Lev Ponomarev on Sergei Mokhnatkin: “We bow our heads before you, Seryozha”

29 May 2020

Lev Ponomarev, chair of the national civil society organization For Human Rights, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Ekho Moskvy]

I knew Sergei and worked with him in the last years of his life—from the time they arrested him on Triumfalnaya Square on December 31, 2009.  We helped him when he was in the penal colony, and we found him lawyers.  When Mokhnatkin was released under an amnesty, he joined the movement For Human Rights and became the head of our division in the Tver region. 

Sergei Mokhnatkin was the perfect victim of a police state. The severity of his fate was a litmus test for a prison system built on the fascist model, its disgusting face upon encountering a person who would not submit.  And in the end, it killed him.  

Mokhnatkin’s fate became well-known, and important for many, thanks to his character. His distinguishing characteristic was a heightened perception of injustice and a ferocious reaction against it.  It was intuitive, not calculated, like that often found in a teenager. Every one of us encounters injustice, and life teaches all of us in certain instances to back down.  Sergei despised that.  Once, when I was trying to explain to Sergei that he should back down, that you cannot go on banging your head against the wall, I became his enemy then and there. He could not forgive me for a long while.  Then our collaboration got back on track.

There are an enormous number of sadists in the prison system. They are constantly breaking and killing people, especially those who stand up for their own dignity. If a talented journalist would write about one of these people’s fates, the reader would be horrified…but then he would forget.  But the tragedies behind bars happen constantly—I am convinced that at this very minute someone’s life is being broken. 

But people did not forget about Sergei, society attentively followed his fate.  When his term was reaching its end, everyone counted on him being released in just a short while.  But yet again he could not put up with the usual carping, and the sadists, waiting for any pretext to torment him, brought two new cases against him. 

The system was even then just waiting for Mokhnatkin. He had been only temporarily released for treatment—and that was a unique achievement by all of civil society.  But the two criminal cases had still not been closed, and neither he nor I was sure that they would not jail him again.  

He died unexpectedly. His condition in recent days had been critical but stable, and it seemed that he would pull through.   I think that he was simply tired.  He could not refuse to fight the system — his character would not allow that – but he had no more strength left.  And it felt like the system would overpower him all the same.  

Sergei was charismatic and charming. He won people over and, while not a classically handsome hero, he brought out the empathy of women. Remarkable women helped him, and one of them, Anna Krechetova, became his true guardian angel.  They were married when Sergei was already in the hospital.  Anya heroically dragged him out of the most difficult, seemingly hopeless situations.  She was the one who brought him, dying, from a remote village to the hospital, got him admitted so he could be operated on and get the necessary care.  And she was always by his side. 

Sergei’s death will not change the system that methodically grinds people down.  But it can and should change us. Make us more active in opposing this evil.

We bow our heads before you, Seryozha.

Translated by John Tokolish

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