X Close

Inside a Russian penal colony Navalny discovered that the spirit of Stalin's gulags is alive and well

Even Solzhenitsyn would wince (Photo credit should read ILYA PITALEV/AFP via Getty Images)

Even Solzhenitsyn would wince (Photo credit should read ILYA PITALEV/AFP via Getty Images)


March 22, 2021   5 mins

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.

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.


Tim Ogden is the Assistant Editor at New Europe. He is based in Georgia.

TCJOgden1

Join the discussion


Rejoignez des lecteurs partageant les mĂȘmes idĂ©es qui soutiennent notre journalisme en devenant abonnĂ©s payants.

Subscribe

To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

22 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Alexei Yasenko
Alexei Yasenko
3 years ago

The article inaccurately gives Navalny’s name as Alexander. It is actually Alexei.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Funnily enough I read ‘A Voice From The Chorus’ just last year. This is an account by Abram Tertz of his time in a Russian labour camp in the late 1960s, as told through letters to his wife. (So, very heavily censored and, probably, far from the full story). Either way, it would appear that things are possibly worse now than they were then. But that’s Russia for you, and the Russians do seem to like an autocrat.

Paul N
Paul N
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Sadly, the predilection for a “strong leader” is not just Russian. In the UK, part of Boris’ attraction was that he was willing to break the law and lie and cheat to bring about his aims. Whether he is turning out to be as strong a leader as he pretended remains unclear. A similar phenomenon may have occurred in the US (and readers can label whichever side they like as the cheats there).
That sort of thing doesn’t seem to be good for democracy. Any chance of a return to the rule of law here, do you think?

John Tyler
John Tyler
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul N

What over-egged nonsense! There is no comparison worth making between Boris (for all his faults) and Putin.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  John Tyler

Well they both have Russian names…

Paul N
Paul N
3 years ago
Reply to  John Tyler

You’d probably be more annoyed if you’d understood my point, John. I was comparing the Russian people and some of the English people who supported Boris, in their appetite for “strong” leadership. What starts with someone like Boris may end with someone more like Vladimir.
For the avoidance of doubt, Boris is not as bad, and the English people as a whole are less keen on self-styled strongmen – in spite of the Home Secretary’s incessant attempts to be tough on people of whom she does not approve.

Last edited 3 years ago by Paul N
Phil Rees
Phil Rees
4 months ago
Reply to  Paul N

When in a hole, stop digging.

Robert Montgomery
Robert Montgomery
3 years ago
Reply to  John Tyler

You are right but in the wrong way. Johnstone is nowhere near the leader Putin is and his government’s mishandling of the not so dread virus graphically demonstrates that. He’s also a war criminal because in addition to having special forces illegally in Syria Britain participated in the missile attack after the obvious false flag CW attack in Douma, unless you can invent a plausible reason why the Syrian government would do that when on the verge of routing the terrorist forces there.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
4 months ago

Johnson, not Johnstone!

Paul N
Paul N
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul N

Do the downvoters actually think that Boris puts the rule of law above doing what he wants to do? If he doesn’t, then he’s going down the Putin route, whether you support him or not.

Robert Montgomery
Robert Montgomery
3 years ago

Navalny was not “charged” with fraud, he was convicted and sentenced then broke parole conditions, at least you get that part right. Navalny has at best 2% support in Russia that’s not exactly a huge concern to Putin who is massively popular.

Last edited 3 years ago by Robert Montgomery
mike otter
mike otter
3 years ago

Oh those Russians….

Bits Nibbles
Bits Nibbles
3 years ago
Reply to  mike otter

I find their directness refreshing.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
4 months ago
Reply to  Bits Nibbles

What?!

David Otness
David Otness
3 years ago

“Navalny hinted at this in a message posted on his Instagram account last week:…”
Um, what’s wrong in this picture? Relative to the tenor of this article?
You’re kidding, right…?

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
4 months ago

And in the news this morning, Navalny has suddenly died
.R.I.P.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
4 months ago

Navalny is dead. I always thought why, why would he go back to Russia knowing he would suffer and be killed. Matyrdom yes, but I think he could have done more if he’d stayed outside of Russia.

Thomas Prentice
Thomas Prentice
3 years ago

Actually, I think you meant Tsar Nicholas II’s gulags.

The Siberian gulags vastly predated Stalin and Lenin and Khrushchev and Brezhnev and Putin and were merely a continuity of the pre-existing gulag archipelago of the thousand years of Tsars.

Indeed Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Yeltsin, Medvedev and Putin are simply modern iterations of the Tsars, no more, no less.

Just as Xi and Deng and Mao are simply the latest in a 6,000 year line of Chinese emperors.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
3 years ago

Nonsense. The Tsarist penal system was not an extensive system of torture-to-death in the Soviet style and it did not target political prisoners, who received softer treatment – exile in Siberia. In all, just over six thousand were exiled to Siberia in the whole of the nineteenth century – sometimes with servants; Stalin routinely sent that number to a terrible, agonising death in the course of a day. Why not check some facts before lashing out with such wild, inaccurate allegations? Or are you hoping to whitewash communism’s history of continual crime by pretending that it was nothing new?

Last edited 3 years ago by Simon Denis
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
3 years ago

I am afraid that is not accurate.
If you read he account of the Bolsheviks who were exiled to Siberia it was holiday in comparison,
.

Patrick White
Patrick White
3 years ago

What a splendidly uplifting piece.
I so wish we had something like this here, where we could finally install the likes of Diane Abbott, David Lammy, BLM, Stonewall, Ash Sarkar, Julie Bindelsque feminist atrocities, Extinction Rebellion, transvester-anything, and media Jews writing article after article suggesting the extinction of white people.
The thought of just getting on with life, and actually progressing as a nation, rather than pandering to the machinations of Third World imbeciles and self-appointed mendacious middle eastern chosen people seems overwhelming – almost too blissful to contemplate. Because there’s always the grim reality of ‘equality’ that you eventually have to open your eyelids to.

Last edited 3 years ago by Patrick White
Ryan Ewart
Ryan Ewart
3 years ago
Reply to  Patrick White

Well said.

Last edited 3 years ago by Ryan Ewart