‘We only had an hour, so as soon as I got home I started writing him what I hadn’t had time to say.’ Interview with Tatyana Kasatkina, wife of imprisoned human rights activist Oleg Orlov [Meduza]
Oleg Orlov

27 June 2024

In hard times, it’s easy to lose faith in yourself and even the people closest to you. If this has happened to you, read this text.

Source: Meduza

A criminal case was brought against Oleg Orlov—the 71-year-old human rights activist and former cochair of the Memorial center—in spring 2023. The grounds for it was his article “They wanted fascism. They got it.” In October of that year, the court sentenced the human rights activist to a fine for recurring “discreditation” of the army, but then Orlov’s case was sent off to be examined anew, and in February 2024 he was sentenced to two and a half years of general regime penal colony. Bereg, a cooperative of independent journalists, spoke with the human rights activist’s wife, Tatyana Kasatkina, about what has helped him not retreat from his principles either in his work or in his life—and what was supporting those principles now. Meduza is publishing the interview in its entirety.

— Recently you went to see Oleg Petrovich in the remand centre. What were your thoughts as you traveled to Syzran?

— To be honest, I was very afraid. Afraid to see him. Although before this I’d seen him twice over video link in courts, we hadn’t met face to face since 27 February [when his sentence was pronounced]. I was preparing for the worst, but what I saw was absolutely the old Oleg. I even think he looks good. Although it was hard to tell just how good. There [in the visitation room] there were these windows and such a distance between us that one might be mistaken, of course. But there was absolutely no nervousness of any kind in the way he spoke. 

We talked about practical things. The one thing, I think, was that he was counting on us having more time, but we only had an hour. And we didn’t notice it fly by. There was a lot we didn’t manage to say to each other, so as soon as I got home I started writing him what I hadn’t had time to say.

— What did you talk about?

— He asked, “How are you feeling?” and “Why are you getting invited various places [to visit] and not going?” And I told him, “You know, I have no time. I have less time now than when you were [at liberty].” We talked about our dacha, which we love very much. Now I no longer know whether we will love it again or not. 

He showed me the enormous stack of letters that had accumulated. He said, “I don’t even know how I’m going to get all this to the camp.” When he will go there is yet to be decided. On 11 July there will be the [appeals] court decision, and then the remand centre will determine where he will serve the rest of his, so to speak, punishment. He’s preparing himself for the 11th, and I can tell he’s a little nervous.  But mostly he’s nervous due to the uncertainty. 

I tried to convey greetings to him from everyone who asked me to. Many have been writing to him, they’ve been sending very good letters. But he doesn’t have time to answer them all. He said, “Please, when you get to Moscow, write that I’m prepared to answer everyone but don’t have the time.” I asked, “Then shall I write in order to reduce the number of letters?” And he, “When I get letters, they support me so much, it’s so nice.” 

I don’t think anyone else in that remand centre is getting that many letters. I looked at our correspondence. Although it feels fairly spare, there are more than 40 letters. I write him a letter, and when he receives it he immediately writes a reply. I get a letter from him and that same day or the next I send a new one. That’s how our correspondence goes.

— Was it a surprise to you when Oleg Petrovich was moved from Moscow to the Syzran remand centre before the appeal?

— He was supposed  to stay in [Moscow] Remand Centre-5, prepare for the appeal, and work with his lawyer. They took that opportunity away from him. And I think it was just a mean, petty trick. Imagine, at 12:40 they give me permission for two visits to Remand Centre-5. And that same evening they transfer him to Samara. That’s just malicious. It’s good that he was able to let his lawyer know he was in Samara. Otherwise we might have been searching for him for a long time. Where is he? Where did he disappear to? 

In Samara they put him in an overcrowded cell. But he wasn’t there very long, a couple of days. Then he said: “I’m being transported.” Where? We looked, and he might have been sent either to Tolyatti or to Syzran. We headed for Syzran. 

— Is what Oleg Petrovich tells you about conditions different from what you’ve heard from dissidents you know who have gone through the camps?

— So far we’re just in the remand centre. I can say that he was very satisfied with Remand Centre-5. He had a ten-man cell that had [only] ten people. A big cell, with a window and with normal people who respected one another. Before that he was in a cell where people were smoking. He said, “I’m suffocating from the smoke.” When he went to the doctor in Remand Centre-5, the doctor prescribed him medicine and he wrote what kind to bring him. There they also gave us two calls. 

He called me once from Syzran. Although he already has [accumulated] seven calls, he hasn’t called again. There’s a line, they say. He’s in a special cell and at first I was very scared. Political prisoners are put on purpose into a special cell where they [the staff] watch them [over video]. But it turned out that Oleg lucked out more or less with his neighbors. In real life, he’s a nonconfrontational person.

In the beginning, he and his first neighbor couldn’t make a connection. Later, though, it turned out that they had a very deep shared interest—fishing. I wrote him a letter and told him I’d dreamed of sitting in a canoe with Yulka Sereda [a board member of Ryazan Memorial]. Yulka caught a pike and I scooped it up with a net. [When he read this] he laughed and told his cellmate the dream. He said, “Oh, you’re a fisherman! I’m a fisherman, too!” 

Prison is prison. His only complaint [during our visit] was not getting enough sun. In the yard where they walk there’s no sun. He said, “You know, the first time I saw the sun in a long time was when I was coming to see you for our visit.” 

— You met Oleg Petrovich at work in the USSR Academy of Sciences Institute of Plant Physiology. What was your first impression of him?  

— I can’t even remember. It was work. I was isolating the protein of ribulose biphosphate carboxylase [RuBisCo]. It all sounds very [complicated] but it’s a key enzyme in photosynthesis. And I had to obtain the antibodies to it, that is, to immunize rabbits. I was told, “Finally we have someone in charge of the vivarium!” I happened to go up to him and asked, “Can you help me?” And so we began working together. And later I found out that we were reading the same books which a friend we had in common was delivering to the institute. We were kindred spirits.

— What books moulded you and Oleg Petrovich? 

— Oleg had been moulded for Memorial since he was at school and he was already prepared for it. I wasn’t ready at all. I had a normal Soviet family. Dad was a soldier, a military engineer. He had his views. Later I would recall the stories Dad and his friends told about how he was arrested. There was a preliminary investigation. No one gave evidence against him. 

— When was that?

— It was just before the War. Dad took me into St Petersburg once. We went through Kronstadt and he showed me a basement: “That’s where I was held prisoner.” I said, “Why were you being held?” I was still at school at the time.

Some of his friends suffered. Many survived, lived through the war. After the war, they would all get together and discuss their problems. Unfortunately, I didn’t take any of it in back then. There was simply a great deal I didn’t know.  

I was moulded by the institute where I was given books. The Gulag Archipelago, Cancer Ward and so on. I was shaken by Katyn. It was something utterly dreadful. Everyone read these books, as they say, underground.  

— Are you aware of why you didn’t close your eyes as sometimes happens to conversations about acts of repression or refused to read the samizdat circulating at the institute? Why did you accept a picture of the world, which was completely different from what the Soviet authorities and the media were saying? 

— It’s hard to say. But I think I read good-quality literature that couldn’t fail to stick in my mind. [Even before I worked at the institute] I had read something that had shaken me (I don’t remember what it was now).  I worried a great deal. I can remember reading at night under the cover. And Dad – he was still alive – said to me then, “Don’t you need a torch?”

— Did he know what you were reading?  

— Dad knew about that literature but he never gave me it to read. Perhaps he had those books or perhaps he too read them underground – I don’t know. At the institute, I was already binge reading. Every person, you see, understands things by their own lights. I understood it in such a way that I joined Memorial. And to me that was natural. 

—How did you join Memorial?

—It was in 1988. Oleg came up to me in the institute and said, “I’ve been to this meeting! You should be there.” Something like two or three weeks had passed since he joined Memorial (he was taken by a friend) and he took me along. I saw completely different people there, the conversations were different, it was interesting. I can’t compare it to anything else.  

And then we started gathering signatures [to erect a monument in memory of those killed by state terror]. People came along, we explained to them that there had been this period of time and we wanted to create an association to work for the rehabilitation of victims of political repression. People looked and I could see in their eyes that they knew about it but were afraid to speak. The country had been intimidated. 

Later we were given a small room containing two or three chairs. People [who had experienced repression and their relatives] would come along, asked cautious questions and said, “Yes, I have documents, letters, but I’ll think about whether or not to give them to you.” They still didn’t trust us. I found that a bit odd at the time. But I very quickly understood that they had lived through those years and those fears. And they were frightened of immediate emancipation, of entrusting documents, their history, to us.  

It was an interesting time. I believe I was very lucky. I saw people overcome their fear, acknowledge what had happened and work with us for the future of Russia.  

— I know that for some people all that became known about terror in Soviet times was a real shock. For you, was it the collapse of the world around you?

— No, it wasn’t. My capacity for critical thinking was working. I accepted that yes, there had been such a period. And I hoped that it wouldn’t be repeated. Unfortunately, it is being repeated. 

— How was that time similar to today, and how is it different?

— Now is a much crueler time. First of all, our talented youth have been forced out [of the country]. Out of our future and our country. They tried to live for the country, but they weren’t given a voice, they were given no rights — and they left. And I find that very painful, very painful. This same youth may have been unprepared for today’s world — they thought that they should go to demonstrations and express their opinions, but they ended up behind bars. God willing they won’t be broken, because they received long sentences. This frightens me quite a lot. And I feel very bad for Russia.

— What was Oleg Petrovich like during his first years working with Memorial?

— He was [already] able to speak with people one-on-one. Before [Memorial’s] first conference, Oleg and another Oleg who worked with us (unfortunately he’s already passed away) were putting up fliers. I stood guard for them. We got caught — I was very scared, of course, because I was the head of the credentials committee and I had a list of all the participants. Oleg [Orlov] was the first to be summoned for questioning. The other Oleg and I sat in the hallway and thought about what we should do — we weren’t worried that something would happen to us, we were worried about the lists, that there would be widespread arrests. And then suddenly out comes a cheerful Oleg, saying that everything’s fine, we can go home. 

And this happened more than once. When we left Grozny, the second [Chechen] war had already started, and we were detained at a checkpoint. The soldiers took Oleg into some building. When I heard noise coming from the building, I was ready to run out; I thought he was being beaten. The driver grabbed my hand: “Sit down!” Then out came a cheerful Oleg with the soldiers, they shake hands. 

What he wasn’t able to do was speak in front of an audience. I knew the wife of an academic, and she told me a secret: her husband, descended from a family of academics, rehearses his speech and gestures every time he has to speak. Oleg started to rehearse too, and I was his mirror. He worked on himself a great deal. 

— The activism both you and Oleg Petrovich do comes with great risk. Did you know this when you joined Memorial?

— When we started the “Hotspots” program, we probably assumed this was the case. But the scale of it, and how it would all transform — of course we didn’t know. 

It all started in 1990, when Oleg traveled to Nagorno-Karabakh. Then [in 1992] he went to Moldova, to Transnistria. He called me from there, and I heard the sound of shelling. We went together to the Prigorodny district of North Ossetia for the first time when the war was taking place there. I saw war, which I’d only seen on TV or in movies before. I saw refugees who left the region with absolutely nothing — because they had to flee for their lives. I could smell the war. We spoke to people and asked them questions, and I saw the Ossetians’ hatred towards the Ingush. A woman said, “If my neighbor comes back, I’ll beat her head in. I’ll find a gun and shoot [her] entire family.” With such anger. Later I saw a gradual easing of the tension, a lessening of the anger. Of course, we did a lot for this. 

I didn’t go to Chechnya during the first Chechen war, I had to find funding for the Kovalev Group. But we went during the second war, and we were immediately stopped and told that there were mines everywhere. The military engineers had just arrived, meaning that if we had left ten minutes earlier, we would have hit mines — and that happened more than once. We were stopped at checkpoints, and the muzzles of tank guns were pointed at us; we came under fire. But we understood that that’s the way life was. I [sometimes] came under fire, but my colleague [who worked there permanently] lived that way all the time.

Everyone was a little scared, but somehow they overcame the fear. When you get to the place, you don’t feel the fear anymore. It’s just work. We couldn’t pass it by. 

— What would you and Oleg Petrovich usually talk about at home, in the kitchen, after the workday?

— What workday? When we had an office, we would get there at 11-12 in the morning and leave at the same time [at night]. It was a 12-hour workday. We would come home so exhausted.

And how do you respond to the question, what is the point of taking such a clear risk? After all, one can, for example, not go to antiwar protests, not act so directly, but implement the tactics Oleg Petrovich used in the 1980s, when he distributed flyers against the war in Afghanistan.

– He did not go out into the streets, he did not call for rebellion, for armed struggle. He just gives his reasoning. Really, the article for which he was imprisoned is philosophical. It invites discussion, reflection. And many of those who read this article take it just this way – this is very important.

Those who left – many very clever people speak out. But they are already cut off from their own country. So it was very important to stay. Of course, we understood the danger of all this. But to leave – we didn’t want to leave.

– In moments of weakness, do you regret this?

– No, I think we did everything right. But, of course, I am very afraid for him.

What was it like for you, the day Oleg Petrovich was sentenced?

– We had packed his things in the evening. There were such everyday conversations: ‘Tanya, finish working on this, and finish doing that.’ He understood that he would not be coming here anymore. I understood that he would be leaving home. But we still hoped that suddenly there would be a miracle.

When the verdict was announced, I cannot say my legs gave way, I immediately felt sick. No, just some kind of cold sensation. They took him away in handcuffs, they didn’t even let us say goodbye. All of a sudden, everything stopped. I arrived home in a nightmarish state, our friends tried to take me somewhere, but I refused. I couldn’t go anywhere, and I couldn’t be at home. I didn’t want anything. I was in a horrible state, a deep depression. I thought I would never come out of it.

What did you do during this time?

– You know, I could fall asleep when the TV and the radio were on at the same time. I was afraid of silence. I was afraid to find myself alone. Then I had an operation – after that I was also in a bit of a depressive state. And I got sick for some indeterminate reason. For two weeks I just lay there, not really understanding where I was or what I was doing. Of course, it was so important that I was not alone. I didn’t allow anyone to come over, because I was afraid of infecting them, but I was supported all the time by telephone, by email. I knew I was not alone.

And Oleg understands he is not alone. So many people write letters to him, and he feels a connection with the people who came to his trial, applauded him, supported him. We have not put that behind us yet, we are still in court. And what will be later, I do not know. I am very afraid, afraid for his health. For his psyche – no. He will hold up, he is used to extreme conditions. We are used to trekking. But I am still frightened, frightened for him. But there was no other way for us.

We lived, supported one another, worked together, we had the same goals. And suddenly all this was brought up short. Now we must live in a new way, get used to a new life. We are not used to it yet, but we must reshape our lives. I must get used to the fact that I am now alone, and he is there.

I just came from the pool. I have always helped myself live through difficult situations in life by physical exercise. I went skiing in winter, ran a lot in the summer. And now I have tried to go to the fitness-club all the time, to exercise. I am, most importantly, horribly offended because Oleg never went to a fitness-club, but this January I convinced him to try, and he became addicted. It really turned out to be a very good club, they gave him a good trainer. He liked it, and then they put him in jail.

– It seems to me that many people – both those who stayed in Russia and those who left – are united by the feeling that they are not really living in the present, but in some kind of anticipation. How is it possible these days not merely to exist, but to live?

You know, I basically live in anticipation too. I live in anticipation that something must happen. And how will this happen? I do not know. I hope that when Oleg gets out, he and I will go to the fitness-club.

Translated by Marian Schwartz, Melanie Moore, Nina dePalma and Alyssa Rider

Leave a Reply