Letters provide rare joy for Russian prisoners

City talk | AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE 30 Jul 2021

In a cottage outside Moscow, Konstantin Kotov goes through some of the hundreds of mostly handwritten letters he received when he spent more than a year behind bars for violating Russian rules against protest.

The opposition activist served his sentence in Penal Colony No 2, a notorious prison at Pokrov, 100 kilometers from Moscow where opposition leader Alexei Navalny is held currently.

Kotov, released in December, says he endured a "wall of silence" after authorities banned other inmates from speaking to him. So the letters, the 36-year-old Kotov says, stopped him from breaking down.

Phone calls and visits are limited in the Russian prison system, and contact with the outside world is restricted to an even greater extent for political prisoners, who are also subjected to greater isolation measures than other inmates.

With letters being the only effective means to communicate, activists have taken to social media to encourage Russians to write to those they consider to be political prisoners.

Kotov recalls having an hour a day under strict surveillance to read letters.

"It was always a moment of joy," he says. "It allowed me to preserve the freedom inside me that they tried to take away."

Locked up for participating in protests during anti-Kremlin demonstrations in the summer of 2019, Kotov says he would often receive letters several months late as they had to go through prison censors first. Critical references to President Vladimir Putin were always blacked out, he recalls.

Tired of reading and censoring his flow of letters, prison authorities offered Kotov better conditions if he stopped replying to them. Kotov refused.

Navalny, who has compared the Pokrov prison to a concentration camp, also complained about the censors in a satirical message published by his team on Instagram this year.

"I'm like Harry Potter," he said. "Remember the letters from Hogwarts?" That was a reference to the hero having his letters taken away from him.

Navalny also called on supporters to write to other political prisoners in Russia so they "do not feel alone."

Former university lecturer Irina Vladimirova, 50, is one of many volunteers writing to the country's growing list of political prisoners.

She gets their addresses from social media, where activists share a database of who they consider to be political prisoners and where they are serving sentences.

Writing in her small Moscow kitchen, Vladimirova estimates she has written 600 letters to prisoners in six years, calling it her personal act of protest.

She was recently writing to five inmates recognized as political prisoners by rights group Memorial. They include a retired Ukrainian captain, a historian and a student arrested over protests.

"I hope a star shines bright for you," she wrote in one letter.

She puts extra stamps and paper inside each envelope so prisoners can write back.

Yuri Dmitriyev is one who does.

A historian who uncovers Stalinist crimes, Dmitriyev was sentenced to 13 years in prison on controversial pedophilia charges that rights groups deem political.

"He tells me not to worry," Vladimirova says.

Olga Romanova, 55, who runs the Rus Sidyashchaya (Russia Behind Bars) group providing legal help for prisoners, says the letters also help protect from physical violence.

"The more letters a political prisoner receives, the more he is protected," she says. For guards are afraid to "touch" inmates who receive attention from the outside world. So "letters are a very important instrument."

In her kitchen, meanwhile, Vladimirova sticks a stamp featuring the double-headed Russian eagle on an envelope. "I do what I can," she says. "I write letters."

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