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Reflecting on the suffering of Alexei Navalny, while remembering Jüri Kukk

Jüri Kukk
Jüri Kukk Source: State Archives

Even if we cannot directly block Moscow from doing these things, we shouldn't allow official Russia to simply torment Navalny with impunity either, Jüri Estam writes, thinking back to the fate of Estonian dissident Jüri Kukk and other victims of communist abuses.

It would appear that in next-door Russia, the more things "change", the more they remain the same. According to the Reuters news agency, Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny said on Thursday that being woken up by a guard (in a penal colony in Vladimir Oblast to the east of Moscow where he's being held) every hour during the night amounts to torture and that he's being denied medical treatment for acute back and leg pain. 

Having your sleep disturbed, often with bright lights left on in your cell throughout the night, was a common practice in prisons in Estonia under Soviet occupation in 1940-1941 and during the postwar years. Actually, to do so was pervasive in much of Central and Eastern Europe of the time.

KGB interrogators and wardens used a wide variety of methods to torment those who were unfortunate enough to end up at the local Estonian headquarters of the Soviet secret police on Pagari street in Tallinn's Old Town or in the Patarei prison complex in the harbor area or any number of other detention centers here. While extreme abuses, including disappearances, outright torture and executions by gunshot were at their worst during the Stalinist years (1940-1953), political trials and the inhumane treatment of political prisoners continued in the three occupied Baltic States until the late eighties. 

Massive overcrowding, brutal beatings, sexual mistreatment and numerous other cruelties had to be endured by many of the imprisoned persons in occupied Estonia under both the Nazis and the communists. Both systems sent many victims to their graves.

During WW II and the postwar years, an extensive set of additional practices designed to break detainees were also part and parcel of the catalogue of procedures utilized by the various agencies that interrogated and abused victims and opponents of the Soviet regime. Such unpitying, painful and energy-sapping techniques can be lumped together under the category of "sensory deprivation."

Sensory deprivation is such a cold and clinical term that it doesn't really open the eyes of the uninitiated to the suffering that such practices have caused to incarcerated people not just in the Soviet past but also in present day Russia and under other regimes. 

Abuse of this kind has taken place more recently under conditions of "enhanced interrogation," but also during what the British military referred to as "deep interrogation" in the past, as in the case of the "five techniques" used in Northern Ireland during "the Troubles." These techniques were defined as prolonged wall-standing, hooding, subjection to noise, deprivation of sleep and also deprivation of food and drink. 

These and many other cruel measures would have been familiar to Estonians unlucky enough to end up in the custody of the KGB and other Soviet intelligence and prison services during the past century. 

It was the communist system that pioneered such means of interrogation and abuse many of which were subsequently copied and learned by other countries, notably Hitler's Germany. The USSR was the proving ground for concentration camps and also for a variety of "modern" techniques by which enemies of the regime can be tormented.

While a number of Western soldiers and interrogators involved in questioning prisoners have felt qualms in more recent years and have also had restrictions placed upon how far they could go with waterboarding and the like, the same can't easily be said about the particularly cruel heavies and executioners of Lavrenti Beria's secret police in the USSR. In a review of "Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar" (by Simon Sebag Montefiore), Roy Hattersley wrote in The Guardian: "Because I want to retain my faith in human nature, I would like to believe that Stalin and his henchmen were all clinically insane. Surely people who wallow in blood – metaphorically when they order the slaughter of seven million kulaks and literally when they beat old friends to death – must have lost the ability to distinguish between right and wrong."

The difference between the USSR of the past (and also Russia of the present) and the better of the Western countries is that the latter are capable of introspection and of at least trying to reform and better themselves. For example, in 1976, the European Commission of Human Rights ruled that the five techniques referred to previously amounted to torture.

The withholding of appropriate and sufficient medical assistance is also "old hat" in the penal system of the Russian Federation, dating back to the days of the vast network of Soviet labor camps and even earlier. One needn't look further than Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago" in order to learn about countless examples of maltreatment and medical inattention and abuse that characterized the Soviet penal and forced labor system of old.

For anyone wanting to consult a sort of a primer on all of this, "Darkness at Noon" – a literary classic by Arthur Koestler – is to be recommended. Based on the macabre period of the Stalinist purges of the 1930s in the Soviet Union, "Darkness at Noon" tells the story of Nicolas Rubashov, a once-important communist functionary who is arrested, imprisoned and then interrogated at length. Beatings, sleep deprivation and other stressors are used against Rubashov and his cellmates, such as being blinded by a glaring lamp for hours on end during harsh and accusatory questioning. Much effort was expended on the grinding down and the dehumanization of prisoners. Koestler's descriptions are actually on the tame side because NKVD chief Lavrenty Beria and so many of his henchmen of the Stalinist era were known as true sadists. 

Could a turn for the better now finally be in the offing off to the east? Belarus more certainly and possibly Russian society too could be nearing a tipping point sooner or later. In the Estonian cultural weekly Sirp, Irina Paert recently authored a feature about a "monument war" currently going on in Moscow where a heated debate continues concerning possible plans to bring back a huge statue of the notorious Felix Dzerzhinsky who was also a state-security organizations boss. It was his agents who developed monstrously inventive means of torture and psychological torment in Russia.

A 15-ton monument of Dzerzhinsky, which once dominated the Lubyanka Square in Moscow, adjacent to the infamous headquarters of the KGB, was removed in August of 1991 when it seemed that Russia might finally be joining the fold of truly democratic nations. In Moscow, women and younger people in particular are currently opposed to having this statue of "Iron Felix" being returned to the Lubyanka. 

It remains unclear as to whether contemporary Russian society might be capable of making a clean break with its brutal past, particularly with the most important head of the country's opposition being held in prison, apparently in the usual fashion.  

For many older Estonians, the fate of the political prisoner and human rights activist Jüri Kukk easily comes to mind while reflecting on what Navalny has been and is being forced to currently endure.

Kukk – an Estonian professor of chemistry – died 40 years ago on March 27 in a Soviet prison camp located in Vologda in northwestern Russia after several months of being on hunger strike, having first endured psychiatric maltreatment.

Professor Kukk, who initially studied and later taught at the University of Tartu from 1958 to 1979, was the author of a number of scientific papers. Although he was a member of the Communist Party, it was apparently Kukk's period of scientific work in Bellevue, France during 1975 and 1976 that really opened his eyes to the severity of the problems in his occupied homeland of Estonia and in the USSR more broadly. Jüri Kukk protested the invasion of Afghanistan by the USSR in 1979 and applied for permission to emigrate to the West. After being fired by the University of Tartu, he was arrested in February 1980, along with fellow human rights activist Mart Niklus, and charged with distribution of "anti-Soviet propaganda." Niklus and Kukk both actively campaigned for Estonia being given the chance to go her way again as an independent nation, free of Soviet domination.

Having initially been sent to the Serbsky Institute in Russia, which was a location notorious for the psychiatric abuse of political prisoners, Jüri Kukk continued a hunger strike he'd begun that drained him physically and finally died in Soviet custody, possibly due to a botched attempt to force-feed him. Kukk's funeral on March 30, 1981 in distant Vologda was attended by his widow, a handful of friends and numerous KGB agents. All of this seems hauntingly familiar in the present day. Mr. Kukk's remains were retrieved and reburied in Kursi in Estonia in 1989.

Although Estonia was significantly cut off from the rest of the world during the Soviet era, Jüri Kukk became one of the best-known members of the country's resistance movement in the early eighties, due to a number of factors. Many of the foreign scientists who'd worked alongside Kukk during his period in France rallied to his defense, as did chemists and colleagues in other countries. 

Kukk's plight also came to the attention of David K. Willis who was the Christian Science Monitor's correspondent in Moscow. The New York Times mentioned Kukk's passing in a brief obituary. Rein Taagepera – an Estonian-American professor – eulogized him in the book "Softening without Liberalization in the Soviet Union: The Case of Jüri Kukk."  Peter Reddaway – an expert on the political abuse of psychiatry in the former USSR – called Taagepera's book, which "outlined the life and death of a national martyr," a "brilliant feat." 

The United States issued a postage stamp in memory of Jüri Kukk and a star was named after him in the Draco constellation in the far northern sky.

Ever since 1997, an annual conference has been held at the University of Tartu to commemorate professor Kukk and his fate. Because the event has been put on hold this year due to the pandemic lockdown, people are being asked to simply remember the sacrifices made by Mr. Kukk in the privacy of their homes and in their hearts.  

During the Cold War years, Amnesty International conducted admirable letter-writing campaigns on behalf of prisoners of conscience such as Jüri Kukk. Would now not be a good time to reinstate this practice internationally on behalf of political prisoners in Russia, Belarus, China and all over the world? Surely the age of letters isn't fully over yet!

During his darkest days, Alexei Navalny deserves a more concerted effort by our politicians, the international mass media and from public opinion the world over. The Kremlin, which is being run by veterans of the Russian secret police, almost seems bent on making a martyr out of Navalny. 

Even if we can't directly block Moscow from doing these things, we shouldn't allow official Russia to simply torment Navalny with impunity either. Be it Navalny in Russian imprisonment or the many Uighurs, Tibetans and others held in Chinese penitentiaries and work farms, they don't call the victims of state oppression "prisoners of conscience" for nothing. 


Jüri Estam covered human rights issues and reported on the war in Afghanistan during the eighties as an Estonian Service staffer at Radio Free Europe.  


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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