Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny is seen on the screen during a hearing at the Petushki District Court on January 17, 2022. Credit – Anna Ustinova—TASS/Getty Images

A year has passed since Alexei Navalny, the leader of the Russian opposition movement, returned to Moscow, having recovered from a nearly fatal attempt to poison him. He was arrested upon his return and sent to prison.

In an exchange of letters with TIME over the last few months from Russia’s Penal Colony No. 2, he shared his thoughts about prison life, the future of the opposition movement, and the recent diplomatic standoff between the U.S. and Russia. Below are portions of his letters, responding to questions from a TIME journalist. They have been edited for clarity.

TIME: How are you? What are the conditions like for you in prison?

A prison inside a prison. I think that’s the most precise description of my reality. In my unit there are 13 men. Only one out of all of them is allowed to speak with me. The rest can only communicate in single words. Yes, no. Mostly they all stay silent, not wanting to let the wrong word slip. Video cameras are everywhere, plus the guards never under any circumstances talk to me unless it is video recorded.

The windows in my barracks are covered over. Literally. With white paper. It lets the light through, but nothing at all is visible through it. It’s the only barrack with covered windows, and everyone understands that it’s to stop me from seeing what happens outside. Sometimes I get the sense I’m living inside a shoebox.

During my hunger strike and right after, a pretty curious method of psychological pressure was used on me. Two convicts follow you all the time at a distance of about five feet. All day. From lights on to lights out. In the barracks, outside, in common room, the bathroom, the toilet. They don’t say anything, don’t even look at you. They don’t answer if you scream or try to shoo them away. But they don’t leave.

You are physically stronger, and after a couple days it takes all your moral power not to hit one of them to make them go away. On the video they would get exactly what the administration wants: you throw yourself at someone who is just standing nearby. At the same time I know, that they follow me not because they want to. They have been forced to. It makes for good endurance training.

Without a doubt, even the simplest decisions about my life here get made in the Kremlin, and the important ones—like whether to allow the doctors in—by Putin himself.

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