Alexei Navalny starvation strike: Refusing meals as protests is a Russian custom that dates again to the czar’s prisons

Starvation strikes have a protracted historical past in Russia. Among the first fashionable starvation strikers had been Nineteenth-century Russian prisoners who refused meals to protest the circumstances of their confinement within the czar’s lockups. Phrase of their deeds unfold internationally, influencing many prisoners and dissidents.

“The jail starvation strike developed as a world type of protest from a number of totally different sources, of which Russian revolutionaries had been probably the most influential,” mentioned Kevin Grant, a historian at Hamilton Faculty who has tracked the evolution of the observe.

Within the twentieth century, imprisoned Soviet dissidents drew world consideration to their plights with high-profile voluntary deprivation of meals. Within the Eighties, the dying of prisoner Anatoly Marchenko, two weeks after he ended a starvation strike, might have prompted Mikhail Gorbachev to launch different political prisoners.

Navalny, 44, Russia’s best-known opposition chief and the survivor of a nerve agent assault final 12 months that just about killed him, has mentioned he has been on a starvation strike since March 31 as a result of jail officers won’t let his docs go to him. He’s in jail for a parole violations, however supporters and specialists say the costs are political.

Though his strike was targeted on a slender demand, worldwide observers see it extra broadly, as an act of resistance towards the federal government of President Vladimir Putin, who has led Russia for greater than twenty years.

Putin allies had been extensively suspected of poisoning Navalny.

For Navalny’s starvation strike, the stakes had been excessive. His private doctor, Yaroslav Ashikhmin, mentioned final week that blood assessments present the activist may die “at any second.” International officers from the US and Europe warned that there will likely be penalties if Navalny had been allowed to die in the course of the starvation strike.

“Aleksei Navalny is being murdered in entrance of the world by Vladimir Putin for the crime of exposing Putin’s huge corruption,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wrote on Twitter.

The act of refusing meals for political causes has a protracted historical past. However jail starvation strikes turned a longtime observe within the Nineteenth century, earlier than spreading extensively within the twentieth.

The tactic was utilized by suffragists in Britain, independence actions in Eire and India, anti-apartheid leaders in South Africa and Palestinians in Israeli prisons. Starvation strikes have occurred on the U.S. navy jail at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, prompting controversy about force-feeding by U.S. authorities.

Some of the influential early starvation strikes started in 1878, within the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg, the place a gaggle of imprisoned Russian revolutionaries refused meals in a bid to enhance their standing.

Their captor, Nikolay Mezentsov, was unmoved, reportedly saying: “Allow them to die; I’ve already ordered coffins for all of them.” However the strike discovered assist exterior jail partitions and a sympathizer stabbed Mezentsov to dying earlier than escaping to London.

Suffragists within the British capital quickly started referring to starvation strikes because the “Russian methodology,” in keeping with Grant’s analysis, and adopted it themselves. The tactic unfold to Irish republicans and Indian nationalists.

One other Russian starvation strike drew worldwide consideration in 1889, when a gaggle of girls serving at a infamous jail labor camp in Transbaikal, Siberia, refused meals to protest their brutal therapy. Among the ladies, in addition to male supporters, later killed themselves with poison.

That incident, which worldwide media retailers known as the “Kara tragedy,” prompted important reforms, together with the closure of the labor camp and the prohibition of corporal punishment for imprisoned ladies.

George Kennan, an American author and relative of a well known U.S. diplomat with the identical identify, additionally recounted the small print for an American viewers — translating the Russian phrase used, golodovka, as “starvation strike,” a novel idea on the time.

The observe continued after the top of Tsarist Russia and into the Soviet Union, the place dissidents used starvation strikes to attract consideration to their plights within the Gulag system of compelled labor camps.

Jacques Rossi, a Polish-French author who later drew consideration to the Gulags by means of firsthand accounts, recounted starvation strikes within the late Nineteen Forties and Nineteen Fifties. Different well-known activists akin to Andrei Sakharov performed their very own starvation strikes within the Seventies and 80s.

Though the fasters generally received concessions, it was typically at a brutal value. Rossi recounted a coverage of force-feeding orally and rectally. Sakharov, a nuclear physicist and human rights activist, additionally advised of brutal force-feeding.

Medical doctors “stored altering the strategy of force-feeding … to maximise my misery to make me hand over,” Sakharov wrote of a starvation strike in 1984 in a letter to Western newspapers.

Marchenko, a dissident who had undertaken many starvation strikes in the course of the twenty years he spent in Soviet prisons, died in 1986 following a four-month quick. His dying induced a world outcry, placing strain upon on the reformist Soviet chief Gorbachev to alter the Soviet penal system.

Lengthy after the Soviet Union collapsed, some points of the penal system remained. A lot of Russia’s prisons are remoted colonies, with inmates housed in dorms and compelled to work. Accounts of utmost punishment by guards, even torture, proceed.

Excessive-profile inmates akin to Putin critic and oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and members of the protest punk band Pussy Riot have staged starvation strikes. Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov undertook a 145-day starvation strike in 2018 to protest his 20-year sentence on terrorism prices, coming perilously near dying.

“Undoubtedly, that is an instrument of protest that’s trending upward in Russia,” Natalia Taubina, director of the human rights group Public Verdict Basis, advised the Moscow Instances throughout Sentsov’s strike, including that prisoners “had no different protest instruments.”

On the jail to which Navalny has been transferred, the glumly named Penal Colony No. 3, there’s a historical past of protest. In 2005, lots of of prisoners slashed their necks and wrists in protest after claims of beatings by jail guards. The jail’s senior employees members had been later fired.

No starvation striker has died in a Russian jail since Marchenko. Russian authorities threatened to force-feed Sentsov, in keeping with accounts from his legal professional, however he was later freed in a prisoner swap. Navalny mentioned Friday that he had ended his starvation strike on the recommendation of his docs who warned he may quickly die.

Grant cautioned that there could also be a gulf between how a starvation strike was interpreted domestically and the response internationally. “If jail starvation strikes have something in widespread, it’s the prisoner’s resolution to problem the state’s authority as a protector and a supplier for society,” he mentioned.

Grant mentioned that they do that by serving because the “sacrificial embodiment of the state’s violence and injustice, thus difficult the state’s rule of legislation as immoral.”

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