Presenting Zek Week and Lev Ponomarev

In honor of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the rest of Russia’s new generation of political prisoners, this week my blog will be dedicated to special coverage, stories, translations, and reports on the conditions inside Russia’s prision system. “Zek” is an old Soviet slang term for an incarcerated person (заκлючённый) in the Gulag system – hence we are calling this series “Zek Week.”


In my long experience with Russia, one of the great contrasts I have noted with the West is the strong societal role that the prison system plays. It is difficult for a Western mind to grasp the political centrality of the penitentiary system, which is not only known as the dreaded holding cells of real criminal offenders, but also the home away from home for political dissidents, inconvenient rabblerousers, and often the mentally ill or simple minor delinquent. The historical trend of Russia imprisoning large numbers of its citizens not only served a function of political repression, but also provided the state with free labor. Under President Vladimir Putin’s “dictatorship of the law” regime, incarceration rates continue to be high, while at the same time the woefully underfunded peniteniary system crumbles to pieces (the zeks often have to rely on family members to bring them meals and clothes). According to official statistics, 829,000 inmates are currently serving out terms, which is second only to the United States.


Alternative sentencing like community service or probation is extremely rare, and the minimum sentencing terms are extremely high. Russia’s prisons have become a breeding ground for disease (a recent study cites a prevalence of tuberculosis), and the BBC even reported last year on an outbreak of self-mutilation among prisoners in Lgov:

One day last June at the Lgov prison south of Moscow, more than 300 inmates slashed their bodies with razor blades. Many prisoners cut at their wrists, necks, or stomachs. This was organised self mutilation in protest against alleged abuse by prison officials; its sheer scale shocked many Russians, who are used to hearing appalling tales of life inside Russia’s dilapidated and overcrowded prison system. … But Lev Ponomarev, from the Movement For Human Rights, believes the regime itself is the real issue now, a system he says which can lead to a culture of cruelty. “Prisons in Russia are better funded and some are refurbished but these improvements can’t work whilst a humiliating regime is in place. “The prison authorities are harassing, beating even killing people sometimes. The act of protest by the prisoners in Lgov, who cut themselves in their hundreds, was a manifestation of the despair,” he said. The prison director and two of his deputies were sacked after an investigation later supporter the inmates’ claims of mistreatment, a rare outcome for a prison protest here in Russia.

We have been in contact with our good colleague Lev Ponomarev, the lion of Russian human rights defenders who is quoted in the above BBC article, and he has agreed to have us publish a number of his translated articles for Zek Week. Following this post I will put up the first article from Ponomarev in this series – please stay tuned for more as the week progresses.