Sergei Nikitin: Just a card, or just a letter

1 May 2024

by Sergei Nikitin

Source: The Friend [25 April 2024] – republished by kind permission

Earlier this year, when Alexei Navalny was still alive, one correspondent wrote to him: “I work as a firefighter here, in Canada. We are said to be heroes by standard. I find that funny when I think of people like you. I will never suffer close to what you and your family have been through. I do not want to sound corny; I am being real here. I do not know if I would do what you do but I do know that whatever I do in my political actions in life, I want it to resemble what you do. I will talk about you and what you have done for the world. I will make sure my son knows about you.” The letter went to Alexei and we hope he read it before he was killed in February 2024.

Dozens of letters like this have flooded the Rights in Russia platform since the human rights organisation launched its project ‘Write to Russia’ last autumn. If the Soviet authorities passed letters written in English to prisoners (we do not know whether there were many such letters, but there were some), then Putin’s Russia has put a barrier to any message to a prisoner in languages other than Russian.

Rights in Russia has offered a translation service for those who want to drop a line to political prisoners but do not know Russian. The translated text can then be returned to the author, so that she or he could post it (although writing an address in Russian might be another challenge!). Alternatively, Rights in Russia can post the letter on behalf of the well-wisher. A small fee of just £2.50 covering postage costs is welcomed – as are any additional donations to Rights in Russia, which is a registered charity.

Some people have a problem: what to write? Apart from an expression of their solidarity and concerns — what else? Amazingly, there are talented letter writers who have chosen a clever way — they write about themselves! A retired nurse from an EU country has written several letters to Sasha Skochilenko, a peaceful anti-war activist sentenced to seven years for her non-violent action (she replaced five price tags in a local supermarket with pieces of paper urging shoppers to end the war and resist television propaganda). The pensioner from Europe, in her attempt to raise Sasha’s spirits, wrote about many things, including how she played Scrabble with her friends and how her friend caught a mouse setting a trap with peanut butter – a trap that keeps the mouse alive, indeed.

Someone from the USA wrote to us saying that the American postal system (USPS) had suspended mail services to Russia in March 2022, so he had to find new and creative ways to get his mail correspondence (postcards and letters) into Russia. Along with lobbying the USPS system he was exploring other ways to send his letters of support to Russian prisoners — and Write to Russia is one of them. 

Many Friends have already joined the project. We remember that Elizabeth Fry was given a key to a prison, in recognition of her work with prisoners in the 19th century. Today, in 21 century we have pen instead of the key. Let us write to prisoners, our letters will help to lessen their sense of isolation.