At 6am the blaring sound of the national anthem wakes Alexei Navalny in his prison bunk.
Russia’s best-known political prisoner dons an ill-fitting black uniform and begins a day designed, like every moment of his nine-year sentence, to inflict exhaustion and humiliation.
The worst thing about jail, says his loyal aide Kira Yarmysh, is that ‘everyone there has to be occupied all day long so you don’t have any free time’. A fiercely intelligent, eloquent lawyer, Navalny’s days are filled with menial tasks — sewing and shovelling snow.
A small plastic sign on his bunk designates him as a terrorist, liable to indoctrinate other prisoners and forbidden to socialise with them. The routine in what he ironically calls a ‘friendly concentration camp’ recalls the solitary confinement of Nelson Mandela, sentenced to life imprisonment for terrorism by the South African apartheid regime.
A fiercely intelligent, eloquent lawyer, Navalny’s days are filled with menial tasks — sewing and shovelling snow. A small plastic sign on his bunk designates him as a terrorist, liable to indoctrinate other prisoners and forbidden to socialise with them
In a recent exchange of letters with the American journalist Simon Shuster, Navalny described his life in a ‘prison within a prison’.
He explained: ‘In my unit there are 13 men. Only one out of all of them is allowed to speak with me. The rest can only communicate in single words — yes, no. Mostly they all stay silent, not wanting to let the wrong word slip. Video cameras are everywhere, plus the guards never under any circumstances talk to me unless it is video-recorded.’
The barracks windows are covered with white paper to stop him seeing the world outside. ‘Sometimes I get the sense I’m living inside a shoe box,’ he says.
Yet, just as the incarceration of the leader of the African National Congress on Robben Island off Cape Town undermined the legitimacy of white minority rule in South Africa, the Kremlin’s vindictive persecution of Alexei Navalny exemplifies the brittle brutality of its grip on power.
For Navalny is not only the bravest man in Russia — his return there after his recovery in Berlin from being poisoned by the Kremlin led inevitably to his arrest — but he is also Vladimir Putin’s biggest headache. His steely will spearheads the Russian opposition, even from behind bars.
He must survive the daily ordeal of life in Penal Colony No 2, a two-hour drive from Moscow, just one of 500,000 inmates in Russia’s 700 prisons. The food is dire — tasteless slop laced with grease.
Healthcare, supposedly guaranteed by law, in practice amounts to little more than painkillers. Dentistry is swift and brutal — troublesome teeth are ripped out with pliers and no anaesthetic. Beatings and rape are routine.
The prison authorities are instructed to keep the inmates busy from dawn to dusk. Time-consuming, pointless routines include repeatedly making and remaking beds.
‘If the administration run out of ideas,’ says Miss Yarmysh, ‘they force them to watch propaganda lectures.’
If the regime does crack, it is far from fanciful to see the gaunt figure of Navalny emerging from the prison gates as an early sign of change. That would echo Mandela’s release from prison — his walk to freedom in 1990
Navalny’s ferocious mental discipline is so far more than a match for the authorities. He resists any attempt to provoke him into an outburst or to physical violence. That would just give his jailers an excuse to impose tougher punishments.
Yet in the lawless and violent world of the Russian penal system, such pretexts can be invented — as he knows only too well. Navalny’s astonishing story was told in a documentary screened last week by the BBC. As a Russia expert, I have followed his career since his early days in opposition. After a brief flirtation with the liberal Yabloko movement, he turned to nationalism, publishing crude videos attacking illegal immigrants in highly inflammatory language. He now says he regrets these.
Liberal-minded Russians accept this. Members of the women’s punk protest group Pussy Riot, for example, support him in his attempts to topple the Russian regime — and say they look forward to running against him in future free elections.
Navalny’s hallmark since 2011 has been devastating attacks on the corruption of the Putin regime.
His videos — all available with English subtitles on YouTube — lambast and ridicule the sleaze, tastelessness and grotesque greed of the Kremlin cronies who have looted Russia over the past three decades. Evidence includes leaked documents, drone footage and social media posts featuring yachts, planes, watches and other trinkets.
Navalny provides a sardonic, punchy commentary, driving home the message: Most Russians live in poverty, with frayed public services and crumbling infrastructure while their rulers live in garish luxury. Chief among them, of course, is the dictator Putin. A recent film exposed the Russian leader’s palace on the Black Sea, complete with underground ice rink, two helipads, an arboretum, an amphitheatre and a casino. It gained 100 million views on YouTube in a matter of days.
Navalny quickly became leader of Russia’s fragmented opposition. He brought tens of thousands on to the streets to protest against corruption and election rigging — an expression of public anger that would be unimaginable in today’s repressive climate.
The most extraordinary feature of Navalny’s story is that he chose to make that return to Russia after having narrowly escaped death at the hands of the authorities. He is pictured above with his family in 2019
Back then, the regime reacted quickly with a bogus embezzlement charge that briefly landed Navalny in jail. His brother Oleg was locked up for longer — as a ‘hostage’, according to Navalny.
A pro-Putin thug hurled caustic disinfectant into the opposition leader’s face, damaging his sight.
Undeterred, Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation became Russia’s most effective opposition political organisation, with a network of activists stretching the length and breadth of the vast country. Navalny stood for mayor of Moscow in 2013, and, despite a media blackout and official harassment, he gained an impressive 30 per cent of the vote — even according to the official tally.
When he tried to run against Putin in the 2016 election the authorities ensured he never made it on to the ballot paper.
He has also exploited the limited political freedoms of local elections, using a strategy he calls ‘smart voting’. He encourages voters to choose the opposition candidate most likely to beat the Kremlin-backed contender, regardless of political outlook. Controversially, this includes backing communists and far-Right candidates.
But it works. Last year brought the opposition’s best result in 20 years — seats on local councils in all major cities and victory in seven out of eight districts in Putin’s home city St Petersburg.
The most extraordinary feature of Navalny’s story is that he chose to make that return to Russia after having narrowly escaped death at the hands of the authorities.
A hit squad who had been tailing him around Russia for months smeared his underwear with the deadly nerve agent Novichok — which Russian agents used in Salisbury in 2018.
In Salisbury, the bungling assassins smeared the poison on the door knob of one of MI6’s top Russian agents, Sergei Skripal. He and his daughter Yulia survived, but a local resident, Dawn Sturgess, died.
Only luck, medical skill and his iron constitution brought Navalny through his ordeal. After the direct intervention of the then German leader Angela Merkel, he was flown to Berlin for expert medical care. It took him months to recover.
He soon resumed his activism, making more anti-corruption videos while the investigative agency Bellingcat tracked down his would-be assassins through phone records and other leaked documents. In a spectacularly successful prank call, Navalny, a gifted mimic, impersonated a senior Kremlin official and persuaded one of the team, Konstantin Kudryavtsev, to provide details of the operation.
After his humiliation, Kudryavtsev disappeared. But none of this deterred Navalny from returning to Russia in February 2021, where he was arrested on arrival in Moscow.
A hit squad who had been tailing him around Russia for months smeared his underwear with the deadly nerve agent Novichok — which Russian agents used in Salisbury in 2018
The only precaution he has taken, he says, is to make sure that his children Daria and Zakhar are safely abroad ‘in places where it’s harder to smear chemical weapons on the door knobs’.
His wife, Yulia, however, returned with him to Russia.
An economist who used to work for Russian banks before becoming her husband’s personal assistant, Yulia is his most steadfast supporter. The couple celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary in August 2020 while Navalny was in a coma in Germany being treated for the Novichok poisoning.
In February last year, she was ordered to pay a fine of 20,000 roubles (£200) after attending a protest demanding her husband’s release from prison.
The crackdown following Putin’s war in Ukraine has snuffed out the last embers of freedom in Russia. Navalny’s movement has been banned, farcically, as ‘extremist’. His team are in exile, sheltering in Lithuania.
The fervently pro-democracy leaders of the Baltic nation are proud to host the champions of freedom in Russia. Their best chance for safety is a change of power in Moscow. Navalny’s hopes rest either on mass unrest caused by falling living standards — which have declined every year since 2014 — or a coup in a Kremlin regime that is already riven by mistrust and rivalry.
‘Almost everyone in Putin’s closest circle believes that all the rest are idiots incapable of even stealing properly. And they are waiting for their moment to grab the fattest piece of the pie,’ he says.
If the regime does crack, it is far from fanciful to see the gaunt figure of Navalny emerging from the prison gates as an early sign of change. That would echo Mandela’s release from prison — his walk to freedom in 1990. No other Russian political figure — in government or opposition — can match Navalny in showmanship or willpower.
And if Putin’s regime shatters, Navalny could soon be occupying the presidential desk in the Kremlin — though only, he insists, after a free and fair election.
But first he has to survive prison. Navalny’s supporters need little reminding of the fate of Sergei Magnitsky. The 39-year-old auditor had exposed a colossal tax fraud by Russian officials who had seized the property of Bill Browder, formerly the biggest Western investor in the country.
The authorities wanted Magnitsky to give false evidence blaming Browder for the fraud. When he refused, he was mistreated in prison until he fell ill and was beaten to death in November 2009. Browder has campaigned relentlessly since then for visa sanctions and asset freezes against the officials responsible for abuses inside Russia. Navalny’s team are working along similar lines — they have produced a list of 5,608 Kremlin ‘bribe-takers and warmongers’ with ties to the West.
It is high time we acted on this. When I interviewed Navalny during his last visit to London his ice-blue eyes blazed with fury. Our bankers, lawyers and accountants, he explained, are accomplices in the looting of Russia. The stolen money is laundered in the West — notably in London. Yet his anti-corruption investigators hit a brick wall of official indifference when they follow the trail here.
Navalny’s team now hope that the sea-change in British foreign policy brought about by the war in Ukraine war leads to greater co-operation.
The jailed opposition leader is a fierce critic of Putin’s war.
But he also excoriates the feeble reaction of U.S. President Joe Biden. Instead of facing down Putin’s ‘insane, laughable demands’, he says, the U.S. reacts like a ‘frightened schoolboy’.
The West, he says, should concentrate on enforcing its own laws, upholding international human rights standards, blocking the ‘export of corruption’ and boosting its resistance to the Kremlin’s meddling in Western society.
The contrasts are stark. The Russian leader refuses to mention Navalny by name, even in response to direct questions — a sign of weakness that attracts widespread ridicule. Navalny, by contrast, receives a huge international audience for his criticism of Putin, most recently in a profile of the opposition leader by Mr Shuster which features on the cover of this week’s edition of America’s prestigious Time magazine.
Navalny may be in prison. But his ideas are not.