Modern Stalinism and the Slow-Motion Torture of Alexei Navalny

Russia’s jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny can barely walk. A herniated disc in his spine has cut off feeling in his lower right leg. Despite this sudden disability, authorities at No. 2 Penal Colony have labeled him a risk to flee prison.

The Tormentor and His Prisoner

He can see only prison doctors, his lawyers said, despite his pain.

Navalny indicated he’s going to fight the terms of his imprisonment head on: he said he was going on a hunger strike to demand medical treatment.

“I have the right to invite a doctor and received medication,” he wrote on Instragram. “The back pain has spread to my leg. I’ve lost sensation of my right leg and now the left leg, too. Jokes aside, this is getting worse.

“I have declared a hunger strike demanding that the law be upheld and a doctor of my choice be allowed to visit me.”

So it goes as President Vladimir Putin’s updates age-old methods on how to deal with political prisoners in Russia. The techniques used on Navalny are similar to those of Soviet times, altered slightly to give a veneer of legality and perhaps soften the harsh light of social media that are out of government control.

And if Josef Stalin, Soviet scourge of dissident for thirty years, sent thousands to labor camps deep in Siberia, Putin has adopted a more surgical approach: to maintain political control over the vast Russian state, he so far feels the need only to make an example of a few dissenters. Currently, Navalny is chief among them.

He went into a coma last summer from a nerve agent poisoning administered in Russia, possibly in tea. He was flown out to Germany at the behest of Chancellor Angela Merkel, got emergency treatment and recovered. In late January, he returned to Moscow, where he was quickly detained and put on trial on charges for breaking probation reporting requirements while in Germany.

Now, he is target of slow-motion torture.

Sleep deprivation may be the most damaging punishment. Prison officials have put a red stripe on his prison ID card, meaning they wake him up hourly night and leave a light on in his cell, both which make it even harder for him to get a sound sleep. The notion that hourly nocturnal visits are needed to keep Navalny from fleeing seems laughable in that he returned to Russia from Berlin voluntarily knowing that he likely faced jail.

But sleep deprivation can lead to both physical and mental collapse—likely the goal of the hourly nocturnal visits, says Nikolay Petrov, an historian and board member of Memorial, a Russian human rights organization. “The punishment system has not become more humane,” added Petrov during a broadcast on the Moscow Echo commercial radio in Russia.“We are in an era of shamelessness.”

In prison, Navalny’s jailers keep score infractions of prison rules that might merit more severe punishment for him later on. Among them, he is accused of rising from bed 10 minutes before being told to, for wearing a T-shirt during a meeting with his lawyers, for asking a jailor out for coffee and for refusing an exercise hour, he said. Two such black marks are enough to send him into solitary confinement. Navalny says he has six.

For experts on Russian pressure tactics, this is nothing new. Gulag veteran and journalist Alexander Podrabinek explained the method to the madness of petty intimidation: officials know that, given the official animus toward Navalny, they must prepare a case against him should the authorities want to punish him more, say, by putting him in solitary confinement.

“They need to have some array of such incriminating evidence that can be dumped at any moment. They hang him with reprimands and punishments like Christmas tree decorations,” said Podrabinek, who spent several years during late Soviet times in a Siberian penal colony for exposing psychiatric malpractice used for political control.

If in Stalin’s time, such fake legality was unneeded—Stalin’s signature was enough– in the Putin era all must appear legal, to make it look inside and outside Russia that they have no choice but to punish Navalny. And Putin takes pains to make Navalny look unworthy of sympathy. To foreigners, official news outlets and Internet trolls emphasize old comments he made disparaging minorities. On the domestic front, they claim he has embezzled money from his Anti-Corruption Foundation.

Such slander, and worse, were frequently employed to discredit dissidents in Russia’s Soviet past, including famed atomic scientist Andrei Sakharov.

The Putin government not only put Navalny under its thumb, but launched a concurrent multi-front offensive against his potential supporters throughout Russia. A new law labels almost anyone who criticizes Putin as a “foreign agent” if they receive any amount of foreign funding. The measure includes a vague prohibition against receiving “methodological or organizational support” from abroad, according to Human Rights Watch. The law also applies to journalists deemed to be “acting in the interests” of an international or foreign organization.  

Protestors must go through onerous bureaucratic hurdles to hold demonstrations, and even single persons must seek permission to hold up a sign on a street corner. In February, riot police detained 10,000 demonstrators during pro-Navalny rallies that took place across Russia, because all were deemed unauthorized, HRW said.

Relatives of dissidents may not be spared. Ivan Zhdanov, who heads Navalny’s  Anti-Corruption Foundation, said that police have detained his retired 66-year old father in city of Rostov-on-Don on corruption charges.

 The elder Zhdanov, once a low-level municipal official in northwest Russia, had recommended social housing to a family that already occupied one. The municipality got the apartment back so there seemed to be no crime and the elder Zhdanov retired peacefully. His son, who is in exile in the Baltics, says the detention is pure intimidation.

All these tactics are well-known in Russia, and that’s part of the point, Podrabinek contends. “They show that they can do whatever they want. They kind of flaunt it,” he told Moscow Echo.

Amnesty International, the human rights organization, has called for Navalny’s release as have numerous Western countries. However, with Putin’s evident sense of impunity, outside appeals have been ignored.

That leaves a big burden on growth of an internal pro-democracy movement. “The overseas campaign is important, but inside the country it is even more important. There is no other way to save a person when he is in the hands of killers,” said Petrov.

Podrabinek is not optimistic. “For Navalny in general, in my opinion is there is no safe place in Russia,” he said.

Close associates of the Jailenes dissident say Putin might release Navalny on one condition: that he leave Russia for permanent exile.

Meanwhile in Ukraine.

Tougher for Chechens?

Daniel Williams

Published by Daniel Williams

I am a former correspondent who, for more than 30 years, did time in China, Southeast Asia, Central America, Mexico, the Middle East, Europe and Africa and covered wars that went from episodic to non-stop. My book, "Forsaken," about Christian persecution in the Middle East came out January, 2016. NextWarNotes is a news and analysis blog designed to fill gaps, provide background and think about what’s next. The name of the site comes from a 1935 article by Ernest Hemingway in Esquire Magazine called “Notes on the Next War,” in which he predicted the coming conflagration in Europe, told why it would happen and warned Americans to stay out.

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