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Valery Abramkin

Russian penal reformer;

Born: May 19, 1946; Died: January 25, 2013.

Valery Abramkin, who has died aged 66, was a quiet and remarkably consistent campaigner. In 1980 he went on a one-day hunger strike in solidarity "with prisoners everywhere" and for the next 30 years devoted his life to penal reform, contributing to the new Russian Penitentiary Code in 1992 and helping achieve some public oversight of the prison system. Justice for juveniles was his concern when he died.

At one point Clouds, a radio programme for prisoners he initiated on State Radio, was listened to by one-quarter of the adult Russian population. That says much about the quality of his broadcast. It may also say something about Russia's high rate of imprisonment.

He began his professional life as an atomic research engineer but lost that job when he was expelled from the Young Communist League in 1975. He worked as a lumberjack, a stoker and a church warden.

In 1978 he launched a journal called Searches – Poiski'in Russian – which he subtitled Searches for Mutual Understanding. Today's equivalent might be a blog.

Running to several hundred pages, the first issue reviewed banned literature, translated EuroCommunism and the State by Santiago Carrillo, and published a despairing letter called An Appeal to Nowhere by dairy workers in Tolyatti. When I read that letter now, it reminds me of a cry from RBS shareholders.

In 1979 he was sentenced to three years' imprisonment for disseminating anti-Soviet slander, then immediately given another three years on the same charge when he was due for release in 1981.

The Soviet authorities no doubt thought they demonstrated strength in doing this but in hindsight it looks like fateful weakness 10 years before the USSR collapsed.

After his release he worked with international partners such as Amnesty International and Penal Reform International, which he helped found in 1992. His base was the Centre for Criminal Justice Reform, a specialist NGO he set up in 1988.

Looking back now over his life, I am struck by how contemporary he was. He was young when the Berlin Wall still stood and the country mired in war with Afghanistan was the USSR, not the UK. He first got into trouble with the authorities in the mid-1970s for organising alternative music gigs – a Soviet equivalent perhaps of punk rock. Long before social media, impromptu audiences would take over an open space in Moscow on a non-workday and hold what was called a Sunday, sometimes lasting hours. People in-the-know regarded a few guitar chords as a password.

In one sense Valery Abramkin wore his imprisonment lightly. He was bigger than it and did not harp on old memories. In another sense it was always with him.

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