Last Wednesday, Russian opposition politician Alexey Navalny declared a hunger strike – one that threatens to develop into a protracted struggle, including for improving conditions across Russia’s prison system.
“Nothing else is happening in Russian civil society today except Navalny,” said Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora human rights group, in response to the news – and it’s hard to disagree.
At first glance, Navalny, who returned to Russia in mid-January, has made specific demands against the administration in the prison in the town of Pokrov. He is demanding quality medical treatment, with his lawyer having described him as ‘seriously ill’, and also complains about interference in his communication with other prisoners. But recent history, and the reality of Russia’s prison system, suggests that these demands have all the potential to turn political all-too quickly.
In the Soviet Union, hunger strikes by political prisoners were common headlines – whether in the underground press or the international media. Refusing to eat became a regular practice for many convicted dissidents, though it also led to tragedies. In the late 1980s, two political prisoners in particular, Ukrainian poet Vasyl Stus and Russian writer Anatoly Marchenko, died during hunger strikes – tragic events that are thought to have paved the way for amnesties of Soviet political prisoners.
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With the collapse of the USSR, this method of political struggle practically disappeared in Russia’s 1990s. But since the 2000s, prison hunger strikes have returned, with more than a dozen episodes during Vladimir Putin’s rule.
The opposition politician is drawing attention to the powerlessness that all Russian prisoners experience
For example, in 2019 Ukrainian film director Oleh Sentsov conducted a 145-day hunger strike – one of the longest in history – to free all Ukrainian political prisoners. In 2016, Ukrainian military pilot Nadiya Savchenko went on hunger strike for more than three months with a short break. For six months, Crimean activist Volodymyr Balukh ate – from time to time – a few spoons of jelly, crackers and honey while behind bars. Alexander Shestun, the former head of Moscow’s Serpukhov region, who is in the middle of a political standoff with the authorities, went on hunger strike for several months, while being force-fed, until the European Court of Human Rights asked him to end it.
While some dissidents make more global demands – such as the release of all political prisoners – others use hunger strikes as a tool to protest prison conditions, which are often close to torture. In some cases, these demands are met, whether in part or in full.
But very often hunger strikes, which may seem, at first glance, useless and damaging to a political prisoner’s health, have a delayed effect. Thanks to the new publicity for the political prisoner and ensuing public pressure, the news agenda shifts in their favour, and the authorities suffer serious damage to its reputation both at home and abroad.
This is exactly what Navalny is doing. There was a concern that by sending him to prison, the authorities would deprive him of his most valuable weapon: publicity. But now the opposition politician is drawing attention to the powerlessness that all Russian prisoners experience, and is doing what the Russian prison authorities want least of all: namely, destroying the symbolic border between Russia’s prison system and the outside world.
Isolation of a political prisoner
News of Navalny’s hunger strike appeared on the politician’s social media on 31 March. He explained his decision by the fact that the administration of Prison Colony No. 2 in the Vladimir region, where he is serving a sentence for violating conditions of parole, is not meeting his demands to admit an independent civilian doctor and receive medicine.
According to Navalny, his legs are losing sensitivity amid severe back pain. These problems could be consequences of his recent poisoning, widely believed to have been the work of the Russian security services. Several dozen medical workers signed an appeal to Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service with a demand to admit the necessary personnel to treat Navalny.
Navalny’s announcement contained another alarming signal: prisoners, who are collaborating with the prison administration, are intimidating the rest of the convicts in his unit. This means that prison officers are trying to directly control Navalny’s communication with other prisoners. When you have been subject to artificial social isolation of this kind, even a strong person with outside support can find life very difficult.
Indeed, social ties and mutual assistance between Russian prisoners are the main mechanism for a successful stay in detention – and are often a means of survival. Convicts share food and the usual prison benefits – tea and cigarettes – with those who are deprived of them. The presence of shared provisions, the exchange of goods and services, has become part of informal prison life and makes it possible to bypass strict prohibitions. Mass demonstrations of convicts and refusal to work are one of the means of struggle in cases of unlawful use of violence against individual prisoners.
These practices and networks of solidarity, in one way or another, permeate virtually all Russian detention centres – and for prisoners mean that a trip to prison is a lot less like landing on Mars. Convicts can transmit information about each other, solve common problems and interact with the outside world. Of course, the scale of these practices may differ from colony to colony, depending on whether they are ‘red’ or ‘black’ prisons – run by the authorities or by the prisoners, respectively. But even for prison officers, it does not make sense to completely eliminate these ‘non-institutional’ relationships, otherwise the workload on prison infrastructure, including canteens and medical units, will be much higher.
Moreover, staff themselves often encourage these relationships, while receiving specific benefits – for example, earning money by smuggling phones, drugs and other contraband into pre-trial detention centres and prisons; and, if necessary, confiscating it to earn career points.
Certainly, some informal aspects of prison life appear incomprehensible, absurd and dangerous. For example, in Russia’s internal prison caste system, there is a specific category of prisoners known as the “degraded”, who are forced to do a range of tasks, including cleaning dirty areas in cells and sex, for higher caste prisoners. Yet informal relations become dangerous most often when prison staff use the unspoken rules for their own purposes, e.g. by threatening convicts with rape by other prisoners.
Most closed institutions – and not only those in Russia – are organised like this. For their residents, life according to formal rules is simply impossible without dire consequences. Non-institutional relationships can be considered part of adaptation, as described by sociologist Erving Goffman: when a person loses their freedom – and with it control over one’s body, time and surrounding environment – they help you to adapt to the new situation.
But when political prisoners are involved, the authorities deliberately try to ‘cleanse’ colonies and units of any informal relations and manifestation of solidarity. Simply put, the prison staff makes them as ‘red’ as possible. In this case, the regime always exists in favour of prison officers, not the prisoner.
In this case it is difficult to imagine the use of physical violence against a political prisoner (despite the evidence of regular violence in Vladimir’s Prison Colony No.2). The risks associated with close public scrutiny are obviously higher than the benefits that can be obtained by trying to ‘break’ Navalny. Yet the arsenal of methods of pressure that the prison administration has up their sleeve is incredibly rich even without physical violence.
In Pokrov, the prison administration is thus testing new ways of pressure over and over again: placement in a unit of increased control, discipline through reprimands and reports, sleep deprivation, failure to provide proper medical care, intimidation of other convicts in Navalny’s unit, to cause even greater social isolation for the political prisoner.
In this case, going on hunger strike becomes one of the few ways of self-preservation and regaining control over your body.
Taking back control
The prison administration’s main task is to show Navalny and outside observers that their actions comply with official norms, which means they are legal and cannot be avoided. Simply because the administration can apply them in accordance with internal regulations.
Thus, the Federal Penitentiary Service is not denying Navalny treatment – merely limiting his opportunities for qualified medical care, because this is possible and moreover, it is accepted. All convicts in Russia have to wait months for examinations, surgeries and trips to official hospitals. Problematic healthcare in Russia’s prisons is the rule, not the exception.
Regular inspections at night – another way of adding pressure – are also practiced if a prisoner has been declared a possible flight risk.
Thus, finding excuses for Navalny’s situation is not at all difficult. You don’t even need to send brigades of loyal journalists (who will tell you how beautiful the floors in a Russian prison are in comparison with a US prison). Considering how long Russian society has lived with the idea that the penitentiary system is the country’s main punitive institution, many understand that the situation could be much worse.
Where else have political prisoners used hunger strikes?
There are many tragic episodes in the history of hunger strikes in the 20th century, but one in particular stand outs: the 1981 mass hunger strike by members of the IRA in Belfast’s Maze Prison. This hunger strike was conducted to demand their status as Special Category prisoners, or political prisoners.
In the 1970s, the British government had revised the status of IRA members and began calling them criminals – not prisoners of war and political prisoners, which they considered themselves to be. Prime minister Margaret Thatcher refused to make concessions to them, and ten people died during the standoff with the British government, which faced even greater radicalisation of Irish rebels’ supporters as a result.
Navalny’s situation may indeed seem paradoxical: he exposes himself to hunger, while demanding an improvement in his physical health. To some, this idea seems meaningless: why are you doing to yourself what the Russian state tried so diligently to do six months ago? Moreover, in conditions when there are no chances of high-quality medical care or an independent assessment of his health.
But today Navalny is rejecting Russia’s Federal Penitention Service on fundamental grounds: namely, by refusing to accept the current state of affairs in the prison system as normal. Through his own example, he is demonstrating that the measures against him are inappropriate, calling into question all of their policies. By refusing to work, by not doing the top button on his uniform and, of course, by starving himself, he is doing something that is out of reach for many prisoners: he is not agreeing with the prison administration’s regime.
Whether you sympathise with Navalny or not, it is impossible to deny his influence on the public agenda in Russia
Most Russian prisoners – apart from those who managed to bargain for comfortable conditions by agreeing to cooperate – experience humiliation regularly. The list of possibilities is endless: whether it is personal searches, confiscation of personal belongings, lack of medical care, overwork, a rigid hierarchical system with contradictory requirements, the risk of contracting severe chronic and infectious diseases and, of course, the risk of death. And most are entirely deprived of the opportunity to defend themselves.
By comparison, Navalny’s public profile is his main resource for self-defence. Thanks to this publicity, Navalny – whom the authorities tried to poison - has become the main object of observation of the entire country. Together with him, Prison Colony No.2 itself is under close observation and interference.
A challenge for the rest
Under conditions of imprisonment, the human body often becomes an instrument of struggle: there is nothing else to fight with. Thus, Russian convicts sew their mouths shut, open their veins and even rip open their stomachs in protest against the decisions of the prison administration. Usually these actions are done collectively, by several people at the same time, as the chances of attracting public attention are greatly increased.
Since a political prisoner is often excluded from the networks of solidarity due to intimidation of other convicts (and many themselves do not seek to interact with him, realising the consequences), he has no choice but to starve. This is morally and physically difficult, an exhausting and hazardous practice. Nevertheless, it can be effective: it stretches the political action over time, transforming the protest from a short act into a long process.
A hunger strike thus puts observers in a waiting mode: everyone is watching and waiting for the outcome of the situation. Yet it also provides an opportunity for action by the observers themselves: the campaign launched by Navalny’s supporters hints that the active role of his sympathisers is now very important. Every day, as Navalny himself is losing weight, the weight of actions and pressure from outside only increases.
Whether you sympathise with Navalny or not, it is impossible to deny his influence on the public agenda in Russia. Some call him an ‘icebreaker’: thanks to him, the horrendous conditions inside Russian prisons, a problematic and often hidden topic, is breaking through to the surface of public life again.
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