Sergei Nikitin: Write for Rights – from Moscow to Glossop

posted 26 Nov 2017, 16:01 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 26 Nov 2017, 16:07 ]
27 November 2017

By Sergei Nikitin

Sergei Nikitin was director of Amnesty International (Russia) from 2003 to 2017

The bus wound along narrow roads and between hills to the small town of Glossop, once famous for its cotton mills and now eking a living from the stream of tourists which flows into England’s Peak District National Park.

I had come to Glossop not because I love parks and gardens, but because I wished to visit a local Amnesty International group in the UK. After working as Director of Amnesty International (Russia), I was keen to find out what went on in an “average” group belonging to the largest section of the world’s most famous human rights organisation. That day, a Saturday, had been chosen by this wonderful group as the date for an event we know in Russia as the “Marathon of Letters”: our colleagues in other sections call it “Write for Rights”, which sounds much better in English than in Russian. Regardless of the name, which was invented by activists from Amnesty International Poland, the fundamental nature of the event remains the same, and “Write for Rights” is thriving and expanding in terms of both size and success. I was in a hurry to get there because I wished to participate in “Write for Rights” as an ordinary activist within the UK section of the human rights organisation.

The local Methodist church had kindly offered a venue for “Write for Rights”, and its wonderful and welcoming congregation has long provided a home for the local Amnesty group, active in Glossop for over 27 years. I arrived at the church around 10 in the morning, before most of the crowds. In the same room local people were selling crafts at a Christmas market (souvenirs, knitted toys, little stars and decorations for the Christmas tree). A table in the middle of the room displayed booklets explaining what “Write for Rights” was all about: to whom the letters should be written, and how to write letters of moral support.

Rosie, the chairperson of the local group, greeted me warmly and immediately began to introduce me to other members of the Glossop group. She was busy helping new arrivals who wished to write letters of encouragement to those supported by Amnesty as part of the 2017 “Write for Rights” event. I immediately felt that I was among friends. The group held monthly meetings, attended by 10-12 people, I was told, but the number of activists on the group’s roll call was in fact higher.

Alex, one of the activists, took me under his wing. Obligingly, he explained the idea behind “Write for Rights” – which was not news to me, of course, though it was a useful refresher. Sitting next to Alex, I wrote half a dozen messages addressed to the heroes of the 2017 “Write for Rights” campaign on postcards prepared by the Glossop group. After sealing the envelopes, I donated the recommended amount of money to pay for their postage. I wrote the names of those to whom my postcards were addressed on golden bits of cardboard which were then hung on the Christmas tree.

The number of names on the tree grew by the minute, and it looked ever more gaily decorated. A steady flow of people arrived, and we ran out of chairs around the table. Rosie, who was sitting a short distance away from me, explained what was happening to a woman who had just come, telling her who the people were who would receive the words of support we had written on this November day. I listened to what Rosie was saying, and noticed that the Glossop pensioner responded with complete calm when asked to support Sakris Kupila, a trans rights activist from Finland. She simply asked how the first and last names should be spelled.

Then I left the room, full as it was of people, residents of the small town of Glossop who took an interest in others. Most of them were pensioners, but they believed that injustices in Finland, Egypt, Iran and the United Kingdom were a problem affecting them personally. Their life as elderly people in the UK was probably not very hard. They could have enjoyed the peace and quiet at home, watched Strictly Come Dancing on the television and discussed the outrageous rise in the price of Yorkshire Tea. Instead, they came here on a Saturday morning, not just to buy crafts at the Christmas market or drink tea in the church café, but to sign their names and send a message to the authorities of their own country, of Jamaica and Egypt, Sudan and Israel, Turkey, China and Iran, telling them: “watch out – we know what is going on in your countries, and we will not remain silent”.

I travelled back by bus, admiring the hills of Derbyshire and pondering the irrepressible spirit of the British people. With persistence, standing shoulder to shoulder with Amnesty activists in other countries, they made their views heard: “Beware, tyrants. The power of the people has no limits. We have written letters, we are writing letters, and we will continue to write letters. You villains and strongmen may jeer and laugh and badmouth us. But as a famous writer once said, ‘One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world’.”

We can wait until his prediction comes to pass – we have time.

Translated by Joanne Reynolds