by Michael Curtis
In March 2021, archaeologists in the Czech Republic uncovered a part of chilling history, the instillation of a forced labor camp that had been built in Prague during the Communist regime which ended with the Velvet Revolution of 1989. The camp was close to the spot on a strategic hilltop overlooking the medieval city where a massive, 51 feet high, monument to Stalin had stood from May 1955 until it was blown up in 1962 under pressure from Nikita Khrushchev who was denouncing the crimes of Stalin. The camp had held “politically unreliable” individuals, often academics, intellectuals, and paid manual labor prisoners. This was the first time that Czech archaeologists had uncovered a penal institution in Prague built during the communist regime. This camp near the city Letna park was previously unknown as all mentions, footprints and evidence of the encampment were thoroughly destroyed.
At a moment when Alexei Navalny, a prominent political activist critical of the present Russian regime, is being held in a labor camp, the Prague finding is a reminder of the Gulag system in the Soviet Union, the network of forced labor camps set up by Vladimir Lenin in 1918, and intensified by Joseph Stalin until his death in 1953, and which were officially ended by Khrushchev in January 1960. The hundreds of labor camps incarcerated more than 18 million, of whom at least 1.5 million died. They averaged between 2,000 and 10,000 inmates: the Vorkuta Gulag at its peak held 73,000 prisoners. In his magisterial trilogy, The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn provided a compelling picture of the vast array of forced labor camps and prisons, the horrors of the Gulag throughout the country, and an indictment of the Soviet Union.
It is now three decades since the end of the Soviet Union. Since Vladimir Putin gained consolidated power in 1999, Russia cannot be categorized as a Stalinist type totalitarian state, but an authoritarian one that does not resemble a normal democratic system. Though it has a sort of pseudo democratic legitimacy, it is a county that subverts democratic rules, and continues the forced labor system. Putin, the holder of a judo black belt, a symbol of guile and aggression, and master of tokui waza, match winning throwing technique, is a dictator, planning to stay in power ruling a Potemkin democracy, changing the constitutional rules to remain in power, becoming head of the executive and curbing the of the legislature and the courts. Putin has centralized the power in the country. Though Russia is officially, according to the 1993 Constitution, democratic, a federation of territories with their own rights and responsibilities, Putin in effect has eroded their autonomy and imposed on them the power of the Kremlin.
Putin on the international stage has demonstrated his policy to reassert Russian power with military intervention in Ukraine, annexing Crimea in March 2014, acting to support the Assad regime in Syria, and in addition to orchestrate interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election mainly through the use of social media. Internally, Putin is an authoritarian ruler in whose hands power is concentrated, supported by loyalist security forces, a subservient judiciary, controlled media, legislature dominated by his party, manipulation of elections.
The human rights situation deteriorates with bans, repressive laws, restrictions online, persecutions, and threats to, and even elimination of political and other critics. The list of individuals threatened or murdered is long and well known. Some of the more familiar are Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, Boris Berezovsky, Anna Politkovskaya, Sergei Skripal, Pyotr Verzilov, Yaroslav Belousov, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Sergei Mokhov, Vladimir Kara-murza, and the most well known recent serious opponent Alexei Navalny.
Navalny, now 44, who had been a World Fellow at Yale in 2010, emerged as a charismatic opposition figure, critical, in non-ideological fashion, of Putin’s autocratic rule, concentrating on the corruption of the regime, and on specific issues, income, health, education, rule of law. He organized the largest protest in modern Russian history in 2017. He referred to Putin’s party, United Russia, as a part of thieves and crooks, accused Dmitry Medvedev, then prime minister and former president, with his yachts and palaces, of corruption, and mentioned Putin’s vast luxury Black Sea palace “gifted” to him by associates. He founded the Anti-Corruption Foundation. In 2013 Navalny was tried in criminal court for embezzlement and received a suspended sentence, but ran for mayor of Moscow, coming in second and getting 27% of the vote. In 2016 he wanted to be a candidate for the 2018 presidential election, but was barred because of his criminal trial.
Nevertheless, he built up a following of 120,000 volunteers, but all independent candidates were disqualified from local council elections. Though the Kremlin put down protests with brutality, Navalny organized the largest protest in modern Russian history in 2017.
During a flight from Tomsk, Siberia, to Moscow on August 20, 2020, Navalny became violently ill, and was taken to a hospital in Omsk after an emergency landing. After two days there, he was flown to the Charite hospital in Berlin. German specialists found he had been poisoned by a new form of the nerve agent Novichok. His survival is a mixture of luck and quick efficient medical treatment. Speculation is that he may have been poisoned by a cup of tea he drank at Tomsk airport. Another suggestion according to a state security agent is that Novichok had been smeared on his underpants. Navalny has humorously referred to Russian history as having Alexander the Liberator (1861), Yaroslav the Wise (1019), and Putin, the poisoner of underpants.
Navalny returned from Berlin to Moscow on January 17, 2021 and was detained for violating his parole conditions because he did not report to the police while recovering from his poisoning. On February 2, 2021 his suspended sentence was increased to a prison sentence, two and a half years in a labor camp. He was sent to a penal colony, 60 miles east of Moscow, Penal Colony No. 2 in the village of Pokrow. It is said to be particularly onerous, a prison where inmates are woken up hourly at night by guards shining a torch in the inmate’s face, prisoners work long shifts, and are subjected to psychological torture. Navalny’s health continues to deteriorate with the possibility of solitary confinement, a condition close to torture, for major crimes such as getting out of bed 10 minutes before official wake up call, and wearing a T shirt when meeting lawyers. Yet, though he has been removed from being a direct political threat to Putin, Navalny can still influence millions of supporters on social media.
The poisoning and imprisonment of Navalny is only the latest exercise of Putin’s power over opponents, but it throws light on the existence and continuation of camps, a heritage of the Gulag. Russia is a land of penal colonies: there are estimated to be 684 work colonies, out of a total of 692 prisons, that hold 393,000 prisoners where inmates carry out menial labor in long shifts. These penal colonies consist of barracks that house several dozen inmates sleeping in rows of bunks, and they are surrounded by high walls with razor wire.
Surprisingly, Amnesty International stopped calling Navalny a “prisoner of conscience” because of remarks he made years ago about “migrants who are cockroaches” that meet the level of hate speech. But nothing that he said in the past justifies his detention. He may not be a saint, but he should be honored as the exemplification of courage.
The West must respond to Russian inhumanity. It is understood that Russia is powerful, if not a superpower, with large nuclear warhead stockpile, with supplies of oil and gas, the second largest in the world, highly developed communications equipment, sophisticated weapons, upgrading its equipment and objects like nuclear torpedoes. At the same time, opposition is present especially with the rise of social media, though it is dangerous. This was shown in the case of Sergei Furgal, of the Liberal Democratic party. He had bested the Putin candidate in election in 2018 to become governor of the Khabarovsk region, but he was arrested two years late and charged with murders supposed to have been committed 15 years earlier,
The international community should react strongly against the inhumane treatment of Navalny, in addition to applauding his actions, for his cause of freedom. It is evident that all charges against him are politically motivated. The EU diplomat Joseph Borrell stated that the Navalny case was a low point in relations with Russia. The Bidden administration should join with Borrell and internal Russian critics to appeal, as a minimum, for the release of Navalny. Spring should not be a little late this year.