In these Gulags Putin locks away War Opponents and Adversaries

Russia’s penitentiaries are notorious, and forced labor is commonplace, according to human rights activists. In some areas, the prisons are a real economic factor, as satellite images show. Now they are also filling up with victims of Russian war of aggression against Ukraine.

“Economy from above” is a collaboration between WirtschaftsWoche and LiveEO. This is a translation of the original article written in German by “Jannik Deters“. Access the original article here.

Several rows of chain-link fence and wall, barbed wire above, a watchtower at each corner, and wide visible security strips in between. Russia’s penal camps, formerly known as gulags, are unmistakable even from space. Now they are increasingly filling up with those who have criticized Russia’s ruler Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.

The first court sentences have been handed down. The political convicts transferred from pre-trial detention to penal colonies. Recent satellite images hint at the harsh conditions that prevail there. And they show how entire regions of Russia live off these dreaded prisons. For example, in the Mordovian republic, about 350 kilometers southeast of Moscow. The work of the prisoners is an important economic factor here.

In March 2022, the Russian parliament had passed an amendment to the Criminal Code that would allow prison sentences for anti-war attitudes. For “publicly disseminating knowingly false information about the activities of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation,” as it is called, courts can impose up to 15 years in prison.

Opposition figure Ilya Yashin, for example, who recorded anti-war videos after the invasion of Ukraine and streamed them via YouTube as well as Telegram, was sentenced just a few days ago to eight years and six months in a penal colony. Earlier, Moscow local parliamentarian Alexei Gorinov was among those caught. A court sentenced him to seven years in prison after he made critical remarks about the war in March.

And the list is growing. Sentences are still pending for numerous protesters. For example, opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Mursa, who just received the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize sponsored by the Council of Europe and the Czech government. A few days ago, a court also issued an arrest warrant for Ilya Danilov after he criticized the war on the social network Telegram. Danilov was also once the leader of a team in the southern Russian city of Lipetsk led by Alexei Navalny, arguably Putin’s most prominent political prisoner today.


This is where Russia’s political prisoners are locked away

Source: Own research Graphic: Konstantin Megas

The camps are notorious. Detained ex-parliamentarian Gorinov reported in a statement that the prison conditions are catastrophic. The politician had to be transferred to a prison hospital in the city of Vladimir in the middle of the month after he fell ill due to freezing temperatures in the camp. He suffers from cold, hunger, lack of warm water. He is also not allowed to lie down until the lights go out, he said. It is so cold that he can hardly sleep at night.

Before his hospitalization, he was apparently held in a prison very close to Vladimir. In that area, about 200 kilometers east of Moscow, lies, among other things, the notorious camp IK-2, where until recently also Nawalny was imprisoned. The prison in the village of Pokrov has a “high security” category. Navalny reported that meticulous care is taken there to ensure that no one closes their eyes before 10 pm.

Penal colony IK-2, Pokrov, Vladimir oblast, Russia.
Here, for example, the well-known oppositionist Alexei Nawalny was imprisoned until the summer. Presumably, war opponent Alexei Gorinov is also normally imprisoned here.
1: Watchtower, recognizable by the shadow
2: Entrance gate
3: Church
4: Administration building
5: Supposed production building
6: Wire mesh fence
7: Wire mesh fence, partly with privacy screen
8: Massive wall, recognizable by the shadow. As well as large viewing areas.
9: Prison blocks
10: Prison courtyards

Images: LiveEO/Pleiades.

Satellite images of the camp show several prison blocks with fenced and walled courtyards, on closer inspection showing isolated prisoners and their shadows. In addition, as in most prisons, a small church can be seen on the site, as well as an administrative wing and buildings that could be something like factory halls. Many prisoners in Russia are forced to work. According to London-based analysis firm Grey Dynamics, IK-2 includes a paint shop, a sewing workshop, an assembly workshop and a carpenter’s workshop.

Navalny, meanwhile, was transferred over the summer to the high-security IK-6 penal colony in Melekhovo, which is also in the Vladimir region.

Penal colony IK-6, Melekhovo, Vladimir Oblast 15.08.2021: Aleksey Navalny has now been transferred to this camp. It is therefore very likely that war critics will also end up here or are already imprisoned.

Image: LiveEO/Google, LiveEO/Earth, LiveEO/Maxar

In a mid-month statement, he described inmates being beaten on the hips and heels with a truncheon. And that he had been held in solitary confinement along with another inmate who has “hygiene problems.” He apparently ended up in solitary confinement because he used a swear word against a fellow inmate.

Some satellite images of the camp show prisoners lined up in front of prison blocks. For example, to be escorted to their work assignment or when they are coming from there. To the side of the group of people can be seen other people, apparently guards. Elsewhere, prisoners are scattered in the courtyards.

Penal colony IK-6, Melekhovo, Vladimir Oblast
Some satellite images show prisoners lining up on the prison forecourt.

Image: LiveEO/Google, LiveEO/Earth, LiveEO/Maxar

There are no differences in treatment between political prisoners or other offenders. However, political prisoners are often shielded from public view. So did activist Andrei Pivovarov, the former head of the now defunct organization Open Russia, which campaigned for democracy and human rights.

According to the indictment, he participated in “activities of an undesirable organization.” He is currently still in pretrial detention near Krasnodar, although his sentence has already been pronounced: four years in prison. “Andrei is hidden from journalists and his family. That is why his trial will not take place in Moscow or St. Petersburg,” said Tatiana Usmanova, head of the defense campaign for Pivovarov. Which camp will he be in? Unclear.

In Russia, prisoners are separated not only based on their crimes, but also on the length of the prison term. Kremlin critic Navalny is in IK-6 at Melekhovo because he has to serve nine years. “In a normal prison, you are housed if the term is up to six years,” Usmanowa explained. And those who get “life in prison” usually end up in Siberia, where there are five penal camps for murderers and terrorists.

Penal camps in the region around Javas, autonomous republic of Mordovia, Russia
A total of 18 penal colonies can be seen on satellite images in the area. There are three alone in the village of Jawas (*), including the women’s colony where American basketball player Brittney Griner was imprisoned. The camps with their security zones are easily recognizable from above, look like fortresses.

Image: LiveEO/Sentinel, LiveEO/Google Earth, LiveEO/Maxar

In the Republic of Mordovia, entire regions now live from labor camps, current satellite images show. Like a string of pearls, small towns line up here, whose dominant building structure is the prisons. In the Jawas area alone, 18 prison camps can be counted. In some villages there are two or three. According to the Center for Oriental Studies in Warsaw, inmates make up a large part of the local labor market.

Time after time, political prisoners end up in Mordovia. For example, American basketball player Brittney Griner was held in the women’s penal colony IK-2 in Jawas. Russian officials arrested her in February at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport for allegedly carrying cartridges for e-cigarettes containing half a gram of hash oil in her luggage. She was exchanged in Abu Dhabi in early December for Russian arms dealer Viktor But, who was imprisoned in the United States.

The historian and bureau chief of the human rights organization Memorial, Yuri Dmitriev, was also transferred to one of the prisons around Yazas in April. The man, who spent large parts of his childhood in Dresden, is accused of sex crimes against his adopted daughter. According to Human Rights Watch, however, Dmitriev’s charges are clearly linked to attempts by authorities to downplay Stalin’s crimes, which the historian has investigated. Among other things, Dmitrievs has tracked down a Stalin-era mass grave. An original sentence of just over three years was increased by more than nine years in late 2020, shortly before its expiration.

Olga Romanova, director of the organization Russia Behind Bars, paints a bleak picture of prisons. Behind many of them is a heavy business interest. It is not about reeducation through work, she wrote in a 2019 article for the U.S. Carnegie Foundation for International Peace. Each warehouse has its own factory, such as a sewing, wood or metalworking shop.

All this works on the same principle that had already helped many oligarchs to incredible wealth in the 1990s. In addition to Soviet-era factories, they had set up trading houses at that time. The factories sold goods to trading houses at extremely low prices. The trading houses then resold them at a large premium.

According to Romanova, some of the profits from convicted labor flow back to the heads of prisons as bribes. Sometimes it is even the relatives of the officials who resell the goods and skim the money. In the summer, Russian media reported that some of today’s gulags want to expand their furniture production, compensating for the withdrawal of Swedish furniture chain Ikea from Russia.

Tatiana Usmanova was allowed to visit opposition politician Pivovarov once in prison. On the day of the Duma elections. “I will never forget the experience for the rest of my life,” she says. She was searched several times. Then taken to the polling station. Immediately afterward, Pivovarov entered. He cast his vote. “Andrei told me they only did it to show he was alive,” Usmanova said. In any case, violence is rarely committed against political prisoners, Usmanova said: “They don’t want it made public.”

In no other European country today is such a large proportion of the population in prison as in Putin’s empire. For every 100,000 inhabitants, there are more than 400 prisoners. By comparison, in Germany there are only slightly more than 70. Many of the prisons date back to the Stalin era. Often the camps are located in the areas that the Soviet Union wanted to develop economically – using forced labor.

Get in touch!