March 22, 2021

Organised into work brigades and subjected to the violent whims of sadistic military guards, the day-to-day lives of the inmates are punctuated only by malnourishment, corporal punishment and death. The penal colony is a place where the authorities can act with impunity, free to torture prisoners in the hope of extracting a false confession.

Such a description no doubt evokes memories of the worst years of the 20th century, an era of totalitarian horror that is fast fading from living memory. It is certainly not an image that one would immediately associate with anywhere on the modern European continent. But the truth is that, thirty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, such places continue to exist in Russia — as Alexander Navalny, Putin’s most prominent political enemy, is currently finding out.

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Last week, the opposition politician was transferred to Penal Colony Number 2 in the small provincial town of Pokrov, roughly two hours’s drive east of Moscow. It will be his home, if you can call it that, for the next two and a half years after he was found guilty of breaking a parole violation from a previous charge of embezzlement in 2014 — although the European Court of Human Rights has described the allegations as “arbitrary and unfair”.

Unlike in Germany, where the death and concentration camps of the Nazi regime have become monuments to the sins of fascism, the spirit of Stalinist oppression so vividly described by Alexander Solzhenitsyn has survived in modern Russia, with penal colonies constituting an integral part of the country’s correctional system. In fact, these “corrective labour colonies” are the most common type of prison in the Russian Federation.

Some of the modern labour camps — including the notorious Penal Colony Number 14 in Mordovia — exist on the sites of their Gulag forerunners. Indeed, in many cases all that has changed is their name: from falling under the auspices of the Gulag, a Russian acronym for “Main Camp Directorate”, to today’s Federal Penitentiary Service. Little else has changed, with many of the buildings and facilities in the penal colonies dating back to the time of the USSR.

The offences that lead to incarceration also bear some resemblance to those of the past. Just as the Gulag system imprisoned enemies of the Communist regime, the penal colonies of today are home to dissidents who have dared to criticise the rule of President Putin.

Similarly, the ways in which anti-establishment figures are treated have also stood the tests of time. Navalny hinted at this in a message posted on his Instagram account last week: “I had no idea that it was possible to arrange a real concentration camp 100km from Moscow,” it said. “I think someone upstairs read Orwell’s 1984 and said: ‘Yeah, cool. Let’s do this.’” Navalny went on to clarify that, so far, he has “not seen any violence”, but can still “easily believe the numerous stories that, not long ago, people here were beaten to within an inch of their lives with wooden hammers”.

Such stories are, of course, indeed “numerous”. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a member of the activist group Pussy Riot, was sentenced to two years in the Mordovia camp in 2012 for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”, after her group staged an illegal performance in a cathedral in Moscow. Tolokonnikova later recalled how, on her arrival, the camp administrator assured her that they would “break” her will.

Whether Tolokonnikova’s forced labour of stitching police uniforms was intended to humiliate her — she is also an anti-police activist — remains unclear. But that almost seems irrelevant when you consider she was fed rotten potatoes, worked seventeen-hour days, lived in freezing conditions and often had her “privileges” — which included the “privilege” to wash or visit the toilet — removed.

In many ways, even more cruel was the Catch-22 built into her forced labour: fill your work quotas and the quotas themselves will be increased; yet fail to meet them and you’ll be punished. Tolokonnikova learned this the hard way when, disgusted by the appalling conditions facing her work brigade, she demanded that their working hours be reduced to twelve hours per day. The commandant agreed, knowing that this would mean Tolokonnikova’s would not be able to meet its work quota, and subsequently be further punished. As a result, Tolokonnikova twice went on hunger strike over the course of her incarceration. She was ultimately hospitalised due to severe headaches, and given an early release of several months.

Yet Tolokonnikova, perhaps due to her significant public profile, was arguably more lucky than most; hospitalisation for illness is not the norm for Russian penal colonies. Less fortunate was Ildar Dadin, another anti-Putin activist and supporter of Navalny. After publicly protesting the Putin regime, Dadin was arrested and jailed. Although his original sentence was only for two weeks, Article 212.1 of the Criminal Code dictates that three violations of Russia’s protest laws can result in a prison sentence of up to five years: Dadin was sentenced to three.

On one occasion during his time in a prison camp in Segezha in the far north of Russia — an area which was home to some of the earliest Soviet Gulags, with winter temperatures as low as -15 degrees — Dadin was hung by his handcuffed wrists for over half an hour. On another, he was beaten and kicked by no fewer than twelve prison guards. Like Tolokonnikova, Dadin responded with a hunger strike. But in response, the guards merely stripped him to his lower garments and assured him that another inmate would rape him if did not resume eating.

Dadin doubtless knew that this was no idle threat. Instances of guard-instigated rape in Russian prisons are hardly rare: in 2011, seven prison staff in St. Petersburg were themselves imprisoned for torturing prisoners and forcing other inmates to rape them.

The Russian authorities predictably denied Dadin’s allegations. But his experiences are in keeping with a number of investigations carried out by Novaya Gazeta, an anti-Putin newspaper which has seen at least six of its journalists murdered, including Yuri Shchekochkin (poisoned with radiation for investigating government corruption) and Anna Politkovskaya (shot in an elevator after years of criticising the President).

Novaya Gazeta‘s research uncovered approximately 4,500 of systemic torture in 2018, with the worst instances reserved for political opponents like Navalny. Dmitry Pchelintsev, a member of an anti-Putin Left-wing group dubbed a “terrorist network” by the authorities, last year described how he was repeatedly electrocuted by members of the FSB (the Russian state’s successor organisation to the KGB): “They [electrocuted] me maybe five times without questions – probably to suppress my will. Then they said: [in case] you don’t understand, you’re in the hands of the FSB. We will not play, you have to answer the questions now.” The electrical cables had originally been attached to his feet, but Pchelintsev said that he ultimately gave a false confession when they threatened to relocate the wires to his genitals.

Does such a fate await Navalny? I am not so sure. Navalny is arguably too prominent to be subject to the worst of the human rights abuses that Russia’s prisons have to offer; international attention on his case is significant enough that even the Putin regime might refrain from murder or torture. Moreover, an increasingly combative Joe Biden seems to have taken a personal interest in the case.

And so, as was the case with Tolokonnikova, it is likely that it will be the people around Navalny who will suffer; she related how her fellow prisoners were discouraged from befriending her for fear of being singled out for punishment.

Yet though Tolokonnikova was undoubtedly a troublesome activist for the Kremlin, Navalny is arguably in a different league. He is, after all, a serious political challenger and a direct threat to the regime, and so it is reasonable to conclude that his treatment could be worse. The guards themselves may refrain from harming Navalny directly, but the system’s prior form suggests that they might encourage other inmates to assault him, perhaps even at the promise of a reward; this would give the Russian authorities the best case of plausible deniability.

In 2010, President Putin declared that The Gulag Archipelago should be essential reading for Russian students. Whether he intended Solzhenitsyn’s work to be read as a lesson in Soviet history or a warning to would-be dissidents has long been a matter of speculation. But which reading is true? Navalny, I fear, could be about to find out.