The New York Times: What Navalny's letters from prison reveal – an extraordinary mind that defied the "ice hell"

Farewell to Alexei Navalny in Russia / Photo EPA-EFE/CLEMENS BILAN

Trump, Indian Food, Matthew Perry. And books, books, books. Letters obtained by The Times show that Alexei Navalny's mind was more than active despite the brutally harsh prison conditions in which he spent the last months of his life. Locked in cold, concrete cells and often alone with his books, Alexei Navalny sought solace in writing letters, reports The New York Times.

He wrote to an acquaintance last July that no one could understand Russian prison life "without being there", adding in his sarcastic humour: "But you don't need to be here".

"If they tell them to feed you caviar tomorrow, they will feed you caviar," Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, wrote to the same acquaintance Ilya Krasilshchik just a month later. "If they tell them to strangle you in a cell, they will strangle you," wrote the oppositionist.

Many details about his final months, as well as the circumstances of his death that Russian authorities announced last Friday, remain unknown – and even the whereabouts of his body. Navalny's associates have been tight-lipped since his death, but the last months of his life have been detailed in his earlier statements, those of his aides, his court appearances, interviews with people close to him, and private letters to several of his friends, including and Mr. Krasilszczyk, shared with The New York Times.

Those letters reveal the full depth of Navalny's ambition, the determination and curiosity of a leader who faced and challenged the rule of President Vladimir V. Putin. The letters also show how Navalny, with a healthy ego and conviction that what he was doing was right, struggled to stay connected to the outside world.

Photo: EPA / Navalny.com

Although brutal prison conditions destroyed his health and he was often denied medical and dental care, there was no indication that Alexei Navalny had lost his mental clarity, his writings show.
He boasted that he read 44 books in English in a year and gradually prepared for the future – honing his agenda, studying political memoirs, debating with journalists, sharing career advice with friends and paying attention to viral social media posts.

In his public messages, Navalny, who was 47, called his imprisonment from January 2021 a "space trip".
By last fall, he was lonelier than ever, forced to spend most of his time in solitary confinement. He lost three of his lawyers, who were arrested for being part of an "extremist group".

However, he was abreast of all the current happenings. Navalny confided to his friend, Russian photographer Yevgeny Feldman, that former US President Donald Trump's election agenda looked "really scary".

"Trump will become president if President Biden's health fails," Navalny wrote from his prison cell, which was always heavily guarded. "Doesn't this obvious thing concern the Democrats?"

The outside world and public life

Navalny was able to send hundreds of handwritten letters thanks to the unusual digitization of Russia's prison system, a holdover from a brief burst of liberal reforms during Putin's 24-year rule. Because of the website, people could write to him for 40 cents a page and receive his scanned responses, usually a week or two after he sent them and after they were verified.
Navalny also communicated with the outside world through his lawyers, holding documents on the prison glass, because they were forbidden to give him papers.

Alexei Navalny / photo: EPA / EFE

At one point, Mr. Navalny said in 2022, prison officials covered the window with foil to prevent "face-to-face" communication with lawyers.
Then followed his frequent court hearings on new crimes brought by the state to extend his prison sentence or on appeals Navalny filed regarding his treatment. Navalny wrote to Krasilshchik, a media entrepreneur now in exile in Berlin, that he enjoyed the hearings, despite the nature of the Russian justice system.

"They distract you and help pass the time," he wrote. "In addition, they provide excitement and a sense of struggle and quest," Navalny added.

And court "appearances" gave him the opportunity to show his contempt for the system. Last July, at the end of a trial that resulted in another 19-year prison sentence, Navalny told the judge and courtroom officials they were "crazy."

“You have one life, given by God, and this is what you choose to spend it on?” he said, according to a statement from his legal team.

In one of his final hearings via video link in January, Navalny argued for the right to have longer meal breaks to consume the "two liters of hot water and two dry loaves" he was entitled to.

Photo: EPA-EFE / YURI KOCHETKOV MANDATORY CREDIT

During his time in prison, Navalny appeared to enjoy other people's meals. He told Mr. Krasilczyk that he preferred doner kebabs to falafel in Berlin and that he became interested in the Indian food that Mr. Feldman tried it in New York.
The court also rejected his complaint about solitary confinement, that is, the "punishment" cell, where Navalny spent about 300 days.
The cells were usually cold, damp and poorly ventilated concrete spaces measuring 3mX2m. But Mr. Navalny protested something else: the prisoners ordered to spend time in those cells were only allowed one book.

"I want to have 10 books in my cell," he told the court.

Books sustained him

Books seemed to be at the center of Alexei Navalny's prison life, until his death. In a letter last April to Krasilschik, Navalny explained that he prefers to read 10 books at a time and "read them alternately." He also said he liked the memoir: “For some reason I always despised it. But they're actually amazing." She often asked for reading recommendations, but gave them to her.

Describing Mr. Krasilschik's prison life in a July letter, he recommended nine books, including a 1.012-page three-volume work written by Soviet dissident Anatoly Marchenko.

In that letter, Navalny added that he had reread "A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" and Alexander Solzhenitsyn's novel dedicated to Stalin. After surviving a hunger strike and spending months in an "I want to eat" state, Navalny said he is only now beginning to understand the depravity of Soviet-era labor camps.

"You begin to realize the magnitude of the horror," he wrote.

At the same time, he also read about modern Russia. Mikhail Fishman, a liberal Russian journalist and TV presenter now working in exile from Amsterdam, heard from an aide to Navalny that the opposition leader had read his new book about slain opposition figure Boris I. Nemtsov.
Mr. Fishman said he had been told that Navalny liked the book but that it was too sympathetic to Boris N. Yeltsin, the former Russian president.

Mr. Fishman wrote a letter to Navalny in which he claimed, among other things, that Yeltsin hated the K.G.B., the Soviet secret police. Navalny replied that he was "especially offended" by the claim.

"Imprisonment, investigation and trial are now the same as in the books of Soviet dissidents," Navalny wrote, insisting that Putin's predecessor had failed to change the Soviet system.

"That is what I cannot forgive Yeltsin," he wrote.

But Navalny also thanked Mr Fishman for offering some details about his life in Amsterdam.

"Everyone usually thinks that I really need pathetic and touching words," he wrote in the part of the letter that Mr. Fishman shared with the Times.
"But I really miss everyday life - news about life, food, salaries, gossip," said Navalny.

Carrie Kennedy, human rights activist and daughter of Democratic politician Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1968, also exchanged letters with Navalny. He wrote to her in English that he cried "two or three times" while reading a book about her father recommended by a friend, and Ms Kennedy posted part of the letter on Instagram after Mr Navalny's death. He also thanked her for sending him a poster with a quote from her father's speech about how "hope," multiplied a million times, "can tear down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."
I hope that one day I will be able to hang it on the wall of my office," Navalny wrote to her.

Alexei Navalny / Photo EPA-EFE/YURI KOCHETKOV

Stay connected

Navalny ran for president in 2018. Mr Feldman, now in exile in Latvia, said he had sent at least 37 letters to Navalny since his arrest in 2021 and had received replies to almost all of them.

"I really like your letters," Navalny wrote in the last message Feldman received, dated Dec. 3, portions of which he shared with The Times.

They have everything I want to talk about: food, politics, elections, scandalous topics and issues of ethnicity," Navalny wrote.
The latter, said Mr. Feldman, is a reference to their exchange of views on anti-Semitism and the war in Gaza.

Navalny also described his newfound respect for actor Matthew Perry, who died in October – even though he never watched Friends. Navalny was moved by the obituary he read in The Economist. The December letter ended with Navalny's reflections on the preoccupation he shared with Mr Feldman – American politics. After warning about a potential Trump presidency, Navalny ended the letter with a question: "Please name one current politician you admire"?

Three days after Navalny sent that letter, he disappeared.

During the 20-day search, exiled allies of Alexei Navalny said they sent more than 600 requests to prisons and other government agencies to find out his whereabouts. Navalny's spokeswoman said on December 25 that he was found in a remote Arctic prison known as Polar Wolf.

"I am your new Santa Claus," Mr Navalny posted on social media the next day after visiting his lawyer.
"I don't say 'Ho-ho-ho,' but I say 'O-o-o-o' when I look out the window, where it's night, then evening, then night again."

Navalny Poisoning / Photo: Screenshot / Instagram

In the Arctic

Navalny also wrote in the message that he was taken by a circuitous route through the Ural Mountains to his new prison, which is classified as a facility with the strictest "special regime".
Even on that trip, Mr. Navalny read books. He wrote to journalist Sergei Parkhomenko that by the time he arrived at Polar Wolf he had read everything he could take with him and was forced to choose between the classics in his new prison library: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky or Chekhov.
"Who could tell me that Chekhov is the most depressing Russian writer," Navalny wrote in a letter that Mr. Parkhomenko shared it on Facebook.
Mr. Parkhomenko said he received the letter on February 13.
Unlike Alexei Navalny's previous letters, that letter was handwritten on plain, square notebook paper and sent to him as a photograph by Yulia Navalny, Navalny's wife.
Polar Wolf did not allow the electronic letter writing service he had in his previous prison.
It has become clear that the Kremlin intends to silence Navalny.
The lawyers who represented him were mostly in prison, but letters and visitors took longer to reach him in the new prison.
Navalny's mother, Lyudmila Navalny, flew to the Arctic after his death was announced and was officially notified Saturday that he had died at 14:17 p.m. the previous day.
Mr. Navalny's legacy will live on, friends and allies say, and in part through his prison records.
Mr. Feldman, a photographer, said Mr. Navalny's legal team had told him that the opposition leader had responded to some of the letters Feldman had sent in recent weeks.
"Honestly, I'm horrified to think about this," Mr. Feldman said.
"If the censors let them through, I'll be getting letters from him for the next few months," he said.
Mr Krasilszczyk, a media entrepreneur, said he was left thinking about the last letter he received in September. Navalny concluded that letter by thinking that if South Korea and Taiwan can make the transition from dictatorship to democracy, then maybe Russia can too."
"Hope. I have no problem with that," Navalny wrote.
Signed out and "signed out" with:
"Keep writing!" A."

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