4 June 2023
By Aleksandr Podrabinek
Source: The Insider
Today, one can only dream of the “wild” 1990s, when the country had no political prisoners. The Kremlin and its lackeys curse those times—not because there weren’t any political prisoners but because at the time they themselves had no way to gain political weight. They applied maximum effort to pushing Russia off the democratic path—successfully. Now they’re in power, and the country does have political prisoners. That’s inevitable under any tyranny.
On 4 June, Aleksei Navalny turned 47. He celebrated his birthday in a prison cell. The judges and the people who control them meted out to Navalny a nine-year sentence and are prepared to add to that. Many doubt the reality of these sentences. The present regime doesn’t have enough resources to last that long. This is an optimistic view of the situation in the country and of the fate of one the most famous Russian political prisoners. But no matter how much we want to believe in something better, we have to be realists and assess the risks correctly.
For Aleksei Navalny, they are unusually great. Much greater than for the majority of other Russian prisoners, including political ones. Navalny has focused on him the fixed attention of the repressive machine run by the presidential administration. Nothing good can be expected from that attention. This machine knows neither pity nor mercy; it does not obey the requirements of law or the standards of morality; and it is prepared to commit any crime on orders from above.
What does the regime want from Navalny? Since, by happy accident (happy for us, fateful for the regime), they failed to murder him, the options for reprisals against the oppositionist are very few. The Kremlin would doubtless be happy to repeat the attempt, but after all the scandals and disclosures they could hardly want to look like common killers in the eyes of the whole world. The solution is simple. They have to break the political prisoner’s will and bring him to his knees.
They became skilled at doing this over several decades of Soviet punitive experience. After Stalin’s death, when the death penalty ceased to be the usual retribution for political crimes, the Kremlin-run repression machine acquired some refinement in its search for ways to suppress dissidents. The executioner’s skill was honed in the political prison zones and special psych hospitals. The goal was always the same: break the political prisoner, force him to make a false confession, and, even better, agree to full-fledged collaboration.
Worst of all was in the psych hospitals. At the Chekists’ instructions, doctors and orderlies tormented people there with neuroleptics, tortured them, beat them, and taunted them to the full extent of their sick fantasy. In the prisons and camps they exhausted them with hunger and cold and endless punishment cells, deprived them of family visits, forbade them to read and write, and if a political prisoner got sick, treated him only for appearances or not at all. And asked for “a mere nothing”: first, wholly submit to the prison bosses, and then admit guilt and give a remorseful interview on television. In the psych hospitals they demanded acknowledgement of their illness and the correctness of their treatment.
Now they’re trying to break Aleksei Navalny as per the scheme worked out back by the KGB and Gulag. One punitive isolation cell after another, moreover always for demonstratively insignificant reasons: the top button on your robe isn’t fastened , you identified yourself incorrectly to the bosses, you washed up at the wrong time. One order putting him in the punishment cell said: “Convict Navalny is not amenable to educational work and is not drawing the proper conclusions for himself.” These guileless lines, written by some warrant officer or duty officer, contain the whole sense of the prison yoke: the prisoner is supposed to draw conclusions and “be amenable to education.” That is, forget his rights and human dignity and submit unquestioningly to any demands from the man with the epaulets.
They are failing to break Navalny. He is saved by his strength of spirit, his irony, and his faith in a higher justice over which the little prison bosses and big men in the Kremlin are powerless. One day, after they are convinced of the absolute vanity of their efforts, his tormenters will step back from their victim. There is just one problem here: contriving to live to that day. That might not be easy.
That’s how it was in the Soviet era. I can say from my own experience. It’s a marathon: they rush to get you by every possible means, while you try to survive and reach that sacred line where the hangmen’s fervour runs out and they spit on you and your unbrokenness. Unfortunately, not everyone always makes it to the happy finish line. Death is an all-too-frequent visitor in those lands.
Living in Russia is dangerous in general, and in a Russian prison doubly so. It’s even harder for Aleksei Navalny, who the Russian regime has chosen as its personal enemy. Good health and luck to him on those dark, dangerous, and unpredictable prison roads.
Translated by Marian Schwartz