Ethnic and religious identities in Russian penal institutions: A case study of Uzbek Transnational Muslim prisoners

Rustamjon Urinboyev, Judith Pallot

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Russia has become one of the main migration hubs worldwide following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The vast majority of migrant workers travel to Russia from three Central Asian countries. However, Russian immigration laws and policies are ambiguous and highly punitive. The result is that many migrants resort to undocumented status working in the shadow economy, which places them in a disadvantaged and precarious position. In this position they are vulnerable to becoming targets of the Russian criminal justice system as they take to crime to overcome economic uncertainty, become embroiled in interpersonal conflicts ending in violence, or fall victim to fabricated criminal charges initiated by Russian police officers under pressure to produce their monthly quota of arrests. The impact on Russian penal institutions is that they have become ethnically, culturally, and religiously diverse sites as a consequence of the incarceration of growing numbers of transnational prisoners. Using person-to-person interviews conducted in Uzbekistan with men and women who served sentences in Russian penal institutions during the past two decades, we show in this article how the large-scale migratory processes have transformed Russian prisons into sites of ethnic and religious plurality, in which formal rules and informal sub-cultures - the colony regime, so-called thieves' law (vorovskoy zakon), ethnic solidarity norms, and Sharia law - coexist and clash in new ways compared with the status quo ante. Thus, we argue there is a need to revise the prevailing understanding about the power dynamics in Russian penal institutions. Our findings undermine the prison service's insistence of the ethnic and ethno-religious neutrality and cosmopolitanism of Russian penal space, which is presented as a latter-day manifestation of the Soviet-era 'friendship of nations' policy. Russian prisons today must be understood as sites of ethnic and religious pluralism.
Original languageEnglish
Article number122
Number of pages19
JournalOpen Research Europe
Publication statusPublished - 2024

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Law and Society

Free keywords

  • Russia
  • prisons
  • penality
  • Muslim prisoners
  • Uzbeks
  • ethnicity
  • Islam
  • radicalisation


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