12 April 2017
Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Radio Svoboda]
By Zoya Svetova, journalist, human rights defender, laureate of the Human Rights Award of the Moscow Helsinki Group, and a former member of the Public Oversight Commission of Moscow
The practice of sending ‘open letters’ to the authorities, of turning to Russian and international organizations with demands for the release of an individual or of a whole category of political prisoners has become a well-established feature of our life. Recently a large group of scholars and public figures came out in defence of the academician Yury Pivovarov, who has been charged with a criminal offence for fraud. Is there any sense in sending such letters and to whom should one turn when reacting against actions which have no grounds in law.
Today’s ‘open letters’ are in the tradition of the dissident letters which began with the Sinyavsky and Daniel case. In November 1966, following their conviction, a letter signed by 62 literary figures who included Bulat Okhudzhava, Ilya Ehrenburg, and Pavel Antokolsky, was published in Literaturnaya gazeta. They appealled to the praesidium of the 23rd Congress of the CPSU and to the praesidia of the Supreme Soviets of the USSR and of the RSFSR with the request that the convicted persons be let out on probation. Today the letter makes for odd reading, it seems too loyal although it was clear that all the signatories could lose their jobs for the simple act of speaking out for their persecuted colleagues.
‘Sinyavsky and Daniel are talented individuals who should have the opportunity to correct their political errors and tactlessness. If released on probation, Sinyavsky and Daniel would all the sooner recognize the mistakes they have made and, as part of the Soviet community, would be able to produce new works whose artistic and ideological quality would atone for the harm cause by their blunders’ – this was the way the Soviet ‘signatories’ tried to get their colleagues released from prison. ‘For all these reasons we ask that Andrei Synyavsky and Yuly Daniel be allowed out on probation. It is in our country’s interests. It is the interests of the world. It is in the interests of the world communist movement’. It is clear that the mention of ‘our country’s interests’ and those of the world communist movement was made in the hope that the letter’s recipients would respond to the request, change the fate of the prisoners, and that the signatories themselves would not suffer repression.
Today in Russia there’s only one addressee for such letters and appeals – President Vladimir Putin. And, when turning to him, it is unlikely that letter-writers will express any sharp criticism of today’s political system. The tone of today’s letters is very reminiscent of that letter of ‘1966’. And some people today respond to such letters with reproaches and surprise, expressing disbelief in their effectiveness. Some think that President Putin views any such letters as a form of pressure which he considers as categorically unacceptable.
Writer and journalist Ivan Davydov has reproached Aleksandr Sokurov for standing up for Oleg Sentsov by asking Putin to free the Ukrainian film director – when Putin himself is the architect of the law enforcement and judicial system that made possible Sentsov’s arrest and sentencing to 20 years in a strict regime penal colony for activities that had nothing to do with terrorism. But it seems to me that surely Sokurov the director is no less aware than Davydov the writer of the role Putin plays in the system of state repression, so why have a go at him?
Any appeal like this, made to the head of an authoritarian regime, be it Sokurov’s speech or Ksenia Sobchak’s recent appeal to Putin relating to the terror attack in St Petersburg, is primarily carried out under the banner of “I cannot remain silent.” Secondly, it’s an effort to reach to the very top. And thirdly (and this seems to me more important than the first and second considerations) any appeal of this kind is the same moral protest that made dissidents so strong in Soviet times.
Moral protest is the cement that quietly bonds apathetic, depressed Russian society so that brick by brick a civil society forms. It cannot be said that a great number of people engage in moral protest, but still, sometimes when you read letters in defence of some new persecuted individual you spot a new signature – suddenly someone who previously preferred to “keep their head down” is speaking out.
“But what does this achieve?” you ask. Do these open letters themselves have any effect? What happens when, for example, Mr Putin watches a video message from Ksenia Sobchak where she agitatedly informs the president that his security services, instead of averting terrorist attacks, are catching supporters of opposition blogger Aleksei Navalny on social media? Will he go off and fire all the bad agents and replace them with new, good ones? Hardly.
But the essence of moral protest is this – it doesn’t presuppose immediate action. It’s a kind of signal both for the authorities and for society: look, here’s a different opinion, and at some point it will have to be reckoned with. Cynics will say that all decisions taken in and around the Kremlin operate according to different rules and laws, without taking into account the appeals of “urban crazies”.
However, the significance of both open letters and individual appeals is that the writers are not just “urban crazies”. As a rule, they are well-known in the West as well as in Russia. And their names carry weight. I’m sure that Aleksandr Sokurov’s stubborn pleading for Oleg Sentsov will not pass unnoticed: Sokurov’s colleages and public figures in the West will pick it up. The name of the Ukrainian film director will come up in international negotiations – as happened when the names of Soviet dissidents came up in talks between Soviet and Western leaders.
We never know how far “our words will resound”. In recent years there has been an example of a successful letter-writing campaign – the letter from cultural figures to President Dmitry Medvedev concerning the release of YUKOS lawyer Svetlana Bakhmina, which was published in October 2008. Six months later, Svetlana left her penal colony on a conditional early release. Substantial public interest also contributed to the release of Vasily Aleksanyan, and to the release of Pussy Riot and several people accused of participation in alleged riots on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square in May 2012 under the amnesty to mark the 20th anniversary of the Constitution. The names of those released had appeared in many letters and appeals.
There is a hope that open letters – both those with many signatures, and individual appeals – might be the pebble that turns the balance between “for” and “against”. Maybe it will happen for purely pragmatic reasons that benefit the authorities at a particular moment and that have nothing to do with humanitarian concerns. But that’s not the point. A moral protest is not a pipe dream. It’s one more tool of civic resistance.
Translated by Anna Bowles and Mary McAuley
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