Letters of hope and despair. A Russian woman in the Alps and her lifeline to the political prisoners in a Moscow‑area jail
Дмитрий Швец
Letters of hope and despair. A Russian woman in the Alps and her lifeline to the political prisoners in a Moscow‑area jail
11 September 2023, 13:03

Art: Sonya Vladimirova / Mediazona

A year ago, Maria Bovenko, a Russian ex-pat living in the French Alps, decided to write a letter to a random political prisoner back in Russia. As a result, Maria found herself with a large network of pen-pals, including almost all of the political prisoners from SIZO-1, or Detention Center No. 1 in Tver, a region north of Moscow. Now she facilitates greetings and news about fellow inmates through her letters, given the limited contact available between prisoners. Mediazona tells how this correspondence came about, an acute reminder of the importance of writing to political prisoners.

From Chamonix to the SIZO in Tver

Maria Bovenko, a 34-year-old Russian émigré, has been living in the French town of Chamonix at the foot of Mont Blanc since the beginning of the war. She periodically surprises her neighbors with tips on how to properly brew chifir, a bitter tea brew common in Russian jails, and other tales from Russian prison life. These insights are thanks to the extensive correspondence Maria maintains with inmates deprived of their freedom for their anti-war political stances.

“Send regards to your French acquaintances for Catholic Christmas and tell them about chifir: measure a quarter container of black leaf tea, then fill the container with boiling water to the brim. After a few minutes, take another container, and pour the drink back and forth several times between the containers. Criminal subculture members drink chifir standing up, passing one glass around. Each person takes two sips (you can’t have more because it’s so nasty). The first sip is for the health of thieves, the second for the repose of the deceased,” wrote one of Maria’s correspondents, 56-year-old Andrey Trofimov, last winter.

In his letter, Trofimov immediately acknowledged that in Russia, promoting such practices could lead to charges of belonging to an extremist organization—the notorious AUE criminal subculture, popular among the teenagers from poorer cities mostly due to the hardened aesthetics, was banned in 2020 as an “organization” despite its markedly loose nature.

“The neighbors got involved! One of them told me she had read two books; one was about Limonov and the other about Sakharov,” Maria Bovenko enthusiastically recounts. “Even those who are not very well aware get interested; they go about mowing their lawns, and I fill them in on life inside a Russian prison.”

For the past ten years, Maria had been splitting her time between Russia and living abroad, but after the poisoning of Alexei Navalny in August 2020, she visited Russia less frequently. According to Maria, she has worked in furniture business in Italy, as a translator and illustrator, and volunteered for various humanitarian projects, but does not consider herself a political activist.

After Navalny’s arrest in the winter of 2021, she started writing to him in the penitentiary. However, for the most part, they kept their exchanges light-hearted; Maria hesitated to delve into politics with the imprisoned opposition figure. She moved to France shortly before the invasion of Ukraine, and after the war broke out, she began assisting Ukrainian refugees there.

In the fall of 2022, she discovered “Svobot”, a Telegram bot that supplies users with the name and address of a random political prisoner to whom they can send a letter. Maria was assigned to Andrei Trofimov, who was in Tver SIZO-1 at the time. Back then, there was hardly any information about his case.

“A regular country dweller with a ‘Saiga’ [rifle] for some reason. Oh my God, some kind of terrorist! What will I write to him?” Maria thought at the time. Using the “FSIN-Pismo” official service, she wrote that she had gone on a kayaking trip in Konakovo near Moscow many years ago, the city where Trofimov was detained in May 2022.

She received a reply early in the morning while walking around the cathedral in Florence. It turned out that Trofimov had no correspondents other than his family. His family and lawyer were vehemently against publicizing his case, although Trofimov himself was eager for people to know about it. Bovenko began writing about him in various publications, and thanks in large part to her efforts, it became known that he had been arrested at the end of May on charges of inciting extremism. A social media post Trofimov had published contained the following text:

“Taking this opportunity, I want to send greetings to my Comrade Major. And inform him that I am the owner of a Saiga semi-automatic rifle, caliber 5.45. And before they lock me up for ten years for ‘spreading fake news about the actions of the Russian Armed Forces out of political hatred,’ you will have to get to know my Saiga. Glory to Ukraine!”

Trofimov turned out to be a cheerful and fearless person. His sense of humor, desire to “make a spectacle out of everything,” his clear thinking, and absence of animosity towards prison authorities made Maria highly value their correspondence. They exchanged letters regularly, and excerpts were even published on Sluzhba Podderzhki, a Russian anti-war social media account.

Maria noticed that Trofimov writes without using cursive, which is uncommon in Russia, but ensures greater clarity of what is being written. “This person understands the value of this correspondence, and apparently, he keeps a notebook for drafts,” she concluded.

As for the “spectacle,” additional accusations were levied against Trofimov for spreading “false information” about the army and an attempt to join the Russian Volunteer Corps, a paramilitary unit of Russian citizens fighting on behalf of Ukraine. Trofimov himself claims to fully agree with the accusations, but refrains from using court-appointed lawyers, requesting the maximum possible sentence because he does not recognize the court’s legitimacy.

The trial took place behind closed doors. During one of the hearings, Trofimov reportedly pulled out a “No to War” sign and shouted, “Glory to Ukraine.” For this, he was charged with “discrediting” the army and fined 40,000 rubles. The hearing for this latter case was open, Maria notes, so relatives could attend and see that Trofimov was “lively, cheerful, and bearded.”

The prisoner was concerned that there was no information about his hunger strike in the media, and he asked Bovenko to send his columns to the Kasparov.ru website. Trofimov had been writing there even before the war, and now has had columns published on his experience in prison. In the latest instance he published a kind of farewell address, which Trofimov wrote in advance (before the final stage of his trial was reached). In it, he says, “I publicly justify, warmly approve of, and support the explosion on the Crimean Bridge in the Fall of 2022 and the attacks of Ukrainian drones on the Kremlin and other targets in Moscow and the Moscow region in May 2023. Because Ukraine is a victim of aggression by Russia.”

Anti-War Activists

Andrey Nikolaevich—Maria calls Trofimov by his full name—revealed two more qualities: he loves to give instructions and offer introductions to his neighbours. In one of his letters titled “Anti-War Activists,” he told her about some other detainees in Tver’s SIZO-1.

This is how Maria began correspondence with Alexander Martynov and Lyudmila Razumova, a couple from the Tver village of Novozavidovsky, who were facing charges of vandalism and spreading “fake news” about the army. The vandalism charge in Novozavidovsky referred to the inscription of “Ukraine, forgive us!” on the wall of a local grocery store. The couple is also accused of graffiti in the surrounding villages of Mokshino, Varaksino, and Teshilovo, as well as in the village of Mirny, where a spray-painted message combined the names of Putin and Hitler into the damning message “Putler kaput!”

Later, Ivan Kudryashov, a loader who distributed anti-war leaflets, was added to Maria’s list of correspondents. He believed that it was better to go to prison than to serve in the Russian army.

“This reminds me of Tolstoy’s ‘Resurrection’,” Maria says, “because you find yourself involuntarily drawn into it: I wrote about kayaks, and then you are inside this... darkness, although not exactly darkness because these people are exceptional. I can hardly believe how lucky I am to communicate, correspond, and so on with these people.”

But while Kudryashov caught the attention of human rights activists, Martynov and Razumova initially did not attract much of an audience for their case, so Bovenko’s letters were particularly valuable to them. Both thanked her for her communication and shared stories about their lives.

“In the cell, it’s cool, but my ex-husband brought us (me and Sasha) a lot of warm clothes. Yes, I have been in solitary confinement for 8 months now. P.S. Sentencing on December 26. HELP! Maria, thank you for your support and kind words. December 14, 2022. The prosecutor requested 7 years and 6 months,” Razumova wrote, occasionally sending her drawings as well.

Art: Sonya Vladimirova / Mediazona

In their correspondence, Martynov and Bovenko quickly discovered that they shared a love for Russian musician Boris Grebenshchikov and began exchanging his lyrics in their letters. “He [Martynov] said he had a special notebook where he wrote down song lyrics, and at night, when he was feeling down, he would sing them to himself by moonlight,” Bovenko recounted.

In June, Lyudmila Razumova mentioned that in the adjacent solitary cell, there was a 33-year-old Sergey Kabanov, accused of treason. News of his arrest by the Lefortovo Court in Moscow had been reported in April 2021, but there had been no information since. This summer, he ended up in the Tver SIZO, presumably in transit, and Maria wrote to him. Kabanov revealed that he had been sentenced to 12.5 years.

“I didn’t involve human rights activists because there’s no information about me, and they probably wouldn’t have been allowed to see me,” Kabanov lamented. However, he quickly clarified that “overall” he was doing well, not losing hope, and was studying music, math, and physics. In his letter, he even gave a brief lecture on the nature of electric currents. He briefly explained that his case was related to aerodynamic research and relations with the United States.

“A Network of Friends” in Detention

In one of his letters, Ivan Kudryashov told Maria that he saw Trofimov for the last time a month ago. It became apparent quickly that for inmates in the same Tver SIZO, it was easier to maintain contact through a common acquaintance living near Mont Blanc. Prison mail worked reliably, and Maria Bovenko passed on news and messages about the prisoner’s neighbors between detainees from different cells of the same detention center.

Miraculously, for the first six months of correspondence, roughly until the end of Spring, censorship allowed all letters to pass, Maria recalls. Whenever mentioning Crimea, Andrei Trofimov would invariably make a note stating he considered the peninsula Ukrainian and would emphasize his political stance. Later, some letters began to be confiscated.

“So now I ask if he received a letter associated with a certain number. It’s become a bit like accounting: numbers 127 and 128 were received, but 129 didn’t make it—change the words, replace them with others. An Aesopian language emerged, which I hate,” she laments.

Maria admits that she worried about how she would write letters without explicitly calling the war a “war” and conforming to Russian state terminology to avoid censorship. Occasionally, inmates from Tver’s detention center are sent to a hospital in Torzhok, where censorship is less strict. They don’t confiscate entire letters there, but they do use a black marker to blot out some sentences.

Art: Sonya Vladimirova / Mediazona

Over the course of a year, the composition of political prisoners in this particular detention center changed dramatically. Martynov and Razumova received sentences of 6.5 and 7 years in a penal colony. Alexander was sent east to a prison in Yaroslavl, while Lyudmila was sent a few dozen miles north to the town of Vyshny Volochek. After receiving his sentence of 6 years for preparing to set fire to a military enlistment office, Ivan Kudryashov staged a month-long hunger strike, demanding vitamins and a meeting with the head of the detention center. After ending his hunger strike, he was transferred to the prison hospital in the neighboring town of Torzhok.

Maria received a letter from Kudryashov in early August, clearly written by someone else. The letter’s author complained of “mental problems.” Maria believes this to be a ruse by the administration, fabricating a letter from an anti-war activist. She hasn’t received any other letters from Kudryashov in the past month. Unfortunately, the colony that Alexander Martynov was sent to does not accept letters through the approved letter-writing programs, so Maria can only send him postcards from the Alps. Inmates cannot send responses through regular post to France.

“I know people who write to him; I can learn about his news from them. But I miss communicating with him,” Maria complains.

During her correspondence, she has also connected with the relatives and friends of detainees. Many people in Russia are afraid to write to political prisoners themselves, so Maria Bovenko constantly conveys greetings from them. Not only from Russia but also from Ukraine.

“Trofimov perfectly understood that there would be a war and, on the eve, he called a friend from Ukraine—their families were friends, they went on hikes together in Crimea, and everyone understood. Trofimov went to prison, and the friend’s son from Ukraine went to war as a medic, and the friend’s wife runs a rehabilitation center. It’s an incredible story of how they send greetings and words of support through me. These are simple words to help him endure and stand firm. They ask how the trials are going. They’re afraid to write to his family just from sheer intimidation,” Maria shares.

At Trofimov’s request, she started looking for contacts of his old international friends on social media so that he could receive postcards from around the world. Some contacts were found, while others were not. For example, an inmate remembered an acquaintance named Diana Fisher from Scotland, with whom he had once gone hiking. Many Scottish women with that name were found on Facebook, and Maria messaged all of them. “I never found the right one, but now a bunch of Scottish women know about Andrey Nikolaevich Trofimov,” she chuckles.

Thanks to the first letter sent to a random political prisoner, Maria ultimately found herself in a “vast network of friends” that extends far beyond Tver’s SIZO-1. Now, she corresponds not only with Trofimov, Kudryashov, Razumova, and Martynov but also with those convicted of treason, such as Sergey Kabanov and Antonina Zimina, Karina Tsurkan, who was convicted of espionage, Alexander Shestun, the former head of Serpukhovsky district near Moscow, who met Trofimov in the prison hospital.

Other recipients of her letters include politicians Vladimir Kara-Murza and Ilya Yashin, former technical director of the “Navalny Live” YouTube channel Daniel Kholodny, and a 63-year-old Russian Railways employee, Mikhail Simonov, who received a 7 year sentence for anti-war posts.

Maria has even started a Telegram channel where she shares her impressions of the correspondence and what she learns about prison life. For example: “from letters by women who ended up in prison because of the war, we can say for certain: in prison it’s not women charged with crime 105 (murder) who are scarier, but the cellmates who eat four heads of onion and two of garlic at night.”

Editor: Egor Skovoroda

Translation: Jack McClelland

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