With dissent stifled, some Russians help political prisoners by writing them letters of support


TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — For Margarita, a 33-year-old event planner in St. Petersburg, the prison death of opposition leader Alexei Navalny was devastating news that left her dispirited and longing to take some sort of action.

But she said she had “no courage or strength” to stage a protest in Russia's increasingly repressive climate, where even the most innocuous expression of dissent can land people in jail.

Then she saw a call by activists urging people to write letters to female political prisoners for International Women’s Day on March 8. She bought postcards for herself and several acquaintances to sign in what she saw as a safe and simple expression of support for the growing number of those imprisoned for their beliefs.

It's an activity that has gained significant interest, not just from those who are too intimidated to take to the streets at home but also from those Russians who fled the country as President Vladimir Putin intensified his crackdown on dissent. He is seeking another six years in office in an election this month that he is all but certain to win.

“It’s a huge movement,” journalist and prisoner rights activist Zoya Svetova told The Associated Press. “It is, in a sense, resistance in its own way.”

Memorial, Russia’s oldest and most prominent rights group, says the number of political prisoners in the country has grown from 40 in 2014 to nearly 680 this year. OVD-Info, another prominent rights group, estimates there are 1,143 people behind bars on politically motivated charges.

The number of prosecutions grew rapidly after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 and public criticism of the war was outlawed.

“I can easily imagine myself in the shoes of someone who was detained and prosecuted on politically motivated charges,” said Margarita, who asked not to be identified by her surname for fear of retribution. Receiving "words of support even from people I don’t know” would be encouraging, she added.

Some take part quietly, like Margarita, with a small group of friends who mail their letters and postcards.

Others opt for online services used by many penal colonies and detention centers. These work like regular email, in which greetings to inmates are printed by prison officials. Handwritten replies from prisoners are scanned and emailed back to the original senders.

Despite efforts to isolate some political prisoners — Navalny repeatedly complained about failing to receive letters from his wife — and the general secrecy of the penal system, these services have operated unimpaired so far.

Multiple grassroots groups host regular letter-writing events, providing guidance to those who haven't done it before.

One such organization, “Letters of Freedom,” hosts regular evening sessions in the capitals of Armenia and Georgia, and helps others in Russia and abroad hold similar events. Activists keep a detailed, up-to-date database of prisoners, their addresses and even interests. Founder Ivan Lyubimov said the group keeps in touch with 80 political prisoners, and 105 responded to activists at least once.

It's a personal mission for Lyubimov, a graphics designer from Yekaterinburg who left Russia for Armenia in late 2022. He spent a month in jail for anti-war protests and knows how important it is to receive support from the outside.

The group provides a list of prisoners and addresses, tips on how to write a letter to someone you haven't met, and other advice, including prison censorship rules.

It ships handwritten letters to Russia, where volunteers mail them to prisons and relay any responses. The mail can take about two months, Lyubimov said, but it's cheaper to use than the online services.

The group posts some of the responses from prisoners on social media, along with announcements of thematic letter-writing campaigns, like marking New Year’s and International Women’s Day holidays, or what prisoners might want to read in the letters.

The letters must be written in Russian, without profane language and avoiding topics that might not make it past the censors or put both prisoners and senders at risk, including criticism of authorities. The group urges caution about references to the war in Ukraine.

Prisoners “live in an information vacuum,” so any news or current events are of interest, said Alexander Mishuk of Letters of Freedom.

“In general, we try to focus on more human, simple things, talking about life, things that happen to us, something positive. We try to focus on things that we can have in common with the person,” he said.

Organizers often ask participants simply to sign postcards of birthday greetings to political prisoners, said Konstantin, an organizer in Berlin who spoke on condition that his last name not be used for fear of retribution.

They try to hold an event at least once a month, he said.

Daria Gorchakova, a Letters of Freedom activist in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, said the number of participants and organizers has been rising.

“As repressions grow harsher, it remains one of the few safe ways to support people who fell victim to these repressions and generally influence the situation somehow,” she said, adding that while it won’t stop the crackdown, it helps prisoners and also gives a sense of purpose to those writing the letters or organizing the campaigns.

Russia's liberal political party Yabloko hosts monthly letter-writing evenings in cities across Russia and gets positive feedback from inmates.

“Russian prison is a peculiar place, and for many, attention from the outside, from beyond the prison walls … increases the level of safety,” party chairman Nikolai Rybakov said.

On Feb. 29, Yabloko’s Moscow office was crowded with people hunched over several desks, signing postcards and writing letters.

“We express our support, wish them health, wish them to take care,” said David Davtyan, a Muscovite who attended. “They’re the future of Russia, the free future of Russia that we all talk about, hope for and that will inevitably come.”