Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration


This Scalar book features the work of students in Professor José Vergara’s course RUSSB237 Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration (Fall 2021) at Bryn Mawr College and provides resources on various kinds of Russian prison writing. The majority of the prison text pages were created in a previous version of the course taught at Swarthmore College (Spring 2019, Spring 2021) for a StoryMap project.

As part of our efforts to understand the collection of texts that makes up Russia’s long tradition of prison narratives, students in RUSSB237 collectively built this website using Scalar. They practiced different skills and writing styles to complete three scaffolded writing assignments, choosing from a variety of genres with which to work.

A multifaceted, often paradoxical collection of texts makes up Russia’s long tradition of prison narratives. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, for example, viewed his time in the Gulag labor camps as an ultimately positive experience, going so far as to proclaim, “Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!” Others, such as Varlam Shalamov, would describe the depravities of prison life in harrowing detail throughout countless stories and poems, while simultaneously maintaining that neither writers nor readers should concern themselves with such overwhelmingly negative topics.

This course aims to illuminate numerous aspects of Russian culture through an examination of its prisons, its narratives of individual and collective captivity, and related social conflicts. While the Gulag remains the most infamous component of the Russian-Soviet justice system, this country has a long history of inhumane punishment on a terrifying scale. Thus, we’ll take a broad historical view, starting in the seventeenth century with the imprisonment of Archpriest Avvakum, arrested for his religious dissent, and ending with the trials of contemporary political prisoners who have used their time in prison to expose the injustices committed by the Putin regime and to shed light on the stories of lesser-known but no less unjustly incarcerated individuals. Our course is intentionally curated as a survey of this literature in order to emphasize the tradition of prison writing in Russia, its tropes and tendencies, and the connections between various works. Through the writings of a variety of thinkers (Michel Foucault, Hannah Arendt, Carolyn Forché, and Angela Davis), RUSS237 likewise seeks to explore such issues as the representation of violence (physical, psychological, social, etc.) perpetrated both by individuals and the state, Stalinist totalitarianism and the Gulag system, and artists’ uses of their experiences as a form of protest, witness-bearing, and meaning-making. Finally, we’ll take some time to compare the Russian and American prison systems.

We consider such questions as: How has the Russian prison system functioned as a form of structural violence against its peoples throughout the last few centuries? How do the physical spaces of captivity (prison, labor camps, domestic spaces) both enact and represent forms of punishment and violence itself? How was the very fabric of Soviet society transformed into a panopticon-like police state in which citizens became sentries and informants? What were the direct effects of this kind of physical and psychological terror upon individuals, as expressed in these works? Can, as Solzhenitsyn suggests, suffering offer a kind of transformative experience? Similarly, can these stories and ideas transcend the experience of confinement without simultaneously justifying the system? How have these authors used their writings to alter both domestic and foreign views of prisons and captivity? How does the concept of the Russian prison zona extend beyond the bars to the rest of society? From which positionalities do these writers describe their experiences, and what gaps remain in the tradition? How well do Western theories of criminal (in)justice and the representation of violence in art apply to the Russian context?


Site supported by the Digital Scholarship Program at Bryn Mawr College
Special thanks to Alice McGrath, Senior Digital Scholarship Specialist, and Sean Keenan, Educational and Scholarly Technology Assistant

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