Poll Claiming 10% of Russians Have Been Tortured Doesn’t Pass the Smell Test

Guards Outside of Black Dolphin Prison near Kazakh border. Photo courtesy of National Geographic.

Update: I’ve been contacted by a reader who stated the following: “If over 30 years 0.33% of the adult population – so one in 300 annually – experienced some sort of police violence, you can get to 10%. “
Fair enough. But if one has to stretch back 30 years in order to make the figures credible, then that would include the entire “Wild West” Yeltsin era.

On June 26th – 27th, the western-owned Moscow Times, The Independent (UK), and the U.S.-government funded RFE/RL all published articles about a poll put out by the independent (i.e. western funded) Levada Center claiming that 10 percent of all Russians have been tortured by Russian authorities.

I’m not suggesting that Russia is Candyland or that police there don’t abuse their authority. I’m aware that there are problems in their criminal justice system – as there are in many other nations, including in the west. If the claim would have been that 10 percent of all prisoners in Russia had been tortured, it would have certainly been in the realm of the plausible. But 10 percent of the entire population of Russia smelled fishy to me.

Now, I’m no math whiz, but I really can’t surmise how one can make the numbers work.

Russia has an overall population of just under 145 million people. 10 percent of that would equal just over 14 million people. It sounds like the Levada poll is claiming that 14 million Russians have been tortured. According to prisonstudies.org, just over a half million Russians (552,188) were being criminally detained in Russia as of January of 2019. That figure includes pre-trial detainees and remanded prisoners. Additionally, the incarceration rate in Russia has been steadily declining since 2008.

It’s extremely unlikely that every Russian who has ever been detained in Putin-era Russia has been tortured, so considerably more than 14 million people had to have been detained by the authorities. Again, how does this add up?

Unfortunately, I don’t read Russian so I can’t read the original poll that was linked to. I’d be interested to know who was included in the sample population and how torture was defined, among other things.

If any readers have specialized knowledge of the Russian criminal justice system and can help me to understand how this could be accurate, please feel free to leave a comment or contact me.

From what I have studied of the Russian criminal justice system, this doesn’t fit the gradual trend in the Putin era of trying to clean up the system and provide more protections for prisoners and the accused. That’s not to say that more doesn’t still need to be done, but there is a trend toward improvement.

Until I see credible evidence making this add up, I’m going to have to consider this claim to be very dubious.

4 thoughts on “Poll Claiming 10% of Russians Have Been Tortured Doesn’t Pass the Smell Test”

  1. No matter what the real number is, since the US Incarceration Rate is 1.5 times Russia’s the number in the US is at least 1.5 times whatever Russia’s is, and since African Americans have a disproportionate Incarceration Rate, the US number is probably twice whatever Russia’s number is.

  2. Just had someone contact me, via third party, who said the following:

    “If over 30 years 0.33% of the adult population – so one in 300 annually – experienced some sort of police violence, you can get to 10%. “

  3. But gee, in the good old USA with the highest per capita incarcerated population (by far) in the world no one ever gets abused by law enforcement or carceral figures. 10% actually sounds a lot more likely in the USA than anywhere else.

  4. The below comment was sent via email from Swiss independent journalist Robert James Parsons. It is posted here with permission. – Natylie

    in the fall of 2017, a group of Russian journalists came to Geneva at the invitation of the Geneva-based World Organization against Torture (Organisation mondiale contre la torture in its French version), to discuss strategies to be used the following (last) summer when Russia would be summoned to the Committee against Torture to discuss its periodic report, submitted in compliance with the provisions of the Convention against Torture, which Russia has ratified.

    In discussions with them, I learned that, contrary to what is often reported in the Western mainstream media, there is no systematic torture in Russia. Rather, there are sporadic occurrences, virtually entirely as residue of the Soviet Union’s police state. The journalists said that it was mostly confined to rural areas, small towns and cities, where there has been little, if any, retraining of police since the Soviet era.

    There were reports from various anti-torture groups submitted to the Committee for its discussions with the Russian delegation. At the end of its session, the Committee issues recommendations to the state parties to the Convention that it met with during its session. I did not follow up on this, to my regret, when Russia appeared before the Committee. You can find the documents related to the session where Russia appeared at:


    What stuck in my mind was the contrast with the United States, which has done more than any other country/society in history to develop and promote the use of torture, even setting up a school to teach it (the notorious School of the Americas) and writing torture manuals tailored to specific Latin American countries. Solitary confinement, as an extreme form of sensory and social deprivation, is torture. It was developed initially by the CIA under the MKULTRA program, and its objective is the disintegration of the human personality. It was readily welcomed in the incarceration system as a way of breaking prisoners and rendering them incapable of any resistance to even the most inhuman treatment.

    In Russia, according to the journalists with whom I spoke, torture is rather a random practice, an abuse left over from a period when the police answered to nobody, which is slowly being eradicated. In the United States, it is steadily increasing.

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