The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Putin foe Navalny once described prison life with dark humor. Now his messages are just dark.

A general view shows a gate of Penal Colony No. 2, where opposition leader Alexei Navalny is serving jail term in the town of Pokrov, Russia, on Feb. 28, 2021. (Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters)
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MOSCOW — At first, jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny's impressions of Russia's prison system took the form of a dark-humor travelogue.

But it wasn't long before social media posts — sent on his behalf by anonymous members of his team— cast a cruel light on his conditions, including claims that he has been denied proper medical care for severe back pain and never allowed a full night's rest.

Through a trickle of posts from Navalny's allies and his wife, Yulia, on Instagram, Twitter and other sites — as well as statements from his lawyer — a portrait has emerged of his prison life, ranging from strict exercise yard rules to being awakened every hour during the night by a guard.

His lawyer, Vadim Kobzev, said Thursday that the constant denial of sleep amounted to a form of torture. He said the inaction of prison authorities was worsening Navalny’s condition.

“Greetings, everyone, from ‘Enhanced Control Sector A,’ ” a March 15 post said, announcing his arrival at the notorious Penal Colony No. 2 about 110 miles east of Moscow.

Former inmates describe the place as designed to break inmates through constant psychological pressure. If Navalny felt despondent in his early days, however, he did not show it in the posts that are made on his behalf. His team has not indicated how the messages for the posts are passed along, but the wording and style bears Navalny’s familiar wry style.

Navalny called his new home “our friendly concentration camp.”

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“Three things never cease to surprise me: the starry sky above us, the categorical imperative inside us, and the amazing sensation of running the palm of your hand over your freshly shaved head,” he said, having been shaved on entry to the prison.

Navalny was arrested in January on his return to Russia from Germany, where he was treated for poisoning with a chemical nerve agent during an August trip to Siberia. He was sentenced to about 2½ years in prison for breaching parole in a 2014 case that had been overturned by the European Court of Human Rights, a decision Russia refused to implement.

A post in his name Friday said he had a pinched nerve in his back, probably from sitting crouched in police vans and cells.

“I kept quiet about it. It was unpleasant, of course, but not fatal. It would be okay,” the post said.

He spent weeks in various detention centers before his March 15 transfer to Penal Colony No. 2.

“The regime, the charter, the daily routine,” he mused in a post that day. “The literal fulfillment of endless rules. Obscene language and vulgar words are forbidden. And this ban is strictly observed. Can you imagine a prison where they don’t swear? Scary stuff.”

Former inmates told Russian media that life in Penal Colony No. 2 consists of a constant forced rush, where you are always running late to perform endless meaningless tasks — making your bed over and over, for example.

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The Friday post revealed that the reason he never sat down during several lengthy February court hearings was because he was in too much pain. When his condition worsened some weeks ago, he sought medical help from prison authorities, but they did little initially, the Friday post said.

“And it was already hard to get out of bed and very painful. They take the complaints but do nothing. A week ago a prison doctor looked at me and gave me two pills of Ibuprofen, but I still do not know the diagnosis.”

His leg was so numb he would fall over if he put weight on it, the post said. “It’s a little frustrating — I’ve gotten used to my right leg lately, after all. I wouldn’t like to part with it.”

Navalny has been persecuted and harassed for years, dating back to the 2013 Moscow mayoral elections, when he shocked the Kremlin by coming in second place. He then faced a series of criminal prosecutions that ensured he was barred from ever seeking public office again.

Navalny’s brother Oleg was jailed for 3½ years in 2015. In 2017, an attacker threw a green antiseptic in Navalny’s face, damaging his vision. In August last year, he nearly died after being poisoned with a banned nerve agent similar to the Soviet chemical weapon Novichok, an attack he blames on Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin claims there is no evidence of poisoning.

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Describing the dehumanizing prison surveillance in his March 15 post, Navalny said it was as if “someone upstairs” read George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and then said, “Yeah, cool. Let’s do this.”

Navalny’s name on his uniform bears “a beautiful red stripe” designating him as prone to escape. A video above his bed monitors him constantly, but that is not enough.

He is awakened every hour at night by a guard who video tapes him and intones, “Two-thirty, prisoner Navalny. Registered in the preventive registry as prone to escape,” a post said. “In his place.”

“And I go back to sleep in peace with the thought that there are people who remember me and will never lose me,” the post continued. “It’s great, isn’t it?”

In fact, Navalny struggles to sleep because of his back pain.

But Navalny was determined not to show his painful struggle. As he put it in the March 15 post, “If you look at things with a sense of humor, you can live.”

“Everyone who knows Alexei knows: he will not complain until the last minute,” Yulia posted Thursday on Instagram. “He will be patient, try to cope on his own and joke around.” She said the problem emerged a month ago and has worsened.

She called on Putin to free Navalny, a call echoed by Russian human rights activists, lawyers and celebrities. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed her call Friday and denied there were systemic problems accessing health care in Russian jails.

Navalny’s favorite prison metaphor is space travel. In one post, he likened his life in a small cell to a cosmonaut traveling to what he hoped would be a beautiful new place, yet knowing there were risks: He might never make it or, if he did, the place might be a wasteland.

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A post on March 22 described the prisoners in black uniforms and hats with ear flaps, doing morning exercises in the snow after being awakened at 6 a.m. and singing the national anthem, “Glory to our free Fatherland,” at precisely 6.05 a.m.

“Just a delight,” the post said.

“The loudspeaker on the pole commands, ‘March! Hands by your sides! Ready? On your feet! One, two, three, four!’ And the men in black with beastly faces march, rattling their boots.

“At that moment I imagine I’m in a Russian remake of ‘Star Wars,’ where instead of the Imperial Guard, there are convicts in pea coats and fur hats, cigarettes in their mouths. Instead of laser rifles, they carry iron crowbars,” the post continued.

Navalny’s Friday post said Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was jailed for 10 years in Russia under Putin, warned him that if he got seriously ill, “you will die.”

Navalny said he shared a cell with a man who was suffering with an inflamed appendix, writhing in pain for two days and begging to be taken to hospital.

“But he was taken to hospital only when he was green and began to lose consciousness,” said a post on Navalny’s account.

“Now I know this truth for myself.”

Natasha Abbakumova contributed to this report.

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