After nearly nine months in a Moscow detention center, the American basketball star Brittney Griner is being transferred to a Russian penal colony. Her appeals have been exhausted, and a U.S. proposal to release a jailed Russian arms smuggler in exchange for Griner’s freedom hasn’t led to a deal.
Griner is 32 and one of the greatest players in the history of the Women’s National Basketball Association. She was arrested at an airport near Moscow in February for carrying two vape cartridges containing small amounts of hashish oil. Griner pleaded guilty — and she also pleaded for mercy, offering repeated apologies for what she called an “honest mistake.” Those pleas went nowhere; Griner was convicted of trying to smuggle narcotics and sentenced to nine years in prison.
After the news of her transfer, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the Biden administration was working to “prevail on her Russian captors to improve her treatment and the conditions she may be forced to endure in a penal colony.”
What might those conditions be for Griner? The words “penal colony,” when applied to Russia, conjure the world of the Soviet-era Gulag, a vast system of prison camps created in the 1920s that became known for forced labor, overcrowding, brutal treatment and sometimes starvation. It was a system of oppression documented most memorably by the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn — himself a survivor of the camps — in his 1973 book “The Gulag Archipelago.” The book helped win Solzhenitsyn a Nobel Prize in Literature — and it also resulted in his expulsion from the Soviet Union.
The architecture of the Gulag still exists, though the conditions have changed. By several accounts, what was one of the world’s most brutal tools of political repression is now a prison network with widely varying degrees of treatment. Today, the best-known occupant of a Russian penal colony is the opposition figure Alexei Navalny, jailed for intense and constant criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his regime; Griner may be a convicted criminal, but her crime was minor and certainly not political.
To better understand what may lie ahead for Griner, Grid spoke to experts who have studied the Russian penal system — its history as well as its current state. They said that Griner’s notoriety and nonpolitical posture may have a positive influence on her treatment in the system. But they also said there were no guarantees of that. And by any assessment, one thing is clear: Nasty remnants of the Gulag remain.
The modern “Gulag”
The list of possible destinations for Griner is long.
According to a report by the Poland-based Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW), there were more than 800 penal colonies in Russia as of 2019. Another report put the figure at 642. Overall, the penal colony network holds some 467,000 prisoners, according to World Prison Brief. Only 8 percent — roughly 37,000 — are women.
Most of the current penal colonies exist in the same structures that were built during the Soviet period, in the vast and thinly populated territories of eastern Russia. The harshest of the current colonies — “strict-regime” facilities that typically do not house female prisoners — have been compared by think tanks and human rights organizations to the Gulag.
“Despite several attempts to reform the prison system in Russia, they still resemble the Soviet Gulag: Human rights violations and torture are common,” the OSW said.
“The fact that people still think of the Gulag when they hear about Russian prisons actually doesn’t surprise me — it’s not far from the truth,” said Оlga Romanova, founder of the Russia Behind Bars foundation, which works on behalf of Russian prisoners. She told Grid that while oversight of the penal system was transferred decades ago from Gulag leaders to the Ministry of Justice, various measures to reform the system have faltered. “Little has changed since then.”
The penal colonies often cover several square miles. Inmates are housed in barracks instead of cells, each of which houses many prisoners — sometimes several dozen. There is still forced labor in the colonies — again, harsher in some places than others — and the colonies remain engines for industry and jobs in the communities where they are located. Romanova said there are penal colony guards today whose fathers and grandfathers worked in the system as well.
Before she even gets there: the transfer
The transfer process itself has a long history in Russia, and the Soviet Union before that. Traditionally, it’s never a quick trip to the penal colony. Some experts believe these are carefully choreographed journeys, designed to add anxiety and uncertainty to an already difficult situation.
Once prisoners in Russia are convicted, sentenced and the appellate process complete, most are moved from detention centers to penal colonies. Given the geography of the penal colony network — most are located in Siberia and the Russian Far East — inmates are often transported over vast distances in cramped trains that make multiple stops, and the journeys can last as long as a month, according to a report by Amnesty International.
Griner’s lawyers issued a statement this week saying they were given no details about the penal colony their client was being taken to — only that it was characterized as a “medium-security” facility and that they would be notified when the transfer was complete. “We currently don’t know where she is or where she is heading to,” the statement said.
“After some time, the exact place where she is kept will be disclosed — the law obliges the government to notify relatives,” Vagan Kasyan, a lawyer and advocate for Russian prisoners, told Grid. “But since she is a foreigner, it may take longer.”
On Wednesday, several Russian Telegram channels reported that Griner was being transferred to Penal Colony No. 2, in the village of Yavas, in Mordovia, some 300 miles southeast of Moscow. There was no official confirmation, and Telegram channels have been uneven at best when it comes to reliable information.
But if the report about the colony in Mordovia is accurate, Griner’s transfer will be much shorter and likely less traumatic than the more typical odysseys to the Far East, which can stretch into the thousands of miles.
The conditions: what Griner may expect
Until the precise facility for Griner’s incarceration is known, it’s difficult to know exactly what her days may look like.
Kasyan told Grid that Griner will almost certainly be spared the trauma of the “strict-regime” colonies — not only because her crime was low-level but also because she is a woman.
“Colonies are divided into two types — strict- and general-regime colonies,” he said, “and where they send you depends on the severity of the crime. But women are kept only in general-regime colonies.”
The experts agreed on certain details as to what awaits Griner — wherever she lands.
Unless she receives a rare privilege, Griner will have no regular interpreters, and therefore no way to have regular phone conversations in English or send letters in English, because censors must review these communications, and the censors do not speak English. Presumably, the occasional U.S. consular visit would help in this regard.
The currency in the penal colonies is cigarettes, not rubles or dollars; as Romanova said, “she will need cigarettes just to get around.” Meanwhile, any outside products must be sent from elsewhere in Russia. Again, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow might provide the workaround.
Kasyan described details of dress: “In the colony, everyone wears special clothes, as well as special shoes. Women have headdresses in the form of scarves, men have caps. Each has a name tag.” He and others also said that the colonies follow a daily routine: Inmates rise at 6 a.m. for morning exercise, breakfast and work. “Beds must be made,” he said. “There is some free time. And typically, light’s out at 10 p.m.”
At the end of each bed, there is a tag with the inmate’s last name, and the start and end dates of their term.
Navalny’s case — and his posts about the penal colonies he has seen — has brought renewed attention to the worst elements in the Russian system. Navalny gave an interview from a penal colony last year, in which he compared the daily regimen to “something like a Chinese labor camp, where everybody marches in a line and where video cameras are hung everywhere.” In a separate description, posted to Instagram, he wrote, “I had no idea that it was possible to arrange a real concentration camp 100 km from Moscow.”
Last year, CNN interviewed Konstantin Kotov, a far lesser-known prisoner who had served two terms for illegal protests in Penal Colony No. 2 outside Moscow.
“You get up at 6 in the morning, you go out to the courtyard nearby and listen to the national anthem of Russia — every day the anthem of the Russian Federation,” Kotov told CNN. Another daily routine: time allotted for watching television, but only Russian state channels. “This is torture by TV,” he said.
Perhaps the best-known female prisoners in recent years were members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot, who were jailed a decade ago, following public and raucous protests against Putin and his government. One band member, Maria Alyokhina, said there was no hot water or medicine inside the penal colony where she and a bandmate were held.
“This is not a building with cells. This looks like a strange village, like a Gulag labor camp,” Alyokhina told Reuters.
“It actually is a labor camp because by law all the prisoners should work. The quite cynical thing about this work is that prisoners usually sew police uniforms and uniforms for the Russian army, almost without salary.”
Alyokhina described the colony as divided between a factory area and a “living zone.” In the factory area, inmates sewed garments; her “living zone” was one large room, home to 80 women who shared just three toilets.
For a story somewhat closer to Griner’s, there is the case of Sarah Krivanek.
Krivanek is not a celebrity, but like Griner she is an American woman, convicted of a crime that had nothing to do with Russian politics. And Krivanek served time recently in a penal colony. As such, it’s a case that is being watched closely for parallels.
Krivanek was an English teacher in Russia, charged with assault in 2021 after attacking her partner with a knife during a domestic dispute. Her partner received light facial injuries; Krivanek claimed she had acted in self-defense.
Krivanek was convicted and held in a penal colony for nearly 11 months before recently winning her freedom. This week, Russian authorities said they were holding her for an additional 30 days before her “deportation” to the U.S.
At a hearing, Krivanek said it had “shocked my world” to be placed in the colony, where she was put to work making artificial flowers for cemeteries and mortuaries.
“My colony was really like hell. … It was forced labor,” she said. She also said that no medical treatment was available in the colony, other than pills for headaches.
Special treatment — for celebrities, women or foreigners?
Will Griner find better circumstances because she is so well-known?
“I think it is very unlikely that she will be specially pressed or tortured,” Kasyan told Grid. “It’s not beneficial for anyone to have her appear bruised in front of journalists who will come to take her picture sooner or later. There is a media interest in her. And moreover, journalists and human rights activists can come there.”
Spokesmen for the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service have said that as a rule, foreigners receive no preferential or substantively different treatment, beyond a right to visits from consular officials from their home country.
“There are no special conditions,” an official, Sergey Esipov, was quoted as telling the RIA Novosti news agency last year. “All foreigners serve their sentences on the grounds and in the manner prescribed by Russian law.”
Where there is clearly different treatment in Russia’s penal colonies — if not special treatment — is when it comes to women.
“Male and female colonies are two different planets, that’s how it’s always been,” Romanova told Grid. While the women’s system is generally more regimented, she described men’s facilities as functioning according to the principles of “ponyatiya” — literally, “understandings” that are strictly and sometimes brutally observed. “It’s a criminal code, like mafia laws, a set of unofficial laws that actually rule and maintain order in the community,” she said.
There is nothing like it in the women’s penal colonies, she said. “There are no such concepts in women’s zones, no hierarchy at all. In male prisons, if another inmate starts bullying you for no reason, you can go and seek justice to a kind of criminal boss. In female prisons, there’s no one you can address for help.”
Romanova foresees one particular difficulty for Griner: her sexual orientation.
“Brittney Griner has publicly stated that she is a lesbian, and this will make it very difficult for her,” she told Grid. “The issue is stigmatized, so we know of many cases of bullying. Lesbians are usually given the hardest work. She may be an exception, because she is an American, a public person, she has a lot of attention.”
Where literature meets Russian reality
In an irony that will feel bitter to Griner and all who support her, Putin said in 2010 that “The Gulag Archipelago,” Solzhenitsyn’s masterpiece about the prison system, should be required reading for Russian students.
It’s not the only way in which some of the greats in the literary canon are woven into this story.
In one of his posts from the penal colony, Navalny wrote that “video cameras are everywhere, everyone is watched and at the slightest violation they make a report. I think someone upstairs read Orwell’s ‘1984′” — a reference to perhaps the most-read dystopian novel in literary history.
And during her Moscow detention, Griner’s reading material reportedly included books by Fyodor Dostoevsky, the Russian novelist whose work — like Solzhenitsyn’s — was influenced by harrowing experiences in the country’s penal system. It was Dostoevsky who wrote, in “The House of the Dead”: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.