Russia continues to toy with Stalinist practice of putting convicts to work

The Bell

The Federal Prison Service (FSIN) is revisiting a 2017 idea to send prisoners to work for defense conglomerate Rostec, which manages most of Russia’s military factories. Convicts are unlikely to be used in the assembling of missiles and aircraft, but could be given other, less skilled roles, sources told the Kommersant newspaper Wednesday.

  • Back in January the head of FSIN wrote to Rostec boss Sergei Chemezov to offer the assistance of convicts, Kommersant reported. And, according to Kommersant’s sources, Rostec raised the question with several of its constituent businesses. Neither Rostec nor FSIN commented on the claim.
  • It is unclear exactly where these prisoners might be put to work, but Kommersant’s sources feel that they are unlikely to gain the security clearance needed to assemble missiles or aircraft, or work on new technologies. However, they believe that “collaboration” is possible in other, less skilled positions.
  • In theory, prisoners could work within Rostec to produce parts — for example circuit boards or electronic components — rather than finished products, one source suggested. Moreover, there is, according to Kommnersant, greater interest in getting women to work on this because women are “more diligent, accurate and patient.”
  • In addition, Russia’s prisons could become suppliers of, for example, containers, overalls and “other kinds of simple products” while also “assisting in the construction of facilities,” according to Kommersant.
  • The first reports that Rostec was considering the use of prison labor emerged in 2017. At that time, the state corporation said convicts would not be involved in secret, high-tech production, but “we will find work for prisoners.” Rostec has 14 holdings and more than 700 enterprises across dozens of manufacturing industries. Last year it was reported that UralVagonZavod, Russia’s largest tank factory, would employ 250 convicts. It was assumed they would perform roles including driller, turner, grinder, miller, crane operator and so on. In 2020, state-owned Sberbank reportedly used prisoners to help develop its AI interfaces.

Why the world should care

It’s a warning sign when the defense sector returns to the idea of forced labor. Above all, it’s yet another indicator of Russia’s ongoing labor shortage. However, this is unlikely to greatly help the Russian defense industry: using prison labor comes with significant costs in terms of organizing prison guards, providing the necessary uniforms and specialized equipment. It’s also logistically difficult: there are several factors to consider, including where prisoners are held, the severity of their punishment and the level of security required. Thus, it’s unlikely we will see widespread use of prison labor in Russia’s defense industry.


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