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The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword

Illustration © Alex Baer 2024 with permission


For all of us in that packed room, Aleksei made it feel not only that a free Russia was possible but also that we could get there with joy, laughter and camaraderie.


- Nadya Tolokonnikova,  founder of Pussy Riot.  NY Times 2/24/24


This is what a tyrant looks like: small, and full of tedious resentments.


-Masha Gessen, The New Yorker, 2/10/24, reporting on Tucker Carlson's interview with Putin.



Lawyers for the imprisoned members of Pussy Riot, the Russian punk rock band, came to the Law School at NYU  on September 21, 2012 to discuss their clients' legal predicament, as well as the political climate in Russia. I cannot believe this was more than a decade ago and that when I left I  felt heartened by the spirit of dissent and freedom. I was certain that after years of KGB despotism, that these brave performance artists would be released from the penal colony. I was ignorant and deluded, as were so many in the audience that day. Why were the Russian lawyers there if not for support, I thought, and to taste American freedoms which were not under threat in 2012 as they are today.


It was only when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022 and I realized that I had a broadcaster acquaintance in Kyiv that I began to read and read and read, thus deeping my knowledge and understanding of Russia and Ukraine. As my TBR history stack grew exponentially every week, I abandoned delusion. I am now reading two books by Masha Gessen, both riveting, and a collection of Chekov short stories. The fear of authority is embedded in the stories which were written in the late 19th century during the reign of Alexander III.


We must go to the past to understand the present. Have we learned this truism here in America? The past is past you say? No, not exactly. 2016 is upon us yet again, and more dangerous.


And now Navalny, who like so many incarcerated Russians over the centuries wrote lyrical letters  miraculously delivered to his correspondents through a hard-to-understand electronic system which he was able to use until he arrived in the Arctic penal colony. Nothing stopped  him from writing and writing and writing. The humorous, compassionate voice strengthened with every missive. One would hope, or I hope, that the connection he felt as he wrote, imagining the recipient of each letter, was a comfort in his solitary frigid confinement. He was also an avid reader: 44 books a year, in English, and lobbied his keepers to allow him more than one book at a time. He liked to read more than one book at a time. And even that small detail is a wonder.


When I heard of his death, I was smitten, and joined the community of grief throughout the world. But it was when the NY Times published a handwritten letter that I felt most bereft. He was a writer until his last breath. He probably was given limited paper and pen, and made the most of it, writing small and tight. The words soared with each scratch of his pen, as did his spirit, and ours. May his fortitude inspire all of us to sustain the fight for freedom.


                                                                               Navalny's Letters from the Gulag

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