Remembering Marjorie


Marjorie and I met in 1991 in Moscow when Marjorie was setting up an Amnesty office there. For me, the most striking thing about her was that rare combination of sharp intelligence and great kindness, without being sentimental. And, of course, her great sense of humour. She was the first westerner I’d met, who had such a deep understanding of what was going on in the USSR and her judgement was always sound. She was very disciplined, hardworking and professional and determined to get things done .Those of you who`ve read the book may remember how long and varied her working days in Moscow were and how much she managed to achieve.

Amnesty’s arrival in the USSR was controversial and Marjorie’s work was in the public eye. It brought her into contact with a broad spectrum of people, from ministerial advisers to people on the fringe of society or beyond it. It demanded constant alertness to protect the organization from being compromised. Her quiet enthusiasm and her gentle and modest demeanour coupled with her extensive knowledge enabled people to trust her. I witnessed how often even Foreign ministry officials and other staunch Soviet bureaucrats would fall under her spell. But she could be forthright and patient, tough and gentle at the same time and she was very modest, not to say humble, hated self-promotion and would never boast about her achievements. And she was very brave too. During the coup she wrote in her Diary

“The British Embassy is asking people to register in readiness for a quick getaway. I’m reluctant to, because I don’t want to be made to go “forcibly”. Instead I decided to go and register the extension to my visa.”

After quite a long time at Amnesty she went to work at the UN Human Rights Centre as a Field Advisor to Special Rapporteur on ex-Yugoslavia, Tadeusz Mazowiecki. She monitored violations of human rights in Bosnia Herzegovina, during the civil war there It was very dangerous and, again, physically demanding. Probably, Marjorie could`ve made a successful career at the UN but some personal reasons brought her back to Moscow where for two years she worked as the Director of the EU NGO Support Unit, helping the new voluntary sector in Russia get on its feet. And what a difference her presence in Moscow made for newly emerging NGOs! And by the way, a lot of them, have lasted for over 20 years and some of them are still going despite the draconian anti-NGO legislation introduced by Putin`s clique, in recent years.

After that, in 1996 when Russia had been accepted into the Council of Europe, Marjorie went to Strasbourg to work as a Programme Advisor on the Russian Federation and Ukraine at their Human Rights Directorate And again, she was the right person to do the job because, I don`t think, in those days in Strasbourg there were many westerners with so deep a knowledge and understanding of Russia and the post-Soviet world, let alone a willingness to travel to the most remote parts of the Russian Federation. Council bureaucrats were usually very reluctant to travel beyond Petersburg or Moscow because they were scared of flying on Russian domestic airlines!

As a Council of Europe officer Marjorie worked in over 30 of Russia’s federal regions and helped establish a regional ombudsman system there. She also helped some Russian NGOs like “Memorial”, for example, to get consultative status at the Council. She started organising training seminars for Russian lawyers educating them on European Court of Human Rights litigation even before Russia became an eligible party to the European Convention on Human Rights. (For example, in 1997 she met at a human rights conference in Krakow a human rights activist from Ekaterinburg Sergey Belyaev, leader of Sutyazhnik, an NGO involved in providing legal assistance to citizens. Later that year she brought a team of experts to Ekaterinburg to train human rights activists on the European Court. Sutyazhnik was a pioneer of European Court litigation in Russia and its lawyers have gone on to train others.) As you probably know, it`s the only international mechanism allowing Russian citizens to lodge human rights complaints against their own state. Currently it helps people like Alexey Navalny and many others to defend their the absence of independent justice in Russia.


2001 brought us to Edinburgh where Marjorie set up as an independent human rights consultant. Her work took her all over Russia and all five Central Asian States. She undertook numerous research projects for UNDP, UNHCR and Amnesty International as well as independent research on Central Asian states. She is the author of several substantial publications on Central Asia. including an UNHCR report on Statelessness in Central Asia and a report on Sexual minorities in Uzbekistan. She gave her expert opinion on numerous cases involving asylum seekers in the UK. And she also wrote numerous articles for Radio Liberty and Index on Censorship.

In 2014 Marjorie was nominated by her local SNP branch as a candidate for election to the European Parliament and she had to write (albeit, reluctantly) her promotional blurb. Here I quote :

“I have much experience of working in international organisations while being accountable to the public – and it is a mixture I like very much. After 2014, I hope Scottish voters will ask me to answer to them, as their elected MEP. Candidates across Parties have been criticized for being ‘male, pale and stale’. I think I offer diversity and a varied and relevant professional background outside career politics.”

Marjorie was always very proud of being able to use her Russian degree to the full. (She graduated from St Andrews University with a 1st Class MA Honours Degree in Soviet Political Studies).

And her interest in and love for Russia, its language culture and people accompanied her through all her life. She liked reading and translating Russian authors. For example, just for fun, she translated “The Government Inspector” by Gogol, And later she translated a very difficult prose piece by Osip Mandelstam entitled “The Egyptian Stamp”, or, as it became in her version, “The Egyptian Persuasion”! And she always wanted to write herself and get away from the bureaucratic language of the official reports she had to produce in huge quantities for work. Although, I have to say, I found them fascinating – always spot on, written in a very human language ,no clichés or tautology.

In the year 2000 she won the BBC World Service Best Short Story Prize, for her short story “The Weather Station”.

Marjorie had a very diverse career But she wasn’t ambitious or career or status-minded. She was a very principled person and was motivated by her wish to be useful and help people. She was always the champion of the underdog. And she was also motivated by her faith and was able to experience joy and optimism in even the most difficult circumstances, here I quote “‘I can’t explain why I find my surroundings so absolutely beautiful. I came home in the dark through the glade behind the church. The mixture of snow, shadows, and shapes in their winter clothing was lovely.”

Marjorie was a Quaker. And as one of her Quaker friends said, “ she was a person whose integrity shone through, and whose Quaker faith held her firm in the way of peace”. When she was a student she wrote in her Diary: “Life is all we have. It should be preserved at all costs and no ideas are worth anyone’s life except your own. Life runs through everything: nature, music, people. Should value yourself and should value others”.

In 1993 in one of her letters to me M. wrote:

“Oddly, in the last year I have discovered I am an instinctive traditionalist as a Quaker. That’s one area where I seem to feel oldest is best, and I`m happy to look back and borrow. Perhaps being older than Christ does it to you, but 40 has been a psychological hurdle. I am seeing if I have any roots. Looking at Quakerism I realise I have, and thinking about my article for Nina Petrovna (a Russian dissident and ex-prisoner of conscience) I realise I have there too. No matter how weedy it was, I did have a part in a historical movement for a decade…”

Speaking of which, I’d like to read out the last two paragraphs of her article about Soviet political prisoners:

“By and large, prisoners of the old regime remained unrecognized and have not gravitated to positions where they wield great moral authority or political influence. What happened in the USSR in 1991 was not the Velvet Revolution of Czechoslovakia. Was there any use in what those Soviet prisoners went through then? The human waste and unhappiness it caused was enormous. But the presence of so many people mercilessly punished for their beliefs, was also a sign that there was a conscience in Soviet society, even if most people were frightened to live according to it.

And she goes on :

“Writing in a different country in a different age, the poet Emily Dickinson said that all we know of love, is that love is all there is. I think we know even less about conscience – except that some people do not have one and that it is usually an uncomfortable thing for those who do. No one loves the nerve that agitates a tooth – but it is a signal that all is not well with the mouth. Perhaps that is the true measure of conscience. To continue in the words of Emily Dickinson: “It is enough – the freight should be proportioned to the groove”.

Like most extraordinary people, M. led an amazing life, which, as one of our friends put it, “packed the experience of several ordinary people into one!” Naturally, we all feel she should`ve gone on much, much longer. But sadly, this wasn`t to be!

I miss her clever mind and kind heart! And I miss her funny stories and her voice as she speaks and her many hand gestures and the expressive, sometimes comic faces she put on. And I also believe, in these turbulent times, when we all seem to be living on borrowed time, the world desperately needs more MARJORIES!

with Irina (Edinburgh)
Marjorie and Irina (Edinburgh)