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An Intimate Look at Life in a Harsh Russian Gulag

Max Avdeev

IK-28, a maximum-security Russian penal colony, is located in Yertsevo, in the northern Arkhangelsk region near the Arctic Circle. It was once part of a cluster of camps founded in the late 1930s as part of the Gulag system. Today, it houses over 1,000 prisoners, many of whom were convicted on murder or terrorism charges. “Most of them killed two or more people,” says photographer Max Avdeev, who shot the prison in February 2010.

Given the growing number of Russian political prisoners who find themselves in jail—Mikhail Khodorkovsky, two members of the punk band Pussy Riot, and soon, opposition politician Alexey Navalny—we thought we’d show you what Russian penal colonies look like. This is one of the harsher ones.—Julia Ioffe

The head of the prison.
Prisoners are kept in distinct sectors to prevent them from sharing items and ideas with other groups. For example, prisoners convicted of terrorism charges (mainly from Chechnya) are kept together in one sector.
A young rabbi from Moscow leads a ceremony with Jewish prisoners. Prison authorities tolerate all religions, figuring that a practicing prisoner is less trouble than an idle one.
A roll call is taken three times a day.
Prisoners return to their sectors after dining.
The prison and environs in winter. Guards are allowed to shoot an escaping prisoner after he has crossed the middle wooden fence.
A prisoner working in the kitchen.
This prisoner killed a man who was nearly 10 inches taller, and did so “without special devices”—that is, with his hands.
This prisoner, convicted of killing two people, chops wood.
This inmate was allowed to keep his mustache after proving that it was a part of his family heritage dating back to the 16th century.
This inmate oversees the prison’s Russian Orthodox church, which is attended by about 30 inmates.
The sign reads, “Every employee is a teacher and a controller.”
A prayer room for Muslims.
This prisoner runs the library.
Workers return to their sector at night.
An inmate bakes bread.
Young rabbis from Moscow speak with prisoners.
The dining hall.
The prison barracks.
A prisoner who has been transferred to another prison returns his mattress.
Locals near the railway station. There are two trains a day out of Ercevo—one to Arkhangelsk in the morning, and one to Moscow in the evening.
These prison guards are on a 2-hour, 25-kilometer trip for a shift change with guards at a colony-settlement of about 100 non-dangerous prisoners. It’s about -31ºF outside, and around 10ºF inside the truck.
A prisoner hauls timber.
A prisoner chops trees.
Guards form a perimeter, discouraging prisoners from making a run for it.