This picture taken on March 1, 2021, shows an Orthodox church on the grounds of Penal Colony N2, where Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny has been transferred to serve a two-and-a-half-year prison term for violating parole, in the town of Pokrov. Russia's prison service said the jailed opposition figure was in 'satisfactory' condition after allies reported his health was deteriorating in one of Russia's most notorious prisons. Photo: AFP / Dimitar Dilkoff

Jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny can barely walk. A herniated disc in his spine has cut off feeling in his lower right leg. Despite this sudden disability, authorities at No 2 Penal Colony have labeled him a risk to flee prison.

Despite his pain he’s permitted to see only prison doctors. Navalny now is going to fight the terms of his imprisonment head on: He said he was beginning a hunger strike to demand medical treatment.

“I have the right to invite a doctor and receive medication,” he wrote on Instagram. “The back pain has spread to my leg. I’ve lost sensation of my right leg and now the left leg, too. Jokes aside, this is getting worse.

“I have declared a hunger strike demanding that the law be upheld and a doctor of my choice be allowed to visit me.”

And it’s not just the prison medical rules that are killing him, he fears.

Jailers have put a red stripe on his prison ID card, meaning they wake him up hourly during the night and leave a light on in his cell, making it even harder for him to get a sound sleep.

So it goes as President Vladimir Putin updates age-old methods for dealing with political prisoners in Russia. The techniques used on Navalny are similar to those of Soviet times, altered slightly to give a veneer of legality and perhaps soften the harsh light of social media.

Josef Stalin, Soviet scourge of dissidents for 30 years, sent thousands to labor camps deep in Siberia. Putin has adopted a more surgical approach: To maintain political control over the vast Russian state, so far he has felt the need only to make an example of a few dissenters.

Currently, Navalny is chief among them.

He went into a coma last summer from a nerve-agent poisoning administered in Russia, possibly in tea. He was flown out to Germany at the behest of Chancellor Angela Merkel, got emergency treatment and recovered. In late January, he returned to Moscow, where he was quickly detained and put on trial on charges of breaking probation-reporting requirements while in Germany.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny stands inside a glass cell during a court hearing at the Babushkinsky district court in Moscow on February 20, 2021. The jailed Kremlin critic is in great pain, his lawyer has said after visiting him in prison. The lawyer added that allies were afraid ‘for his life.’ Photo: AFP / Kirill Kudryassev

Now, he is the target of slow-motion torture.

Sleep deprivation may be the most damaging punishment. The notion that hourly nocturnal visits are needed to keep Navalny from fleeing seems laughable in that he returned to Russia from Berlin voluntarily, knowing that he likely faced jail.

But sleep deprivation can lead to both physical and mental collapse. That’s likely the intent behind the hourly nocturnal visits, says historian Nikolay Petrov, a board member of Memorial, a Russian human-rights organization. “The punishment system has not become more humane,” added Petrov during a broadcast on the Moscow Echo commercial radio in Russia. “We are in an era of shamelessness.”

In prison, Navalny’s jailers keep score of infractions of prison rules that might merit more severe punishment for him later on. Among them, he is accused of rising from bed 10 minutes before being told to, of wearing a T-shirt during a meeting with his lawyers, of asking a jailer out for coffee, and of refusing an exercise hour. Two such black marks are enough to send him into solitary confinement. Navalny says he has six.

To experts on Russian pressure tactics, this is nothing new. Gulag veteran and journalist Alexander Podrabinek explained the method to the madness of petty intimidation: Jailers know that, given the official animus toward Navalny, they must have a case against him ready should the authorities want to punish him more – by putting him in solitary confinement, for example.

“They need to have some array of such incriminating evidence that can be dumped at any moment. They hang reprimands and punishments on him like Christmas tree decorations,” said Podrabinek, who spent several years during late Soviet times in a Siberian penal colony for exposing psychiatric malpractice used for political control.

In Stalin’s time, such fake legality was unneeded – the ruler’s signature was enough. But in the Putin era all must appear legal, to make the case inside and outside Russia that the authorities have no choice but to punish Navalny.

And Putin takes pains to make Navalny look unworthy of sympathy. To foreigners, official news outlets and Internet trolls point to old comments that he made in which he disparaged minorities. On the domestic front, they claim he has embezzled money from his Anti-Corruption Foundation.

That technique was frequently employed to discredit dissidents in Russia’s Soviet past, including famed atomic scientist Andrei Sakharov.

The Putin government not only put Navalny under its thumb, but launched a concurrent multi-front offensive against his potential supporters throughout Russia. A new law labels almost anyone who criticizes Putin as a “foreign agent” if they receive any amount of foreign funding.

The measure includes a vague prohibition against receiving “methodological or organizational support” from abroad, according to Human Rights Watch. The law also applies to journalists deemed to be “acting in the interests” of an international or foreign organization.  

Protesters must go through onerous bureaucratic hurdles to hold demonstrations, and permission must be sought even for a single person to hold up a sign on a street corner. In February, riot police detained 10,000 demonstrators during pro-Navalny rallies that took place across Russia. All the gatherings were deemed unauthorized, HRW said.

Relatives of dissidents cannot count on being spared. Ivan Zhdanov, who heads Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, said police have detained his retired 66-year-old father in the city of Rostov-on-Don on corruption charges.

The elder Zhdanov, once a low-level municipal official in northwest Russia, had recommended social housing to a family that already occupied a unit. The municipality got the apartment back and apparently there was no criminal charge at the time. The elder Zhdanov retired peacefully. His son, who is in exile, said detaining him now is pure intimidation.

All these tactics are well known in Russia, and that’s part of the point, Podrabinek contends. “They show that they can do whatever they want,” he told Moscow Echo. “They kind of flaunt it.”

Amnesty International has called for Navalny’s release, as have numerous Western countries. However, with Putin’s evident sense of impunity, outside appeals have been ignored.

That means nothing can be done barring growth of an internal pro-democracy movement. “The overseas campaign is important, but inside the country it is even more important,” said Petrov. “There is no other way to save a person when he is in the hands of killers.”

Podrabinek is not optimistic. “For Navalny, in my opinion, there is no safe place in Russia,” he said.

Close associates of the jailed dissident say Putin might release Navalny on one condition: that he leave Russia for permanent exile.

Daniel Williams

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.