Postcards from the Russian prison. New Year’s wishes from Russians imprisoned over their opposition to the war
Postcards from the Russian prison. New Year’s wishes from Russians imprisoned over their opposition to the war
3 January 2023, 11:01

Illustration: Boris Khmelniy / Mediazona

It took Vladimir Putin just eight days after Russia invaded Ukraine to sign a law introducing stiff prison sentences for “public dissemination of deliberately false information about the use of Russian Armed Forces.” Any statement contradicting the official position of the Ministry of Defence, including using the word “war” instead of the “special military operation”, could be used to lock an individual up for up to 15 years. We asked political prisoners who were not afraid to speak out and call things what they are to offer their versions of New Year’s greetings for our readers. Below are the responses from politicians Ilya Yashin and Vladimir Kara-Murza, city councillor Alexei Gorinov, artist Alexandra Skochilenko, lawyer Dmitry Talantov, and mathematics student Dmitry Ivanov.

Ilya Yashin

On December 9, Oksana Goryunova, a Moscow judge, sentenced politician Ilya Yashin to 8,5 years in prison for disseminating “fake news” about the Russian army on his YouTube stream dedicated to the Bucha massacre. He was transferred out of Moscow and into a penal colony before his appeal would be heard, a less than usual practice in Russia—and just two days before his mother was supposed to visit him in jail. Yashin wrote his New Year’s letter en route to the Udmurt Republic, some 600 miles away from Moscow.

Perhaps, many of you aren’t very festive today. Woe has been the word of the year, and thoughts like these aren’t easy to get rid of even at a party table.

But I think we started to value human life more, learned to stick together, and, as strange as it sounds, became kinder. Look closer: as the darkness grows, the need for humanism is as strong as ever. And this gives hope.

I want to wish us all not to become embittered, to stay human. To become free and live in peace.

Happy New Year, my friends! Be happy.

You can write to Russian political prisoners via official online services of the penitentiary system, ФСИН-письмо and Зона-телеком (available in Russian only). In order to do send a letter, one has to choose the region and the penal colony, fill in the name and year of birth for the inmate. For Ilya Yashin, the address is:

Region: Удмуртская республика,

Prison: СИЗО-1 (Ижевск),

Name: Яшин Илья Валерьевич,

Year of birth: 1983.

Dmitry Talantov

In Udmurtia, president of the regional bar association and a prominent defense attorney Dmitry Talantov is on trial because back in April he re-posted a photo on Facebook: a man standing with a poster “Peace for Ukraine. Sanity, awe, shame, and penance for Russia. Hell for Putin.” Talantov was charged with distributing “fake news” about the Russian army. Since late June, he is in pre-trail detention in Moscow. At first, the 61-year-old lawyer didn’t have his own bunk and was forced to sleep on the floor. In September, an additional charge, incitement of hate were added to his case.

This was the year of a looming tragedy that finally hit us. Black, senseless, dreadful. Common. And the word “common” is thrice more important now, when many people can’t even perceive what has happened as a tragedy. It’s awful to see how the war eats up souls. People walk, talk, eat, but they are dead already, even though no bullets hit them.

The thing that supported a lot this year was kindred love. Words and deeds of those who didn’t disgrace themselves. A feeling that you ended up being not so useless after all. Moments when real light sparked. Here you are, lying around in a crowded cell. An hour, a day, a week. Then suddenly you read a line from Joseph Brodsky’s “Thames at Chelsea,” the one you know so well, and you are struck by its beauty. I think, that’s what God is.

Light doesn’t need a reason, it simply shines. Evil doesn’t stand a chance, it’s empty and impotent. Yeah, sure, the wind blew and put out the candle. But we’ll light it up again!

I want to wish one thing in the coming year. Don’t believe that the good is small, powerless in its “smallness.” It’s always enormous. You say a kind word, you don’t approve of an asshole, you act a little kinder than was expected of you... And that’s it, you already are a co-creator of our common reality. I’m convinced that this co-creation of the world continues, and it’s our common effort with the Almighty.

Address: Москва, СИЗО-4 («Медведь»), Талантов Дмитрий Николаевич, 1960

Vladimir Kara-Murza

In April, politician Vladimir Kara-Murza was detained near his house and put under administrative arrest for 15 days under the pretence that he “behaved inadequately after seeing police officers, changed the trajectory, started moving faster, ignored the officers’ demand to stop, and tried to escape.” As he was serving time, new charges were pressed: spreading “fake news” about the army while speaking to lawmakers at the Arizona House of Representatives about the shelling of residential areas, schools, and hospitals in Ukraine. More charges followed: Kara-Murza was accused of working at an “undesirable organisation” (up to four years in prison) and of treason (twelve to twenty years).

I love the phrase “The darkest hour is always before dawn.” It’s attributed to different people but I learned it from Soviet dissidents, who liked it as well.

Hearing this in 1983, your only reaction could have been a bitter grin. With the war in Afghanistan, with Andrei Sakharov in internal exile, with a new wave of politically motivated arrests, with a passenger Boeing plane shot down by the Soviet military, and with the confrontation with the West leading the world to the brink of nuclear war. Even the Moscow Helsinki Group was forced to dissolute. It seemed like the darkest of times, but dawn was right around the corner.

It’s very dark in our country now. And the year that’s about to end became one of the darkest in the lives of our generations. But even after the darkest night there always comes a dawn, and it will come this time, for sure.

I want to wish the readers of Mediazona and all of us in 2023 some light, kindness, peace, freedom, and changes for the better. No matter how dark it seems, dawn could come really soon. Happy New Year!

Address: Москва, СИЗО-5 («Водник»), Кара-Мурза Владимир Владимирович, 1981

Alexandra Skochilenko

The 32-year-old artist and musician from Saint Petersburg is being held under arrest since April 13, on the charges of spreading “fake news.” She is being prosecuted for switching the price tags at a supermarket for small leaflets with “false information” about the “use of the armed forces of the Russian Federation” in Mariupol. The proceedings started in December.

This year was crazy, desperate, stormy, unpredictable, grievous, hard, revealing surprising traits in people, horrible, and depressing—but at the same time, promising some kind of a daring hope. I really do have reasons to be optimistic. No matter how horrible the crisis is, it brings change. A time for architectonic shifts in the world, society and people’s minds. Oh yes, people’s minds are changing, albeit slowly. There were only a handful of people who opposed the war in Afghanistan in the USSR, but now there are hundreds of thousands of pacifists.

This year, the things that really helped me were monumental support from the civil society, articles in the media, the undying loyalty and love of my significant other, and the unprecedented selflessness of my friends. And, of course, creative work.

We also made significant progress in the area of psychological education. Huge queues to psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists, it’s barely possible to schedule a visit. In 2014, something like this was unimaginable. Nevertheless, I think that the coming of the age of psychotherapeutic culture is key to awareness and a more humane society.

I wish everyone that their 2023 would not be like my 2022! And I also wish for a peaceful sky up above, freedom (in all senses of the word), mental health, and an ocean of inspiration for work, family life, and any creative endeavours.

Address: Санкт-Петербург, СИЗО-5 («Арсеналка»), Скочиленко Александра Юрьевна, 1994

Alexei Gorinov

On July 8, Moscow Meshchanky court judge Olesya Mendeleeva sentenced city councillor Alexei Gorinov to seven years in prison. His was charged with spreading “fake news”: at a city council meeting Gorinov used the word “war” instead of the “special military operation” and mentioned deaths of Ukrainian children. In mid-December, Gorinov got sick and was transfered to the prison infirmary.

This was one of the most unusual years in my life. A year filled with exotics. I was arrested when the last snow melted. I didn’t see spring, summer or autumn, and now it’s winter and snowing again, there’s a lot of snow here, in the penal colony in Pokrov. This past year, I became very well acquainted with the world of drug dealers, producers of synthetic drugs, crooks, swindlers, and rapists. I carefully studied the pre-trial detention system, including the lives of its dwellers, healthcare, logistics. Now I’m inspecting the prison system. First I was in the penal colony #2 in Pokrov and then in its infirmary in Vladimir.

I always was and still remain an optimist, I believe in people. It’s impossible to live in Russia otherwise. Only for a brief period of time. Change for the better is inevitable. There’s no way around it. My heroic friend and fellow councillor Ilya Yashin is 146 percent right when he tells us not to despair and not to lose our spirits.

Throughout this year support from the outside helped me a lot—letters of solidarity: people wrote about themselves, shared news. All of this gives a sense that you are not alone, didn’t lose your mind, and there are a lot of fellow citizens who think and feel the way you do.

The coming year will be a year of new challenges. But I wish all of us that it would bring an end to this needless, insane war. Too the readers of Mediazona—stay strong and stay in good health!

Address: Владимирская область, ИК-3, Горинов Алексей Александрович, 1961

Dmitry Ivanov

22-year-old student of Moscow State University's Faculty of Computational Mathematics and Cybernetics and “Protesting MSU” Telegram channel admin was charged with spreading “fake news” in early June. It’s still unclear what exactly the charges are based on. According to Sota, his crime is posting about the shelling of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, casualties to the Russian Airforce, Bucha massacre, as well as using the word “war.”

From the window of my cell, I can see an apartment building (how lucky are you, living across the street from a prison!), so every evening I can easily get an idea of how close the New Year is, judging by the number of holiday lights in the windows. The first ones were installed in the middle of December, three more appeared last week, and right now, seven windows are flashing out of sync in front of me. Seven colorful dots on a gray background—it’s not a lot, but in the dark, you can see them from afar, and each day there’s more and more of them.

This past year brought us a lot of difficult and undeserved ordeals: the pain of loss, the involuntary parting with those who are the closest to us, disappointment in friends, lack of understanding in the family, the collapse of plans and dreams. Some of us were forced to leave the country urgently. Others, like myself, were locked up. This cruel, criminal and senseless war is a tragedy that touched all of us, came into every house and forever divided our life into ‘before’ and ‘after.’ Nevertheless, we are still alive, and life goes on.

We will have to understand many things next year, think about them in a completely new way, learn to value things that seemed unshakeable and unquestionable—and those who were close to us in these dark times. Remember: even if you can only see a grey concrete building through a barred window, it will flash colorful lights at some point. Let this light bring hope for a better future. Because at the end of the day, the good will overcome. Russia will be happy. Happy New Year!

Address: Москва, СИЗО-5 («Водник»), Иванов Дмитрий Александрович, 1999

Editors: Elizaveta Nesterova, Dmitry Tkachev

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