After spending 128 days in a tiny punishment cell, anti-Putin dissident Alexei Navalny wrote to the man who would best understand his torment. The letter was addressed to Natan Sharansky, a rebel from the Soviet era, who holds the record for the most days locked up in a Russian solitary confinement cell.
Sharansky spent 405 days in a punishment cell before making history as the first political prisoner to be released as part of Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalization of the Soviet Union.
The days of political prisoners being sent to Russia’s icy wastelands to wither and die in silence were supposed to have crumbled with the Berlin Wall, but President Putin has ushered in a dark new period of anti-democratic brutality.
Repression against the Kremlin’s opponents has dramatically increased since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. All of Putin’s high-profile critics are now behind bars. Opposition leader Ilya Yashin, 40, has been sentenced to 8 and a half years. Vladimir Kara-Murza, 41, a journalist who dared to criticize Putin in the pages of the Washington Post and beyond has been sentenced to 25 years.
Navalny, the most widely supported of Russia’s opposition figures, had his sentence increased by 19 years in August and the judge ordered him to be sent to one of the harshest prisons in Russia where they operate a so-called “special regime” which forbids prisoners speaking to each other and allows inmates one family visit and one parcel per year.
The Daily Beast has interviewed four people who have been inside these harsh prisons and witnessed the methods of psychological pressure meant to break the prisoners’ spirit, including a former cellmate and family of the only two political prisoners already held under special regime conditions.
Leaked videos from inside Russia’s prison system have shown systematic rape, torture and abuse.
Sharansky told The Daily Beast that he has great admiration for Navalny, who has already spent 200 days in isolation. “He will probably beat my record,” he said.
To stay strong as he was tortured with hunger, cold, and isolation, Sharansky said he played chess in his head and kept reminding himself why he was in this position in the first place.
He advises Russia’s current dissidents to do the same: “Try and remember how many days have passed, try not to lose the awareness, your connection with reality. You need to remind yourself that you are at the center of the world’s struggle—the fight between the evil and the good depends on you. Any of your compromises would make that entire struggle weaker.
Former Soviet dissident and now Israel’s Industry and Trade Minister, Natan Sharansky (L) is accompanied by his wife Avital and a bodyguard as they walk out of the former KGB Lefortovo prison in Moscow, Jan. 30, 1997.
“On one hand you should treat your historical role with great importance, on the other hand you need to laugh at all this, never lose a sense of humor and laugh first of all at yourself. It is a Kafkaesque system: I loved to tell my prison guards Soviet jokes that were very funny but they could not even laugh at them, so I told them, ‘It’s you guys who are in prison,’ and continued to tell them jokes, each one funnier than the last.”
Russia’s prison machine has already been working hard to break that spirit in Navalny.
“The hardest part was the administration’s constant reminders of your lifetime in prison: ‘You are here forever, the only way out of the Black Dolphin is to the cemetery.’”
— Sergei Lariagin
So far Navalny has—at least—been allowed lots of books that his team had passed to his corrective colony, he’s had frequent meetings with lawyers, and even the occasional opportunity to make public statements. Earlier this month he described Putin and the Kremlin’s regime as “a gang of traitors, thieves and scoundrels who have taken over power in Russia.”
Those conditions are about to get so much worse.
Now that he has been sentenced for “extremism,” Navalny will be transferred to one of the most terrifying special-regime prisons in Russia. These notorious encampments are normally reserved for serial killers, terrorists and man-eaters serving life sentences.
There are 11 of these top level special-regime penal colonies hidden in the most ice-hardened, God-forsaken corners of Russia. Their nicknames include the Polar Owl prison camp in the Arctic, Snow Flake in the Far East, White Swan in the Urals and the Black Dolphin—located in the heart of salt mining country in Orenburg—which is the biggest special-regime prison in the country.
“Most likely Putin’s order was to make Navalny shut up, so nobody hears his voice again—the system will be trying to break him, so he tells his team to stop talking about him,” said Sergei Davidis, head of the Political Prisoner Support Program and member off the council at the Nobel Prize winning Memorial human rights center.
Memorial has keeps a list of Russia’s political detainees. “Our list of political prisoners includes 570 but so far only two of them had been serving at the special regime prisons, Alexei Pichugin and Rasul Kudayev; Navalny will be the third,” Davidis told The Daily Beast.
Alexei Pichugin was the security manager of Mikhail Khodorkovsky—once Russia’s richest oligarch who now lives in exile in London. He was arrested in 2003 on spurious grounds and later given a life sentence in a special-regime prison for his supposed involvement in murder. In 2017, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the authorities had violated his rights and even fined Russia 15,000 Euros. That did not help free Russia’s longest serving political prisoner.
For two years, Pichugin shared a cell at Black Dolphin with Sergei Lariagin. Novaya Gazeta reports that Black Dolphin is one of the two options preparing to house Navalny.
Lariagin told The Daily Beast that the prison camp was utterly brutal.
“Pichugin’s legs hurt and I had pain in my back from the lack of movement,” he said. “Most prisoners refused to go out for the one and a half hour daily walk in the concrete courtyard. See, they blindfold you, bend you down and drag you, so that you bump into all corners on the way or they drop you a few times on the staircase; so we all understood that the prison guards did not want to work and move us for walks every day and preferred us to stay in our cells,” he said.
“If you are sick, there is no guarantee that the medicine that families try to pass to you would reach you—it is like Russian roulette,” added Lariagin, whose whole life sentence was reduced after the intervention of the European Court of Human RIghts.
He said one of the convicts he knew had diabetes but was not given his insulin, and was left to die. “People often died in the Black Dolphin and rarely from committing suicide.”
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is seen on a screen via a video link from the IK-2 corrective penal colony in Pokrov during a court hearing to consider an appeal against his prison sentence in Moscow, Russia May 24, 2022. (Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters)
It was not the beatings and physical pain that made Lariagin feel under constant, unbearable pressure, however, during almost 15 years spent at Black Dolphin. He said it was the psychological torment.
“The hardest part was the administration’s constant reminders of your lifetime in prison: ‘You are here forever, the only way out of the Black Dolphin is to the cemetery. How long you suffer here depends on you,’ they often told us,” he said.
Vera Vasilyeva, an author who wrote Pichugin’s biography, has refused to join the exodus of intellectuals out of Russia so that she can keep up her commitment to support prisoners languishing in these special-regime prisons.
As a friend of Pichugin and others, she only has a chance to visit the prisoners twice a year for 4 hours. If they have families who have remained in Russia, they are allowed to have a 3-day-long visit once a year but that “depends on how the prison guards like the convicts’ behavior,” she said.
“Last year they banned prisoners from receiving books in the mail but it is possible to print the book out and send it by mail—I help Pichugin every way I can,” she said.
She described the political prisoner as “a hostage” in Putin’s battle against Khodorkovsky, who now runs an anti-Kremlin organization from Central London.
This summer, Vasilyeva visited another friend, businessman Alexander Markin in a special-regime prison IK–6 in the Republic of Mordovia. “Markin’s family is in Spain, so I am the only one who can visit him,” she said. “What shocked me was the way they organized our meetings: both the prisoners and their visitors have to sit in cages! They first locked Alexander Markin in a cage and then they locked me up in a cage for four hours. Our cages were about three meters away from each other but we in the end we hardly noticed; we had so much to catch up on. These short visits and the letters is what keeps the prisoners’ spirits up.”
“In these prisons Navalny can easily lose even his chance for the short visits with friends or family for some minor misdemeanor, for not making his bed properly, for example,” Vasilyeva said.
She tells The Daily Beast, “If needed I can help Navalny too.”
The other inmate on Memorial’s political prisoner list is Rasul Kudayev, a former detainee at Guantanamo Bay. Human Rights Watch claims he was tortured and held for more than five years without trial before he was eventually sentenced to a life sentence at Black Dolphin, where he’s been since 2015.
Fatima Tekayeva, his mother, told The Daily Beast that her son has many health issues. “He has to be constantly taking pain killers but it has been a long time since we were allowed to pass him medicine,” she said.
“Our annual visit was scheduled in May, so I traveled but the prison refused to allow me see my son; they never explain the reasons,” she said.
Soon it will be Navalny held in isolation and misery at the whim of the special regime guards. His torment is likely to go on as long as Putin remains in the Kremlin.
This is where Sharansky sees a glimmer of hope. “The term left for this regime is much shorter than Navalny’s sentence,” he said.