In this episode of NBRES, we’re doing something a bit out of the ordinary. Instead of interviewing an author about his or her new book, we are going to talk to filmarker Maria Yatskova about her documentary film, Miss Gulag (Neihausen-Yatskova & Vodar Films, 2007), on the women’s prison UF-91/9 in Novosibirsk. The film is now available on DVD.
As of January 2011, the Russian prison population numbered 819,200 people, of which 66,400 were women. Given that women make up only eight percent of the Russian penal system, their stories inside and outside the justice system are rarely told. Thankfully, Miss Gulag fills this gap by providing a rare glimpse into a women’s prison. The film follows Yulia, Tatiana, and Natasha, through UF-91/9’s annual “Miss Spring” beauty pageant. Begun in 1991, the “Miss Spring” beauty pageant contributes to an inmate’s rehabilitation by giving her a means to participate in the prison’s social and cultural life. Also, given the importance of femininity in Russian culture, the pageant allows prisoners to express their womanhood in an institution that, as one warden says, “is not a place for women.” The stories of Yulia, Tatiana, and Natasha, however, go beyond the pageant. They are emblematic of life in post-Soviet Russia and the difficulties the first generation of young women and their families have experienced in adjusting to its realities.