27 May 2024, Monday, 5:50
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Red Thread, Bone Of A Fish

Red Thread, Bone Of A Fish

To the Gulag, by leaps and bounds.

Recently, political prisoner Katsiaryna Novikava was able to send a letter to the outside world, bypassing prison censorship, on a piece of toilet paper. The letter miraculously reached the editorial office of Belsat, and only thanks to this we were all able to learn the monstrous details about how, after her arrest, Katsiaryna was beaten in the GUBOPiK by the entire office, how they put her on a flag, how they threatened her. Now we know that Katsiaryna fell from the second tier and hit her head hard, but she was not told the results of the x-ray. Here, probably, you need to say something like “thank them for at least taking her for an x-ray,” but I can’t help but go as far as “thank you for not shooting me.”

Katsiaryna was detained in June last year, and she was able to send the letter only in April. That is, for ten months no one knew anything. During the visit that relatives have alight to after the trial, you can’t tell anything through glass. You can tell a lawyer, but he will remain silent, remembering his colleagues who are also in prison for defending political prisoners, or, at best, have been deprived of their licenses and were forced to flee the country. There is nothing to say about prison censorship. Formally, the administration of the pre-trial detention center does not seem to be to blame for the fact that Katsiaryna fell and hit her head, but if she had written to her family about this, such a letter would still not have made it out of the prison. A piece of toilet paper covered in small handwriting was all that Katsiaryna could come up with in an attempt to talk about what was happening to her. And the attempt was a success.

This story, and the letter itself on the square of toilet paper, immediately reminded me of something. However, it is clear what exactly this could remind of. I recently listened to a lecture by Andrei Shalaev, the founder of the Immortal Barracks, a man who meticulously collects letters to and from the Gulag. It is admitted that the turnover of volunteers is terrible, because reading these letters is unbearably difficult, and many burn out too quickly. They can't do it anymore. So, Andrei told the story of one letter from a Perm prison, after which I immediately remembered Katsiaryna.

Perm engineer-geodesist Vasily Laishchev was arrested in August 1945 when he boarded a train to go on a work trip. In his cell, he found a rag and a red thread left by someone, made a needle from a fish bone and embroidered a letter to his son: “Vitya, I didn’t go to Tashkent, I was arrested and put in prison. Tsekhotsky slandered. Continue your studies. Bring packages, write letters, and remember me.” And on top he embroidered a request: “Good people, take the scarf to the following address...”.

The letter did not reach Vitya. They put a “mole” in the cell, who said that he would soon be released and give the scarf to his relatives. Vasily Laishchev served ten years, fell under a rubble in the camp and became disabled. He was transferred to a terrible camp for the disabled in the village of Abez, where few people survived to the end of their sentence. But engineer Laishchev survived. Moreover, he lived to see rehabilitation. And Vitya found the letter, embroidered with red thread using a fish bone, forty-five years later, when during perestroika the KGB opened the archives and the son was given the opportunity to read his father’s criminal case. The letter on a piece of fabric was filed with other documents. The addressee was finally able to read it.

And now, eighty years later, when Gulag remains only the terrible memories of the survivors, and there’s nothing but ashes left from the USSR, when the picture of the world is changing at crazy speed, thousands of kilometers from that Perm prison, a young woman in the center of Europe writes a letter on a piece of toilet paper, not knowing whether it will reach anyone or not, whether someone will take it out of prison or hand it over to the punishers, so that it will go into the prisoner’s personal file and lead her to the punishment cell.

Someday this letter from a Belarusian political prisoner will become the basis of an exhibition in a new museum, I have no doubt about this. As well as thousands of letters from other political prisoners. And, perhaps, the volunteers who will collect the archives will also change frequently, as in the “Immortal Barracks,” because it is unbearably difficult to read this. But we will have to do it. Read, collect, systematize, digitize, show to the world.

By the way, we will also have to file everything. If the Gulag punishers, for the most part, quietly and happily grew old, never answering for what they did to their victims, then we cannot allow this to happen. Our century must be at least somewhat different from the past one.

Iryna Khalip, exclusively for Charter97.org

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