Dhe spring sun shines over correctional colony number 2 on the outskirts of Pokrov, a small town a hundred kilometers east of Moscow. Behind barbed wire and metal fences you can see gray buildings, including the golden dome of a chapel. Behind it there must be workshops, a carpentry shop and a sewing shop, in which the Russian opposition politician Alexej Navalnyj, who is under special observation as a newcomer, but does not yet work.
The last part of the way to Russia’s most famous prisoner is bumpy, deep holes are filled with meltwater. A barrier blocks the way to the penal colony. In front of it that morning, Navalnyj’s lawyers, Olga Michajlowa and Vadim Kobesv, are waiting in an off-road vehicle, typing on their smartphones. They waited a long time here on Wednesday to be admitted to Navalnyj, without success.
Enormous waiting times are common for lawyers in this penal colony, which is notorious for the strictest controls. After Navalnyj was sentenced to two and a half years’ imprisonment in an arbitrary procedure according to the European Court of Human Rights and his transfer from a Moscow remand prison to the Vladimir region, Mikhaylova and Kobesev even had to look for their clients in the local remand prisons; they found him in an institution a few dozen kilometers from Pokrov.
In the middle of March, Navalnyj came to the number 2 reform colony in the city. In Instagram posts that Navalnyj dictated to the lawyers, he tried to convey the image of an unbroken, cheerful man. He has never seen violence, it said under an older photo of Navalnyj with shaved head. But because of the tense attitude of the prisoners, he easily believes in the many stories about the colony, in which, until recently, “people were beaten half to death with wooden hammers”.
Because Navalnyj – who voluntarily returned to Russia in January – was classified as “at risk of fleeing”, he says he is filmed every hour of the night. Former prisoners described nonsensical routines to journalists and reported about roll calls, rituals and pressure.
Condition “stable” – so not good
Last week, Navalnyj was supposed to take part in a court hearing via video link: It was about his complaint against the refusal to initiate criminal proceedings against the officers of the domestic intelligence service FSB, who, according to research by several media and Navalnyjs, themselves participated in the poison attack on him. But the prisoner was not switched on, the judge claimed, at his own request. At the beginning of this week Navalnyj reported in a new post about rituals like the national anthem at just after six in the morning. There were no indications of his state of health: the politician does not want to appear weak, which is particularly harmful in Russia.
But after hours of waiting in vain, Navalny’s lawyers were so concerned on Wednesday evening that they turned to the press. Navalnyj had severe back pain and was lame on one leg, Michajlowa said. He only got two painkillers, “of course he didn’t feel any better with it”.
On Thursday morning, the prison authorities announced that Navalnyj’s health was “stable, satisfactory”. So not good. More than 150 journalists, lawyers, cultural workers and activists then issued an open letter demanding “normal, non-hazardous” detention conditions for Navalnyj and legal access for the lawyers.
On social media, his colleagues recalled the attack with the neurotoxin Novichok. “Do you know many people who survived that?” Wrote Navalnyj’s spokeswoman Kira Jarmysch, who is herself under house arrest. Yarmysh, who was there in August, was reminded of the events following the emergency landing of Navalnyj’s plane in Omsk, when dissuasive and misleading news had been spread about his condition. At that time only the greatest pressure helped to get him out.