Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration


Ali Feruz
c. March 2017
Detention Center for Foreign Nationals (TsVSIG) in Sakharovo

PLOT SUMMARY: “Diary” is an account of Uzbek-Russian journalist Ali Feruz’s time in TsVSIG, the Detention Center for Foreign Nationals in Sakharovo. Feruz describes the inhumane conditions migrants are forced to endure in TsVSIG. The detainees are treated like criminals - beaten by security on the way to the detention center, surveilled constantly, and crammed into tight, claustrophobic cells (which Feruz likens to animal cages). The migrants are woken up at six, given breakfast at seven — a meager portion of porridge, bread, and a single tablespoon of black tea for the entire cell — and inspected at nine. They are allotted an hour outside on TsVSIG grounds, which is the site of a former military base. The diary gives glimpses of life in the detention center, drawing brief portraits of the migrants and recording Feruz’s own feelings of perpetual fear, anxiety, and dread. But Feruz‘s ‘Diary’ also documents moments of community amongst the detainees; the migrants joke, play cards or dominoes, and share books. The diary, which was sent out as it was written, in the form of letters to the outside world, ends with a plea from Feruz: “Help me survive, please.”

ANALYSIS: Like many authors belonging to the tradition of Russian prison writing, Feruz captures the unreality of the carceral space, depicting the ways in which time becomes distorted through scenes of Feruz and the other detainees anxiously waiting for — and fearing — what feels like their inevitable deportation. With no sense of how much time has passed or where entries begin and end, readers of the diary are able to feel the weight of the detention center’s warped temporality and liminality.

Feruz’s “Diary” makes no room for stylistic flourishes. Though their language is sparse and blunt, the text is nonetheless haunted by a pervasive sense of claustrophobic dread with Feruz’s sharp attention to detail to the abuses, indignities, and deprivations migrants faced in TsVSIG. At the same time, however, the text can also be understood as a project that works to recover both the detainee’s and Feruz’s own sense of humanity in a site of routine dehumanization through the diary’s small portraits of the migrants’ lives and Feruz’s interactions with them. These moments in the text are active forms of both resistance and survival that defy - and inherently critique - the brutalizing forces of prison.


“‘When I get out of here, I’m going to take a deep breath of fresh air,’ says Zamir. The detention centre is surrounded by forest, but there’s still no air” (4).

“Despair doesn’t grow by the day, nor the hour, but by the minute. When I read books or play dominos, then I forget about it. When I stop, then I feel like I’m dreaming. As if this all isn’t happening to me, not here. I want it all to end as soon as possible. It feels as if time has stopped. Nothing is happening” (9).

“Sometimes I wake up from a nightmare in the night. I don’t feel right for ages. I don’t remember who I am, where I am and what is happening to me. I go up to the mirror and start to touch myself, my face. Only then does my memory return, I remember who I am and what’s happened to me … But I try, like other people … to try and grab hold of something in this life. I try and grab hold of the love of my man and my friends” (11).

BIOGRAPHY: Ali Feruz is an Uzbek-Russian journalist and gay rights activist who formerly worked for Novaya Gazeta (‘New Gazette’), a sociopolitical newspaper known for its critical and investigative coverage of Russian political and social affairs. Feruz was born in Soviet Russia in 1986; they moved to Uzbekistan and took Uzbek citizenship at the age of seventeen. In 2008, Feruz was detained and tortured by Uzbek’s National Security Service, who attempted to make them their secret informant. Feruz fled the country upon their release, after agreeing to the Security Service’s conditions. In Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, Feruz applied for refugee status from the UN. The request was denied.

In 2011, Feruz moved to Moscow, where they reported on hate crimes, migrant workers’ rights, and discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community. Six years later, they were arrested by Russian police and taken to Basmanny court where a judge ruled they had broken Russian migration legislation. The court ordered them to be deported to Uzbekistan. Although the European Court of Human Rights intervened, issuing an injunction that requested to stop their deportation while the case was being discussed, Feruz had to spend several months in TsVSIG, the Detention Center for Foreign Nationals. On February 15, 2018, Feruz was released from TsVSIG after Moscow court rulings allowed them to leave for a third country. They currently reside in Berlin.

Brinkley, Elly. “This Gay Journalist Is Being Detained in Russia - and May Not Be Released.” Them., 1 Feb. 2018,

Burrows, Emma. “Gay Journalist Appeals against Russian Deportation Order.” CNN, Cable News Network, 7 Aug. 2017,

Rainsford, Sarah. “Ali Feruz: Deportation Reprieve for Uzbek Journalist in Moscow.” BBC News, BBC, 8 Aug. 2017,

RFE/RL. “Moscow Court Orders Novaya Gazeta Reporter's Deportation to Uzbekistan.” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, Moscow Court Orders Novaya Gazeta Reporter's Deportation To Uzbekistan, 2 Aug. 2017,

RFE/RL. “Journalist Ali Feruz Arrives in Germany after Six Months in Custody in Russia.” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, Journalist Ali Feruz Arrives In Germany After Six Months In Custody In Russia, 16 Feb. 2018,

Human Rights Watch. “Uzbekistan: Gay Men Face Abuse, Prison.” Human Rights Watch, 6 Sept. 2021,
Human Rights Watch conducted nine interviews with gay men from Uzbekistan and Central Asian LGBTQ+ activists in November 2020 and February 2021. The interviews account the men’s personal experiences with arbitrary arrests, police abuses, extortion, and public violence and threats.

Kendzior, Sarah. “Digital Distrust: Uzbek Cynicism and Solidarity in the Internet Age.” American Ethnologist, vol. 38, no. 3, 2011, pp. 559–575. JSTOR,
Sarah Kendzior’s article explores how Uzbek exiles have used the Internet to attempt to forge solidarity in a political culture of skepticism and distrust. Kendzior traces the development of internal divisiveness in the Uzbek political opposition, revealing the ways in which cynicism has been reconstituted as an essential part of Uzbekistan’s political integrity. 

Tolz, Vera, and Sue-Ann Harding. “From ‘Compatriots’ to ‘Aliens’: The Changing Coverage of Migration on Russian Television.” The Russian Review, vol. 74, no. 3, 2015, pp. 452–477.,
Vera Tolz and Sue-Ann Harding’s article examines the changing nature of television reporting on migration in Russia as well as the relationship between the Kremlin, state-aligned broadcasters (such as Channel 1 and Rossiia) and the public. The purpose of Tolz and Harding’s article is to consider the extent to which this news coverage reflects fault lines and fluctuations in the official narratives of Russian nationhood and societal values. “From ‘Compatriots’ and ‘Aliens’” details the fierce surge of racism and xenophobia in today’s immigration anxious global North.

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