Russian dissident Alexei Navalny has compared his prison to a Chinese labor camp and said in his first interview from behind bars that he is forced to watch more than eight hours a day of state TV and propaganda films.
The 45-year-old Kremlin critic, who is being held in a maximum-security prison in Pokrov about 60 miles east of Moscow, told The New York Times that the days of heavy labor in Soviet gulags have been replaced by “psychological violence” of brainwashing and propaganda.
“You might imagine tattooed muscle men with steel teeth carrying on with knife fights to take the best cot by the window,” Navalny told the newspaper.
“You need to imagine something like a Chinese labor camp, where everybody marches in a line and where video cameras are hung everywhere. There is constant control and a culture of snitching,” he said.
But he suggested that perhaps the most maddening thing in the slammer is being forced to watch state TV and propaganda movies for more than eight hours a day in what authorities call an “awareness-raising” program.
“Reading, writing or doing anything else” is prohibited, Navalny said. “You have to sit in a chair and watch TV,” he said, adding that if a prisoner falls asleep, the guards shout, “Don’t sleep, watch!”
President Vladimir Putin’s most well-known critic, who is serving a 2½-year sentence after returning from Germany, survived a nerve agent attack last year that Russia has denied carrying out.
In April, he announced that he was ending a three-week hunger strike, which he went on to demand proper care for leg and back pain.
Despite his dire predicament, Navalny appeared upbeat about Russia’s future prospects as he described his strategy for effecting political change.
“The Putin regime is a historical accident, not an inevitability. It was the choice of the corrupt Yeltsin family,” he told The Times, referring to former President Boris Yeltsin’s appointment of Putin as acting president in 1999.
“Sooner or later, this mistake will be fixed, and Russia will move on to a democratic, European path of development. Simply because that is what the people want,” he wrote to the paper.
Navalny also assailed the US and Europe for the economic sanctions imposed on Moscow, saying they harm ordinary Russians.
He said the sanctions should only target the country’s top oligarchs, who have largely avoided sanctions by hiring “an army of lawyers, lobbyists and bankers, fighting for the right of owners of dirty and bloody money to remain unpunished.”
In describing his daily routine, Navalny said the five daily sessions of TV watching start right after morning calisthenics, breakfast and sweeping the yard.
“We watch films about the Great Patriotic War,” he said, referring to World War II, “or how one day, 40 years ago, our athletes defeated the Americans or Canadians.”
“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,” Navalny said.
“All sorts of past must constantly be in the spotlight to displace thoughts about the future and questions about the present,” he said, adding, “Everything is organized so that I am under maximum control 24 hours a day.”
Navalny estimated that a third of the prison population comprises so-called “activists,” inmates who serve as informants to the warden.
During his first weeks in the slammer, he said his limbs numbed, either from lingering effects of the Novichok poisoning or from a back injury from riding in a prison vehicle – but added that his symptoms eased when guards stopped waking him hourly at night.
“I now understand why sleep deprivation is one of the favorite tortures of the special services,” he told The Times. “No traces remain, and it’s impossible to tolerate.”
The dissident also said he has not been assaulted by any fellow prisoners, and even described how he enjoys making snacks with them.
“When we cook, I always remember the classic scene from ‘Goodfellas’ when the mafia bosses cook pasta in a prison cell,” he said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have such a cool pot, and pasta is forbidden. Still, it’s fun.”
Navalny was charged this month with new crimes that could prolong his jail time by three years, AFP reported.
If found guilty, he could only be released after 2024, the year Russia is scheduled to hold a presidential election.