In the Gulag's Shadow: Producing, Consuming and Perceiving Prisons in the Former Soviet Union

Project: Other

Project Details

Grant Program

Project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, UK

Project Description

The Soviet Gulag was one of the most awesome expressions of penal power in world history. Yet, thirty years after the end of the Soviet Union research into punishment in the former Soviet Union is limited. Whereas criminology as a discipline is burgeoning in North America and Western Europe, in the former Soviet Union varying incarceration rates and the social and cultural legacies of the Gulag's continent-sized system of punishment has not been systematically studied. Yet, the region presents a number of puzzles that touch on our wider understanding of penal policy, cultures of punishment and societal attitudes. We describe these puzzles below. To explore them, we have chosen to compare Russia and Kazakhstan - the two biggest countries in the former Soviet Union that held the most Gulag sites during the Soviet period.
Firstly, how do we map and explain change in prison rates and conditions across the post Soviet region? How can we understand why, since the year 2000 and against all predictions, many prison populations across the former Soviet Union have gone into decline? What political economic factors might explain this? How did policy makers in Russia and Kazakhstan go about constructing a penal policy and what shaped their preferences? What might it tell us about the driving factors that can explain decarceration in other contexts?
Secondly, what do Russians and Kazakhs think about state-sanctioned punishment? Many political scientists believe that the rise of strong leaders and authoritarianism in Russia is a result of political culture. On this view, Russian attitudes - forged by history, geography and culture - favour particular undemocratic governance forms. Yet, despite the size and scale of the Gulag we know very little about how Russians or Kazakhs think about punishment, its predictability and severity, and how this mediates the relationship of citizens with their states and what citizens want from prisons today.
Thirdly, how is punishment constructed culturally in products such as TV shows, films, songs and prison museums? How do Russians and Kazakhs consume these products and what meanings are conveyed through them? Theorists have debated the ways in which punishment is also a cultural practice. Despite the fact that one of the legacies of the Gulag has been a visual and musical culture that has become popularized in the present day, there has been no systematic study of this in the former Soviet Union, still less on the various prison museums that have emerged there. This is an important question as how citizens spectate on prisons and punishment often from afar can help to maintain a system of power.
In investigating these questions, this research project aims to produce a unique, in depth study of the construction of punishment through state policy, societal attitudes and cultural forms in Russia and Kazakhstan. The project utilizes mixed methodologies taken from across academic disciplines. The methods include a social survey, interviews with policy makers, documentary analysis and desk-based statistical analysis as well as in situ cultural exploration at museum sites and interactions with cultural consumers.
The research speaks to important topics about the nature of punishment, its embeddedness in society, culture and the economy and how this impacts upon prison rates and prison conditions. The project is high impact, generating unique data on: prison population trends, a documentary film on penal spectatorship, a large survey database on attitudes to punishment and focus groups for others to use and analyse. The project works with a number of key stakeholders who wish to better understand the use and meaning of prison in Russia and Kazakhstan today. These include government bodies such as the general prosecutor's office of Kazakhstan, national NGOs in the post-Soviet region, and international organizations such as the Council of Europe.

Key findings

After the collapse of the USSR, the post-Soviet region went through a turbulent process of societal, political and economic change. This is especially true of criminal justice. Despite this, imprisonment, once so integral to the construction of Soviet power through the Gulag, has left an extraordinary and resilient legacy, in the societies, culture and economies of the former Soviet Union. This legacy has not yet been fully explored in the fields of world prison sociology and comparative penal policy. This ambitious project will produce a forward-looking agenda that links historical developments with current trends that are relevant for understanding concrete penal choices in the former Soviet Union (fSU) and the contexts within which they are made.
The programme of impact activities planned has been designed to deliver substantial capacity building by developing new networks of collaboration between a range of stakeholders allowing for knowledge exchange and longer term synergy between policy and third sector groups in two jurisdictions of the fSU. We will use the contacts and professional relationships that Slade, Piacentini, Omelchenko and Trochev have developed - over decades - with a range of organisations, researchers and policy makers in Europe, Russia and in Kazakhstan. Through this network we will document and disseminate the results of the project showing the social and cultural factors that impact on the endurance of prison systems and prison rates and the influence of these and other economic structural factors on penal policy decision making.
The direct impacts of this project are significant, as indicated by the high level of support for this work from a range of organisations both locally in Russia and Kazakhstan and internationally from for example the Council of Europe (see Letters of Support). Policy impact will be maintained through our international Co-Investigators who will oversee our local engagement. Our International Advisory Group will help support the reach of the learning amongst networks and contacts beyond this context, advising us on the implications in other world contexts. To ensure that impact is achieved in the medium term and longer term, we will conduct an impact survey designed by all project partners to be issued after the project into stakeholder perceptions of whether the research has improved knowledge and understanding about attitudes to punishment in the fSU.
A range of audiences will benefit from participation in events and opportunities to share experiences and understandings of punishment in the fSU targeted at improving public knowledge of prison populations and of attitudes to punishment in localities that share Gulag history. We will carefully document the changes in policy and practice and, crucially, share the learning about the process of change as well as the impacts achieved. We will have a range of dissemination channels to ensure the project process, findings and impacts are shared widely including websites, blogs, newsletters, briefing papers, storyboards, and social media, to ensure we reach everyone effectively as possible. A final symposium in London with the Institute of Criminal Policy Research will be an important opportunity to bring policy-makers and practitioners together from across the globe to share knowledge on the cultural and societal context of the making of penal policy.

Our impact plan is threefold:

International Advisory Group
Tool-Kit for Measuring and Understanding Attitudes to Punishment
Symposium on Factors Affecting Decarceration

Exhibitions at six well-established Gulag museums
Six student symposia, four at museum sites and two in St Petersburg and Moscow
Two workshop engagement events in Kazahkstan and Russia for local policy and third sector audiences

Website and Social Media
Short Documentary Film on Penal Spectatorship
Online Survey and Impact Data
Effective start/end date6/1/185/31/21


  • criminal justice
  • prisons
  • Russia
  • Kazakhstan


  • Sociology and Political Science