20 May 2021
by Vera Vasilieva is an independent journalist, host of Radio Svoboda’s “Freedom and Memorial,” and laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group Prize for Human Rights
Recently, the lawyer Ivan Pavlov told Radio Svoboda in an interview: “I kept the Leviathan from destroying human destinies in the silence of the Investigative Committees’s offices.” Everything in this statement is important. But for me what is key here is the word “silence.” Since the very darkest deeds are done in silence.
As many observers have noticed, the street protest in support of politician Aleksei Navalny on 21 April was marked by a new type of repressive measure —so-called “delayed arrests,” when they did not come for protest participants right away, when they seized them not on the square right during the march but several days later. Some had even rejoiced in the regime’s unexpected “tolerance,” meaning, they weren’t beaten. But why? Because this was just a trap, a calculation. Less attention and noise and it’s easier to get away with something.
I was deeply struck by the death of physicist Viktor Kudryavtsev, who was accused by the FSB [Federal Security Service] of high treason on highly dubious grounds, who refused to give false testimony against himself and a colleague, who was held in a remand centre despite his considerable age (78), and who was released only because of his terminal cancer, essentially to die. Or rather, I was struck not only by the death itself but also by the fact that it happened somehow inconspicuously. In silence.
In mid-April, a presentation was held at the Sakharov Centre for a book by Novaya Gazeta journalist Vera Chelishcheva, How They Killed Me, which is devoted to the fate of Yukos legal department chief Vasily Aleksanyan, who was purposely denied medical assistance in the Matrosskaya Tishina remand centre, where they demanded false testimony in exchange for treatment and release, as a result of which he died in agony. Freed when he was at death’s door, and despite the extremely serious state of his health, Aleksanyan continued to think about how to help those who remained unjustly imprisoned.
In 2011, I was preparing my book for publication — Aleksei: Roads and Cross-Roads, about a former employee of the Yukos security service. I was looking for people to write cover blurbs for me. The journalist Zoya Svetova advised me to go to Aleksanyan. I knew that at the time he was already gravely ill, including the fact that his vision had failed, so I couldn’t bring myself to do that. Much later I learned that Aleksanyan was greatly distressed over Aleksei Pichugin and had asked Svetova to write an article about him. Aleksanyan probably realized very well how important it is not to be silent.
Unfortunately, there have been many deaths behind bars and, more than likely, there will be many more. We learned of the tragic fate of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky only after his death. I remember very well the press conference held by Aleksanyan’s lawyers at the Independent Press Centre when they told the public for the first time about his very troubling health. I am convinced that it was thanks to public pressure, both Russian and international, that lawyers were able first to get Aleksanyan transferred to a civilian clinic and later his release. Unfortunately, this happened too late to save his life.
The cellmates of prisoners, especially political prisoners, frequently try to convince them that they need to be “quieter.” As if to say it would be better that way. This, I’m certain, is an error or deception. It is wrong and even foolish to be silent about tyranny in the deceptive hope of “coming to an agreement” with those who carry it out. They’ll deceive you anyway. I know well from my own experience of that very modest assistance to prisoners I try to render that sometimes it is extremely frightening to speak up for someone. Not for oneself, naturally, but for whoever you’re trying to help. You’re afraid to say the wrong word, you think about how not to make things worse for them.
But you cannot be silent because ultimately silence brings with it much harsher repressions than making violations of the law public. This doesn’t mean shielding oneself in an embrasure, of course; it means defending oneself. It is no accident that the motto of the human rights portal OVD-Info, which monitors politically-motivated persecution, is “Information Protects.” Only truthful information about what is going on can provide any hope that a person will be safe. This is the minimum that each person can ensure for the unjustly prosecuted. This does not require any special abilities, it only requires taking an interest in someone else’s misfortune. You cannot be silent.
Translated by Marian Schwartz