Useful days

Anastasia Rudenko

2017 - Ongoing

I traveled with a camera to several penitentiaries within one Russian region where she is based and where she was able to get access and permission to photograph during the open days - a rare opportunity for the media to get a glimpse of life inside the Federal Penitentiary Service (or FSIN), a successor agency to the State Directorate of the Camps, the Gulag. These open days are thoroughly orchestrated events designed by the penal administration to create "positive" publicity and to conceal the dismal reality of torture and inhumanity so characteristic of Russia's prison system that remains largely unreformed since Stalin. Though the first reaction when looking at these photographs could be a dismay at how the photographer seems to be playing into the hands of the administration, portraying an almost idyllic picture of life behind bars, a second thought may lead to a revelation that these images in fact create a metaphor of the current Russian political regime in general. The authoritarian government, for example, may force citizens, especially those dependent on it, to vote for a designated "candidate" to create a bogus semblance of popular support, so does the penal administration who coerces the inmates to play sports, stage theater performances, decorate their dungeon and show off a happy life in front of the (most often) government-controlled media while preventing them from telling their real stories and grievances.

“The Days of Useful Deeds” is an annual competition for the correctional facilities in Vologda region, Russia, held since 1964. This is a unique experience interactions of prisoners and their wardens that turned 55 and held only in this region. Every year in summer the representatives of civil society, journalists and prisoners’ relatives have the opportunity to visit the Vologda region ten colonies, two detention centers and an interregional hospital for convicts to see the life of the inmates. At the end of the reviews in all prisons, a special commission appointed by the authorities determines the winner. They evaluate on a 2-point scale the quality of prisoners’ everyday life, their labor conditions, recreational activities such as concerts, decoration of the territory of new premises or their renovation, a festive atmosphere and so on.

In recent years, some other regions have taken part of this experience. In total prisons in Russia are home to 613,000 inmates, according to Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN). Some experts say the prisons in Vologda region are more comfortable and the guards less cruel compared to other Russian prisons.

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