A glimpse into the lives of political prisoners swept away by Russian repression

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — When Alexei Navalny turns 47 on Sunday, he will wake up in a bare concrete cell with virtually no natural light.

He will not be able to see or speak to any of his relatives. Phone calls and visits are prohibited for those in “punitive isolation” cells, a 2 by 3 meter (6 1/2 by 10 ft) space. The guards usually hurl patriotic songs and speeches by President Vladimir Putin at him.

“Guess who is the champion of listening to Putin’s speeches? Who listens to them for hours and falls asleep? Navalny recently said in a typically sardonic social media post via his lawyers at Penal Colony No. 6 in the Vladimir region east of Moscow.

He is serving a nine-year sentence due to end in 2030 on charges widely believed to be trumped up, and faces another trial on new charges that could keep him locked up for another two decades. Rallies were called on Sunday in Russia to support him.

Navalny has become Russia’s most notorious political prisoner – and not just because of his notoriety as Putin’s fiercest political enemy, his poisoning he blames on the Kremlin and the fact that he made the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary.

He chronicled his arbitrary placement in solitary confinement, where he spent nearly six months. He’s on a meager prison diet, limited on how much time he can spend writing letters, and sometimes having to live with a cellmate with poor personal hygiene, which makes life even more miserable.

Most of the attention is on Navalny and other high-profile figures like Vladimir Kara-Murza, who was sentenced last month to 25 years in prison for treason. But there are a growing number of less famous prisoners serving their sentences in equally harsh conditions.

Memorial, Russia’s oldest and largest human rights organization and winner of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, had 558 political prisoners in the country as of April, more than three times the number in 2018 , when she had 183.

The Soviet Union’s extensive prison camp gulag system provided detained labor to develop industries such as mining and logging. Although conditions vary from one penal colony to another, Russian law still allows prisoners to work such as sewing uniforms for soldiers.

In a 2021 report, the US State Department said conditions in Russian prisons and detention centers “were often harsh and deadly. Overcrowding, abuse by guards and inmates, limited access to health care, food shortages, and inadequate sanitation facilities were common in prisons, penal colonies, and other detention facilities.

Andrei Pivovarov, an opposition figure sentenced to four years in prison last year, has been in solitary confinement at Penal Colony No. 7 in Russia’s northern Karelia region since January and is expected to remain there the rest of the year, said her partner, Tatyana Usmanova. . The institution is known for its harsh conditions and reports of torture.

The 41-year-old former leader of pro-democracy group Open Russia, 41, spends his days alone in a small cell in a ‘strict detention’ unit, and is not allowed to receive calls or visits from anyone either other than her lawyers, Usmanova told The Associated. Press. He can get a book from the prison library, can write letters for several hours a day and is allowed 90 minutes outside, she said.

Other inmates are prohibited from making eye contact with Pivovarov in the hallways, contributing to his “maximum isolation”, she said.

“It was not enough to sentence him to a real prison term. They are also trying to ruin her life there,” Usmanova added.

Pivovarov was removed from a flight to Warsaw just before takeoff from St Petersburg in May 2021 and taken to the southern city of Krasnodar. Authorities accused him of engaging with an “undesirable” organization – a crime since 2015.

Several days before his arrest, Open Russia had disbanded after being labeled “undesirable”.

After his trial in Krasnodar, the St. Petersburg native was found guilty and sentenced in July, as Russia’s war in Ukraine and Putin’s sweeping crackdown on dissent were in full swing.

He told AP in a letter from Krasnodar in December that authorities had moved him there “to hide me further away” from his hometown and Moscow. This interview was one of the last Pivovarov was able to give, describing prison life there as “boring and depressing”, his only diversion being an hour-long stroll through a small courtyard. “Lucky” inmates with money in their accounts can shop at a prison store once a week for 10 minutes, but otherwise they must stay in their cells, he wrote.

Fan letters boost morale, he said. Many people wrote that they weren’t interested in Russian politics, according to Pivovarov, and “only now are they starting to see through it.”

Now all the letters take weeks to arrive, Usmanova said.

Conditions are easier for some less famous political prisoners like Alexei Gorinov, a former member of a Moscow city council. He was convicted of “spreading false information” about the military in July following anti-war remarks he made during a council session.

Criticism of the invasion was criminalized months earlier and Gorinov, 61, became the first Russian sent to prison for it, serving seven years.

He is housed in a barracks with about 50 other people in his unit in Penal Colony No. 2 in the Vladimir region, Gorinov said in written responses provided to the AP in March.

The low-key activist’s long sentence shocked many, and Gorinov said “the authorities needed an example they could show others (of) an ordinary person, rather than a personality public”.

Inmates in his unit can watch television and play chess, backgammon or table tennis. There is a small kitchen to prepare tea or coffee between meals, and they can have food from personal supplies.

But Gorinov said prison officials still exercise “tightened control” of the unit, and that he and two other inmates undergo special checks every two hours because they have been labeled “prone to escape”. .

There is little medical help, he says.

“Right now I’m not feeling very well because I can’t recover from bronchitis,” he said, adding that he needed treatment for pneumonia in the winter. last in the hospital ward of another prison, because at penal colony No. 2, all they can do is “break the fever”.

Artist and musician Sasha Skochilenko, who also suffers from health issues, is being held in connection with his ongoing trial following his April 2022 arrest in St Petersburg, also accused of spreading false information about the military. His crime was replacing supermarket price tags with anti-war slogans in protest.

Skochilenko has a congenital heart defect and celiac disease, requiring a gluten-free diet. She gets food parcels every week, but there’s a weight limit, and the 32-year-old can’t eat “half of the stuff they give her there”, her partner, Sophia Subbotina, said.

There is a clear difference between female and male detention centers, and Skochilenko has it easier in some ways than male prisoners, Subbotina said.

“Surprisingly, the staff is quite friendly. They are mostly women, they are quite friendly, they will give helpful advice and they have a very good attitude towards Sasha,” Subbotina told AP by phone.

“Often they support Sasha, they tell her: ‘You will definitely get out of here soon, it’s so unfair here.’ They know about our relationship and they’re okay with that. They are very human,” she said.

There is no political propaganda in the prison and dance music blares from a radio. Cooking shows are broadcast on television. Skochilenko “wouldn’t watch them in normal life, but in jail it’s a distraction,” Subbotina said.

She recently arranged for an outside cardiologist to examine Skochilneko and since March she has been allowed to visit him twice a month.

Subbotina becomes emotional when she recalls their first visit.

“It’s a complex and strange feeling when you live with someone. Sasha and I have been together for over six years – waking up with them, falling asleep with them – then not being able to see them for a year,” she said. “I was nervous when I went to him. to visit. I didn’t know what I was going to say to Sasha, but in the end it turned out really well.

Still, Subbotina said a year behind bars was tough for Skochilenko. The trial is progressing slowly, unlike the usually fast-paced proceedings for high-level political activists, with guilty verdicts almost a certainty.

Skochilenko faces up to 10 years if found guilty.

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