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My fear and loathing inside a Russian prison

My fear and loathing inside a Russian prison
Alexei Navalny, Russian opposition leader, walks with demonstrators during a rally in Moscow, Russia, on 29 February 2019. (Photo: Andrey Rudakov / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition politician sentenced to 19 years in prison last week, has released his first extended piece of writing since the trial, expressing a deep disappointment with the past two decades of democratic politics in Russia. Below is the full English text of Navalny’s essay that first appeared on his website under the title ‘My Fear and Loathing’.

I wanted to write about this for a long time. Well, let it be the first post after the new prison sentence. It’s like a confession. I need to get over this loathing and fear, maybe you can help me with this. 

Loathing. People ask me a lot about it, and I started receiving letters again: do you hate the judge? Do you hate Putin even more? I have said many times before that hate is the main thing that must be overcome in prison. There are so many reasons for it, and your powerlessness is a strong catalyst for the process. So if you let it go, it will eat you up and finish you off.

I’ll be honest, I have a hatred and I’ve got a lot of it. Most often I have it after “trials”. The last one, by the way, where I got 19 years, was not one of those. There, on the contrary, we all competed in showering each other with pleasantries. During the whole process, no one raised their voice. This is the most dangerous kind of judge: they give you 19 years in prison and also make you sympathise with them.

I get furious after the sessions of the local district court. There are simple cases, there is no space for legal tricks, and the judges simply and frankly say about the black: “Oh this is white, look, the reference says white” and make demonstratively illegal decisions.

Sometimes I can’t stand it and yell at some “Judge” Samoilov, but it’s not him I hate with my great hatred. Not the cops, not the outlaw thieves from the colony. Not the FSB officers who command them. You’ll be surprised, but not even Putin. At times like this, I hate people I previously loved. For whom I stood up, for whom I argued to the hilt. I also hate myself that once I loved them.

I am sitting in my Shizo [punishment cell] and reading a book by Natan Sharansky, Fear No Evil (I recommend it). Sharansky was jailed in the USSR for nine years and in 1986 he was exchanged. He went to Israel, created a party, and achieved great success. In general, he’s a cool guy. By the way, he spent 400 days in punishment cells. I really can’t imagine how he survived.

So, Sharansky describes his arrest and the investigation. It was 1977. I was one year old at the time. The book was published in the USSR in 1991. I was 15 years old at the time. Now I am 47, and while reading his book, I sometimes shake my head to get rid of the feeling that I am reading my personal file. For example, the Shizo/PKT building is a separate barracks behind the barbed wire. The maximum term in the Shizo is 15 days. I was not surprised when after several “15 days” in a row I was transferred as a persistent offender to a PKT [a separate prison inside a penal colony where inmates are kept in their cells all the time] for six months. It was exactly the same.

The virus of free thinking

In the introduction (I remind you, the year is 1991), Sharansky writes that it is in prisons that the virus of free thinking persists, and he hopes that the KGB will not find “an antidote to this virus”. Sharansky was wrong. The antidote was found. The antidote that now, in 2023, seems to have more political prisoners in Russia than in the Brezhnev-Andropov times. 

What has the KGB got to do with it? There was no creeping or overt coup in our country led by people from the special services. They did not come to power by pushing the democratic reformers out of power. The democratic reformers did it themselves. They called the special services themselves. They invited them themselves. They taught them how to fake elections. How to steal property from entire industries. How to lie to the media. How to change laws to suit themselves. How to suppress opposition by force. Even how to organise idiotic, stupid, talentless wars.

That is why I can’t help it and I fiercely hate those who sold, drank, and wasted the historical chance that our country had in the early 1990s. I hate [Boris] Yeltsin and “Tanya and Valya” [Tatyana Yumasheva and Valentin Yumashev, Yeltsin’s daughter and son-in-law, respectively], [former Kremlin special envoy Anatoly] Chubais and the rest of the corrupt family who put Putin in power. 

I hate the swindlers, whom we used to call reformers for some reason. Now it is very clear that they did nothing but intrigue and take care of their own wealth. Is there any other country where so many ministers of the “Government of Reforms” became millionaires and billionaires? I hate the authors of the most stupid authoritarian Constitution, which they sold to us idiots as democratic, even then giving the president the power of a full-fledged monarch.

Read more in Meduza here.

I especially hate everyone for the fact that there was not even a serious attempt to remove the basis of lawlessness — to carry out judicial reform, without which all other reforms are doomed to failure. I am studying this a lot now. In 1991, the RSFSR [Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic] adopted a good concept of judicial reform, but already in 1993, counter-reforms aimed at building a judicial vertical began. At that time, all political forces wanted honest courts. There was a complete consensus in society. 

A barrier to corruption

If an independent judiciary had been established, a new usurpation of power would have been impossible or very difficult. So make no mistake: the thing that is now dashingly handing out eight-, 15- and 20-year sentences to innocent people started to be built long before Putin. Now it is clear: no one in the Kremlin and the government of the 1990s wanted an independent court. That’s because such a court would have been a barrier to corruption, election fraud and the transformation of governors and mayors into irremovable princes.

I hate the “independent media” and the “democratic society” that provided full support for one of the most dramatic turning points in our new history — the fraudulent presidential election of 1996. Again, I was an active supporter of all this at the time. Not election fraud, of course — I wouldn’t have liked it even then, but I did my best to ignore it, and the general unfairness of the election didn’t embarrass me, not even for a minute Now we are paying for the fact that in 1996 we thought that election fraud was not always a bad thing. The end justified the means.

I hate oligarch [Vladimir] Gusinsky (even if he is no longer an oligarch) because he blatantly hired [Filipp] Bobkov, the deputy head of the KGB, who was responsible for persecuting dissidents. They thought it was a joke at the time: ha-ha, he put innocent people in jail, and now he works for me. Kind of like a bear in the livery. So not only was there no lustration, there was the encouragement of villains. Now, those people who worked for Bobkov as young employees are putting [opposition politician Ilya] Yashin, [opposition politician Vladimir] Kara-Murza and me in jail.

We often hear that the Yeltsin government could not do anything because they were opposed by the communists in Parliament. Nevertheless, this did not prevent the mortgage auctions of 1996, but for some reason, it prevented judicial reform and reform of the security services.

I hate the entire leadership of Russia, which in 1991 (after the putsch) and in 1993 (after the shelling of Parliament) had absolute power and did not even try to make obvious democratic reforms. For example, what was done in the Czech Republic (where there is now a democracy and an average salary of €1,760), Poland (democracy and an average salary of 1,680), Estonia (democracy and an average salary of 1,810), Lithuania (democracy and an average salary of 1,959) and other Eastern European countries. Of course, different people were in power then. Good people, honest and sincere too. However, the desperate and unsuccessful struggle of this tiny minority only shows us even better the corruption and shamelessness of the power elite back then.

It was not with Putin in 2011 but with Yeltsin, Chubais, oligarchs, and the entire Komsomol party gang that called themselves “democrats” that we went not to Europe, but to Central Asia in 1994. We exchanged our European future for the villas of “Tanya and Valya” on the “millionaires’ island” of St Barth. When Putin’s KGB/FSB officers got free access to political posts, they didn’t have to do anything. They just looked around and exclaimed in amazement: Wait, was that allowed? If the rules of the game are like this, so that it is possible to steal, lie, falsify, censor, and all courts are under our control, then we will have a pretty good turnaround here.

We let the goat into the cabbage warehouse, and then we wonder why it ate all the cabbage. It is a goat, its mission and goal is to eat cabbage, it can’t think of anything else. It is useless to agitate him. Similarly, Putin’s FSB officials can’t think of anything else but to build a huge house and imprison those they don’t like. I can’t stand the goat, but I hate those who let it into the cabbage warehouse. 

Read more in Meduza here.

My greatest fear

Though, of course, I realise that it’s better to not hate anyone at all, but to think about how not to do it again. Here comes my greatest fear: I don’t just believe, I know that Russia still has a chance. This is a historical process. We will again be at a crossroads.

In horror and cold sweat, I jump up in my bunk at night, when I think that we had a chance again, but again went the same way as in the 1990s. Following the “end justifies the means” sign. Where it is written in small letters: “Faking elections is not always a bad thing,” “Look at these people, what kind of juries are they?”, “It doesn’t matter that he is a thief — he is a technocrat and stands up for bicycle lanes,” “Give these people a free hand, they will choose anything they want,” “The government is still the only European in Russia,” and other wisdom of enlightened authoritarianism.

What I have written about the 1990s is not a historical exercise, reflection or meaningless complaining. It is the most important and urgent issue of political strategy for all supporters of the European path and democratic development.

I was impressed by the large collection of different opinions about our investigation of [former Echo of Moscow radio chief Alexey] Venediktov and [former presidential candidate and media personality Ksenia] Sobchak. They received hundreds of millions of roubles from the budget fund, which served as a common fund for the United Russia party. Venediktov received 550 million right at the time when he was in charge of the observation headquarters and directly organised the theft of votes. He was the face, the agitator and the monitor of electronic voting, the purpose of which is to take your vote and put it in the stack of the United Russia party’s candidate.

The falsifications of the early electronic voting system have been thoroughly proven and are beyond any doubt. So, I was amazed to find a significant number of people for whom neither the elements of the scheme “money from the common fund and election fraud” nor their combination “money from the common fund during election fraud” are either defamatory or significant. Come on, that’s bullshit. Yes, something was going on there, but there is no proof that he was paid to falsify the elections — just paid and just falsified. This was all back in the mammoth times. It started as far back as 2019. No one remembers any more. None of that matters, the important thing is that he is now “against the war”. As one of the tweets clearly says, “What’s the big deal?” — as a national idea.

This is just an exclusive example, but it, like the situation with Murzagulov, like [former oligarch Mikhail] Khodorkovsky’s calls to take up arms and join Prigozhin’s troops, shows perfectly well that even now, in the year 2023, during the repressions, imprisonments, and war, loyalty to principles is still questioned in our country and is seen by many as naive. Personal loyalty, corporate affiliation and old friendships are seen by many as more important.

I am not suggesting in any way that Venediktov should be shot, hanged or carefully trimmed. There is no need for any brutality. However, it is possible to not approve of what he has done (and still does by keeping on telling us that the early electronic voting was not falsified), and not consider him a political ally. Because, excuse me, if our political ally is someone who sells our votes to the United Russia party, then who are we anyway, what are we here for?

Let’s all join the United Russia then. We’ll create a fraction of hardcore Sobyaninists (that’s what I call them), the basis is already there. Every hero of the Anti-Corruption Foundation investigations will be immediately justified by the Dream Team: Sobchak, Venediktov, Maxim Katz and Kirill Martynov, a former Nashi activist and now head of Novaya Gazeta for some reason. Everything will be fine. There will be plenty of money. We, solid Sobyaninists, demand: immediately take the bad Putin away from us and give us the good [Moscow Mayor Sergei] Sobyanin, [Prime Minister Mikhail] Mishustin, [oligarch Igor] Shuvalov and [Deputy Moscow Mayor Maxim] Liksutov.

So don’t doubt it. Tomorrow we will have a new chance — that window of opportunity, and tomorrow we will have to deal with those who think that elections should be cancelled or falsified (“God forbid extremists will be elected”). 

It is okay to bribe journalists (“We don’t pay anyone, we just asked an oligarch we know to buy this TV channel”), courts should be kept on the hook (“or they will bribe judges and juries”), the personnel base of the government should not be changed (“They are professionals, we should not recruit people from the street”), and so on. Up to the point that the contract for the construction of that bridge over there should be given not to a tender, but to a “reliable contractor” with whom we have been working for a long time. Those with such ideas will not be Putinists or Communists at all — they will once again call themselves democrats and liberals.

Real life is complicated, hard and full of compromises with unpleasant people. However, at least we ourselves should not become unpleasant people and welcome corruption and cynical fraud even before circumstances require compromise.

I am very afraid that the battle for principles may be lost again under the slogans of “realpolitik”. Please advise me on how to get rid of this hatred and fear. I would be very interested in reading some of your thoughts on this. I’ll ask for feedback to be sent to me, if there is any. For now, it seems to me, there is nothing better to do than to stay true to yourself and tirelessly explain to people with numerous examples (I highly recommend the book Spin Dictators by Guriev and Treisman) that democratic principles — pragmatism, independent judiciary, fair elections and equality of all before the law — are the best mechanisms of harsh real life on the way to prosperity.

Only when the vast majority of the Russian opposition consists of those who under no circumstances accept fake elections, improper judicial proceedings and corruption, then we will be able to make the right use of the chance that will surely come again. So that no one in 2055 will be reading Sharansky’s book in the Shizo, thinking: Wow, it’s just like me. DM 

Read more in Meduza here.

First published by Meduza

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Daniel Cohen says:

    Thank you for publishing this article.
    Let’s hope Navalny’s dream of a democratic Russia does not remain simply a dream, and that he survives to see the day

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    A brave and principled man in dangerous times – very hard to find political characters like this in the world today! He is a gem and I wish him strength and fortitude.

  • Lisbeth Scalabrini says:

    How does Navalny get his scripts to be published?
    He certainly loves his country and is true to himself; nothing prevented him from staying in Germany after he got over the poisoning. This is a man to admire!

    • lottinoleonardo says:

      How was it possible for him to have this published in the first place? In a Russian prison as an activist in opposition to the Russian regime? Can someone please explain.

  • Alastair Sellick says:

    Be strong, Mr Navalny

  • So sad. He is now dead. Wish he and Kara Murza hadn’t returned to Russia. Shame on the ANC for supporting Putin.

  • Geoff Coles says:

    Dead, the murderer, directly or indirectly sits in the Kremlin, the perpetrator Putin.
    But let’s look at Russia lite, and our leaders….how much better are they ; serial supporters of Russia, Iran, Hamas irrespective. Mbalula was sent to Moscow by Ramaphosa, did he know he was going a week back I wonder…especially with the Cadre Records ostensibly coming out today.

  • Sean Hammon says:

    And to think the ANC take lessons from those filthy murderous corrupt scum in Russia. These same ANC tools parading banana democracy and expensive fashion on our parliament’s red carpets. Red Ramaphosa, and all his filthy buddies. …and the incessant inane drone of the beying mindless sheep masses cement the power of our Russian sycofant criminal horde.

  • meatjie says:

    Profoundly tragic as it is a personal account but also an account of the human condition and sentence after sentence could have been written about the lost opportunities for the same personal enrichment reasons in SA.

  • Stephan Britz says:

    Jacob Zuma and the ANC were very close (and maybe still are) at capturing our Judicial … this needs to be guarded closely – especially in the coming few years – from power hungry comrades in and around the ANC – especially our red berets … If the Judicial fall – nothing can turn SA around again.

  • Tak Hiemstra says:

    I find his murder extremely cruel and abhorrent in the extreme.

  • Rest in power Mr. Navalny. The world has lost a wise, heroic spirit. May you live on in the voices of those brave enough and capable enough to find true justice in Russia.

  • Gisela Wimberger says:

    This sounds just like South Africa – maybe Balula went to get some more tips and money!

  • Iam Fedup says:

    And now, he’s dead… The ANC would just love to follow Putin – their hero – as an example of how to govern, and we have no choice but to fight back as hard as we can. Sad as this all is, the most poignant words for me were when he said he hates the people he once loved, that he fought for. They abandoned him. Are we going to be accused in the future of the same indifference?

  • Rae Earl says:

    Ramaphosa and his mob actively worship and support Putin and his disgusting regime. Putin plays Ramaphosa like a stringed pupped and has been devouring the useless Fikile Mbalula and his ‘delegation’ this week. What hope does South Africa have in the hands of the ANC? Worse still, what hope in the hands of the EFF or any coalition involving them or the ANC. Out vote them or become a doomed society. Born and bred in Russia, the author Ayn Rand escaped to America where she spent her life exposing the evils of communism. Google ‘Ayn Rand quotes’ to get some insight of just how bad the ANC and other socialist parties are. Navalny was murdered, of that their can be little doubt. His message recorded here by DM was written in August last year so he had time to get it out into free society and, hopefully, to Putin’s slave society in Russia.

  • Sue O'Connor says:

    When Alexei Navalny returned to Russia after his poisoning it was not a case of if Putin would kill him, but when. The unspeakable happened yesterday 16 Aug. A principled and brave man against an evil dictator. Long Live Navalny.

  • johnmikedwards72 says:

    Thank you Maverick & Editor : Navalny’s account comes in the moment as millions of us pray for an end to senseless delusional pointless ‘ideology’ aka tyrannical psychopaths anointing … wolves herding sheep into their larder. Thank you again Editor/Daily Maverick.

  • Barrie King says:

    Reading his words now post his “murder”, they have an astounding resemblance to what the ANC under Zuma was also doing, viz. giving cronies a free license to loot as much as they want following the example of their leaders. Even now, despite the Zondo Commission report, the Cabinet remains with corrupt ministers and looters, either being sheltered by No.1 or left to their own ways of stealing. The world has lost a courageous man!

  • am06kel says:

    Such a sad letter – and he is now a martyr

  • Frederick Williams says:

    How evil mankind has become, once you can shake off any guilt of wrongdoings, tasted power, a healthy bank balans, aquired through corruption or theft, add to that, no conscience of the path of destruction it will bring to your country and its people,….. and so many more fools who’s eyes gleam with expectation of things to come,…..its a runaway train of pigs gathering at the troughs and their poweless subjects helplessly looking on, distraught, fear, hopelessness. From Russia with love comrades. Navalny I salute you, you have enlightened some of us with your insight and courage, may it all not have been for nothing. Comrades, comrades do still seek to rub shoulders with mother Russias elite, to add to our misery. Is that a resounding aye!!!

  • Andre Grobler says:

    Never again will my vote go to anyone that professes liberalism, socialism, communism. They are only concepts the sociopaths use to make us give them what they want and denying ourselves opportunity

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