Anatoly Tihkonovich Marchenko (also Anatoli Marchenko, Anatolii Marchenko, etc) (January 23, 1938 - December 8, 1986) was an influential and well-known Soviet dissident, author, and human rights campaigner. He was the first recipient of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought of the European Parliament, awarded to him posthumously in 1988 (the only recipient thus far to be so honoured).
Initially a worker on a drilling gang, and not of intellectual background or upbringing, he became radicalized, and turned to writing and politics, after being imprisoned as a young man on trumped-up charges. During his time in the labour camps and prisons he studied, and began to associate with dissidents.
He first became widely known through his book My Testimony, an autobiographical account of his then-recent sentence in Soviet labour camps and prison. It caused a sensation when it was released in the West in 1969, after limited circulation inside the Soviet Union as samizdat. It brought home to readers around the world, including the USSR itself, that the Soviet gulag had not ended with Stalin.
He also became active in the Soviet human rights movement. He was one of the founder members of the influential and much-emulated Moscow Helsinki Group. He organized protests and appeals, and authored a number of open letters, several of which landed him in prison again.
He was continually harassed by the authorities, and was imprisoned for several different terms, spending about 20 years all told in prison and internal exile. Nathan Shcharansky said of him: "After the release of Yuri Orlov, he was definitely the number one Soviet prisoner of conscience." 1
He died in Chistopol prison hospital during his last incarceration, at the age of 48, as a result of a three month long hunger strike he was conducting, the goal of which was the release of all Soviet prisoners of conscience. The widespread international outcry over his death was a major factor in finally pushing Gorbachev to authorize the large-scale release of political prisoners in 1987.
- 1 Detailed biography
- 1.1 Marchenko becomes a "political" prisoner
- 1.2 First release, and the writing of My Testimony
- 1.3 Marchenko openly becomes a dissident
- 1.4 Siberian exile and family
- 1.5 Marchenko continues with dissident activity
- 1.6 His first major hunger strike
- 1.7 Life in exile again
- 1.8 His last period of freedom
- 1.9 Marcheko's final hunger strike, and death
- 1.10 Funeral
- 2 Notes
Marchenko was born in Barabinsk, in Western Siberia, in 1938. His parents were illiterate railway workers (his father, Tikon Akhimovich, was a locomotive fireman, and his mother was a station cleaner). His grandfather was a peasant, who had been shot by Kolchak. He had two brothers, one of whom died very young.
He left school after only 8 years, two short of the normal full secondary education. He then joined the Komsomol, and became a shift foreman on a drilling gang. The gang travelled around Siberia, and on a job at the Karaganda power station in 1958 he ran into trouble. Some exiled Chechens began a fight with some of the Russian workers in the hostel where Marchenko was staying; after the fight was over, and most of the combatants had left, the police arrested everyone left in the hostel, innocent and guilty alike, and they were all sent to the Karaganda labour camps after a perfunctory trial.
Marchenko becomes a "political" prisoner
In 1960 he escaped from the camp (ironically, just as his sentence was about to be overturned), and seeing no future for himself in the USSR, tried to escape over the border into Iran. However, he was captured on October 29 near Ashkabad, just short of the border. He was subsequently tried for treason on March 2, 1961; the charge of treason was because he supposedly intended to engage in work against the USSR for money; in reality it was payback for his attempt to leave. On March 3, 1961, he was convicted; it was a designation that would cripple his life, but also change it, because it officially made him a "political" prisoner, not an ordinary criminal. He was sentenced to six years in labour camp.
After several months in a series of transit prisons, he was moved to a labour camp in Mordovia. He attempted to escape from there, but did not succeed, and as a result he was sentenced to serve three years of his sentence in prison, which he spent in infamous Vladimir Prison. While in Vladimir he went on a long hunger strike, a tactic he would often later repeat. In 1963, he was moved back to the labour camps in Mordovia. While there, in March, 1966, he survived a bout of suppurant meningitis with almost no medical care, which caused problems with his ears which would trouble him for the rest of his life.
During his time in the camps he educated himself by studying, reading a number of socio-political works, including the complete works of Lenin; he would later also read the complete works of Marx and Engels. He also met a number of intellectual political prisoners, including Yuli Daniel, a meeting that would later prove fateful for Marchenko.
First release, and the writing of My Testimony
Marchenko was released on November 2, 1966, and spent months travelling through Russia, trying to find a locality which would let him register to live there. He finally succeeded in being allowed to register in Barabinsk, and later in Alexandrov, in the Vladimir oblast. From May, 1968, while still formally living in Alexandrov, he was working in Moscow as a loader, the only job available to him, even though doctors had forbidden him to do hard manual labour.
During this time, he had met Larisa Bogoraz, the wife of Yuli Daniel (although they were in the process of separating), and through her a number of other people in their circle. He was determined to write a record of the camps, and his fellow prisoners, and he enlisted their aid in his project. They also helped him receive medical care, both for his ears, and for problems with internal bleeding in his stomach.
By December, 1967, he had finished work on his book, My Testimony, the first book to reveal that the gulag had continued in full operation through the rule of Khrushchev and on into that of Brezhnev. It was described by the Daily Telegraph as "An extraordinarily important book ... a totally realistic, detailed, factual and yet profoundly and human account of Russian prison and camp life...". 2
It provided a detailed account of both his time in labour camps and prison, as well as a wide-ranging look at conditions there. The publication of the book would later earn him further confinement for anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.
Marchenko openly becomes a dissident
On September 5, 1967, Marchenko announced to the authorities his association with the dissident circle by appearing at a search of the apartment of the mother of Alexander Ginzburg, the subject of another famous show trial.
On March 27, 1968 he wrote an open letter to Alexander Chakovsky, then editor of the Litarary Gazette, contradicting a letter from Chakovsky which had been published that day, which had charged that dissidents were "fed .. at public expense in [Soviet] prisons [and] corrective labour colonies". 3 Marchenko bitterly refuted the charges from his own personal experience, pointing out that rations were minimal, and the prisoners over-worked. On April 17, he followed this up with a series of letters on the same subject to the head of the Soviet Red Cross, and other highly-placed people.
His next focus was the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. On July 22 that year, he wrote an open letter to a variety of publications, including Communist media in the West, about the situation there, predicting that the Soviet Union would not allow the 'Prague Spring' to continue.
This was too much for the authorities; as a result, on July 28, he was arrested and charged with "violating passport regulations", because of his presence in Moscow. On August 21 (ironically, the same day that the Soviet Union invaded Czechslovakia, as he had predicted it would), he was sentenced to the maximum penalty for that crime, one year in labour camp. In reality, his crime had been the open letter about Czechslovakia.
He was then sent to a camp in the far-Northern province of Perm. He was scheduled to be released on July 27, 1969, but before that could happen, he was tried on charges of "defamation of the Soviet political system", notionally for statements on the subjects of Czechslovakia and human rights in the USSR which he supposedly had made in camp. In reality, as Soviet officals later admitted, it was payback for the publication of My Testimony in the West. He was tried on that charge on August 22, and convicted; on August 26 he was sentenced to a further two years of imprisonment.
Siberian exile and family
Although many (including his American publisher, Dutton, did not expect him to live through this imprisonment, he did, and was released in August, 1971.
Given a choice for his place of internal exile after release, he chose Chuna, in Siberia, where his fellow dissident Larisa Bogoraz, was also in internal exile. (She had been sentenced to four years of exile after being arrested in August, 1968 for publicly protesting the invasion of Czechoslovakia.)
Bogoraz was by now divorced from Yuli Daniel, a process that had stared before she met Marchenko. She and Marchenko had become lovers during the period after his first release from prison; later, they married. 4
In September, 1972, the couple moved back to Tarusa, where they moved into a dilapidated house which Marchenko rebuilt. While there, they had one son, Pavel, born that winter. Marchenko's health was still poor, and he was unable to find any work other than manual labour as a furnace stoker in a factory.
Marchenko continues with dissident activity
Tarusa was only about 100 kilometers from Moscow, so they were able to maintain contact with dissident circles in the capital, which were suffering increasing repression as they more openly challenged the government. Marchenko and Bogoraz considered emigrating, but the increasing repression moved him to act.
On August 23, 1973 he wrote to Kurt Waldheim (then Secretary-General of the United Nations), expressing concern about the condition of another imprisoned writer. A letter to Willy Brandt, warning of the dangers of detente, followed. The authorities replied with increased repressive measures aimed at Marchenko through 1974, and the more they pressed him, the more it moved him to act.
On December 10 he wrote a letter to Nikolai Podgorny renouncing his Soviet citizenship, and indicating he intended to emigrate to the United States. The Soviet response was to encourage him to apply for an exit visa to Israel, which they could use for propaganda purposes. Typically, Marchenko refused, even though he could have easily changed his destination once out of the Soviet Union.
His first major hunger strike
In response to his refusal to cooperate in any way, on February 26, 1975 he was again arrested, and charged with violating the repressive "administrative supervision" measures which had been imposed on him the previous summer.
His response was to begin a hunger strike, on which he was still engaged when he was tried a month later, on March 31. He was quickly convicted, and sentenced that day to four years of internal exile to Siberia, again to Chuna.
During a two-week wait for transport to begin, and for a week thereafter, he continued his hunger strike. During this entire period, he received no special treatment, and was handled just like all the other prisoners. He only gave up on April 21, when it became clear to him that he was at risk of death; his hunger strike had lasted 53 days.
Life in exile again
On arrival in Chuna, he started work as a log handler at a sawmill, a place where he had worked during his previous period of exile. Later in 1975, he suffered an attack of neuritis, and was hospitalized in Irkutsk, although he was forced to leave before he was fully recovered.
During his exile in Siberia, he managed to complete his second book, From Tarusa to Siberia, in October, 1975; it covers the then-recent trial and hunger strike. In 1976, he was one of the founders of the influential and pathbreaking Moscow Helsinki Group.
His last period of freedom
In September, 1978, his term of exile ended, and he was allowed to leave Chuna, and he and his family moved back to the vicinity of Moscow. He was given an ultimatum to leave the Soviet Union or go back to prison, but ignored it.
During this period, he completed his third and final book, To Live Like Everyone; the title was a favourite phrase of his. It covered the period from 1966 to 1969, when he was writing My Testimony, up through his trial in retribution for its publication.
This book contributed to his demise, though: in 1980, he was arrested for publishing it. On September 3, 1981 he went on trial for "anti-Soviet agitation", and the next day was given a 15-year sentence (the last 5 of internal exile). He would not complete this sentence.
Marcheko's final hunger strike, and death
Little is known of his last period of imprisonment, although in December, 1983 he was badly beaten by guards, losing consciousness as a result.
Over the next few years, Bogoraz began a public campaign to free all Soviet political prisoners, which proved ultimately successful when General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev began mass releases in 1987. However, this proved too late for Marchenko, who had died not long before Gorbachev's announcement - ironically, from the effects of a hunger strike demanding the release of all Soviet political prisoners.
This last hunger strike started on August 4, 1986 when he wrote a letter to the Vienna Helsinki review conference. Sadly, there was little reaction to his hunger strike from the world press. It continued through November, although Bogoraz believed that he ended it around the end of November, when he was placed on the sick list.
Although there were indications shortly before his death that the Soviet authorities were on the verge of releasing him, Marchenko died before that could happen, on December 8, after being hospitalized the day before.
The exact cause of his death is not certain; some reports indicate problems with his heart, others a stroke. However, it was certainly caused by the effects of the long hunger strike.
His wife and son travelled to Chistopol to bury him there; they were not allowed to bring his body back to Moscow for burial.
He was buried on December 12, near the prison in Chistopol, after Russian Orthodox rites at a church nearby. His widow was denied a death certificate, and had to write his name in ballpoint pen on the pine cross on his grave.
- Nathan Shcharansky, The Limits of Glasnost
- Anatoly Marchenko, My Testimony, Penguin paperback edition, back cover.
- The complete letter is given in My Testimony, Penguin paperback edition, Appendix, pp. 381-383.
- There is some confusion about the date; From Tarusa to Siberia gives 1971, and To Live Like Everyone gives 1973.