Letters from a Provincial Jail

November 8, 2013

When Russian authorities arrested the entire crew of Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise on Sept. 19, I avoided reading about the incident for awhile. I knew that a friend of mine, fellow radio producer Andrey Allakhverdov, had gone to work for Greenpeace Russia last year, and I didn’t want to believe he was on the ship. But indeed, Andrey was on board the ship—which sought to draw attention to Russia’s Arctic oil-drilling plans—as a press officer. Now he is among the 30 in custody without bail, one of four Russian nationals (including well-known photojournalist Denis Sinyakov). All face very serious charges under Russian law—piracy (a charge which, despite overtures to the contrary, has not yet been dropped) and “hooliganism,” a charge which carries up to seven years in prison. Prosecutors have said they may press yet more charges against some activists as well.

I met Andrey in 2002 in Moscow while on a Knight International Press Fellowship to work with Russian radio journalists. Back then, Andrey worked as editor-in-chief for the Foundation for Independent Radio, an NGO devoted to improving radio journalism in Russia. Andrey expressed his wry sense of humor with a BBC-tinged accent. He was part of a generation of worldly, practical, intelligent people who grew up under a system, Communism, that they knew to be a sham and helped to dismantle by simply being smarter than it was.

Part of why I didn’t want to believe Andrey was captured on that Greenpeace ship is that, in the back of my mind, I held him up (and still do) as a model of how decency and humor can survive in authoritarian places by always staying two steps ahead of the game. But Andrey’s new job put him in the path of huge danger. Here’s hoping the world’s outcry can now stand in for what he did for so many years as a radio journalist: create a space for intelligent discourse and argument in a place that seems ever more inclined to crushing it.

Andrey’s partner, Veronica Dmitrieva, has shared a few excerpts of Andrey’s letters from Murmansk, where he and the other Greenpeace crew have been held almost incommunicado. They provide a fascinating glimpse into a remote and frozen corner of the world’s justice system, with Andrey’s eye for the ordinary and ironic shining through.

In his first letter out, he writes:

“In the cell, it’s tolerable enough. There was a crack in our window, but we patched it up with some painters tape, which they place on parcels to identify the recipient. So now across the window we’ve got a white band with my name written on it. We wanted to close off the draft with band-aids, but the medical office wouldn’t give them to us for the simple reason that they don’t have any.”

And here’s an excerpt from Andrey’s second letter to Veronica:

“When they took us to meet with the investigators, they brought us over in a ‘Gazelle’ mini-van. It’s the first time I’ve seen the city [Murmansk] in daylight. Amazing, already one month here, and it’s the first time I’ve seen it. Such a strange feeling: looking out the window, it’s almost like you’re just taking a regular bus ride. But then you look over and there’s the guard, the handcuffs…all so close and yet so far away.

“You’ll laugh but the most irritating sound in this place is – the radio,” Andrey writes in his third letter. “They turn it on every morning at 6 am on full volume. You can’t make anything out clearly (except ‘This is Radio Mayak’ [‘Radio Lighthouse’]), but it’s always ‘going’ and impossible to shut out. I can’t say that I’ve come to hate radio just yet, but quite possibly soon.”

And Veronica had this to say after a recent prison visit:

“Andrey Allakhverdov says hello from prison in Murmansk. Just like last time, we saw each other ‘through the glass’ talking through a phone receiver. He says he doesn’t have too much to complain about and is generally holding like a regular ‘partisan.’  He says that the living conditions in the cell bother him the least of all, though when you badger him with questions, it becomes clear that they get just one shower a week,  and in the cell there’s just a single basin with cold water. There also one small window up near the ceiling that’s almost impenetrable. Exercise consists of a walk in a small courtyard that’s walled off from all sides, with a roof overhead. So in that sense, they don’t see the sun at all.  When it snowed the other week, he says they put a chair on the bed to reach the window and look outside.  His cellmate is a nice young guy—there’s only one now after the second was taken somewhere. Allakvherdov says he’s been teaching him the basics about sorting trash for recycling. But there’s no contact with the outside world.  They don’t allow phone calls, letters haven’t been delivered, and he hasn’t seen the other crew members. The television is always on.  Most of all, he says he suffers from having nothing to do and nowhere to put his energy.  A book would be nice (the one I delivered three weeks ago has yet to make it to him). He doesn’t miss the Internet.”

Veronica and others close to the Arctic 30, as they’re called, are hoping the group will be transferred to custody in St. Petersburg this weekend, closer to the squadron of diplomats and colleagues who are working desperately for their release. They’ve created a site to support Andrey.

Special thanks to Moscow producer Charles Maynes for translating Andrey’s letters.

Image: Free Radio Journalist Andrey Allakhverdov and the Arctic 30