Penal Colony No. 3 in the town of Kharp in Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, where Alexei Navalny has been transferred, is believed to be one of Russia's harshest penitentiary facilities. This maximum security colony is located in the Russian Far North – a permafrost region above the Polar Circle. Communication with the outer world is problematic, visits are rare, and inmates, former and current, frequently complain of mistreatment and torture. The Insider sheds light on the facility where Navalny was finally located after going off the radar for almost a month.
The history of Penal Colony No. 3, known as “Polar Wolf,” goes back to August 1961, when the Soviet government founded Corrective Labor Colony No. 3 in Kharp. The town itself barely predates the colony, as it emerged as part of Gulag's Construction Project 501 (known as Stalin’s Dead Road) as a camp for the convicts building the road. Almost all houses were built by the inmates of Penal Colony No. 3. Subsequently, the camp was transformed into a maximum security colony for particularly dangerous prisoners.
In 1989, Penal Colony No. 3 was merged with the Tobolsk prison. In 1990, the colony became one of Russia's two facilities with an EKPT-type unit: a unified cell-type housing unit with particularly harsh conditions. In 2002, a minimum-security area was created within the penal colony; in 2006, a medium-security zone and a penal settlement were added (subsequently, the minimum- and medium-security sectors were closed down, and the inmates were transferred elsewhere). As of 2021, the town of Kharp has a population of around 5,000, mostly employees of Penal Colony No. 3 and the neighboring maximum-security colony Polar Owl.
The majority of today's inmates at Penal Colony No. 3 were convicted of serious crimes: murderers, rapists, and repeat offenders sentenced to 20 or more years behind bars.
According to a 2017 video on Penal Colony No. 3 titled “Concentration Camp: Penal Colony No. 3 in Kharp,” the place looks as follows: “Fences as tall as three humans, miles of barbed wire, guard towers offering a view of every square inch inside the colony and miles beyond.” “Passing through the five-meter metal-bar fence, you feel like a tiny beast cornered in a giant reinforced concrete cage. It’s a feeling of no escape. As one of the locals said, it's easier to obey here – the rebellious spirit is gone like smoke,” shares one of the inmates in the video.
Penal Colony No. 3 is also notorious for torture. Current and former inmates have consistently reported torture and abuse at the hands of the prison administration and loyalist inmates for years.
Thus, Mikho Khulilidze, who was serving a sentence for abduction, reported torture at the colony in 2013.
“The first time it happened was on July 28, 2012. Upon arrival, inmates are taken to the showers. When an inmate takes off his clothes and starts showering, the water is turned off, and masked men burst in and start beating him. With me, it went on for half an hour or so. There were about 15 of them, both inmates and guards. I could tell by their uniforms. They put me face down on the floor and beat me with truncheons and fists, on the buttocks, head, face, and ribs. I didn't get any medical assistance: as I was told, I could only see a doctor after 15 days at the colony.”
Another idea of “fun” for the guards, according to Khulilidze, was to take an inmate outside in winter, in light clothes and old boots, and keep him there for five hours. As he remarked, the administration mostly tortured inmates to get them to snitch on their peers and follow the administration's orders.
“For those who know, it's not the edge of the world – it's the edge of all life,” another inmate, 54-year-old Mikhail said in December 2018. Beating, suffocation, forcing to maintain an uncomfortable position, humiliating procedures, use of tear gas, handcuffs, and rubber truncheons – here are just a few examples of the means of torture systematically applied to prisoners at Penal Colony No. 3.
“In Kharp, the traditional collective punishment looks as follows. On August 24, 2015, temperatures drop below zero at night, and there's already snow. One of the convicts couldn't bear the torture and slashed his wrists. His entire block is taken outside half-naked during the morning inspection and blasted with water from a fire hose. You dare ask for medical help? They send you to the infirmary and beat you there. Your uniform is the right size? You’re way too fancy – they’ll punish you again.”
The Prosecutor's Office checks in 2022 and 2023 revealed multiple violations of prisoner welfare and workplace health and safety regulations at the colony.
In the fall of 2022, Sergei Sheikhin, another former inmate, filed a lawsuit against the colony, claiming he’d been kept in a cell without natural light, hot water, or sanitation. Sheikhin also said he’d constantly felt “watched through the peephole.” In February 2023, the court partially granted his complaint and ordered compensation of about $273.