Moving to polish up its badly tarnished image as reflected in its human rights record, the Soviet regime has made favorable headlines in the West by setting at liberty a number of celebrated prisoners of conscience. Glory be to God for the release of the following Orthodox Christians: Mykola Ihnatenko, Dr. Anatoly Koryagin, Sergei Meilakh, Alexander Ogorodnikov, Priest Glob Yakunin, and Rostislav Yevdokimov.
Among these, our readers are perhaps most familiar with Alexander Ogorodnikov, featured recently on this page, who manfully suffered the Gulag system for more than eight years before being released on February 14. On his return to Moscow, he phoned Fr. Victor Potapov, director of the religious broadcast of "Voice of America" in Washington D .C, Throughout the conversation Ogorodnikov repeatedly expressed his heartfelt gratitude-which he asked Fr. Victor to convey-to all those who had prayed for him: "... when I sat in the icy cold cell, I actually felt warm. when I was hungry, I felt satisfied." Ogorodnikov also cited the words of the Gospel: 'I, one of the least of Christ's brethren, was in prison, and you visited me.' It is interesting that on the day Alexander called, Feb. 22, this very passage was appointed to be read at the Divine Liturgy.
Ogorodnikov refused to sign any statement of recantation, often pressed upon prisoners as a condition of release; he did agree, however, to uphold Gorbachov' s policy of "glasnost." His sister and brother-in-law came in a taxi to pick him up at the camp. He related that on the day of his scheduled release the second shift of prisoners refused to go to work until they were convinced that he had definitely been allowed to leave the camp.
In answer to a question concerning his health, Ogorodnikov said that he still felt the handcuffs. Apparently, in August of last year, he was subjected to a novel method of torture; he was bound with self-tightening handcuffs (made in USA!) designed for violent criminals; the chain of these handcuffs was tightened to the maximum and then beaten with a stick. This caused Ogorodnikov's hands to become numb and he has not yet regained full tactile sense. Surprisingly, he succeeded in his demands that criminal proceedings be brought against the three men responsible for the incident. The outcome remains to be seen.
Although Ogorodnikov himself did not mention it, his prolonged ordeal has left him very weak physically and practically blind in one eye, among other problems. These were intensified, no doubt, by the 659 days which he spent on hunger strike during his 8-year term of imprisonment, in support of his unceasing demand for a Bible. In all that time he had only one meeting, with his mother and brother, in December, 1986.
On February 22, after the Divine Liturgy at the St. John the Baptist cathedral in Washington, occasioned by the release of Ogorodnikov and others a service of thanksgiving was celebrated headed by Bishop Hilarion of Manhatten, who had also received a phone call from Ogorodnikov. Fr. Victor Potapov spoke briefly before the service, citing the words of Metropolitan Vitaly, Chief Hierarch of the Church Abroad, who, upon hearing of the recent releases, said: "Today, the suffering believers in Russia are as vital as air to us here in the West, for our spiritual strengthening."
Ogorodnikov has applied for a permit in order to take up residence once again in Moscow. Pray for him!
Among those expected to have been released together with Ogorodnikov in the February "amnesty" was Sergei Khodorovich. In late January his wife Tatiana was told by the Soviet authorities that her husband would be released on condition that she sign papers agreeing that they both would emigrate. Although neither of them had any desire to do so, she agreed in view of Sergei's critical physical condition--the result of cruel beatings and malicious treatment in the prison. She feared that otherwise the fate of Anatoly Marchenko (48 year old Orthodox Christian who died in prison December 8, 1986, for lack of medical attention) would overtake her husband. In anticipation of Sergei’s release and their imminent departure, Tatiana quit her job. But he was not released, for some time there was no news from him at all, and even some question as to his exact whereabouts. It was feared that he was being forced to make some sort of confession.
Fortunately, Khodorovich was well known in the West. A computer mathematician, 47 years old, he was arrested in 1983 on account of his position since 1979 as director of the Russion Social Fund, a charitable fund established by Solzhenitsyn to aid prisoners of conscience and their families. A vigorous campaign, launched here in the States for Sergei’s immediate release, enlisted the influence of several Congressmen: John Porter (R-IL), Stuart Udall (D-AZ), Senator William Armstrong (R-CO)and others phoned Tatiana in Moscow assuring her of their support and/or contacted the Soviet Embassy in Washington., urging them to clarify the situation, Telegrams were sent by several organizations (CDPOC, CREED, International Society for Human Rights) to Warren Zimmerman, head of the American delegation at the Vienna CSCE Review Conference asking that he demand the Soviets to give an account of the Khodorovich case. A telegram was also sent by the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Church Abroad, which read in part:
"There are in Russia people who, on hearing the call of Christ to serve their neighbor, sacrifice their personal safety and dedicate themselves to Christian charity and co-suffering with the persecuted. Setgel Khodorovich is just such an individual.
"It is incredible that this kind of activity is judged by the Soviet authorities as some kind of criminal action, and that Sergei Khodorovich has been imprisoned since 1983... We fear that his life may be in danger. We, bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, ask that you demand from the Soviet delegation exhaustive information regarding Sergei Khodorovich's health and his whereabouts."
In response to these appeals, on March 11 in Vienna the American delegation raised the question of the Khodorovich case and within a week, on March 17, Tatiana Khodorovich received a telegram from her husband in the Norilsk camp, telling her that he would be coming home the following day.
Here we should also note that last December Khodorovich was chosen a member of the US Academy of Sciences.
(Information supplied by the Committee for the Defense of Persecuted Orthodox Christians in Washington D.C.)
Although it is tempting to be optimistic in view of these releases, it should be remembered that there are still hundreds of victims in the Gulag. Exiled Russian Orthodox writer Felix Svetov, commenting on the recent releases and the pressure to sign statements, said: "There is no amnesty...This is just a new KGB trick, a new method of bringing pressure to bear on political prisoners and those serving exile terms." (KNS 3/5/87) Fr. Vladimir Rusak, for example (see OA #66), was transferred from strict regime camp to Moscow's Lefortovo prison where he was put under pressure to sign a statement of recantation. He refused and has now been sent back to a strict regime camp.[OA/_private/oabot.htm]