September 17, 2021

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Alexei Navalny’s hunger strike: refusing food during protests is a Russian tradition that dates back to the Tsar’s prisons

Alexei Navalny's hunger strike: refusing food during protests is a Russian tradition that dates back to the Tsar's prisons

Hunger strikes have a long history in Russia. Some of the first modern hunger strikers were 19th-century Russian prisoners who refused food to protest the conditions of their confinement in the Tsar’s prisons. Word of their actions spread around the world, affecting many prisoners and dissidents.

“The hunger strike in prison developed as an international form of protest from a few different sources, of which Russian revolutionaries were the most influential,” said Kevin Grant, a Hamilton College historian who has followed the evolution. of practice.

In the 20th century, imprisoned Soviet dissidents drew global attention to their difficulties with high-profile voluntary food deprivation. In the 1980s, the death of prisoner Anatoly Marchenko, two weeks after the end of the hunger strike, may have prompted Mikhail Gorbachev to release more political prisoners.

Navalny, 44, Russia’s best-known opposition leader and survivor of an attack of nerve agents last year that nearly killed him, said he has been on hunger strike since March 31 because prison officials will not allow the his doctors to visit him. He is in jail for violation of parole, but supporters and experts say the charges are political.

Although his strike centered on a narrow demand, international observers see it more broadly, as an act of resistance against the government of President Vladimir Putin, which has led Russia for more than two decades.

Putin’s allies were widely suspected of poisoning Navalny.

For the Navalny hunger strike, the stakes were high. His personal doctor, Yaroslav Ashikhmin, said last week that blood tests show the activist could die “at any moment”. Foreign officials from the United States and Europe have warned that there will be consequences if Navalny is allowed to die during a hunger strike.

“Aleksei Navalny is assassinated before the world by Vladimir Putin for the crime of exposing Putin’s vast corruption,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wrote on Twitter.

The act of refusing food for political reasons has a long history. But hunger strikes in prisons became an established practice in the 19th century, before spreading widely in the 20th.

The tactic has been used by suffragans in Britain, independence movements in Ireland and India, anti-apartheid leaders in South Africa and Palestinians in Israeli prisons. Hunger strikes occurred in the US military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, causing controversy over force-feeding by US authorities.

One of the most influential first hunger strikes began in 1878, in the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg, where a group of imprisoned Russian revolutionaries refused food in an attempt to improve their status.

Their captor, Nikolay Mezentsov, was unemotional, reportedly saying, “Let them die; I’ve already ordered coffins for all of them. “But the strike found support outside the prison walls and a sympathizer stabbed Mezentsov to death before fleeing to London.

Suffragists in the British capital soon began to refer to the hunger strike as the “Russian method,” according to Grant’s research, and adopted it themselves. The tactic spread among Irish Republicans and Indian nationalists.

Another Russian hunger strike attracted international attention in 1889, when a group of women serving in a notorious prison labor camp in Transbaikal, Siberia, refused food to protest their brutal treatment. Some of the women, as well as the male supporters, later killed themselves with poison.

That incident, which the international media called the “Kara tragedy,” resulted in significant reforms, including the closure of the labor camp and a ban on corporal punishment for imprisoned women.

George Kennan, an American writer and relative of a well-known US diplomat of the same name, also told the details for an American audience – translating the Russian word used, golodovka, as “hunger strike,” an innovative concept at the time.

The practice continued after the demise of Tsarist Russia and into the Soviet Union, where dissidents used hunger strikes to draw attention to their difficulties in the gulag system of forced labor camps.

Jacques Rossi, a Franco-Polish writer who later drew attention to the Gulags through first-hand accounts, recounted the hunger strikes in the late 1940s and 1950s. Other well-known activists such as Andrei Sakharov conducted their own hunger strikes in the 1970s and 1980s.

While the fastest won concessions at times, it was often at a brutal price. Rossi described a policy of oral and rectal force feeding. Sakharov, a nuclear physicist and human rights activist, also spoke of brutal force-feeding.

Doctors “kept changing the force-feeding method … to maximize my distress and force me to give up,” Sakharov wrote of a hunger strike in 1984 in a letter to Western newspapers.

Marchenko, a dissident who had undertaken many hunger strikes during his two decades in Soviet prisons, died in 1986 after four months of fasting. His death caused an international outcry, putting pressure on reformist Soviet leader Gorbachev to change the Soviet penal system.

Long after the collapse of the Soviet Union, some aspects of the penal system remained. Many of the Russian prisons are isolated colonies, with inmates housed in dormitories and forced to work. Reports of extreme punishments by guards continue, even torture.

High-profile inmates such as Putin critic and oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and members of the protest punk band Pussy Riot staged a hunger strike. Ukrainian director Oleg Sentsov went on a 145-day hunger strike in 2018 to protest his 20-year sentence on terrorism charges, coming dangerously close to death.

“Without a doubt, this is a growing tool of protest in Russia,” Natalia Taubina, director of the human rights organization Public Verdict Foundation, told the Moscow Times during the Sentsov strike, adding that the prisoners “had no other tools. of protest. “

In the prison where Navalny was transferred, the penal colony No. 3 with a dark name, there is a history of protests. In 2005, hundreds of prisoners cut their necks and wrists in protest after being accused of being beaten by prison guards. Older prison staff members were subsequently fired.

No hunger striker has died in a Russian prison since Marchenko. Russian authorities threatened to force-feed Sentsov, according to reports from his lawyer, but he was later released in a prisoner exchange. Navalny said Friday he ended his hunger strike on the advice of his doctors, who warned he could die soon.

Grant warned that there may be a gap between how a hunger strike has been interpreted nationally and the response internationally. “If hunger strikes in prison have anything in common, it is the prisoner’s decision to challenge the authority of the state as the protector and provider of society,” he said.

Grant said they do so by serving as the “sacrificial embodiment of the state’s violence and injustice, thus challenging the state’s rule of law as immoral.”