Sergei Nikitin: British Quakers write letters to political prisoners in Russia

7 April 2023

by Sergei Nikitin

The English Quaker Elizabeth Fry is well known in Britain, if only because her portrait was to be found on a five-pound banknote in circulation for 15 years (2002-2017). On the back of the greenish-coloured banknote we see Elizabeth Fry reading a book to prisoners in Newgate Prison. The picture was framed by a set of keys: it is known Mrs. Fry was given a key to this prison, in recognition of her work with prisoners in the 19th century.

British Quakers have been involved in the care of prisoners from the very beginning of their faith: conditions in English prisons were appalling at the time. And it is not surprising that Quakers from one of the local Quaker meetings asked me to give a talk about the human rights situation in Russia and said they wanted to write postcards to Russian political prisoners. Quakers are people faithful to established traditions, so the idea of sending a message via FederalPenitentiaryService-letter or Rosuznik was less appealing to them than writing postcards and sending them by post.

Last weekend I gave a short talk on peaceful protests in Russia and the laws the Kremlin has made to suppress anti-war protests in the country. I chose eight political prisoners to whom to write postcards and talked about each of them. The websites Supporting Political Prisoners-Memorial and Rights in Russia helped me here. My audience was disappointed that, according to the censorship rules of the penal system, the censor will not allow messages written in code or encrypted in any way. Letters written in a language other than Russian are also classified as ‘encrypted.’

Fortunately, I, together with another Russian-speaker, quickly assisted in the writing of short messages, and also helped with writing the addresses on the envelopes.

At the post office, each envelope was given a stamp bearing a portrait of King Charles III, and the messages were sent off on their journey to Russian penal colonies and prisons.

To be continued.

Translated by Simon Cosgrove

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