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  • The Gulag as the Crucible of Russia’s 21st-Century System of Punishment
  • Judith Pallot (bio)

I begin by comparing two women’s descriptions of their transportation to prison.

Sometime later they rudely woke us at night and ordered us to ready ourselves for departure. They put us in vans with the logo “bread,” literally jammed us in, so we could hardly breathe. The van began to move. The air became so stifling that several women fainted. … The van stopped, and we were put on cattle carts outfitted with plank beds. On the floor, in front of the doors was a small hole—our toilet. The plank beds were made for two people. For those who were thin, it was not that bad, but for the bigger women there was very little space. Soon the train started. We were given herring and bread, and a bucket of water. The trip was exhausting and we lost count of the passing days. Nobody knew where we were being taken. At last on dawn of one day the train stopped and we were taken out. The station sign said Pot´ma, so it was in the Mordovian republic. … What a picture it was! A line of women of various ages surrounded by a convoy of young soldiers, walking along a forest road. Behind them several carts with their belongings. The line seemed endless. It was a whole train. We walked for a long time. There were rest stops, when we ate some bread. We were very thirsty. If one had to go to the toilet, it was done without any shame, right there, in the crowd of women.

(Liudmila, 1937)1

We didn’t know where we were going. We were herded into these cells to wait for the convoy to arrive and collect the matrioshki. They took us to the station; it was cold, winter, and we were left in these voronki in the freezing cold for one and half hours waiting for the train. Then the train came; first they took one load, then another—men, and then the women. There was a four-person compartment, but they put [End Page 681] ten of us in, along with our cases. Ten people there, all with bags in the compartment … we traveled like that on top of one another the whole way. Some young girls were traveling with us; they went further; we were all together even though they were juveniles … HIV- and tuberculosis-infected should have traveled separately, but we were all in together … we were only allowed to go to the toilet every twelve hours. They gave us prison rations—a jar of dried potatoes and a jar of oats but no hot water … it was a nightmare. … And the guard was some young man, and he told us we had to entertain him, tell him jokes. It was just awful … so demeaning. … There was one girl who had a very high temperature, but the convoy said she was putting it on. She was dripping wet with sweat all the way there, and they wouldn’t let her go to the toilet alone—you had to be accompanied. But she took two steps and fell, so they just pushed her back in.

(Sonia, 2007)2

The first quotation is taken from the memoir of Liudmila Ivanovna Granovskaia, arrested in 1937 and transported from Leningrad to Mordovia to serve a five-year sentence; the second is from a women prisoner whom I interviewed in 2007—transported more recently from Moscow, also to Mordovia, to serve an eight-year sentence. The circumstances of these two women were different: Liudmila was a political prisoner, arrested as a wife of an enemy of the people, while Sonia was sentenced for drug dealing. The context of their punishment also differed. Liudmila Ivanovna was not protected by Russia’s signature on the European Convention on Human Rights, and after her release she was exiled in northern Russia. Sonia, in contrast, benefiting from an amnesty introduced to relieve prison overcrowding in the early 2000s, was allowed to return home in 2008, there to await her partner’s release from his twelve-and-a-half year sentence, also...


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