Class Catalog: RUSS235 Russian Prisons

Vydalia Weatherly, Staff writer

If you have ever taken or attempted to take a Criminal Justice class, you know how difficult it is to get in due to high demand and not enough seats being available to fulfill that demand. I was having difficulties finding a Criminal Justice elective that I would be interested in that did not conflict with other classes I needed to take this semester. When Emmaleigh Kircher, Ph.D., posted in the Criminal Justice Teams page about alternative electives that would be offered for the spring semester, I was intrigued when I saw “Russian Prisons: In and Beyond Imagination” being offered. At that point, WNBA player Brittney Griner was still being held in a Russian prison and the war in Ukraine was raging on. When I went onto self-service to find out more about the course, the course description caught my attention: “From the Muppets to the MCU to Netflix’s Stranger Things, Russian prisons feature in the Western imagination as male-dominated spaces of torture, gangs, seclusion, and secrecy. Against such imagined backdrops are real-life stories that emerge in English-language media of jailed political opponents, out-of-favor oligarchs, and ex-American servicemen and athletes facing serious prison time. This course investigates the context and sources of the imagination of Russian prisons as well as the experiences and challenges in the search for transparency and justice in Russia’s fraught history of crime and punishment. Discussion, readings, and other media are in English. No knowledge of Russian necessary.” With my fear about not knowing how to speak or read Russian calmed, I decided to sign up for the course, something I do not regret doing at all. After all, who doesn’t love the scene in Muppets: Most Wanted when Tina Fey is singing with the inmates at the Gulag.
Russian Prisons is taught by Kathryn Duda, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Russian Studies in World Languages and Cultures. This is Duda’s 6th year teaching at Mercyhurst. “I designed this course out of conversations with our Criminal Justice faculty, specifically Drs. Kirchner and Saeler. My research is on the Gulag and its impact on family transmission of values and culture, so our interests coalesce in discussing experiences of incarceration, specifically overincarceration and unjust incarceration. Then 2022 happened. Brittney Griner was arrested, Russia’s war in Ukraine saw a phenomenon of people turning each other in for anti-war sentiment, and Russia’s Wagner Private Military Company began to recruit inmates and promise them commuted sentences. To me these were shockingly familiar trends from previous eras of repression.”
The course work is split up into three units, “I knew we needed to cover the international aspects of Russian prisons (foreigners in Russian prisons and prisoner exchange—this ended up being Unit 1), the history and legacy of the Gulag (this is Unit 2), and look at contemporary trends and concerns (this ended up being Unit 4). I added a unit (now Unit 3) on criminal culture because it is something that captures visual imagination (film makers use Russian habits of tattooing as short hand for Russian prisons or Russian organized crime all over the place) and I think also offers a way to see current Russian political power as, in part, stemming from a criminal code that became intermingled with power and society during the time of mass oppression,” said Duda.
Russian Prisons is open to everyone and can be taken to fulfill the REACH requirement needed to graduate. This course also follows an ungraded model, which definitely eases the stress about grades a bit and provides better opportunity to learn and grow in my opinion. This is the first time Dr. Duda has taught the course and it is currently uncertain if and when the course will be taught again. However, it has already been filled with positive experiences. “My favorite memory to-date were the briefings to family-members we did after our first unit. I was blown away by how well you all did those presentations, the thoughtfulness of your solutions, and the creative problems.”
Russians Prisons have quickly become one of my favorite courses I have taken at Mercyhurst. If it is ever offered again, I highly recommend you sign up. If you are seeking any additional information on the course or have any follow-up questions, you can contact Dr. Duda directly.