Art by Maria Tolstova / Mediazona
Over the past three years, Alexei Navalny and his legal team have lodged dozens of lawsuits against the detention centres and prisons where he was held over various breaches and regime violations. None have been successful.
In 1977, shortly after serving time for an “anti-Soviet” charge, scientist and dissident Kronid Lyubarsky decided to “teach the prison authorities that they too are not exempt from abiding by the law,” and successfully sued the administration of the now-infamous Vladimirsky Tsentral, or Vladimir Central Prison. This is his story, based on reports from the Chronicle of Current Events, a Soviet samizdat periodical, which covered the trial.
On April 6, 1977, Kronid Lyubarsky, having recently completed a five-year sentence, filed a lawsuit in the people’s court of the Frunzensky district of Vladimir against the Vladimir prison. He demanded compensation of 122 rubles and 97 kopecks for the damage to 75 books that prison censor had damaged during an inspection prior to his release.
“Either the binding was torn off, or it was slashed crosswise with a knife, or the book was otherwise damaged,” the Chronicle of Current Events reported. “The institution’s administration representative, Captain Doynikov A.A., acknowledged the damage and stated, ‘The prison is wealthy, it will pay; we are prepared for your lawsuit.’ ”
Initially, Judge Svetlana Dmitrieva refused to accept the claim and suggested Lyubarsky file a complaint with the prosecutor’s office. He appealed the refusal to the Vladimir Regional Court and won. Dmitrieva was compelled to consider the lawsuit.
The hearing took place on June 24, 1977. “In court, the plaintiff Lyubarsky stated that in this case, the amount claimed was not as important to him as the principle: to establish a precedent for prisoners’ right to appeal to court and to teach prison authorities that they too must abide by the law,” the Chronicle wrote.
Years later, Lyubarsky’s wife, Galina Salova, recalled that the court had only allocated one hour for the lawsuit. Everything indicated that the trial would be a formality, so the couple did not even invite their human rights activist friends to Vladimir. However, the hearing lasted seven hours and turned out to be unexpectedly dramatic. Salova wrote, “the censor cried, the inspector mumbled something unclear about the tricks ‘of these political prisoners.’ The judge reprimanded him, reminding that we do not have political prisoners... And suddenly, the judge became interested in the case.”
This occurred when the defendant—the deputy chief of the Vladimir prison, Major Sokolov—slipped that the censor had acted “according to the law.” Judge Dmitrieva asked him to specify which law he was referring to. Sokolov mentioned a “secret instruction.” Dmitrieva wanted to read it and called a recess to allow the document to be delivered to the court. The “instruction” was examined in a closed session, with the few attendees removed, and eventually, the judge found that there had been violations in the inspection of the books.
Following this, Dmitrieva explained that by compensating the plaintiff the full value of the damaged books, the prison would have the right to keep them, prompting Lyubarsky to halve the amount claimed.
The court then questioned “book market expert Trofimova,” who assessed the damage at 10% of the books’ value, amounting to 2 rubles and 85 kopecks. Judge Svetlana Dmitrieva ordered the prison to pay this sum.
This trial was not Lyubarsky’s first legal battle with the Vladimir prison censors. In 1974, he translated a detective novel by Georges Simenon and sent the translation to his wife. The manuscript, written in small handwriting over 63 pages, was returned, citing “copyright violation.” In an attempt to contest this decision, Galina Salova reached the General Prosecutor’s Office of the USSR, but her complaint was referred back to the chief of the Vladimir prison. “By that time, Kronid had also translated a novel by Agatha Christie,” she recalled.
On October 30, 1972, the Moscow Regional Court found 38-year-old astronomer Kronid Lyubarsky guilty of anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda, sentencing him to five years in a maximum-security penal labor camp. The scientist, who had participated in an expedition to the site of the Tunguska meteorite fall and the Mars research program, was prosecuted for distributing the Chronicle of Current Events and other samizdat literature. At his home in Chernogolovka, near Moscow, authorities discovered a library of banned literature, the inventory of which occupied ten of the nineteen volumes of his criminal case. Remarkably, KGB operatives failed to notice a “reproduction unit”—a tube copier. Lyubarsky was sent to serve his sentence in the Dubrovlag camp in Mordovia.
Two years later, in 1974, while in the camp hospital, Lyubarsky met Alexey Murzhenko, a human rights activist sentenced for an unsuccessful attempt to hijack a plane. Discussing the potential format for a “coordinated protest by political prisoners from different prisons” during their walks, they conceived the idea of a unified day of prison protests. This led to the establishment of the Day of the Political Prisoner on October 30, a date still commemorated in Russia today.
However, three weeks before the planned collective action, on October 7, 1974, Lyubarsky went on a hunger strike. Camp regulations stated that a prisoner could store up to 50 kilograms of personal belongings in the general storage (in the “kapterka”). Most of Lyubarsky’s possessions consisted of books. Another rule allowed keeping no more than five books in the barracks at any one time. Confused by these regulations, the administration forbade Lyubarsky from storing more than five books in storage, prompting him to resort to an extreme form of protest. On October 15, the camp authorities acknowledged their mistake and promised to return the books, but the next day, the court deemed the scientist a “persistent violator” and transferred him to the Vladimir Prison for the remainder of his sentence.
“The administration greatly assisted us in organizing the Day of the Political Prisoner. They noticed something was being prepared and dispersed us across the camps, so news of it soon spread to different prisons. For instance, I arrived at the Vladimir Prison ten days before the set date and had the opportunity to inform people about this plan,” Lyubarsky later recalled, noting that the Vladimir Central had been the “main political prison” at that time.
Editor: Dmitry Golubovsky
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