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Shut up and eat Russia is notorious for its political prisoners. Their experiences should teach us to be outraged about even more

Source: Meduza
guest essays

Shut up and eat Russia is notorious for its political prisoners. Their experiences should teach us to be outraged about even more

Source: Meduza

By Olga Zeveleva (@ozeveleva)

When journalists write about Russia’s prison system, they often focus on political prisoners. Historically, many of these figures have gone on to write about it themselves. Today, Russia’s most prominent anti-Kremlin politician, Alexey Navalny, is locked up. There are currently felony cases underway against Ilya Yashin and Vladimir Kara-Murza, two of the few oppositionists who didn’t flee or remain abroad when Russia militarized its crackdown on free speech after the February invasion of Ukraine. Political persecution in Russia sheds a light on the brutality inflicted on hundreds of thousands of ordinary inmates. In a guest essay for Meduza, political sociologist and University of Helsinki postdoctoral researcher Olga Zeveleva examines the case against jailed artist Alexandra Skochilenko, whose experiences with food in prison are part of a larger, outrageous story.

Russia has produced no shortage of renowned narratives about prison, from 19th-century revolutionaries exiled to remote parts of Siberia, to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s accounts of the Soviet Gulag, to more recent news about the incarceration of dissident Alexey Navalny. Such stories demonstrate these regimes’ willingness to use extreme prison conditions to control and muzzle oppositionists.

For these activists, the big picture of political repression boils down to the daily grind of survival in the face of it. Find yourself behind bars in Russia and life’s routines become part of your punishment: prison toilets, intense boredom, limited access to sanitary pads and needed medicines, mail gone missing, sweltering heat, freezing cold, and inedible food.

Abstract political repression manifests violently in these simple, everyday experiences.

Today, the Russian government uses prison and the threat of prison to silence the anti-war movement. Anyone in Russia who publicly speaks out against the war in Ukraine risks a run-in with law enforcement. Since the start of the full-scale invasion in February 2022, police have made more than 16,000 arrests for anti-war activism, and more than 200 people have faced felony prosecution for antiwar statements. One of these people is jailed artist Alexandra Skochilenko, who could be sentenced to a decade in prison, and whose health has already deteriorated in pretrial detention without the gluten-free food she requires.

Skochilenko’s trial is meant to deter others from acts of dissent — a classic repression method of Vladimir Putin’s regime. But her medical struggles also highlight a deeper, hidden punishment of the Russian criminal justice system, less publicized than the notorious acts of torture reported in the last several years. These are the quotidian indecencies of prison life and their disproportionate effects on those with dietary restrictions.

Prison is not meant to be a comfortable place, but for some, discomforts are actually forms of punishment with dire health consequences.

Skochilenko’s alleged crime was a creative act initially proposed online by the Feminist Antiwar Resistance, a Russian social movement. In March 2022, shortly after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began, Skochilenko replaced several price tags on food items in a St. Petersburg supermarket with small anti-war messages fashioned in the style of the price tags. “The Russian army bombed an art school in Mariupol where about 400 people were hiding from artillery fire,” read one of the notes.

The idea was to bring people’s attention to the war in an unexpected, everyday context (especially against the backdrop of rising food prices), and to emphasize that the war affects all aspects of life in Russia. Skochilenko is not alone in this campaign: several people across Russia have been apprehended for distributing the price tags in their local supermarkets.

Alexandra now faces 10 years in prison for spreading “deliberately false information about the use of the Russian Armed Forces in places designated for price tags” according to state investigators. She has been held in pre-trial detention since April, though she suffers from celiac disease — an autoimmune disorder where eating gluten destroys the small intestine. In jail, she’s been unable to maintain her gluten-free diet.

For people like Alexandra, lack of access to gluten-free food can cause a slew of immediate health problems like nausea and vomiting, as well as possible severe long-term health risks, including malnutrition, intestinal lymphoma, and bowel cancer. Officials in Russia’s Federal Prison Service have told reporters that existing regulations do not require them to provide prisoners with gluten-free meals. At the same time, food sent by Alexandra’s partner has repeatedly failed to reach her.

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Like in most places, laws and official state policy in Russia prohibit using food to punish prisoners. Yet food can be a hidden punishment that permeates life for inmates, and it disproportionately affects particular groups. Among them are people with health problems and related dietary needs, as well as people with special dietary needs due to their religious beliefs. There are formal regulations that stipulate how much food various categories of prisoners should receive, based on gender and the labor they perform while incarcerated, but rations are inadequate for many people in the prison system who cannot eat much of what they are served.

As a result, prison food can become a form of discrimination with detrimental consequences for the health and wellbeing of incarcerated people. Food can become punishment intentionally when guards consciously use it as such, or it can become unintentionally discriminatory when people fail to get the food they believe they need.

We know about Alexandra’s struggles with food because Russia’s independent media and even the international news media have covered them extensively: she is a well-spoken artist living in St. Petersburg, arrested for an act of resistance against the war. But human rights workers in Russia have been fighting against discriminatory food practices in prisons for years, often focusing on Muslim communities — something the media has not reported so readily.

The head of a prominent NGO that works with Muslim prisoners told me in an interview: “People are dying of hunger. They simply won’t eat pork,” which many practicing Muslims refrain from eating. She also said that penal administrations sometimes purposefully ensure that no or little halal food is available, punishing and offending incarcerated Muslims deliberately. Multiple human rights reports from 2011 to 2020 documented systematic violations of Muslims’ right to halal food and instances where allegedly pork-free dishes were cooked using pig fat. In addition, human rights workers receive thousands of complaints every year from prisoners who cannot reconcile prison regulations around mealtimes with Ramadan fasting. (During Ramadan, food should be eaten before dawn and after sunset, while prison rules forbid eating after “lights out.”)

Issues around food vary across the country and between penal institutions. In prisons located in Russia’s Muslim-majority regions, access to halal food is seldom a problem. Corruption and informal prison hierarchies also determine what food prisoners can access: from time to time, images of imprisoned Russian criminal bosses eating caviar and other lavish delicacies crop up online and cause an uproar, highlighting inequalities among inmates. Some prisoners whose families live close to where they are serving their sentences can avoid the canteen and subsist entirely on food brought by loved ones or members of their communities (a common practice in Chechnya, for example).

In pretrial detention centers, like the one where Alexandra is now jailed, detainees are allowed to receive no more than 30 kilograms (66 pounds) of food per month, delivered in parcels, which amounts to one kilogram (a little more than two pounds) per day. But many parcels go “missing,” and some officials are stricter than others when policing the food they allow in.

Once pulled into Russia’s criminal justice system, a person’s livelihood depends on the institution they’re in, the particular prison guards they deal with, the degree of access human rights workers have to that institution, their cellmates or dormmates, the distance to family and friends, your gender identity and sexual orientation, the personal reputation you build up, the rumors that circulate about you, and the health issues you start with or develop along the way.

With her multiple health problems growing worse in jail, Alexandra Skochilenko has an important role to play: Her story shows where even small-time anti-war activism can lead. She is accused but not yet convicted of committing a nonviolent offense, yet she was placed in a pretrial detention center (not moved to house arrest).

In a speech she made in court, Skochilenko exposed the logic behind using incarceration to silence the anti-war movement and highlighted the price she’s had to pay with her health:

My entire so-called crime is that I expressed my opinion on five tiny pieces of paper. Oftentimes, even those who stole huge sums of money or killed people in car accidents get house arrest. Why do I, without having carried out any violent crime, not have the right to get healthy again at home?

Becoming a political prisoner in Russia today is not just about losing your freedom for a cause; it is the drama of seeing your voice criminalized and thrown behind bars, only to join half a million others, as you gain an audience among likeminded people who learn about everyday prison life through your struggles.

The media attention Russian political prisoners receive sheds light on pervasive human rights violations that others endure silently for years. That people end up jailed in harsh conditions for voicing their opinions is abhorrent, of course, but the less visible, more numerous inmates struggling to meet their basic nutritional needs deserve our moral outrage, too.

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