Last month, I went to Guatemala to visit a family named Bitkov in their prisons. Igor, Irina, and Anastasia Bitkov fled Russia in fear of their lives. They wound up in Guatemala. In a Kafkaesque turn of events, they are now in prison. They were put there by a strange combination of Guatemalan legal authorities, a Russian bank, and a U.N. agency. You can read my story — the Bitkovs’ story, told by me — here.
There is good news: Senator Marco Rubio has placed a hold on U.S. funding of the U.N. agency. And there is talk that Canada might accept the Bitkovs, in the event of their release. (Article here.)
A clutch of people have taken up the Bitkovs’ cause. Rubio is one of them. Bill Browder is another. (He is the financier who campaigns for “Magnitsky acts,” sanctioning human-rights abusers.) Mary Anastasia O’Grady of the Wall Street Journal has written repeatedly about the Bitkovs and their case.
I sat in prison with Irina Bitkov. She marveled at the help she and her family were getting. “We are not their fellow citizens,” she said of those helping the Bitkovs. “We can’t do anything for them. They are helping us simply because we are human beings.” She could hardly believe it. She thought it was the most marvelous thing in the world.
And as she spoke, I thought of the nationalists and realists (self-styled).
After I got back, I wrote about an incident from the Carter years. President Carter was meeting with Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet foreign minister. Carter brought up the case of Anatoly Shcharansky (later Natan Sharansky), the leading refusenik in the Gulag. Gromyko was nonplussed at this. The USSR and the USA had such big fish to fry: nuclear arsenals, the fate of the world. And Carter was bringing up this one zek, this one prisoner. He is but “a microscopic dot,” Gromyko said.
Not to Americans, traditionally. Not to those who prize and honor individuals. These microscopic dots turn out to be the most important things in the world.
When I published my piece on the Bitkovs, I sent a tweet, saying that I thought people should be aware of the case. Some of the replies I got were instructive, and typical of today.
“No we shouldn’t . We are not the care takers of the world. We cannot take care of legal American citizens let alone try to accommodate all the people in the world.”
“It’s not America’s responsibility,our elected officials are crooked politicians that do not care about the American people they’re always worried about somebody else.”
“you’re talking about a family from Russia, imprisoned in Guatemala! Why the FUCK should the United States care? We’re not the world police, we’re not your nanny. That is your issue, unless you have gold or oil!”
Today, my eyes fell on a piece by Vladimir Kara-Murza, the Russian democracy leader. Let me quote:
One morning in the spring of 2016, I spoke at a breakfast meeting with British members of Parliament who were on an official visit to Moscow. The conversation soon turned to the Magnitsky Act, the path-breaking U.S. measure that targeted individuals responsible for human rights abuses in Russia. When I urged my interlocutors to pass the same law in Britain, one member of the delegation broke me off and launched into a diatribe: why on earth, he complained, should the City of London forgo billions in profits because of some “human rights hearsay.”
Our meeting was taking place in the British ambassador’s residence, just a few hundred yards from the bridge where, months earlier, Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down as he walked home after dinner. I was barely able to stand, using a cane, months after my own near-fatal poisoning. I had nothing to say to the honorable gentleman as he lamented the loss of profits.
“Human-rights hearsay,” “microscopic dots.” The national interest is paramount. It must always be thus. But we Americans find that, usually, our interest does not conflict with concern for human beings, for these little dots. It may be that they are, in fact, what makes life worth living.