Russian prisoner of conscience: Amnesty letters were ‘connection to freedom’


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Sent to an Arctic penal colony for a crime he didn’t commit, Russian prisoner of conscience Igor Sutyagin lived for a few minutes in “the free world” with every postcard he received from supporters during his eleven years in jail. 

In October 1999, expecting a taxi to the airport, Sutyagin instead found on his doorstep seven members of the FSB – the Russian security service.

“It was a very strange taxi.”

“I was invited for a ‘conversation’ at the FSB office… It was a 10 years, 8 months, 7 days long conversation. Because I never came back.”

“I thought that they were interested in understanding the truth of the situation.  But they did not need the truth.”

“By May next year the chief investigator in my case very frankly told me that he perfectly knew the case was empty but that he also perfectly knew that if he released me, the very next day he or one of his colleagues would be behind bars.”

Sutyagin, a private military analyst and academic, was convicted of spying in 2004 after a grossly unfair trial that provided no evidence that he ever gave anyone information that was not publicly available in the media.

Sent in 2005 to a Russian penal colony in the remote northern province of Arkhangelsk, where he says “even the mosquitoes fly in fur jackets”, he has told Amnesty International that letters from supporters freed his imagination.

“These letters which I received …very closely tied me to the free life. Those numerous letters from the Amnesty members connected me to the whole world.”

He quotes the Russian poet and former political prisoner Igor Guberman:

“‘As long as I have the connection with freedom, I don’t completely belong to the prison, because part of me lives there, and only part of me is imprisoned here.’  I just had part of myself there.”

The most favoured missives had pictures to fuel his imagination amid desolate surroundings: “To look on a kangaroo for instance!” 

“If you see some picture from Australia, from Japan, from Italy, your imagination puts you there… I did live for some several minutes there, in an Italian city, on the French coast, some nice garden somewhere in Japan…”

“That’s how these pictures from Amnesty members got me outside the prison.”

“Prison is the world where nothing happens” he says repeatedly, and Sutyagin found that his jailors too, suffered from boredom.  His letters entertained prison officials, and also protected him.

“It’s fun for them to chat with someone who has some connection with abroad… And it warns them against some really unwise actions.” 

“They do know this person is somehow untouchable.”

In early 2010, at his fourth and final prison camp in Arkhangelsk, one of the prison officials came to him, gestured to the washbasin, and said “look, this is very bad soap.  You need to have here French soap.  Who do you have in Toulouse?”

Sutyagin said that he didn’t know anyone. 

“You are lying to me,” the official said. “You have received a letter from Toulouse and you need to write to them and order from them good French soap. And I will come here and wash my hands.”

The letter was a birthday greeting from French Amnesty International member Bernard Burgan, a card bearing an illustration of a steamboat against a blue sky. 

“Mr Sutyagin, contrary to what you think, you are not alone in the world” Burgan had written.

Other postcards that Bernard sent, Sutyagin likely gave to other inmates so that they could recycle them to write to their loved ones – or for the artists among them, to have something to paint that wasn’t snow and barbed wire.  But the birthday card, Sutyagin kept.  He liked boats.

Partly because of this ongoing attention from human rights groups and their members, Sutyagin was one of the prisoners whom Russia swapped with members of a Russian ‘spy-ring’ uncovered in the United States in 2010.  On his release in July, Sutyagin was effectively exiled, locked out into the world of foreign countries whose images he had lived on for so long in prison.

“I was told by Russian and American officials… ‘You keep your Russian passport, you are a Russian citizen. You can come to Russia freely and safely.  The case is closed.’ But I didn’t have any documents on my release.”

“The BBC approached the Russian federal criminal service asking about these documents and they officially told them ‘Sutyagin has received them.’ So they continue to lie.”

At least, out in “the free world”, Sutyagin has finally been able to meet Bernard Burgan from Toulouse and offer his thanks for that boat he still holds on to.

When Sutyagin chose a spot in London to meet Burgan, the lover of military history and machines opted for the banks of the River Thames to gaze upon the HMS Belfast.

Burgan admitted to him there that he had worried his letters were full of very ordinary or trivial details that would be irrelevant to a man in a snowbound prison camp. 

To the contrary, Sutyagin told him that those mundane stories were “the chance for a prisoner to feel the life outside.” 

He continued composing an imaginary letter to his old self in prison: “It’s very helpful to have description to know, look, there is the river, and there is a big boat that, as a matter of fact, 60 years ago went to Russia with the northern convoy and it is called Belfast. And to know, living in Kholmogory [prison camp] that this Belfast 60 years ago came to Arkhangelsk with the British to help the Russian people.”

“It literally arrived to Arkhangelsk, and it was moored something like 300 meters from my [prison] camp.” 

“So this,” he says of the retired military vessel, “is the connection between me here – and me there.”

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