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A famous vacation spot for criminals in Bukhara

Photo from the early 20th century displaying a guard at Zindan, a Russian prison in central Asia, and several inmates looking out from inside the cell.

Photo from the early 20th century displaying a guard at Zindan, a Russian prison in central Asia, and several inmates looking out from inside the cell.

Although the Soviet Union traditionally claims superiority when it comes to jailing and exiling people in deplorable conditions, this photo places the Emirate of Bukhara as a notable competitor. Perhaps only a mere footnote compared to the notorious purges of Joseph Stalin, the prison at Zindan certainly doesn’t seem any more appealing than a Soviet gulag in the Siberian wilderness.


Also unlike the massive scale of Stalin’s purges, the prison at Zindan was only built to incarcerate a maximum of 40 inmates at once. It was literally built underground into the dirt and required a ladder to enter inside the earthen walls. The most common crimes were outstanding debt or religious in nature. As a semi-independent protectorate of Imperial Russia, Bukhara’s culture was heavily Persian-based and thus the Islamic religion was much more prevalent than in the rest of Russia. That being said, such a draconian, dungeon-style confinement system for religious infractions indicates that the people in Bukhara took their religion really seriously.

An interesting point about Zindan is the relatively small number of inmates it was designed to accommodate. It seems that either the crime rate was very low in Bukhara, or Zindan was reserved for only the worst offenders. Considering the commonality of crimes such as debt, it seems there would have been a different, much worse place for offenses such as murder. Many would-be offenders were probably deterred by the dreaded aspect of having to live at a place such as Zindan. This would explain why it was only built to hold 40 people because the population was likely in no hurry to do anything that may land them inside.

Even though Zindan was no Siberian Gulag, the effects upon the population were probably very similar. Some may call these methods overly excessive and tyrannical, while others may consider them necessary instruments for a stable society. We all know which observation Stalin would have sided with, what about you comrads?

5 Responses to A famous vacation spot for criminals in Bukhara

  1. jenniferh says:

    I think the use of prisons as a deterrent is a necessary part of society. The thought of punishment is an important tool in social control, while the purges and use of terror during the Stalin era were excessive, most stable societies need some form of punishment to deter citizens from committing crimes.

  2. kellylc says:

    Stalin’s Great Purge is well known due to its brutality and terrors against humanity. However, other smaller instances of excessive force and crime against others are sometimes overshadowed due to the grand scale of the Great Purge. Therefore it is interesting to see that this post focuses on one smaller instance of excessive force against others. Do you know whether the Russian guards of the prison were following the government’s guidelines for dealing with prisoners and crime, or if they were following their own rules? What was the population of this region? If it was small, this may explain the small size of the prison. What was the term that the inmates had to serve in the prison? Was their a standard term?

  3. caitlin6 says:

    While I agree that a form of punishment is necessary to prevent a majority of citizens from committing a crime, I find that the crimes such as debt or religiously based are not harmful enough to society to have them placed in such conditions as this prison described. This seems like a harsh punishment for someone that hasn’t paid their bills on time. There should obviously be some sort of punishment for never paying your bills, but there could be more humane means than a place that I would usually assume would be a prison for the worst sort of crimes.

  4. kathaskew says:

    Looking at this picture makes me grateful in terms of how far we’ve come as far as basic human rights and the treatment of our fellow man, regardless if they’ve committed a crime. I also appreciate how religiously tolerant we’ve become.
    The picture makes me wonder how rampant disease was in prisons such as the one above. I assume diseases would spread rather quickly in such cramped quarters. I also wonder how sanitary prisons such as the one above would be.

  5. piercedc says:

    I liked this blog post and found the prison information to be a fun read. I think it is kind of crazy actually what big Empires had to do back then to make sure they were able to enforce their rule across such a vast territory. I think implementing tough prisons and strict rules were vital at the time, and now make for interesting blog topics.

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