“A sense of utter despair”. What is Penal Colony IK-3, where Aleksei Navalny died, like? 
Aleksei Navalny

16 February 2024

by Aleksei Yablokov

Source: Spektr.press


On 25 December 2023, Aleksei Navalny’s press-secretary, Kira Yarmush, said on X that the politician and activist had been sent to the Polar Wolf strict-regime penal colony [IK] No. 3. It is situated in the permafrost beyond the Arctic Circle, an hour’s drive from Salekhard, in the settlement of Kharp in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug. It is possible to learn from open sources that IK-3 was founded in 1961 on the basis of the former camp of Gulag construction project 501 and that it has a design capacity of 1,085 people. The colony has its own page on the Federal Penitentiary Service [FSIN] website which states that the institution “makes a substantial contribution to accomplishing major state missions to re-educate and reform convicts and return them to society as law-abiding citizens”. You can also discover the latest news from the colony: for example, on 1 February 2024 the Polar Wolf collective marked the retirement of accountant Nina Dmitrievna Gribova and colony director Colonel Vadim Kalinin wished her good health, vigour and prosperity in this new phase of her life. 

On 25 December 2023, when it became known that Aleksei Navalny had been placed in IK-3, Director of the Anti-Corruption Foundation Ivan Zhdanov wrote the following on X: “Conditions there are tough with a special regime in the permafrost zone. It’s very hard to get there and it has no FSIN-pismo or Zonatelecom email delivery system. On the website A Guide to the Prisons of the Russian Federation [Spravochnik tyurem Rossiyskoi Federatsii], IK-3 Kharp has a two star rating (out of five) with comments making particular mention of the “dreadful medical provision”. For his part, Dmitry Kolezev posted several noteworthy remarks on his Telegram channel about the institution in which Navalny had ended up. Including:

  • IK-3, to which Navalny has been transported, has long been known as a “red zone” where the influence of the criminal fraternity is limited (although nowadays this distinction between ‘red’ and ‘black’ zones is regarded as artificial). In the 1970s−1980s, the colony was regarded as an “all-union strict-regime barracks”, to which criminal kingpins were taken to be “broken”, Georgians included. It is believed that a great deal in the colony is specifically designed to break the will to resist and to turn insubordinate convicts into compliant ones. 
  • There are over 1,000 prisoners in the colony and a unit of single-person prison-type cells for 50 people, where Navalny is also due to be held (in September 2023 he was sent to a single-person prison-type cell for a year). Judging from the descriptions, those held in the single-person prison-type cells are usually engaged in manufacturing what are known as unobtrusive obstacles or, more simply, barbed wire. The colony also has a sewing room and makes building blocks and stoneware. It has recently added the production of reindeer skins, the manufacture of chums [conical tents made of reindeer skins] and the sewing of nyuki (skins that cover the chums) for the residents of the Far North.
  • Famous prisoners who have done time here include Platon Lebedev and Oleg Sentsov. The 2009 film about IK-3, “Hello, Citizen Director!” (“Zdravstvyite, grazhdanin nachalnik!”), talks too about the fact that one of the most dangerous gangsters of the Kazan groups, Aleksandr Poberezhev, sentenced to 25 years for a number of murders, was also imprisoned here. 
  • Colony director Vadim Kalinin, head of No.3 since 2021, pays particular attention to the convicts’ patriotic education. To this end, a memorial appeared in the colony in 2022 “in honour of the feats of Soviet soldiers and all those who died in the years of the Great Patriotic War”.

On Instagram Navalny himself has described patriotic eduction at the colony as follows: 

“Here, every day at 0500 comes the order “Get up!” followed by the Russian national anthem. Immediately after that comes the country’s second most important song: they always play the Shaman song ‘I’m Russian’. So picture to yourself: the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug. A Polar night. In the barracks for rule breakers at a special regime colony, sentenced to 19 years behind bars, is A. Navalny, whom Kremlin propaganda has for years chastised for taking part in Russian demonstrations, doing his exercises to the song ‘I’m Russian’, which is played for purposes of re-education in order to improve him.”  

Navalny also described other details of being held at IK-3:

“I don’t say, ‘Ho, ho, ho’ but I do say, ‘Oh, oh, oh’ when I look out of the window where it’s first night, then evening, then night again… From the cell, all I can see is a nearby fence… The exercise yard — the next cell, which is slightly bigger and has snow on the floor. And I’ve seen the security guards, not like they are in Central Russia but like they are in the movies – with sub-machine-guns, warm mittens and felt boots. With those lovely fluffy shepherd dogs.”

“A nice detail: the timetable in a punishment cell is slightly different. In an ordinary cell, the walk comes after lunch and while it’s the polar night here now, even so it’s a few degrees warmer after lunch. But in punishment cells, walks are at 6:30 in the morning. But I’ve already promised myself that I’ll try to go out for a walk no matter what the weather.”

“So far it hasn’t been less than -32°C. But even at that temperature you can only be outside for more than half an hour if you manage to grow a new nose, ears and fingers. There is little so invigorating as a walk in Yamal at 6:30 in the morning. And what a wonderful fresh breeze blows into the yard, despite the concrete enclosure. Just wow!”

The Insider, which published a lengthy article on penal colony IK-3, mentioned that in 2013, one of the prisoners, Мikho Khulilidze, accused colony wardens of cruel torture. In particular, he spoke of “the amusement” of colony staff – for example “driving a convict out for a walk in freezing temperatures in thin clothes and old boots and keeping him outside for five hours”.

However, the main impression of the colony where Aleksei Navalny was held and where he died, can be provided by the documentary film, posted on his VKontakte page seven years ago by a CPRF member from Nizhnevartovsk, Valery Velichko. The film shows in detail the walks and the process of interrogating prisoners. The director was even invited to the home of one of the wardens to show how he cooked dumplings and pilau in an atmosphere of love and domestic warmth. Right at the start of the film, the voice-over notes, “[In colony IK-3] a sense of utter despair. Certainly, it is not only easier to implement the process of reformation in these conditions but also, as one long-term inmate said, it is easier to submit, the spirit of rebellion vanishes altogether here.” And sums up at the end by saying, “What can be more complex than the re-education of a grown man?” 

Aleksei Navalny’s last communication from Kharp was posted on his Instagram account on 14 February, two days before he died. On Valentine’s Day he addressed his wife, Yulia, from the colony:

“Babe, for you and me everything is like it is in the song: there are cities between us, the landing lights of airfields, blue snowstorms and thousands of kilometres. But I feel you are beside me every second and I love you more and more.” *  


* The song to which reference is made, as sung by Anna German, can be found here.

Translated by Melanie Moore

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