The process of writing is very therapeutic to me. I want to write out my prison experience. To document it, to free myself of it, and move on.
From the other hand, my story is unique. Because it's only my experience, only mine, and no one else's. It can't be taken from me, but I can share it.
*Trigger Warning: police brutality, repressions, prison.
This diary does not describe all my misfortunes. For example, it does not tell the story about an unknown man in civilian clothes taking out a knife in a police station and asking me: 'Aren't you afraid to turn your back to me?' Or about me using a toothbrush to stir the 'smoothie' in the toilet when it got clogged. Or about my jail mate X, who said that I can't give lectures on gender diversity and nonviolent communication in our cell because I don't have an appropriate education. It doesn't tell about the Stockholm syndrome. About a cop who once came into our cell and sat on my bed. It also doesn't tell about my wonderful jail mates. About our mutual support, solidarity, acceptance. About our routine. But I do not set myself such a task, to tell everything.
** This text is illustrated with a series of drawings by Nadya Sayapina «DOLLHOUSE» p.2. (pen, paper 21х30, 2020).
We washed each other's hair and braided them.
We shared our personal stories and played fortune-telling.
We gave each other massages, impromptu beauty treatments and drew ballpoint pen tattoos.
We played simple games and made our own games out of paper.
We drew, sculpted and painted.
We kept diaries and sang songs.
We argued or courted the guards, as if they were next door boys.
We played in a children camp within a correctional facility.
We served a sentence in a prison cell for ten people and turned it into a dollhouse.
Berghain is an electronic music club in Berlin. The Mecca of party goers. Berghain promises fun, adventure, thrills. People queue in front of Berghain and quietly get nervous thinking whether they will be let in or not. No one knows why some people are let inside while others are not. If they let you in, be happy, and if they don't, forget it. It's a lottery. You don't need to search for logic. It is even pointless to search for logic, you will only waste your efforts. It's not about you. It's not about your style, age, company, money, confidence, having secret pockets in your bag. It has almost nothing to do with you. This is Berghain, baby.
'The Berghain principle' — this is how I explained to myself and others the logic of what was happening when I was jailed for 15 days for participating in peaceful protests. Does it make a difference whether you had a rainbow flag or not? And if you don't plead guilty or let them get your fingerprints — will you get longer jail time? Why was one young mother released and the other was not? Why today we sleep with the lights on, and tomorrow — with the lights out? What are we 'punished' for? How are we assigned to the cells? You can try to explain everything, but after two attempts, everything will fall apart, because there will be other examples that are completely opposite.
'The Berghain principle' can not be understood; one can not explain what is not logical. 'The Berghain principle' is random. You don't need to look for the reason in yourself. Accept everything as it is. You'll be lucky today, but not tomorrow. Today it's me who got into a jail, and tomorrow it'll be my friend.
I suggest reading this text not as fictional, but documental one. This is a diary I kept while I was in prison. It is 'unpolished', there are a lot of repetitions, some things may not be clear from the context. Its aim was to help me survive.
Dedicated to all those who are subjected to political repressions in Belarus.
© Nadya Sayapina. Pen tattoos, 19.09.2020
Today I had a trial and was sentenced to 15 days. I think it's high time I started writing. It's good that I'm not Viktor Frankl and I can write on paper, not in my head.
Now I'm sitting in a cell on Okrestina. All the girls were taken away. Probably for their trials. I was alone for a couple of minutes, and then they brought L. L., I assume, is homeless. She has a strong smell and a slightly bruised face. Also, her legs hurt — I heard that from the hallway when some pig wanted her to go faster. L. whispers: 'Will Lukashenko remain? I hope he won't. It's total chaos.' And I completely agree with her.
L. is somewhat aware of the current political situation. She says that after the election, 'a lot of people were caught', that there were 'as many as nine police vans' (more, L., more) and 'one person was even killed' (more, L., also more).
For a while, L. could not dare to lie down on the bed made of plain boards, but eventually she did. After all, her feet hurt.
I'd love to drink some water, but there's none. The bottles were already empty, tap water was cut off. I could ask the pig outside the door, but 1) I don't want to ask him for anything 2) most likely he will refuse.
L. seems to be asleep. Let her sleep.
I thought that since this summer COVID is everywhere and it is impossible to travel properly, then it will be my journey. Through the cells and prisons of Belarus.
Only perceiving everything as an anthropological experiment I can manage to survive this nightmare. Viktor Frankl, Viktor Frankl…
Yesterday, everyone had trials. Girls got from 7 to 15 days, even the little ones; looking at those I worry so much about them. They are so fragile, naive, innocent.
M. received a notable amount of humiliation. She works with Belsat and they give her 'special treatment.' She was fined and left to sit in the hallway. She sat there for some time — and then her district police officer came and brought her a new report, this time for resisting arrest. And they returned her to our cell. There are seven of us here with five beds.
In the morning, just before the trial, the mattresses were taken away. We thought it was because we would soon be transferred (for example, to Zhodino), but then the time for lunch came gradually, then for dinner — and they still wouldn't let us out (note — I meant that they would not transfer us, of course). We knocked and pressed the button, the answer was: 'You are punished, there'll be no mattresses, all seven people will remain here.' How? Why? After the door closed, we discussed what was going on. We were placed on bare wooden planks, seven of us on five bunks. Okay, we had water (and it used to be turned off for a while), it was not very cold in the cell, but it matters only if you look for the positive. What else is left to do.
One girl — T., a lawyer who can see something beautiful and positive even in the biggest piece of shit (she will say 'but it is heart-shaped'), even she cried yesterday and said that despite all her love for people — that was it: the first moment when she felt hatred.
*** take M. to a new trial.
Yesterday, we were transferred somewhere. To Zhodino, I think. The very fact of moving in space, no matter where to, was joyful. In our small cell in Okrestina I started to go a little crazy. It turned out that they were moving L. from cell to cell. And then somewhere she was left for the night. We got our mattresses back for the night, but the other girls didn't. So the three of them slept in a two-person cell without mattresses on bare boards with their neighbor L.
What our cell looked like. A dirty toilet, enclosed by a wall (note — by toilet I meant, of course, a hole in the floor that you have to squat over). The sink was also dirty, there was hot and cold water. A narrow table and benches bolted to the floor. A window that let the light sink in. Two two-story and one single bed.
M., a Belsat journalist with a 18-months-old child, was released after three nights (it seems). Another activist was sentenced to 15 days and a fine.
The girls and I supported each other very much, reminding one other that what was happening was not normal. That this is abuse, violence, pressure, torture.
morning — tea, oatmeal porridge
lunch — fish broth, a fish cutlet, pearl barley, dried fruit drink
dinner — a sausage and rice
morning — tea, oatmeal porridge
lunch — cabbage soup, fish cutlet, millet, kissel
dinner — pork cutlet, buckwheat
morning — tea, buckwheat
lunch — cabbage soup, pork cutlet, oatmeal, kissel
(note — that's how we were fed on Okrestsina. They were called a 'fish cutlet' or a 'pork cutlet' — but I can't even describe WHAT kind of cutlet it was. A very lousy cutlet. Some cutlet-shaped mass).
In the evening, four of us were taken out, grouped together with some three other girls, and left for an hour or two in the Okrestina backyard. That's how I found out that we were in a temporary detention facility. There were guys nearby, they were detained on the Sunday march. They were nice to look at, I considered them 'ones of us'. We talked a little with one of them. The march was large, no one was detained until it was dark and everyone went to their districts. My new friend was detained near Uručča. They beat him during the detention, then they stopped.
After the backyard, we were put into a police car and driven away. I asked: 'Where to?', they replied: 'Not home.' 'How long will it take?' — 'About an hour.'
We were happy, I even sang a little song of joy! Four people in a small compartment.
'Shall I turn on the air conditioner?' — 'Yes, someone smoked in here.' — 'But it might get cold.' (after a pause) 'You say you can't breathe in here, fuckers? Okay, just kidding. It will be noisy.' — 'And we will talk louder.' — 'And I will eavesdrop.'
Two of us felt sick during our trip. We kept a bag ready in case anyone would to throw up. We looked through a crack. A guy was playing on his phone.
We arrived. Then saw sheep dogs through the crack. We remembered a story that these dogs are another element of psychological pressure. That they are kept on a super-short leash — and they bark aggressively standing along the road as you walk.
We went out with our plastic bags (note — we had our care packages inside of them). We stood against some wall, then against another. They checked our names. Seeing my last name, a dude said, 'Bloody hell, Biran, 15 days.' So I got a rare sentence. If I survive all this, I will be a heroine who did 15 days.
We walked through a long, long basement. Dark, cold, almost endless.
'Keep to the left side! Keep to the right side! Hands behind your back! Don't lift anything off the floor!' Guys were hurried with truncheons.
On our way, I saw someone's fallen bag of cookies. Instinctively, I bent down to pick it up, and then I remembered the words. (note — 'Don't lift anything off the floor') — and did not lift it. What if it's their thing, to hit people like me who try to pick something up? And then they said: 'We let the dogs in.' Like, it was a joke. And we ran even faster. Because the brain did not have time to process things and understand that there were no dogs, that it was just a 'funny joke.'
T., who followed me, picked the bag up. She's good. I also did well, but at that moment I chose another option. It turned out that one guy's bag broke and everything fell out of it. No wonder: taking into account all the running/fast walking, truncheons, shouts, etc.
There are some patterns on the walls in the hallway, wow! Not bare walls! It supported me a lot — its design was crap, there were some simple pieces of color, but they reminded me about possible comfort!
They lined us up in a row. 'Hands up! Higher! Don't hang on to the cage! Turn your palms out!'
So much information. Palms out — how does that even work? I don't get it. I looked out of the corner of my eye to understand. They bowed our heads with their hands: 'Lower your head! Lower! Don't you understand?' The guys were beaten on their legs with batons — 'Put your legs wider!'
Firstly, they brought us to one cell. 'Fuck, there are six of them, where did you bring them! Why do they have backpacks in their hands?' Here, I once again remembered the lines from Kolesnikova's letter, she said that they worked in total mess and disorder. Well, a total mess indeed! :)
While the 'captain' was putting someone into a cell, then going somewhere, other pigs said a couple of kind words. Like, they told us the time, promised to give me a marker that I asked for, etc. (note — pens were forbidden in Okrestina. The one I wrote with was the only one in the entire cell and we got it, most likely, by 'oversight'. I didn't know what the rules were in Zhodino, so I asked for permission to get the marker out of my backpack, as if it's allowed to have a marker, but not a pen. My logic was questionable, but it was terrible to imagine that I will sit there not being able to write down my thoughts).
© Nadya Sayapina. Smoking area and more, 15.09.2020
We went into the cell. 'Face the wall! Hands behind your back! I tell you last names, and you tell me your first name, patronymic, and date of birth.' Hearing '2001' and '2002', he replied with the words 'fuck' or 'shit'.
'Well, are you not entertained?' — 'Not so much'. I 'got the nerve' to reply so because I was upset about those crappy cookies that I was too scared to pick up. And it is not clear what is better: to answer or remain silent. On the one hand — me and my pride, on the other — the fear of aggression, violence.
'You should reply "Yes, I am!"' — 'Yes, I am!'
Then it turned out that the dude was not joking, that he really thought he's the one who should say these words. And then he gave his solemn speech:
'All actions are to be performed on the orders of officers. Any other actions may be regarded as a threat, so you may be subjected to legal physical violence and the use of special equipment. From six in the morning to ten in the evening, it is forbidden to lie on beds. Wake up at six in the morning.'
In the end he once again asked 'Are you not entertained?' — and left.
A couple of times they came — 'Who can't sleep here? Wanna stand in the hallway?'
I was falling asleep with earplugs in, but I still heard when they brought new people: screams, batons. I didn't have the strength for empathy. I focused on falling asleep. I woke up from the cold and put on my pants over my leggings. I realized why I needed warm clothes.
I start writing smaller words to use less ink. I accidentally took this pen from Okrestina. I didn't mean to do that! I found it in my makeup bag. I guess the girl who owned this pen now hates me. But it really happened by accident! I don't know how it's happened. This illegal pen (they are prohibited here, it seems) can save my life (note — I meant to say how important it was for me to write. I took this pen unconsciously, and when I found it, I felt both joy and shame).
The phrase 'Don't put sugar on shit' in response to T.'s positive statements.
This morning the radio was playing the anthem (at 6 am), I had earplugs in and didn't wake up. That's what these dreadful state radio stations are for — to be turned on in prisons! I also dreamed that I ran away from Zhodino to see how the marches on Saturday and Sunday were going, I saw a queer block there and it made me happy, and then I took side streets to go back and finish my sentence :) And I also dreamed that I was in Pinsk, I'm going home, near a bus stop some people are queuing to get into a minibus, but they are detained, the queue gets shorter and I decide to go on foot.
Today I noticed that I don't want to say 'thank you' to these people, although in any other situation it would be typical for me to say 'thank you' when someone brings food or takes the dishes away, etc. And here I stop myself. I don't want to thank them. I noticed that some girls do this too. I asked them why. They say that this is a small gesture of struggle, of resistance. (note — after some time, I found out that food and dishes are brought and taken away by local prisoners, so I began to reproach myself less for an accidental 'thank you')
Yesterday at the evening 'emo-round' (mutual support group) (yes, we do this) I told the girls that yesterday was the happiest day of the five. My 18-year-old cellmate wrote in her letter: 'It may sound strange, but it is much better in prison.'
A third of my time is up.
We knock on the radiator so that our neighbors will hear: 'Long — live — Be-la-rus' and 'We hope — we can — we will win.' I don't really shout these things at protests, but here I am :)
I keep finding myself looking at that freaking door. There is a source of danger out there. Also, there are hope and happy moments such as getting letters or care packages. There are confrontation, fight for your boundaries.
Yesterday, the youngest and the most frail of us was taken out to receive a care package.
— Should I wear a mask for protection? — she asked.
— For erection! — replied the cop.
Bloody hell, what a disgrace!
The guards on the current shift are so talkative. Ostensibly kind. There is an assumption that they themselves are embarrassed for their work, so in order to justify themselves, they offer extra tea, cigarettes, and even say 'you don't have to get up.'
We had a shakedown. This means that we were led out, and after that (a person) was going through our belongings, throwing them on the floor, emptying bags. They took my notes. (note — actually, just one piece of paper. I took the precaution of hiding everything else. But from then on, I had a clear idea of what I could leave in plain sight and what I would hide in a secret place). The question was: why a shakedown? I mean, all our belongings have already been thoroughly inspected both in Okrestina and Zhodino. We can't bring anything 'forbidden' here. All care packages are also carefully inspected. Pen and paper are not prohibited. But the thoughts transferred to paper are, it turns out? Discipline and punish. What are the punishments for thoughts? And they also ask: 'Are there any prohibited items in the cell? Weapons, drugs?' (note — Yeah, two AK's and enough speed for a couple of tracks).
© Nadya Sayapina. Massage, 21.09.2020
Today, they broke the glass in our door. At 6 am, a baton hit and the glass shattered. Rise and shine.
I often fall asleep with some disturbing thought. The environment contributes to their occurrence well enough. Dreams are also heavy, often with some kind of sexual, but not the most pleasant context, where I am an outsider.
To-do list upon my release: dentist, tattoo artist, manicure and pedicure.
But that's all, I'll stop here, because they take everything and read it. It's okay, they won't take away my thoughts. My thoughts are always with me. My thoughts are my steeds.
What do we want to do every day?
- writing practices
- reading practices
- analytical practices and emo-round
- daily (multi-scale) resistance practices
I dreamed of Zhanna (note — my grandmother that died less than a year ago). She was drunk. Driving an open jeep. With wild eyes and disheveled hair. She wanted to die. And she crashed into a truck.
I danced during a walk, hooray! Then I did an exercise called 'camels': I jumped over someone's spit :)
I saw a cockroach :(
The pillow is shaped in such a way that you can just lie flat on it. A discipline pillow.
I dreamed that I worked in Free Theater again, I couldn't remember my last line, and people were yelling at me. Then I woke up and I was in jail. What a relief! :)
When some girl is released, we sweep the floor and leave dust near the doorstep. So that the person won't come back.
I didn't write for a long time, or I wrote something 'fake'. They discouraged my creativity with their shakedown. I felt powerless, which was definitely what they wanted: for me to censor myself so they wouldn't have to. (Self)censorship can manifest itself in:
▪ letters. The things I write (and the replies I might get) are carefully read and checked.
▪ conversations. They can look through the peephole and eavesdrop at any moment. In my current cell there's a camera installed, and it also seems to record sound.
▪ thoughts. It is very important for me to write down my thoughts during serious existential experiences, put them in boxes, and organize them. After some of my records were taken away, it became difficult for me to do this. I have thoughts like: 'Why bother.' All right, but I will still make an effort!
Justifying pigs' actions
In all cells, at some point there'll be questions like: 'Where else would they go? They can't. They will have to return their contractual 3-5 thousand dollars that they were given. His father made him do it. Not all of them are bad.' And the biggest gem of all: 'It's better to have this kind sort people who give you hot water or take you to the shower than someone evil.' At this point, I'm starting to get sick. I think, damn, how easy it is to earn your acceptance and understanding, how well you were taught not to be angry, how boundlessly kind you are (not having boundaries at all!)
One girl came up with a strategy: the more she says 'thank you' and 'please', the better she makes her bed, the cleaner she washes her plate and the faster she eats, the better pigs will think about her. 'We will behave politely, and they will see what good girls we are.' The first thing she asked when she got into our cell was what our rules were. 'Should I fold blankets in a square shape?'
© Nadya Sayapina. Sleep, 13.09.2020
It allows you to survive and takes a lot of strength at the same time. Finding excuses for aggressors, sexism, homophobic jokes, idle talking, narcissistic attacks, etc. — my brain absorbs everything, but, unlike in my usual life, here my choice of my reactions is significantly reduced. For example, I can't just get up and walk away :) Maintaining a friendly atmosphere here is a more important task, so I note down some points and keep quiet. I will deal with this on the outside. Now I just need to survive.
But I'm not always as silent as a grave here. Sometimes everything inside me boils up and I don't hold back, I don't want to hold back. For example, when yesterday a girl addressed a cop starting with 'Excuse me', and her request was, I think, to take out her hormonal medicine and bring it to her. Or to tell the time. Aah! You're in jail, why apologize? I even refuse to thank them (although sometimes I blurt it out, damn it). I understand that this is also a kind of dehumanization, as well as when I use the terms like 'pigs', but screw them. There will be people around me who will understand them, caress them, and feel sorry for them.
A new cell. I think I will spend the last 5 days of my incarceration here. Unless I get additional days — now I have a new phobia. What's different:
▪ People (there are 10 of them, which means more communication) (note — I spent the last few days only with one girl)
▪ Comfort (people change here, new ones replace the old ones and 'inherit' books, food, cups, etc). My previous cell was empty, we just started filling it with something. Also, there are two windows, people collect waste separately, clean the toilet with a toothbrush and sing lullabies before the bedtime) (note — later I started to sing them too).
▪ The pigs here are less strict. Now I can compare. Here you can easily sleep in the morning after breakfast (given that we have to wake up at 6, it's damn important). Now there's a sign saying 'shower' standing on the table, it can be seen through the camera and through the peephole. (note — our easy life didn't last for long. after a couple of days, we were forbidden to lie and sit on mattresses, they made us roll them up for the day, we began to sleep with the light on and stopped going for walks).
All 'my' girls are released little by little. Yesterday, for the first time, I was left alone in the cell with the 'new' girls. A couple of days — and again I will be surrounded by a completely renewed group. But I've already formed connections, habits, attachment.
Today, after lunch, I cross out the 10th day. This is 2/3 of my term. I can't wait.
Damn, how irritating she is! They take us to the shower:
— Should I keep my hands behind my back?
Yes, behind your fucking back. Get your golden star. Or another time:
— Listen, girls, we should return the cups upside down.
— It's more convenient, they don't fall.
Aah, let them fucking fall and fly 3 fucking km away! This is so annoying!
Well, my pesky girl was released, good riddance. And I keep remembering the piece of paper that was taken from me with my thoughts about the prison system, subordination and punishment, etc.
© Nadya Sayapina. Day reading, 21.09.20
Transferring me to this cell is such a blessing. Group environment here is completely different. The girls 'trained' pigs outside: they taught them to say 'good morning' and 'good night.' They can sleep during the day. They smoke quietly through the exhaust hood. They feed other prisoners (those who bring food) with various goodies: they put them in clean plates and cups, which they return after eating.
I was told about several cases of their resistance: for example, they deliberately laughed out loud, when pigs brought new boys to make the latter understand that it was OK to live here, and that all those screams were fake. Or hung white-red-white towels on the battery. Or sang loud songs, including 'Mury', 'Voiny Sveta', etc.
We wondered why the behavior of the pigs on the 2nd floor and here, on the 1st floor, is so different. We decided that it was a matter of age. 20-year-old suckers want to assert themselves in any situation and in any circumstances. Older ones realize that showing off in front of an 18-year-old girl or a 50-year-old woman is improper.
There we go: a new girl came to us and thoroughly influenced our group dynamics. At first I liked her. Like, an adult woman with joint disease, but then she pissed me off so hard. She taught, invalidated, fiercely violated our boundaries, and gave advice. Arrrgh, it was very difficult! And you can't run away. We're all tied up here. We are forced to be 'together.' It's good that she didn't stay with us for more than two days. When we said goodbyes, I hugged her anyway, just like the others. And smiled. We'll never meet again anyway.
Time, fly quicker! 'The Thorn Birds' helps me with it. Colin McCullough (a very exciting plot) and Japanese crosswords. In a nutshell, you need to draw by numbers, and as a result you get some kind of a picture. I haven't got a good one yet, but it's exciting and takes a lot of time. It is vital to get interested in something here.
They do not allow you to sleep during the day and lie on a bed. We must sit on a hard, narrow bench at the table. We sleep at night with bright light on. Moreover, I have periods.
Every part of me wants to get out. I can't wait. Again, I remain the 'oldest' one in the cell, all 'my' girls (all those who have already become 'mine') were released. I learned a little about X. 'Turnkeys' are gossiping about him. They call him a transvestite. I think he also got 15 days and perhaps he's doing solitary. Well, yes, because they didn't know where to put him: to the boys or the girls. I imagine what it's like for him and my experience doesn't look so tragic anymore.
Pressure in the temples. I haven't been outdoors for five days.
I sent three letters and got one in return. From mum. She barely scraped together some words for 2/3 of a page — but I accept that with gratitude. This is what she can give. I hope she doesn't worry too much about me there. Just like Nasta, who sends me the care packages. Like Milana. (note — my mother's letter was the only one I received during my entire sentence).
Oh, I can't wait to finish this experience — and to reflect on it later, from a distance.
Day 15, the last one. I'm sick of looking for entertainment, eating carbs, sleeping with the lights on, waking up at six in the morning, SITTING ON A BENCH. My poor little spine, my poor little body, my poor little brain. I'll get out and give you all my love and care.
P.S. — In the cell, I often imagined that everything that happened was a quest, a game. I received a copy of the report on my case, did not plead guilty, did not attend the 'conversations', did not give my fingerprints, my phone did not get into some wrong hands… But, damn it, I let them take pictures of my tattoos and didn't count the money carefully on my way out. The jailers stole 10 rubles from me. I didn't document it — I was too happy to get out. Just take my word for it :)
And I did not allow myself to fully enjoy the upcoming freedom, because I knew that after 15 days they could take you for another 15. And then again, and again. I thought how I should subtly tell my friends that we should quickly go away from the gates not to get another subpoena and not make them think that I went completely bonkers in my cell.
Drawings: Nadya Sayapina.
Vika Biran, translated by Anton Klimovich для MAKEOUT