A letter from Anatoly Marchenko: 17 April 1968 (2.6)

<<No 2 : 30 June 1968>>

17 April 1968

Vladimir Region,
27 Novinskaya St.


the Chairman of the [USSR] Red Cross Society, G. A. Mitiryov;
the Minister of Health of the USSR, B. V. Petrovsky;
the Director of the Food Institute at the Academy of Medical Sciences, A. A. Pokrovsky;
the Patriarch of All Russia, Alexy;
the President of the Academy of Sciences, M. V. Keldysh;
the President of the Academy of Medical Sciences, V. D. Timakov;
the Director of the Institute of State and Law, Chkhikvadze;
the Rector of Moscow State University, I. G. Petrovsky;
the Chairman of the Board of the Journalists’ Union, Zimyanin;
the Chairman of the Board of the USSR Writers’ Union, K. Fedin;
the writers K. Simonov, R. Gamzatov, R. Rozhdestvensky, E. Yevtushenko.

(Copies to the UN Human Rights Commission and to the International Human Rights Conference of the United Nations)

Five months ago I completed a book, My Testimony about the six years (1960-1966) which I spent in Vladimir Prison and in camps for political prisoners. In the introduction I write that:

“contemporary Soviet camps for political prisoners are as horrible as were Stalin’s. In some respects they are better, in some respects worse.

“Everybody should know about this. Both those who want to know the truth but instead get false, glossy newspaper articles lulling the reader’s conscience. And those who don’t want to know and who shut their eyes and stop their ears, in order to be able to justify themselves later and to show their clean record: ‘Good Lord, and we never knew … ‘ If they have even a scrap of social conscience and genuine love for their country they will take a stand in its defence, as Russia’s true sons have always done.

“I should like my testimony on Soviet camps and prisons for political prisoners to become known to humanists and progressive people of other countries — those who raise their voice in defense of political prisoners in Greece and Portugal, in the South African Republic and in Spain. Let them ask their Soviet colleagues in the struggle against anti-humanism: ‘What have you done in order that your political prisoners in your own country are at least not “educated” by hunger?'”

I have done my best to make my book known to the public [1]. However, there has been no reaction at all so far (except for a conversation about my ‘anti-social activities’ to which I was invited by a KGB officer). Conditions in the camps remain the same. Thus I have been forced to turn to certain personalities who through their social position are among those most responsible for the state of our society and its level of humanity and legality.

You should know the following:

In the camps and prisons of our country there are thousands of political prisoners. Most of them were sentenced behind closed doors; there have been virtually no really open trials (apart from those of war-criminals); in all cases a fundamental principle of legal procedure — publicity [glasnost] — has been violated. Thus society controlled, and controls, neither the observance of legality nor the extent of political repression.

The situation of the political prisoners is generally the same as that of the criminal convicts, and in some respects it is considerably worse: political prisoners are at best held in strict-regime conditions, while for the criminals there is an ordinary-regime and an even lighter one; criminals may be released after serving two-thirds or half of their time, while the political prisoners have to serve every single day of their sentence.

Thus the political prisoners are treated in all respects like the most dangerous criminals and recidivists. No juridical and legal distinction is made between them.

The political prisoners, as a rule, are people who before their arrest were engaged in socially useful labour: engineers, workers, literary men, artists, scientists. In the camp, by way of ‘re-educational measures’, they have to do forced labour, whereby the camp administration uses work as a means of punishment: weakly persons are forced to perform heavy physical labour; intellectuals are compelled to do unskilled physical work. Failure to fulfil the norm is regarded as a violation of the regime and serves as a pretext for various administrative punishments — a veto on visitors, incarceration in the punishment cell, solitary confinement.

The most powerful means of influencing the prisoners is hunger.

The usual rations are such as to make a person feel perpetual want of food, perpetual malnutrition. The daily camp ration contains 2,400 calories (enough for a 7- to 11-year-old child), and has to suffice for an adult doing physical work, day after day for many years, sometimes for as many as fifteen or twenty-five years! Those calories are supplied mainly by black [rye] bread (700 gms a day). The convicts never even set eyes on fresh vegetables, butter, and many other indispensable products; these products are even prohibited from sale at the camp stall (as also sugar).

Let me state right away: the camp food as well as the camp clothes are paid for by the prisoners themselves from the earnings accredited to them. (Fifty per cent is deducted at once for the upkeep of the camp: barracks, equipment, fences, watch-towers, etc.) Only five roubles a month [2] – out of the money that remains after all deductions – can be spent on goods (including tobacco) at the stall. But one may be deprived even of this right, to spend seventeen kopecks a day, ‘for violation of the regime’. For example, the imprisoned historian Rendel (ten years for participation in an illegal Marxist circle) was banned from the stall for two months for bringing supper to sick comrades in the barracks; so was the imprisoned writer Sinyavsky, for exchanging a few words with his friend Daniel when the latter was in the camp prison.

To punish a prisoner for ‘violating the camp regime’, e.g. for failure to fulfil the work quota, he may be put on the ‘severe’ food ration – 1,300 calories [3] (enough for an infant of one to three years). This was the case, for example, with the writer Daniel and the engineer Ronkin (seven years for illegal Marxist activity) at the end of the summer of 1967.

Food parcels from relatives are ‘not authorized’ for prisoners sentenced to the strict regime; only by way of encouragement for good behaviour (that is, repentance, denunciation, collaboration with the administration) do the camp authorities sometimes allow a prisoner to receive a food parcel — but not before he has served half his sentence, not more than four times a year, and not over five kilograms!

Thus the camp administration wields a powerful means of exerting physical pressure on the political prisoners, a whole system of escalation of hunger. The application of this system results in emaciation and avitaminosis.

Some prisoners are driven by permanent malnutrition to kill and eat crows, and, if they are lucky, dogs. In the autumn of 1967 one prisoner from Camp 11 of Dubrovlag [Mordovia] found a way of getting potatoes while he was in the hospital section; he over-ate and died. (The potatoes were raw.)

Hunger reigns even more harshly in Vladimir Prison and in the ‘special-regime camps’, where there are also numerous political prisoners.

In comparison with the permanent malnutrition, other ‘means of influence’ look relatively harmless. One must, however, mention a few of them: prohibiting meetings with one’s relatives; complete shaving of the head; prohibiting the wearing of one’s own clothes (including warm underwear in winter); obstructing creative work and the performance of religious rites.

Prisoners’ letters of complaint and petitions, addressed to the Procuracy, the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet, or the Party Central Committee are returned without fail to the camp administration: the highest organs send them to the Ministry for the Preservation of Public Order [title of Ministry of Internal Affairs, July 1966 to November 1968] or to the Main Administration of Places of Confinement [GUMZ], and from there, after a multi-stage journey round the departments, they somehow or other always end up in the hands of those against whom the complaints were directed, ‘so that they can be checked’. All complaints naturally end in the same way with the camp administration’s answer that ‘the assertions have not been confirmed’, and that ‘the punishment was justified’, and the position of the petitioner becomes unbearable. Sometimes the prisoner is even transferred to the [camp] prison or to solitary confinement for his latest ‘violation of the regime’. Therefore the ‘educators-cum-officers’ often maliciously say to the dissatisfied prisoner: “Go on, lodge a complaint against us; go on, write, it’s your right.” Others, more simple-minded, warn him: “Well, why protest? You know yourself the administration can always find a reason to punish any prisoner. You’ll only harm yourself; better put up with it …”

And indeed, The Regulations for Camps and Prisons, passed by the Supreme Soviet in 1961, give the camp administration practically unlimited opportunities to apply physical and moral pressure. Prohibition of food parcels, a ban on purchases from the camp stall, starvation rations, banning of visits, punishment cell, handcuffs, solitary confinement — all this is legalized by the Regulations and applied to political prisoners. The camp administration finds these measures much to its taste, all the more so as among the ‘educators’ are not a few officials of the Stalinist concentration camps, used to unlimited arbitrary power (which, incidentally, was quite in line with their instructions at that time).

As the prisoners lack all rights, they are driven to dreadful and disastrous forms of protest: hunger-strikes, self-mutilation, suicide —in broad daylight the prisoner goes out of bounds towards the barbed wire, and there the guard shoots him “for attempted flight”.

Some among you bear direct responsibility for the existing situation; the responsibility of others is determined by their public position. But I turn to you as my fellow citizens: we are all equally responsible to our motherland, to the young generation, to the country’s future. It suffices that the generation of the 1930s and 1940s put up with crimes committed ‘in the name of the people’; it is impossible and impermissible to display again the criminal indifference which then turned the whole nation into accomplices in bloody crimes.

I appeal to you to:

  • demand a public investigation into the situation of political prisoners;
  • demand the wide publication of the The Regulations for Camps and Prisons; try to have special rules made for political prisoners;
  • demand the publication of the food rations for prisoners;
  • demand immediate dismissal from ‘educational’ work of the former staff of Stalinist concentration camps and of such camp officials as have more recently displayed cruelty and inhumanity towards prisoners. Demand a public trial for them.

It is our civic duty, the duty of our human conscience, to put a stop to crimes against humanity. For crime begins not with the smoking chimneys of crematoria, nor with the steamers packed with prisoners bound for Magadan. Crime begins with civic indifference.


Anatoly Marchenko, 1938-1986



Executive Committee of the USSR Union of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (Order of Lenin),
Moscow V-36, No 5, 1st Cheremushkinsky proyezd, No. 182/125 yur.

To Citizen A. Marchenko,
Vladimir Region,
27 Novinskaya St.

29 April 1968

The letter sent in your name to the Executive Committee of the USSR Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has not, unfortunately, been signed by anyone [4], and this makes it impossible and unnecessary to give it detailed consideration in substance.

The committee nevertheless considers it necessary to point out briefly that our legislation and our Soviet conception of law look upon people who have attacked the conquests of the October Revolution as having committed a most serious offence against their people and as deserving severe punishment rather than any kind of indulgence or forbearance.

In the light of the foregoing the entirely groundless nature of all your other assertions becomes obvious.


Deputy Chairman

Executive Committee of the USSR Union of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies



[1] “His book … aroused such hatred for him in the KGB that they began to bait him like a hare: KGB agents followed on his heels for months on end — I’ve spotted them so often that I know many of them by sight,” wrote Larissa Bogoraz in 1969.

“And not only in Moscow, where he worked, and Aleksandrov where he lived: he went to visit relatives in Ryazan but he wasn’t allowed to leave the train and had to return to Moscow. He was seized on the street almost as soon as he had been discharged from hospital; and they smashed his face in and shoved him inside a car when he came to Moscow for a literary evening.”

(Bogoraz’s text was included in the 1971 Penguin edition of My Testimony, pp. 398-401.)

[2] Five roubles a month – slightly over £2 at the official exchange rate.

[3] A ‘severe’ food ration of 1,300 calories a day. In reply to a remark about prisoners being kept “at public expense”, in a letter by A. Chakovsky, chief editor of Literaturnaya gazeta, Marchenko breaks down the normal ration: six cupfuls of thin gruel, two cupfuls of soup made with rotten cabbage, and a piece of boiled cod the size of a matchbox — all this containing only 20 gms of fat, plus 700 gms of black bread and 15 gms of sugar.

The ‘severe’ ration contains 400 gms of cabbage soup, two cupfuls of thin gruel, the same size piece of cod and 450 gms of black bread. For comparison, we may note that in 1942-3 the Japanese concentration camp at Tha Makham on the River Kwai in Thailand had the following daily ration norm (in grams): rice (700), vegetables (600), meat (100, sugar (20), salt (20) and oil (15), with similarly few chances of buying extra food. This amounts to about 3,400 calories. Even here, though, vitamin deficiency diseases were very common. (See article by Ian Watt in The Observer, 1 September 1968).

[4] “Marchenko probably confined himself to a typewritten signature and forgot to sign by hand,” suggests a note by the Chronicle‘s editors.