12 January 2021
By Vera Vasileva, freelance journalist, host of the Radio Liberty project Freedom and Memorial, winner of the Moscow Helsinki Group prize
For almost 20 years now, on the eve of the New Year’s holidays and immediately afterwards, I have been receiving greetings cards with the stamp of the prison censor, and there are more of them every year. They are written by political prisoners. Regularly updated lists of political prisoners are published by the human rights organisation Memorial and other such organisations. And if at the beginning of 2012 Russian human rights organisations published a list of 39 names, then at the end of last year it already totalled 286 people in the religious category, and 61 in total. Alas, these lists are not exhaustive. As Memorial emphasizes, this is only a minimum estimate of the number of those people deprived of their liberty whose criminal prosecution has been reliably established to fall within the definition of the relevant PACE Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights resolution on political prisoners.
Those sending me these postcards and letters change over time. Most are, fortunately, released, but some, like Sergei Mokhnatkin, leave forever. In the course of half a decade I have only reliably had letters from former YUKOS employee Aleksei Pichugin, who refused, in spite of pressure exerted on him by an investigation (led by Yury Burtov, who is now dealing with the case of the ex-governor of the Khabarovsk region, Sergei Furgal), to perjure the management of the oil company and received a life sentence.
The people I correspond with are all very different. For example, the chair of Karelian Memorial, Yury Dmitriev; Aleksei Pichugin; civic activist and the initiator of the ‘walks of free people’ Mark Galperin. Also there are a former student at the Mozhaisky Military Space Academy in St Petersburg, Vadim Osipov; and businessman Aleksandr Markin – they are considered by the authors of the humanitarian project Tales for Political Prisoners to be persecuted for political reasons.
Each of these prisoners has had a dramatic year. However, who among prisoners can be happy? Only one who has ceased to be a prisoner. The decision on the appeal in the Dmitriev case was monstrous, increasing his term from three years to 13. Yury Alekseevich was expected home in November of last year. The recalculation of Mark Galperin’s term was also upwards (though not as terrible as Dmitriev’s). The first days Galperin spent in a Noginsk pre-trial detention centre was counted as two days in a penal colony in Zelenograd, and the citizen activist was supposed to be freed on 5 December. Now a day in a pre-trial detention centre has been equated to a day in a prison colony, and his term of imprisonment has increased to 110 days… The stubborn struggle of Aleksandr Markin for the preservation of his dignity has been hard and exhausting – not even for release, but just for transfer to another colony …
For all the dissimilarity between these inmates, I see a common feature in them; one that, it seems to me, is often lacking in those of us who have our freedom. This is solidarity. The ability to not only endure your own difficult and unjust trials with dignity, but also to have compassion for others. Through me, Mark Galperin turned to Aleksei Pichugin (direct correspondence between convicts is prohibited): “I am amazed by the fact that you have not lost confidence and steadfastness, and are calmly and systematically moving forward. You are like an icebreaker. I don’t doubt that many others feel the same way, looking at your fate. I really want to see you. Change is inevitable.”
In turn, Yury Dmitriev wrote about Pichugin who, despite two decisions of the European Court of Human Rights in his favour, has been in prison for seventeen and a half years, unjustly, according to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, Memorial and other international human rights organisations. “He has already exhausted the hope phase to its very depths. All there is to do now is win.” Pichugin also sent a New Year letter about his comrades in misfortune: “Special greetings to Yury Dmitriev, Mark Galperin and Aleksandr Markin who, like me, are currently far from home and their loved ones, against their will.”
For many years now, human rights activists have been compelled to say, with deep concern and regret, that in Russia there are not only political prisoners, as there were in pre-perestroika Soviet times, but their number is ever increasing. New, politically motivated criminal cases are arising: the Bolotnoe case, the Moscow case, the New Greatness case; there have been a lot of prosecutions related to online statements, on social media… For every person released from the dungeons, a few more are sent to prison. It seems impossible to resist this swell. But I think that the solidarity, the sense of commitment, that political prisoners themselves are showing, will be useful here. And for those of us who have our freedom, it’s all the more important to follow this example, without closing ourselves up in our personal space.
Translated by Anna Bowles