Elena Mityushina told a small crowd gathered at the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis that she's not typically an angry person. But she found herself dealing with feelings of hatred when she learned that Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny had been killed.

"I'm not like that usually," Mityushina, who is Russian-American, told the group Monday night.

President Joe Biden and other Western officials say President Vladimir Putin is responsible for the death of Navalny, who was serving a prison sentence for extremism charges. It's spurred widespread mourning and questions about the future of the brutal Russian regime's future nearly two years after its invasion of Ukraine.

Mityushina said she had felt angry when the war started, too, but she found it best to channel those feelings into action. So the Maple Grove resident founded Russians Against War, which helped organize Monday's event to write letters to political prisoners in Russia. She evoked Navalny's words that it is not a shame to do little, it is a shame to do nothing; Mityushina encouraged the group not to be overwhelmed by all that is happening in Russia.

Writing these letters to Russian political prisoners "gives them hope to survive another day mentally," she said. She evoked Navalny's words to not give up. "I believe in freedom … this is not about politics, this is about humanity. This is about democracy."

This was the seventh letter-writing event since last spring, and more are planned in conjunction with the museum, Russians Against War and World Without Genocide. Many in the audience wrote letters in English to later be translated into Russian.

St. Paul resident Karen de Boer wrote a letter to Vladislav Nikitenko, who is serving a three-year sentence for antiwar posts and requests to initiate criminal proceedings against Putin and others for acts of international terrorism and starting the war. She wrote to Mikhail Simonov, who received a seven-year term for anti-military posts.

Navalny's death "has been very hard to process and I felt very powerless a half world away, so this feels like one small thing I can do," she said.

Mityushina instructed the crowd not to talk about the war or Putin, or even send poems because they would not make it past the prison censors. She urged them to write about what's going on in the world, their personal lives, their hobbies and emotions. De Boer talked about moving to the Twin Cities from Hutchinson, how she directs a choir and is learning how to play the Irish tin whistle.

Russian asylum-seeker Constantine Kuletsky said that he and his wife Lena "still cannot believe that [Navalny] is dead, really." The parents of three fled from a town a two-hour flight north of Moscow and arrived in the U.S. in fall 2022.

He said his hope rose at Mityushina's words about Navalny, and "I started to believe we will continue our fight with this regime, and we'll try to do anything that we can do to continue Navalny's work. Someday democracy will be in Russia."

Kirill Vanderberg had studied in St. Petersburg and attends St. Paul College as part of a cultural exchange program. After arriving here last August, the 20-year-old hopes to stay here permanently; he is too afraid to return. Vanderberg noted that his friend in St. Petersburg is trying to help the many who are being detained for bringing flowers into public spaces to mourn and honor Navalny.

He found it hard to explain his feelings about Navalny's death in English, and spent several minutes typing his reaction in Russian on his phone.

Then Vanderberg shared his thoughts with a Star Tribune reporter over a translator app: "I couldn't reconcile those two words: 'Navalny' and 'death.' This person inspired hope in a great future Russia, giving hope where it seemed there was none. … We haven't lost hope; we will remember him in our hearts and build the future with our own hands. Many people are now imprisoned for their views, and we must not devalue the work that Alexei, political prisoners, and all activists around the world have put into our future."