Letters for Political Prisoners of Kremlin
For the 6th year in a row, activists have held a letter writing marathon for Kremlin prisoners. At least 87 illegally detained Ukrainians had to spend the New Year behind bars in Russia and occupied Crimea. To them, letters offer moral support and remind them that they are expected home
Two months after Kateryna Marchenko’s husband went missing in occupied Donbas, she received the message out of the blue.
“I’m in Krasnodar, at the Oktiabrsky detention center,” reads the message Kateryna received on February 19, at 7.40 am.
“I responded: ‘How can I contact you?’ But naturally, there was no answer back. No one answered me (straight away),” Kateryna Marchenko said.
In December 2018, Oleksandr set out for the city of Donetsk to collect his car. He never returned.
“That day, he was arrested at customs. For two months, he was held in a basement before illegally being taken to Russia,” Ketryna Marchenko said.
In Russia, Oleksandr was accused of espionage, despite there being no credible evidence he was linked to the Ukrainian intelligence agencies.
The Memorial human rights NGO recognized him as a political prisoner. During a meeting with his mother, Marchenko named the real reason for his detention.
“He said, ‘I was detained for being Ukrainian.’ He said they hate Ukrainians. They were yelling at him and calling him a Banderite,” she said.
Despite two recent, large-scale prisoner exchanges, Russia continues to hold many innocent people behind bars.
“There are around 87 people in Russia and Crimea. We don’t know about all of them. There is also a black hole instead of a list – people who are in occupied territories in the Donbas. Ukraine’s representative in the Trilateral Contact Group Valeriya Lutkovska said that according to the information she has, there are still 300 people there. But we understand that even she doesn’t really have a way of tracking them,” head of the center for the civil liberties Oleksandra Matviychuk said.
While there is no way to write to those held in occupied Donbas, prisoners in Russia and Crimea get their letters. They are their main source of support.
“In prison, letters are very important. They are the most important thing they have. They can go a day without food and care packages. Prison staff can do something to them… They are all waiting for letters. So write, write, write. About anything. They support them a lot,” released political prisoner Oleh Sentsov said.
Myroslav Marynovych has been writing letters to prisoners of the Kremlin since the beginning of Russian aggression in the Donbas. He is one of the founders of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union. Myroslav himself was a political prisoner — of the Soviet regime. He went through ten years of prison camps and exiles for singing the “Testament” by Ukrainian writer Taras Shevchenko at a memorial evening dedicated to him.
“At the beginning of being in exile, I recall the feeling in my soul when I started receiving cards signed by members of Amnesty International from around the world. I received letters from France, the Netherlands, the United States, and Japan. Just a few lines, a few warm wishes. And it lifted my spirits for the whole day,” co-founder of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union Myroslav Marynovych said.
According to human rights defenders, letters can be about anything because people who are held behind bars are interested in everything happening outside. The main thing is for letters to be in Russian and to contain no radical words since they are all read by censors.
The letters can be sent to Russia by mail or via an electronic system called “FSIN-Pismo.” A number of Russian prisons are connected to it. Letters for those held in Crimea can be sent to the Center for Civil Liberties in Kyiv. From there, they are taken to the occupied peninsula by activists and relatives of political prisoners.