How does one become a “political prisoner” in Russia?

Metamorphosis of a category between dissident legacy and human rights expertise
By Renata Mustafina

Who decides who is a “political prisoner” and who is not? This article aims to study the evolution of expertise on political prisoners from the late Soviet period to the present day, by examining the way in which identifying institutions—from Soviet dissidents to professionalized human rights organizations—grant this status to certain prisoners and refuse it to others. Based on documentary research (archives, memoirs, press articles) and fieldwork among contemporary human rights actors, this article shows that two major trends—that of internationalization and juridicization within the post-Soviet human rights space—mark the evolution of expertise on political cases. This expertise is forged at the crossroads of the tradition of the legalist approach taken by dissidents and standardized international practices, which shows that “human rights” are not simply a pure product of a symbolic import but are defined through the continuous tension between local challenges and processes of internationalization.

  • human rights
  • political prisoner
  • category
  • processes of politicization
  • sociology of expertise
  • juridicization
  • transnational
  • Russia
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