was all amazing, going to Moscow, going to Russia.
I wonder what it will take for our President to say such words, he, who as governor of Texas presided, unblinkingly, over 170 executions - even two women, one of whom was a grandmother. Now, in light of the terrorist attack on September 11, our President operates daily out of the same "search-and-destroy" paradigm in going after suspected terrorists. "I want Osama bin Laden dead or alive," he says.
As we testified before the Duma, it soon became clear that almost every word out of our mouths was new information to our listeners. That was my big surprise. I thought Russians would be cynical about the U.S., but I soon saw that they have a very idealized notion of our country, whose freedoms and material abundance they long for. Everything we told them about the practice of the death penalty was revelation: the 98 innocent persons freed off of death row in the last 25 years; the almost exclusive application of the death penalty for poor people who kill whites, the legalization of death as punishment for the mentally handicapped and juveniles.
Before the Clemency
Board -which is a REAL clemency board appointed by the President and composed
of psychologists, doctors, lawyers, and artists - the shock registered
on their sensitive faces when Denny described the way "clemency"
boards operate in the U.S.: each of them stacked with political appointees
of the governor, who seldom, if ever, deviate from a political agenda.
No wonder, Denny told them , that you can count on one hand decisions
of clemency in the U.S. over the past 20 years, and I told them how much
I dread appearing before the Pardon Board of Louisiana because it is such
a sham, and how glad I was when Dobie Williams, the last man I accompanied
to death by lethal injection in Louisiana, refused to appear before the
Pardon Board. He wanted to spare his mother's going through the farce
and losing her dignity. Why put her through that? he asked. I told them
of Robert Sawyer, a severely retarded man, appearing before the Louisiana
Pardon Board, whose lawyers could show his servere brain impairment on
an MRI scan. "He knows right from wrong," they said, and summarily
stamped approval for his execution.
He and I had a special moment at the Film Festival. I gave a short talk on the opening night of the festival and after the first film was shown there was a no-holds-barred Russian banquet with lots of caviar, smoked salmon, pickled herring and mushrooms - and vodka. Plenty jovial spirit and many toasts, preceded by banging of silverware on glasses to get people's attention. I had a great time and discovered the unquestionable link (probably going back to Paleolithic times) between these jovial Russians and Cajuns in Louisiana. Just substitute boiled crawfish and shrimp for the salmon and the mushrooms and you've got it. And the special moment with Anatoli came about at the end of the meal when a guys at at the piano and began to play and Anatoli swooped me onto the floor and we danced. Denny was saying, "No, no, no, because she had left her camera in the hotel and she lamented ever after that she had missed such a photo-op of "the USA anti-death penalty nun dancing with the Russian head of the Clemency Board." Life is swift. The current moves. Those who treasure photo-ops should always be prepared.
At the film festival we met film makers of all kinds, brave and talented truthtellers, a number of whom suffered censorship and imprisonment because they exposed injustices in their documentaries. EVERYBODY has suffered under the totalitarian regime in Russia. See that man? Sasha said to me, and I looked at a middle-aged man sitting at the banquet table. "His wife was sent to a gulag for 10 years for saying that she believed in Christ." See him, the older man there? she said. He was a famous actor, but he came into disfavor somehow and was in a gulag for 20 years in Siberia where it is so freezing cold. He was allowed one package a year from his family, but by the time his package was delivered to him, months after it had been sent, all the items his mother had sent were frozen into a tight ball - cigarettes, cookies, socks - one frozen ball. And do you know what he did? Little by little he ate everything in the ball, picturing each item as his mother's hands had placed it in the package. He ate the cigarettes, the socks, everything.
Some persecutions are very recent. I am introduced to a man, blinded in one eye, who had spent time in the gulag, whose son mysteriously disappeared and was killed last year. Who did it? Are the KGB still doing these things? I ask. Is it the mafia? I get a shrug. Nobody knows. You can never track these things down.
On the last night
of the festival Dead Man Walking was shown, and I introduced the film,
telling stories of how the film came to be, that Susan Sarandon was the
"midwife" of the film because she had so urgently believed that
it needed to be made and had pestered Tim Robbins for six months until
he finally read my book. On the night before Dead Man was shown, we had
spoken at the law school of Moscow University and invited the students
to come, and several of them came. They are generally taught by right-wing
professors at the law school and our discussion with them after our talks
had been lively with a number of them making passionate speeches in support
of the death penalty. After the film, they came up to Denny and me to
talk, and one young woman said, "We need to do something about crime,
but not THAT (execution.)
I made a Russian friend for life - Alexandra (Sasha) Sviridova. She makes amazing documentaries about poets and dissidents. As a goodbye gift she gave me an icon of Mary , which comes from the very oldest church in Russia. The icon sits before me now near a lit candle as I write this. Sasha says that 800,000 Jews fled persecution in Russia and now live in New York, where she lives. She's interested in getting a theater site where human rights documentaries like hers can be shown. At present there is a tiny theater where such films are shown, but she's looking for a larger site. I promised to talk to my friend Tim Robbins about her idea. If there's anybody out there reading this who has contacts in New York and can help to get such a site, contact me.
My good friend, Sister Marya Grathwohl, also came with us to Moscow. I was allowed a companion and I asked her. She's a Franciscan Sister who has worked among Crow and Northern Cheyenne people in Montana for over twenty years, and she secures for me a writing space in their Prayer Lodge. Amnesty put us up at the Budapest Hotel in Moscow, which was a great hotel except for the beds. The mattresses must have gotten lumpy because they were - well, missing - and we basically slept on the box springs, with only a thin pad under us. But in the course of the days we commandeered some extra blankets and thickened our thin little pads.
We had two days for
sightseeing. Our hotel was within walking distance of the Kremlin and
we spent a whole day there, amazed to stand in Red Square and in the exquisite
cathedrals of the Annunication and St. Basil's which, from a distance,
with its multi-colored onion domes looks like the Magical Kingdom. One
evening we attended evening prayer with icons and incense and angelic
singing in four parts, the mystical chant for which the Russian Orthodox
Church is known. I recognized it immediately because the St. Egidio Community
has incorporated it into its prayer. I lit a candle for the men and women
on death row in the United States, especially Manuel Ortiz (innocent,
I believe) whom I presently visit in Louisiana.
The Amnesty team that
brought us to Russia are an amazing trio: Mariana Katzarova (point person
and leader of the team who overcame numerous obstacles to get us to Russia),
Friedrike Behr, and Nathalie Losekoot, who worked behind the scenes to
get visas, secure information from the Duma about schedules (no small
challenge), line up translators - a host of things. On the last night
at our final meal we made many toasts and gave many speeches and our hearts
were full of thanks. We became friends
One announcement: the PBS documentary on the making of the opera, Dead Man Walking, will air on January 14 at 9p.m. (Central time). It is called, "And then one night." Jake Heggie, the composer of the opera has seen it and says that it is very well done, combining excerpts of the opera with interviews of real people on both sides of the suffering (death row inmates' and murder victims' families). I hope you get to see it.
I have a hunk of time
during the holidays for writing on my new book, INNOCENCE BETRAYED. I
hope to have the manuscript completed by April, then editing during the
summer, then publication in the fall. The book gathers force as I write
it. I believe it will do its part to change consciousness about the death
penalty in America.
Blessings on you in
this holy season. May you love with integrity, live with joyfulness, and
expend the energies of your life engaging in essential deeds that help
to transform our suffering world.