By Paul Goble
A member of the Federation Council has called for the restoration of the tsarist-era system of katorga under which those guilty of especially serious crimes such a terrorism, drug dealing or child murders would be sentenced to harsh physical labor without the possibility of commutation of sentence, or the right of correspondence.
Aleksey Aleksandrov, chairman of the Federation Council’s committee on constitutional law, speaking at a congress of jurists at Moscow State University this past week called for the introduction of the legal category of “evil doer” and the use of the katorga system as punishment for such criminals (svpressa.ru/society/article/44173/).
But Russian legal specialists are appalled by this idea. Lyudmila Alpern, the deputy head of the Center for the Support of the Reform of Criminal Justice, for example, told Andrey Polunin of “Svobodnaya pressa” that “our senators do not have a good idea of what katorga involved” in tsarist times or how it might be applied now.
In tsarist times, Alpern pointed out, there were various categories of katorga, some of which involved servitude of up to 20 years and some less with individuals convicted of certain crimes able to earn their way out of katorga while others were not. Thus the notion of permanent katorga would be an innovation.
During the Soviet period, “katorga did not exist.” Instead, “we had corrective labor camps. Of course, they were connected with a form of punishment which existed in tsarist times. This was group punishment,” a form which Europe dispensed with in the middle of the nineteenth century.” Katorga punishment was and is “amoral,” Alpern said.
The Soviet-era GULAG was much worse than katorga as it did not make allowances for prisoners to have their families with them. “Of course, for families, [it] was a terrible test: children sometimes died and women had great difficulties. But a fact remains a fact: toward the katorga inmate, the authorities acted in a human way.”
The GULAG system “destroyed this, and that was why it was so different from katorga. In the Soviet GULAG, an individual was connected to no one, he was completely deprived of social possibilities and he was made into an absolute slave,” something that had not been true of those sentenced to katorga.
Alpern said that despite the call for the restoration of katorga, the Russian penitentiary system is very different now compared to tsarist times. The main reason is ideological. In tsarist times, the authorities did not try to reeducate or reform anyone, demanding only work and then leaving prisoners more or less on their own in the barracks.
In those barracks, the tsarist-era prisoners set their own rules, were visited and sent food and even clothes and money by Russians beyond the walls because people at that time “understood that everyone could become a katorga inmate and thus called those arrested ‘sufferers’ or ‘unfortunates.’
Today, Alpern continued, “other norms” govern the situation. Jails attempt to reeducate people, but those outside the prison walls are not so inclined to view them as people much like themselves, instead assuming that they are hardened criminals who deserve whatever punishment they are given.
Conditions in Russian prisons have improved since the 1990s when such institutions were inadequately funded, prisoners forced to wear their own clothes, and disease rampant, but Alpern said, Russia still has a long way to go to come up to the standards of the European penal model, although it has made progress.
Talk about restoring katorga does nothing to promote this process, but it may create another real problem for Moscow. Some Siberians are worried that their land could against be “the place for katorga,” something that will make their situation even more a “genuine” katorga than it already is (www.baikal24.ru/page.php?action=showItem&type=news&id=58783).