Novinskaya Women’s Prison
The construction of the prison complex was completed in December 1907, and shortly before it opened, the decision was made to turn it into the first women’s prison, which began functioning on March 18, 1908.
The group of buildings of the Novinskaya Prison occupied a quarter of Bolshoi Novinskii Lane in buildings no. 16 and 20. After the revolution, the complex was located in house no. 2 on Malyi Novinskii Lane, which became part of the new Kalinin Avenue (Novyi Arbat) in 1963, while a group of buildings of the Council of Mutual Economic Aid was built on the site of the prison (Novyi Arbat 36), occupied by the Government of Moscow today.
Before the revolution, the prison staff consisted of up to 40 people, most of whom were women. In 1913, a school for female wardens was opened in the prison, and its graduates remained at the prison as employees.
In addition to the administrative office and prison building, the complex also had a kitchen, a laundromat, workshops, an in-house church, a hospital, and a nursery for prisoners’ children.
The prison building was designed for 242 prisoners, and according to Crown Princess Kurakina, who ended up in the prison after the revolution, “the cells had high ceilings and were large—with 17 bunks inside.”
In 1908, there were 24 children aged 3-11 years old (mostly aged 7-10) in the prison nurseries. Almost the same number (26) of children lived there in 1909.
From the moment the prison opened, Princess Elizaveta Mikhailovna Vadbolskaya served as its director. In the memoirs of imprisoned revolutionaries, she is often described not as someone distinguished by her demeanor or intellect, but as someone who behaved towards prisoners “like a capricious, all-powerful lady walking over her housemaids.” However, while they spoke disdainfully of the prison’s matriarch, political prisoners respectfully described the order established in the prison, which was rather severe, but not suffocating. This was supported by the good upbringing of prison matrons, who shared the liberal views of the political prisoners. According to the memoirs of I. Kakhovskaya and E. Nikitina, the prisoners quickly befriended many of the matrons, who would bring forbidden newspapers to their cells. The prison staff’s friendly behavior led to the escape of 13 political prisoners, along with the matron who assisted them, on the night of July 1, 1909. After this incident, Princess Vadbolskaya was demoted to assistant director of the prison, and she remained in this position up until 1921. The prison regime was toughened, and the matrons’ responsibility increased. According to the mayor of Moscow, Vladimir Fedorovich Dzhunkovskii—from 1913 onwards, the head of the Special Corps of Gendarmes—the Secret Police Department (Okhrana) had participated in the escape. The motive he suggested was the wish to discredit the prison inspector Dmitrii Iuferov, who had not allowed the Okhrana into the prisons or permitted them to recruit agents from among the political prisoners. This perspective is confirmed by circumstantial evidence, but its validity has not been proven.
Photo: Morchadze I. (Koridze S.). The Escape of 13 Political Prisoners in 1909. With an addendum by V. Kalashnikov // Hard Labor and Exile № 7 (56) 1929. 112–113 pp.
Upper row: Ekaterina Nikitina, Natalia Klimova, Marya Nikiforova.
Second row: Wilhelmina Gelms, Hanna Korsunskaya, Alexandra Tarasova.
Third row: Anna Gervasii, Elizaveta Matye, Yulia Fabrikantova.
Lower row: Frida Itkina, Anna Morozova, Praskovya Ivanova (in oval portrait), Alexandra Kartesheva (in oval portrait)
After the revolution, Novinskaya Prison’s population changed significantly: by 1926 the number of prisoners had grown to 400, exceeding the original capacity of 242 prisoners. According to Princess Kurakina’s memoirs of her imprisonment in Novinskaya Prison, the vast majority of the prisoners were criminals: “The Novinskaya Women’s Prison was a special prison for the entire female criminal element, for the lowest and most repulsive women.” There were no more than 15 political prisoners. If before the revolution political prisoners were imprisoned separately, then they were placed in common cells with ordinary criminals during the Soviet period. The prisoners’ diet also changed: if the convicts’ memoirs did not discuss the shortage or poor quality of food before the revolution, then afterwards political prisoners, such as O.E. Chernova-Kolbasina, wrote about the constant feeling of hunger that they experienced in Novinskaya. The basic ration usually consisted of soup with rotten fish and corned beef and a bread ration that always changed with the country’s food deficit. Prisoners organized revolts on several occasions due to impossibility of eating rotten soup.
All inmates, aside from political prisoners, worked in sewing workshops and laundromats and received additional bread allowances for their work. Political prisoners were forbidden to work outside of the prison in keeping with the terms of their isolation; however, they received food packages from international charitable organizations and the Red Cross. Despite the Novinskaya Prison’s transfer in 1917 to the administration of the NKVD’s penal department, the composition of the prison staff changed rather slowly. Princess Vadbolskaya remained the assistant director of the prison until 1921, and the old staff of matrons remained in place, as did the doctors from the prison hospital, but the prison staff was changed completely in 1924.
During the Second World War the composition of the Novinskaya prisoner population changed frequently and drastically, although we still do not have sources that can help explain these changes. During the evacuation in 1941, 430 women were transferred from the prison, and on October 20, 1941, only 50 prisoners were counted in Novinskaya Prison. However, in January 1943, the prisoner limit was raised to 400 and the actual number of inmates reached up to 1,000. Afterwards, the prison population decreased and by the end of the war it was fluctuating between 200-400 inmates. Information about the number of prisoners was lost when the prison was closed for reconstruction. In 1963, in the course of a reconstruction of central Moscow, the main office of the Council of Economic Security was built on the site of the former prison.