Kresty Prison: A Forgotten Site of Memory?

The Kresty prison is an impressive red brick structure that lies along the banks of the Neva River. When I came across this complex, I was in awe of its beautiful architectural style and its unique presence in the Petersburg skyline. Kresty, meaning “crosses”, describes the cross-like pattern of the complex. Since the eighteenth century, Kresty has been a continuously functioning prison.  As I walked into the complex, the place evoked an eerie atmosphere as I came to realize that large numbers of people filed through this prison for various political and criminal reasons.

As a site of memory in Modern Russia, this building is a window into how post-Soviet Russia is dealing with its politically repressive past. Through direct and indirect actions by the Russian government and society, one can see that post-Soviet Russia continually practices cultural amnesia when dealing with Kresty Prison, for it evokes a past filled with fear, control, andrepression. In addition, the atrocious conditions of the prison today show the lingering problems of Russian prison system that are difficult to hide from the international community. The various famous prisoners who filed through Kresty leave a lasting legacy in the memories of the Russian people. Anna Akhmatova, a controversial poet who spoke out against repressive Soviet rule, cites Kresty prison in her poetry as she writes about her son Lev Gumilev being filed through the prison and gulag system. Through her literature, Russian people can sense the impact a close relative or friend being processed through the prison and work camp system has on one’s personal well-being. When Russian people read Akhmatova’s poetry, I am sure many of them empathize, for one of their friends or relatives may have gone through the same prison experience, thus creating a connection through memory. There are many emotions and memories that are conjured up when one hears the words “Kresty Prison”, and the prison itself evokes unsettling thoughts about Russia’s past and present prison system.

The prison was initially built in the 1730s under the reign of Anna Ioannova and possessed a simple architectural design (encspb.ru). When the facility became too small to accommodate the prison needs of St. Petersburg, the facility was renovated between 1894 and 1890 by Austrian architect A.O. Tomishko (encspb.ru). It was declared a short-term prison for criminals being processed through the courts in 1897(encspb.ru). The layout of this prison consisted of a 2.5 storied cruciform with 960 cells that could hold up to 1150 people and included a 5-storied church dedicated to Russian war hero Alexander Nevsky (encspb.ru). In later years, the prison was expanded to its present capacity of 3,000 prisoners. It was a political prison during the revolutionary period of 1905-1907, and it transitioned back into a political prison from the 1920s to the 1950s during the Stalinist period of political repression (encspb.ru). Standing along the banks of the Neva, Kresty was originally the largest solitary confinement facility in all of Europe (encspb.ru). In post-Soviet times, it still functions as an active short-term prison and solitary confinement facility, and it has been infamous in recent years for tuberculosis infections, prisoners’ rights violations, and corruption (encspb.ru).


Despite the prisons’ storied history, the facility has not been memorialized in the post-Soviet period as a monument to recognize Russia’s politically repressed past. As I walked around the prison’s surrounding area, I saw apartment complexes, a children’s hospital, and a busy commercial district. Women were rocking their babies to sleep and watching their children play around in a courtyard that backs to the walls of the prison. It looks as if the Russian government and its people want to pretend that the prison is not there. As I walked the streets, I noticed that people would briskly walk by the prison as if it were another commercial or residential building in the skyline. These observations alone show that Kresty prison in Modern Russia is not a memorialized site of memory. The Russian people do not want to stop and reflect on their country’s rocky record with prisoners’ rights and its politically repressive past. The act by the government to continue to use Kresty as a current prison facility shows that it has no interest in emphasizing Kresty’s role as a political prisoner facility during Soviet Times. Instead, it seems as if this governmental decision is a way to forget Kresty’s past roles as a prison.

However, the government has made some efforts to commemorate victims of political repression and the gulag system. Across the Neva, there are two sphinxes dedicated to the victims of political repression. On the sphinxes are quotes from Anna Akhmatova’s poetry that express her sentiments about the gulag system. Standing along the embankment in between the two sphinxes is a small monument that is a cell window looking toward Kresty across the Neva.  Across the street from the sphinxes is a statue of Anna Akhmatova that looks listlessly toward the Kresty prison. These modest monuments are placed far away from the prison, and their purpose seems to address the gulag system itself. The monuments do not possess clear plaques or labels to tell tourists the meanings behind these small structures. In a way, the placement and presentation of these monuments show how the Russian government and its people recognize the Soviet Union’s grim past of political repression. However, the lack of ostentatious presentation and clear labels show that there is still some suppression of political repression memory occurring in post-Soviet Russia.

The Russian people do not want to dwell overly on their country’s past. The memorials do not seem to recognize directly the wrongdoings and political repression that went on in the Kresty prison. Instead, what occurred in Kresty is only hinted at through the complex symbolism of the sphinxes and the Anna Akhmatova quotes engraved along the sides of the sphinx statues. The window memorial that looks to Kresty prison and the placement of the statute of Akhkmatova looking toward Kresty hint to viewers that the prison played a large part in filing Russian people through the gulag system. Despite suppressed memory of Russia’s gulag and politically repressive past, Kresty continues to be a discomforting reminder that it is difficult to forget the past. The prison’s unique structure along the Petersburg skyline and the indirect messages conveyed by the political repression memorials are continual reminders that there is a politically repressive past associated with Russia’s Soviet history. Surrounding the area with apartment complexes, a children’s hospital, and a commercial district will not stamp out in people’s minds the grim aspects of Russia’s Soviet past.

While researching general information about Kresty prison, I came across information about a museum and tour within the complex. It was intriguing to find out that tourists could walk through an active prison as if it were another tourist site. I thought it would be interesting to analyze how this prison functions as a site of memory through the information given on this tour. However, no worker within the prison had ever heard of tours being offered or they denied that tours of the complex ever existed. This personal experience seemed to show another facet of cultural amnesia. The prison has currently been cited for prisoners’ rights violations, tuberculosis epidemics, and corruption. Letting tourists walk through the prison would bring about negative publicity that the Russian government and its people perhaps do not want in the international community.

However, I was able to acquire some description of what was covered on this elusive Kresty prison tour. According to saint-petersburg.com, the museum tour consisted of a display of artifacts crafted by inmates, a summary of famous people who filed through the prison, and a large display on prison tattoo culture and the meanings behind its symbology (saint-petersburg.com). The selection of facts to present on these tours is a testament to how the Russian government wants to portray the prison in official historical memory. Notice how the tour only covers a thin number of topics, and the tour’s focus on general prison tattoo symbology seems to be a way to distract tourists away from the particular conditions and storied history of Kresty. Showing key artifacts and listing who went through the prison also seems to provide surface knowledge about the prison, but focusing on these aspects of the prison is a clear indicator that the facility is attempting to hide its past and present conditions.

Historical memory comes into play once again when analyzing the decision of the St. Petersburg government to convert Kresty prison into an entertainment center, shopping mall, or hotel in the near future. In a 2006 article, St. Petersburg Times reported that the government plans to phase out the prison and build a new modern facility located in the outskirts of St. Petersburg (Ivanova). Although parts of Kresty prison must be preserved when the new commercial complex is built, converting this historic site into a commercialized area once again shows a lack of memorializing this site of memory. This decision by the government shows amnesia once again toward the prison and its grim history. Additionally, moving the modern prison facility away from downtown Petersburg may show how the government wants to push its spotty prisoners’ rights record out of the public spotlight. If Auschwitz or another Holocaust concentration camp in Europe were converted into a commercialized facility, many would have qualms about European societies forgetting what atrocious acts were committed on these sites. This is because Holocaust sites of memory are recognized and memorialized, evoking an open recognition that wrongs were committed at these sites. However, post-Soviet Russian society does not seem to have those same qualms about eliminating the historical integrity of Kresty prison.

As mentioned in previous paragraphs, Kresty has been cited in many prisoners’ rights and prison conditions reports as having one of the worst track records in these two areas. From the perspective of the international community, Kresty prison evokes a recent historical memory of being a violator of human rights. After the fall of the Soviet Union, many international reports on global conditions of prisons were published, and Kresty was cited in many of these reports. In 1999, Vivien Stern exposed in her report in the Oxford Journal the problem of tuberculosis spreading within prison facilities. She used Kresty as a case study in her findings (Stern). She states that Kresty prison has a 3,000 prisoner capacity, but occupies around 10,000 prisoners (Stern).

The prisoners sleep on bunks three-tiered high in shifts and receive one hour exercise on a sporadic schedule. Fresh air only comes through a small band window, and one water tap and lavatory unit is provided for every ten prisoners (Stern). Treatment is difficult to administer because of security issues and the fact that the facility is a short-term prison. Doctors cannot follow up on treatments because the prisoners will be transferred to other facilities (Stern). When reports such as this one are streamed across academic centers and human rights watch organizations within the international system, it molds Kresty into a site of memory of human rights’ and prisoner’s rights’ violations. The international community does not want to practice amnesia, instead it wants to investigate further and use this prison as a case study for what still needs to be done in pushing for prisoners’ and human rights.

In another prisoners’ rights watch report, it states that prisoners have told the Director of Kresty Prison, “Governor, I am ready to plead guilty just to get out of this place” (Coyle). This statement helps encapsulate how this prison acts as a site of memory for prisoners. The conditions of the prison are so unbearable that they are willing to go against their self interests in order to leave the facility. Although the Russian government and general society may want to forget what historically and currently goes on in the Kresty prison, it is difficult to suppress the stories of Kresty prisoners.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his book The Gulag Archipelago describes some of the conditions Kresty prisoners faced during the Stalinist period. He writes that they received hot showers every 10 days and their daily food rations normally consisted of 4.5 oz. of bread and some thin gruel (179). Literature such as Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, which was published in the Soviet Union during the period of Perestroika (the book was written and published in the West in 1973), forces Russian people to think about their politically repressive Soviet history. It makes the problems in Russian prisons readily apparent, thus creating further difficulty for Russian people and its government to forget the past. The publishing of The Gulag Archipelago during Gorbachev’s Perestroika period is significant because Russian people at the time were receiving a large wave of information about their politically repressive Soviet Past. Awareness of Kresty’s conditions during the Stalinist period only heightens Russian people’s general historical memory confusion during this period. All of a sudden, information that was withheld from Russian public memory is now being exposed.

The first time I walked through the Kresty prison complex, I stumbled upon the food distribution center. Families sat at huge round tables and sorted through large amounts of non-perishable food items they were about to submit to the counter. When they handed over their food care packages to the prison workers, the food packages were searched for contraband items. Standing back and watching this whole ordeal made me realize that this prison also acts as a powerful site of memory for those who have close friends or relatives in prison. Although these people live in a society that wants to forget the wrongdoings of Russia’s prison system, they actively engage in remembering the conditions of Kresty in order to safeguard their close friends and relatives from suffering within the prison complex. Perhaps they have read Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago or they paid attention when they read or heard about the meager food rations Kresty prisoners are given. Instead of brushing this information aside, they store this information into their active memory.

When people who have friends and family in the prison system engage with literature that exposes the conditions of Kresty and the wrongdoings of a politically repressive system, then it becomes difficult for the Russian government and Russian general society to continue to forget their past. This is because a sizeable segment of the Russian population, in the Soviet and post-Soviet period, care about the well-being of their prison-bound family and friends. Famous Soviet period poet Anna Akhmatova uses her poetry in order to connect with this large segment of Russian society.  Her estranged husband, Nikolai Gumilev, and her son, Lev Gumilev, both suffered under the gulag and prison system of the Stalinist period (Poets.org). In reaction to these events and her general anti-Stalinist and anti-political repression sentiments, Akhmatova wrote provocative poetry that continued to be a bastion of criticism against the Soviet system.  Requiem is perhaps her most famous poem, and it commemorates the victims of Stalinist repression. This particular poem alludes to Kresty prison many times. The poem seems to switch speakers. Perhaps the poem evokes an expression of feelings from a mother who is worries about the well-being of her son as he files into the prison system and from a son who is describing the woes of prison and gulag life. Such phrases as, “I spent seventeen months in prison queues in Leningrad” clearly forms in readers’ minds that one of the speakers is a victim filing through the prison system (bryantmcgill.com). When establishing the identity of this speaker, notice how Kresty is alluded to through the mention of prison queues in Leningrad. Going into the dedication section of the poem, the speaker who is filing through the prison system uses imagery of scenes within and around the Kresty prison complex in order to convey to readers his feelings of isolation and his worries about his fate as a prisoner. He writes how, “A mighty river stops its flow, but prison doors stay firmly bolted” (bryantmcgill.com)

This use of river imagery illustrates the idea that despite what goes on in the outside world, the speaker still remains in isolation unaware of his surroundings. The poem later establishes that this river the speaker refers to is the Neva, providing context to the reader that the speaker is in Kresty prison. He states, “We’d meet the dead lifeless sun, lower every day; the Neva mistier” (bryantmcgill.com). Reference to the sun setting illustrates how the speaker’s former life is ending as his new life begins again as a prisoner in Kresty prison and the gulags. Mist may suggest that the speaker is referring to the Neva in the early morning, thus illustrating this idea of a new life and fate for the speaker. Within all this imagery is a lingering memory of the Kresty prison. Context clues as the speaker describes his current state of being in prison and his future fate in the gulags show readers that Kresty prison and its surrounding area has strong associations with the feelings of the speaker. When Russian readers analyze this poem, indirect contextual references to Kresty through the speaker’s use of imagery embeds into readers’ minds this place as a site of memory.

The second speaker within this poem is established through such phrases as, “You were taken already at dawn. I followed you” (bryantmcgill.com) Note how reference to morning is used again to convey how an old life is ending and a new one is being created. For the second speaker, who is perhaps the mother of the imprisoned son, her old life was one of raising her son and her new life is one of worrying about the well being of her son as he files through the prison system. As this second speaker continues to express her feelings, Kresty is once again referenced as she uses imagery to describe the fate of her son. She states how her son, “would stand, parcel in hand, beneath the crosses, three hundredth in line” (bryantmcgill.com). The image of standing beneath the crosses provides context clues for readers that this speaker is referring to her son filing through the Kresty complex system.

The association of Kresty with crosses shows how this prison is engrained within the memory of the second speaker. This allusion is a reference point to readers that her son is filing through Kresty before being sent to the gulags. The poem has a semi-narrative structure, and one could interpret that the feelings and events that occur between these two speakers is very similar to what occurred between Anna Akhmatova and her son Lev Gumilev as he was imprisoned and eventually sent to the gulags. Awareness of this historical context and the allusions to Kresty creates in readers’ minds historical memory that counters the cultural amnesia being practiced by the Russian government and its people. No matter how hard Russia tries to forget its past, literature such as this poem and the stories such as the one of Anna Akhmatova and her son Lev Gumilev continue to create historical memories of political repression and prisoner abuses that are difficult to forget.

Kresty prison, its associations, and its storied history evoke in Russian people’s minds memories of a grim Soviet past of political repression and prisoners’ rights violations. In the post-Soviet period, this site of memory continues to be an unsettling reminder that it is difficult to forget what occurred in Russia’s Soviet past. Despite many efforts to downplay the significance and importance of this prison, through such actions as building around the prison or converting it into a commercialized area, it continues to be associated with the Russian prison system and gulags through historical memory. International prison rights watch agencies will not forget the human rights violations committed within this prison as they continue to cite Kresty’s historically atrocious record in prisoner treatment.

This memorializes the prison within the international community as a site of memory of human and prisoners’ rights violations. In addition, citing Kresty’s spotty record reinforces the international community’s association of Russia with political repression and human rights violations. Literature, such as the poem Requiem by Anna Akhmatova and The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, use references to Kresty as a way to memorialize its past. The stories of all those affected by the Russian prison system in the Soviet and post-Soviet era create a lingering memory of political repression and prison abuse that cannot be erased in the memories of Russian people. Despite the efforts by Russian people to forget this prison as a significant historical site of memory, its storied past of political repression and prisoners’ rights violations is difficult to eradicate from memory.

Works cited

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