In First Interview From Jail, an Upbeat Navalny Discusses Prison Life

MOSCOW — Russia’s most well-known prisoner, the opposition chief Aleksei A. Navalny, spends a lot of his time tidying his cellblock, studying letters and visiting the mess for meals, with porridge typically on the menu.

But maybe essentially the most maddening factor, he instructed, is being pressured to observe Russian state TV and chosen propaganda movies for greater than eight hours a day in what the authorities name an “awareness raising” program that has changed laborious labor for political prisoners.

“Reading, writing or doing anything else,” is prohibited, Mr. Navalny stated of the pressured display time. “You have to sit in a chair and watch TV.” And if an inmate nods off, he stated, the guards shout, “Don’t sleep, watch!”

In an interview with The New York Times, his first with a information group since his arrest in January, Mr. Navalny talked about his life in jail, about why Russia has cracked down so laborious on the opposition and dissidents, and about his conviction that “Putin’s regime,” as he calls it, is doomed to break down.

Mr. Navalny began a significant opposition motion to show high-level corruption and problem President Vladimir V. Putin on the polls. He was imprisoned in March after he returned to Russia from Germany understanding he was going through a parole violation for a conviction in a case seen as politically motivated. As was effectively chronicled on the time, he was in a foreign country to obtain medical therapy after being poisoned by Russian brokers with the chemical weapon Novichok, in keeping with Western governments.

Mr. Navalny has not been solely mute since his incarceration in Penal Colony No. 2, simply east of Moscow. Through his attorneys, who go to him frequently, he has despatched out occasional social media posts.

Nor is he being actively muzzled by the Kremlin. When requested about Mr. Navalny’s social media presence on Tuesday, Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, stated that it was “not our business” if Mr. Navalny spoke out.

But the written trade of questions and solutions masking 54 handwritten pages is by far his most complete and wide-ranging account.

In in the present day’s Russia, Mr. Navalny made clear, hours spent watching state tv and films chosen by the warden are the expertise of a political prisoner, a standing Amnesty International has assigned to Mr. Navalny. Gone are the shifts of heavy labor in mining or forestry and the harrying by criminals and guards alike that was the hallmark of the Soviet gulag for political prisoners.

“You might imagine tattooed muscle men with steel teeth carrying on with knife fights to take the best cot by the window,” Mr. Navalny stated. “You need to imagine something like a Chinese labor camp, where everybody marches in a line and where video cameras are hung everywhere. There is constant control and a culture of snitching.”

Penal Colony No. 2, the place Mr. Navalny is held. The trendy expertise of a Russian political prisoner, Mr. Navalny stated, is usually “psychological violence,” with mind-numbing display time taking part in an enormous function.Credit…Dimitar Dilkoff/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Despite his circumstances, Mr. Navalny was upbeat about Russia’s future prospects, and he outlined his technique for reaching political change by means of the electoral system even in an authoritarian state.

“The Putin regime is an historical accident, not an inevitability,” he wrote, including, “It was the choice of the corrupt Yeltsin family,” a reference to former President Boris N. Yeltsin’s appointment of Mr. Putin as performing president in December 1999. “Sooner or later, this mistake will be fixed, and Russia will move on to a democratic, European path of development. Simply because that is what the people want.”

As he has earlier than, Mr. Navalny criticized Europe and the United States for the financial sanctions it has imposed on Russia for its meddling overseas and its repression of dissidents, together with Mr. Navalny. He stated sanctions harmed unusual Russians and risked alienating a broad constituency inside Russia that may be a pure ally.

Sanctions, he stated, ought to goal solely the highest oligarchs who prop up Mr. Putin’s authorities, as a substitute of the handfuls of largely obscure figures who’ve been hit up to now. The actually highly effective have largely averted sanctions, he stated, by retaining “an army of lawyers, lobbyists and bankers, fighting for the right of owners of dirty and bloody money to remain unpunished.”

Through the 20th century and earlier, jail in Russia was a crucible that cast or broke dissidents and writers, molded leaders and crushed pluralistic politics.

The trendy expertise of a Russian political prisoner, Mr. Navalny stated, is usually “psychological violence,” with mind-numbing display time taking part in an enormous function.

Mr. Navalny described 5 day by day classes of tv anticipating inmates, the primary beginning instantly after morning calisthenics, breakfast and sweeping the yard.

After some free time, there’s a two-hour spell in entrance of the display, lunch, then extra display time, dinner, after which extra TV time within the night. During one afternoon session, taking part in chess or backgammon is an acceptable different.

“We watch films about the Great Patriotic War,” Mr. Navalny stated, referring to World War II, “or how one day, 40 years ago, our athletes defeated the Americans or Canadians.”

During these classes, he stated, “I most clearly understand the essence of the ideology of the Putin regime: The present and the future are being substituted with the past — the truly heroic past, or embellished past, or completely fictional past. All sorts of past must constantly be in the spotlight to displace thoughts about the future and questions about the present.”

Painting over a mural of Mr. Navalny in St. Petersburg, Russia, in April. The opposition chief survived a poisoning final 12 months.Credit…Anton Vaganov/Reuters

The strategy of prolonged, enforced tv watching, whereas taken to extremes at Penal Colony No. 2, will not be distinctive to the location, the place inmates in politically hued instances have been incarcerated earlier than.

It sprang from a penal reform in Russia begun in 2010 to spice up guards’ management over inmates by means of their day and to cut back the sway of jail gangs. The intent will not be a lot brainwashing as management, specialists on the Russian jail system say.

This was a break from the Soviet strategy to sustaining order within the gulag camps by means of the usage of gang leaders, or “thieves in law,” who have been co-opted and guarded by the Ok.G.B. and used to harass, humiliate and break political prisoners.

“Everything is organized so that I am under maximum control 24 hours a day,” Mr. Navalny stated. He stated he had not been assaulted or threatened by fellow inmates however estimated that about one-third have been what are recognized in Russian prisons as “activists,” those that function informants to the warden.

During his first weeks within the penal colony, Mr. Navalny’s limbs numbed, both from lingering results of the nerve agent poisoning or from a again harm from using in a jail van. He additionally went on a 24-day starvation strike, elevating alarms about his well being.

His neurological signs eased when guards stopped waking him hourly at evening, ostensibly to make sure he wasn’t plotting an escape.

“I now understand why sleep deprivation is one of the favorite tortures of the special services,” he stated. “No traces remain, and it’s impossible to tolerate.”

He stated that now, “life without the risk of being in a wheelchair from a failing leg is far cheerier.”

He stated he will get alongside effectively with different inmates in his cellblock, whom he described as shaven-headed males sporting jail uniforms. Sometimes, they cook dinner snacks in a microwave.

“When we cook, I always remember the classic scene from ‘Goodfellas’ when the mafia bosses cook pasta in a prison cell,” he stated. “Unfortunately, we don’t have such a cool pot, and pasta is forbidden. Still, it’s fun.”

Mr. Navalny, 45, conceded that he has struggled to stay seen in Russian politics by means of a tumultuous interval as the federal government has clamped down on the opposition and the information media.

A protest in Berlin in April towards Mr. Navalny’s jailing.Credit…Markus Schreiber/Associated Press

The protests that erupted after disputed Belarusian elections final 12 months spooked the Kremlin, he instructed. The Putin authorities’s different fear, he stated, was the electoral technique he has devised and calls “smart voting.”

Under the technique, Mr. Navalny’s group endorses the candidates it thinks have an opportunity of profitable in regional and parliamentary elections, which might be held subsequent month. These will not be all the time their very own candidates, however typically extra average opposition figures.

The Kremlin was so involved in regards to the upcoming elections, he stated, that it engineered a crackdown this 12 months not simply on his group and different activists however on average opposition politicians, civil society teams and impartial information media retailers like Meduza, Proekt and Dozhd tv.

Mr. Navalny instructed that whereas the crackdown might show to be a tactical success for Mr. Putin, it might even be a long-term legal responsibility.

“Putin solved his tactical question: not allowing us to take away the majority in the Duma,” Mr. Navalny stated, talking of the Russian Parliament’s decrease home. “In this way, he highly appraised the potential of ‘smart voting.’ But to achieve this, he had to completely change the political system, to shift to a principally different, far harsher level of authoritarianism.”

Longer time period, Mr. Navalny stated, the repression carries dangers as Mr. Putin makes enemies of native and regional leaders “who were thrown out of the political system together with us.”

Mr. Navalny instructed the transfer underscored a principal weak point of Mr. Putin’s political system. While leftists and nationalists are represented by events loyal to Mr. Putin, there isn’t any secure, pro-Kremlin center-right occasion representing the nation’s rising center class of comparatively affluent, city-dwelling Russians.

“Opposition exists in Russia not because Aleksei Navalny or somebody else commands it from a headquarters,” Mr. Navalny stated, “but because about 30 percent of the country — mostly the educated, urban population — doesn’t have political representation.”

When what he known as the reactionary anomaly of Mr. Putin’s rule fades, Russia will revert to democratic governance, Mr. Navalny stated. “We are specific, like any nation, but we are Europe. We are the West.”

Julian E. Barnes contributed reporting from Washington.