In Memory of Valery Abramkin

26 January 2013 

Source: (info
Following a long illness, Valery Abramkin, human rights defender, political prisoner during the Soviet era, and founder and lifelong director of the Moscow Centre for Prison Reform, died in Moscow on 25th January 2013 at the age of 66.

Valery Abramkin was part of the democratic movement in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1976, following one of many searches by KGB agents, he was given an official warning that he would be arrested if he continued to participate in ‘anti-Soviet activity’. He was then dismissed (at the request of the KGB) from the research institute where he had carried out research into nuclear technology. He found work as a lumberjack, a stoker and a sexton.

In the 1970s he became actively involved in human rights work, and helped to publish the underground ‘samizdat’ magazines Voskresenie (‘Resurrection’) and Poiski (‘Seeking Mutual Understanding’). In 1979, the KGB and Public Prosecutor’s Office issued an order to block the release of Poiski, which was becoming increasingly popular amongst the democratic intelligentsia. 

To view the photos online, click HERE.

Over one hundred people who worked at the magazine and its readers had their houses searched, and a criminal case was launched under Article 190-1 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (“for the distribution of slanderous fabrications which discredit the Soviet social and political system”). Since the authorities did not succeed in preventing the magazine from being published, Valery Abramkin was used as a hostage following the release of the next issue of Poiski. 

He was arrested in 1979, and spent a year in Butyrskaya Prison. In October 1980 he was sentenced under Article 190-1 to three years at a prison camp, and was sent to a camp in Altai.

He regularly passed information about human rights abuses from prison and from the camp, for which he was sentenced to an additional three years, again under Article 190-1. In the camp he fell ill with tuberculosis and a host of other serious illnesses. Thanks to the protests of western human rights organisations he was released at the end of his second term, without another case being brought against him.

In December 1985 he was sent, under police supervision, to a remote village in the Tver Region, where he worked at a school for mentally disabled children. Despite the changes underway in the USSR, he was not allowed to return to Moscow until the start of 1989. Once back in Moscow he dedicated himself to active human rights work, joining the Moscow Helsinki Group and forming the non-governmental organisation Prison and Liberty, which in 1992 was renamed the Moscow Centre for Prison Reform. In 1990 he became a member of Penal Reform International (PRI).

At the end of 1991, Abramkin and the journalist Igor Demin worked to develop a special radio broadcast for prisoners, which was given the go-ahead by the management of the state radio station Radio Rossii (Radio of Russia).

This broadcast for prisoners, entitled ‘Oblaka’ (‘Clouds’), has been on air weekly since January 1992. Valery Abramkin was constantly involved, writing scripts and taking part in the broadcasts. According to a survey carried out by the Public Opinion Foundation, Oblaka is listened to by over 25% of Russia’s adult population.

Valery Abramkin helped to develop various draft laws in the field of criminal justice for the Russian parliament. Particularly noteworthy was the first version of the draft law on changes to the penal code, which he prepared on behalf of the Russian Supreme Court Human Rights Committee. In June 1992 changes were made to the Correctional Labour Code in force at the time, improving conditions for prisoners considerably, and bringing Russia’s penal legislation closer to European standards.

In 1992, together with Yury Chizhov, he prepared and published a book entitled How to Survive in a Soviet Prison, about 30,000 copies of which were handed out free of charge to prisoners and their relatives.

Valery Abramkin was responsible for many publications, books and radio and television broadcasts on the plight of prisoners and the consequences of criminal sanctions. He also prepared several dozen papers for international conferences, state bodies and NGOs, both national and international, about the position of Russian prisoners, human rights violations, and various aspects of the criminal punishment system.

Valery Abramkin regularly visited prisons over many years, monitoring human rights issues and providing assistance to prisoners, newly released former inmates and staff at penal institutions. 

He was a member of the Council for Judicial Reform (1994-1997) and of the Permanent Chamber of the Presidential Political Advisory Board (1997-2000), the Presidential Commission for Human Rights (2002-2004), the Public Council of the Russian Ministry of Justice (from August 2003) and the Mayor of Moscow’s Human Rights Commission.

From November 2004 onwards he was a member of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights.

Condolences can be sent to:
Telephone no. 8(906) 767 0983.

Valery Abramkin
Strange sensations 
From the stories of Valery Abramkin

...It was obvious that they were going to put me in prison. Back in April 1979 I was summoned to the Moscow City Prosecutor’s Office, and told directly: “as soon of the next issue of Poiski (that was the name of the magazine I helped to publish) comes out, you will be sent to prison”. The editorial board met, and everyone knew that I was being used as a hostage. There was no discussion or voting - everyone looked at me. It was up to me to decide... “Well, so what”, I said. “Even if they threatened to shoot me - what difference would it make? We shouldn’t be moved by their threats, but by our duty”... But I had never imagined that prison could be a whole other world, a world beyond the grave.

For example, I had had to go hungry for a few days, or even a week, whilst a free man. I was used to all of that, and so I thought I could cope with any hunger. In my first year in prison I went on hunger strike many times - for a week, for 25 days, and it wasn’t too bad. But after two years in prison, a two-day hunger strike took more strength from me than a month without food in the outside world. For example, when I first ended up in the punishment cell... it was winter, the windowpanes were broken, and dressed only in underpants, vest and my cotton prison uniform, I didn’t think I would survive a single day, let alone the ten full days I was faced with. But that wasn’t the worst thing.

...The system is nonsensical. I read [Dostoevsky’s] The House of the Dead, [Solzhenitsyn’s] The Gulag Archipelago, and works by [Anatoly] Marchenko... I simply used them for information. Compared to the people who ended up in prison for regular crimes and had not read any samizdat material, for example, my situation was a lot easier. But in essence, in terms of its core substance, I have never known anything like it. Do you understand? There is nothing else like it! After six years in prison, and following a year of freedom, I began to relive it all over again, and I realised that everything in the camp felt very much like The House of the Dead. Much closer than that written by Anatoly Marchenko or [Vladimir] Bukovsky.

Marchenko’s description was more or less accurate. But I’m talking, above all, about the conditions endured there and the spiritual character of the prison world. It would seem that you needed to be more mature not just to glean information from the books about prison, but to understand the claustrophobic experience itself.

You know, a lot is now written about the 1930s, but the experience which people had in those years, whenever authors describe it, for some reason still falls short of this spiritual experience. More and more is being written about external affairs, and so we simply move away from our evil, pushing it aside. This seems to me to be an attempt to distance ourselves - to substantiate evil and push it away. And whilst people are writing in that way about the past, this experience will never be ours. The current presentation of the past is an attempt to put it on the back-burner, and it is simply leading us to conventional forms of old culture.

* * * 

My thoughts about prison revolve around the theme of the ‘non-tragic situation’. ‘Non-tragic situations’ are not so much connected with the claustrophobic internal conditions, with the plight of the people in the Zone, but instead with the events that occurred there away from the inmates.

I was constantly trampled down; they tried to break me. They were terrible years: 1983 and, finally, worst of all, 1985.

...‘Broken’ can be defined in different ways. For instance, a person may confess, renounce further activities, or make a public statement. They demanded a statement from me, for example, and said we would write a text. But it goes beyond this external plan: they want to break your spirit.

Before I was arrested, I believed that I would make the choice myself. But then, suddenly, I began to have the sensation that I was playing a role allocated to me. It never entered my head that the specific people who were dealing with me could penetrate my condition and my feelings so deeply.

I left with the impression that they could break anyone, and do whatever they wanted with anybody. I was released, and in 1986 heard a foreign radio broadcast in the village to which I had been sent under supervision. They had just released [Anatoly] Shcharansky. This was a time when they were being particularly harsh on political prisoners, and not all prisoners could withstand it. There was a steady stream of confessions and television broadcasts where they renounced future activity. And then, according to the western radio broadcasts, Shcharansky was the only hero: he had withstood everything, borne all his trials honourably, and did not break. But I had the feeling that that was not the case. They simply didn’t need him to break - and he came out a hero. If they had wanted him to break, he would have broken. That’s the sensation I took out of the prison camp. I had the terrifying feeling that I had never had any choice.

* * * 

...For me the democratic movement did not simply boil down to a fight for human rights. It was a fight to extend the range of tragic situations, for the spiritual rebirth or cleansing of the nation. When I joined the democratic movement in the mid 1970s, I saw it as an opportunity to return tragic situations to Russia, when for decades tragedy had been downplayed and eliminated.

Tragedy always requires the opportunity to choose. To choose between good and evil. You pay for this choice - either with death and suffering (for good) or with your soul (for evil), whilst obtaining worldly goods, building a career and so on. But if there is no choice, there is no tragic situation. Take, for example, the trial of Bukharin. Where was the choice there? Or the [Nikolai] Vavilov affair... But the democratic movement of the 1960s and 1970s began to create tragedy, allowing people, each of us, a choice... And it was up to us to extend the scope of tragic situations. If I choose freely, this, as it were, acts as an example to someone else, and they also choose freely. And so, by widening the web of tragedy we in some way offer everybody the opportunity for catharsis.

In addition, it meant we could get to grips with the awful experience of the 1930s, turning our past into history. This is impossible without bringing together, or, to put it another way, convening the spiritual experiences not just of our generation and the generation that preceded it, but also generations from other eras, for example the 19th century. A tragic situation always involves the ‘convening’ of the spiritual experiences of numerous generations. A crude example of this is that when I stood up to the authorities, I remembered the Decembrists, or the Petrashevky Circle, or somebody else... I can make my own free decisions, take a certain step by myself, make a sacrifice - in other words, I act of my own volition, exactly as I want to act. But sometime in 1978, for the first time I got the impression that that is not exactly right. What I do has been ‘pre-assigned’ to me.

Several people were arrested in the Poiski case (in 1979-1982). By 1983 I was able to look objectively at all the investigations and judicial processes. I got the impression that we did not choose; each of us was assigned a set role. One person was to confess - and he was not one to confess normally, but the confession duly came. Another was to stubbornly resist in court, but then, in the end, not rebel too much, so as to be released after the first term.

* * * 

And I was given the role of fighting to the end. In the first case I could not reach a compromise - partially admitting my guilt, for instance. I was involved in publishing the magazine; I bore responsibility before its readers, its authors, and someone else as well. But the accusations in the second trial were made against me personally: “campaigning and propaganda in prison”. An outright forgery from beginning to end! If I had admitted to being a CIA agent, for example, that would have been my choice. It would not have affected anyone else. And if I admitted that I had I really campaigned amongst those prisoners. Well, I campaigned – and so what, damn it, if that’s what you want - I admit it!... But when I tried to put forward a compromise, they did not like it. And they immediately tried to force me into the role of a ‘fighter’.

...But that was a completely different time from when we were imprisoned on the first case in 1979. One of my accomplices had formally confessed, and was released on the spot. For a partial recognition of guilt and a promise not to commit further political activity. He did not give any evidence against us. But in 1983 neither confession nor renunciation worked. People were confessing and then serving their whole sentence. When, for instance, Sergei Khodorovich was sent to prison in 1982, they said to him directly: “What the hell do we need a confession for? Tell us who has the Fund’s money hidden away!” (Khodorovich was an administrator at the Russian Social Fund for Aid to Political Prisoners). They did not get anything from him - neither money, nor a confession. But I still have the sensation that my role was prescribed for me, and that I was coerced into acting the way they had set out for me to act, following pre-defined and pre-written scripts.
* * * 
...There were times when I was entirely convinced that they (the real people who were dealing with me) could not know my feelings. But even so, in these cases they acted as if they ‘knew’ everything. Everything that came into my head – whatever I had decided to do - they seemed to guess, because they would suddenly prevent me from doing it.

To myself, I named this force ‘zavlastye’ (‘beyond power’), a suitably shadowy word. It is some kind of mystic force, an abyss, primeval chaos, in which light and dark, good and evil still have not been defined - that’s where ‘zavlastye’ comes from. It wraps up living space so tightly that tragic situations cannot unfold anywhere. For a tragic situation is a situation of choice. If, for example, a soothsayer told Laius that his son Oedipus would kill him and marry his mother, Laius could still decide whether to do away with his son or not. It’s still a choice. My fate remains? Bring it on! I’m all the more free in my choice. I can’t change fate, but the action is mine!

But if you look at the worlds that exist in Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales or in The Gulag Archipelago, you understand that the situations there reject tragedy - they are incompatible with it. Just try to establish a tragic or evangelical scene there - they would not take root, they would be rejected straight away. It is another world. And I have had withdrawal symptoms for exactly that. For the fact that I felt I had no choice. Once I had understood this, I was even comforted for a while, thinking that whilst I had no choice, at the end of the day I still had some control over my life. And if I so fancied, was there not the escape route of suicide? That final choice always exists... But even that didn’t work out for me! When I said: “That’s it, it’s time...time to end this monotony”, nothing came of it. They wouldn’t let me. ‘Zavlastye’ had taken away this opportunity too. No sooner had I planned to die than they ruined my plan. I have already attributed this to a mystical force...

In fact, when you emerge from conditions like that, at first you get the feeling that you have the right to do anything you want with whoever you want. I could kill someone - I have the right. I could take a scrap of bread from him - it’s permitted... And most importantly, I am able to do it - the person will obey me. He will give me his piece of bread, or die without complaint.

This condition can be called ‘non-tragedy’, a feeling of ‘non-tragedy’. I can, I have the right to anything I want, and it will not be weighed on the scales of good and evil. It is not subject to the trials of tragedy. I’m talking about the feelings of my final year in prison, 1985. When I was released in 1985 following my second prison term, I was completely broken inside. 

                                                                                            * * * 

I returned to freedom with the sensation that a stream of chaos was more and more taking hold of our life. Look at perestroika... They only started it when the dissident movement had broken. In 1985, when perestroika had already begun, they came down hard on political prisoners. There were many suicide attempts in that period, many confessions and a host of other things which seemed improbable from people who, in my view, were made of stone, resistant. When I was released and all this news reached me, because of my circumstances I understood it well, and knew what it was.

I came out a different man. A completely different person came out, as if I had been born again... And now, when I read my previous letters... or, for example, Butyrskaya Fragments, which I wrote in prison in 1980, I realise that it is not the current me. I read them as an external onlooker. I have the very strong feeling that I don’t have the right to sign my Butyrskaya Fragments and the things I write now with the same surname - and not because I’m afraid of something. I don’t fear anything any more. I still have the feeling that I have a duty to the person who died there, and that I should fulfil this duty, even though, essentially, it is a duty to another person.

I have the sensation that I have been assigned a completely different purpose. Not the purpose with which I entered the world I was born and imprisoned in, but something completely different. I feel I should not fight evil, but rather work for equilibrium. Do you understand? I cannot withstand the fight with evil any longer, so I should live with it in some kind of equilibrium... I may be mistaken, but sometimes it seems to me that if I suddenly had the chance to return to my past, pre-prison life, to go back to the 1970s, I would try to avoid it. Something terrible is happening in the world, a transition to a different life has already begun, and people can only survive by writing out a fair copy of the whole text of culture. And by building life on completely different foundations. The old ones are beyond saving. And what I’m now living inside is an attempt to find this way of life. However, I have the feeling that I am no longer suited for this new way of life, it is no longer my experience - but it can still stand other people in good stead. It is such a strange feeling...

* * * 

My happiest memory is from the Butyrka Prison, when I spent two months in a single cell on death row, with absolute silence, no dynamics at all. And the cell was large - big enough for four people. It was a wonderful time. There were piles of books, and I could write as much as I wanted. I did not have to fear anyone, I had no cell mates, and nobody was going to hand me in.

I have been told that in ancient times a ceremony existed where they would strangle somebody. They would tie a rope around his neck and wait until he died. Once he had died, they would untie him, and bring him back to life. Anthropologists say that it was a way of giving someone a new identity...

Source: ‘The 20th Century and the World’, No. 3, 1993