A chilling announcement greeted the attorney for Alexei Navalny when he tried to visit the imprisoned Kremlin foe on Tuesday at Pokrov, or IK-2, a penal colony about two and a half hours east of Moscow.
“There is no such convict here,” authorities chillingly said, according to a social media post by close Navalny associate Leonid Volkov.
The news of Navalny’s disappearance instantly raised alarms about the 46-year-old’s safety, given that he is perhaps Vladimir Putin’s most prominent Russian critic. His challenge to the Kremlin’s repressions was seen as a threat even before the Russian president’s invasion of Ukraine put the ruling regime into an acutely paranoid crouch.
In 2009 tax attorney Sergei Magnitsky was beaten and left to die in a Russian prison after exposing widespread Kremlin corruption. The dissident activist Ildar Dadin also described inhumane treatment of prisoners. “If I am again faced with torture, beatings and rape I am unlikely to hold out more than a week,” Dadin wrote in 2016.
Navalny survived an attempted poisoning by Russian security services in 2020. He recuperated in Germany but then returned to Russia last summer, where, as expected, he faced arrest on fictitious charges.
He received a nine-year sentence earlier this year, about a month after Putin invaded Ukraine.
Navalny’s attorneys try to visit him on weekdays, in large part to simply assure that he is alive and has not been tortured.
“Unfortunately, the rule of law doesn’t apply in Russia, and it especially doesn’t apply to Alexei Navalny,” said Anna Veduta, a close Navalny associate who serves as vice president of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, which Navalny founded.
“Of course, neither Alexei’s attorneys nor his relatives were informed about his transfer in advance,” Navalny spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh wrote on Twitter. “There were rumors that he was going to be transferred to the high-security penal colony IK-6 ‘Melekhovo’, but it is impossible to know when (and if) he will actually arrive there.”
Yarmysh wrote on Twitter that news reports of a transfer to the prison in Melekhovo had not been confirmed by the Navalny camp.
Melekhovo is farther east than Navalny’s former prison at Pokrov but not as remote as the penal colonies east of the Ural Mountains — a region that stretches into Siberia. During the Soviet era, prisoners filled Gulags, or camps, in the empire’s frozen outermost reaches, where abuses could be committed without any worry of oversight.
To this day, Russian penal colonies are notoriously brutal, especially for high-profile critics of the Putin regime.
“We don’t have any communication with Alexei right now,” Veduta told Yahoo News in a phone conversation. “He is in the hands of the same people who tried to assassinate him in the first place.”
The transfer of prisoners, known as etapirovanie in Russia, can be an especially ruthless and protracted affair, during which prisoners disappear in Russia’s physical and bureaucratic vastness.
“The very fact that a person disappears from the field of view of relatives and rights workers is scandalous, especially in modern times,” prison reformer Valery Sergeyev told Radio Free Europe in 2013.
“Sometimes people die on the road,” Veduta told Yahoo News. “Or get severely tortured. There is no oversight.”
Nor is a transfer to Melekhovo anything to cheer for Navalny’s supporters. “This penal colony,” Veduta said, “is known to be one of the very toughest and torturous in the whole Russia.”