What Life in Prison is Like For Alexei Navalny

Grim notes from one of Russia's harshest prisons

What's it like to be a political prisoner in one of Russia's most notorious prisons?

Alexei Navalny is telling us. The most prominent opponent of Vladimir Putin was poisoned in August 2020 -- likely directed from inside the Kremlin -- and evacuated to Germany. The anti-corruption activist recovered for five months in Berlin and was promptly jailed upon returning to Russia in January. A court said he violated the terms of his parole by leaving Russia, stemming from an old charge that the European Court of Human Rights has ruled as politically motivated. Next, he was sent to one of Russia's most psychologically brutalizing prisons in March for a term of about two-and-a-half years. 

Per Navalny's notes posted to his social media accounts, we have learned what life is like in Penal Colony No. 2. (The Soviet era prison is located in the Vladimir Oblast just beyond the 100-kilometer zone outside Moscow, outside the area where political prisoners and criminals were forbidden to settle in or travel to during Soviet era.) 

Initially, he wrote in a sardonic way, hinting at brutality, having called the prison "our friendly concentration camp." Here is an example of his writing, posted to Instagram on March 22 and translated into English by me:

Do you have a favorite moment of the day? Well, there is the morning coffee. Or when you arrive to work at 9, respond to emails, and finally (with a sense of accomplishment!) open up social media at 11:30 to spend the rest of the day?

There are two things in my routine that I adore. Both early in the morning.

At 6:00 we are awakened, at 6:10 we are doing exercises outside, but before marching we listen to the national anthem. Imagine, an isolation area outside the barracks. Snow. Men in black prison uniforms, boots and fur hats stand in the dark with their hands behind their backs, and over the entire area through a loudspeaker on a high pillar is broadcast: "Glory, to our free Fatherland."

Simply a delight.

My second favorite moment is happening very soon. The last exercise is marching. Now, at my suggestion, everyone in my squadron is calling it "The Empire Strikes Back." The loudspeaker on the pole commands: “March in place! Starting position - hands on the belt. Get ready. With legs of a maiden. One, two, three, four". And men in black with brutal faces march in place, boots clattering.

In this moment, I imagine that I am filming a Russian remake of Star Wars, where instead of imperial stormtroopers there are prisoners in pea jackets and hats with earflaps. They have cigarettes in their teeth. Instead of lightsabers, they have iron crowbars. Defending the interests of the Emperor, space prisoners travel from planet to planet, suppressing the rebels. But wherever they are, at exactly 6:05 am they listen to the national anthem, at 6:10 am they do exercises, and at 6:30 am they put porridge into their metal bowls and pour sweet tea into metal mugs. May the force be with you. 😉

Navalny's health has significantly worsened since that post, and he has written that he is being tortured by sleep deprivation. He has written he has severe pain and numbness in his back and legs. The only treatment he has reported to have received from the jail has been ibuprofen pills and ointment. He has reported that he has been woken up every hour, with the excuse that he is a "flight risk." 

He reports he has been given six reprimands during two weeks in jail, for minor violations, like getting out of bed ten minutes too early or not wanting to do exercises. He fears that he may be taken to "torture-like" solitary confinement because of these violations. 

His lawyer, Olga Mikhailova, has visited him in prison and told a Russian independent channel, TV Rain, about his condition. "They have brought him to such a state that he cannot stand on his legs, he is in pain. They are turning him into a cripple," she said on March 25.

On March 31, he announced a hunger strike. The Kremlin declined to comment. He wrote that even before the strike, he had lost 8 kilograms (about 18 pounds) due to sleep deprivation.

He has demanded an independent examination by a doctor. Rather, Navalny's social media account reported that Maria Butina visited him, who is infamous in the United States for infiltrating the National Rifle Association and having been convicted of being a foreign agent. Now, she works for Russian state broadcaster RT. According to Navalny's Twitter, cameras in tow, she claimed that this was the "best and most comfortable prison."

He responded. “Navalny chastised her for 15 minutes in front of a line of prisoners, calling her a parasite and a servant of a regime of thieves,” his Twitter account reported on April 1.

Even in announcing a hunger strike, he maintained the gallows humor that has characterized his statements in a handwritten letter to the head of the prison.

“I mean, to hell with the right leg. I would have made do with the left one somehow. But losing two legs at once is where I cross the line. It would be unfair: everyone has two legs and I have none,” he wrote.

I interviewed Navalny in 2014 for HuffPost about a corruption report his foundation put out on the Sochi Winter Olympics. He was adamant that he would not leave Russia. He sounded upbeat: "Nevertheless, my supporters and I, we will continue our fight against corruption because we don’t have another country, and we believe in what we are doing and we will continue because we think we are right,” he told me in Russian. Seven years later, he has been driven to near death for staying in Russia. 

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