institutes of multidisciplinary area studies focusing on Russia in Europe, if not the world."

Helsinki is close to Russia. And then there's the threat of Brexit. Pallot does not want to risk her research funding from the EU by staying in the UK after its divorce from the Union.

Just like at the turn of the 1970s, relations between the UK and Russia are icy. And as Pallot points out, it's much easier for a Russian researcher to get a visa for Helsinki than for Oxford.

The article was originally published in Finnish in the Y/10/18 issue of Yliopisto-lehti.