Peter, Paul, and Robben

In February of 2005 I visited Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. The island holds the prison where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years in prison.

Two days ago I visited the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg, Russia. The island holds a prison that has held Lenin’s older brother, Gorky, Trotsky (the latter two were both held in cell 60 according to Shaw’s memory), and many others.

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Irina, Alison, Shelley, and I found it odd that the fortress is also the burial site of tsars. A royal burial ground and prison is an unexpected combination, at least in our view.

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Within the prison itself, the cells seemed relatively large. Although my memory from 2005 has surely faded, each cell seemed roughly three times the size of Mandela’s cell. Cells typically included an icon in one corner and were constructed to minimize sound traveling between cells. Even so, there was a tapping system used by prisoners to spell out messages.

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Prisons as tourist attractions strikes me as an odd phenomenon. Even so, I walked away from both prisons amazed by the co-existence of great human-on-human cruelty and the human capacity to build community (e.g., tapping systems for communication). We are wonderfully complex creatures.

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