14 January 2023
by Aleksandr Podrabinek
It’s a kind of competition. Aleksei Navalny is trying to survive and the Kremlin is trying to kill him. An unsporting competition, but with very high stakes. Each has his own prize. Navalny’s is life; the Kremlin’s is deliverance from an obstinate oppositionist.
To all intents and purposes, Navalny was sentenced to death long ago, but they just can’t seem to carry out the sentence. After the pointed murder of Boris Nemstov and the misfire with the attempt on Navalny’s life in Tomsk, the Kremlin doesn’t want to look like the sentence’s direct implementer. People in the regime (and I think there are quite a few of them) want the condemned man dealt with by other hands.
So that his death is a fortuitous coincidence, the result of an unsuccessful confluence of circumstances. Best of all—from illness. For example, from tuberculosis of the lungs, the eternal companion of Soviet and Russian prisons, which is very easy to infect anyone with by putting him in a cell with someone with an open form of consumption. And that’s it: it’s illness, the regime had nothing to do with it!
Separation and noninterference
No one wants to take personal responsibility and give a direct order to murder. The inspector who wrote the report against Navalny for leaving his top jacket button unbuttoned cites the Rules of Internal Regulations and the authorities’ instructions. The head of the penal colony who signed the decision to place Navalny in a punishment cell cites the report submitted and his own official duties. Prison camp medics cite their limited possibilities and leave the decision on hospitalization to the Federal Penitentiary Service.
After reviewing Navalny’s complaint, the prosecutor cites the medics’ opinion and refuses to take responsibility. The judge who issued the sentence against Navalny cites the law’s requirements and the materials of the preliminary investigation. The investigator, while collecting materials, assures us that the court will evaluate them and he is nothing more than a gatherer of material evidence. The prosecutor who sanctioned the case’s inception nods to the investigation and the court, which will sort out everything.
The president of the country, who guarantees citizens’ rights and freedoms, grins and declares the separation of powers and noninterference in the judicial system.
Everyone nods to each other and tries to escape responsibility. But each of them remains a necessary cog in the mechanism of repressions. This is a longstanding and well-developed system that, given a sufficiently cunning conscience in the “cogs,” allows them not to feel responsibility for the evil they have wrought. This entire system is directed against each individual person, be it Navalny or any other political prisoner.
That they are going to “break” Aleksei, to use prison slang, was clear from the first days of his arrival at the prison camp. I think he himself understood this perfectly well. In these conditions, the zek has only one weighty weapon against his tormenters: strength of spirit. This weapon sometimes allows a person to survive in inhuman conditions.
When a person has nothing left to be taken away, he becomes free
The prison camp bosses excel in humiliations and petty quibbles specifically in order to demonstrate their power over the prisoner, in order to take away his self-respect and sense of his own dignity. In order to break him. The most insignificant sergeant from the guard staff is going to demand the fulfillment of the most idiotic requirement so that the zek, by his obedience, shows his readiness to reject common sense for the sake of physical survival. And the prisoner has nothing to counter this pressure with other than his strength of spirit and his firmness in defending his own personhood.
It is a hard struggle. It is a dangerous contest. Unfortunately, zeks do not always emerge from it victors. Death is in any case a frequent visitor in the world behind the barbed wire, and a person sentenced to it has it ten times harder. Nonetheless, Aleksei Navalny has good chances of surviving. If the hangmen don’t succeed in breaking his will and intimidating him by escalating his privations, they will soon exhaust their arsenal of pressure.
When a person has nothing left to be taken away, he becomes free. This is a strong position. By all accounts, Navalny is prepared to occupy it and to accept any new unpleasantnesses as inevitable. Moreover, in the matter of survival he is helped by the marvelous irony with which he treats his enemies, himself, and his own situation.
It’s difficult to influence the situation from the outside, especially now, when there is a war under way and the whole world’s attention is riveted to the fighting in Ukraine. Still, it is essential to speak out in defense of Navalny and other political prisoners. An action like the doctors’ recent letter may not change the situation in a cardinal way, but it will improve it slightly and have an effect on the public atmosphere. A steady drip will wear away a stone.
In addition, we should not forget that the repressive system consists of people, and people, as the famous anarchist Prince Kropotkin said, are “better than institutions.” Someone will think hard about his service, someone will bring a sick zek medicine, someone will shut his eyes to his superiors’ order. In the end, the evil in the surrounding world can be vanquished only by humaneness, solidarity, and the strength of spirit in those who have chosen the path of resistance.
Translated by Marian Schwartz