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The penal colony where Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny died. Kharp, Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Russia. February 18, 2024.

‘He’s dead. So what?’ A dispatch from the Arctic village where Alexey Navalny took his final breath

The penal colony where Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny died. Kharp, Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Russia. February 18, 2024.
The penal colony where Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny died. Kharp, Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Russia. February 18, 2024.
Anatoly Maltsev / EPA / Scanpix / LETA

On February 16, Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny died in Russia’s Correctional Facility No. 3, a maximum-security prison in the Far North more memorably known as “Polar Wolf.” In the days that followed, a public standoff broke out between Navalny’s mother and state investigators over their refusal to release her son’s body, with Lyudmila Navalnaya traveling all the way to the village of Kharp, where the prison is located, and later to the nearby town of Salekhard, where Navalny’s body was being kept in a morgue. As this situation unfolded, thousands of people throughout Russia and abroad gathered to commemorate Navalny, leaving flowers at monuments to political prisoners in his honor. Ivan Kozlov, a reporter for the Russian independent outlet Novaya Vkladka, traveled to Kharp to find out how residents there have experienced the events of the last month. Meduza has lightly abridged his account.

A memorial buried in snow

If I had a cover story, I would have blown it before even reaching Salekhard.

“Are you by any chance going to Kharp?” asked a man in his forties sitting next to me.

“I am,” I responded immediately, without thinking.

“Be careful,” he replied.

At the tiny airport of Salekhard, we exchanged a few more meaningless phrases; my interlocutor recommended a cheap cab app (which I was not going to use), said goodbye, and disappeared.

I arrived in the capital of Russia’s Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Region on the morning of February 24, the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. It seemed important to stay here for a while. In any case, I had no reason to hurry to Kharp: by that point, Alexey Navalny’s body had already been lying in the Salekhard morgue for days. Besides, in Salekhard there was at least a makeshift memorial for the politician. Nothing like that had been organized in Kharp.

I visited this memorial near the city’s monument to the victims of political repressions at dusk. That morning, judging from photos posted on social media, people had set flowers in front of it, but everything has been thoroughly cleaned up since then. The monument was hidden from prying eyes by an arc-shaped granite wall. As I was taking photos, a policeman appeared from behind it. After taking a few steps, he realized that I was holding a camera, not flowers, and forgot his usual script. He then froze for a couple of seconds before saying, “Hello.”

“Hello,” I replied.

At this point, the dialogue stalled, and we stood in silence for a few seconds.

Two other policemen were waiting for their colleague behind the granite wall. They seemed to have been on duty here all day, judging by the fact that people had managed to make an alternative makeshift memorial near a sign reading “To a man who fulfilled his duty as a journalist.” No one seemed to have noticed the new memorial, and Navalny’s photo, as well as a few modest bouquets, were now covered with snow.

Alexey Navalny’s death

‘It feels like it’s Russia’s funeral’ Reflections, goodbyes, and eyewitness accounts as Alexey Navalny is laid to rest

Alexey Navalny’s death

‘It feels like it’s Russia’s funeral’ Reflections, goodbyes, and eyewitness accounts as Alexey Navalny is laid to rest

The snow was coarse and wet. Neither Salekhard nor Kharp lived up to my expectations of what February should be like above the Arctic Circle: it was around zero degrees Celsius outside, and the temperature rose even higher in the daytime.

From the memorial, I walked to the Obdorsk Fortress, the original foundation for the town of Salekhard, before returning to the city garden. The trees were covered in snow and decorated with strings of large bulbs exuding warm light, creating an otherworldly atmosphere. A canopy of these same lights stretched over the pedestrian street that ran past the garden. They illuminated a street exhibition of women’s portraits. I walked closer and read the captions. One photo showed the widow of a soldier who had fought in Ukraine, and another showed a mother whose son had died fighting in the war.

I barely visited the rest of the city. What stuck in my memory most were the bland buildings of “capitalist romanticism” and the patriotic murals painted on the sides of buildings; I remember almost nothing of the city’s 500 years of history. As I was nearing the end of my walk, I read the news that Alexey Navalny’s body had been released to his mother. Navalny’s press secretary, Kira Yarmysh, had probably announced it with some delay, because it was already quiet around the morgue. There was nothing else for me to do in Salekhard.

A monument to the victims of political repressions in Salekhard. February 20, 2024.
Maxim Shemetov / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

The owl and the wolf

It took me a little over an hour and a half to travel from Salekhard to Kharp, a journey that required going over the frozen Ob River, through the town of Labytnangi, and onward through low pine forests until I reached the prison village.

On the way there, in the village of Obskoye, I saw a crowded bus filled with people in Federal Penitentiary Service uniforms on their way to work. Two elderly women were chatting in the front seat about how best to spend the retirement money they’d managed to save up.

“I’ve always wanted to go to Crimea, and now it’s possible: you take a plane to Sverdlovsk, then get on the train,” said one woman. “But it’s dangerous there now.”

“It’s dangerous here, it’s dangerous there,” the other woman responded, irritated.

“It’s dangerous everywhere now. Does that mean we shouldn’t go anywhere?”

After another half an hour of driving through snow-covered forests, occasionally passing by the dwellings of reindeer herders, the bus arrived at Kharp’s main transportation hub.

Navalny’s funeral

‘The injustice of it all broke me’ A funeral attendee describes bidding farewell to Alexey Navalny

Navalny’s funeral

‘The injustice of it all broke me’ A funeral attendee describes bidding farewell to Alexey Navalny

The hub is located is the very center of the village, which has a population of about 6,000. To the south, there’s a hospital, a kindergarten, a fish factory, and a penal colony known as “Polar Owl.” The institution is currently home to inmates such as hammer-wielding serial killer Alexander Pichushkin, a.k.a. the Bitsa Park Maniac or the Chessboard Killer, and mass murderer Denis Evsyukov, a former police major who opened fire in a Moscow supermarket in 2009. North of the transport hub, meanwhile, is the city administration building, a school, a nightclub, a cemetery, and the “Polar Wolf” penal colony, where Alexey Navalny died on February 16th, 2024.

“Polar Owl” is located on the town’s outskirts, while “Polar Wolf” is visible from the windows of the local school and the neighboring houses. I had recently seen a resident of one of these houses complain on social media that she found it impossible to sleep because prisoners at the institution would start loudly sweeping snow at 5:00 a.m. I didn’t notice anything like that, despite staying very close to the penal colony in the village’s only hotel, which looked more like a dormitory.

“Kharp” means “northern lights” in the Nenets language. References to the phenomenon appear everywhere in the area, including in the names of a sports complex and a railway station, but I didn’t manage to see the real thing.

Kharp. February 20, 2024.
Maxim Shemetov / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

But Kharp does shine in a different way: bright street lighting and a huge number of string lights keep the village’s central streets as bright as daylight at night. A few years ago, the village looked much more depressing. The locals I spoke to all expressed gratitude to the local authorities, who have carried out extensive renovations in recent years, improving the streets and repairing the facades of the Khrushchev-era apartment complexes. The seemingly new buildings, standing among old wooden two-story houses, look like a simulation: the only evidence of their true age is the dilapidated window frames, which have survived in some apartments.

In reality, these “freshened-up” houses are at least 50 years old. Before there was a town here, there was a railroad station, one of many build as part of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s Project 501, which killed several thousand prisoners. This transpolar highway project was never completed and was shut down after Stalin’s death. In 1961, at a former gulag subdivision site near the station, the prison that would later be dubbed “Polar Wolf” was built. The village of Kharp came seven years later, in 1968.

Here’s how one Internet user described life in Kharp in the 1980s–2000s, before the authorities repaired the streets and apartment buildings, and before the fish factory, reindeer meat processing shop, and other enterprises appeared in the village:

Everything worked until 1999. Quarry, mining, etc. […] Russian Railroad wagons were loaded with crushed stones of different grades and shipped away. And then the 2000s came, bringing with them businessmen: dickhead Muscovites who bought up everything and abandoned it, ruining the village, which barely managed to survive the 1990s. They thought the people here were village slaves who would work for pennies without any benefits. In winter, at −40 degrees, Mercedes and Bentleys won’t even start — the only way to get around are good old UAZ and Ural off-roaders, but these cars aren’t worthy of Muscovites. So all the shops, warehouses, etc. are now abandoned, and everything has been stolen. The patriotic Russian, Moscow spirit only leaves devastation in its wake.

The harsh conditions, the extreme cold, the gloomy atmosphere, and the tragic history — all of this is true. But at the same time, Kharp (at least when it’s not freezing cold) doesn’t feel like a dark corner where the worst serial killers and Putin’s worst enemies are sent to live out their final years; it feels more like an ordinary village, identical to dozens of similar ones in the Perm region or the Sverdlovsk region, albeit with beautiful mountain ranges on the horizon and equally beautiful hills on its outskirts.

A pink flamingo made of recycled tires in Kharp. February 20, 2024.
Maxim Shemetov / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

‘A traitor died’

There’s a helicopter pad on one of these hills near Kharp. It also serves as the village’s main lookout point for tourists, so a few years ago, a local entrepreneur made a gift to the village by putting up a metal picture frame carving out the view of the village. Metal letters built into the installation read “Happiness is just around the corner.” It seemed important to me to find this frame, but on my way there, I got lost among wooden two-story buildings. Fortunately, I came across a woman in her fifties who was just standing in the middle of the courtyard. I glanced at her.

“What?” she asked.

When she learned I was looking for the lookout point, she offered to walk me there. She said she didn’t have anything to do anyway: she had just gone out to stand in the snow, and had I not approached her, she would have stayed there.

“You must be tired from all the attention and the journalists,” I said.

“Huh?” she said. “No, there hasn’t been anyone. Well, there are a lot of these — what do you call them? — construction workers. All these unfamiliar faces. They’ve built a school here now, and they’re going to build a club, so there are a lot of them.”

“I see. I thought a lot of outsiders came here because of Navalny.”

“Huh?” she asked, not understanding again. She had never heard that name before.

The woman turned out not to know the way to the lookout point, and I ended up at a dead end. Its main attraction turned out to be an “anti-aircraft gun” made out of scraps of tire glued together. On the muzzle, the creator had written in white paint: “We will win!”

Mourning Navalny

‘Keep it brief’ Despite a heavy police presence, mourners are still bringing flowers to Navalny’s grave

Mourning Navalny

‘Keep it brief’ Despite a heavy police presence, mourners are still bringing flowers to Navalny’s grave

That morning, my conversation with the woman seemed silly and insignificant to me, but by the evening, I was convinced that it was key for understanding the lives of ordinary people in Kharp. I kept walking and chatting with the locals, but my attempt to talk to the Federal Penitentiary Service officers was unsuccessful (one of them threatened to “make things clear” to me). Ordinary passersby, while knowing Navalny’s name, showed no interest in talking to me. Those expressing sympathy for the politician’s death were only to be seen on socials, but even there people either ignored me or refused to comment. It was obvious that people were annoyed by the topic — especially considering that after Alexey’s death, anonymous users appeared out of nowhere in virtually all of Kharp’s social media groups, offending and insulting locals for their lack of empathy, repeating saying that the whole village is just “one big prison colony.”

The only people willing to talk were those who just didn’t care. The owner of an apartment I tried to rent, for example, told me that the global media attention had not affected life in the village at all. Kharp has seen changes in recent months and years, he said, but this has mainly been due to the growth of tourism: the more popular Kharp has become for hikers headed to the Polar Urals, the higher the rents have risen.

“The demand has always been high, especially for the last five years,” the woman said. “There are very few rentals here, but now the industry is developing, and we’re going to become a regional center. In recent months, no one has come here except for lawyers and a couple of journalists. After his death, [Navalny’s] mother was here for a few days, but there wasn’t much else. Nobody brought flowers to the prison or anything like that. Overall, it’s been quiet. The locals didn’t react to Navalny’s death in any way.”

One of the locals, Olga (name changed at her request), spoke to me in more detail. Olga said she felt sympathy for Navalny’s mother and great respect for her behavior after her son’s death. But she did not speak highly of Navalny himself:

Alexey’s death did not make us emotional. People’s reactions were almost unambiguous: “A traitor died,” or “He’s dead — so what?” These events didn’t interest me much: it’s politics, it’s big money, it’s opposition between two states, and there are casualties. I can’t say that he’s a traitor — he’s not a military man, and he’s not a keeper of state secrets. But the fact that he sold his conscience to another state will stay on his conscience. It’s a pity that a man who was still physically strong and intelligent applied his energy in the wrong direction… If he had stayed in power, he would have become a corrupt official, like the others.

The “Polar Wolf” penal colony, where Alexey Navalny was being held at the time of his death
Anatoly Maltsev / EPA / Scanpix / LETA

‘Yamal is its own state’

Olga herself was near the prison on the evening of February 16, the day of Navalny’s death, and didn’t notice anything unusual; even the parking lot was half-empty. The next morning, however, the authorities blocked the entrances to the parking area, fearing a media frenzy, since it’s part of a restricted area where filming is not allowed. But even this proved excessive: the next evening, Olga noticed only a few more cars than usual, and there were no public protests or spontaneous memorials in Kharp either that day or the next. In Olga’s opinion, only young people with extremist views are genuinely interested in Navalny, and there aren’t many of those in the village.

It’s hard to say how many “extremists” there really are in Kharp, but, like everywhere else, they’re much less active in the public sphere than supporters of the regime. This became especially noticeable immediately after Navalny’s death, when journalists started scanning through local social media groups. Their attempts to elicit or buy information from locals provoked speculation. One user, for example wrote:

Who cares here about Navalny? Yamal is its own state. He is nobody here and his name means nothing, and if he has any supporters here, they’re smoking nervously somewhere in the corner. They will not find support here.

Life in ‘Polar Wolf’

‘Legalized torture’ What we know about conditions in the Arctic prison where Alexey Navalny died

Life in ‘Polar Wolf’

‘Legalized torture’ What we know about conditions in the Arctic prison where Alexey Navalny died

When I noted that what happened inside the walls of the prison didn’t seem to interest anyone in the village, Olga, whose daily life is closely connected to Polar Wolf, replied:

It’s not that the people here are isolated; it’s just that they have a slightly different mentality, as you can tell from the empty nightclubs and restaurants. People work and tend to their homes, and oppositionists are considered outcasts. Not because people are happy with the authorities, but because the authorities actually listen to them here. If you write a post in a local social media group and complain about the quality of roads, the mayor himself might reply.

To prove her point, Olga sent me a link to a post from a social media group for residents of the nearby town of Labytnangi. Its author complained that the door handle at one of the town’s bus stops was broken (bus stops in Labytnangi and Kharp are covered so that people don’t freeze while waiting there). Forty minutes after the post was published, the official account of the city’s Housing and Utilities Department responded, and two hours later, the same account reported that the handle had been replaced and the problem had been solved.

“That’s a concrete example for you,” Olga said. “What kind of opposition could there possibly be here?”

In their own words

A ‘red’ regime Former inmates on life and death in the Arctic prison where Alexey Navalny died  

In their own words

A ‘red’ regime Former inmates on life and death in the Arctic prison where Alexey Navalny died  

Far from the ‘mainland’

On Monday morning, I woke up to the hotel concierge talking loudly outside of my door: she was telling someone on the phone that there was a storm warning in the village. Outside the window, the snow was falling slowly, the sun was peeking through, and it was hard to believe that bad weather could be coming.

I packed my things, handed in my key, and casually asked about the situation in the village.

“You mean the tourists?” she asked, not catching my drift. “No, there are always very few tourists, but they’re planning on spending billions on a road to the mountain resort. Then maybe there will be more.”

I told her I didn’t mean just tourists.

“Oh, you mean that,” she said. “As soon as Navalny died, these [state investigators] started coming here, asking what people of interest had checked in here. They came by just yesterday. I told them, ‘You’re looking in the wrong place! If journalists come here, they rent private apartments, so go and look there. Why would they stay here?’”

“Uh-huh, that’s true,” I agreed, just in case, and hurried to say goodbye.

The road from Salekhard to Kharp. February 20, 2024.
Maxim Shemetov / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

Within a few hours, the snow on the ground had piled up to my ankles. Snow ploughs were driving around Kharp, and workers were pushing fresh snow off the roofs of buildings. If it weren’t for their prompt work, Kharp would have been snowed in within a week — that much was clear from the abandoned cars in the yards and on the roadside, which look more like giant snow drifts. There’s an abnormal number of such cars here: apparently, their owners leave the village to go work long shifts elsewhere.

I managed to approach the local cemetery only from the very edge: the snow ploughs had not reached that part of the village, and the road was covered with snow. I still had some time before my train, so I knocked at the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, but it was closed. We later contacted its rector, Father Michael, who has been serving here for more than ten years, by phone. By that point, Navalny’s body had already been taken to Moscow, and his associates had barely been able to find a priest to give him a burial. I asked Father Michael if he would have agreed to officiate Navalny’s funeral.

“As I understand it, he did not commit suicide and did not belong to another religion,” the priest replied. “So I do not see any other reasons why we should not give him the last rites.”

“Well, in Moscow, for some reason, they had trouble finding anyone who would agree. They almost didn’t find anyone.”

Meduza’s statement

An elaborate murder attempt Meduza’s statement on Alexey Navalny’s 19-year prison sentence

Meduza’s statement

An elaborate murder attempt Meduza’s statement on Alexey Navalny’s 19-year prison sentence

Father Michael did not understand why it had taken so long for Navalny’s family to find a priest, so I explained the situation to him. “But they did find one, didn’t they?” he asked. “And what happened to the man who gave the last rites? Nothing, right?”

He didn’t even seem to understand why I was asking these strange questions: Navalny’s situation in Moscow after his death seemed unimaginable here in Kharp, where everything is calm and orderly.

After hovering at the church steps for a while, I made a second attempt to get to the “Happiness is just around the corner” frame, and this time I succeeded. There is no trail leading to the installation. The metal rectangle is supposed to frame a view of the village and the mountain peaks on the horizon, but there was a blizzard coming down from the mountains, so the peaks were not visible; only the two-story houses, the freshly painted Krushchev-era apartments, and the prison where Alexey Navalny’s life ended.

Because I hoped I would never have another occasion to go back to Kharp, I decided to buy a magnet as a souvenir. However, this turned out to be impossible: the “Northern Lights” train station was a bare-bones brick structure with a waiting room consisting of six chairs. There was nowhere to buy tickets, let alone magnets.

A frame overlooking Kharp that reads “Happiness is just around the corner.”
Anatoly Maltsev / EPA / Scanpix / LETA

Back on my first day in Salekhard, I’d wandered into an art residency called “Polaris.” The posters promised an exhibition of contemporary art, and the project was supported by Russia’s Federal Youth Agency, so I wanted to see what kind of art was being showcased with state funding beyond the Arctic Circle. I was studying the list of exhibitors posted in the foyer when I heard someone behind me say, “I hope you won’t think I’m following you.”

It was the man who had been on the plane with me. Some of his business meetings had been canceled, he said, and now he was just walking around the city, thinking about what to do. I figured it would have been impossible for him to orchestrate this meeting on purpose (at the very least, you’d need to know my non-existent plan), so we couldn’t find a single reason not to have a beer. The new acquaintance asked for anonymity, but I can say that by virtue of his work, he knew Salekhard and Kharp very well, especially the lives of the indigenous peoples in the region.

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“What are you hoping to find there, in Kharp?” he asked me at one point. “You know how they talk about the rest of Russia here? They call it the ‘mainland.’ In other words, they have a clear distinction: there’s Yamal, and then there’s the rest of the country, the ‘mainland.’ And they perceive the story with Navalny, even though he was serving his sentence here, as part of some game that’s unfolding on the ‘mainland.’ But it has nothing to do with them.”

At some point, we went out for a smoke, and I asked him, “How did you know I was going to Kharp? What gave it away?”

“You were taking pictures of the airline food box, so it was obvious that you were flying here for the first time. Kharp was just a guess,” he answered.

I guess I did blow my cover when I took a picture of the box. A promotional quiz was printed on the inside of the lid. It listed reasons to visit Yamal: the northern lights, cloudberries, Luba the mammoth (A fossil female mammoth found in May 2007 by reindeer herder Yuri Hudi), and various other attractions.

“I even came up with a Twitter caption for this photo,” I told him. “’Wrong guess, guys: the reason I’m flying over here is not on this list.’”

“Yeah,” he sighed. “It’s not on the list and it won’t be. Or maybe it will. But not for a very long time.”

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