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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

SAY WHAT? :Swallowed Words Ensure Our Freedom




PERM, Ural Mountains -- The way we whisper politics in the kitchen, the way we publish samizdat, the way we smuggle our writings in our stomachs f no, no, they can't take that away from me.


This was the message delivered to me last week by Mikhail Nechayev, dean of the history department at Perm State Pedagogical University.


Nechayev says that the threat of the state's crackdown on the free press is highly exaggerated. He says the significance of Vladimir Gusinsky's arrest last month and the armed raid on the offices of Gusinsky's Media-MOST empire, in terms of oppression of freedom of speech, is nil. It's time for the Moscow intelligentsia to drop their conspiracy theories, Nechayev said. Nobody can shut us up.


"We will always have freedom of press," Nechayev told me. "If worst comes to worst, we will have samizdat."


I interviewed Nechayev the day after my visit to Perm-36, a maximum-security prison camp that once held the elite of political prisoners f the cream of the state's most loathed opposition, so to speak. Even Sergei Kovalyov, who later became Boris Yeltsin's adviser on human rights, was not considered dangerous enough at the time and therefore was held in a lower security prison a stone's throw away. No, Perm-36 was not meant for mediocre public enemies. Its poorly heated cells held only the most outrageous evildoers. Most of them, as luck would have it, were writers and poets.


The camp, built in 1970 and shut down in 1987, never held more than 30 men at a time. All in all, 56 prisoners lived in the camp.


One-eighth of these enemies of the state died right there, in the gulag. Their minds may have been strong, but their bodies couldn't cope with the scarce food, the bad climate and the 45 minutes a day of relatively fresh air in the prison courtyard.


So here's how these antisovetchiki, these saboteurs, exercised their human right to press freedom: They took miniscule pieces of cigarette paper, two fingers wide and five fingers long, and wrote on them with sharp pencils. Up to 10 printed pages could fit on such piece of paper if the pencils were properly sharpened. The prisoners didn't mind. They had a lot of prison time on their hands: an average of 10 years each.


The most important thing was to hide the pencils well. If the pencils were found, their owners were thrown into solitary confinement for up to one year.


After the texts f poems, stories, appeals, statements f were written, the pieces of paper were rolled into tiny little rolls and wrapped in plastic. These plastic containers were then swallowed by those selected prisoners who were lucky enough to get an annual meeting with family members. During these meetings, the writings were defecated, to be swallowed again, this time by the prisoners' visitors from the outside world. The visitors had no other choice than to swallow these free press items, because, you see, they were subjected to full body-cavity searches by prison guards before leaving.


So yes, Nechayev was right. We will always have samizdat. Nobody will ever deprive us of a right to swallow and then defecate paper wrapped in plastic, swallowed and then defecated by our loved ones. We will always find a way to discuss politics in a whisper, in the kitchen, in the dark. If worst comes to worst, we will meditate for years in solitary confinement. History proves that it can be done.