Welch Statement on Putin’s Prisons

Mar 11, 2024

Statement of Senator Peter Welch
Submitted to the Congressional Record
March 11, 2024

Madam President, an article in the February 29 New York Times, entitled ‘‘5 Convicts Familiar With Navalny’s Prison Confirm Hellish Conditions,’’ describes the horrifyingly cruel treatment of political prisoners in Russia. Anyone who reads the article could easily mistakenly assume that they were reading about the shocking ways that prisoners were dehumanized, brutalized, starved, and murdered in the Middle Ages, except this is 2024.

What the article describes is not new, but it has received renewed attention since the murder, on February 16, of Aleksei Navalny, who bravely challenged Putin’s corrupt and ruthless crusade to destroy any semblance of democracy and freedom in Russia today.

I want to quote a few passages from the article for the benefit of those who have not read it:

Locked in an Arctic prison, Aleksei A. Navalny is likely to have spent his final days in some of the most inhumane conditions within Russia’s extensive penitentiary system, according to five men who have served sentences in the same penal colony as the Russian opposition leader.

The men described in phone interviews unbearable cold, repulsive food, unsanitary conditions, and beatings in Penal Colony No. 3 of the remote Yamalo-Nenets region, where Mr. Navalny arrived in December to serve out the remainder of his 19-year prison sentence. The former inmates said the conditions were especially brutal in the solitary cells where Mr. Navalny is believed to have been confined on the day he was pronounced dead.

But what made the prison, known as IK–3 or the Troika, dreaded even by Russia’s hardened inmates was the exceptional psychological pressure and loneliness, they said. It was a system devised to break the human spirit, by making survival depend on total and unconditional obedience to the will of guards. ‘

‘It was complete and utter annihilation,’’ said a former inmate named Konstantin, who spent time in the prison’s solitary confinement cells. ‘‘When I think about it, I still break into cold sweat,’’ he said, adding that he has struggled with mental illness since his release.

Set in the tundra, the Troika is built to hold about 1,000 prisoners in some of the most remote, strict and harsh conditions in Russia, which former convicts say can cross into torture. ‘‘You had to make peace with the fact that no one will help you, that you’re on your own,’’ Aleksandr added.

The article includes a photograph of a sign at the entrance to the penal colony, reminiscent of Auschwitz, with the words ‘‘Happiness not far off.’’

According to a former inmate, ‘‘You could spend 10 years there, and not see and not know anything about anyone else.’’ When asked about the convicts’ reaction to Mr. Navalny’s death, he said: ‘‘No one gives a damn about anyone else there, because everyone only thinks about themselves and when they can get the hell out of there.’’

Still, he noted that any disruption of routine, such as the arrival of federal officials to the prison following an inmate death, would be welcome as a small respite. He recalled a time in 2022 when another inmate had died. ‘

‘It may sound callous, you know, but his death stopped the beatings and somewhat lightened the daily routine,’’ the person said.

Vladimir Putin, who Donald Trump has praised for being a strong leader, is today’s version of Joseph Stalin, who killed millions of his own citizens and destroyed any vestige of freedom or prosperity in Russia. Aleksei Navalny was Putin’s latest victim. Navalny possessed all the attributes that Putin lacks: honesty, charisma, an inspiring vision for Russia’s future, and of course, the admiration, love, and gratitude of millions of Russian citizens.

Countless other Russian prisoners who have dared to stand up for democracy and human rights, like Vladimir Kara-Murza, are at risk of the same fate as Navalny, at any time. In many respects, the people of Ukraine are no better off. Every day, if they survive the night, they wake up not knowing if it will be their last, the latest casualties of Putin’s relentless attacks against civilian targets.

Vladimir Putin reminds us of the massive death and destruction that a single cruel individual, devoid of morality and motivated by ideology, greed, and a lust for power, can inflict on millions of innocent people. That is not a sign of strength. It is the worst form of criminality. It is what Putin will be remembered for. It will be his legacy.