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For example, in 2019 Ukrainian film director Oleh Sentsov conducted a 145-day hunger strike – one of the longest in history – to free all Ukrainian political prisoners. In 2016, Ukrainian military pilot Nadiya Savchenko went on hunger strike for more than three months with a short break. For six months, Crimean activist Volodymyr Balukh ate – from time to time – a few spoons of jelly, crackers and honey while behind bars. Alexander Shestun, the former head of Moscow’s Serpukhov region, who is in the middle of a political standoff with the authorities, went on hunger strike for several months, while being force-fed, until the European Court of Human Rights asked him to end it.

While some dissidents make more global demands – such as the release of all political prisoners – others use hunger strikes as a tool to protest prison conditions, which are often close to torture. In some cases, these demands are met, whether in part or in full.

But very often hunger strikes, which may seem, at first glance, useless and damaging to a political prisoner’s health, have a delayed effect. Thanks to the new publicity for the political prisoner and ensuing public pressure, the news agenda shifts in their favour, and the authorities suffer serious damage to its reputation both at home and abroad.

This is exactly what Navalny is doing. There was a concern that by sending him to prison, the authorities would deprive him of his most valuable weapon: publicity. But now the opposition politician is drawing attention to the powerlessness that all Russian prisoners experience, and is doing what the Russian prison authorities want least of all: namely, destroying the symbolic border between Russia’s prison system and the outside world.

Isolation of a political prisoner

News of Navalny’s hunger strike appeared on the politician’s social media on 31 March. He explained his decision by the fact that the administration of Prison Colony No. 2 in the Vladimir region, where he is serving a sentence for violating conditions of parole, is not meeting his demands to admit an independent civilian doctor and receive medicine.

According to Navalny, his legs are losing sensitivity amid severe back pain. These problems could be consequences of his recent poisoning, widely believed to have been the work of the Russian security services. Several dozen medical workers signed an appeal to Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service with a demand to admit the necessary personnel to treat Navalny.

Navalny’s announcement contained another alarming signal: prisoners, who are collaborating with the prison administration, are intimidating the rest of the convicts in his unit. This means that prison officers are trying to directly control Navalny’s communication with other prisoners. When you have been subject to artificial social isolation of this kind, even a strong person with outside support can find life very difficult.