Inside Russia’s Criminal Colonies: A Look at the Lives of Political Prisoners Trapped in Putin’s Crackdowns

Tallinn, Estonia (AP) — When Alexei Navalny turns 47 on Sunday, he will wake up in a concrete cell devoid of any natural light.

He will not be able to see or speak to any of his loved ones. Telephone calls and visits are prohibited for those in the “punitive isolation” cells, an area measuring 2 by 3 meters (6 1/2 by 10 feet). The Guard usually blows patriotic songs and speeches by President Vladimir Putin in his face.

Guess who is the hero of listening to Putin’s speeches? Who listens to them for hours and falls asleep to them? Navalny recently said in a sarcastic post on social media Through his lawyer from Penal Colony No. 6 in the Vladimir region, east of Moscow.

He is serving a nine-year term due to end in 2030 on charges widely seen as trumped-up, and he faces another trial on new charges. That could keep him locked up for another two decades. Sunday rallies in Russia have been called to support him.

Navalny has become Russia’s most famous political prisoner — not just for his prominence as Putin’s staunchest political enemy, his poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin, and for being the subject of an Academy Award-winning documentary.

He was placed in arbitrary isolation, where he spent nearly six months. He is on a meager prison diet, limited in the time he can spend writing letters, and is sometimes forced to live with a cellmate with poor personal hygiene, which makes life even more miserable.

Most of the attention is on Navalny and other prominent figures like Vladimir Kara-MurzaWho was sentenced last month to 25 years in prison for treason. But there are a growing number of lesser-known prisoners serving time in similarly harsh conditions.

Memorial, Russia’s oldest and most prominent human rights organization and recipient of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, counted 558 political prisoners in the country as of April — more than triple the number in 2018, when it listed 183.

The remote concentration camp system in the Soviet Union provides prisoner labor to develop industries such as mining and logging. while conditions differ among modern penal coloniesHowever, Russian law still allowed prisoners to work in jobs such as sewing uniforms for soldiers.

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In a 2021 report, the US State Department said conditions in Russian prisons and detention centers “often were harsh and life-threatening. Overcrowding, mistreatment by guards and prisoners, limited access to health care, lack of food, and inadequate sanitation were issues.” common in prisons, penal colonies and other detention facilities.

Andrei PivovarovAn opposition figure who was sentenced last year to four years in prison, his partner Tatyana Usmanova said, has been in isolation in penal colony No. 7 in Russia’s northern region of Karelia since January and is likely to remain there for the rest of this year. The institution is notorious for its harsh conditions and reports of torture.

The 41-year-old former head of the pro-democracy group Open Russia, Usmanova said, spends his days alone in a small cell in a “strict detention” unit, and is not allowed any calls or visits from anyone but his lawyer. He presses. She said he could get one book from the prison library, he could write letters for several hours a day, and he was allowed 90 minutes outdoors.

She said other prisoners are prohibited from making eye contact with Pivovarov in the corridors, which contributes to his “maximum isolation”.

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

Pivovarov was pulled from a Warsaw-bound flight just before takeoff from St Petersburg in May 2021 and flown to the southern city of Krasnodar. Authorities have charged him with association with an “undesirable” organization – an offense since 2015.

Several days before his arrest, OpenRussia was dismantled after receiving the “junk” mark.

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

He told the Associated Press in a letter from Krasnodar in December that the authorities had taken him there to “hide me away” from his hometown and Moscow. That interview was one of the last Pivovarov was able to give, describing prison life there as “boring and depressing”, with his only diversion being an hour’s walk in a small yard. He wrote that the “lucky” prisoners who had money in their accounts could shop in the prison store once a week for 10 minutes, but otherwise had to stay in their cells.

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He said the messages from supporters lifted his spirits. Several people wrote that they used to not be interested in Russian politics, according to Pivovarov, and “only now are they beginning to see clearly.”

Usmanova said it now takes weeks for any messages to arrive.

Conditions are easier for some less well-known political prisoners such as Alexei Gorinov, former member of the Moscow City Council. He was found guilty of “disseminating false information” about the military in July over anti-war remarks he made at a council session.

Criticism of the invasion was criminalized a few months ago, and Gorinov, 61, became the first Russian to be jailed for it, receiving seven years.

He is in a barracks with about 50 others in his unit at Penal Colony No. 2 in the Vladimir region.

The long sentence for a low-profile activist shocked many, and Gorinov said: “The authorities need an example they can show others (from) an ordinary person, rather than a public figure.”

In his unit, guests can watch TV and play chess, backgammon or table tennis. There is a small kitchenette to prepare tea or coffee between meals, and they can get food from personal items.

But Gorinov said prison officials still exercise “enhanced control” over the unit, and he and two other prisoners undergo special checks every two hours, during which time they are classified as “at risk of escape.”

He said there was little medical help.

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

Artist and musician Sasha Skochilenko also suffers from health problems, and she is being held in the midst of her ongoing trial after her arrest in April 2022 in St. Petersburg, on charges of spreading false information about the army. Her crime was to replace supermarket price tags with anti-war slogans in protest.

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Skochilenko suffers from a congenital heart defect and celiac disease, which requires a gluten-free diet. She gets food parcels a week, said her partner, Sofia Subbotina, but there is a weight limit and the 32-year-old can’t eat “half the stuff they give her there”.

There is a stark difference between women’s and men’s detention facilities, Subbotina said, and Skochilenko is easier in some ways than it is for male prisoners.

“Surprisingly, the staff is mostly nice. Most of them are women, very friendly, will give helpful advice and have a very good attitude towards Sasha,” Subbotina told the Associated Press by phone.

“They often support Sasha, tell her:“ You will definitely get out of here soon, it’s not fair here. They know our relationship and are okay with it. They are very human,” she said.

There is no political propaganda in the prison and dance music is played on the radio. Cooking programs are shown on TV. “Skotylenko won’t watch them in normal life, but in prison, it’s a distraction,” Subbotina said.

She recently arranged for an external cardiologist to check up on Skochilneko and since March she has been allowed to visit her twice a month.

Subbotina is touched when she remembers their first visit.

“It’s such a complicated, weird feeling when you’re living with someone. Sasha and I have been together for over six years — waking up with them, sleeping with them — and then we haven’t been able to see them for a year,” she said. “I was nervous when I went to visit her. I didn’t know what to say to Sasha, but in the end, it all went well.”

However, Subbotina said the year’s imprisonment was hard on Skochilenko. The trial proceeds slowly, in contrast to the usually swift proceedings of high-profile political activists, with guilty verdicts almost certain.

Skochilenko faces up to 10 years if convicted.

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