Alexei Navalny forced to watch state TV for eight hours a day in Russian prison

Speaking from jail, opposition leader says he believes Putin regime doomed to collapse

Russia’s most famous prisoner, the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, spends much of his time tidying his cellblock, reading letters and being forced to watch state TV. Photograph: Instagram/AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s most famous prisoner, the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, spends much of his time tidying his cellblock, reading letters and being forced to watch state TV. Photograph: Instagram/AFP via Getty Images

 

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

But perhaps the most maddening thing, he suggested, is being forced to watch Russian state TV and selected propaganda films for more than eight hours a day in what the authorities call an “awareness raising” programme that has replaced hard labour for political prisoners.

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

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

Navalny started a major opposition movement to expose high-level corruption and challenge Russian president Vladimir Putin at the polls. He was imprisoned in March after he returned to Russia from Germany knowing he was facing a parole violation for a conviction in a case seen as politically motivated.

Poisoned

As was well chronicled at the time, he was out of the country to receive medical treatment after being poisoned by Russian agents with the chemical weapon Novichok, according to western governments.

Navalny has not been entirely mute since his incarceration in Penal Colony No 2, just east of Moscow. Through his lawyers, who visit him regularly, he has sent out occasional social media posts. Nor is he being actively muzzled by the Kremlin.

When asked about Navalny’s social media presence on Tuesday, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that it was “not our business” if he spoke out. But the written exchange of questions and answers covering 54 handwritten pages is by far his most comprehensive and wide-ranging account.

In today’s Russia, Navalny made clear, hours spent watching state television and movies chosen by the warden are the experience of a political prisoner, a status Amnesty International has assigned to him.

Gone are the shifts of heavy labour in mining or forestry and the harrying by criminals and guards alike that was the hallmark of the Soviet gulag for political prisoners.

“You might imagine tattooed muscle men with steel teeth carrying on with knife fights to take the best cot by the window,” Navalny said. “You need to imagine something like a Chinese labour camp, where everybody marches in a line and where video cameras are hung everywhere. There is constant control and a culture of snitching.”

Despite his circumstances, Navalny was upbeat about Russia’s future prospects, and he outlined his strategy for achieving political change through the electoral system even in an authoritarian state.

‘Psychological violence’

The modern experience of a Russian political prisoner, he said, is mostly “psychological violence”, with mind-numbing screen time playing a big role.

Navalny described five daily sessions of television watching for inmates, the first starting immediately after morning calisthenics, breakfast and sweeping the yard. After some free time, there’s a two-hour spell in front of the screen, lunch, then more screen time, dinner, and then more TV time in the evening.

During one afternoon session, playing chess or backgammon is an acceptable alternative. “We watch films about the Great Patriotic War,” Navalny said, referring to the second World War, “or how one day, 40 years ago, our athletes defeated the Americans or Canadians.”

During these sessions, he said, “I most clearly understand the essence of the ideology of the Putin regime: The present and the future are being substituted with the past – the truly heroic past, or embellished past, or completely fictional past. All sorts of past must constantly be in the spotlight to displace thoughts about the future and questions about the present.”

He said he had not been assaulted or threatened by fellow inmates but estimated that about one-third were what are known in Russian prisons as “activists”, those who serve as informants to the warden.

Navalny (45) conceded that he has struggled to remain visible in Russian politics through a tumultuous period as the government has clamped down on the opposition and the news media. The protests that erupted after disputed Belarusian elections last year spooked the Kremlin, he suggested. The Putin government’s other worry, he said, was the electoral strategy he has devised and calls “smart voting”.

Crackdown

Under the strategy, Navalny’s organisation endorses the candidates it thinks have a chance of winning in regional and parliamentary elections, which will be held next month. The Kremlin was so concerned about the upcoming elections, he said, that it engineered a crackdown this year not just on his group and other activists but on moderate opposition politicians, civil society groups and independent news media outlets like Meduza, Proekt and Dozhd television.

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

“Putin solved his tactical question: not allowing us to take away the majority in the Duma,” Navalny said, speaking of the Russian parliament’s lower house. “But to achieve this, he had to completely change the political system, to shift to a principally different, far harsher level of authoritarianism.”

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

“Opposition exists in Russia not because Alexei Navalny or somebody else commands it from a headquarters,” Navalny said, “but because about 30 per cent of the country – mostly the educated, urban population – doesn’t have political representation.”

When what he called the reactionary anomaly of Putin’s rule fades, Russia will revert to democratic governance, Navalny said. “We are specific, like any nation, but we are Europe. We are the West.” – New York Times