Remembering brave Juri

At home I have a pair of gloves, thin, brown, ordinary. They are not mine. They belonged to a hero, one of the bravest men I have ever met. Now I cannot return them. Their owner has just passed on, in a Soviet prison camp, in the Gulag Archipelago, in the frozen northern plain of Russia, in the region of Murmansk.

This article is Written in his memory: a mild, slightly built, unassuming, intelligent, and honest man called Juri Kukk. He died because his eyes were opened to the kind of totalitarian control the KGB and the Communist Party exercise in the Soviet Union and in his beloved homeland of Estonia.

For many years he worked quietly as an inorganic chemist in Estonia. For 12 years he was even a member of the Communist Party. But he spent a year studying at an institute just outside France (1975-76), and when he returned home, he was a different man.

I met him first in the depths of a dreary winter (1979-80) in an icy, deserted Moscow park. It was so cold we could hardly stand still. I invited him, and his colleague Mart niklus, back to our apartment, gave him some tea, listened to his quiet determination and his courage.

He is not so well known as Andrei Sakharov or Anatoly Shcharansky. He won no Nobel prizes or world headlines. To me, he epitomized the unshakeable faith of an individual in freedom. Eventually, he died for that faith on March 27, 1981. He was 40.

His funeral, such as it was, was attended by his wife Silvi, five friends, and 25 KGB agents in the bleakness of Vologda, 400 kilometers east of Leningrad. His grave bears no name, just his prison number -- 23781. His widow has no photograph of it: KGB agents tore away the camera a friend used at the funeral, and exposed the film.

Juri told me he could no longer accept communist propaganda statements when he returned from France. The party said life in Estonia was wonderful: his own eyes told him it was the opposite. He felt he could no longer remain a member of the party. He wrote a brief note to local party headquarters, resigning. He thought it was a mere formality, and that he could live and work as before.

He was thunderstruck to come home one day and find Silvi had been visited by men in plain clothes who bullied her by saying he would be put into a psychiatric ward unless he withdrew his resignation. Persecution increased. The more it did, the more unyielding he became. He lost his teaching job.

Eventually he joined forces with another dissident, Mark Niklus, who had been battling the authorities since graduating from university.

Niklus, a square, burly, passionate man with darting eyes and the nervous manner of one always watching for the KGB, was with Juri when we met in the park. Both spoke good English. Both described conditions in Estonia, nationalist rallies, and a statement Niklus had signed the previous year calling for Baltic independence.

Later they gave me copies of statements signed by Baltic dissidents opposing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and supporting a boycott of the Moscow Summer Olympics of 1980. They wanted me to quote them.

The last time I met Juri was when I drove him in my car along the Sadovoye ring road. Three minutes after leaving the car he was picked up by the KGB and held for three days without being charged.

Sent back to Tartu, he telephoned me from a public booth to say how astonished he had been at the sight of the KGB flouting normal rule of detention. He had been thrown in a cell with drunks. A statement attesting to his answers had been signed by two "witnesses" whom he later discovered in the cell with him --ment they knew nothing about.

He was deported from Moscow for staying in the city longer than three days (technically an offense even though he would have been home in time if he had not been detained.

A month later he was arrested in Tartu. Silvi and his small son and daughter were distraught. The children were shouted at, victimized by schoolmates while teachers stood by, watching.

Eventually Juri was charged with disseminating fabrications defaming the Soviet system. Niklus was arrested on a more serious charge April 29.

For months the KGB tried to force Estonian doctors to certify Juri mentally deranged. They refused. The KGB incarcerated him in the notorious Serpsky psychiatric institute in Moscow. He went on a hunger strike. So did Niklus.

From Jan. 5 to 8 in Tallinn, capital of Estonia, both men were tried together. Both refused to speak. At the end, Juri bowed to Silvi and promised to continue his hunger strike, then in its 41st day.

He was sentenced to two years in a labor camp (Niklus, a second offender, received 10 years and five more of internal exile). On March 27 this year, Juri succumbed in the Gulag, still refusing food, still fighting for the ideals the Soviet state denies.

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