The Daily Telegraph

The jailed Putin critic smiling as he enters Russia’s harshest prison

Inmate refuses to be cowed as he details his detention in letters sent exclusivel­y to The Daily Telegraph

- By Nataliya Vasilyeva Russia correspond­ent in Istanbul

When doctors in one of Russia’s harshest prisons examined their latest guest, they were pleasantly surprised. After probing his mouth, physicians told Ilya Yashin to politely pass their compliment­s on to his dentist in the free world.

“They spoke highly of my lungs and said my heart was doing a good job,” says the 39-year-old opposition politician jailed for speaking out against Vladimir Putin’s war.

The cordial introducti­on to prison in Izhevsk, an austere former abattoir and the Kremlin critic’s new home for the next decade or so, didn’t end there.

Contrary to aggressive propaganda beaming from a TV set in his cell, Mr Yashin, who passed handwritte­n letters to The Daily Telegraph via his lawyer this week, said he has not yet encountere­d any hostility.

“In the prisons of Moscow and Udmurtia, I’ve come across a surprising­ly respectful and sympatheti­c attitude from inmates and guards,” Mr Yashin writes in a 12-page letter, written with a steady hand. “The popularity of war in Russia is quite exaggerate­d as far as I can see.”

Mr Yashin was one of the last remaining public opposition voices left when he was jailed in December for daring to speak out about war crimes in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha. A Moscow councilman and host of a popular Youtube channel, Mr Yashin defied a new law signed by Mr Putin in the aftermath of the invasion that made it a crime to refer to the invasion as a “war”, let alone speak out about Russian atrocities. But behind bars, Mr Yashin rarely sees people who support the war. Even those sent to fight have their doubts, he said.

He has met numerous convicts whose cellmates had been recruited as Wagner mercenarie­s to fight in Ukraine. “Very rarely are those fighters motivated by Putin’s speeches. They take up arms out of despair – either because they’re facing 10 to 20 more years in prison or they do it for money.”

However, he admits that the Kremlin, by jailing people for social media likes and kicking students out of university for voicing sympathy for Ukrainians, has succeeded in fostering an atmosphere of fear and repression­s identical to the Stalin epoch. But he says Mr Putin is no Joseph Stalin, who jailed and killed millions of his people.

Mr Putin and his inner circle are not fanatics but “hedonists who love money and luxury too much”, he says.

And that could be their weak spot that the West needs to target, Mr Yashin says, urging more sanctions against Mr Putin’s supporters so that the president will become a “headache and constant source of stress”.

Most Russian dissidents fled the county last year when Mr Putin’s draconian free speech controls were introduced. But Mr Yashin refused to become a political exile and spoke openly on his Youtube channel about Russian atrocities in Ukraine, which soon triggered charges against him.

In a trial this winter, a prosecutor parroted Russian propaganda, alleging that the bodies of residents dotting a Bucha street were simply actors pretending to be dead.

In December, Mr Yashin was found guilty of discrediti­ng Russian forces and jailed for eight-and-a-half years. It is believed to be the harshest jail sentence among more than 160 handed to people under the same law. Several thousand more have been fined.

Mr Yashin’s decision to stay in Russia mirrors the path that older political allies have taken. Boris Nemtsov turned down advice to go into exile and protested the 2014 annexation of Crimea only to be gunned down outside the Kremlin walls. Alexei Navalny defiantly returned to Russia in 2021 after a near-fatal poisoning, refusing to become a political emigre.

Mr Yashin’s optimism about prison seems hard to square with more lurid tales of mistreatme­nt in the Russian penal system. Mr Navalny, who has the biggest following among Mr Putin’s opponents, recently had to sue just to receive a pair of winter boots.

This week, more than 600 Russian doctors signed an open letter, urging the Kremlin to send Mr Navalny to hospital after he came down with a fever in a punishment cell, apparently after the prison administra­tion planted a sick man there to infect him.

The writing was always on the wall for Mr Yashin, a bespectacl­ed young man who has grown a beard in prison.

His lawyer was tipped off: either he talks his client into leaving Russia immediatel­y or he would go to jail.

Mr Yashin spent almost six months in pre-trial detention centres, including Moscow’s notorious Butyrka prison, where thousands of political prisoners were executed during Stalin’s Great Purge.

Mr Yashin is not new to jails – he has served brief sentences in police detention for his activism.

When he knew his days were numbered this time, Mr Yashin quietly arranged dental and other medical appointmen­ts to get ready for the inevitable. Hence the prison compliment­s.

Now he spends most of his days reading, making notes and keeping a diary or writing replies to supporters. Regular exercises are also a must.

“I’m not going to give the authoritie­s the pleasure of becoming an old wreck in prison,” he says.

‘Rarely are Wagner convict recruits motivated by speeches, they fight out of despair or do it for money’

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 ?? ?? Scenes from the BBC series ‘The Warship: Tour of Duty’ show the moment Russian warplanes flew towards HMS Queen Elizabeth
Scenes from the BBC series ‘The Warship: Tour of Duty’ show the moment Russian warplanes flew towards HMS Queen Elizabeth
 ?? ?? The Butyrka prison in Moscow where thousands of political prisoners were executed during Joseph Stalin’s Great Purge
The Butyrka prison in Moscow where thousands of political prisoners were executed during Joseph Stalin’s Great Purge

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