MOSCOW – Russia’s most famous prisoner, opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny, spends a lot of time tidying up his cell block, reading letters and attending mass for dinner, with porridge often on the menu.
But perhaps the most terrifying thing, he said, is being forced to watch Russian state television and selected propaganda films for more than eight hours a day.
“Reading, writing or anything else” is forbidden, Navalny said of the forced screen time. “You have to sit in a chair and watch TV.” And when an inmate nods off, he says, the guards shout: “Don’t sleep, watch out!”
In an interview with the New York Times, his first interview with a news agency since his arrest in January, Mr. Navalny spoke about his life in prison, why Russia cracked down on opposition and dissidents, and his belief that “ Putin’s regime, “as he calls it, is doomed to collapse.
Mr Navalny founded a major opposition movement to expose high-level corruption and challenge President Vladimir V. Putin in the elections. He was arrested in March after returning to Russia from Germany, knowing he had faced a probation violation because of a conviction in a politically motivated case. As was well documented at the time, he was out of the country for medical treatment after being poisoned by Russian agents with the chemical weapon Novichok, according to Western governments.
Mr. Navalny has not been completely silent since his imprisonment in penal colony No. 2 east of Moscow. He has occasionally sent out social media posts through his lawyers, who visit him regularly.
Nor is he actively silenced by the Kremlin. When asked about Mr Navalny’s presence on social media on Tuesday, Putin’s spokesman Dmitri S. Peskov said it was “not our business” for Mr Navalny to speak.
But the written exchange of questions and answers on 54 handwritten pages is by far the most comprehensive and extensive presentation.
In today’s Russia, Navalny made it clear that the hours he spent watching state television programs and films selected by the overseer were the experience of a political prisoner, a status that Amnesty International has granted Navalny. Gone are the relocations of heavy workers in mining or forestry and the agitation by criminals and guards that characterized the Soviet gulag for political prisoners.
“You can imagine tattooed muscle men with steel teeth going on with knife fights to conquer the best cot by the window,” said Navalny. “You have to imagine something like a Chinese labor camp, where everyone is marching in a row and video cameras are hung up everywhere. There is constant control and a culture of obsession. “
Despite his circumstances, Navalny was optimistic about Russia’s future prospects and outlined his strategy for achieving political change through the electoral system even in an authoritarian state.
“The Putin regime is a historic accident, not an inevitability,” he wrote, adding, “It was the choice of the corrupt Yeltsin family,” a reference to the appointment of Mr Putin as incumbent president in December by former President Boris N Yeltsin 1999. “Sooner or later this mistake will be corrected and Russia will embark on a democratic, European path of development. Simply because people want that. “
As before, Mr Navalny criticized Europe and the United States for the economic sanctions Russia has imposed for its foreign interference and repression of dissidents, including Mr Navalny. He said sanctions harm ordinary Russians and risk alienating a broad constituency within Russia that is a natural ally.
Sanctions should only target the top oligarchs backing Putin’s government, rather than the dozen of largely unknown personalities that have been hit so far. The really powerful have largely avoided sanctions by holding back “an army of lawyers, lobbyists and bankers who fight for the right of owners of dirty and bloody money to go unpunished”.
During the 20th century and earlier, Russia’s prison was a melting pot that forged or broke dissidents and writers, shaped leaders, and shattered pluralist politics.
The modern experience of a Russian political prisoner, Navalny said, is primarily “psychological violence,” with numbing screen time playing a major role.
Mr. Navalny described five daily television sessions for inmates, the first starting immediately after morning gymnastics, breakfast, and sweeping the yard.
After some free time, there is two hours in front of the screen, lunch, then more screen time, dinner and then more TV time in the evening. During an afternoon session, chess or backgammon is an acceptable alternative.
“We watch films about the Great Patriotic War,” said Navalny, referring to World War II, “or how one day, 40 years ago, our athletes defeated the Americans or Canadians.”
During these sessions, he said: “I understand most clearly the essence of the ideology of the Putin regime: the present and the future are replaced by the past – the truly heroic past, or the embellished past, or the entirely fictional past. All kinds of pasts have to be in the spotlight all the time in order to suppress thoughts of the future and questions about the present. “
The protracted, forced television approach taken to extremes in Penal Colony No. 2 is not unique to the place previously detained in politically tainted cases.
It emerged from a penal reform that began in Russia in 2010 to strengthen guards’ control over inmates and reduce the influence of prison gangs. The intent is less brainwashing than control, say Russian prison system experts.
“Everything is organized in such a way that I have maximum control 24 hours a day,” said Mr Navalny. He said he was not attacked or threatened by fellow inmates, but estimated that around a third in Russian prisons are known as “activists” serving as informants for the warden.
During his first few weeks in the penal colony, Mr. Navalny was numb, either from the persistent effects of the poisoning or from a back injury from driving in a prison car. He also went on a 24-day hunger strike, which worried his health.
His neurological symptoms subsided when the guards stopped waking him hourly at night, supposedly to make sure he was not planning to escape.
“I now understand why sleep deprivation is one of the most popular torture methods used by the special services,” he said. “No trace is left and it is impossible to tolerate.”
He said he got on well with other inmates and that they sometimes cook snacks in the microwave.
“When we cook, I always remember the classic scene from ‘Goodfellas’ when the Mafia bosses cook pasta in a prison cell,” he said. “Unfortunately we don’t have such a cool pot and pasta is forbidden. Still, it’s fun. “
Mr Navalny, 45, admitted that at a turbulent time when the government cracked down on the opposition and the news media, he was struggling to remain visible in Russian politics.
The protests that broke out after the controversial elections in Belarus last year shocked the Kremlin, he said. The other concern of the Putin government is the electoral strategy he has developed, which he describes as “intelligent voting”.
According to the strategy, Mr Navalny’s organization supports the candidates who, in their opinion, can win in the regional and parliamentary elections that will take place next month.
The Kremlin was so concerned about the upcoming elections, he said, that this year it cracked down on not only its group and other activists, but also moderate opposition politicians, civil society groups and independent news outlets like Meduza, Proekt and Dozhd TV.
Mr Navalny suggested that while the raid might prove to be a tactical success for Mr Putin, it could also be a long-term burden.
“Putin has solved his tactical question: we must not take the majority from the Duma,” said Navalny of the lower house of the Russian parliament. “But for that he had to completely change the political system, move to a fundamentally different, much harder level of authoritarianism.”
Mr Navalny suggested that the move highlighted a major weakness in Mr Putin’s political system. While left and nationalists are represented by parties loyal to Putin, there is no stable, Kremlin-friendly center-right party representing the country’s rising middle class of relatively wealthy, urban-living Russians.
“In Russia there is no opposition because Aleksei Navalny or someone else commands it from headquarters,” said Navalny, “but because about 30 percent of the country – mainly the educated, urban population – has no political representation.”
When what he called the reactionary anomaly of Putin’s rule fades, Russia will return to democratic governance, Navalny said. “We are specific, like any nation, but we are Europe. We are the West. “
Julian E. Barnes contributed the reporting from Washington.