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5 convicts familiar with Navalny’s prison confirm hellish conditions

Navalny, who will be buried Friday in a Moscow cemetery, described his time in the Troika in occasional social media posts with the sarcasm, wit and understatement that had helped turn the former blogger into the face of opposition to President Vladimir Putin.
Last Updated 29 February 2024, 16:51 IST

Locked in an Arctic prison, Alexei Navalny is likely to have spent his final days in some of the most inhumane conditions within Russia’s extensive penitentiary system, according to five men who have served sentences in the same penal colony as the Russian opposition leader.

The men described in phone interviews unbearable cold, repulsive food, unsanitary conditions and beatings in Penal Colony No. 3 of the remote Yamalo-Nenets region, where Navalny arrived in December to serve out the remainder of his 19-year prison sentence. The former inmates said the conditions were especially brutal in the solitary cells where Navalny is believed to have been confined on the day he was pronounced dead.

But what made the prison, known as IK-3 or the Troika, dreaded even by Russia’s hardened inmates was the exceptional psychological pressure and loneliness, they said. It was a system devised to break the human spirit, by making survival depend on total and unconditional obedience to the will of guards.

“It was complete and utter annihilation,” said a former inmate named Konstantin, who spent time in the prison’s solitary confinement cells. “When I think about it, I still break into cold sweat,” he said, adding that he has struggled with mental illness since his release.

The New York Times interviewed four men who had finished serving sentences in the Troika in the past decade, some as recently as weeks before Navalny’s arrival. The Times has also spoken to one person who was in the colony at the time of Navalny’s death, as well as a friend of a former recent inmate. Their full names and some personal details are being withheld to protect them from retribution.

Navalny, who will be buried Friday in a Moscow cemetery, described his time in the Troika in occasional social media posts with the sarcasm, wit and understatement that had helped turn the former blogger into the face of opposition to President Vladimir Putin.

He managed to maintain an upbeat tone even as he appeared increasingly gaunt and pale in his rare court appearances, which recently were conducted mostly remotely, by video call. The government said Navalny died Feb 16 from natural causes, after suddenly falling during a morning walk. His political movement says he was murdered on Putin’s orders. No concrete evidence has been presented to support either version of events.

“Few things are as refreshing as a walk on Yamal at 6:30 a.m.,” Navalny wrote in a post in January, describing the compulsory morning exercises at minus 26 degrees Fahrenheit on the Yamal Peninsula. “And you wouldn’t believe the lovely fresh wind that blows into the courtyard, despite the cement fence.”

Navalny was repeatedly subjected to solitary confinement after being imprisoned in 2021. He was meant to be serving his 27th stint in a solitary cell on the day he was declared dead, according to a spokesperson for his political movement.

These cells were designed “to break people morally, until you agree to all the conditions of the prison administration,” said a former Troika convict, a murderer who had spent time in Troika’s solitary cells. “It was hell.” Former convicts also said that men in solitary had to put away their beds from waking call to sleep time, forcing them to stand or sit for most of the day.

Set in the tundra, the Troika is built to hold about 1,000 prisoners in some of the most remote, strict and harsh conditions in Russia, which former convicts say can cross into torture. The prison’s notoriety dates to the Soviet Union, when it became an unofficial destination for the country’s convicted organized crime bosses. Under Putin, it has housed some of his political opponents, including former oil magnate Platon Lebedev.

Extreme cold is the Troika’s most pervasive hardship. The former convicts said the threadbare prison-issue blankets often provided the only source of warmth in the Arctic nights. Two of the former convicts said some of the solitary confinement cells had radiators painted on the walls instead of heating.

The food was particularly bad, even by the standards of Russian prisons.

“It was awful, uneatable gruel,” said Konstantin, the former convict, using a series of expletives.

Prison authorities also exercised tight control over every aspect of inmates’ lives, by relying on an extensive network of informers. The former convicts said this surveillance fed paranoia and anxiety.

Such conditions can hasten an inmate’s death by chronically undermining a person’s physical and mental health. Former inmates said mortality in the jail was high, and death remained a constant shadow even after release.

A woman from St. Petersburg named Alisa said she had struggled to recognize her friend Mikhail after he finished a four-year sentence in Troika in 2022 for a fraud conviction.

“He was such a charming young man,” said Alisa, who sent packages to Mikhail in prison. “He returned without teeth and with a broken psyche. When he saw me on the street, he didn’t even recognize me.”

Alisa said that Mikhail died a year after his release.

Troika’s isolation and atmosphere of paranoia have made it difficult to turn to inmates to establish the details of Navalny’s death.

A person who was in Troika last month said the guards had blocked access to the prison’s phone service on the day Navalny’s death was reported. The strict protocols have also meant that few of the Troika convicts have illicit cellphones, leaving them practically cut off from the world after Navalny’s death.

The person who was in jail at the time of Navalny’s death said he found out about it the next day from the prison’s rumor mill. He said he did not know where Navalny was before he died, because the strict daily regimen meant that the men living in one prison barrack rarely interacted with or even saw those in the others.

The prison also has about two dozen solitary confinement and other punishment cells spread across its premises.

“You could spend 10 years there, and not see and not know anything about anyone else,” the person said. When asked about the convicts’ reaction to Navalny’s death, he said: “No one gives a damn about anyone else there, because everyone only thinks about themselves and when they can get the hell out of there.”

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(Published 29 February 2024, 16:51 IST)

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