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Russian prisons : bringing a riddle out of hiding

Piacentini, Laura (2009) Russian prisons : bringing a riddle out of hiding. e-Sharp. pp. 74-98.

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In this paper I discuss doing research in Russian prisons, which remained hidden from the international research community for nearly 100 years. Over the last 13 years, I have visited and conducted research in more than 20 prison establishments in Russia, from Moscow to Siberia, and interviewed over 300 prison personnel and prisoners . Whether I travel to Russia on my own to carry out a research project, or travel with research partners (which has been the case since 2006) all of the criminology research I do is conducted during extraordinary political, economic and cultural change, the effects of which are still being felt today. The paper discusses past and present reflections on researching Russia’s vast penal territories between 1997 to the present and is divided into 3 parts, beginning with a discussion of the tension between hiddeness and visibility in prisons generally. This is followed by a brief history of Russia’s penal system. The paper’s final section describes some of the methodological concerns I faced in researching this hidden penal community. My aim is to say a little bit more than how to gather data from Russian prisons. Instead I aim to look beyond penal politics and towards history and culture to examine whether the tension between hiddeness and visibility, that characterises Western penal systems, occurs in Russia and the effects of this.