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“Language Is a Code”: Ali Feruz on Prison Literature, Exile, and the Power of Journalism

By José Vergara


During the January 2021 pro-Navalny demonstrations that swept Russia, hundreds of protestors were rounded up, brutalized, and jailed. Some of them ended up in the Sakharovo Detention Center for Foreign Nationals, located roughly fifty miles outside Moscow. Among those arrested was Nikita Girin, a young journalist from Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper specializing in investigative journalism.

For Ali Feruz, this particular arrest was deeply personal. Born Khudoberdi Nurmatov in 1987, Feruz grew up in Russia and then moved to Uzbekistan, from which he fled when state security forces, according to him, attempted to coerce him into collaborating and spying on his friends. He eventually settled in Moscow and took up work as a correspondent at Novaya Gazeta. There, he wrote about migrant rights, LGBTQ communities, and other issues related to social justice.

Several years later, he was arrested and faced deportation for not having a passport, which had been stolen in 2012. The European Court of Human Rights intervened, but in the meantime, Feruz had to spend several months in Sakharovo.

Feruz’s “Diary” is an account of those harrowing days in the Sakharovo detention center. In it, he chronicles the treatment detainees face with grave attention to detail, emotional insights, and a tone that straddles the line between a journalist’s detachment and the deep sorrow of a person facing torture. The “Diary” was sent out as it was written, in the form of missives to the outside world. Watching what happened in the wake of Navalny’s return to Russia and learning of the arrest of his friend and colleague Nikita Girin, Feruz was reminded of his time in the center.

As part of my course on Russian prison texts at Swarthmore College in spring 2021, I invited Feruz to visit my class via Zoom. In this talk, for which my students developed questions after reading the “Diary,” we discussed Feruz’s approach to journalism, his writing on incarceration, and his future in his adopted country of Germany.

 

José Vergara and students (JV): Ali, could you please introduce yourself?

Ali Feruz (AF): My name is Ali, and I was born in Uzbekistan. I grew up between Russia and Uzbekistan. Starting in 2014, I worked as a journalist at Novaya Gazeta in Moscow. While there, I had some problems with the Russian government. I’m supposed to have Russian citizenship because my mother is from Russia, but the Russian security services rejected my application, even though it is against the Constitution to do so, and then tried to deport me to Uzbekistan. A campaign was started to help me move to Germany, where I’ve lived since February 15, 2018. Now I live in Berlin.

After my deportation, I experienced some depression and post-traumatic stress. I lost my self-identification as a journalist. In Russia, I was writing in Russian and felt that I was doing something good and needed by society. In Germany, I cannot do anything like what I did before because the society speaks German and I don’t know the language well. I was adapting to a new place, and now, after three years here, I feel much better. I have some ideas about my future, what I want to do. At the same time, I’m taking a bit of a pause with journalism. There were options to work for some Russian-language newspapers or media, but their quality was not good enough, so I didn’t want to join them.

 

JV: I really admired how deliberate and thoughtful the writing in your “Diary” was while still communicating a lot of emotion. We have been talking a lot in our class about understanding the truth regarding the experiences in Russian prisons that we’ve been reading about. Why did you choose to write this way, and how did you want your writing to be perceived and understood by your audience?

AF: For me, the way I wrote is the way I learned to write. Let’s say it’s my “style” of writing. When you become a journalist and learn to write, after some time you can recognize articles by a specific person because of their method. After a few years, you begin to feel that you have your own way of writing and explaining things. Of course, it depends on your experience, your political views, and your perspective on the world and journalism. When I came to Novaya Gazeta, I wasn’t a journalist at all. I hadn’t studied journalism and didn’t know what it was. I just knew that [the late journalist] Anna Politkovskaya1 was a great person and that what Novaya Gazeta was doing was what I wanted to do. I came and I started to learn.

Now, the way that Novaya Gazeta works is called old-school journalism. My editor, best friend, and teacher Elena Kostyuchenko worked with me a lot. We went entire nights without sleeping, as she taught me how to write. I was also analyzing, reflecting, and trying to understand. At Novaya Gazeta, I learned that journalism is not just a profession in which you do what you like, go to work, earn money, and live your life. I learned that journalism is about a mission: to say the things that society does not want to say, does not feel comfortable saying, or is afraid to say. It is important for society to be alive and to have some sense of justice, and the journalist helps to keep society in balance so that this can develop. I thought about everything that I was writing in relation to the idea of the fourth estate.


“They were afraid that I was going to write about what was really happening.”
 

Take some of my articles, for example, about disabled people in wheelchairs. I think that it was in 2016 when the Moscow mayor released a report saying that ninety-six percent of Moscow is accessible to people with disabilities—that is to say, they could go to shops or move around the city like everyone else. However, when I was going to work or walking on the street, I saw that disabled people were having a lot of trouble moving through the city, sitting on the bus, using the subway, and going into certain shops. Then I thought that the government’s report was a total lie, but I couldn’t just say that. I decided I should show the real situation.

I borrowed a wheelchair for a day, and from morning until evening I moved around the city—trying to go to the cafe, to shops, into the subway—in this wheelchair. I asked a photographer to take pictures from a distance to document how I was moving. I wrote a report about my experience, how I felt, and how it was to move through the city in this way. It was not easy for me to write this article. By the end of the day, I couldn’t move at all because my entire body was in pain. I was trying to concentrate and figure out what I should write. In short, everything was bad, but society knows that everything is bad, so saying that wouldn’t change anything. I don’t remember exactly, but I think it took around one week. I wasn’t sleeping. One of my colleagues was sitting with me and trying to help me write. We were thinking about every sentence and every word. What did I want to say to society through this article? What was my mission? What did I want to change? From start to finish, it was important to consider how readers would hear my message and what they would feel. For me, that was really hard.

This journalistic method is called “old school,” when you go to the place where something is happening. You need to feel and see what is going on, you need to analyze the situation, and then you need to figure out what kind of reaction you want to elicit from society. You’ll see other articles about the same problem, but readers aren’t necessarily responding to their words. I was trying to find the words and sentences capable of making readers feel the pain I felt after a whole day of moving about in the wheelchair, the pain I felt when I was trying to reach the bus and couldn’t get there because there was a barrier. I was trying to find the words with which to make people empathize with my situation and realize that this is much worse than it appears. In society, we see these things happening every day, and these injustices are normalized. I was trying to show that it is not normal. I was trying to help able-bodied people understand the experiences of disabled people.

 

JV: How does this approach relate to your broader understanding of journalism?

AF: This is the definition of journalism for me. Journalism is a mission, and there are different genres of it depending on what you want to communicate. I’m now studying medicine and neurology. For example, the hormones serotonin and dopamine give us motivation and happiness, while oxytocin gives us the feeling of love and being loved. The thing is, language is a code—information that we take in during the course of our lives. This code “activates” hormones, and this is why some words make us feel uncomfortable, aggressive, or scared. It is very important to understand which words can make us feel a particular emotion, because when you understand, you can write articles more consciously. You will know that if you write this way, you will get a particular reaction—for example, empathy. This is the way I learned to write articles, and this is the method I used in my “Diary.”


“I’m a bit afraid to analyze my work as a journalist.”
 

Emotionally, it was too much for me. I tried to commit suicide three times when I was in jail. I was beaten there, I was tortured there, and I was afraid that this torture would never end. At the same time, I was seeing the injustices happening in the detention center to migrants who mostly came from Central Asia. I saw them, and I was trying to write about my feelings and about their feelings, too. I don’t want to only provoke sadness or anger, though—I also want to consider the reactions of my readers. However, I was in jail, and my diary writing process was controlled. The authorities were reading everything before it was allowed to go out. They were afraid that I was going to write about what was really happening. The information that I wrote in the diary is just five or ten percent of what was taking place there. I worried that the decisions I made about what to include in my diary might lead to unwanted consequences. The people who gave me information were sometimes beaten more and subjected to bad treatment. As such, I was trying to find a balance. Because of these conditions, the attempt fell short in some ways. Now, when I analyze and reflect on this diary as a journalistic work, I can say that it could be much better, but I did everything I could given the circumstances. And this experience helped me find the words to write about other important things happening in our society and to figure out how my writing might bring change.

 

JV: I have a question about the powerful plea at the very end of your diary: “Help me survive, please.” Could you actually imagine an active audience outside of the prison that could save you? Did it feel as though what you were writing was being heard?

AF: Sometimes I’m a bit afraid to analyze my work as a journalist. Some other writers and journalists have said that it is a good text, and I am happy to hear this, but honestly, when I think about my work, I’m afraid to really analyze it because I can get a bit disappointed in myself. When you are motivated and doing something, you expect real change immediately. It’s how the human brain works: when you do something, dopamine makes you feel good. I’m a bit afraid to feel that I did well because this feeling could make me relax too much. At the same time, if I honestly analyze myself and feel disappointed, I might not be motivated to do something else.


“After I got to Germany, I didn’t read any other books about prison.”
 

The diary didn’t really change the situation surrounding immigration, but it kind of initiated some changes. For example, it’s been more than a year since I did anything with journalism, and I’m not in touch with activists, but I hear that people are connecting to my story and that volunteers in Moscow are bringing food to the center. When I was there, I started to collect food and clothing for the people who didn’t have relatives who could bring them these things. Now, volunteers are organizing food and clothing deliveries regularly, and there are some protests, too. All of this makes me happy, but it’s not the kind of change that I really want. As a journalist, to truly change society you need to write not only one article. After some time, society forgets, so you need to write another article from a new perspective to bring this problem back to their attention. Maybe some of them will start to react and act, and politicians might start to discuss these topics. Real change takes years.

 

JV: For you personally, is the goal of journalism to enact real change or to bring awareness to issues? Is the act of recording and providing documentation useful even if it doesn’t foster such awareness? How do you work within all of these different ideas of what journalism can do?

AF: I don’t know about the goal. To say that journalism has a goal like realizing change is complicated. Journalism as it is now has only been around for a few hundred years. We see that it’s changing, and we don’t know how it’s going to be in the future. The function journalists have now will likely be fulfilled by people of new professions in a different way. Humans are social animals, always lobbying, and social institutions are constantly transforming from one thing into another. It’s a kind of evolution. Any institution can be transformed over time. As humans, we will think, need, and want differently in the future than we do now.

 

JV: My question is a follow-up to something you said about not really doing journalism for the last year. What you are trying to do—spreading empathy—is really important, but I imagine that it is very draining for you emotionally. Are you planning to pursue other avenues to reach people who aren’t aware of what’s going on?

AF: Honestly, I want to come back to journalism, because I really like the job, but I don’t know if it will be possible. Over the last few years, I have been doing psychotherapy and have been trying to understand who I am and why I do this or that. I’ve discovered that the reason I came to journalism is that I had a really traumatizing childhood full of injustice. I was in survival mode all my life, trying to get by and find justice. For myself, I don’t think that it’s a bad thing. I became a journalist, and I love this profession, but now I live in Germany, and I don’t know when I will be able to return to Russia or to another country where I can use Russian. The language is very important to the way I work because I can use it to express my feelings and views on topics. To accomplish this in English or German will take at a minimum five to ten years. I’m not sure whether I have the resources or time to learn a new language and become a journalist again in another country. I’m happiest when I do something good for other people, so I want to become a paramedic. I want to work in emergency situations. I’m concentrating on that, but I still want to use my knowledge of journalism in the future. I’m not sure how, but I would love to somehow combine it with medicine.

 

JV: You mentioned being addicted to [Sergei] Dovlatov, whose Zona (The Zone)2 we read in class. I was wondering if you feel particularly drawn or opposed to prison literature having experienced captivity yourself. Do you feel a need to contribute to prison writing?

AF: After I got to Germany, I didn’t read any other books about prison. I’m actually in touch with a writer in Russia, and we are trying to make a book from this diary. I have a lot of notes from prison, and the diary I published contains just ten percent of this information. We are planning to make a big novel about my experience. We started before COVID-19, but the project has been on pause since the pandemic started. I don’t know when we’ll continue to work on it, but, in general, I would like to write a bigger book with more “dramaturgy” to develop the connections between the people in the diary and show more about life in the detention center.

 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Transcription and additional editing by Grace Sewell.

 

Ali Feruz is a writer and activist who grew up between Russia and Uzbekistan and produced investigative pieces for Novaya Gazeta. After spending several months in a Russian migrant detention center, Feruz received the Andrei Sakharov Order for Courage in 2017. He now resides in Berlin. 

José Vergara is Assistant Professor of Russian at Bryn Mawr College, where he teaches courses on Russian language and culture of all eras. He specializes in prose of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with an emphasis on experimental works. His first book, All Future Plunges to the Past: James Joyce in Russian Literature (Cornell University Press, 2021), examines Russian literary responses to James Joyce. He has also published articles on authors including Vladimir Nabokov, Mikhail Shishkin, and Sasha Sokolov in a variety of journals. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Asymptote, and Music & Literature. More information can be found on his website: www.josevergara.net.

Student participants: Malhar Acharya, Faith Becker, Dylan Clairmont, Michael Eddy, Elizabeth Hohn, Carissa Kilbury, Jonathan Lehr, Jesse Li, Ava Posner, Bing Xin Tu, Max Winig, and others.


1. Anna Politkovskaya (1958–2006) was a Russian journalist and human rights activist who reported widely on the Second Chechen War, among other political issues, through Novaya Gazeta. She was assassinated on October 7, 2006. 

2. Sergei Dovlatov (1941–1990) was a Russian writer and journalist who documented his experience working as a prison camp guard in his semi-fictional book The Zone (1982). In Russian, the term “zone” is used euphemistically to refer to prison colonies. 


Published Jul 20, 2021   Copyright 2021 José Vergara

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