‘Some go crazy within half an hour’. A Soviet dissident who spent years in solitary confinement on how political prisoners are punished in contemporary Russia — Novaya Gazeta Europe
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‘Some go crazy within half an hour’

A Soviet dissident who spent years in solitary confinement on how political prisoners are punished in contemporary Russia

‘Some go crazy within half an hour’

Vladimir Kara-Murza at an appeal against his prison sentence, 31 July 2023. Photo: Maxim Shemetov / REUTERS / Scanpix / LETA

In light of the increasing use of punishment cells within Russian prisons to torture high-profile political prisoners, Novaya Europe spoke to veteran Soviet dissident Alexander Podrabinek, who spent over eight years in prison camps in northeastern Siberia, almost entirely in solitary confinement.

The late Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny spent much of his prison sentence in SHIZO, also known as a punishment cell. Two other high-profile Russian opposition politicians, Ilya Yashin and Vladimir Kara-Murza, have recently been sent to a different type of cell — PKT, literally translated as “cell-type confinement”, a high-security cell where prisoners can be sent for up to six months due to its marginally more comfortable conditions, as opposed to SHIZO’s formal limit of 15 days.

Both punishment cells and high-security cells are often equated with the English term solitary confinement, but they aren’t always solitary — some prisoners are forced to share a 7-square-metre room with multiple prisoners at once, while some endure days with almost no contact with the outside world.

Novaya Europe spoke to Soviet dissident and Russian human rights activist and journalist Alexander Podrabinek, who spent more than eight years in prison camps after being found guilty of slandering the Soviet system, writing for foreign media outlets and distributing samizdat, to gain an impression of what the cells are like, what prisoners can and cannot do in them and why the authorities are using them to exert pressure on political prisoners.

Russian political prisoner and opposition politician Ilya Yashin on a video link at an appeal hearing, 19 April 2023. Photo: Yulia Morozova / REUTERS / Scanpix / LETA

Russian political prisoner and opposition politician Ilya Yashin on a video link at an appeal hearing, 19 April 2023. Photo: Yulia Morozova / REUTERS / Scanpix / LETA

NGE: Could you explain the difference between the various types of confinement within the Russian prison system and what’s worse for a prisoner who presents no danger to society and those around them?

AP: You can be in single or shared cells, which form a block, like in a prison, within the camp or penal colony. The camp itself, as you’ll know, is like barracks where prisoners are free to go outside. That’s where they work. But the prison block with punishment cells is a separate building with its own security system and stricter rules. Inmates call it prison within a prison, though it’s really a prison within a camp.

“The treatment was much harsher in Soviet times. Standards were lower, and prisoners in punishment cells were only fed every other day.”

There are two types of confinement. The cells are pretty much the same in both, but the rules of detention are different. You can be held in a high-security cell for up to six months, but you can only be sent to a so-called punishment cell for a maximum of 15 days. That said, I once spent 115 days in a row in one. If the staff wants to follow the letter of the law, or rather, the quasi-law, then they can release you for a day, then put you back in a punishment cell the day after for some absurd reason, like a button being undone. As a result, you can effectively be kept in a punishment cell for your entire sentence. The treatment was much harsher in Soviet times. Standards were lower, and prisoners in punishment cells were only fed every other day. Now, thank God, even they eat every day.

A mock-up of the punishment cell Alexey Navalny was sent to on 18 February 2023. Photo: Stringer

A mock-up of the punishment cell Alexey Navalny was sent to on 18 February 2023. Photo: Stringer

NGE: We know that if you’re in a punishment cell, you can’t see anyone, have telephone calls, buy anything, receive anything from outside. What if you’re in a high-security cell?

AP: It’s better on that front. You have a bed with a mattress, and you’re allowed out to exercise for one and a half, or sometimes even three hours a day. You might get one short visit in six months. But, again, you can be transferred to a punishment cell at any time for breaking the most minor regulation. And any time you spend there doesn’t count as part of your time in a high-security cell, so that then gets extended. If they give you 15 days in a punishment cell, your six months in a high-security cell is extended for another 15 days.

“They can stick someone in solitary at the drop of a hat.”

Alexey Navalny speaks from prison in Pokrov, Vladimir region, central Russia, to a Moscow court, 17 May 2022. Photo: Maxim Shipenkov / EPA

Alexey Navalny speaks from prison in Pokrov, Vladimir region, central Russia, to a Moscow court, 17 May 2022. Photo: Maxim Shipenkov / EPA

NGE: Why are the authorities punishing political prisoners this way now? When did this high-security cell appear?

AP: There’s nothing new about it. Regular high-security cells existed under Stalin. Yashin, Kara-Murza and Alexey Navalny showed themselves to be combative and confrontational. And the authorities fear the influence they might have over inmates. So they make examples of them. It’s something of a preventative measure for the authorities. They can stick someone in solitary at the drop of a hat.

“Some people bang on the door or the bars and try to get out because they start going crazy in solitary within half an hour.”

NGE: You have spent quite a lot of time in punishment and high-security cells.

AP: I spent almost my entire sentence in solitary.

NGE: How did you survive?

AP: For me, it wasn’t that horrible. It all depends on how you deal with solitude. Of course, there are psychological drawbacks. On the other hand, there’s not much to be said for being forced to communicate with the criminal fraternity either. So I’m not sure what’s worse. It depends on the individual. Some people bang on the door or the bars and try to get out because they start going crazy in solitary within half an hour. They can’t just sit there on their own. I found it easy.

NGE: How did you occupy your mind?

AP: I was actually perfectly happy. At first, the solitude is tough, but then you get used to it, get into a rhythm and realise it’s better — at least, it was for me — than in a cell with four to six other people. There are, of course, advantages to a joint cell, especially in winter, when it’s cold, as the more people there are, the warmer it gets. But on the downside, you’re forced to have stupid conversations with everyone.

The prison staff thinks of solitary confinement as the harshest and cheapest punishment. You don’t have to do much, just lock the person up and they’ll slowly start going mad. Well, that’s what they think, and I wanted them to believe it. I protested, appealed to the prosecutor whenever he came by. They were happy I was unhappy. But I was playing them.

At that time, they couldn’t put you in solitary confinement without permission from the prosecutor’s office or a court order. And one young prosecutor appeared and said to the prison staff: “Yes, this is against the law. Transfer him to a joint cell.” I’d overdone it. I was transferred, but the next day, when the prosecutor left, I was put back in solitary. I was more cautious after that.

A screen in the Russian Supreme Court shows the former Yukos owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky attending an appeal hearing from his penal colony in the republic of Karelia. 6 August 2013. Photo: Sergey Ilnitsky / ЕРА

A screen in the Russian Supreme Court shows the former Yukos owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky attending an appeal hearing from his penal colony in the republic of Karelia. 6 August 2013. Photo: Sergey Ilnitsky / ЕРА

NGE: Can you write letters while in solitary?

AP: Yes, as many as you want. You could only send one letter every two months in my time. But there are other limitations. Kara-Murza only has pen and paper for an hour and a half a day. He needs to prepare for court, write petitions and answer letters from relatives and friends in that time. He can’t have the time to answer and write to everyone.

NGE: What does the law say when it comes to internal regulations on how to treat Kara-Murza?

AP: Nothing. But there is a notion of “personal time”, and Kara-Murza has only been allocated an hour and a half. That’s controversial, and should be fought in court.

NGE: So the prison staff can decide how a person spends their “personal time”?

AP: They can’t stop him writing or answering letters altogether. But they can make things difficult, by only giving him an hour and a half, say. But Volodya writes. I get letters from him from time to time. I say to him in my letters: ‘Don’t answer me. Write to others who’ll mind you not answering.’ It’s important that he receive letters of support, photos, postcards.

So, to sum up, high-security cells are less harsh now than they were in my day, when they were less harsh than they had been under Stalin. But they can still make things unbearable for any individual.

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