Imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has resurfaced after nearly three weeks without contact in a remote Arctic penal colony infamous for harsh conditions. Navalny described the “polar bear” rationing of basic necessities but said his spirit remains unbroken.
Alexei Navalny, 46, is Russia’s most prominent opposition leader and anti-corruption activist. He has long been a thorn in President Vladimir Putin’s side, regularly organizing large-scale protests and making online exposés of high-level government corruption.
In 2020, Navalny barely survived a poisoning attack with the nerve agent Novichok, which he blames on Putin. After recovering in Germany, Navalny returned to Moscow in January 2021 only to be immediately arrested and later imprisoned on old fraud charges he claims were fabricated.
His original 2.5-year sentence was extended to over 9 years in March 2022 after a new conviction for fraud and contempt of court. He is being held at Correctional Colony No. 6 in the remote village of Melekhovo near the city of Kharp 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
Transfer to Notorious “Polar Wolf” Prison
On December 14th, Navalny was abruptly transferred from Correctional Colony No. 6. For the next 19 days, neither his family and lawyers nor human rights monitors had any information regarding his whereabouts, prompting international alarm.
His spokesperson Kira Yarmysh said his team feared Navalny had been secretly executed or left to die, comparing it to the “practices of the Third Reich.” The UN human rights office said it was “very disturbed” by the disappearance.
Finally on December 25th, an advisor to Navalny announced he had resurfaced at Penal Colony No. 3, a maximum security prison in the village of Saraisk northeast of Kharp nicknamed the “Polar Wolf.” Built in 2021, it has a reputation as one of Russia’s harshest and most isolating penal institutions.
In an 11-page handwritten letter to his lawyers, Navalny described arriving at Polar Wolf after a five-day overland transport in a tiny 3 square meter solitary confinement cell inside a special prison train carriage. He made comparisons to how convicts were shipped to the gulag labor camps under Stalin:
“The traditions of the Russian prison system are preserved and transferred from generation to generation. I now have something to tell my grandchildren about,” Navalny wrote with characteristic defiance.
Harsh Conditions But Unbroken Spirit
Navalny said basic necessities are strictly rationed in Polar Wolf’s grim, overcrowded barracks, to the point he jokingly dubbed it “polar bear rationing.” Temperatures can drop to -50°C (-58°F) in winter.
“They give out one pair of socks and one T-shirt for a whole year. If you didn’t get socks in December, then walk barefoot…There is hot water for an hour a day. The rest of the time it’s very cold,” Navalny wrote.
He sleeps in a bunk bed infested with bedbugs and wakes up every morning to sweeping and loud shouting. Talking is banned except during a 30-minute daily walk. Meals are thin fish or chicken broth and Buckwheat kasha cereal primarly.
Still, Navalny said he remains in “good spirits” and will not be broken by the grim isolation:
“I have no plans to get used to it or settle into this polar bear rationing” he wrote. “My main occupation is to try not to get crazy in this situation.”
His ability to keep writing may be restricted however — in the solitary confinement of Polar Wolf, all paper and pens are strictly controlled contraband.
|Comparison of Prison Conditions
|Correctional Colony No. 6
|Penal Colony No. 3 “Polar Wolf”
|Village of Melekhovo
|Village of Saraisk
|Distance from Kharp
|15 mi (25 km)
|95 mi (150 km)
|Average Winter Temperature
|Bunks per Room
|Daily Hot Water
|30 min. yard walk only
His lawyer Vadim Kobzev met with Navalny on December 26th and said he is doing well physically and mentally. But he told Russian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets conditions in Polar Wolf are much worse than the previous prison camp.
Transfer’s Chilling Effect
The secretive mid-winter transfer of Russia’s most famous political prisoner to one of its most remote and isolating prisons comes just 9 months before pivotal September 2023 elections in which Putin is expected to cement his rule by extending his presidency to 2036.
Critics see the move as intended to both punish Navalny further through psychological pressure and minimize his ability to continue communicating with the outside world.
“We can say that Navalny has been sent to isolation jail…to shut him up,” said Zoya Svetova, a prominent Russian human rights defender.
Russian authorities have clamped down even harder on dissent leading up to the elections, with many opposition figures jailed or exiled. Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation has been outlawed as “extremist” and many former coordinators have fled abroad. Mass street protests have faded due to this pressure.
With Navalny silenced 1500 miles from Moscow in a frozen prison on the Arctic coast, his movement now faces its greatest challenge to continue. But Navalny managed to smuggle out another message in his letter — he has no intention of fading quietly from Russian politics just yet:
“I wage my personal war against the ‘Polar Wolf’ not because of stove smoke or cold tap water, but because the place is specifically created to shut my mouth… I won’t give them this pleasure,” Navalny defiantly concluded.
What Next For Navalny?
Human rights advocates continue urging Russia to ensure proper medical care and access for Navalny, end the “judicial harassment” of political opponents, and allow international monitors like the UN rapporteur access to detained dissidents.
But the Kremlin continues denying Navalny is singled out for political reasons or mistreated in prison. Putin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Navalny “remains where he should be — he’s a prisoner.” No outside investigation into his treatment is likely.
Barring an unexpected early release, Navalny now faces over 8 more years incarcerated in some of Russia’s most brutal and isolating penal colonies in remote Arctic regions closer to the North Pole than any major city.
While his bold spirit remains intact, his ability to continue disseminating his message to supporters, exposing corruption, and serving as a political counterweight to Putin from within Russia hangs by a thread.
The sudden secret transfer of Alexei Navalny to a notoriously harsh maximum security prison comes amid an accelerating crackdown on dissent in Russia, leading up to elections expected to extend Vladimir Putin’s rule.
While conditions are bleak and options limited, Navalny’s fiery letters show he remains determined to continuing fighting for his cause even from the isolating confines of the Russian penal colony system’s “Polar Wolf.” But his window for impacting Russia’s political future is shrinking.
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