The first Political Prisoner’s Day in the USSR
<< 7 November 2016 >>
In early December 1974, in an issue almost wholly devoted to the situation in Soviet labour camps, the Chronicle of Current Events reported on a coordinated demonstration by political prisoners to establish 30 October as an annual date of protest over the conditions in which they were being held.
Concern over the way today’s political prisoners are being treated and the “misappropriation of 30 October” are good reason to recall how and why the Day of the Political Prisoner first became an established annual event. Source: A Chronicle of Current Events (33.1)
According to advance information received from the labour camps of Mordovia and Perm, a decision was taken there to designate 30 October 1974 as the “Day of the Political Prisoner in the USSR”.On that day the prisoners intended to declare hunger strikes, which were to last for one or two days. Certain demands which the hunger-strikers intended to put forward on 30 October are known to us. These demands included:
The Chronicle does not yet know what actually took place on 30 October.
On the evening of 30 October a press conference was organized by Andrei D. Sakharov and the Action Group for the Defence of Human Rights in the USSR, at which information about “Political Prisoner’s Day” was given to Western correspondents. Valentin F. Turchin, Chairman of the Moscow group of Amnesty International [its formation was announced in October 1973], attended the press conference as an observer.
“The organizers of this press conference look upon it as an expression of their solidarity with Soviet political prisoners. We are also counting on widespread support from world public opinion,” said a statement given to the journalists. The statement outlined the main difficulties of the life led by political prisoners; excessively long terms of imprisonment; bad and severely insufficient food, which cannot be supplemented from parcels, as these are strictly limited as to both their weight and numbers; widespread and unsupervised punitive measures; oppressive work conditions; bad medical services, and so on. The statement emphasizes that the political prisoners “have been convicted for actions, opinions and intentions which would not be regarded as grounds for prosecution in a democratic country”.
“We do not yet know,” the statement says, “what happened there today, behind the barbed wire. But we are certain that today, as always, the political prisoners will reassert their dignity as human beings and their feeling of inner justification.”
The journalists were handed copies of open letters by prisoners and other material received from labour camps.
These documents are presented in brief extracts below. The majority were written during October, especially for Political Prisoners’ Day.
An open letter to the Women’s International Democratic Federation signed by Kronid Lyubarsky, Sergei Babich, Israil Zalmanson, Zoryan Popadyuk, Alexander A. Petrov-Agatov, Boris Azernikov and Boris Penson appeals to the Federation to demand the following from the Soviet Government: the release of women political prisoners, the open publication of the materials of their cases, and the opportunity for members of the Federation to see for themselves the conditions under which women prisoners are held.
In an open letter to the World Postal Union, Azernikov, Lyubarsky and Penson speak of systematic “breaches of the obligations which the USSR Ministry of Communications assumed when the Soviet Union joined the WPU. They emphasize that they are not referring to the important matter of Soviet legislation concerning restrictions on prisoners’ correspondence and the censorship of their letters, as this is outside the competence of the WPU.
“Scores, even hundreds of letters … disappear without trace … with no explanation given, and with complaints remaining unanswered,” the letter states. Some political prisoners fail to receive 20 to 50 per cent of all their mail; and there have been individual cases of prisoners being completely deprived of letters over long periods. Letters are frequently delayed for months, telegrams for many days, sometimes for weeks.
Correspondence which, unlike that which “disappears”, is officially withheld by the censors, is usually not returned to the senders, and the latter receive no compensation. Incidentally, the confiscation of letters in such cases is against the law.
The letter goes on: “We ask you to take into account the extreme limitations on our own means of protest. We need the help of organizations with authority, which are directly concerned with the problems we have raised.”
Boris P. Azernikov, a dental surgeon, describes in an open letter the dangerously unhealthy conditions under which prisoners are held in the “strict-regime” labour camps of Mordovia, and the extremely low standard of the medical services in these camps.
The prisoners live in a state of “disguised starvation”.
“Even the maximum calorie count of the food is about 2,000 calories less than the amount necessary for the hard labour in which the prisoners are engaged. The food contains practically no animal protein or vitamins. Cases of food poisoning are not infrequent.
“The air in the workshops is thick with sawdust powder and abrasive dust, acetone and acid fumes. … This is conducive to the development of silicosis and other lung diseases. Medical treatment is begun only when an illness has reached a critical stage, and even then it is continued only until the symptoms disappear. Chronic illnesses such as gastro-enteric, cardiovascular and eye diseases, rheumatism, mycosis and periodontosis are not treated at all, although they exist on a massive scale in the camps. A sick man is permitted exemption from work only if his temperature is above 37.4 degrees Centigrade. Exemption due to illness, without a high temperature, is extremely rare. The doctor cannot exceed the limit of the so-called ‘exemption norm’, 1.7 per cent of all prisoners, even during influenza epidemics.”
There are no doctors in some camps; their place is taken by doctors’ assistants or nurses. Specialist doctors visit the camps once or twice a year or even less. Prisoners who are doctors may not help their sick comrades. They are expressly forbidden to do so, by order.
Camp doctors have only the simplest medicines at their disposal, and some of these have far exceeded their period of validity. The camp chemists lack effective modern drugs, for example many antibiotics. But “the sending of drugs into the camp from outside is forbidden”.
The dirt road between the camp and the hospital is so bad, “and the camp vehicles so unsuitable for transporting the sick, that the journey may cost a sick man his life. There have been cases of broken limbs and of spinal injury resulting from these journeys. For heart patients a journey over this road is simply unbearable.”
“Often […] people who are completely healthy in mind when they arrive in the camp […] become mentally ill towards the end of a long term. Such sick people receive no treatment whatsoever; frequently prison cells and punishment cells are used to isolate them. There have been no instances when even the very seriously ill have been released.”
Azernikov asks for help for those suffering inhuman treatment. And he concludes: “This should not, and cannot, be delayed by transient political considerations.”
The astrophysicist K. A. Lyubarsky, appealing in a letter to the Executive Council of the World Federation of Scientific Workers and to the Executive Committee of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, describes the effect of the camp routine and conditions on the professional future of prisoners who are scholars and scientists.
“We are not merely temporarily deprived of freedom. We are forever deprived of our profession, of the work we love,” writes Lyubarsky.
In a labour camp, it is strictly forbidden to receive any scientific or scholarly literature, even highly specialised, published abroad. Literature published in the USSR can be obtained from mail-order shops, but only recently published books in little demand are actually available there. Private individuals are categorically forbidden to send any literature. Private letters from colleagues – especially from those abroad – containing information about science and scholarship, are delayed by the censors for many months, and often withheld altogether.
Academics, mostly no longer young, are subjected to hard physical labour in the camps, which they are not used to, and which leaves them neither the strength nor the time for intellectual work, Lyubarsky considers that the impossibility of following developments in their field and the exhaustion and the systematic malnutrition eventually render scientists and scholars who serve long terms of imprisonment wholly incapable of continuing to work in their professions.
Lyubarsky calls on the Federation and the Congress, and on scientists and scholars all over the world, to obtain for Soviet political prisoners the right of free access to academic literature, the right to academic contacts; he calls on scholars to send scientific material to their political prisoner colleagues.
In an open letter, Boris P. Azernikov speaks of the reasons which first made him decide to leave the USSR, and thus brought him to a labour camp.
“Why am I here? Why could I not be elsewhere?”
“I realized that I had been robbed. I had been robbed of my history, my forbears, my language … so that I would not even think of resisting the attempts to herd me into the faceless ‘new historic community’, the ‘Soviet nation’. And this realization has determined the whole subsequent course of my life.
“I did not try to shake the might of the Soviet Union … I wanted only to leave it, for a country which, whatever it may be like, good or bad, has for me the unquestionable advantage of being the land of my people. However, in the eyes of the Soviet Government – which once [under Lenin] published ‘A Declaration of the Rights of the Peoples of Russia’ – this wish of mine alone almost automatically made me a criminal; and so here I am, in a labour camp …
“Today, on ‘Political Prisoners’ Day in the USSR’, remember those who, before they can step on the soil of their Homeland, are still fated to spend long years in Soviet labour camps. Today, they cry out: ‘Deliver me, o my God, out of the hand of the wicked, out of the hand of the unrighteous and cruel man.’ (Psalm 71, verse 4).
“We shall not forget them! We shall say today with hope and also with them: ‘Next year in Jerusalem!’”
The Western journalists were also handed copies of an interview given by some of the prisoners in Perm Camp VS-389/35: Ivan Svetlichny, Igor Kalynets, Ivan Kandyba, Lev Yagman, Semyon (Slava) Gluzman, Zinovy Antonyuk, Arie Khnokh, Iosif Meshener, Evgeny Prishlyak, Vladimir Balakhonov and Bagrat Shakhverdyan. The interview deals with such matters as the legal position of political prisoners, the harshness of the labour camp regime, the prisoners’ relations with the administration, the many instances in which political prisoners have acted in defence of their rights, etc.
The prisoners say that the authorities, by imposing on them the strictest isolation, are trying to hide the truth about the kind of life led in the camps by people who have been convicted contrary to the declaration of civil freedoms in the  Constitution. The rules of censorship are such that they effectively allow for any letter to be withheld, and thus encourage the tyranny of the censors. The destruction of such letters rules out any possibility of checking on the reasons for which they were withheld.
Although the declared aim of the authorities is to win the prisoners over by force of argument, they are powerless and in fact make no attempt to do so; their real aim is to break a prisoner, to force him to renounce his views. The administration tries to achieve this aim by constant fault-finding and punishment, by illegally subjecting the prisoners to mental and physical suffering — humiliation, hunger, cold, etc. Heavy, sometimes pointless labour has become an instrument of punishment. “Reformed” prisoners do not even disguise the fact that the incentive in their “re-education” was a desire for the relative well-being and the small privileges provided to those on good terms with the authorities.
Supervisory bodies cover up the cruelties of the regime and the tyranny in the camps, always supporting the administration. So complaints by the prisoners are ineffective, unless the illegalities can be given wider publicity. In fact, the publicity which directs world attention to the evidence of tyranny is the corner-stone of the defence of human rights in the USSR. The efforts of the Soviet authorities and certain circles in the West to regard this kind of repression as the internal affair of the Soviet Union are dictated by unworthy considerations of political manoeuvring.
At the end of the interview I. A. Svetlichny says: “Please pass our warm greetings to Solzhenitsyn, whose courage we all deeply respect.”
The full text of the interview is published in the first issue of the Archive of the Chronicle.
The journalists were also given the following:
A letter from Andrei Sakharov to L. I. Brezhnev, dated 24 October 1974, was read out at the conference and handed to the journalists. He writes:
“The continuation of senseless and cruel repression of human rights and dignity cannot be tolerated on this earth, even in that part of it which is divided from you by barbed wire and prison walls. Brave and honest people cannot be allowed to die.”
The letter contains detailed information on hunger strikes by Valentin Moroz, G. Abel, Kronid Lyubarsky and Ivan Gel [Ukr. Hel]; it tells of lengthy collective hunger strikes by political prisoners, and mentions hunger strikes by the Baptists Georgy Vins and Boris Zdorovets. Sakharov maintains that these facts “bear irrefutable witness to the acute position regarding political prisoners and their conditions.” He asks for immediate action, so as to avoid a tragic outcome in the hunger strikes at present taking place.
“Political prisoners in the USSR are the victims of ideological intolerance, partly anti-religious in character, of political prejudices, and of the cruel traditions of the system. … A special position amongst political prisoners is held by people who have consciously devoted themselves to the defence of others.” Among these, Sakharov recalls the names of Vladimir Bukovsky, Leonid Plyushch, Semyon Gluzman, Reshat and Mustafa Dzhemilev, Igor Ogurtsov, and the late Yury Galanskov all of whom have become “symbols of the battle for human rights and against oppression and lawlessness”.
Sakharov’s letter to Brezhnev ends with these words:
“I ask you to consider again the granting of a full amnesty for political prisoners, including those in psychiatric hospitals, the easing of their conditions of imprisonment, and the shortening of the sentences of prisoners in all categories.
“Such decisions would have great humanitarian value, would greatly enhance international confidence and the spirit of detente, and would cleanse our country of the shameful stains of cruelty, intolerance and lawlessness.”
A statement entitled “30 October” by the Action Group for the Defence of Human Rights in the USSR, and signed by Tatyana Velikanova, Sergei Kovalyov, Grigory Podyapolsky and Tatyana Khodorovich, speaks of the meaning of the term “political prisoner”. It details the different categories of political prisoners in the USSR, the punishment in Soviet camps through hunger and cold in contravention of corrective labour legislation (but provided for by various regulations and directives), and it lists the demands put forward on “Political Prisoners” Day in the USSR.
The statement adds:
“In giving journalists information about the camps, and, most important, the documents sent out of the camps by the prisoners at enormous risk and with great difficulty, we ask you to remember that the writers are risking the revenge and punitive measures of the authorities. Our friends are consciously accepting those risks. It is their wish that these statements and letters be published; it is the duty of those of us who are free to try to protect them from cruel punishment — that is our responsibility, and yours.”
The Action Group also gave the journalists a statement about the transfer of Kronid Lyubarsky from a labour camp to Vladimir Prison. The organizers of the press conference answered a number of questions put to them by the journalists.
Selected and annotated from A Chronicle of Current Events (1968-1982)
 Corrective-labour camps and prisons in the USSR were overseen by a branch of the Procurator’s Office in each Region, i.e. an official from the same body that investigated and prosecuted serious crimes. Political prisoners in camps for criminal offenders and in camps exclusively for those convicted of political offences also came informally under the oversight of the KGB.
 The death through medical neglect of political prisoner Yury Galanskov on 2 November 1972 (CCE 28.1) was one of the many reasons for this protest, in preparation since April 1974. Kronid Lyubarsky was sentenced to five years in strict-regime penal colonies on 30 October 1972 (CCE 28.4).