Sergei Nikitin: 'Write a Letter'

posted 17 Nov 2019, 07:56 by Translation Service   [ updated 17 Nov 2019, 08:06 ]
12 November 2019 

Sergei Nikitin headed Amnesty International's Moscow office from 2003 until 2017. He is a member of the advisory council of Rights in Russia.

Five or six years ago, Amnesty International Russia conducted a joint project with Novaya gazeta: that Russian newspaper published the texts of perhaps the most famous writer in the Netherlands, a man by the name of Arnon Grunberg. Arnon had written regular columns for Amnesty International Netherlands, and after meeting me, he agreed to participate in a project of my devising: writing especially for the Russian reader. Novaya gazeta undertook to help.

I remember that in one article Arnon wrote that civil disobedience in the West is perceived primarily as a symbol. As an expression of one’s opinion. But also—the Dutch writer wrote—citizens have the opportunity in elections to vote against guilty politicians.

Unfortunately, as we see, there is no such opportunity in Russia. The present-day regime does everything it can to distort the people’s free exercise of will, and the result of so-called elections is in fact the realization of the wishes of those who are already at the helm.

Arnon Grunberg wrote that, in his opinion, in countries with a totalitarian regime, the best form of protest for the ordinary person is “internal emigration”: one must simply ignore the state. Live as if it did not exist. The Dutch author felt that this was a justified strategy for those countries where the state takes on the role of puppeteer and where the citizen is relegated to the role of marionette.

In fact, this is what happened to many in the Soviet Union, and many in today’s Russia may also adopt this position. But maybe not so many. Definitely not everyone. Because how can you go into internal emigration if you’re young and your life has gone by since your very birth under the portrait of the same person: an aging KGB officer with a good-natured squint looking down from the walls of official offices.

It’s gratifying to see the younger generation going out on the streets of Moscow and other cities to protest peacefully. Apparently, these youths’ nonviolence seriously irritates the regime. This summer on the streets of Moscow, young men and women were brutally beaten by their peers, who wore plastic armor and hid their faces behind balaclavas. In Rostov, in the south of Russia three young people who took part in a peaceful protest without asking permission from authorities, were convicted in an unfair trial. Two of them were sentenced to more than six years. Six years will be stolen from these young men’s lives; one of them is 20, the other 23. The third participant was given three years’ probation.

We cannot go into internal emigration when our children are in prison. In these conditions, there is little the ordinary person can do. But anyone can support those who have been unjustly thrown behind bars. This is what the same Novaya gazeta wrote about yesterday in the article 'Here is a letter for you!', telling the story of the Petersburg philologist Elena Efros, who has been writing letters to complete strangers for four years. She writes to prisons and prison colonies. She writes simply about life. This is very important: supporting an honest person in a difficult time, showing them that they are not forgotten, that people remember them.

From this article I learned about volunteering with the Rosuznik project: splendid people are offering all of us help with writing letters to people in prisons. A remarkable initiative. For those who live far from Russia, for those who cannot spend money even on a stamp and envelope, for those who cannot get to a post office, Rosuznik will help.

I will write a letter.

Translated by Marian Schwartz