Life Inside Russia’s Prisons

03 March 2024

Vladimir Kara-Murza is a critic of the Russian government.

He was sentenced to 25 years in prison last year on charges of treason for speaking against Russia's war with Ukraine.

He is in Penal Colony Number 6, south of Moscow and not far from Kazakhstan.

FILE - A replica of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny's jail cell from last year that was installed on a square near the Louvre Museum in Paris is pictured on March 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Thomas Padilla, File)
FILE - A replica of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny's jail cell from last year that was installed on a square near the Louvre Museum in Paris is pictured on March 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Thomas Padilla, File)

Kara-Murza's wife, Yevgenia, spoke with The Associated Press about her husband's experiences.

She said her husband lives in a small cell with a cot, a sink, a stool and toilet. The only things he owns are a drinking cup and a toothbrush.

People are interested in what life is like inside of the prisons because another critic of President Vladimir Putin's government died at a prison in Russia's far north, close to the Arctic Circle. Alexei Navalny died February 16. He was the leader of a political group that campaigned against Putin. Forty-seven-year-old Navalny was sentenced to 19 years in prison in early 2021.

The Associated Press called life in Russia's prisons "grim" and noted the prisoners suffer from a lack of food, sleep, and healthcare. They also must deal with rules that change all the time.

Grigory Vaypan is a lawyer with Memorial, a group that started during the period of the Soviet Union. Memorial received the Nobel Prize in 2022. The group studies the experiences of political prisoners, and how Russia uses the threat of prison to quiet critics.

Vaypan said there are 680 political prisoners in Russia. He also said no one in the Russian prison system is safe, but the situation is worse for government critics.

"The state aims to additionally punish them, or additionally isolate them from the world, or do everything to break their spirit," Vaypan said.

Kara-Murza's sentence of 25 years is the longest in modern Russia. He is one of a growing number of critics held in prison for expressing their anti-Putin opinions.

Historians say the Russian prison system developed from the Soviet Union's "gulags." The prisons of that time were known for their bad conditions. Nobel Prize-winning writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn documented the prisons in his books One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago.

Yevgenia Kara-Murza, the wife of Vladimir Kara-Murza, described Russian prison life:


Meals are simple and not very satisfying. The first meal of the day is porridge, a liquid made from grains. The midday meal is soup with very little meat, along with mashed potatoes and a piece of meat or fish. For dinner, the meal is almost the same. Prisoners are permitted to eat two eggs per week. They can buy fruits and vegetables at small prison stores but not much is available.

Friends and family can send packages with other foods. But those in solitary cells are not permitted to receive packages.

How do people spend their time?

Some prisoners are told to spend most of their days doing tasks such as cleaning their rooms. Other times they are told to only "stand at attention." They sometimes must listen to recordings of prison rules for hours.

Others are told to work. There are not enough jobs for all the men in the prison. In women's prisons, the jobs often include sewing uniforms for the military, police and other workers. There are 30 to 40 women's prisons in Russia.

One woman, Nadya Tolokonnikova, was in prison for nearly 22 months. She was a member of the rock band Pussy Riot. Her prison time was from 2012 to 2013. She said she worked on uniforms for 16 to 18 hours at a time.

"It's a system of slavery and it is truly horrible," she said.

Inmates — another word for prisoners — are supposed to be paid at least minimum wage. That is about $200 per month. But experts say it is usually much less. Sasha Graf is an activist for better prison conditions. Graf said prisoners' pay can be as low as $3.20 per month. That is only enough to buy cigarettes at the prison store.


Tolokonnikova said, when she arrived at Penal Colony No. 14 in Mordovia, the head of the prison described himself as a "Stalinist."

She said he told her: "You may be a somebody outside of this colony, have a voice, people who support you and care for you, but here, you are completely in my power, and you need to understand this."

Zoya Svetova, a reporter and prisoner rights activist, said that in the past, prisons were overseen by commissions that were supposed to make sure the prisoners were treated with respect. However, she said, most of the people have been replaced with those loyal to Putin's government. The government uses the prisons, she said, for "intimidation and oppression."

Oleg Kozlovsky, of Amnesty International, said political prisoners can be safe from the abuse that regular prisoners suffer. But there are still ways to make political prisoners feel bad.

Navalny, he said, spent months in a cell on his own for breaking small rules such as not having his uniform buttoned the right way or not putting his hands behind his back at the right time.

The time in the small cell – where it could be very cold in winter or very hot in summer – was not good for Navalny's health. He had been poisoned in the past and was still suffering from the effects of the poison.

Kara-Murza's wife said her husband had also been poisoned. Although he is only 42, his health has worsened. She said he needs exercise and physical therapy to help his arms and legs.

Alexei Gorinov is 62. He criticized the war and was sent to prison for seven years.

He has breathing problems and had a medical operation to remove one of his lungs. He is now in a prison hospital, but his lawyer says he is mistreated. Guards wake him up every two hours. He considers it a form of torture.

There have been calls for prison reform in recent years. Vaypan of the Memorial group, said whatever led to Navalny's death shows the prison system has crossed a line.

It's a "worrying signal," he said.

I'm Dan Friedell. And I'm Caty Weaver.

Dan Friedell adapted this story for Learning English based on a report by the Associated Press.


Words in This Story

critic –n. a person who disagrees with something or someone and who speaks or writes in opposition to what they disagree with

cot –n. a small bed that folds

grim –adj. unhappy and without hope

isolate –v. to cause someone to be kept apart from others, often as punishment

solitary cell –n. a room in a prison that is meant to hold only one person who is being kept apart from others as a more severe form of punishment

sew –v. to use thread and cloth to make or repair clothes

intimidation –n. the act of threatening someone with harm or trouble usually to prevent them from doing or saying something