Valery Abramkin, who has died at 66, was a quiet and remarkably consistent person.
In 1980 he went on a one-day hunger strike in solidarity “with prisoners everywhere” and for the next 30 years devoted his life to penal reform — contributing to the new Russian Penitentiary Code in 1992 and helping achieve some measure of public oversight of the prison system. Justice for juveniles was his concern when he died.
Valery Abramkin worked easily with international partners like Amnesty International, and Penal Reform International which he helped found in 1992. He was also able to negotiate a path with the Russian Presidential Human Rights Commission, and public committees of the Justice Ministry and Moscow Mayor. His base was the Centre for Criminal Justice Reform, a specialist NGO he set up when the USSR collapsed.
At one point ‘Clouds’, a radio programme for prisoners he initiated on State Radio, was tuned in to by 25% of the adult Russian population. That says much about the quality of his broadcast. It may also say something about Russia’s high rate of imprisonment.
Looking back now over Valery Abramkin’s life, I am struck by how contemporary he was. He was young at a time when the Berlin Wall still stood and the country mired in Afghanistan was the USSR, not the UK. He first got into trouble with the authorities in the mid-70s for organising gigs of alternative music with biting social comment – whose western equivalent might be punk rock.
In days before social media, impromptu audiences would take over an open space on a non-work day, to hold what was called a ‘Sunday’ sometimes for hours. To people in-the-know, a few guitar chords were like a password.
In 1978 Valery Abramkin launched a journal called Searches (‘Poiski’ in Russian), which he subtitled ‘Searches for Mutual Understanding’. Today’s equivalent might be a blog — if blogs were universally hacked and punished with imprisonment.
Running to several hundred pages, the first issue reviewed banned literature; carried a Russian translation of “EuroCommunism and the State” by Santiago Carrillo; and published a despairing letter called ‘An Appeal to Nowhere’, by dairy workers in Tolyatti.
In 1979 Valery Abramkin was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for ‘disseminating anti-Soviet slander’, then immediately given another three years on the same charge when he was due for release in 1981.
The Soviet authorities no doubt thought they demonstrated strength in doing this – just 10 years before the USSR collapsed — but in hindsight it, as so many things, looks like fateful weakness. In a letter to the friends barred from his first trial, Abramkin wrote:
“can we be as irresponsible as our official ideologists? Even at the edge of the cliff, they are ready to mumble ‘most advanced … most progressive … roaring success … real human rights … hurrah, hurrah.’ ”
Valery Abramkin began his professional life as an atomic research engineer, but lost that job when he was expelled from the Young Communists in 1975 and worked as a lumberjack, stoker, church warden, then prisoner. The financial toll on his family was heavy and his Amnesty adoption group wanted to send them clothing. They lived, I remember, in a bare room with a piano and a small child underneath it.
Valery Abramkin’s life shows how one intelligent person with determination can rattle many rafters. His letters from camp were held back for six weeks “because he didn’t write like anyone else” and when he went on hunger strike, a prosecutor asked anxiously if it was connected to the Solidarity movement in Poland? At that time he was in a labour camp some 2,000 miles east of Moscow in the Altai Region (south Siberia).
In one sense Valery Abramkin wore his imprisonment lightly. He was bigger than it and did not harp on old memories. In another sense it was always with him, in the particular TB he contracted while he was there, and which I understand killed him this year.
Valery Abramkin, 19 May 1946 to 25 January 2013, Moscow
The Herald (Glasgow), 18 February 2013