‘He proved that one man can do a lot’ Dozens of people have gone on hunger strike in solidarity with Alexey Navalny. Here are some of their stories.
Russian opposition politician Alexey Navalny has been on a prison hunger strike since March 31, demanding access to trusted doctors. During this time, his health has seriously deteriorated and his doctors fear he may die. On April 19, Russian prison officials announced that Navalny was being transferred to a prisoners’ hospital located inside another notorious prison facility in the Vladimir region. At the time of this writing, more than 100 people have declared their own hunger strikes in support of Navalny, according to a Facebook page dedicated to the campaign. This solidarity protest was organized by biologist Nikolai Formozov, a former professor at the Higher School of Economics and Moscow State University, who has been on hunger strike since April 10. Meduza spoke to Nikolai Formozov and other people who have joined the hunger strike in solidarity with Navalny. Here are their stories.
Former professor at the Higher School of Economics and Moscow State University
When Navalny returned to Russia after his poisoning, I went to the two protests [in support of him on January 23 and 31]. But Navalny isn’t my idol, I’m not a fan of his. I just think he should be supported as a very courageous person. He proved that one man can do a lot. And the positive things he does make up for his mistakes. But I think his return to Russia was prepared poorly nonetheless.
I like the protests organized by Navalny’s guys. Young people are creative and interesting. All of the people at the rallies are bright and fearless. Only I don’t like the violence — including by the protesters against the police. Not because I really like the police, but because this works against us. [The police] pass me by all the time, perhaps they catch mainly young people, and I’m already 65 years old, I’m absolutely gray. Somehow I made it past five [police] cordons [at the rally].
Before [my hunger strike] I wrote postcards to Navalny. In general, I’ve been writing postcards to support political prisoners for the past year and half. I started with [Konstantin] Kotov. I wrote him 20 letters and received four replies. We had a really interesting correspondence — we discussed the events in Belarus. And when Kotov was freed I started to write to Ruslan Suleimanov,but I didn’t receive a reply from him.
After Alexey was arrested I wrote him ten postcards. He didn’t have a chance to reply. I sent most of the postcards to the Matrosskaya Tishina [prison], some of them were returned back. Then he had trials, then he fell ill. When I was informed that he had started a hunger strike I realized that I couldn’t write anything to him, I couldn’t comment on these events. There are no words. At that moment, I realized that my eleventh postcard would be a hunger strike.
My hunger strike began on April 10. Since then I haven’t consumed any calories — I drink only water and tea without sugar. I take medications, but they don’t have don’t have any calories either.
This is my first experience [of hunger]. The first three days were more difficult. The next seven days I felt a lightness and a kind of euphoria — a bit like being drunk. After that, starving people usually become weak. Maybe later on I’ll have severe weakness, but it’s pretty light so far. I can tell you how everything’s going, or take a walk around the courtyard. My health is good.
I had a feeling that there’s great demand for such an action [a hunger strike]. Besides me, there are many people who can’t watch [Navalny’s] slow execution and want to respond somehow. At the same time, the field of opportunities is constantly narrowing. But no one is prohibited from going on a hunger strike at home. This is a common protest. [Andrei] Sakharov went on hunger strike twice and won both times.
I created a group [on Facebook about the hunger strike]. People write to me: “How great that I found you, I wanted to go on a hunger strike myself.” But I make sure that no one is urged to fast. This is a personal matter for everyone.
Our numbers are growing and it’s important that no one gets hurt. Everyone has different circumstances and different time periods for their hunger strikes. I’m on an indefinite hunger strike. I decided that even if Navalny gives up his hunger strike under threat of force-feeding, I won’t give up my hunger strike. I’m not giving it up until he receives adequate medical care and he says “Right now, I’m being treated.”
Human rights activist
In my youth, in 1984, I was arrested and jailed in [Moscow’s] Lefortovo Pre-Trial Detention Center. At the time I was involved in samizdat [underground publishing] and with letters in support of political prisoners. I was accused of anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda. I was exiled [to the Tomsk region]. I was released in 1987 under the Gorbachev amnesty, when they began to free political prisoners.
I usually go to protests to act as a witness to brutal detentions. I’m a human rights activist by nature, not a politician, so I defend people [detained at rallies] in court. Currently, I’m defending a man who was seized outside a church during the rally on January 31. The man was going to a service at the church on Sukharevskaya Square [in Moscow], and he was detained. They wanted to give him a few days [in jail], but in the end they gave him a fine. But he isn’t guilty of anything at all, the ones who should be tried are the ones who detained him.
Navalny is first and foremost a person who is being tortured. He was placed in torturous conditions after suffering severe poisoning from a military-grade poison. Placing him in custody is absolute lawlessness in and of itself. This is already an act of extreme cruelty. And the fact that they aren’t providing medical care, aren’t allowing doctors entry, is utterly outrageous.
And Navalny isn’t the only one suffering. Our prisons are overflowing with innocent people. The list of political prisoners is growing by leaps and bounds. Conditions in prisons and camps remain very harsh and torturous. And prison medine is a serious problem. People aren’t treated, people with chronic diseases aren’t given necessary medicines. It’s simply killing people slowly.
Nikolai Formozov is a good old friend of mine. A little over a week ago, he went on hunger strike and told me about it. I completely understood his motivations. There are situations where you can no longer be silent, you need to do something, as you are acutely worried about the injustice and cruelty that’s going on around you.
I also went on hunger strike a few times before this. The first time I went on hunger strike was in a Mordovian camp in early 1985. Then again in 2008, when Vasily Aleksanyan was dying in Matrosskaya Tishina, and instead of giving him urgent treatment they started taking him to court. Initially, my friend and I went on hunger strike, but a day later around 10 people joined us. Eight days later, I ended my hunger strike when Aleksanyan was transferred to a civilian hospital.
At a certain point I realized that I couldn’t help but join Nikolai Formozov. I’m on hunger strike for the third day (This interview took place on April 19). Yesterday I went around Moscow and took part in pickets [in support of Navalny], and I caught a cold. Now I have chills and I feel dizzy, but I don’t feel hungry.
I would like to hold out until the demands of the hunger strike are met. But there’s no telling how everything will go. I don’t know how I will feel. But I will definitely fast so long as Nikolai Formozov is on hunger strike.
Some have already called this a hunger strike of conscience, and I agree with this title. When you see the soullessness of the system and, at the same time, the indifference of most people, you want to react to it decisively. This is a case where you can’t stay silent. We have to support Navalny, at least. Right now I’m supporting a person, and not a politician. A person who [is being held] in torturous conditions. Neither Navalny nor anyone else should be in such a situation.
I’m a former journalist, I worked for Uchitelskaya Gazeta. Now I’m retired and I look after my grandson. I have been living in Crimea for about 20 years. I quarreled with all of the human rights activists because I believed that Crimea should be Russian, and didn’t recognize the concept of the “occupation” of Crimea.
In the winter, Navalny called [for people] to go to the squares [of Russian cities] — just to take a walk. My family and I went to see who would be out walking. We were almost alone there — there were two other girls and a guy. We asked the guy: “Did you come for Navalny?” He turned out to be from the FSB. After that he took down [our information] and it all ended there. But my real involvement in the protest movement was before — I was one of the organizers of the pickets against the war in Chechnya.
I already have experience with hunger strikes. We went on hunger strike with [Buddhist monk] Felix Shvedovsky to protest the Pussy Riot trial. It seemed to us that this was an insanely harsh punishment for such actions. Our hunger strike — in combination with the actions of others — led to the girls’ release. Maybe this time it will happen again. At the time we were on hunger strike for only for or five days in total.
A man [Navalny] is being killed before our eyes. How can you not see it? Navalny is an insanely brave man. I don’t know if it's worth electing him as president, but if I were in Putin’s place I wouldn’t kill Navalny — I’d make him the head of the anti-corruption commission.
I started my hunger strike in support of Navalny just today [April 19]. I thought about doing this before, but it seemed to me that I was just a nobody and it would be pointless to start a hunger strike. At the time I didn’t know that Nikolai Formozov had started doing it. Now we’ll see what happens. The coming days will show a lot.
In any case, [I’ll fast] to the very limit. But when it comes to 40 days [of fasting], it becomes a question of giving your life. And I’m not sure I’m ready to go there.
Since the moment of Navalny’s poisoning there has been a feeling not so much of solidarity with him as anger, hopelessness, and complete emotional devastation.
But there’s been a feeling of solidarity for a very long time — since the “Kirovles Case.” I used to work as a journalist for the BBC. We had to remain completely objective and not participate in political protests and rallies. I wasn’t actively involved, but we covered it all. The only thing I did was run a few cubes during his mayoral campaign in 2013. I’m very proud of this. I met wonderful people there. It was precisely after Kirovles that many of them decided to do something.
I was at several authorized rallies a long time ago, but now I’m not in Russia — I’d rather not specify where I live. But I didn’t leave because I was persecuted. I don’t know if I would have gone to the allies if I were in Russia. I have children, it’s frightening. I would probably go, but it’s frightening nonetheless. In any case, if you go to a rally, you’ll run into persecution.
I have an understanding that something can be done for Russia. Now is like 1917. I think [in the near future] there will be something very big that will be important for decades to come. And my conscience is somewhat uncomfortable when I think: “What have I done for my country?” Although there’s little I can do. There’s such government terror that the possibilities for a person are very small. What can even Navalny do? He can put his life at stake — and that’s all.
For me, the hunger strike isn’t a public protest, but my personal, spiritual decision. My hunger strike is a request to God to change something in this situation and save this person’s life once again. Today is my second day [of fasting], so far I’ve haven’t had any heroic moments. I decided I wouldn’t eat anything, I’ll drink tea without milk or sugar. I know that Navalny is only drinking water — no tea. If I get sick, I will drink juice or put sugar in my tea. I’m fine so far. If you aim for a one-day hunger strike, then it seems long. But when it’s more, the first day isn’t difficult at all. Then you stop wanting to eat altogether.
They must admit normal, trusted doctors to see Navalny. The fact that he’s been transferred to a [prisoners’] hospital doesn’t fulfill the demands [of his hunger strike]. We need to see who will treat him and what Alexey will say.
I think that at the very least Navalny will receive the Nobel Peace Prize. He’s doing a great job, [and] he’s gone through a great, personal evolution. He’s changing internally, he’s capable of personal development, of admitting his mistakes, he has an incredible ability to learn, and he’s an excellent writer and journalist. I think his recent speeches in court be published as literary works.
I still don't know what to expect next. I believe that he will live. But where Russia’s history will go next is unclear. It’s happening right now.
Abridged translation by Eilish Hart