Team 29: Write to political prisoners

13 March 2021

Hi. This is Olga Shakina, the new editor of the Team 29 website!

About ten years ago, it never would have occurred to me that I might become the editor of a human rights website. I wrote articles on films for Vogue and Vedomosti, and put out shows on the channel Dozhd (TV Rain), which back then was called the ‘optimistic channel’. We really did look to the future with optimism. But now, we go along to a few rallies, fight off the state security beast, and just try to live our lives.

Years later, and I’m a political exile sitting in Riga trying to work out how best to serve my abandoned motherland. Simple! common sense whispers in my ear: go with what’s trending in the media. The information landscape in Russia has irreversibly changed over the last five years – no point mourning the loss of royalties, exclusives, and sources. It’s time to get to work in the space where you’ll find the top stories (lawsuits and prison terms), celebrities (prisoners), and success stories (the near Biblical lives led by those on trial). The new Vedomosti is OVD-Info, the new Kommersant is MediaZona, and the new Vogue, Takie Dela.

I’d like the website of Team 29 – an association of lawyers specialising in espionage and treason cases (for which, read ‘in defending individuals from an unhinged government’) – to be a Russian version of The New Yorker, perhaps, in these crazy times, or a new Ogonek magazine. I want it to be a resource where you can find something to read and someone to sympathise with, get hold of a great recipe or some good advice – like how to prepare a child for a search or what to say in court when they put you on trial for going for a walk around town.

We’re talking about a magazine that stirs the reader’s emotions. That’s why in March, we launched a new column, ‘Letters to political prisoners’. It’s no secret that what’s lacking in prison more than anything is real voices from the outside, and now that almost everybody is getting locked up, one after the other, the issue is becoming increasingly urgent. There’s a growing number of would-be recipients, and hardly anyone to write to them. On the Team 29 website, famous people are leading by example – not only writing to political prisoners but publishing their letters with us. Getting the ball rolling, Dozhd presenter Anna Mongait wrote a letter to a client of ours, Karina Tsurkan, who’d just been put behind bars for fifteen years. The initiative was then taken up by political scientist Aleksandr Morozov and composer Sergei Newski, who wrote to one of the most significant political prisoners in the world – the leader of the Belarusian protest movement, Maria Kolesnikova. Sergei has been friends with Maria ever since she was a musician and had nothing to do with politics, and Aleksandr was just really keen to meet her once she was released. For whatever reason, both letters had me in tears. I hope they encourage you to use the services of FSIN-Pismo (Federal Penitentiary Service-Letters), RosUznik, or the Russian Post Service, and to write a line or two to a political prisoner – we’ve a detailed guide on how to do this on our website, too.

It’s no accident that the first recipients of our Letters to Political Prisoners were female. Women have it especially hard on the inside – you can read all about it in our big feature on what really goes on in women’s prison camps.  No, it isn’t because there are stricter rules in women’s camps than in men’s, former jailbirds tell us. It’s that hardly anyone on the outside supports women on the inside. It’s in men’s prison camps that you get mums, aunts, wives, daughters, and nieces all lining up with pies. Fathers, husbands, and sons generally reject women who are imprisoned, and that is why sometimes women prisoners accept the lawlessness that goes on so meekly. They think no one needs them.

Let’s show them that we need all of them, too.

Russia is also a woman after all. And she will be free.

Write to the women!

Olga Shakina

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