Balanda, shkonka, zek. Supreme Court in Moscow rejects Navalny’s lawsuit on prison jargon ban
Balanda, shkonka, zek. Supreme Court in Moscow rejects Navalny’s lawsuit on prison jargon ban
23 August 2023, 19:32

Alexei Navalny appearing in the Supreme Court via video link. Photo: Alexandra Astakhova / Mediazona

The Russian Supreme Court in Moscow has dismissed a lawsuit brought forward by Alexei Navalny who challenged the prohibition of using certain prison jargon in IK-6, a penal institution in Melekhovo, Vladimir region, where he’s currently incarcerated. For using this jargon, Navalny faced threats of being placed in SHIZO (“punishment cell” or solitary confinement) where he would eventually spend prolonged time.

Mediazona provided a detailed liveblog from the courtroom, capturing the legal arguments indicative of the broader issues surrounding prisoners’ rights within Russian penal institutions. This is a summary in English.

In December 2022, the administration of IK-6 (Penal Colony №6), where Alexei Navalny is serving his sentence, banned him from using prison jargon. This prohibition came with the threat of placing him in SHIZO, or solitary confinement, if he continued to use such terms.

When Navalny officially inquired about a list of these banned terms, the administration refused to provide one. He highlighted a contradiction: while everyone in his prison, including the staff of the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN), frequently uses this jargon, he seems to be the only one facing consequences for it.

Initially, FSIN officials claimed that there was no document containing such a list of words. However, they later acknowledged the existence of a reference document from the USSR era, dated 1983, which is still labeled “for official use only.” Navalny filed a court case.

During a hearing in a primary court located in Kovrov, in Vladimir region, Navalny shared that he was threatened with SHIZO for employing words like “balanda” (a common term for prison soup or gruel, used widely beyond penal institutions), “shkonka” (a bunk in a prison cell), “krysha” (literally “roof,” but in Russian slang it means “protection” or “patronage,” either by organised crime or corrupt officials), and “zek” (an inmate or prisoner).

Navalny demanded a full list of slang terms prohibited in the penal colony. The response was a denial of such a list’s existence. Yet, in court, a prison official admitted that there is indeed a “list” of sorts, compiled by the GUITU (Main Directorate of Correctional Labor Facilities), a Gulag-overseeing agency of the USSR’s Ministry of Internal Affairs in 1983.

This directory wasn’t provided to Navalny or the court, being designated “for official use only.”

Navalny was astonished at the secretive nature of a reference document and wrote, from his penal colony: “It’s so confidential that it can’t even be presented in court. Instead, I was given one of the most astonishing legal documents I’ve seen: a sheet of paper with the word ‘krysha’ listed on page 50 and ‘khata’ (literally “hut,” meaning cell) on page 95.” He vowed to contest in the Supreme Court for his right to use the term “krysha,” recalling that this document isn’t as confidential as portrayed. During his days as a law student, one of his criminology professors even used this collection as reference material in class.

Appearing in the Supreme Court via a video link from his prison, Navalny offered to envision a Supreme Court justice, wrapped in a bath towel, stepping out of a steam room and saying, “What a pleasure!” Such a statement would technically be a violation in prison, as the term for “pleasure”, “kayf,” is originally a slang reference to drug use, according to a Ministry of Justice’s list. However, Navalny emphasized that the word has integrated into everyday Russian language, with the majority of its use having no drug-related connotations.

Navalny then noted that words used by criminals have been adopted and normalised in professional spheres, like “sledak” (short for investigator) or “terpila” (victim). He explained that these terms, once rooted in criminality, have become commonplace jargon.

Navalny further critiqued the rationale behind his punishment for using slang associated with “criminal elements.” For him, he said, the entirety of the Russian government functions as a “criminal element,” citing former president Dmitry Medvedev’s comments on rampant corruption among officials. The notion of a “criminal environment” in Russia, Navalny continued, extends beyond just the underworld to encompass government officials and ruling party figureheads.

He then introduced another quote containing what could be considered “criminal” slang: “Our Western partners deceived us, or to put it simply—they scammed us.” The word for “scammed” in Russian is “kinuli” (literally “dropped”), and it has indeed a criminal background. “Who said this?” Navalny asked, promptly providing an answer: Vladimir Putin.

During the arguments in court, the Prosecutor General’s Office representative Stanislav Slobodin advised inmates to refrain from using terms “if they’re uncertain” about their permissibility.

The Supreme Court predictably sided with the officials.

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