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"Women agree to have sex in exchange for cigarettes". Life of lesbians in Russian prisons

Наталия Донскова
Наталия Донскова
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The article about homosexuality and lesbianism was excluded from the Russian Criminal Code exactly 25 years ago, on April, 29, 1993 in connection with joining the Council of Europe, but firmly ingrained in the Russian Criminal Executive Code and remains there till now. The Criminal Executive Code connected with numerous orders for prisons official use, as well as official and unofficial ways to punish prisoners for their relationships. Most often, in order not to spoil the statistics, additional "hozraboty" (hard extra work after twelve-hour work day) is applied to women or they are sent to SHIZO (punishment cell) under different pretexts.

But "you are not punished for sex, haring but punished because you are on someone else's “shkonar” (bed in prison)." The Russian correctional system has many ways to suppress the personality of the prisoner. Relationships in prisons also become the basis for persecution and blackmail. But if in male jails one of the most serious punishments is to become a “petuh” (in the Russian prison system, petuhi, or offended people are a lower caste of passive homosexuals. They can not seat at the table with others, speak and sleep on the bed), then in female jails and isolators everything is much more complicated. However, even there homosexuality is one of those factors that can significantly worsen the quality of life. The prison administration finds a way to make personal attachment an instrument to achieve its goals. We met with four former prisoners who told us about their experiences — what it’s like to love in prison.



Natalia got freedom in September 2010, she has a total prison experience of more than 15 years. However, she has lost the count of detention years.

She got the first terms for pickpocketing, then she was given twenty years for drugs... And when she сleaned up, she released mad energy that used to go to find money and a drug dose. The energy remained, and it was necessary to spend it on something good. Now Natalia is an LGBT activist who became famous for the video "St. Petersburg pensioners in support of cadets flying school", which scored more than half a million views.

— Did your first homosexual experience happen in prison?

— I believe that I was lucky, because I had sex relations with a woman before the first term. And I understood everything about myself. In fact, perhaps, nothing would happen in these bestial conditions. Not that the continuation, but the experience would not happen. Because everything is in sight, including sex. In the colony, beds are placed very tight, in two tiers. There are about 150 people in one section. But it's not bad, it's good, in fact, when a lot of people have some sort of autonomy. When twenty people are in the same room, you are always in full view.

— You are not punished for sex, but punished for the fact that you are on someone else's "shkonar" (bed), are you?

— Formally, relations are considered as a violation, but this thing is difficult to be proved, in other words, everyone knows everything, and the commanders of the detachment "vpisyvautsa" (they take part in these relations, protect lovers or punish them). But they can prove it if they catch you two at night. And there are no other variants. And officially they are punished, and unofficially — encouraged. Because the administration believes that it is a powerful tool of influence.



I had different relationships. Many of my girlfriends loved to make plans for the future: we will come out and live together. But I was not interested. I did not understand how to live with one person for a long time. Later, when I was 30 (I was free already), they gave direction to Volkhov. There I met a woman, she worked as a foreman at the factory, we had been together for 23 years. And you know, the least of all problems in my life was the fact that I was a lesbian.

— Subculture in the Russian prisons and lesbian culture on the outside are very different. There, adaptation is prevalent. Females’ masculinity is highly prized. In short, women-like-husband. The woman herself may be heterosexual, but others quickly secure a grip on her. And then she starts walking as if she had kilogram pair of testicles in her pants. I do not understand this, this is not a woman, but a man.

The origins of adaptive relations are simple — most often women who have served a long term, have no parents. There is no one to send them parcels. Surviving is easier when there is a girlfriend. Moreover, in many Russian institutions there are problems with personal supplies: pads, toothpaste. For example, according to the report by Lyudmila Alpern in the publication "Situation of vulnerable groups in places of forced detention in the Russian Federation" (Review report, Moscow, 2016 Penal Reform International), in police isolators, pads are given out in five regions, and in detention places — in 10 of 19 regions. The situation is aggravated with the fact that female prison inmates simply do not know that they, for example, are supposed to receive hygiene products, so they do not ask for them. And if prisoners don’t ask, then they don’t have it.

— Did a female officer ever fell in love with a female prisoner?

— Once the female chief of the educational department fell in love with a girl. This girl was a nasty one. And she appointed her girlfriend the head of the prison cultural club. It was a catastrophe, because one can receive incentives for taking part in performances in order to get out earlier. So, all people depended on this woman. This is bad for prisoners and bad for the administration. And the officer did everything her girlfriend told. Prisoners had to put up with her... And another story in simply "mama-mia"… An officer of the operation department fell in love with a woman, a masculine one, Anka. Officer brought her heroin… And everyone knew it. We looked at all this like camels from the "Camel" advertisement. We started to think that the whole administration was on drugs.



Such stories are common. There is a saying: all women prisons are "red" (red prisons are the prisons where the administration manages, and "black" are the prisons, in which prisoners manage). Prisoners often agree to profitable offers to ease conditions of detention in order to be released earlier.


The Leningrad Oblast. 38-year-old Olga has been recently freed from the Mordovian jail. Then she found shelter at her ex-girlfriend Katherine. Now the couple lives in a three-room apartment: Katya and Vita, and Olga. Olga has no citizenship, no documents, no housing, no work. This story began almost 15 years ago. Katya and Olya met in Petersburg, lived together for six years, parted. All that time she was wanted. She quarreled with Katya. She took her things and went to the park... and appeared again in the life of her ex only two years later. Suddenly Katya received a message in the social network: "Hi, I'm in Mordovia..." Katya also has a prison experience, she was in a colony in Sablino, Leningrad region in the early 2000s.

— Do women who have female partner in prisons associate themselves with the LGBT community?

Olga: There were some who lived with women on the outside, I and a couple of people. All the rest lived with men, they have children. I have realized my orientation in childhood, and I know exactly what I want.

Katya: We did not have such a term as a lesbian. Nobody considered themselves lesbians. Well, there is no such pisya as I want, but my pussy still wants: so, there is no other way, it was for health. I learnt about LGBT recently. Although I have been dating girls since I was 14 years old, and now I'm 38.

— Do relationships continue after prison?

Katya: I was released earlier than my girlfriend. She got freedom, came to me, but my father did not let her in. I was looking for her, received the answer to the letter that the house had been burnt. I do not know where she is now.

Olya: I stayed with my first girl in a quarantine for a long time. At first, she said something about “prodol”. And then she started to help me with work. When I had a big fight and I got hit with a screwdriver, my future romantic interest came to bathe my head, and the relationships started. She was five years younger than me. Jealousy began: "Why on earth do you chat and drink tea with her?" And then: "Darling, F**K it, let’s stay friends." Some people have feelings, and it is very difficult, because everything is always in sight. Outside you can leave, but here you can not. And my first relationship ended cause she got freedom.

— Is there a caste system in the penitentiaries where you served your sentence?

Olya: Such terms as "kobel" (active lesbian), "kovyrialka" (passive lesbian) were uncommon among us. If they could call someone a "kobel", then it was purely a joke. We had halves. Only a lower caste had no halves. "Chepushila" (a rude word) — one that does not look after herself. Usually they have "manual" work. As a rule, if they do not want to wash, they got some hot water. They communicate only with “chepushila”, and no one will have tea with them. Such people can be easily beaten, on the part of the officers there was a "dubinal" (beating), if he could not fulfill the plan for sewing, "on the tape" there was a lot of pressure. They beat to blood. Strong. Hard.

Katya: And about the “kobles”. We met with guys from the male jail. All our kobles who spoke of themselves as men, they dressed up weird, made make up. I said: "Ah, my boys with pussy." They are like males: "I'm not Yulia, I'm Yura."  When they were congratulated with March 8, they made a scandal, but when males came…

The main difference between the male and female jails is a caste system in men’s prisons. And if "chepushila" can be washed off and become a "normal person", there is no return from the "offended" caste in male prisons. Women can change roles, in men's jails it is excluded. If he is a passive homosexual, then he always remains such, and he can not be stroked or pitied. Why do they rape? They want to humiliate someone, lower, to bring to a caste of the lowered, to whom no one gives a hand. This is done so that you can demand money in exchange for some kind of human relationship. For example, it was in the case of the torture of Pshenichny (https://www.novayagazeta.ru/articles/2018/04/16/76202-pozvonochnik-sloman-sledy-ot-kipyatilnika-vo-rtu) — sex violence is used as a mean of pressure and obtaining material benefits.

— How do relationships begin?

Olya: The relationships begin with some commonplace: "Do you want a candy?" Sometimes, you find yourself in quarantine, you look around. I can not say suddenly — I want you.

If there is a mutual sympathy, then there comes an invitation to have tea. And then there is a "malyavnya" — prison illegal correspondence. Then relations develop. And if other prisoners see that you have tea five times together, you can be ranked as a pair. And it is treat calmly. But if you go to someone else's "shkonar" (bed), a report (complaint against a prisoner) can be sent on you. Sex takes place in "promka" (production area), in "bendegka" (a storage room), in the club, in dryers. Then at night in "shkonar" (bed). There are "shkonars" that are not viewed by cameras. Well, we found where.

Katya: We hung the curtains, and here we go. We did not have cameras, and there were people on duty on the floor. And if sometimes they shouted: "Police is in the house!" we cleaned up.

— How were you punished if you were caught?

Olya: “Hozraboty” (hard work outdoors after usual work). Well, it means, you slept for two hours and have to work again. In winter — to clean snow, in summer — to drag pipes. And sweeping the parade ground, scooping up the puddles. We were treated with loyalty to homosexual relations.

It was difficult to get strict conditions of detention in general, even if you want — there is no need to work there. How did they punish the pairs? They were separated, transferred to different detachments, shifts, etc. There is no territory where everyone meets, only local areas. We managed to make our way into another detachment, to bypass the "local area". We did not care about reports (complaint against a prisoner).

"I want to return to the zone, there are a lot of women, and everybody is a lesbian"

Katya: In our premises for relatives, there were posters "inclined to cohabition”. Some granny comes to pass a packet and sees her daughter with such an inscription. And the line was painted (in Russia prisons documents of prisoners are written with colored lines, it means: prone to escape, prone to homosexual relationships and so on). We knew that this woman has a line for escape, another woman had line for another thing. In general, it was very serious, they could send us to the SHIZO (punishment cell). There were 40 people, and the most — for homosexual relations. And my girlfriend was also sent there, however, the reason was a fight. When I came out, I once thought to do something and return to prison to not see all this on the outside. There was no work, Olya bailed on me. I thought: I want to return to the zone, there are a lot of women, and everybody is a lesbian

We also had a woman-officer who took girls to her cabinet. My girlfriend refused and was moved to punishment cell immediately after the fight. Still remember this officer, she was as ugly as a hunting dog. She took girls to her place, and although everybody kept silent, everything was clear.

Women often tell about such unofficial pressure on prisoners. Most likely, administration of the institution does not want to spoil the "reporting", so official forms of punishment are not applied. Officially, women get into punishment cell or  strict conditions of detention or to additional household work not for relationships and not for sex. The motive can be different, not only being on someone else's bed, but also a fight, a non-fulfillment of the work plan and so on. In fact, any unreasonable workload is a form of violence is discrimination. If people work for their love afterwards overtime, it's like you went out to a date and have to work another eight hours shift. As the measures of pressure are mostly used behind the scenes, that means, they are punished for sex, but at the same time, there is another occasion. It is very difficult to talk about the extent of persecution in the executive system for homosexual relationships. It greatly complicates the research. So, there is no understanding of how to work with this category of prisoners and how they can be helped in rehabilitation and resocialization.


Ksenia calls herself a "thief". She has a large prison experience: she has five terms, from six months till a year. Short terms. The last time Ksenia got freedom in 2015. She served a sentence in the Leningrad region and in Samara. Now Ksenia lives with her husband, he is also a former prisoner. Their first meeting is connected with crime. Their relationships have been lasting for 23 years. Ksenia has two children, now they are in an orphanage. She dreams to recommence relations with them. She speaks like a witness about women's connections, although sometimes it was very difficult to stay away…



— Why do you think many heterosexual women in jails begin to live with other women?

— I believe, love is only among the older generation, the old "soldiers", the women who had many terms, and they had a motive for this love. And all the rest usually play "roles", in the first terms there is usually no such love. The “pervohodi” (women who became prisoners for the first time) stayed six months, then went to the second term with “mnogohodi” (women who became prisoners for the second time and more), they have cigarettes, coffee, tea, sugar. Women agree to have sex for cigarettes.

This "role model" is the main difference between male colonies and female colonies. If a woman can change roles, a man, if he is a passive homosexual, will forever remain in the caste of the lowered. According to subjective data of prison experts, in Russian prisons there are about 10–15% of the total male prison population.

— Were there “kobels” and “koviryalki” in jails where you served terms?

— The true “kobels”... this word sounds rude and ugly, but it's authentic “fenya” (jargon)... so, the real “kobels” are few, and they are as good as gold. When the chairs were not fixed to the floor, women killed each other because of “kobel”. He was with someone and changed his girlfriend. The "hens" saw that he could go with another, and the war began. If not “menti” (officers), they would have killed each other.

I explained, the “kobels” of the older generation, they are already like a male in their life. The motto of the “kobel” is "who f ***  — eats meat". That means, you have tea, sugar, cigarettes... and all girls. "Kobel" is like a male — he smells of men's cologne, he speaks like a man, expressions, appearance, he wears male pants, there is no breast often. Here they are real, but they are not numerous.

— Do relationships continue after prison?

— The girl gets freedom and after that beat somebody or steal something to return to the prison. And while she is in place of detention (before jail), “kobel” is already with another girl. They don’t understand it. “Kobel” does not need his girlfriend, because the jail is filled with these girls.

— How did they punish for sex, for relationships?

— When you are in the detention center, in the evening officers come to check, no one comes at night. The local cameras are not in the cell. And they come and look at the “schnips” (peephole).

If they see a curtain, they send a report. And prisoner can not anticipate to get freedom earlier. I do not remember the report to be written by reason of sex. In the jail, there is blackmailing. Administration takes advantage of prisoners’ feelings. They [the prison administration] say: if you will not obey, your girlfriend or “kobel” will be moved to punishment cell. They ask to report about violations mostly: phones, drugs; believe me, it all comes to prison.

— Do women who have a pair in prison determine themselves as lesbians?

— They do not say the word "lesbian", they say "pair". Your name is Vasya, I consider you my husband. Еhey do not determine themselves as lesbians. They say "I'm married."



The topic of homosexual sex in the correction system remains taboo, excluding   well-known cases of violence in places of detention. And even human rights activists, from whom you expect understanding of different aspects of prisoners’ life, ask only one question: "Why are you even interested in this topic?"

They think and talk about parcels or visits. Prisoners also do not see violation of their rights in this persecution. Most people think that it would be more appropriate to talk about uncomfortable form, 12-hour work day. Women do not understand that their rights are violated, and they do not resist. Increasing of level of legal literacy of prisoners should become the basis for changes in the correctional system, human rights activist Leonid Agafonov believes:

First, women should understand that this is their rights, and no one can violate these rights. In general, when homosexualism was decriminalized and the article was removed from the Criminal Code, it had to be removed from the Criminal Executive Code also. If it’s a freewill sex, with love — why not? And if it’s a rape —  it is a crime, an article of the Criminal Code.

Yes, in prison, as on the outside, people love each other. And not only prisoners, but also officers. To date, unfortunately, there are no prerequisites for changes in Russia. Moreover, even if the law changes, prisoners will continue to be punished for this, but without legal justification during several decades.

Authors: author of the project “Woman. Society. Prison” Leonid Agafonov, Alexey Sergeev (designer), Natalia Donskova (journalist), Olga Holodnaya (photographer), Natalia Sivohina (corrector). Volunteers: Marianna Gelman, Lidia Simakova (journalist)

Our project: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1705447583108097

If want to help with English translation — write us [email protected]

With support of «7x7»


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