Thirty Days in ‘Kremlin Central’: The Detention of Alexei Navalny


The press has reported on the arrest of opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, after his arrival back in the Russian Federation. He was immediately taken into custody, where an impromptu court chose to detain him on remand for a period of thirty days.  We now know that he is being held in FKU SIZO-1 FSIN, one of seven Russian prisons directly subordinated to the central prison administration or FSIN (Federal’naya Slyuzhba Ispolneniya Nakazanii).  In this new blog post, GULAGECHOES PI Judith Pallot describes this unusual remand prison, what we know about the conditions in which Alexei Navalny will be held, and whether they constitute a threat to his human rights.

An FSB Prison?

FKU SIZO-1 FSIN is known colloquially as “Kremlin Central”. It is one of seven ‘investigatory isolators’ serving as remand (pre-trial) detention facilities directly subordinated to FSIN. This is a separate institution from FKU SIZO-1 UFSIN Moscow, otherwise known as Matrosskaya Tishina (Sailor’s Silence).  It is easy for the two institutions to be confused or assumed to be a single entity because their official titles are similar,  they occupy the same territory, and have the same address.  But the two prisons have different histories, different Governors and officer corps and, they serve different functions and masters.  Kremlin Central is not simply a ‘special block’ within Sailor’s Silence, as it has been described by some media. One illustration of Kremlin Central’s exceptional nature relates to the ‘special measures’ introduced by Moscow prison administration  (UFSIN po gorodu moskvy) in response to covid-19, whereby all newly detained suspects are required to be held first in pre-trial prison No. 7, otherwise known as Kapotnya, for 14 days quarantine. Only after testing negative and the expiry of the 14 days, are prisoners transferred to the remand prison in which they will be held during investigation and until trial.  As prisons of central subordination are not under regional prison administrations, this rule did not apply to Mr Navalny who went straight from his police lockup to Kremlin Central,  by-passing Kapotnya.

The other six remand prisons subordinated directly to FSIN are located in the major metropolitan centres or particularly volatile regions. They are FKU SIZO-2 FSIN or Lefortovo,  which was the KGB’s main prison in Moscow; FKU SIZO-3 FSIN in St Petersburg known as Shpalernaya; FKU SIZO-4 FSIN  in Rostov-on-Don; FKU SIZO-5 FSIN in Krasnodar krai; FKU SIZO-6 FSIN in Vladikavkaz in the Republic of Ossetia, and FKU SIZO-7 FSIN in Chelyabinsk. These investigatory isolators are the most secret prisons in Russia and by popular consent they are run by the FSB (although in 2017 there was discussion in opposition press about the existence of even more secret FSB prisons). Under the conditions of Russia membership of the Council of Europe the FSB should not, of course, run any prisons at all. This is because it is unsafe for prisoners’ human rights to have the agency responsible for investigating suspects in criminal cases, also responsible for guarding them.

Until 2008, the seven remand prisons, including Kremlin Central,  were officially subordinated to the FSB.  The prisons were inherited by the FSB from the KGB in 1994. Later they were transferred to the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Internal Affairs but were returned to the sole jurisdiction of the FSB in 1997. They remained in the FSB’s jurisdiction until sometime between 2005 and 2008, when they were transferred to the Prison Service now in the Ministry of Justice. The FSB strongly opposed the loss of its prisons but they appear to have been able to retain de facto control of at least some of them.   According to one former prisoner I interviewed who was held in Lefortovo for the period spanning the transfer of the prison to the Ministry of Justice, there was no change of personnel and guards at this time, and Governors of both Moscow prisons remained in place thereafter for several years.  At least two of the prisons (SIZO-5 Krasnodar and SIZO-7 Chelyabinsk) are physically located on the territory of the regional FSB headquarters, while SIZO-3 (St Petersburg) and SIZO- 6 (Vladikavkaz) occupy buildings next to FSB headquarters to which they are connected by underground tunnel. Lefortovo,  Kremlin Central and Spal’naya have a long history as the NKVD/KGB prisons dating back to the gulag.

Kremlin Central where Navalny is being held, is a lot younger than the more notorious NKVD/KGB prison, Lefortovo. It was established by the KGB in 1985 as ‘Institution-48/4’.  Back then, it was located on the territory of  Matrosskaya Tishina where it occupied part of corpus no.7.  Its establishment was associated with the so-called cotton scandal that led to the arrest of the Central Asian SSRs, accused of falsifying cotton harvest figures for financial gain.  The priority was to keep these suspects in strict isolation from the outside world and from one another, which could only be achieved by creating an entirely new KGB prison. From early days, therefore, the isolator acquired its reputation as Russia’s most secret prison, where all contacts with the outside world are severed. In 1994, following the collapse of the USSR, the prison was moved to the basement of Lefortovo prison where it remained until in 1997, when it moved back to the site of Matrosskaya Tishina, this time to occupy two floors of corpus 9.  In 2001, following the transfer of all prisons from the Ministry of Internal Affairs to the Ministry of Justice, it was renamed Special Isolator No. 99/1 but it remained formally under the FSB for another five-plus years.  In 2005, it was renamed FGU IZ-/1 FSINR and presumably at some time after this the paper transfer from the FSB to the Ministry of Justice took place.  In 2008, it acquired its present official designation FKU SIZO-1 FSIN.

The physical conditions of detention in FKU SIZO-1 FSIN

The centrally subordinated prisons are the facilities in which the most serious offenders who are believed to threaten state security are imprisoned during investigation and trial.  The list of people who have been held in these prisons is extraordinary and reads like a cast of a cross between ‘Citizen Kane’, the ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ and ‘Silence of the Lambs’. Prisoners who over the years have been held here include serial killers, alleged terrorists, leaders of organised crime, celebrities from the world of arts, top government officials and well-known leading entrepreneurs. The last two categories have been especially heavily represented in recent years.  Among high profile entrepreneurs who have been detained in Kremlin Central for alleged major economic crimes who threaten the economic security of the state – the official excuse for FSB involvement – were the figures in the Yukos case including Platon Lebedev, Mikhael Khodorkovsky, Alexei Pichugin and Vladimir Pereverzin; more recent bankers and financial services executives like Sergey Polonsky, Alexei Frenkl, Vasily Boiko-Velikii and the American, Michael Colvey and Frenchman, Philip Delpal of Baring Vostok Bank.  Former central and local government ministers accused of fraud and misappropriation of state funds who are or have recently been incarcerated in FKU SIZO-1 FSIN include former Minister of the Economy, Aleksei Ulyukaev,  and regional leader A. A. Shestun of Serpukhov district.

All the seven centrally subordinated prisons are small (FKU SIZO-5 FSIN in Krasnodar has just thirteen cells, presumably reserved mainly for alleged Islamic terrorists). According to its website, Kremlin Central currently has a capacity for 125. Previously it was 200, but it had to reduce this in order to comply with Council of Europe, Committee for the Prevention Torture (CPT), space norm of 4m2 per caput. Cells in Kremlin Central accommodate two to three people, but there is one eight-person cell. However, detainees can be held for long periods in solitary confinement.  Cells have enclosed toilets and occupants can rent a television, a fridge and sessions in the gym; they are fed strictly according to the ‘scientifically-determined’ domestic norms for prisoners on remand, have the prescribed one-hour exercise in the enclosed yard once a day and a weekly shower, and they can borrow books from the library.  On the whole, people confined in the prison have not complained about physical conditions, although Ulyukaev has reported extreme cold, and others heat and stuffiness in the summer. In rigorously following domestic and CPT norms, Kremlin Central differs from other remand facilities in Moscow in which the majority of prisoners are crammed into overcrowded, multiple-occupation cells.   Officer guards in the prison, described by one former in-mate as like those “who in Soviet times, who could break your head with their fist” with “extraordinary physical parameters; 2 meters 5 cms or more!”, adhear strictly to internal regime rules. Kremlin Central has no illicit mobile phones, the doroga, drugs and guards prepared to turn a blind eye.

Prisoners in Kremlin Central cannot complain, therefore, that physical conditions in the prison violate their rights as defined in the European Prison Rules or domestic regulations.  It is for this reason that the prison is so-often the destination pre-trial prison the General Prosecutor guarantees for the detention of  “requested persons” returned to Russia in extradition cases involving Russian nationals.  And this is, no doubt, also a reason why this prison has been chosen for Navalny.  Navalny knows his rights and won’t hesitate to complain about physical conditions if they violate legal norms.  Currently, the reports are that he has been placed, by himself, in a three-person cell. He will remain alone for 14 days quarantine, after which he should be given a cell mate if his treatment is not to attract unwelcome attention of the European Court of Human Rights. The Council of Europe CPT is clear that holding someone in solitary confinement should be used as last resort, and can only be defended if it is proportionate, lawful, accountable, necessary and non-discriminatory.

The fact that physical conditions in Kremlin Central are satisfactory (and probably better than in some of the oldest overcrowded prisons in my home country of the UK), has led to the idea circulating that Kremlin Central is a ‘VIP-isolator’ in which prisoners are pampered.  This view is mistaken. There are other older nicknames for the prison – spetsblok “99/1”, “filial of Lefortovo”, “Lefortovo’s 9th corpus”, the “FSB fiefdom” – that convey the more accurate reality that it is one of the most fearsome prisons in the country.

There are multiple different ways of harming people held in detention other than limiting the amount of floorspace they have, and restricting their access to light, decent ventilation and privacy.  Electric-shock treatment, waterboarding, beatings, sleep deprivation and psychological pressure are all in the FSB’s and FSIN’s repertoire. It is a question of choosing the appropriate methods, according to place and time. The FSB has making these choices down to an art. Kremlin Central has its very own means of subjecting people ‘in their care’ to harm.

Inhumane and degrading treatment by isolation

The main harm that prisoners suffer in Kremlin Central is extreme isolation. People held in the prison suffer near complete severance of contact with the outside world. No less important is their lack of contact with other people in the prison.  I have been able to interview a number of people who have been detained for longer and shorter periods in either Kremlin Central or Lefortovo and they all found coping with the isolation painful and extremely difficult to talk about.

The prison goes to extreme lengths to prevent prisoners learning each other’s identities; these include the practice of guards only referring to prisoners by the initial of their surname to conceal their identity, the use of the “cuckoo” alarm to warn other guards when a prisoner is being escorted out of his or her cell, opening cell doors only wide enough to allow a prisoner through it, permitting prisoners to take showers, use the gym or exercise alone or with their cell mate, and the  playing of loud music when prisoners take their one-hour exercise a day to prevent their shouting out to other detainees. As for contacts with the outside world,  letters from relatives often don’t get past the censors, visits are strictly rationed or prohibited by investigators, and prisoners have no access to a telephone. One consequence of the lack of outside contact is that the removal from prisoners of any means of finding out the time (watches and clocks or forbidden in Russian penal facilities) to enhance the sensory deprivation of prisoners in Kremlin Central.

Isolation from with the outside world in FSIN SIZO-1 FSIN is reported by former inmates as causing them depression, anxiety and fear.  Not for nothing do former inmates refer to the facility as  the ‘freezer’ or the ‘submarine’.  Defence lawyers report difficulties gaining access to their clients and the small core of hard-working human rights defenders on Moscow’s Public Monitoring Commission (ONK) likewise complain of harassment and intimidation when they visit prisoners in the FSB prisons.  Meanwhile, Covid-19 has handed the governor of Kremlin Central an excuse for the restrictions of access that will, no doubt, put Navalny beyond the reach of the domestic and global media, his family and supporters. FSIN on Thursday last confirmed the restrictions it has put in place for pre-trial isolators in Moscow during the pandemic – no visits from relatives and no parcels, and consultations with lawyers or members of public monitoring committees to take place behind glass by phone in the facility’s visiting booth.

Inhumane and degrading treatment by surveillance

One of the people I have interviewed who was held in Kremlin Central confirmed that the material conditions in the prison were the best of all the many facilities in which he had been held but he qualified this with the following:  “… you have to understand that it is constant pressure (davlenie), every second of every day, constant and never ending.” In Kremlin Central and the other six remand ‘FSB prisons’, surveillance of prisoners far exceeds that in regular  remand prisons. It also has  a ‘performative’ aspect, designed to exert psychological pressure on prisoners. It treats prisoners in ways that, to my mind,  contradict the basic tenets of the CPT’s recommendation for holding all but the most dangerous offenders.

Vladimir Pereverzin, one of the Yukos defendants, sums up the uniqueness of the facility: the small number of prisoners, he explains, were “controlled round the clockYou were under constant surveillance. The control really was total. Everything was being monitored and listened to.”  Hence,  another of the alternative names for the facility – ‘the laboratory’.

In Kremlin Central there is a system of two-hourly surveillance throughout out the day and night via the cell door peep hole. Pereverzin explains that the colour of the peep hole changes when a guard  looks through it, which allowed  prisoners to work out the frequency they are being observed.  I have been told that at night the corridors in the prison are carpeted so that prisoners do not know when their cell is being approached by a guard.  Prisoners are reminded of the total surveillance to which they are subject by daily inspections of their cells. Again quoting Pereverzin,  “Under the high-pitched shriek of the cuckoo, we were led out of our cell and locked in the “box” – a small room with a bench attached that you could actually sit on. Meanwhile, the guards searched the cell. You could hear the sound of wood against iron: they were knocking on the beds and walls with mallet.”  In addition to daily cell searches, prisoners are also subjected to regular deep searches when they have to put all their belongings in a bag and are taken to a search room: “Not a single plastic bag or box of cereal eluded their attention. They conducted these searches on a regular basis, but with unpredictable timing… The mood prevailing in the prison was of absolute all-encompassing control. When you were led from the cell to see your lawyer, you were searched. When you were taken up to the room where your lawyer was waiting, you were searched again but by a different guard. On your way back to the cell it was the same procedure.”

The performative aspect of the lengths to which this deep surveillance is taken has been described in an interview with the ultra-nationalist, Dmitry Demushkin, who was detained in the prison in 2017. He was  put under “special control” measures which meant that he was always accompanied on his daily exercise by 13 guards and two dogs.

Notwithstanding the lengths the prison takes to isolate prisoners from one another, a feature of the prison is the frequent circulation of prisoners between cells. This constant motion serves several useful ‘functions’; it enhances prisoners’ feelings of insecurity and prevents the development of bonds between in mates: “the moment you got used to people, grew close to them, the moment you felt at ease, you’d be transferred.”  And, of course, the circulation allows the strategic placement of informants in cells to ‘help an investigation along’.

For all its secrecy and the impenetrability of its walls, it is obvious that Kremlin Central believes that it has to be careful, nevertheless, to operate within legal norms, precisely because it is subject to intense scrutiny.  For this reason, I do not think it likely that its most recent new arrival will face a physical threat to his life while detained there. The longer he is held, however, the greater the danger of psychological harm. The broad question, then, is whether the way prisoners are treated in Kremlin Central puts their Article 3 rights of the ECHR (not to be subjected to torture, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishments)  at risk. I think they do but  the much more fundamental issue is which agency is really in control of the conditions in which prisoners are held and how they are treated. I end with an observation the human rights lawyer Karinna Moskalenko made commenting on FSB’s prisons when their transfer to FSIN was first discussed,  “The one who is trying to prove your guilt is the one who is keeping you. He is also the one who eavesdrops on you and collects compromising material on you 24 hours a day … such practices violate the concept of a lawful state’. The issue is that if the FSB is effectively taking the decisions about Kremlin Central, this prison should not exist.

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