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Grigory Pasko Awarded the Erich Maria Remarque Peace Prize

On 15 May 2007, the Erich Maria Remarque Peace Prize organizational committee in the northern German city of Osnabrück officially announced that it was awarding its 2007 prize to the highly regarded British historian Tony Judt, and a special prize to the Russian journalist Grigory Pasko, who as many of you know is a frequent guest contributer to this blog. Grigory has provided this blog with numerous exclusive feature reports, interviews, and photos from Russia, and I am extremely proud that his achievements have now been recognized by a wider audience.

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Photo of Grigory Pasko by Gaby Waldeck

The Peace Prize is named after one of Osnabrück’s most famous native sons, Erich Maria Remarque (1898-1970), the author of the powerful anti-war novel “All Quiet on the Western Front”. Remarque’s strong anti-militarist views did not sit well with the Nazis, who banned his works in 1933. He lived in exile in Switzerland from 1931 onwards, but was forced to flee from this ostensibly neutral country to the United States in 1939. He returned to Switzerland in 1948 and spent the rest of his life there, in voluntary exile from his homeland. The biennial Erich Maria Remarque Peace Prize itself was instituted in 1991 by the city of Osnabrück, and is awarded “for literature and journalistic or scientific work dealing with subjects of peace in a specific country or on an international level and for exemplary commitment to peace, humanity, and freedom of man against oppression.” Previous laureates have included such writers as Yuri Andrukhovich of Ukraine, Svetlana Alexievich from Belarus, and Russia’s Lev Kopelev. Here’s what the organizers had to say about Grigory and his work:

“The reason to award … Grigory Pasko was his prison diary ‘The Red Zone’, a literary masterpiece of great linguistic power and intensity, which, however, is at the same time a document of powerlessness and lack of access to rights and justice of the individual towards the Russian state power and the secret service that has never stopped trying to suppress the freedom of opinion. Furthermore, this prize appreciates Pasko’s great commitment to the protection of the environment, civil and human rights.”

When I recently spoke with Grigory, he informed me that he had already received an official invitation to the September 21 awards ceremony from the Bürgermeister of Osnabrück, Boris Pistorius. Last year, the publishing house Wallstein Verlag in Göttingen published German translations of two of Grigory’s prison memoirs, “Pryanik” and “The Red Zone” (under the titles “Honigkuchen” and “Die Rote Zone”, respectively). Grigory is the author of six books, a member of the Russian Union of Writers and the Russian PEN-club, and has won many awards his writing. However, given Grigory’s sometimes “contentious relationship” with the authorities – “contentious” in that he had the bravery to speak up when he found out that the Russian Navy was dumping nuclear waste into the Pacific Ocean – most self-censoring Russian publishers have shied away from Grigory’s writings, so very few people inside Russia have had the opportunity to read his work. For those of you who don’t know his story, Grigory Pasko was a journalist with the official newspaper of the Russian Navy’s Pacific Fleet when he was arrested by the organs of the FSB in 1997 and charged with “espionage for Japanese journalists.” Yes, that’s right, that is exactly the wording of the indictment, not that he had been spying for a foreign government, but rather for journalists. After spending two years in jail, he was acquitted of this charge, but convicted of “exceeding official authority” – even though the court itself was unable to clearly formulate in its verdict what specifically this “exceeding” consisted of. Grigory Pasko appealed this verdict, and was granted a retrial. This second trial already took place under Russia’s new president, former KGB agent Vladimir Putin. There were a total of ten charges in the indictment. Pasko was found guilty of one half of one of the charges, but as far as the court was concerned, that still made him a “Japanese spy”, and he was sentenced in 2001 to four years in a strict regime colony. Vladimir Putin publicly suggested to Pasko that he submit a formal petition for a pardon to the president himself, but Pasko categorically refused Putin’s clemency. In 2003, Grigory was granted a conditional early release on parole from the colony. His application to the European Court of Human Rights for redress against his illegal prosecution by the FSB has been sitting in Strasbourg for five years already, awaiting its turn to be heard. To say the least, the Pasko case shows that Russia is still learning what it is like to have whistleblowers in a free society. Grigory Pasko has lived through the nightmare of being trapped in the Russian gulag, yet continues to have the strength of will and a firm belief in doing what is right. I am proud to know this courageous man, and I know our readers will join me in congratulating him for being awarded the Erich Maria Remarque Peace Prize.