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Alexei Navalny Reappears in Snow-Swept Prison Above the Article Circle

Russian history is no stranger to the disappearance of ruling elites and dissidents. Stalin's Mexico City assassination of Trotsky in August 1940 showcased the lengths to which the Stalinist Soviet regime would go to silence political rivals to cocoon its domestic totalitarian monopoly on power and legitimacy. While Putin is no Stalin, he is a product of the turbulence which defined the USSR's carcass. Russia's post-Soviet malaise has created an institutionalised state insecurity. The state is intolerant to domestic political change, let alone a democratic transition. Putin's dictatorial rule has been exceptionally resistant, as past fraudulent elections have showcased. 


Alexei Navalny's trial and imprisonment on dubious charges of "spurious fraud" and an additional 19-year sentence for "extremism" in August 2023 was a highly predictable development following his return to Russia in 2021 after recovering from an unsuccessful assassination attempt. Having failed to silence, assassinate, or force Navalny into exile, Putin's regime greeted him with an opposition hero's welcome, comprising an immediate airport arrest and commensurately swift imprisonment.


Equally unsurprising was his recent disappearance from the Russian prison system and alleged transfer to an undisclosed location. In post-Soviet Russia, top-down, state-imposed (and engineered) nationalism, identified with Putin's one-man rule, has been years in development and has become a trademark feature of his 23 years in power. 

Navalny's sudden disappearance from his IK-6 penal colony in Melekhovo, 235 km east of Moscow, is nothing short of dystopian. Nevertheless, Navalny's team had largely expected his transfer to a "special regime colony" for quite some time before he failed to appear in court via video link on December 5. Following an attempted visit by his lawyers, confirming his disappearance on December 15, both the authorities at penal colony IK-6 and Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, have denied any knowledge of his new location and status. The former has merely and somewhat boorishly stated that Navalny is "no longer listed" within it. 


Fears have since intensified over his health. While most media made no assumptions as to what precisely has happened to Putin's most prominent and vocal critic, independent Russian news outlet Meduza maintains that Navalny is most likely being transferred to a higher security penal colony, reserved, among others, for the Kremlin's most despised and "dangerous" journalists and opposition figures.


Russia's vast prison system has developed a notorious reputation concerning prison transfers, which are routinely obscured by bureaucratic fog and have a deliberate veil of secrecy cast over their timing, duration and circumstances. While according to Meduza, the Russian Penitentiary Code guarantees the right of prisoners to communicate and notify relatives and loved ones of their coming transfer, more often than not, rules are ignored in favour of a more arbitrary approach. An abrupt early morning wake-up is followed by intrusive body searches, bundling onto special prison buses, which themselves shuttle prisoners to designated train carriages usually attached to passenger trains. Thrown by the dozen into cells meant for just four passengers, sanitary conditions are reportedly particularly gruesome throughout the horror express's journey across Russia's contemporary version of the Gulag Archipelago, which combines elements of more "conventional" incarceration with exile into the Far North and East. 


Until December 27, it remained unclear whether Navalny's disappearance was due to his mooted transfer to a different and most certainly worse prison facility than IK-6 or whether his resistance and fervour had finally been snuffed out. In his first brief reappearance since December 6, the Kremlin critic wrote on Twitter/X that he had indeed been transferred into a new penal colony in the Siberian Arctic, IK-3, also known as the "Polar Wolf". 


"The 20 days of my transportation were pretty exhausting, but I am still in good mood, as befits a Santa Claus," he stated. Despite his tongue-in-cheek defiance, the danger to his life remains. The words of Maria Pevchikh, the head of Navalny's anti-corruption organisation, still echo with renewed relevance: 


"We are very worried for his life. He's in the hands of the very same people who tried to kill him before. If they once got an authorisation to murder Navalny, do they have another one now or is the last one still valid? Navalny's life is constantly at a high risk. But in certain situations, this risk peaks so high that it becomes extreme. Today is that moment." 


At about 1,900 km (1,200 miles) northeast of Moscow, IK-3 is one of Russia's most notorious facilities and a continuation of the Stalinist 501st Gulag. According to University of Strasbourg lecturer Emilia Koustova


"The prison system retained a number of features dating back to the Stalinist era, particularly the idea of [using] the climate as a tool of repression,"

"These are also very isolated places. For three weeks, no one knew where Navalny was. The use of arbitrary [detention], which has been in place since the Stalinist era, is aimed at severing the ties between prisoners and their loved ones. This severing of ties becomes a means of repression and terror, or blackmail."

Pevchikh had also maintained that this was most likely a state-sanctioned order to vanish Putin's only formidable domestic rival and challenger to his monopoly on state power on the eve of the March 2024 presidential election. Resultantly, the timing of Navalny's disappearance was relatively predictable because it fits with Putin's political survival and the state's raison d’État

Time and time again, the Russian President has proven he is willing to go to great lengths to silence, murder, or force vocal opposition into exile. Much like Periander, the ancient Greek tyrant of the city-state of Corinthus, who "reduced all the ears of corn [grain] to one level by lopping off the tallest" while walking in a grain field in a symbolic performance of his autocratic rule, Putin has sought to chop off the "tallest" and most renowned of Russia's opposition figures.


From the killing of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006, Boris Nemtsov's murder in 2015, and Vladimir Kara-Murza's imprisonment in April 2022 for condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Navalny's disappearance is another act in a long series of reprisals against those whom Putin labels "enemies of the state". While many should be excused for not sympathising with Navalny's ordeal, given his past record with the Russian far-right and support for the illegal 2014 annexation of Crimea, this latest act is part of something much bigger than the man himself. It is the outcome of Putin's reactionary authoritarianism that is now in its third decade of relentlessly perverting Russian civil society, slowly but steadily rooting out those capable of resisting their descent into a post-Soviet dystopia.

Image: AP/via The Guardian

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