By Ivan Nechepurenko
Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, published a letter earlier this week describing an arduous transfer to his new penal colony in the Arctic, the first time his supporters had heard from him in three weeks.
Navalny’s comments, posted on his social network accounts and written with a heavy dose of irony and humor, highlighted his good spirits and seemed intended to assuage concerns among allies who had grown anxious about his health and status since his sudden disappearance from the public eye on Dec. 5.
“I am your new Father Frost,” Navalny wrote, referring to the Russian version of Santa Claus. “I have a sheepskin coat, a hat with earflaps; I should get felt boots soon, and I have grown a beard during the 20-day transit.”
But, he added, “The main thing is that I now live above the Arctic Circle.”
Navalny, 47, is a longtime antagonist of President Vladimir Putin who has been subject to increasingly harsh punishment over the past year. His transfer to one of Russia’s high-security “special regime” penal colonies had been expected since September, when he lost an appeal against the 19-year sentence he is serving.
But his lawyers and allies were not notified in advance that he would be moved, raising fears and speculations about his health after legal team was unable to contact him. His ability to pass a letter from a new prison suggested that Navalny would most likely remain a fixture in Russia’s public life as the country nears another presidential election that Putin is poised to win amid little genuine competition.
Navalny has been in custody since his detention in January 2021 at a Moscow airport, where he had arrived after spending months in Germany recovering from poisoning by a nerve agent. Navalny and Western governments have accused the Kremlin of the poisoning, a charge that Russian officials have denied.
A former site of a Gulag labor camp, Navalny’s new snow-swept penal colony, in the town of Kharp, is one of the most remote in Russia. Known as the “Polar Wolf” colony, it is surrounded by tundra and polar mountains. Freezing dark winters give way to brisk summers with clouds of mosquitoes. Daylight is scarce, a fact he alluded to in his letter Tuesday.
“I don’t say ‘Ho-ho-ho,’ but I do say ‘Oh-oh-oh’ when I look out of the window,” Navalny said, “where I can see it’s night, then evening, then night again.”
Navalny said that he had not seen much of his new Arctic permafrost surroundings yet, but that he had noticed that prison guards there were different than their colleagues in central Russia. Wearing warm mittens and felt boots, they carried machine guns and were aided by “those very beautiful fluffy shepherd dogs,” he said.
A 2019 video report from the prison by a municipal-owned news agency said that it had featured a library with 8,000 books, a shop, a church, and a prisoner cook who loves making big cakes.
A trip to Kharp from Moscow takes more than 40 hours on a train, which departs every second day. But Navalny described a more complicated 20-day journey through the Russian prison system.
He went to Moscow from his penal colony in the nearby Vladimir Region, then to Chelyabinsk and Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains and then through Kirov up north to Vorkuta before finally arriving in Kharp on Saturday, according to his letter.
“I did not expect anyone would find me here until mid-January,” he said.
“I was very surprised then when yesterday, the cell’s doors were opened with the words: ‘There is a lawyer for you.’”