Vera Vasilieva: Behind bars – On letters from political prisoners

21 January 2020

Vera Vasilieva is an independent journalist, head of Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe’s ‘Liberty and Memorial’ project, and winner of the Moscow Helsinki Group award

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Radio Liberty

Much has already been said and written about the importance of letters from the outside for political prisoners: about who we should write to, where, what and how to write, how vital it is for political prisoners, and so on. But no less important, I think, are the letters for us from political prisoners who find themselves on the wrong side of the iron bars.

I’ve been in written correspondence with political prisoners for 16 years—I’ve accumulated enough letters to fill several large drawers. The number of ongoing correspondents has varied over the years, but at the moment I have five. And, of course, there’s no comparing the fate of, let’s say, the former head of Yukos, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s ‘number one political prisoner,’ and that of Vadim Osipov, 20 year-old Military-Space Academy cadet. Osipov was sentenced to compulsory treatment in a psychiatric clinic for drawing a layout of his barracks during a lesson, showing weaknesses that may allow for a potential terrorist attack. His name and address is on the list in the ‘Tales for Political Prisoners’ Facebook group.

There are similarities between these prisoners and other people who have ended up unfairly imprisoned, besides the miscarriage of justice they have all experienced. But I can say that all these people have overcome, and are continuing to overcome, the dramatic upheaval in their lives, and the constant brutal injustice they encounter. They have something to say about the situation in this country, and we have something to listen to. They do need our support, but their ideas could also help us as a society. They can help us, for example, to leave behind our needless arrogance and the supposed differences between us. Civil activist Mark Galperin recently wrote to me about this from pre-trial detention centre No. 11 in the city of Noginsk, near Moscow, saying:

‘Tell our people to be friends with each other, not to argue, and to work together. I have already used the example of a sports rope that needs to be pulled at the same time, in unison. I’ll use the example of the famous swan, crab and pike. They pulled in different directions, albeit simultaneously. We’re pulling simultaneously in one direction but separately: first one, then the second, then the third, and so on. The cart, of course, won’t move an inch. So the solution to the problem is obvious. We start consultations, we leave behind our arrogance and grudges against each other, and we work together. We will win!’    

Brutality in the law enforcement system is becoming frighteningly commonplace and familiar in Russia. I have already written about the conditions in which Vadim Osipov was transferred from St. Petersburg to Moscow last year. His following trip in a ‘Stolypin car’ in November last year, according to his story, turned out to be no less unpleasant:

The leg of the journey from Moscow [to Orenburg] went through Samara, where we were held up for a week. The train was bearable at first but then, when the frost hit, it became intolerably cold. I wore my warmest clothes but it didn’t make a difference and, as a result, my back became incredibly sore. At the Orenburg pre-trial detention centre I simply lay down for several days, too weak to move.’

This isn’t just about the unlucky fate of one particular young man who was caught and dragged into the political machine on questionable grounds. It’s not just about the cruelty and heartlessness of the Russian penal system. This system is, after all, just one of our various state institutions, the nature of which ought to be determined by Russian citizens. These letters are also about the lack of humanity and human decency within us, about what we need to try to change within ourselves. The reason for a regime’s cruelty is, after all, not only (and maybe not even very much) the regime itself, but also the people’s willingness – or lack thereof – to speak up against it.

There’s also the need for humanity in the way we treat one another, as the letters of the former Yukos employee Aleksei Pichugin, incarcerated in spite of two rulings of the European Court of Human Rights, have been saying for almost 17 years. He is considered a political prisoner by Memorial, the Union of Solidarity with Political Prisoners, the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, and various other human rights organisations. Letters from him are always filled with words of gratitude and support (although, one might say, who should be supporting whom?) and long, personalised greetings addressed to his pen pals. The investigators, prosecutors and judges of his native country had all treated him with blatant cruelty and injustice but, in spite of this, Pichugin is not bitter.

Judging by his letters, he seems to consider it utterly wrong to harbour ill-feeling towards anyone—even if, on the surface, they seem to deserve it fully. Political prisoners sometimes even respond to the various requests for help that they receive, even when they’re serving a life sentence. The matter of what to do about such requests is something Aleksei and I discussed on multiple occasions, and he always answered: ‘You need to listen to people, show some understanding and leniency towards them, and be humane. Once a political prisoner sent me a card that said, “Live beautifully.” I was perplexed (in my view, a ‘beautiful life’ has more connotations of glamour), and when I asked what he meant he replied: ‘Live according to the rules, as set out by the Christian doctrine.’ And of all the remarks I have heard him make about his persecutors, the harshest has to be — ‘God is their judge.’’

Corresponding with—and seeking the release of—political prisoners is necessary not only because it is a good cause, and because it could have been any one of us in their place. They’ve seen the dark side of our state system, and their thoughts and experiences can help society and, ultimately, improve life in Russia. It’s all possible; the main thing is to make sure their voices can be heard. We should, I believe, work towards the goal expressed in a pithy sentence from another political prisoner—Yury Dmitriev, chair of the Karelian Memorial Society and researcher into the history of repression under Stalin:

Living in aquariums is for fish, not for people, while astronauts work there where they’re supposed to – up in orbit.’

Translated by Alice Lee

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