When imprisoned in a Russian penal colony, Alexander Margolin saw prisoners savagely beating another inmate, and from there the beaten man dutifully cleaned the bathroom every day, a derogatory task which indicated that he had fallen into a lower caste of the prison hierarchy, known as “dilapidated”.
“The conditions are not very comfortable,” Margolin said of Russian prison camps, descendants of the Soviet gulag, many of which have spread across Siberia.
The detainees are not housed in cell blocks, but in isolated cabins, made of raw wood or bricks, with dozens of men in each, with nothing to separate the victims from the executioners. The layout of the open ground, little changed since the Gulag era, has given way, for decades, to a harsh, often brutal prison culture, which requires care to navigate.
This is the world that Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalni is likely to face after a Moscow court ruled he violated his parole and sentenced him this week to more than two years in a so-called general security correctional colony. He is appealing the sentence, but even his allies have little hope that the sentence will be overturned.
“The steel doors slam behind me with a deafening noise,” Navalni wrote in a statement after the conviction.
Authorities have not disclosed where he will serve and he could be kept in prison in Moscow if legal questions remain.
Last August, Navalni was poisoned in what he, Western governments and international groups described as an attempted assassination by the Russian state, using a military grade nervous agent. He was taken to Germany, where he spent months in treatment and recovery. Russian authorities have said that as a result, he is not showing up regularly, as required by prior parole.
Last month, Navalni returned to Russia, preferring imprisonment over exile, and was immediately arrested. His case sparked massive protests, which the government considers illegal and which have been suppressed by security forces.
If Navalni is sent to penal colonies, what awaits him is a prison system which, according to reports by human rights groups and incarceration experts, has greatly improved after the period. Soviet – but that doesn’t mean much. Russian prisons are still rife with brutality, according to former detainees and human rights groups.
“The conditions are tough,” said Valery Borshov, a former MP who served on a prison reform committee. “You are in a huge room, with 40 to 80 more men. It can be unbearable.”
The low-cost penal colony model, with shacks surrounded by barbed wire, forms the vast majority of prisons in Russia – 684 out of a total of 692 prisons. It evolved from the murderous forced labor camps of the Gulag (Russian acronym for the main leadership of Campos), which peaked under Stalin’s rule. Today inmates generally work in light industries, such as sewing military uniforms, instead of mining or chopping wood, as in Soviet times.
With around 500,000 people in prison, Russia has an incarceration rate of 334 per 100,000 people – much higher than almost any other country in Europe, but about half the rate in the United States.
Hangars are closed at night without guards, and prisoners are left to fend for themselves, a practice that maintains Russia’s difficult prison hierarchy thanks to nightly beatings.
A privileged group are the leaders of criminal gangs, known as “thieves of the law” or “authorities”. A second upper class is made up of so-called “activist” prisoners, who cooperate with correctional officers.
Men who are disadvantaged or convicted of rape risk falling into the lower class, which performs negligible tasks, and many are victims of sexual abuse.
The rest fall into a broad category referred to simply as “men,” who obey gang leaders, avoid co-operating with guards, and escape abuse by those at the bottom of the pecking order. A system of rituals keeps it intact. For example, men never share cutlery with degraded people.
Some former political prisoners manage to find a place in the system. Margolin, who was arrested in 2014 for his role in protests against the government, said he had the help of criminal “authorities” to defend himself against another aggressive prisoner. Help was obtained, he said, in part because he was convicted of assaulting a police officer during a demonstration.
“It was greatly appreciated,” said the activist.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oil tycoon who was once the richest man in Russia, who spent a decade in jail for funding political opposition, was stabbed in the face by another prisoner with an improvised knife. He only suffered a minor injury. The forward said he tried to pierce his eye.
In any case, Khodorkovsky said in a telephone interview, the detainees were generally not hostile to him as a political prisoner, and some said: “You are here for the truth.”
“The situation today is radically different from that of the gulag, where criminals saw themselves as patriots and political prisoners, enemies of the people,” who were attacked by them, he explained.
Navalni may also face greater risks. In 2019, his doctor said he was poisoned with a “poisonous agent” while in prison in Moscow. After being released, Navalni mocked government officials for apparently trying to kill him while he was in his custody.
“Are they stupid enough to poison me in a place where they are the only suspects?” The activist wrote on his blog about what he called an attack not by other detainees but by the state.