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Cats, crows and planet Earth: drawings by Belarusian political prisoners

Protest in Belarus, September 2020. Image by Jana Shnipelson, Public Domain.

Protest in Belarus, September 2020. Image by Jana Shnipelson, Public Domain, (CC0 1.0).

This article by Hleb Liapeika was originally published by Mediazona and a translation appeared on Open Democracy on October 25, 2021. It is republished as part of a content-sharing partnership and has been edited to fit the GV style.

Since Belarus’s presidential elections in August last year, the country has been gripped by a brutal crackdown by security forces.

Protesters, politicians, civil society participants and journalists have been detained and tortured, and many are facing prison sentences. The Viasna Human Rights Center states there are currently 812 political prisoners in the country.

In response to this wave of police violence and arbitrary detention, solidarity campaigns in support of those facing imprisonment on politically motivated charges have sprung up. But with little information about what life is like inside Belarus’s prison system, people on the outside rely on letters, and often drawings, by prisoners.

Mediazona, a media outlet reporting on law and justice, recently published a series of illustrations based on images by Belarusians who have found themselves behind bars over the past year – student activists, protesters, ideological opponents of the Lukashenka regime, and artists.

OpenDemocracy translate and republish the article with permission.

Nadzeya Kalach

Pre-Trial Detention Centre No.1, Minsk

Nadzeya Kalach. Illustration: Maria Tolstova for Mediazona.

Nadzeya Kalach. Illustration by Maria Tolstova for Mediazona.

Nadzeya Kalach is a member of Belarusian folk rock group Irdorath, and is accused of “seriously disturbing public order”. She was detained in August 2021.

In a letter to a friend, Kalach says she misses certain songs (her friend has made a playlist of these songs on YouTube), and reports how she and her cellmates made a cake, and blew out a lighted match on top of it.

“I’m not free now, but what we created and launched into the world is. My voice is still on our songs, as are our instruments. People are listening to these songs somewhere and this brings them joy. I love it,” she writes.

Siarhei Ramanau

KGB Pre-Trial Detention Centre, Minsk

Siarhei Ramanau. Illustration by Maria Tolstova for Mediazona.

Siarhei Ramanau. Illustration by Maria Tolstova for Mediazona.

Siarhei Ramanau is accused of “committing a terrorist act” and “unlawful actions relating to flammable substances”. He is one of four anarchists named by the Belarusian Border Service as “radicals with an impressive arsenal [of weapons]” after their arrest last autumn.

Outside correspondence rarely reaches people inside the KGB Pre-Trial Detention Centre, and Ramanau tends to write short letters. According to his friends, he used to sketch tattoo designs, and took up pencil drawing when he was imprisoned from 2014 to 2019.

Dzmitry Dubousky

KGB Pre-Trial Detention Centre, Minsk

Dzmitry Dubousky. Illustration by Maria Tolstova for Mediazona.

Dzmitry Dubousky. Illustration by Maria Tolstova for Mediazona.

Anarchist Dzmitry Dubousky is a defendant facing the same charges as Siarhei Ramanau. He says that he is improving his pencil-drawing skills while in jail, and he sent his sister Yulia a letter and a drawing with this message:

Here’s a drawing that reflects the atmosphere in our cell :). Sometimes I get carried away with thoughts and reflections; this is how our days pass.

Ales Minau

Pre-Trial Detention Centre No.1, Minsk

Ales Minau. Illustration by Maria Tolstova for Mediazona.

Ales Minau. Illustration by Maria Tolstova for Mediazona.

Ales Minau was a teacher of Belarusian language and literature in Minsk until he was arrested in August 2021. He is accused of “seriously disturbing public order”.

In a letter to his friend Arina, Minau drew a picture of the world with the phrase “Why is there so much evil in the world?” in Ukrainian.

“Sometimes sadness tries to creep up on me, but I have stopped feeling sorry for myself or complaining about my fate, and I expect the worst to happen,” he wrote.

Kim Samusenka

Pre-Trial Detention Centre No.1, Minsk

Kim Samusenka. Illustration by Maria Tolstova for Mediazona.

Kim Samusenka. Illustration by Maria Tolstova for Mediazona.

Kim Samusenka is one of four people accused of hacking into the Minsk City Executive Committee’s IT systems, and has been behind bars since November 2020. His wife Alesya recalls that she asked Kim to “draw something nice, to have a nice reminder of him”. Samusenka drew a cat, which in Alesya’s opinion looks like her husband: “It’s just as positive as him, and with the same ironic take on the world.”

“There’s this wonderful autumn on the other side. I would also like to walk around in it with the whole family,” he wrote in a letter, describing the pleasure of daily exercise in prison.

Kasya Budzko

Pre-Trial Detention Centre No.1, Minsk

Kasya Budzko. Illustration by Maria Tolstova for Mediazona.

Kasya Budzko. Illustration by Maria Tolstova for Mediazona.

Kasya Budzko, a student, has been sentenced to two and a half years in prison for “seriously disturbing public order” in connection with student protests.

She sent a surreal drawing to a friend, and shares some news in a letter: a new cellmate who speaks Belarusian. Budzko, who speaks Russian, says that she “might, at last, overcome my internal barrier and start speaking Belarusian”.

Maria Kalenik

Pre-Trial Detention Centre No.3, Homyel

Maria Kalenik. Illustration by Maria Tolstova for Mediazona.

Maria Kalenik. Illustration by Maria Tolstova for Mediazona.

Maria Kalenik, a student at the Belarusian State Academy of Arts, was sentenced to two and half years in prison in the same case as Kasya Budzko. She often sends letters with drawings of animals to her friends, and sent pictures of a cat and a squirrel to her friends Hleb and Darina.

“This cat is angry because he’s been woken up,” she explained. Kalenik drew a squirrel, Darina says, just because it’s art and they regularly discuss art and design.

Ruslan Slutsky

Pre-Trial Detention Centre No.2, Minsk

Ruslan Slutsky. Illustration by Maria Tolstova for Mediazona.

Ruslan Slutsky. Illustration by Maria Tolstova for Mediazona.

Ruslan Slutsky was detained in January 2021. According to investigators, he had left a number of home-made anti-tyre spikes on a road in the Vitsebsk region ahead of a car rally in support of the Belarusian authorities in November 2020.

In a letter to a penpal, Polina, Slutsky says that he started drawing two months after he was jailed. “And you can see the results in this drawing,” he wrote. “I receive letters from friends, and now I have one more. Thank you so much.”

Ivan Krasousky

Pre-Trial Detention Centre No.1, Minsk

Ivan Krasousky. Illustration by Maria Tolstova for Mediazona.

Ivan Krasousky. Illustration by Maria Tolstova for Mediazona.

Ivan Krasousky, an anarchist, was sentenced to three years of open prison for participating in the post-election protests of 2020-21. After receiving a postcard from a penpal, Darina, Krasousky sent back a drawing of SpongeBob SquarePants. “Your postcard is UNBELIEVABLY cool! It cheered us up no end!” he wrote. Krasousky’s penpal says she cannot remember what she originally sent.

Ales Pushkin

Investigative Prison No.8, Zhodzina

Ales Pushkin. Illustration by Maria Tolstova for Mediazona.

Ales Pushkin. Illustration by Maria Tolstova for Mediazona.

Ales Pushkin, an artist and performer, was detained on 30 March this year, and is charged with “rehabilitating Nazism”. Now in prison, he sends his friend Valeria drawings and drafts of a future book.

Pushkin’s picture is accompanied by a poem: “In Hrodna, I heard a crow cry/ The crow is the embodiment of Odin/ I am a descendant of Vikings.”

Anastasia Mirontsava

Prison Colony No.4, Homyel

Anastasia Mirontsava. Illustration by Maria Tolstova for Mediazona.

Anastasia Mirontsava. Illustration by Maria Tolstova for Mediazona.

Anastasia Mirontsava was sentenced to two years in prison for participating in the August 2020 protests, on charges of “seriously disturbing public order” and “attacking a police officer”.

In an August 2021 letter, Mirontsava talks about a woman she’d met in prison, who takes care of flowers in a prison garden and gets angry if someone touches them. The woman told her that eight years ago, when another prisoner who took care of the flowers was released, the flowers started to die. Mirontsava’s new acquaintance had to take responsibility for them – unwillingly at first.

Her eyes get so bright when she starts talking about the flowers! She says that they can feel everything. What you say to them, they communicate back. They send the same energy back. She says that the flowers are also imprisoned here.

Mirontsava also included a picture of a tree planted by the “first woman” in the prison 15 years ago.

Illustrations by Maria Tolstova.

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