A remarkable person

By Ian MARTIN (2018)

It was my privilege to work with a great group of committed people at the International Secretariat, and it’s a pleasure to see so many of you here tonight. But I would have said long before her sadly early death that Marjorie was one of the most remarkable, and because the time of change in the USSR was such a major issue for Amnesty, I worked particularly closely with her, and happily remained in contact thereafter.

Irina has done a wonderful thing – largely unaided – in publishing Marjorie’s Moscow Diary, and we all owe her thanks. She has given us access to three sets of insights:

  • into Amnesty’s work before and during Marjorie’s presence in Moscow;
  • into a momentous time as the USSR approached its break-up; and
  • into Marjorie herself.

The first insight is into the extraordinary work done by Amnesty over years of political imprisonment and exile, abuse of psychiatry, and use of the death penalty – by Clay, Marjorie, Nicola and the team.

Too many people today think of human rights organisations only as naming and shaming – publishing reports and projecting them in the media – and of course Amnesty was the pioneer in that from 1961. But what distinguished Amnesty was that it was founded to work for individuals – to enable individuals to work for individual victims. Amnesty also sought dialogue with governments, even when governments were hostile; built up and applied the body of international human rights law, at the United Nations and elsewhere; and was not afraid to be ahead of human rights law, as in campaigning to abolish the death penalty.

All these aspects of Amnesty’s work are powerfully illustrated in Marjorie’s Diary, especially as she meets with former prisoners and their families, including those facing the death penalty.

These are characteristics of Amnesty’s work everywhere, but what Marjorie did in proposing and establishing Amnesty’s Moscow office was unique.

I’ve dug into Amnesty’s archives to bring back my own memory of that time, and in the files I found the July 1989 memo in which Marjorie first proposed an outpost in Moscow and offered to go there to set it up. It shows her foresight: it begins, “in two or three years the tides of glasnost may well be turning in the USSR.”

Amnesty had always attempted dialogue with the Soviet authorities, but had experienced a stream of attacks. Amnesty was described as “one branch of the imperialist secret service”. My favourite Izvestiya title is “Impartiality with a False Bottom”. But with glasnost we began a series of diplomatic encounters, and it was of course Marjorie who briefed me and others for those meetings.

We met Fyodor Burlatsky, appointed by Gorbachev to head a Public Commission for International Cooperation on Humanitarian Affairs and Human Rights, in Paris in May 1988 – he would later tell us he met Amnesty against the decision of the Politburo. Then Shevardnadze’s Deputy Foreign Minister Anatoly Adamishin came to the IS in January 1989, in what he called “a symbolic visit”. There were myriad contacts at the UN in New York and Geneva, and by Amnesty sections in their own countries.

All this culminated in the visit to Moscow which we were able to make in March/April 1989. I found in the archives Marjorie’s notes of our meetings. They are a record of extremely substantive discussions, peppered with Marjorie’s entertaining perceptions, especially regarding the interplay between the old hardliners and what Adamishin called “the partisans of perestroika”. For example:

“Blishchenko made a grab for the Mr Glasnost award while Professor Lukashova sat with tight lips and a face like thunder.

“Getting the police to protect human rights is like asking a vampire to run the blood donor service”, said Rosenbaum, but didn’t get translated as Professor Kelina said “Yury, that’s not necessary”.

That visit led to a major report, USSR – Human Rights in a Time of Change, authored by Marjorie. It also led to Marjorie’s determination to get our report on the death penalty throughout the world, When the State Kills, translated into Russian: she achieved its publication by Progress Publishers with introductory essays by Fyodor Burlatsky and Professor Sofia Kelina of the Institute of State and Law, and its launch in Moscow in April 1990.

It was following the visit that Marjorie made her proposal for an Amnesty outpost in Moscow, and it is with her arrival to begin to set up the office that her Diary begins. We read of the extraordinary range of activities she then carries out:

  • distributing Amnesty materials and international human rights standards, and arranging further translations to make them available in Russia;
  •  responding to individuals seeking to join Amnesty – “we get some very good people writing in to join Amnesty apart from some obvious nutters”;
  • giving interviews to Soviet media and writing articles for them: she gets a monthly column in Izvestiya, and is paid for an article in the Journal of Humanitarian Sciences with two packets of macaroni, a tin of meat and some tea;
  • promoting Amnesty campaigns, work against the death penalty prominent among them – before long, the Human Rights Division of the Foreign Ministry is asking for Amnesty material, on Cuba, Iraq and elsewhere, and Ministry officials are asking if Amnesty will take up their cases after the attempted coup, or how to apply for jobs at the IS;
  • reaching far beyond Moscow, through travel and correspondence – “wrote a letter to the editor of a newspaper in Estonia about the death penalty, another one to a paper in Kyrgyzstan and another one to the head of a college of advocates in Kazakhstan. Is it my imagination, or did we have no contacts like these at the beginning of the year?”

But her Diary is dominated by the immense challenge of making practical arrangements for the office.  We have had positive assurances in our advance discussions with authorities, but by the time she arrives in January 1991 a major battle is being fought inside the Foreign Ministry in the wake of Shevardnadze’s resignation, when in December 1990 he predicted “dictatorship is coming”. She describes her meetings with officials, some of them partisans of perestroika, others who “tended to treat me as though I was armed”.

She suffers the inevitable surveillance. A telephone conversation with a helpful People’s Deputy, Galina Starovoitova, is cut off three times, after which she “said she would call Mr Kryuchkov, head of the KGB, to supply me with a better bugging device.” She comments on the reciprocal surveillance, when a translator reports from an official visit to London that he was aware of being followed, “in particular by two rockers, who popped up wherever he went. It amused me to think of maybe two Oxford Firsts in Russian donning the gear.”

And of course she suffers ordinary Soviet bureaucracy and the inefficiencies and shortages of daily life. “Bureaucrats move so slowly that you could write War and Peace between meetings.”

The IS is not well equipped to support a Moscow office. We can’t find a computer for her which will produce Cyrillic: our computer consultant asks “Cyril who?”

Half way through the experience, she sums up the frustrations:

“The last three months have been like a giant Outward Bound course where you have to scavenge for food en route, and where half the participants are asking you for help. I feel I’ve completed the caving section and am now getting ready to abseil over the ravine with a bag of wet cement.”

So, the second set of insights in the Diary are into life in Moscow and beyond amid the turmoil of dramatic political events – she was there during the failed coup of August 1991, which occurred as her parents were visiting her.

She quotes one American visitor as expressing the hope that she was meeting “plain people, not just the intelligentsia.” She certainly was: the Diary records an extraordinary range of encounters and relationships. In the rather unusual circular we sent to the Amnesty membership in which she assessed her time in Moscow , she explained:

“It seemed to me that it would be laughable to arrive and preach human rights while wiping away the traces of fresh pineapple and smoked cheese from my mouth. What surprised me was that I met no foreign human rights activists in Moscow who thought the same thing – although plenty of Russians did.”

And that from someone who exclaimed on her first return to the UK: “Oh, that first grapefruit, that first piece of Kit Kat!”

Marjorie’s personal contacts led a wide range of people to express interest in Amnesty, and to offer extra help free. She remembers “listening, impressed, as our building helper explained the ‘own country rule’ to the electricity man inspecting our premises.”

The third insight in the Diary then is into what a remarkable person Marjorie was.

I knew her first, of course, as an outstanding professional. From a first class degree and early work with the Quakers, she had used her Russian to work on the USSR for well over a decade for Amnesty. This she brought to the Moscow office not only her human rights experience but her language skills, which were put to an exacting test:

“It is very difficult to convey the complexities of Amnesty’s position and conquer all the complexities of the Russian language at the same time, and to outsiders it must seem that I’m wrestling with some invisible angel.”

She was a wonderful writer, and from a young age had wanted to see her writing published – although she won a BBC prize for a short story, not enough of her writing was published. Her fine writing infuses her reports in the Amnesty archives as well as the Diary. It is remarkable for the quality of her perception as well as her means of expression, of which there are so many illustrations throughout the Diary.

She was a person of great resilience. She summarises what she has faced like this:

“In the last months I’ve had my phone tapped, my mail read, received a threatening letter, lived through a coup, been robbed, summoned to court in London twice [regarding the poll tax] and threatened with eviction. I’m afraid I’m going to leap at someone’s throat and dismember them before my time is up.”

The Diary is humourous about the hardships of life in her Moscow apartment – the cockroaches in the muesli or lurking under her toothbrush; the mosquito which makes her laugh out loud in the night as th sound cuts out when it goes up her nose; the dead mouse in the fridge.

But she records real dark moments, as well as much joy: joy in places of beauty – she finds Moscow “more lovely than London”; in music and art; in food and drink; and in friendships – foremost among then her growing friendship with Irina.

One highlight I shared with her was the memorial concert for Andrei Sakharov’s birthday at the Conservatoire during the Sakharov Conference, which had her in tears, with Yelena Bonner and Rostropovich on stage and Gorbachev sitting unacknowledged in a box. Marjorie records Yelena Bonner saying in her opening speech:

“Very few of you shared the thoughts and ideas of Sakharov; even fewer of you were his friends; the most you can say is that you were alive at the same time that he was in history.”

“Absolutely true”, says Marjorie. One of the greatest tributes to the work of Amnesty is the respect it earned from Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner. Marjorie’s note of the meeting which she and Anne Burley had with them at their Moscow home when they attended the World Congress of Women in July 1987 records that “When he came in, Sakharov made a small speech of thanks to Amnesty International, saying his release had been miraculous, and due in part to us”, before “for the benefit of the microphones, Yelena Bonner went through the names of prisoners of conscience they specifically wanted to see released.”

So to sum up Marjorie’s achievement in Moscow, in her 15 months there she managed to acquire, renovate and equip an office in the centre of Moscow and secure the organisation`s legal status; she promoted the notion of human rights in the press, radio and TV; and she built up a wide range of contacts in Moscow, provincial Russia and the other republics. In her last five months, she wrote and broadcast a weekly five-minute programme about human rights on Radio Rossiya and organized the first ever conference on the death penalty in Russia. And although she had some ad hoc help from time to time, she was posted to Moscow on her own and the ultimate responsibility for running the office and its accounts rested with her. Thus it was Marjorie who enabled Amnesty to have the only continuous external human rights presence in Moscow at that crucial time.

I am happy to say that her reflections on Amnesty itself are positive. In the Diary she writes:

“I felt a sudden wrench at leaving Amnesty. I realised I will miss the kind of closeness that it can produce in like-minded strangers.”

Years later, in an email to me, she wrote:

“When I look back to those years, I enjoyed the strong-minded people and the way everyone always argued.”

I take some personal pleasure from her account of how she used my visit to Moscow while she was struggling with Soviet bureaucracies to get a hitherto unresponsive official at the Fund for Non-Residential Premises suddenly to make a battery of phone calls, and Marjorie reflects:

“Fortunately the same hierarchical strain doesn’t exist in Amnesty. Mind you, we work a lot harder without it.”

Some of you may be interested that when she is addressing the future of the Moscow office in an internal report, she notes that four local human rights activists with strong political sense tell her independently that the think Amnesty should continue to have a foreign representative after I leave:

“To my surprise, no one has raised the opposing argument about ‘colonialism’.”

So what can we say about the legacy of those years in today’s Russia? I have no doubt that there are people who were personally touched by Marjorie who were strengthened in expressing their human rights commitment by their contact with her and with Amnesty. Shortly after she left Moscow, I received one testimony in a letter from the Fund for the Defence and Help of Prisoners, saying this:

“As a representative of Amnesty, Marjorie commands great authority not only in the Russian Federation but also in other republics of the former USSR… Only those who have actually worked in our country can know how difficult every little step forward is and can appreciate everything she has accomplished… During our one year of working together, we were often amazed at the courage, the patience and the willpower of this seemingly small and frail woman.”

The file shows that I passed this letter on to her, saying that I wholeheartedly agreed with everything except the description of her as “small and frail”.

I was privileged to receive periodic letters and then emails from Marjorie in our years after Amnesty (and she wrote emails of the same quality as her letters). In one of the last, in February 2014, she wrote this:

“On the computer this morning we had live coverage from outside the Moscow courtroom where the 2011 demonstrators were being tried. The streets were packed, with the crowd looking as down at heel as twenty years ago. Two of the Pussy Riot women were in the crowd and there was a cross-section of ages. And strikingly, people seemed to be wearing Amnesty candle badges. So it does still seem to be relevant to the day.”

No doubt it was and is, Marjorie. I urge you all to read her Diary and all of us to reflect on how we pursue her values today.


Ian Martin was speaking at an autumn 2018 launch
for Moscow Diary at Amnesty International in London