In first prison interview, upbeat Navalny discusses prison life

MOSCOW – Russia’s most famous prisoner, opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny, spends much of his time tidying up his cell block, reading letters and visiting the mess for meals, often with porridge on the menu.

But perhaps the most infuriating thing, he suggested, is being forced to watch Russian state television and select propaganda films for more than eight hours a day in what authorities call an “awareness” program that replaced forced labor for political prisoners.

“Reading, writing or doing anything else” is prohibited, Mr. Navalny said of forced screen time. “You have to sit on a chair and watch TV.” And if an inmate falls asleep, he said, the guards shout, “Don’t sleep, look!

In an interview with The New York Times, his first with a news agency since his arrest in January, Mr. Navalny spoke about his life in prison, why Russia has cracked down on opposition and dissidents so harshly, and his belief that “Putin’s regime,” as he calls it, is doomed to collapse.

Mr. Navalny has launched a major opposition movement to denounce high-level corruption and challenge President Vladimir V. Putin at the polls. He was jailed in March after returning from Germany to Russia, knowing he faced a parole violation for a conviction in a case considered politically motivated. As was well reported at the time, he was out of the country for medical treatment after being poisoned by Russian agents with the chemical weapon Novichok, according to Western governments.

Mr. Navalny has not been completely silent since his incarceration in Prison Colony No.2, just east of Moscow. Through his lawyers, who visit him regularly, he has sent occasional messages on social media.

Nor is he actively muzzled by the Kremlin. Asked about Mr. Navalny’s social media presence on Tuesday, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry S. Peskov said it was “none of our business” if Navalny spoke.

But the written exchange of questions and answers spanning 54 handwritten pages is by far his most comprehensive and expansive account.

In today’s Russia, Navalny said, hours spent watching state television and films chosen by the director are the experience of a political prisoner, a status Amnesty International told Navalny. No more movement of heavy labor in mines or forestry and the harassment by criminals and guards that were the hallmark of the Soviet gulag for political prisoners.

“You could imagine muscular tattooed men with steel teeth fighting with a knife for the best bed by the window,” Mr Navalny said. “You have to imagine something like a Chinese labor camp, where everyone is walking online and video cameras are hung everywhere. There is constant monitoring and a culture of the snitch.

Despite his situation, Navalny was optimistic about Russia’s future prospects and described his strategy for achieving political change through the electoral system, even in an authoritarian state.

“Putin’s regime is a historic accident, not a fatality,” he wrote, adding: “It was the choice of the corrupt Yeltsin family,” a reference to the appointment by former President Boris N. Mr Putin’s Yeltsin as interim president in December. 1999. “Sooner or later this mistake will be corrected and Russia will embark on the democratic and European path of development. Quite simply because that’s what people want.

As he has done before, Mr. Navalny criticized Europe and the United States for the economic sanctions they imposed on Russia for its interference abroad and its crackdown on dissidents, including Mr. Navalny. . He said the sanctions hurt ordinary Russians and risk alienating a large constituency inside Russia which is a natural ally.

The sanctions, he said, should only target the main oligarchs who back Mr. Putin’s government, instead of the dozens of largely obscure figures who have been affected so far. The real powerful have largely avoided sanctions, he said, by retaining “an army of lawyers, lobbyists and bankers, fighting for the right of owners of dirty and bloody money to go unpunished.”

During the 20th century and before, prison in Russia was a melting pot that forged or smashed dissidents and writers, shaped rulers, and crushed pluralist politics.

The modern experience of a Russian political prisoner, Mr Navalny said, is mostly “emotional abuse”, with mind-numbing screen time playing a big part.

Mr Navalny described five daily television sessions for inmates, the first starting immediately after morning gymnastics, breakfast and yard sweeping.

After some free time there is a two hour stint in front of the screen, lunch, then more screen time, dinner, then more television time in the evening. During an afternoon session, playing chess or backgammon is an acceptable alternative.

“We watch movies about the Great Patriotic War,” said Mr. Navalny, referring to World War II, “or how one day, 40 years ago, our athletes defeated the Americans or the Canadians.”

During these sessions, he said: “I understand very clearly the essence of the ideology of the Putin regime: the present and the future are replaced by the past – the truly heroic past, or the past. embellished, or the completely fictitious past. All kinds of pasts need to be constantly in the spotlight to shift thoughts to the future and questions to the present.

The approach of prolonged and forced watching television, although taken to the extreme at Penal Colony No.2, is not unique to the site, where detainees in politically motivated cases have previously been held. .

It was born out of a penal reform in Russia started in 2010 to strengthen the guards’ control over inmates throughout their day and to reduce the influence of prison gangs. The intention is not so much brainwashing as control, say experts in the Russian prison system.

“Everything is organized so that I am under maximum control 24 hours a day,” Mr. Navalny said. He said he had not been assaulted or threatened by fellow inmates, but estimated that about a third were what are known in Russian prisons as “activists,” those who serve as informants to the warden. .

During his first few weeks in the penal colony, Mr. Navalny’s limbs became numb, either from the lingering effects of the poisoning or from a back injury caused by driving a van from the prison. He also went on a 24-day hunger strike, sounding the alarm on his health.

His neurological symptoms eased when guards stopped waking him every hour at night, apparently to make sure he wasn’t planning an escape.

“I now understand why sleep deprivation is one of the special services’ favorite tortures,” he said. “There is no trace left and it is impossible to tolerate.

He said he gets along well with other inmates and they sometimes cook snacks in the microwave.

“When we cook I always remember the classic ‘Goodfellas’ scene when Mafia bosses cook pasta in a prison cell,” he said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have such a fresh pot and pasta is prohibited. Still, it’s fun.

Mr Navalny, 45, admitted he had struggled to remain visible in Russian politics during a tumultuous time as the government clamped down on the opposition and the media.

The protests that erupted after last year’s contested Belarusian elections frightened the Kremlin, he suggested. The other concern of the Putin government, he said, was the electoral strategy he devised and which he calls “smart voting”.

As part of this strategy, Mr Navalny’s organization is supporting candidates it believes have a chance of winning in the regional and parliamentary elections, which will be held next month.

The Kremlin was so concerned about the upcoming elections, he said, that it this year staged a crackdown not only against his group and other activists, but also against moderate opposition politicians, civil society groups and independent media such as Meduza, Proekt and Dozhd TV.

Mr Navalny suggested that while the crackdown may prove to be a tactical success for Mr Putin, it may also be a long-term responsibility.

“Putin has solved his tactical question: not to allow us to withdraw the majority in the Duma,” Navalny said, speaking of the lower house of the Russian parliament. “But to achieve this he had to completely change the political system, shifting to a primarily different and much more severe level of authoritarianism.”

Mr Navalny suggested that the move highlighted a main weakness in Mr Putin’s political system. While leftists and nationalists are represented by parties loyal to Mr. Putin, there is no stable, pro-Kremlin center-right party representing the country’s emerging middle class of relatively prosperous city Russians.

“The opposition exists in Russia not because Aleksei Navalny or someone else commands it from a headquarters,” Mr. Navalny said, “but because about 30% of the country – mainly the urban population educated – has no political representation “.

When what he called the reactionary anomaly of Mr. Putin’s regime disappears, Russia will return to democratic governance, Navalny said. “We are specific, like any nation, but we are Europe. We are the West.

Julian E. Barnes contributed reporting from Washington.

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