8.8 Alexander Ginzburg’s hunger strike

No 8 : 30 June 1969

On 16 May Alexander Ginzburg went on hunger strike in protest at being forbidden to have visits from his wife. He gave advance warning of this to the administration of Camp 17 of the Mordovian camp complex, where he is being held, stressing that he would not enter into discussions with the administration, since the decision on this matter did not rest with them.  He described his position in detail, and gave the reasons for his decision in a letter to I. G. Petrovsky, Deputy of the USSR Supreme Soviet and Rector of Moscow University. Ginzburg has so far had no reply to this letter. Incidentally, the camp administration enclosed with the letter a very favourable report on Ginzburg. Ginzburg has had no punishments, has never broken the camps rules, and has always fulfilled his work norm, although he is classified as disabled because of an injured hand, and as such is not obliged to fulfil the norm.

Alexander Ginzburg and Irina Zholkovskaya applied to register their marriage at a registry office at the end of 1966, This would have formalised a marriage which had already been in existence for a long time, as the testimony of neighbours, and certificates from the Housing Allocation Bureau, later confirmed. Six days before the registration date, Ginzburg was arrested. During the fifteen months which Ginzburg spent in Lefortovo prison, both he and Irina Zholkovskaya tried to obtain permission to register their marriage, but they were always told that registration in prison cells was prohibited. In actual fact this prohibition is not laid down anywhere, and at least two instances have been recorded of marriages registered in a Leningrad cell, the prisoners having been charged, moreover, under the same article 70 of the Russian Criminal Code: Valery Smolkin in 1965, and – quite recently – Lev Kvachevsky.

In Lefortovo prison the procurator had told Ginzbusg: “When you get to the camp you will be able to register there.” When he got there, Ginzburg read in the camp regulations that “the registration of marriages by prisoners interned in camps is not authorized”.

Nevertheless, during 1968 Ginzburg was allowed one personal and one ordinary visit from his wife, that is, respectively, 24 hours alone together, and 3 hours in the presence of a camp warder. In 1968 the long-established and generally accepted practice was still valid according to which visits were allowed if the parties could produce documentary proof of their marriage in common law. But in November 1968 the Ministry of Internal Affairs [MVD] issued a new order, stating that only registered couples could obtain personal visits. This order was a blow to an enormous number of families in which long-established marriages were unregistered, and which were now broken up by imprisonment. This is why it was promised that “in exceptional cases” registration of marriage with a prisoner would be permitted.

The new order did not affect ordinary visits, but in spite of this, in 1969, Irina Zholkovskaya was refused even an ordinary visit, and her letters, petitions and countless visits to various authorities were fruitless. Apart from his wife, Ginzburg’s only other relative is his mother, who is old and in ill health, and whose physical condition prevents her from making the journey to visit her son alone. And so his wife will always have to accompany her and spend the visiting time standing outside the barbed wire. In these conditions Alexander Ginzburg saw no other way of taking action than by hunger strike. Ginzburg’s psychological state prior to this decision is admirably described by Yuly Daniel in a letter to a friend.

On l6 May Ginzburg began his hunger strike. For four days he was sent out to work, although he was losing more and more strength. On the second day he received an official reprimand from a member of the camp administration Ribchinsky for leaving the work-shop half an hour before the end of the shift. (He had, however, completed his norm.) Halfway through the fourth day Ginzburg was finally put in solitary confinement. This should be done on the first day of a hunger strike. On the eleventh day they began to give him artificial feeding, but on 31 May Doctor Lyubimov considered that he looked too well, and from 1 to 4 June he was not fed.

On 19, 23 and 26 May a number of prisoners, including Yuly Daniel, Yury Galanskov, Valery Ronkin, Sergei Moshkov, Leonid Borodin, Vyacheslav Platonov, Valis Gayauskas, Mikhail Soroka, Dmitro Verkholyak and Victor Kalnins sent a petition to the USSR Procurator-General explaining the circumstances which made Ginzburg resort to a hunger strike. On 2 June the same group of prisoners appealed to the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet, and Ronkin and Galanskov announced that they too would strike in solidarity with Ginzburg. Valery Ronkin went on hunger strike on 2 June, Galanskov on 3 June. On 3 June Leonid Borodin and Vyacheslav Platonov joined them. On 2 June Yuly Daniel sent a statement to the Procurator-General, with copies to the Minister of Health and the Red Cross, about the attitude of Dr Lyubimov to the starving man. In his statement Daniel mentioned that Lyubimov was the doctor who at the time of the mass poisoning in the women’s zone of Camp 17 left a dying woman without giving her medical help.

On 10 June Alexander Ginzburg and his friends ended their hunger strike.

All this time Irina Zholkovskaya was still appealing to the Ministry of Internal Affairs [MVD], the KGB and the Procurator-General’s Office for permission for her next ordinary visit, which had been due to her since the end of April [and see, 8.12, her dismissal from work]. She was also enquiring about registering their marriage, and, after she learned of the hunger strike, about that too. Finally on 6 June V. Z. Samsonov, deputy Director of the Camp Supervision Department of the Procurator-General’s Office, confirmed to Ginzburg’s wife and mother that the new regulation did not affect ordinary visits, and that if they had applied to his office earlier, they would have got permission for the visit. Samsonov suggested they make a fresh application for an ordinary visit when Ginzburg called off his strike. On 11 June Irina Zholkovskaya made her application to the Attorney-General’s Office, and it forwarded the application to the Ministry of the Interior as before. Towards the end of June, that is, at the time the Chronicle was being prepared, she had had no reply. [See Chronicle 9.10 “News in brief”, item 15.]