Until last week, the provincial town of Pokrov outside Moscow, lined with Soviet-era residential blocks and teetering wooden homes, had only one claim to fame: a monument to chocolate.
That changed on Sunday (28 February) when it emerged that the Kremlin’s most outspoken critic, Alexei Navalny, who survived a Novichok poisoning attack last year and was imprisoned last month, would be serving out his sentence in a notorious penal colony here.
Surrounded by a corrugated fence topped with barbed wire, Penal Colony No. 2 outside Pokrov some 100 kilometres (60 miles) east of Moscow will be the anti-corruption campaigner’s home for the next two and a half years.
The court ruling last month to jail Navalny, 44, for parole violations on years-old embezzlement charges sparked outrage in Russian civil society and concern in the West, with the European Union agreeing fresh sanctions against Russia.
But in Pokrov, residents were less sympathetic.
“It doesn’t matter to us which prison he’s in,” said 56-year-old pensioner Yadviga Krylova. “The most important thing is that he is in prison.”
“They say it’s one of the most severe colonies in Russia,” Denis, an entrepreneur who declined to give his last name, told AFP. “Maybe that’s why he has been transferred here.”
Long hours, harsh conditions
Next door to Navalny’s jail is a towering food processing plant run by Mondelez International, which gifted the bronze statue of a fairy holding confectionary to Pokrov in 2009, marking 15 years of operations.
The town is a stopover between Moscow and Vladimir, a fortress town and former capital of Russia dotted with UNESCO-protected ornate churches that lure throngs of tourists on day trips from Moscow.
During the Soviet era, the region marked the boundary of the so-called 101st-kilometre from Moscow, beyond which many members of the cultural elite were exiled
Navalny’s new home is part of a sprawling network of some 684 work colonies, a system established by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin reminiscent of his Gulag forced labour network, that today holds some 393,000 prisoners.
In practice, the system requires inmates to carry out menial labour for a meagre salary, which is mostly absorbed by the system to cover the costs of housing the prisoners.
But it is routinely flagged by Russian advocacy groups for imposing long working hours and overlooking harsh conditions.
Maxim Trudolyubov, editor-at-large of the Meduza news website, says Russia’s penal colony system is a blunt instrument used by the Kremlin to break the spirit of opponents and marginalise critics.
“That’s its purpose — either a person is broken psychologically or they leave Russia immediately after they serve their time,” he told AFP.
“Either way, it means a political opponent is removed from the playing field.”
The severity of the system was put under the spotlight in 2013, when a jailed member of the Pussy Riot punk group Nadezhda Tolokonnikova announced she was going on hunger strike at her colony to protest “slave labour”.
‘Bullying and humiliation’
“Your hands are pierced with needles and covered in scratches, your blood is all over the work table, but still you keep sewing,” she said of her facility in Mordovia, southeast of Moscow.
The head of Russia’s prison service, Alexander Kalashnikov, told the state-run TASS news agency last week there was “no threat” to Navalny, who is expected to work either as a cook, librarian or mask-sewer.
But since the news broke of his internment former inmates have spoken out about Penal Colony No. 2, describing it as one of the system’s most notorious facilities.
One of them, a nationalist politician named Dmitry Demushkin who served two years there, told the opposition-leaning television channel Dozhd that the prison’s administration worked to “psychologically crack people”.
Konstantin Kotov, who spent nearly two years at the colony for violating protest rules, told AFP that “every step of the convict is determined by the administration”.
He described an environment in which inmates have almost no free time and are completely cut off from the outside world, with the goal of keeping “pressure on people and rendering them submissive.
“This colony is considered exemplary, and it achieves this by not treating people like people,” he said.
With Navalny incarcerated, Russia’s opposition has been left without its most spirited voice.
Some wonder how ready he will be to continue the fight after more than two years subjected to the Kremlin’s most effective suppressive tool.
“There is going to be bullying and humiliation,” said Marina Litvinovich, a member of Moscow’s Public Monitoring Commission that observes prison conditions.
“The goal of the system is to break him.”