The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Navalny says Kremlin wants to break him in jail. His team fears worse.

A Russian court on Jan. 19 dismissed jailed opposition figure Alexei Navalny’s claims of deteriorating prison conditions and harsh punitive placement. (Video: AP)

RIGA, Latvia — Even from jail, Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition figure, gets more done than most people. He has announced a new media platform with nearly 1.8 million YouTube subscribers, filed more than 10 lawsuits against Russian authorities, and is now the leading voice inside Russia against the war in Ukraine.

But he is gaunt and painfully thin. His health is declining, amid what supporters allege is harassment and sleep deprivation. He has been sent to harsh punishment cells 10 times for up to 15 days, and was even forced to take legal action to get winter boots.

Navalny says he loses nearly eight pounds for every 10 days he spends in the 8-by-10-foot punishment isolation cell where he gets a cup and a book, a metal stool fixed to the floor, and a cot that is folded during the day.

Hundreds of Russian doctors, lawyers and lawmakers have signed an open letter demanding an end to his mistreatment, after Navalny was denied medicine or access to a clinic, or even the right to lie down during the daytime when he was recently ill with a fever.

Navalny’s closest associates, most of whom have fled Russia to avoid prison, are mounting a global campaign for his release, two years after he was jailed upon returning to Russia after he was treated in Germany following a poisoning attack in Siberia. They say they fear for his life.

Navalny is serving 11½ years for fraud and violating parole, charges widely viewed as politically motivated, and faces other cases that could keep him jailed for three decades.

Perhaps his most striking work is his vivid description of life as Putin’s nemesis, alone and vulnerable inside Russia’s prison system — an Instagram diary with echoes of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s 1962 novel about the Soviet gulag, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” but with a sadistic modern Russian edge.

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Navalny’s lack of medical treatment was “absolutely unacceptable,” said Alexander Polupan, a Moscow doctor who assisted with Navalny’s medical evacuation to Germany after authorities poisoned him with Novichok, a chemical nerve agent. Polupan helped organize an earlier open letter to Putin, signed by 610 doctors, who demanded proper medical care for Navalny.

“He didn’t receive any treatment at all. The main thing is that he cannot stay in this small chamber without the possibility to lie down when he is sick,” said Polupan, who acknowledged that he himself faces a risk for his role in organizing the letter.

“He is in prison for all of us,” he said. “We have to help him, just the way we can. There are very few things we can do for him. We have to do what we can, despite the risk.”

Navalny’s Instagram posts, which his team says are conveyed via his lawyers, describe a petty punishment regime and the authorities’ efforts to frustrate and intimidate those who refuse to buckle. His sharp humor is woven through like a bright thread, but moments of despair and anger glimmer darkly, too.

Since the war, Navalny has filed notice to prison authorities that he was setting up a prison workers’ union; pressed Western leaders to put sanctions on more than 6,000 Russian oligarchs and officials on a list compiled by his team; and announced the relaunch of his anti-corruption foundation as an international organization, after Russia outlawed the group as extremist in 2021. It has published scathing reports on top Putin allies and military figures.

In September, Navalny was designated a persistent violator for trivial offenses such as washing his hands six minutes ahead of schedule, undoing his top shirt button or wearing a T-shirt to the bathroom, and he was stripped of the right to confidential written communications with his lawyer.

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In November, officials put him into a permanent ultra-strict regime, in which he is kept constantly in an 8-by-10-foot cell, with family visits and calls barred. The one difference from being in the ShIZO “isolator” punishment cell, he says, is that he gets an extra book, coffee instead of hot water — “which improves my mood 300 percent” — and can buy food from the prison shop. He gets 35 minutes daily with a pen and paper to read letters and write, and then the letters and writing materials are removed.

His press secretary Kira Yarmysh and other supporters fear for his life.

“They are obviously trying to torture him,” Yarmysh said. “It’s like a very, very slow process of murdering him again, not with like Novichok and instant poisoning and instant death, but a very painful, slow process, just to put pressure on him so that he would keep silent, that he wouldn’t write any posts.”

“This is how they try to keep him silent, just by making conditions so unbearable that he will decide that it would be better just to say nothing,” she continued. “He’s a hostage. They try to torture him to make other people scared.”

Navalny is a central focus in the Kremlin’s operation to destroy the opposition and smother dissent.

It has largely worked, crushing antiwar protests. Other antiwar opposition voices in Russia, including Ilya Yashin, Vladimir Kara-Murza, former Yekaterinburg mayor Yevgeny Roizman and Moscow opposition figure Mikhail Lobanov, have been jailed or beaten.

Lobanov, a Moscow State University mathematician, left-wing opposition politician and antiwar activist, was awoken early on Dec. 29 by special police banging on his door. They threw him to the floor, beat him and warned he could lose his university job or face years in prison if he continued his political activities. He was jailed for 15 days for criticizing the war, his second 15-day stint since the invasion started.

Although forced to tone down his statements, he is determined to continue his activism, convinced Putin will fall because of the war. “Of course, now I’m trying to be careful, more careful. I’m choosing my words,” he said in an interview. “From an organizational point of view, the opposition is crushed. There are no structures. There are no leaders,” he continued. “At the same time, the ongoing war creates resistance in the society. Lots of people do not support the war.”

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Navalny vows he will not be muzzled, despite his belief that the Kremlin has ordered prison bosses to silence him. “Everything you read about the horrors and fascist crimes of our prison system is all true. With one amendment: The reality is even worse,” he said in an Instagram post on Jan 12.

He claims that prison authorities put a mentally disturbed patient who shouts constantly in the next cell as a form of harassment, to deprive him of sleep, an allegation that could not be independently verified.

His Instagram posts have marked New Year’s Eve, family birthdays, Valentine’s Day and his wedding anniversary. His children’s birthdays, he wrote, remind him why he is sitting in prison: He wants to build “a beautiful Russia of the future” for them.

On his own birthday, in June, he counted himself lucky. He thanked Russians for their support and thought of his own blessings, meager as they might appear to others. “I have a huge and rare privilege in today’s Russia: I say what I think is right and act as I think is necessary. Malicious Kremlin crooks have no power over me, even though they have locked me in some hole.”

He urged others who are depressed about Russia’s future to “cheer up” and act. “If you are alive, healthy and free, then you’re doing well,” he wrote in November. “Finish your pumpkin latte and do something to bring Russia closer to freedom.”

Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.

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