Inside Russia's Prison System

Photographs of life under incarceration, from Moscow to Siberia

"We have been happily borne--or perhaps have unhappily dragged our weary way--down the long and crooked streets of our lives, past all kinds of walls and fences made of rotting wood, rammed earth, brick, concrete, iron railings," Russian dissident, former political prisoner and Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn writes in the opening pages of The Gulag Archipelago. "We have never given a thought to what lies behind them. We have never tried to penetrate them with our vision or our understanding. But there is where the Gulag country begins, right next to us, two yards away from us."

Today's Russian prisons, home to over 830,000 prisoners and 560 out of every 100,000 Russians as of 2010, are, by most accounts, a vast improvement over the the notorious prison-camp system of the Stalin era. But Solzhenitsyn's account remains haunting when looking behind the walls and fences of contemporary Russia's prison camps, some of which are located deep in the sparse and cold Siberian wilderness. Below, a short look at what's there -- and at what the Pussy Riot defendants could be in for.

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Women wait to be escorted to work at a prison in central Russia. For female convicts, work often involves sewing or textile work. (Yuri Tutov/AP)

A guard watches over inmates as they harvest potatoes at a penal colony near Krasnoyarsk, Siberia. (Ilya Naymushin/Reuters)

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An inmate carries a heavy sack at a prison camp outside Krasnoyarsk. (Ilya Naymushin/Reuters)

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It isn't all potato-harvesting and sack-carrying: Penal colonies in the Krasnoyarsk area compete against one another in soccer, basketball, volleyball, table tennis, chess, and tug-of-war. (Ilya Naymushin/Reuters)

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Prisoners compete in tug-of-war. (Ilya Naymushin/Reuters)

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A mosque and Orthodox chapel at a prison 450 miles east of Moscow. (Maxim Marmur/AP)

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An Orthodox Priest baptizes babies of women prisoners in a prison colony in the Siberian town of Maryinsk. Many female prisoners have to keep their babies, born behind bars and rejected by relatives, in special nurseries located on the territory of the prison until their release. (stringer/Reuters)

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Illiterate prisoners await their first day of school at a penal colony outside Krasnoyarsk. (Ilya Naymushin/Reuters)

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Inmates exercise in a special ward for prisoners suffering from multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB), at a prison hospital in Tomsk, about 2175 miles east of Moscow. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)


Meal time at an intake center for accused criminals south of Moscow. The facility was so crowded that inmates had to eat and sleep in shifts. (Reuters)

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Officers give prisoners voting papers in a Moscow prison before the country's presidential elections in March 2000. A former KGB agent and one-time deputy prime minister named Vladimir Putin won with 53% of the vote. (Misha Japaridze/AP)