‘He’s quite lucky they brought him to us’ Meduza special correspondent Maxim Solpov reports from Kolchugino, where Alexey Navalny was in custody until just recently
After being transferred from a Moscow remand prison in late February, opposition politician Alexey Navalny was sent to a detention center known as SIZO-3 in the city of Kolchugino (Vladimir region), northeast of Moscow. There, he was kept in “quarantine” along with other newly-arrived prisoners, until reports emerged on Friday, March 12, that he had been moved once again. Earlier, Meduza special correspondent Maxim Solopov traveled to Kolchugino and spoke to former prison employees, the people who built the detention center, and prisoners’ relatives, as well as local residents, activists, and politicians. Here’s what they told him about this town, where SIZO-3 and the police department’s brand-new complex are the most modern, public buildings.
‘I wouldn’t want to be locked up in there’
Citing laws placing restrictions on filming near prison facilities, two officers from Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN), wearing blue camouflage and chest cameras, politely but firmly forbid journalists from recording near Kolchugino’s Pre-Trial Detention Center No. 3 (SIZO-3).
It’s not clear why video footage of SIZO-3 would worry the penitentiary service: the detention center’s new building looks much better than the dilapidated industrial zone surrounding it. In 2017, spokespeople for the Vladimir region’s branch of the FSIN invited journalists to a grand opening for the prison, which was described as in line with “European standards of detention.”
“Four floors of the new building contain 100 cells, each for two or three people, while the fifth floor is used for exercise yards. Every floor has a shower room. In all the cells there’s a private bathroom unit and a TV,” reads the description of the detention center on the website of the penitentiary service’s regional branch.
You can still get photos of the detention center from the top floor of the dormitory opposite SIZO-3 (bypassing the restricted area along the detention center’s fenced perimeter, lined with watch towers and barbed wire). This red-brick building with “1915” inscribed on its façade in white is not only a prime example of early 20th-century industrial architecture, but also the only residential structure near SIZO-3.
Inside the building, the original, massive, cast-iron stairs have been preserved, but rest of the place seems deserted, or even abandoned. The doors to the living quarters are lined with unpaid housing and utilities bills. Children’s clothing hangs on a clothesline along one wall. The entrance to the building isn’t locked; one can easily get onto a balcony with a view of SIZO-3’s entire property.
The prisoners are kept in two main buildings, connected by an above-ground walkway. The old building can accomodate 300 prisoners, and the new one can hold 245. During the Soviet period, the grounds hosted a rehabilitation clinic that handled compulsory treatment for alcohol and drug addiction. (In those days, these clinics housed vagrants and other “asocial elements” who were exiled to regions “110 kilometers” [63 miles] away from the capital). In the 1990s, the former treatment center was turned into a remand prison with an adjoining penal colony for those convicted of minor crimes. A year ago, the prison colony was reorganized into a new type of facility — a correctional center for those sentenced to compulsory labor.
The detention center’s rare visitors, who come to drop off food and supplies for inmates, aren’t too friendly toward journalists. Two modestly dressed women leaving the reception area try to avoid talking to Meduza’s correspondent: “We don’t need reporters. We’ve already been photographed by some smart-aleck, without permission. I don’t know if he deleted [the photo] or not.”
Then they start talking about Alexey Navalny. “He is a scoundrel. He insulted a veteran and he disgraces our country. Why is there so much noise around him?” one of the women says. “There are those who steal, there are those who protest – and there are those who work hard,” her companion adds, sadly. The women don’t want to talk about themselves or their loved ones in the detention center, but they say that the prison staff accepted their packages without any problems. “There’s the new building they built. I wouldn’t want to be locked up [in there]!” the first woman says, as they get into a taxi.
“[There’s] such publicity surrounding us: Navalny in Kolchugino! On the contrary, I think with his status as an ‘enemy of the people’ he’s quite lucky they brought him to us. He’ll be snug as can be here,” a former SIZO-3 employee living in Kolchugino tells Meduza.
This former staff member describes the conditions for inmates at SIZO-3 as “exemplary” — “even in the old building.” As he explains, this detention center provides cells for female prisoners and juvenile detainees from all over the Vladimir region. “Believe me, I’m not defending this system! They walk all over people in there. That’s why I don’t work there anymore,” he says. “I’m not going to lie, we saw rats there, it’s like everywhere else. But when a girl from our city writes in the comments on a post about Navalny that [they’re fed] terrible gruel there…As if she was locked up there herself! When we dropped off gruel for lunch it smelled and looked pretty tasty. It was usually cabbage with meat, a stew, or some kind of soup. We didn’t try it, but it smelled delicious.”
Just before Navalny’s arrival, the prison administration organized a “cook-off” among inmates from the detention center’s various work brigades. First place went to a prisoner who made a crepe cake and second place was awarded to a pea soup with garlic croutons (the contest even made the news on the regional penitentiary service website).
‘No scandals, no drugs, no corruption’
“Of course, you’ll sometimes see some documentaries and news about how bad things are in other regions and in other facilities: [inmates] are tortured and killed…” the former prison employee continues. “We’ve never had anything like that. In my memory there were no scandals, no drugs, no corruption.”
This last statement runs contrary to the reports on the website of the local Investigative Committee branch. A 2016 investigation led to the head of SIZO-3’s department for educational work being sentenced to four years and six months probation — he was found guilty of subjecting juvenile detainees, aged 15–17, to regular beatings.
“The [penitentiary services] officers prepared two pieces of polypropylene pipe, 69 centimeters [27 inches] long, with the words ‘educator’ and ‘teacher’ written on them in marker, as well as a wooden mallet, which he used to inflict beatings on minors,” says the press release from state investigators.
According to the investigators, the accused would inflict punishments on the smallest pretexts — an unmade bed or a cup left on a table, for example. The 30-year-old office beat up juvenile detainees in his office for minor infractions like these and, on one occasion, he even forced a minor to eat a piece of paper containing complaints about the conditions inside the detention center.
The builders behind SIZO-3’s newest building may also come under the scrutiny of state investigators. According to data from the Accounts Chamber, the new building was supposed to hold 400 prisoners and cost 175 million rubles ($2.63 million), but by the time it was finished it had cost 258 million rubles ($3.48 million) and could only accommodate 245 inmates.
The general contractor — a FSIN enterprise called SMU-13 – is currently filing for bankruptcy. And its deputy director is facing fraud accusations in connection with the construction of a remand prison in Chuvashia from 2015 to 2017 — the same period when the the detention center in Kolchugino was built. Maxim Filatov, the head of the Ulyanovsk Jujitsu Federation, was in charge of SMU-13 until 2018. It then went through a string of directors that includes two former prison heads and a local businessman. The company’s insolvency representative, Yuri Zaitsev, declined to comment for Meduza: “Contact me when your business goes bankrupt.
In conversation with Meduza, Maxim Filatov explained that the enterprise going bankrupt had nothing to do with the construction of the new facility: “There were many different projects and contracts, including old debts. Regarding SIZO-3, I can say that it’s probably the most modern detention center in the Vladimir region. The standard of detention is much higher than in other institutions.” Filatov questions the accuracy of the Accounts Chamber’s findings, but also points out that construction began before SMU-13 came under his management. “I’m not ready to assess whether or not the cost has changed. Regarding my deputy [who’s accused of fraud], I can tell you that this man worked for me. The investigation is still under way, and I disagree with the accusations against him,” the former head of the construction company says.
No one Meduza interviewed could recall any well-known prisoners in Kolchugino. “There were some government officials who human rights activists came to visit all the time, but it was all the usual: murders, drugs, robberies. They’re locked up from all over the region. Everyday there are transports to the courts. To Vladimir, for example, it’s only an hour drive,” recalls the former prison employee.
Statistics from the Kolchugino City Court offer an overview of the detention center’s population. There were 138 prisoners sent there in 2019 (in 2018, there were 112); fifty people were charged with serious criminal violations, and 61 with moderate crimes (38 of whom were sentenced to real time in prison). Among those convicted, 103 “had no defined occupation or income,” 60 were repeat offenders, and 55 “were intoxicated at the time of the commission of the crime.” Their charges include two murders, nine assaults, 40 thefts, two rapes, 22 robberies, three aggravated assaults, and five drug-related offenses.
Press releases of the Kolchugino Court in 2020 provide a brief account of some of the criminal cases. One of the men shot a friend in the head with a revolver during an argument. Another broke a drinking buddy’s ribs with a stool. One woman was growing cannabis in her apartment. Having been released from a penal colony in 2019, a homeless man ended up robbing dachas to buy food.
Upon arrived in Kolchugino Navalny was placed under so-called quarantine, together with inmates who had been transferred from other facilities or remanded in custody. This “quarantine” is standard protocol and can last up to 15 days. By law, politicians can only be placed in a cell with first-time offenders serving sentences for economic crimes.
Citing various sources, media outlets have reported that once his quarantine is up, Navalny will likely be transferred from Kolchugino to Penal Colony Number 2 in Pokrov (another town in the Vladimir region). However, prisoners pass through the Kolchugino’s SIZO-3 on their way to other parts of the country, as well. “There are regular transits from Moscow to Nizhny Novgorod and to the Kirov Region. Usually, before being sent from here [SIZO-3], they are taken to another detention center in Vladimir first,” the FSIN employee says.
‘The security forces are the only thing being built here’
Working at Kolchugino’s SIZO-3 is considered a well-paying job: officers’ monthly salaries start at 40,000 rubles ($539), plus bonuses. There aren’t many places in the city with such high pay.
The detention center and the courthouse look like the newest and most modern buildings in comparison with the rest of Kolchugino. “They built a good SIZO, it’s excellent. There were even talk that they were striving for corrupt officials from Moscow,” says Sergey Svetlov, first secretary of the local Communist Party (KPRF) branch. “Only the security forces are being built here.”
As another example, Svetlov cites the new police headquarters: “You can lost in there, it’s about the size of the Russian Interior Ministry [building in Moscow]. [It was] a children’s hospital that couldn’t be completed for many years, the Interior Ministry bought it out. Before you’d see them in the city, now they’re sitting over there.” Surrounded by forest, the building complex of the Kolchugino Interior Ministry branch really does look impressive for a city of about 40,000 people. The black gate with a two-headed eagle and the tiled roof resemble a medieval castle.
The fire department, public prosecutor’s office, investigative department, and even the Kolchugino administration are located in buildings that are older and more modest than the city court and the Interior Ministry complex. The city doesn’t have its own branch of the FSB, the nearest office is located in the nearby town of Alexandrov.
The primary school building — located not far from the detention center and the industrial zone — is an old wooden structure, reminiscent of a fairy-tale tower. The new school, which opened in 2020, didn’t comply with fire-safety codes, which led to a criminal case.
Even the local house of culture was built before the 1917 revolution, thanks to the efforts of Alexander Kolchugin, a Moscow merchant and industrialist. In the 19th century, he founded a metallurgical plant in the region and the industrial settlement that grew around it was named after him. Next to the house of culture is one of the oldest monuments to revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin in all of Russia; it was unveiled roughly one year after his death. Oddly enough, Kolchugino retained the name of its capitalist founder throughout the entire Soviet period. It remained unchanged even in the 1960s, when the Soviet authorities officially designated the settlement as a town.
What remains of Kolchugino’s industry now belongs to the Ural Mining and Metallurgical Company, which stopped production at this site in 2017 (though some of its workshops are still used to make metal dishware). Half of the city’s working population commutes to Moscow. There is no direct rail connection, so starting early in the morning, people crowd onto public transport at the bus station.
It’s hard to find Navalny supporters in Kolchugino. Even on social media there are only a few people supporting him who claim to be from here. Judging by the content on their personal pages, some of them appear to be fierce opponents of politics in general. Yana Turkova, who agreed to talk about Navalny, is a 32-year-old marketing specialist who works in Moscow. She lives in Kolchugino and supports local political groups actively. “It’s true. People here don’t want to hear anything and don’t trust anyone,” she says.
Turkova says that she became interested in politics not so much because of the anti-corruption investigations from Navalny’s team, but because of the increasing state interference in private life. “First the Dima Yakovlev law, then all this aggression against LGBT people,” she recalls. “I did an internship in Germany and I saw how people there were free to express their feelings. Then my good friend here in Russia admitted to me that he’s gay. It pains me, of course, to hear what things he has to deal with in our society.”
The local Communist leader, Sergey Svetlov, is cautious when it comes to Navalny: “I don’t want to support or condemn him,” he says. “He’s just not our guy, that’s all. Our guys are Sergey Udaltsov and Maxim Shevchenko.” However, he did say that Navalny’s anti-corruption investigations have a “positive” effect, by exposing the scale of corruption at the top. In the last local council elections, the opposition lost due to spoiler parties like the Communist Party of Social Justice. If not for them, Svetlov believes the KPRF would have won some local council seats.
In the elections to the regional legislative assembly in September 2018, the ruling United Russia party won 29.57 percent of the vote and obtained seven seats, while the Communist Party won 23.66 percent and took five seats. At the same time, United Russia won 23 single-mandate seats, while the Communists got only six.
The leader of the Yabloko party’s Kolchugino branch, Alexey Firsov, briefly served as head of the municipality, following his party’s success in the 2011 city council elections. However, due to pressure from officials loyal to the “Kremlin’s party” he left office after a short period of time. Firsov now runs a college and has distanced himself from running for office.
“Among my acquaintances there are some Navalny sympathizers, but most people are pretty negative,” Firsov said. “I support the position of [Yabloko leader] Grigory A. Yavlinsky: Yes, everything that happened to Navalny in Tomsk [where he was poisoned] should be investigated, yes, he should be able to hold elective office. But I don’t like his methods. Navalny was excluded from Yabloko for nationalist rhetoric. We have a multinational country, and flirting with this is very dangerous.”
During the Vladimir region’s 2018 gubernatorial elections, a protest vote actively supported by Navalny led to the election of Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) member Vladimir Sipyagin. Nowadays, the regional leader condemns the protests in support of the jailed politician and has even praised the police for detaining pro-Navalny demonstrators.
Navalny’s headquarters in Vladimir was closed that same year, a few months after the authorities raided their office. On March 9, 2021, however, team Navalny announced plans to reopen their headquarters in Vladimir and several other Russian cities. Navalny’s associates need new offices and staff to prepare for the 2021 State Duma elections.
Translation by Carol Matlack