Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny seen in a video link from prison during a court appearance.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny seen in a video link from prison during a court appearance.


Evgeny Feldman / AP

Putin's Russia Alexei Navalny Remains Unbroken after a Year in Prison

Alexei Navalny is locked away in one of the most notorious prisons in Russia, and it isn't clear when he might ever be released. The Kremlin has destroyed his opposition movement, but the Putin opponent remains steadfast. How does he do it?

Alexei Navalny recently celebrated the New Year in the prison camp where he is incarcerated. He shared the proceedings via Instagram. The prisoners lined up as a couple of convicts hopped around wearing animal costumes in front of them. Everything was tightly controlled, and just as awkward as it could be. But when Father Frost, a traditional element of New Year’s celebrations in Russia, showed up and requested a poem, Navalny reported, a 71-year-old prisoner named Valera, serving time for aggravated assault, surprised everyone with the following self-penned lines: "Father Frost, please let us out / If not all, then just about.”

It has been one year since politician and Kremlin adversary Alexei Navalny returned to Russia and was immediately arrested. He is being held in a notorious penal colony in the city of Pokrov, located around 100 kilometers east of Moscow. And yet, as testified to by his New Year’s messages, he hasn’t lost his sense of humor. Navalny regularly posts amusing vignettes on Instagram about life in prison. They stand in odd contrast to the setbacks he has been forced to endure over the last year and to the general despondence that has gripped the Russian opposition.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 3/2022 (January 15th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

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Russia is going through dark times at the moment. Externally, Russian President Vladimir Putin is threatening  an invasion of Ukraine, while at home, he is ratcheting up the repression. The opposition is being harassed, and in December, Russia’s best-known human rights organization, Memorial, was banned.

DER SPIEGEL spoke with Navalny allies, his lawyer and his brother, who rarely gives interviews. They paint an image of a man who has not lost his courage despite being locked away in prison.

"I never thought that a person could be as steadfast as he is," says Olga Mikhailova. Aside from his fellow prisoners and guards, she is probably the person who has seen Navalny most often in the last year. Mikhailova is part of the legal team that visits Navalny with surprising frequency. "Because we are worried about his health and his life, one of the lawyers is with him every day," she says. She is able to speak with him for four hours on each visit, often focusing on the many new proceedings that have been launched against him. They sit facing each other, separated by a pane of glass. Documents can be passed back and forth through a slot in the glass. A video camera in the room is a constant reminder that confidentiality is not a given.

"Our friendly concentration camp," is how Navalny describes the penal colony. Known as IK-2, it is notorious for the psychological pressure exerted on new arrivals. And for its most prominent prisoner, the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) came up with something special: a kind of penitentiary within the penitentiary, set up exclusively for Alexei Navalny.

Navalny's wife Yulia (left) and his lawyer Olga Mikhailova: "I never thought that a person could be as unshakeable as he is."

Navalny's wife Yulia (left) and his lawyer Olga Mikhailova: "I never thought that a person could be as unshakeable as he is."

Foto: Mikhail Pochuyev / ITAR-TASS / IMAGO

Nariman Osmanov was a prisoner in Pokrov until the middle of June and was witness to the preparations made ahead of Navalny’s arrival. A commission from the prison administration authority from Vladimir Oblast came by, a new prisoner commando was assembled and a barrack on the outskirts of the camp was renovated. Navalny, according to the instructions from on high, was to be completely isolated, but never left alone. "He was even watched when he was on the toilet, with someone standing right next to him," says Osmanov over the phone. The former prisoner now lives in Kyiv, and believes he has been tracked since he first spoke up about the hassling of Navalny back in November.

Speaking to Navalny was strictly forbidden, says Osmanov. When Navalny started a hunger strike, he says the prison leadership pumped the scent of food into the entire barrack. Then, a coughing inmate was relocated close to Navalny, and the opposition leader, according to Osmanov, was told the prisoner was suffering from open tuberculosis.

Another man who slept in a bed next to Navalny gasped and groaned the whole night through, and even masturbated. On one occasion, Osmanov reports, a homemade video was shown in the TV room in which footage of Navalny was edited together with sex scenes between two men. The hope was that of portraying Navalny as a homophile, which is taboo in Russian prisons.

Waiting to Welcome Navalny

The intention, of course, is that of having Navalny’s fellow prisoners turn his life into a living hell instead of the penitentiary personnel themselves, and of provoking him into doing something imprudent. Putin, though, denies that Navalny has been treated any differently that other prisoners. "He will not be treated any worse than anybody else," Putin insisted to the U.S. broadcaster NBC in a June 2021 interview.

Mikhailova, Navalny’s lawyer, flew with the opposition leader when he returned home from Berlin one year ago. A comatose Navalny had been medically evacuated from Russia in a German plane in August 2020, more dead than alive. Russia’s secret service agency FSB had apparently poisoned him with the nerve agent Novichok. Navalny managed to survive, and his return to Russia was a courageous move that electrified his supporters. Hundreds of people were waiting to celebrate his arrival at Vnukovo Airport.

Oleg (left) and Alexei Navalny in 2018

Oleg (left) and Alexei Navalny in 2018

Foto: Dmitry Serebryakov / AP

Mikhailova was skeptical of his decision to fly home. "My position was absolutely clear: Don’t return because they will arrest you," she says, adding that the Russian judiciary had sent clear signals on that issue. But she, too, was surprised by what ultimately took place in Moscow. The plane was diverted to a different airport and Navalny was arrested in the transit area to prevent any contact at all between him and his supporters.

Oleg Navalny, 38, had headed to the airport on that Jan. 17 to pick up his older brother. "I didn’t think they would arrest him right away. Though now I understand that it would have been extremely logical to assume as much," he says over the phone. He says his only concern was that his brother would receive the standard 15-day incarceration that he had frequently experienced before. "I had written him to ask how I should pick him up and whether I should prepare a bag in case he was arrested."

For Oleg Navalny, Alexei’s arrest brought back strange memories. Oleg has already experienced the same prison sentence that Alexei began in 2021. Back in 2014, the two brothers were convicted of fraud connected to the shipment of products from the cosmetics company Yves Rocher. The shipments were undertaken on behalf of Oleg’s mail order company, which formally belonged to both of them.

It was an arbitrary ruling, as the European Court of Human Rights found, one aimed at the politician Alexei by taking his businessman brother Oleg hostage. Whereas Alexei’s sentence was converted to probation, Oleg had to go behind bars.

Now, Oleg is free, but Alexei is in prison – officially due to alleged probation violations stemming from the 2014 conviction.

"It is a complete travesty, and of course I sometimes have weird pangs of conscience," says Oleg. "But it’s not that I put my brother behind bars or vice versa. We were both convicted because of this old dwarf who can’t control himself." The dwarf he refers to is Putin.

"You Cannot Get Used to Prison"

Oleg now has a new suspended sentence. He was convicted of violating coronavirus protocols for calling for protests against Alexei’s imprisonment. Oleg has since left Russia.

In August, Oleg visited his brother in Pokrov together with their parents and with Alexei’s wife Yulia. The women had brought along food and they talked and ate together. Alexei looked better than expected, says Oleg. But he himself felt strange. He remembered how Alexei had visited him in prison before. Now, from the perspective of the visitor, it all seemed so much more oppressive.

"As a free person, you cannot get used to prison. Even I can’t, even though I was once a prisoner. Alexei had adapted to the conditions better than his visitors." They left before the gate was closed at the end of the day, except for Yulia, who remained with Alexei for two days. It was the first time that Navalny had been able to exercise his right to a long weekend with his family.

With the Kremlin holding its most prominent opponent in the IK-2 penitentiary, Russian leaders have made quick work of Navalny’s movement. His regional offices and his anti-corruption foundation have been banned and dissolved, while staff members have been driven into exile, thrown in jail or otherwise silenced.

Russia has lost the only independent opposition movement it had left. Navalny’s regional offices were something like a political party in a country that no longer has independent political parties. It had a sustainable structure, a political platform, a leader and the ability to mobilize supporters.

Just like Navalny’s arrest itself, the liquidation of his movement appears coherent in hindsight. Russia was on its way to becoming more repressive anyway. And when an opposition politician can be poisoned, what barriers might there still be to despotism?

But Navalny’s followers continued to hope for a time that his stubbornness could still rattle the system. Two day’s after Navalny’s arrest, a film produced in Germany about a palatial residence on the Black Sea coast, called "A Palace for Putin," was released. The film was viewed 25 million times on the very first day and became the biggest YouTube hit in the history of Navalny’s anti-corruption foundation.

Protests erupted in cities across the country, with demonstrators marching to the detention center Matrosskaya Tishina ("Seaman’s Silence"), where Navalny was being held at the time. It appeared to Navalny's followers that although the Kremlin could beat them up in the streets, it could not control their actions and get ahead of them. And wasn't this precisely what Navalny had taught them? To attempt the impossible and to prove wrong all those who give up and do nothing?

The Kremlin may be able to beat back its opponents, but it appeared to Navalny’s followers at the time that state oppression would not be able to prevent all opposition activity. And wasn’t that precisely Navalny’s strength? The courage to attempt the impossible and to punish all those lies that he discovered?

"Don’t worry, I’ll be out in 2051 at the latest."

By this point, Navalny’s foundation had already been labeled a "foreign agent" and been placed under criminal investigation. The opposition movement’s regional offices were also being targeted, and many leading staff members had already gone into exile. But none of the organizations had yet been explicitly banned.

That changed in the middle of April, even before Navalny’s hunger strike triggered the most recent wave of protests. Russian prosecutors stipulated that opposition offices and its foundation be labeled "extremist organizations." A short time later, Navalny ally Leonid Volkov, who had already fled into exile, declared the dissolution of the regional offices. Many staff members left the country without waiting for the court ruling, which held up the ban in June.

Irina Fatyanova used to lead the regional office in St. Petersburg, an opposition stronghold. When she talks about it today in a roomy apartment in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, the 32-year-old politician sounds weary – a world removed from the woman once pictured on her campaign posters.

Fatyanova was also there on that Jan. 17 at the airport in Moscow to welcome Navalny. Police officers had removed her from the train on the way from St. Petersburg to Moscow, but she had refused to give up.

"I Thought Navalny Was a Genius"

"I thought Navalny was a genius when he announced that he was returning. I was overcome by a wave of excitement at the airport. When he then ended up in pre-trial detention, I was crestfallen," Fatyanova says.

In April, the St. Petersburg office was formally dissolved as well, but that didn’t prevent Fatyanova from continuing to work on the most important project of the year: parliamentary elections in the autumn. Navalny’s movement saw the elections as a further test of their strategy of "Smart Voting." For each single-member constituency, they decided which candidate had the greatest potential for harming the Kremlin party United Russia. Recommended voting behaviors were prepared and then disseminated via app.

But the clever strategy was stopped by brutal, and simple, countermeasures: election fraud along with suppression of both the app and opposition websites. Even internet giants like Apple and Google made concessions to the Kremlin.

Irina Fatyanova left Russia and is now in exile in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Irina Fatyanova left Russia and is now in exile in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Foto: Alexander Chernyshev / DER SPIEGEL

Furthermore, a new law de facto barred Navalny allies from taking part in future elections, which also applied to Fatyanova. She had wanted to run for the St. Petersburg municipal parliament, which was elected on the same day as the federal parliament, the Duma. But she was barred from running due to membership in an "extremist organization." It was the first indication that the "extremism" verdict against Navalny’s regional offices could even be applied retroactively.

Two months after the Duma election, this became a certainty, when the former head of the regional office in Ufa, Lilia Chanysheva, was led out of her apartment in handcuffs. She was charged with founding an extremist organization, which carried a penalty of up to 10 years in jail. Other raids were also conducted in accordance with the new extremism laws.

Chanysheva’s arrest was a warning to other Navalny allies that it was time to leave the country. The opposition wasn't just being banned anymore, it was being completely liquidated. No longer was the focus just on the leadership circle surrounding Navalny. It was open season on all of them.

Irina Fatyanova packed her stuff, gave her dog Marcel to a friend of hers and left the country. "I was ready to withstand house searches, arrest and even prison sentences. In Russia, you can’t be in politics any other way. But my red line was anything beyond five years in prison."

Fatyanova moved to Tbilisi. The cost of living is cheap, the climate is pleasant; and with a Russian passport, she is allowed to stay for a year. Several dozen Navalny followers live in the city, but Fatyanova doesn’t have much contact with them. "I don’t want to talk too much about the suffering back home," she says. Nothing will change any time soon in Russia, she adds wearily.

If anyone from the opposition remains unbroken and cheerful, then it is Navalny himself in his gloomy penal colony in Vladimir. In a post from pre-trial detention, he compared his imprisonment with a long journey through space. "Yes, such trips are dangerous. You arrive, and there is nothing there. Or the flight takes far longer because of a navigational error. An asteroid hits the spaceship and you die. But help often comes as well."

At the moment, it looks as though Navalny’s flight through space will last longer than planned. Putin feels more secure in the Kremlin than ever before, displeasure with the country’s political leadership is suppressed and regime opponents have been tamed. Two major criminal proceedings against Navalny are currently in preparation, for extremism and fraud. His lawyer Mikhailova is preparing him for the trials. In total, he faces a potential of 30 years in prison, Navalny wrote in the fall. "So, don’t worry, I’ll be out in 2051 at the latest."