March 1, 2023 Special Dispatch No. 10510

Russian Journalist And Human Rights Activist Merkacheva: The Soviet Union Prided Itself On Short Prison Sentences, Russian Courts Today Are Enamored With Draconian Sentences

March 1, 2023
Russia | Special Dispatch No. 10510

Eva Merkacheva, a well-known journalist and member of the Russian President's Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights, points out a cruel irony. The Soviet Union prided itself on short prison sentences. In the last decade, Russian courts have become enamored with extremely sentences. The draconian sentences are imposed on young first offenders, particularly in drug related offenses. This leads to the overcrowding of prisons and precludes the possibility of rehabilitation and a return to normal life.

Merkacheva asks Russian society to make up its mind whether it is interested in rehabilitation or punishment. Her article, titled "Half A Life In Prison: The Average Imprisonment Term In Russia Has Sharply Increased," follows below:[1]

Eva Merkacheva (Source:

In Soviet times, the maximum prison sentence totaled only 15 years, which was considered one of the important accomplishments of the legal system. The Soviet authorities took pride in this, while the massive sentences in other countries were called (you're not going to believe this) a relic of the capitalist system.

And so today we have reached the point where sentences of 18-25 years even for (take note!) non-violent crimes have become the norm. What will this lead to? – [It will lead to] prison overcrowding and the risk that the correctional system becomes punitive. Despite the fact that the harshness of punishments, as scientists have proven, does not help prevent crime.

Recent high-profile sentences have, shall we say, shocked the general public. Take, for instance, the verdict [handed down in the case of] the Magomedov brothers, [Magomed and Ziyavudin], who received 18 and 19 years respectively on charges of economic crimes.

The sentences are no less harsh for other categories of non-violent crimes. Let's recall former Kommersant journalist Ivan Safronov, who received 22 years on a treason charge, and former top Russian Joint Stock Company manager Karina Tsurkan, who was sentenced to 15 years. By the way, all of them were first-time offenders, i.e., this was their first criminal prosecution (and, let me remind you, that this category got minimum sentences in the old days). People receive verdicts on the average from 9 to 20 years for a drug dealing charge (Article 228 of the Criminal Code). Moreover, this applies to both men and women.

"Where did such insane sentences come from? Do you think we are immortal highlanders, heroes of the famous fantasy film?" exclaimed from the holding cage the men who were sentenced by [the Greek goddess of Justice] Themis to 16 and 18 years in prison for fraud.

The lawyers wondered: "Is it normal to give a sentence that is equivalent to a third of a human lifetime for a non-violent crime (when no one was physically hurt)?"

However, sentences for those found guilty of murder have also increased. The case of the ex-governor of Khabarovsk Krai, Furgal, who the court sentenced to 22 years, confirms this. This year, for the first time in recent history, we have witnessed an unusually harsh sentence for women: from 24 to 25 years were given to the members of the so-called "The Amazons" gang.

"During the Soviet era, the maximum prison sentence was 15 years," argued criminologist Danil Sergeyev, "It was given for murder under aggravated circumstances. For non-violent crimes the sentences were short: an average of 2-4 years, for violent ones – 5-7 years. True, at that time death penalty was legal.

Criminologist Danil Sergeyev (Source:

"When it was abolished, a life sentence or 25 years in prison became the alternatives. In general, this is humane and correct. But over the last decade, the sentences have gradually been increased. Amendments have been introduced that currently allow sentences of up to 30 years for cumulative offences and up to 35 years for terrorist offences. Against this background, we observe a trend towards increasing sentences overall."

There is an interesting story to be told about the "people's" Article 228 [possession of controlled substances] of the Criminal Code. The Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights received several collective letters from mothers, who described as savage the sentences that their children (mostly students) received.

"How can a court sentence an honors student to 10 years for a first-time offence?" wonders Natalya K., the young man's mother, "Yes, he's guilty, he planted a zakladka [drug stash]. But what's the reason for the 10 years?! What will he come back as following such a term?"

I personally attended a trial of a Moscow university student. The court sentenced him to 9 years in a strict regime penal colony, despite the extenuating circumstances. There were girls in the women's pre-trial detention facility, who were sentenced from 8 to 17 years for a first-time offence under Article 228 of the Criminal Code.

"This is the result of numerous revisions of laws," argued Sergeyev, "We do see a tendency to increase the punitive component for those prosecuted on drug offences. Some nations (for example, the U.S.) have been through this. In the end, this led to a colossal overcrowding of prisons.

"I am afraid that this awaits us as well. Already, nearly one out of every two people are being sentenced to [terms in] penal colony under Article 228 of the Russian Criminal Code. The problem of the massive judicial enthusiasm for extremely long sentences leads to a reduction of prison population turnover.

"In the past, with an average sentence of 7-8 years, the prison population's composition renewed itself after each 7-8 period, the places of those released were occupied by new [inmates]. Now convicts with "ultra-long" sentences are grounded for a long time in penitentiary institutions. But this does not stop the process of new characters arriving in the institutions, which again leads to overcrowding."

Perhaps the main question is why such "savage" sentences are necessary? After all, it has been scientifically proven that it doesn't promote rehabilitation. Furthermore, if a person has been behind bars for more than 7 years, the possibility of his return to a normal life approaches zero. It becomes dangerous for society and for the person himself.

Some experts argue that there is a public demand for stiffer sentences (especially under Articles 228 and 159 of the Criminal Code). But this is reminiscent of "Pontius Pilate's law," whose essence is to impose a verdict based on society's punitive aspiration. As history has demonstrated, this will not lead to anything good.

We are going through an interesting period in terms of the law and its application. On the one hand, sentences are being increased, on the other hand, a probation law (post-release adaptation of ex-prisoners) has been passed. Do we cut off the guilty head with one hand and reattach it with the other? We should make up our minds: are we setting the goal at reform or punishment?


[1], February 15, 2023.

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