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Anatoly Tikhonovich 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 to be honoured
in this manner to date).
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
He first became widely known through his book My Testimony,
an autobiographical account of his then-recent sentence in
Soviet labour camps and prison, which 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."
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 then-General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to
authorize the large-scale release of political prisoners in
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
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
extraordinarly important book ... a totally realistic, detailed,
factual and yet profoundly and human account of Russian prison
and camp life...".
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 Literaturnaya Gazeta,
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". 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
Czechoslovakia, 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
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 Czechoslovakia and human rights in the USSR
which he supposedly had made in camp. In reality, as Soviet
officials 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 started before she met Marchenko. She and Marchenko had
become lovers during the period after his first release from
prison; later, they married.
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 détente, 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 (then
the Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR)
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
to cooperate, 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.
His transportation to Siberia through a series of prisons
(Sverdlovsk, Novosibirsk, and Irkutsk) lasted through the rest
of April, and May.
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
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
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 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
This last hunger strike started on August 4, 1986 when he
wrote a letter to the Helsinki review conference in Vienna.
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 authoritites 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.