‘Not a Gulag’: Russian prison administration calls for penal servitude to replace migrant labour
Covid-19 has created a chronic labour shortage in Russia, with migrant workers from former Soviet republics unable to enter the country for work due to the pandemic.
To address the problem, Head of the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) Alexander Kalashnikov announced a plan on May 20 to respond to this shortage: replace migrant workers at large construction sites with prison labor.
Perhaps anticipating criticism that the plan could seem akin to the massive labour camp system that developed under Stalin between the 1930s-1950s, Kalashnikov specifically emphasized that the project is in no way resemblant of the infamous Gulag:
“This is not a Gulag. The conditions there will be completely different, because an individual will be working and living in a communal home, or rent an apartment and live with their family if they like. They will also be paid well”, Kalashnikov said.
Kalashnikov argued that amidst the shortage of migrant workers from Central Asia in Russia, 188,000 inmates across the country should get the right to work during their prison term.
Russian Minister of Justice Konstantin Chuychenko has already approved the initiative, stating that it will allow convicts to ‘realize their right’ to replace a prison sentence with labor. Chuychenko added that the Ministry of Justice in cooperation with the FSIN is already talking to several businesses in order to open new labor camps and detention centres in the near future.
Shortly after the initiative was presented, a piece by RIA news columnist Victoria Nikiforova was released. In an op-ed entitled “Our labor is a matter of honor”, Nikiforova offers her own take on both the new FSIN initiative and the controversial history of Gulags, which, in her opinion, rather than being death camps, served as a “social elevator”, in spite of how many have portrayed it:
“It is true that the elites that were accustomed to Astoria and Metropol [hotels] would find the contrast to be quite unpleasant, but for hundreds of thousands of ordinary people it would become, as paradoxical as it sounds, a social elevator”, Nikiforova writes.
In her op-ed, Nikiforova added that although some of the labor camps of the Soviet era were indeed known for hard working and living conditions, the majority of them were exemplary, offering both “food, warm housing, and well-paid professions” to their prisoners, and, in the long-run, helping former criminals to reintegrate back into society.
Nikifirova concluded that the criticism that the initiative is receiving is uncalled for, since this program could create “additional drivers of the labor market in Russia” and solve a number of other social issues, including reintegration of prisoners and spreading a “healthier attitude towards physical labor”.
Finally, Nikiforova noted that all those who cite abuses of human rights in Russian labor camps should keep in mind that forced labor in private prisons has been used for many years in the United States and the issue “remains unaddressed by the local human rights activists”:
“Such cruelty would have never occured in the Russian realities”, Nikiforova writes.
Social media reaction
The op-ed has sparked a wave of outrage on Russian social media, with thousands of Twitter users both ridiculing the article and sharing their anxieties over the uncertain future of Russia:
“We want proper social elevators back home, like those that other developing countries have.
But we have those already.
Social elevators back home:
“This is the most disgusting, heinous, sad and shocking text I have ever read. I feel like going to shower for at least 10 hours, and then forcibly bringing all my friends and loved ones on a plane out of this country. Read it.”
“If only I could go to a gulag right now, go from rags to riches, from a convict to NKVD officer”
The Anti-Corruption Fund which is currently awaiting the allocation of a status of an extremist organization and founded by the detained oppositionist Alexey Navalny, has also commented on the new initiative of the Federal Penitentiary Service:
“This is how we will complete our reforms (this is not going to be a gulag).”