In a recent interview, opposition leader Aleksei Navalny told the New York Times about a new form of punishment in Russian prisons—mandatory viewing of state TV propaganda for hours at a time. Navalny is currently serving a two years and eight months sentence for violating probation terms from a 2014 sentence for embezzlement—his supporters say the charges are politically motivated—in a penal colony in the town of Pokrov around 112 miles east of Moscow. According to him, he is forced to spend at least 8 hours in front of the TV every day. As he told the newspaper, if an inmate starts to fall asleep, “the guards shout, ‘Don’t sleep, watch!’ “
In a longer version of this interview published on Navalny’s own website, the imprisoned politician called watching TV “a disciplinary measure” and shared that inmates who don’t work, have to watch it at least 5 times a day in sessions of around one and a half or two hours. “We watch films about the Great Patriotic War,” said Navalny. “Or how one day, 40 years ago, our athletes defeated the Americans or Canadians.” The politician ironically calls it “patriotic education,” mean to “turn a criminal into a normal citizen.” He adds: “I most clearly understand the essence of the ideology of the Putin regime: The present and the future are being substituted with the past.”
As Navalny notes, the practice is a sign that the Russian penal system is substituting psychological pressure for physical punishment when it comes to political prisoners. Another former inmate of this facility, the nationalist activist Dmitry Demushkin, has said that when he got to the jail in 2017, he was immediately asked by the administration about his opinion on president Vladimir Putin. When he answered: “Negative,” representatives of the prison management let him know that he would have a bad experience in prison. Demushkin reported that he was tortured with sleep deprivation –guards woke him up 8 times per night (Navalny complained about it as well); also, he had only 15 minutes per week to write letters to his family, so it took him one month to write each letter.
Another ex-inmate of the colony in Pokrov, opposition activist Konstantin Kotov, who was imprisoned in 2019 for participating in unauthorized rallies, described that facility as a place “of total isolation and control.” He told his lawyers that he was prohibited even to look around during his time in jail, so he got used to looking down; also, other inmates were ordered by the warden not to speak to him. According to Kotov, there are several production facilities at the colony, including clothing and plywood manufactures. Most prisoners work there, but for an unknown reason, Kotov was placed into the group of inmates with disabilities, so they watched TV, like Navalny, most of the time. “State TV channels, music channels, all day long…” said Kotov. “You can’t fall asleep, close your eyes—you would be disturbed and required to continue watching, even if you don’t want to.” What’s more, the role of guards is sometimes performed by fellow inmates (known as “activists”) loyal to the prison’s management. Navalny, Demushkin, and Kotov said activists kept track of everything they did or said and reported it to the warden. (In exchange, the activists receive benefits like the opportunity to take a shower whenever they want instead of once a week.)
There are no official laws regarding the practice of forcing prisoners to watch state TV, says Mikhail Nevelyov, a lawyer and head of public reception for the Committee For Civil Rights, a human rights NGO. “However, a regulation says that daily prison routine can involve awareness-raising events, participation in which can be mandatory for inmates. So, it is up to the warden,” says Nevelyov. In general, according to him, this set of rules aims to break the inmates down and bring them under control.
The Federal Penitentiary Service, which is in charge of prisons in Russia, issued recommendations on TV shows and films to show to inmates in 2010. They are not available for the public, but according to the media, prisoners are supposed to watch programs that raise social, political, sports, and moral issues.
Some Russian social media users didn’t take Navalny’s seriously, suggesting that watching TV is not exactly torture. Less famous political prisoners, who are not in the center of media attention, face worse treatment, says Vladimir Osechkin, the founder of the human rights project “Gulagu.net”. “Nobody is going to beat up, strip naked, and throw the most famous opposition leader in Russia into the “rubber room” (the one with padded walls so that inmates cannot hurt themselves) with no toilet and plumbing for 2-3 days”, says Osechkin, referring to the case of Vladimir Taranenko, a member of the human rights project “Siberia Pravovaya,” who is reportedly being tortured in the detention center in the city of Kemerovo in Siberia. However, as he points out, forcing a person to watch propaganda shows all day is also a form of bullying, albeit a more subtle one.
Especially when the person is not supposed to be in prison at all.