Lisa Haseldine Lisa Haseldine

Even in the Arctic Circle, Navalny remains uncowed

Alexei Navalny on a screen from the Polar Wolf penal colony above the Arctic circle (Credit: Getty images)

Alexei Navalny had a brutal December. At the start of the month the Putin critic abruptly disappeared from his prison colony in Vladimir, east of Moscow. For 20 days no one knew of his whereabouts until his lawyers tracked him down to the ‘Polar Wolf’ colony of Kharp, deep within the Arctic Circle. Yesterday, he was seen by the public for the first time since his transfer 

Appearing over video link, the gaunt Kremlin critic held a short press conference ahead of his appointment in court to sue the Vladimir colony where he was being held until December. Standing behind a metal grille, head shaved and dressed in a prison jumpsuit, Navalny looked thrilled, and a little relieved, to be allowed to interact with journalists.  

The ‘Polar Wolf’ colony where Navalny is now held is one of the harshest in Russia’s penal system

The conditions he’s now being kept in, he said, are ‘much better than in Vladimir’. He cracked a few jokes with reporters, saying the only problem he has is that there’s no one to sue for the weather being as bad as it is. His health, he said, is ‘fine’. The food too was ‘fine, everything is good, everything is good’. Letters still hadn’t reached him, although that was fair enough, he joked, given how far away from Moscow he now was. 

After the press conference came his court appearance. Navalny was suing the Vladimir prison authorities for illegally placing him in a punishment cell for 12 days in October after he argued with a guard. He alleged that the guard in question had confiscated his writing pen. When Navalny argued back – calling him amongst other things a ‘donkey’, ‘moron’ and a ‘scarecrow’ – he was thrown into solitary confinement. In the end though, the court threw out his case, saying Navalny had violated the prison’s rules by using ‘offensive’ words. 

The ‘Polar Wolf’ colony where Navalny is now being held is known for being one of the harshest institutions in Russia’s penal system. Earlier this week, his team revealed that the Kremlin critic had already spent seven days in solitary confinement there for failing to ‘introduce himself in line with protocol’ to a prison guard after his arrival. He also complained during his case yesterday that he was given just ten minutes a day to have his meals, consisting of two mugs of ‘boiling’ water and two ‘disgusting’ pieces of bread. 

Despite his earlier optimism, Navalny revealed further shocking details about his confinement in court. ‘Do you know why people choose a newspaper [in solitary confinement]?’ He asked the court. ‘To cover themselves. Because with a newspaper…it is much warmer to sleep for example than without one. And so you need a newspaper so as not to freeze.’ 

Navalny is due back in court on 2 February for another appeal, this time about letters not being delivered to him in prison, although whether that court date is allowed to go ahead remains to be seen. 

The Putin critic has had court dates postponed several times before, often without explanation. For now, Navalny refuses to let his spirit be broken. Until that changes, the Kremlin will continue to turn the screw on him.