Navalny’s Letters from the Gulag

From his punishing cell, the Russian political prisoner wrote to the former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky. Here is their historic correspondence.


Natan Sharansky, one of the great heroes of the twentieth century, corresponded with Alexei Navalny, one of the great heroes of the twenty-first. Navalny, through his lawyers, managed to get a Russian copy of Sharansky’s famous memoir Fear No Evil. He read it in the gulag where he was killed on February 16, 2024. We know this because he sent Sharansky two letters: one in March and one in April of 2023. 

Today we are honored to publish these historic letters in their original, handwritten Russian and in English. (We are grateful to Anna Lyubarskaja and Rebekah Koffler for their help with translation.)

There are so many things that are striking about this correspondence: their erudition; their Biblical references (“Everything according to Ecclesiastes: what was, will be,” writes Navalny); their moral clarity (“In prison I discovered that in addition to the law of universal gravitation of particles there is also a law of universal gravitation of souls,” Sharansky writes. “By remaining a free person in prison, you, Aleksei, influence the souls of millions of people worldwide.”)

But most striking of all is their humor. Sharansky calls the punishment cell his “alma mater.” Navalny jokes that there is no better place to spend Holy Week than in the punishment cell (known as SHIZO). And so on.

Sharansky ends his second letter with this line: “Judging by all of your time in SHIZO, you will soon beat all of my records. I hope you don’t succeed in this.” As he told me over the phone last week, after he learned Navalny was killed: “We dissidents use black humor. But this joke is even more black than I thought.”

One last thing to note: We don’t typically use footnotes in Free Press stories. We made an exception here to deepen readers’ understanding of the letters and some of their references.



This is the first letter written by Alexei Navalny to Natan Sharansky. The prison paper was ordered on March 30, 2023. The letter is dated April 3, 2023. The translation follows immediately after the image.

Dearest Natan,

Aleksei Navalny here. Hello from Vladimirskaya Oblast, although I am not sure if you have retained warm memories of it. 

I am now in penal colony IK-6 “Melekhovo,” but from the Vladimirskaya prison they are writing to me that a cell is being prepared for me there. So I will likely find myself in the same facility that you were in. Only now there will probably be a plaque saying “Natan Sharansky was held here.” Please forgive the intrusion and a letter from a stranger, but I believe it’s permissible in author-reader relations.

I am writing as a reader. I have just read your book, “Fear No Evil,” while I was held in the PKT.1 And now I am writing from SHIZO2 —it will be 128 days in total. I was laughing when I was reading the passage where you wrote, “I was penalized with a series of 15 days at SHIZO, and then, as an offender who broke prison rules, they sent me to the PKT for 6 months.” I was amused by the fact that neither the essence of the system nor the pattern of its acts has changed.

I want to thank you for this book as it has helped me a lot and continues to help. Yes, I am at SHIZO now, but when reading about your 400 days spent in the “punishment cell” on decreased food rations, one understands that there are people who pay much higher prices for their convictions. I look at the postcards sent to you by Avital3, all the words have been blacked out. Then I go to court where they try to convince me that burning the letters that were sent to me is legal. After all, there was a “code” embedded in them. 

I understand that I am not the first, but I really want to become the last, or at least one of the last, of those who are forced to endure this.

Your book gives hope because the similarity between the two systems—the Soviet Union and Putin’s Russia—their ideological resemblance, the hypocrisy that serves as the very basis of their essence, and the continuity from the former to the latter—all this guarantees an equally inevitable collapse. Like the one we witnessed.4

The most important thing is to arrive at the correct conclusions, so that this state of lies and hypocrisy does not enter a new cycle. In the preface of the 1991 edition you write that dissidents in prisons have kept the “virus of freedom” and it is important to prevent the KGB from inventing a vaccine against it. Alas, they have invented it. But in the current situation, it is not them who are to blame, but us, who naively thought that there was no going back to the old ways. And for the sake of good, it’s okay to rig elections a little bit here, or influence the courts a little bit there, and stifle the press a bit over here. 

These little things, and the belief that it is possible to modernize authoritarianism, are the ingredients of this vaccine. 

Nonetheless, the “virus of freedom” is far from being eradicated. It is no longer tens or hundreds as before, but tens and hundreds of thousands who are not scared to speak out for freedom and against the war5, despite the threats. Hundreds of them are in prisons, but I am confident that they will not be broken and they will not give up.

And many of them draw strength and inspiration from your story and your legacy. 

I am definitely one of them.

My thanks to you. 

Here, I copied it for myself from the book: L’Shana Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim.6




Natan Sharansky’s five-page response to Alexei Navalny is just below. The letter is dated April 3, 2023, Jerusalem.