Staunton, March 29 – Since World War II, Russia like most countries has denied that it has any political prisoners, claiming that individuals have been sentenced for ordinary crimes rather than for their political beliefs. But Olga Romanova says, “everyone knows that they exist” and that there is still a divide between ordinary criminals and political ones.
Public recognition of that reality in Russia has increased dramatically with the sentencing of Aleksey Navalny, the commentator writes in an essay published by the Moscow Carnegie Center, and that has made the issue of political prisoners a more serious and more frequent problem for the regime (carnegie.ru/commentary/84210).
With Navalny’s incarceration, “the situation in Russian jails and especially everything connected with jail medicine and other important rights have come to be of interest for literally everyone; and Russian human rights activists have found it easier to explain the real problems connected with the rights of the convicts.”
Opponents of Navalny are upset that he has been given access to medical care not given to other prisoners, but his supporters are worried because he has been confined in one of the few prison camps – IK2 in Pokrov -- where ordinary prisoners aren’t organized and thus where the administration makes all the decisions.
One consequence of this expanded public attention to conditions within Russian prisons has been the publication of various guides to the prison camp system and of articles about conditions there. For an example of the former, see zona.media/article/2021/03/29/repressions. Romanova’s article is a particularly insightful example of the latter.
Until 1945, Moscow acknowledged that it had political prisoners, but after that time, it refused to. And in fact, it eliminated most of the political paragraphs in the criminal code under which they had been sentenced. But that did not mean that there were no political prisoners, only that the regime wouldn’t acknowledge that status.
Since 2014, however, the Russian criminal code does have at least one political article, Paragraph 212.1, which imposes punishment for violating rules governing the holding of meetings, Romanova says, adding that in the future more such “political” paragraphs are likely to be added.
As of now, only two people have received real time behind bars for violating this article, Ildar Dadin and Konstantin Kotov. But more are likely to in the current environment. Nonetheless, according to the Memorial human rights organization, there are now 349 political prisoners in Russia jails and camps.
The overwhelming majority of these – 288 – are in jail for their religious practices, be they Jehovah’s Witnesses or various Muslim groups. The issue of who is a political prisoner and who is not, of course, is not a simple one. Many benefit by claiming to be political prisoners, but it should be kept in mind that “illegal persecution and political persecution are different things.”
Moreover, those who are genuinely political prisoners are likely to be treated differently both by others behind bars and by the population at large. In Stalin’s time, these were “two worlds” and each tried to avoid the other except when the jailors set the ordinary criminals on the political ones.
In Brezhnev’s times up to the beginning of Gorbachev’s, many ordinary criminals treated political prisoners with greater respect, especially since there was always the chance that they might be exchanged for Soviet citizens held in the West. Gorbachev freed the politicals, and there were none until Yeltsin incarcerated some of the putschists from August 1991 and the Supreme Soviet activists in October 1993.
The current era of political prisoners in Russia began with the rise of Vladimir Putin to power, Romanova says. According to Mariya Eismont, a lawyer who has often defended political, those incarcerated for religious reasons are mostly treated normally. Those charged with crimes like extremism or terrorism much less so.
Eismont says that “the situation in various zones can be different. A clear example is the famous IK-2 in Pokrov where Konstantin Kotov was confined and where Aleksey Navalny now is.” The lawyer says that it represents a special case precisely because the ordinary prisoners haven’t been able to form their own structure or committee to organize things.
But everyone there knows the difference between the ordinary criminals and the political, Eismont continues. She recalls that when she asked the deputy head of that camp why Kotov couldn’t study or write letters, she was told “because he is a political,” confirmation of what the authorities work so hard to deny.