Hunger strikes as Russian and Soviet tools of protest
Jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny said on Wednesday he was going on a hunger strike to demand medical treatment and an end to “torturous” sleep deprivation in one of Russia’s most notorious prison colonies.
Hunger strikes as a tool of protest date back to the Soviet era, when single dissidents or even entire groups of prisoners gave up food – sometimes fatally – in the hope of securing their demands.
The tactic continued in today’s Russia, with activists protesting their treatment in prison or raising awareness of political causes.
Here is a list of some of the most prominent personalities who have gone on hunger strike in the Soviet Union and Russia:
1969: Alexandre Ginzbourg
Leading Soviet dissident Alexander Ginzburg went on a hunger strike for 27 days after being barred from marrying his fiancee while in a labor camp. He would become a founding member of the Moscow Helsinki Group before being expelled from the Soviet Union for his defense of human rights.
1974, 1981, 1985: Andrei Sakharov
Soviet nuclear physicist and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov has been on hunger strikes several times. In 1974 he launched a six-day strike to pressure US President Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to tackle rights issues, especially those faced by “prisoners of conscience”.
In 1984 and again in 1985, Sakharov went on strike demanding that his wife be allowed to travel abroad for treatment. Both times he was hospitalized and reportedly force-fed.
1986: Anatoli Marchenko
Soviet dissident Anatoly Marchenko went on hunger strikes several times during his life. He died in a prison hospital at the age of 48 following a three-month hunger strike to demand the release of all Soviet prisoners of conscience. His death sparked a global outcry and would be a key factor in granting Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev a mass amnesty for political prisoners the following year.
2013: Nadia Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina
Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina went on an 11-day hunger strike in March 2013 to claim that prison officials were trying to turn her fellow inmates against her by stepping up security requirements ahead of her parole hearing. Alyokhina was sentenced to two years in a penal colony for the performance “Punk Prayer” by the punk activist group in 2012 in the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow. She ended her hunger strike after her demands were met.
In September of the same year, Nadya Tolokonnikova, a member of the Pussy Riot, imprisoned on the same charges, announced a hunger strike to protest against what she called the conditions of forced labor in her penal colony. She also accused a prison official of threatening to kill her. She ended her strike after nine days because of her deteriorating health.
2015-2016: Nadiya Savchenko
Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko went on hunger strike twice while imprisoned in Russia for killing two Russian journalists during the war in eastern Ukraine, which she denied. His first hunger strike in prison lasted 83 days.
She announced another hunger strike in April 2016 to demand her return to her country of origin. A month later, she was released during a prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine.
2018: Oleg Sentsov
Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov went on a 145-day hunger strike in a Russian prison, where he was serving a 20-year sentence on terrorism charges that rights defenders say were fabricated. The director was living in Crimea when Russia annexed it to Ukraine in 2014 and was a vocal opponent of the takeover.
Sentsov abandoned his hunger strike after his health became “critical” and prison officials threatened to force-feed him. He was later released during a 2019 prisoner exchange with Ukraine.
2019: Lioubov Sobol
Lyubov Sobol, lawyer for the Navalny Anti-Corruption Foundation, ad a hunger strike in the summer of 2019 to protest against the exclusion of opposition candidates, including herself, from the Moscow State Duma elections.
She ended her month-long strike out of concern for the health of one of her assistants who also went on hunger strike.