Special Report: How Russia’s new Gulag tries to break convicts like Alexei Navalny
POKROV, Russia (Reuters) – He looked gaunt and weak, his skin stretched tightly over his skull. Video of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny that emerged in late April has focused attention on a Russian prison system that, former inmates say, is designed to break convicts, not reform them, and where medical neglect is rife.
Navalny had just ended a 24-day hunger strike when he appeared by video link at a Moscow court hearing, his latest skirmish with Russian prosecutors. His refusal to eat was in protest at the prison authority’s refusal to allow an outside specialist to treat him for back pain.
Navalny’s ordeal is nothing out of the ordinary, say seven people familiar with the IK-2 Male Correctional Colony east of Moscow, where in March he began a two-and-a-half-year sentence for parole breaches. If anything, these people say, Navalny’s political celebrity may be protection from the violence that many other convicts endure.
In the most detailed account yet of life inside the jail, sources including six former inmates and a former prisons inspector told Reuters of regular beatings by guards, sexual assaults and severe psychological pressure. They said prisoners’ personal medical supplies are routinely confiscated on their arrival in prison. Convicts have to be gravely ill before they are admitted to the medical bay. And medical staff do little more than hand out pain killers. The former prisoners accused medical staff of turning a blind eye to brutality towards inmates.
Valery Varganov, a criminal defense lawyer unconnected to Navalny, said the allegations, if proven, suggested prison staff were failing in their responsibility to protect the rights of convicts and to help with their rehabilitation. On this basis, he said, the Russian Prosecutor’s office should carry out official checks “and take a legal and well-grounded decision.” The Prosecutor’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Russian law says inmates must not be treated in a way that is “harsh” or “abases human dignity.” They have the right to emergency and specialised healthcare, depending on their diagnosis. If a prison official abuses his position, he can be jailed for up to a decade. The Interior Ministry referred questions about the number of past prosecutions of prison officials to Russia’s Investigative Committee that probes serious offences. It didn’t respond.
Russia’s Justice Ministry referred detailed questions about allegations of brutality at the jail to the Federal Penitentiary Service. Neither it nor the IK-2 prison responded to Reuters. On May 20, the head of the Federal Penitentiary Service, Alexander Kalashnikov, told Russia’s TASS news agency that Navalny has “more or less” recovered following his hunger strike.
The prison service has said previously that guards follow the letter of the law, that all prisoners are treated equally and Navalny was offered all necessary medical care. In late April, he was transferred to a hospital in a neighbouring prison, IK-3, where he remains. Navalny’s allies have said he refused the treatment on offer because he had little confidence in it and feared it may even be detrimental.
Navalny said in an Instagram message published via his lawyers soon after his arrival at IK-2 that he had not witnessed any violence in what he called “a friendly concentration camp.” But he also said he could “easily believe” stories he had heard about prisoners being beaten half to death with wooden hammers. In other posts, he complained of what he said was systematic medical neglect in the prison system.
Akir Mirzoyev worked for Russia’s federal penitentiary system from 2002 to 2013, including in prisoner re-education and as a prisons inspector in the area where IK-2 is located. He told Reuters that Russian prisons copy the harsh discipline of military barracks.
“Except the enemy is within, and they are destroying the prisoner as the enemy,” Mirzoyev said. “They are crushing the prisoner as an individual and calling it the betterment of a person. That is the main aim.” A Navalny supporter, Mirzoyev says his political views have made it hard to find work recently.
THE RED ZONE
Navalny arrived at the IK-2 Male Correctional Colony some 100km (60 miles) east of Moscow on March 11. It consists of a series of dreary grey brick buildings and a gold-domed Orthodox Church behind a corrugated iron fence topped with barbed wire. The complex is part of a vast network of some 700 prisons that house one of the world’s largest prison populations, around half a million people.
IK-2 was converted from a Soviet-era facility where drug addicts and alcoholics were sent to be “cured” through forced labour. It accepted its first prison inmate in 1996, five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now it has capacity for 794 prisoners.
Inmates say they regard it as a “Red Zone” prison – one that exercises total control over the minutiae of daily lives. Prisoners sleep on bunk beds in open-plan barracks. The day begins at 6 am with a blast of the Russian national anthem, followed by synchronised physical exercises and pointless tasks such as repeatedly making and unmaking beds. Prisoners must stay on their feet most of the day and are forbidden to sleep before 10 p.m.
Navalny described the morning routine in an Instagram message posted via his lawyer. “Imagine the area around the barracks,” he wrote. “Snow. Men in black prison uniforms, boots and fur hats are standing in the dark with their hands behind their back, with a loudspeaker atop a high pillar blaring: ‘Be glorious, our free Fatherland’.”
Convicts known as “aktivisti,” activists, work with prison authorities in exchange for privileges such as better food and conjugal visits, former inmates told Reuters. They also bully and beat their fellow prisoners. According to Mirzoyev, the former inspector, prisons “have taken the worst traditions of the (Russian) army. They use convicts to torture other convicts.”
Ex-prisoners described how prison rules insist inmates must be shaved every day, like it or not, often by “activists.” The shaves are fast and careless, done in around 40 seconds using any old razor from a communal bag. Inmates sometimes suffer small cuts and nicks. Some prisoners have AIDS or tuberculosis, said an ex-convict, Gleb Drobilenko, who served two months in IK-2 in 2017 for attempted fraud. His guilty plea was made under duress, he said.
“Naturally your only thought was which razor you’d get.”
Stories of medical neglect are common.
Radu Pelin, a builder, began his jail sentence in 2019. He arrived in IK-2 with a fractured right heel – an injury sustained during his arrest on what he said was a trumped up charge of assaulting a customer. A civilian hospital fitted him with a plaster cast, he said, but officials at the pre-trial detention facility removed it, saying there was no fracture.
Pelin told Reuters that officials turned down his request for hospital treatment and that he had to improvise his own dressings during his one-year jail term. The only help he got from prison officials was one or two painkiller tablets once a month. There were several beds in the medical bay, Pelin said, but only people “in a really bad way” were allowed to use them.
“The only advantage there was that you could lie down,” he added.
Pelin’s heel mended badly and he had to have an operation after his release to break the bone again so it could fuse properly. Now lame in his right leg, Pelin says he has filed a legal complaint against IK-2 over the prison’s alleged failure to provide him with medical treatment.
He showed Reuters a copy of his legal complaint and other documents, including a medical note and X-rays, that appeared to confirm his account.
The prison didn’t respond to detailed questions about allegations of medical neglect by Pelin and other prisoners.
Pelin’s experience was echoed by another former inmate at IK-2, nationalist politician Dmitry Demushkin, the former leader of an outlawed, far right group called Slavic Union. Demushkin served one year and eight months in IK-2 for inciting racial hatred, a charge he denied. He was released in February 2019.
Demushkin told Reuters his knee became swollen during his time in IK-2. A pus-filled abscess made walking hard and he developed a fever. He asked to be examined by an outside doctor or taken to hospital, but he said his requests were refused or ignored by prison officials. Instead he was given pills for pain and inflammation and excused from roll call so he didn’t have to stand outside.
Demushkin said the prison’s medical bay was run by a woman he called “a sadist” who shouted at the guards to remove him, telling them: “Let him die in the barrack. He should have thought about his health when he committed his crime.”
On his release, Demushkin said he finally got access to proper treatment. His knee is healed.
A third former inmate, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he suffered tooth pain that prevented him from eating properly, but he had to wait six months to see a prison dentist, who removed the tooth.
“It turned out I had a hole” in the tooth, said the former prisoner. “But they didn’t take X-rays or do anything. I couldn’t chew or eat normally.” In other cases, he said, the prison dentist “simply ripped people’s teeth out and that’s it. Maybe four or five teeth. There was no treatment.”
Prisoners convicted of political offences generally escape the beatings handed out by prison guards and “activists” to common criminals, the six former prisoners said.
Guards punch and kick common criminals on arrival, and punish minor infractions by thwacking the sole of the foot with a wooden stool leg, they said. Activists deliver savage beatings, punching vital organs but avoiding the face or head so that bruising is less visible.
Pelin, the builder, said that he was taken to a warden’s office on his arrival. One officer strangled him from behind and shoved him to the ground, while another beat the soles of his feet with a stool leg. He said guards beat another inmate until he was covered in blood and his eardrums burst, part of an effort to pressure the man into admitting to a new criminal offence unrelated to his original conviction. Pelin didn’t know whether the prisoner eventually agreed.
Alexander Ionov, who was jailed after pleading guilty to drug possession, said he saw new arrivals taken to a courtyard, beaten by other inmates in front of wardens and made to stand with their legs apart for more than two hours in the depths of winter. One inmate got frostbite on his fingertips, which then had to be amputated, he said.
Drobilenko, the fraud convict, told Reuters he’d experienced jail in France and Spain and had been shocked by his treatment in IK-2, where he too was beaten. “Honestly speaking, it’s surprising that this can all go on inside a prison camp in the 21st century,” said Drobilenko.
These prisoners also told Reuters the threat of rape was ever present. They described how anyone who had been raped or was homosexual was classified by guards and fellow prisoners as a “rooster” and “degraded,” a designation that put them at the bottom of a system that made them vulnerable to even more violence.
For Navalny, say former inmates and human-rights workers, the biggest challenge after trying to stay healthy will be trying to stay sane.
Ruslan Vakhapov, a regional coordinator for “Sitting Russia,” an organisation that provides help to prisoners and their families, said Russia’s prison system dehumanises people to a terrifying degree. “I have seen people come out…who simply didn’t know how to talk with other people,” he told Reuters.
Opposition political activist Konstantin Kotov spent 18 months in IK-2 after his conviction for participating in a demonstration that didn’t have official approval, a charge he denied. Kotov, a computer programmer, said prison officials “have many methods that don’t involve physical violence. They can ban other convicts from speaking to you, like they did with me. No one spoke to me for most of my time in custody.”
Pelin, the builder, said he and Kotov shared a barracks, and he confirmed Kotov received the silent treatment. Speaking bans are backed up with threats of violence, Pelin said. Activists jot down in a notebook details of conversations, and “if for instance you speak to Kotov and it’s banned, then that’s it – you’ve had it. You’ll definitely be taken away for a beating.”
“The psyche of a person collapses when they’re in jail for half a year, a year or two years – and they don’t speak to anyone,” Pelin added.
Psychological pressures are intense in the heightened control sector of IK-2 where Navalny was held on his arrival, said Demushkin, the nationalist. Demushkin said he spent eight months in that sector. No conversation was permitted there, he said.
“You have to keep your head down, eye contact is banned, and you’re not allowed to move without asking, even to scratch your nose.” Apart from seeing his lawyer, Demushkin said the authorities had successfully isolated him, something he described as worse than physical violence.
“The whole atmosphere, the lack of clarity about what will come next and whether you’ll survive or not. That breaks people more than beatings,” he said.
reporting by Polina Nikolskaya, Anton Zverev, Andrew Osborn and Maria Tsvetkova; edited by Janet McBride