Belarus. On Friday 22 April this year anarchist comrade Evgeniy Rubashko along with 3 other anarchist comrades was sentenced to 5 years of penal colony for participating in protests in 2020 and being part of Pramen anarchist collective. This interview was taken before sentencing in January 2022, where we tried to talk to him about his political views and the situation in prison.
Originally published by ABC Belarus.
Zhenya, how are you doing now?
I am ok, I‘m adapting to the pre-trial jail. A living person was taken and thrown in jail! But you mustn’t be sad, or your sentence won’t grow. A convict sleeps and the sentence goes. In general, like most people here, I am growing strong and optimistic about what is going on. I have a great mix of neighbors now, instead of wikipedia, you can ask a professor a question. In terms of everyday life, the house is human, we live in common. Sometimes sick, sometimes not.
Can you tell us a little bit about how you were detained? What happened, how did the cops behave?
In the morning of July 29th, 21 at 9:30 a.m. I woke up in my room upon the “wake up” command. There were about 5 bulls in balaclavas in the room. There was no doorbell ringing, the door had not been kicked in. I suspect that a duplicate key to the apartment could have been made back during detention on 10/23/20. Detention was conducted by Gubop with the support of the militia 3032 unit. In the apartment unmasked were present: Lieutenant Dyatlov V.E., senior militia inspector, and Tolchkov N.S., who has already become popular. I did not resist; nothing was explained to me, but I immediately understood that the moment when they “came” for me had arrived. While lying on the couch I was handcuffed behind my back. They brought my smartphone, demanded I unlock it, I refused, and then the process of beating and torture began, which ended after the presentation of the smartphone password and Telegram, and lasted less than 1 hour. Then a search began in my room while I was still lying on the floor, later I was taken out into the hallway. I didn’t have the opportunity to see what exactly the thugs were doing. Already in the investigative committee I was carrying a box with the seized items in front of me, but they didn’t provide me with an inventory.
In the next room my neighbor was being searched. I didn’t hear that he was beaten. His equipment was also taken away. The gubopiki were mocking his rainbow bag and some other things. Our dog was barking, they wouldn’t let us call someone close give him away. Then she sat next to me in the hallway and was silent.
According to the paperwork I was detained at 10:30, but I heard the cops say they went into the apartment 1 hour earlier. My neighbor and I were taken away in separate cars. They took him to the Partisansky District Police Department, and they took me to the investigative committee on Pervomaiskaya Street.
I was standing in the corridor with handcuffs on, and then they took me to different offices of the investigators. From time to time the same people in balaclavas were hitting me, insulting and threatening me. In one of the rooms there was a senior investigator, major Tsybulsky I.A. He started telling me that I was going away together with Rabkova and Frantskevich for 10 years. The direction of their thoughts finally became clear.
In the other room, where Dyatlov was, Gubopik brought me a photo from the 04.10.20 march, printed on an A4 sheet, and began asking whether I recognized myself and others in the photo, whose names he called. I did not identify anyone, so they began to physically abuse me. After that I wrote on the sheet that I identified myself in the photo.
They took me out into the corridor and started recording a “confession” video. Balaklava made 3-4 attempts, he did not like the fact that I did not speak in his wording. At the same time he threatened me with sexualized violence.
For a while I stood in the hallway. Balaklava was leafing through my accounts on his – cloned from mine – smartphone, he couldn’t find anything “extremist”, and only picked on the fact that I had reposted some activist looking for housing more than a year ago. He started asking me what kind of work my mom did, and I proudly told him that she had been an elementary school teacher for 30 years. I asked what his mother’s job was, and all I heard in response was a command to shut up and the silence that followed.
Soon my lawyer arrived. At 12:55 a.m. I was handed a detention order by chief investigator L.Y. Surova. She, together with Tsybulsky, who started to ask me questions and was later included in the interrogation report, conducted the first interrogation. I spoke in detail about my detention, the violence and torture, so that it would remain documented. To Tsybulski’s questions along the lines of “how can I comment on what has already been written about my detention on Pramen and ABC Belarus?” I answered in one word: “Nothing. Later, when questioned about the misconduct of the Internal Affairs officers, neither Tsybulski nor Surova “noticed” any marks on the handcuffed hands or abrasions on the face, which can be seen on the video shot on their own floor. After the interrogation I wrote a petition for a forensic examination.
Many anarchists were tortured when they were arrested. Was violence used at the time of arrest or afterwards?
Trigger warning, as they say.
I woke up lying on my stomach on the couch, and in this position I was immediately handcuffed behind my back. There was no screaming, no special explanations either. Right away there were blows to the body and legs, and slaps on the head. They beat me with gloved hands. After they refused to give me my smartphone password, the blows became more intense. Then they put me in the same position on the floor, pulled my legs to my hands, and also handcuffed me around the ankle. One man pressed my back with his knee around my chest, while the other kept hitting various parts of my body.
Little by little I started to pass out. They noticed this and turned me over on my back. One of them opened my mouth, inserted an object like a pencil and squeezed my nose, while the other started pouring a strong alcoholic liquid, presumably vodka, down my throat. At some point I could no longer hold in the air, I began to choke and so I swallowed the air along with the vodka. Then inadvertently they loosened my nose and I managed to breathe through it more. They turned me over on my stomach again. They put a foot on my back. Then one of the bulls said, “Fucking around with you like with Dedok.” And started hitting me hard and fast on the outside of my left thigh, in the same spot. After 10-15 strokes, I told him I was going to give him the password.
They brought me my smartphone, I looked at it with my mind blurred and tried to type the password. One of the bulls thought I was faking it, so he threw a plastic bag over my head and started choking me. Through the bag I kept saying that I had already agreed to say the password. The bag was removed, I strained my memory and entered the password. After that the beating and torture in the apartment stopped. By the way, there was nothing “extremist” on my smartphone. I continued to lie on the floor. The pigs asked distracted questions about my family and work, rather to make sure I was conscious. I noticed that my hands were swollen and starting to feel numb, so I asked for the handcuffs to be loosened, and after some scuffling they were loosened.
There was less violence in the IC building. The blows to the body or kicks to the legs happened more often when one of the cops just walked by. There were more insults and threats. When they took me to the investigator’s office the gubopiks were saying that our apartment had “walls in sperm”, that everything was pissed on, and that they were all faggots there.
In the incident with the printed photo they started kicking me in the body (in the ribs and kidneys), and then the pig kicked me in the groin. When the “confession” video was re-shot a few times, one of the bulls came at me with threats related to “making me gay”. Naturally, after the lawyer came, everything stopped.
The forensic examination was performed on 09/10/21, almost a month and a half later. The inspectors didn’t have a ruler with them. Still, it was necessary to measure “the marks on the wrists and ankles from the handcuffs,” hematomas in the area of the left hip, left knee, ankles, “5-6 ribs along the left lower clavicle line.” Dyatlov, who was later interviewed, suggested that I “could have been injured by falling from a height even before the moment of detention.
Tell us about the conditions in the pre-trial detention facility.
Everything is measured by comparison. Volodarka is certainly not as close as the concentration camp Okrestino, where in recent months (at least since October 2021) political prisoners are kept 8 to 10 days in the disciplinary cell for 8 people, and have to sleep on the concrete floor. And people with “Zhodina trauma” say that Volodarka only pretends to be a prison.
It is difficult for me to objectively describe the conditions of detention, because I’m used to them. A prison is a prison. There are a lot of people, there is no personal space; the cell is a living room, kitchen, smoking room, toilet and bedroom at the same time. Cells are different on different buildings. My “first cell – first love” was small, in its own way even cozy, with a wooden floor, on the ground floor, but there was mold corroding the wall and constantly stale air, and two smokers simultaneously made in the cell “not visible to breathe”. I heard that not long before me Statkevich had gone from there to the hospital. The second, more spacious, resembles a hospital room, the air is well-ventilated, but the number of people increases to 13, living on 3-tier beds (bunks). There are also cells for 24 people. They take us out for a walk once a day for an hour and a half, and the yards are small. Once a week I had a shower for about 30-40 minutes. Very lame medical care, not enough medicine. The Hippocratic Oath here sounds like “a convict should suffer”. And yet, it’s still much better than one aspirin on Okrestino, if it didn’t run out. I heard a story that a man broke his leg in Volodarka and they didn’t put a cast on it. The daily schedule is standard for such places: up at 6:00, lights out at 22:00. Meals are served at 6:15-7:00, 14:00-15:00, 18:00-19:00.
You have to understand that cells are huts. No matter how weird it may sound, they become homes for people, some for months and some for years. That is why the detainees try to arrange their life as much as possible. Daredevil hands are always making something out of nothing, and there are no unnecessary things here. Try making a handle out of a plastic bottle for an aluminum circle, but don’t ask why you need it. One of the punishments could be a permanent transfer from cell to cell (keleshevka). You just settle in and get used to people – and then you do it all over again. And the level of comfort depends very much on your neighbors.
Do you have any problems with the administration? How does the attitude of the prison authorities differ in general from that of the political and social prisoners?
We can say that at Volodarka the attitude towards everyone is the same. It is a case when the staff does their job without political bias.
To give another example, I would like to compare the intake and the initial examination by a medical worker from Okrestino. I was taken to the temporary detention facility (TDF) by three gubopiks, angry because of the visit of a lawyer and the resulting increase in their working day. They threatened me not to delay them at the TDF. When asked by the medical worker there, I replied that I had no health complaints. When he examined the hematoma on my left thigh, he just said: “Not even an eggplant ass”. At Volodarka detention center they specified what and where I was beaten by the detention officers and described all the traces of beatings on my body.
Very often the administration of the detention center uses other inmates to put pressure on the inmates. Did you have any such cases?
No, and since I’ve been here I haven’t heard of such cases.
I saw a plant duck, he was interested in 328, but he did it very pale – and became an object of ridicule.
But the damned Okrestina distinguished himself here as well. There the pressure was on Solovey Artem (Sergeevich). Towards the end of his detention on 12.08.21 he was transferred to another cell (on the 3rd floor), where he was forced to write a confession (in clerical language), threatening him with sexualized violence.
The food in a Belarussian prison is terrible. Were you able to adapt and are there any tips you would like to share?
Food is bearable, portions are okay. Another thing is that before my detention I was a vegan. Here I am a vegetarian with a stretch: I eat soups at lunch with meat molecules, and potatoes/pasta for lunch are always mixed with meat – not an option. Regular porridge in the morning, but at this time my body doesn’t take food yet. Fortunately, I am a “warm” prisoner and everything is solved by the food from freedom. Tea/coffee/cocoa, soups/vermicelli/cakes, b/p, flour, cheese, chocolate, some fruits and vegetables, and even vegan sausage – can’t complain. Especially with very limited movement, the body doesn’t need much energy. I am also handed vitamin complexes.
The most important lifehack is to share, putting food on the commons, and everyone benefits from the variety. Make salads out of vegetables. Make halves of hard-boiled eggs on Tuesdays and Thursdays and stuff them with egg yolk and garlic and herbs. For New Year’s Eve we made cakes out of biscuit cakes, smeared with condensed milk from otovarka (a local online store). If you have a bartender next bed, ask him to make fruit syrup for a nonalcoholic long drink, diluting it with mineral water from the same otowarka.
Do you read a lot? Tell us about the latest books that have impressed you the most.
I read, it’s one of the few distractions. For half a year I read about 40 books, mostly fiction, but also some psychology and philosophy. All the books were from the library of the pre-trial detention facility.
Here I read poems by Voznesensky, Brodsky, Akhmatova, Lermontov, Tsvetaeva, Goethe and Dante. At my request, I was sent poems and lyrics by Andrei Lysikov (Dolphin).
Lately I’ve been reading Argentinians. I recently finished reading Julio Cortázar’s The Classics Game, which opens with Jacques Vacher’s line, “Nothing kills the man in us like having to represent some country.” I was drawn into the kaleidoscope of his dream-stories by Jorge Luis Borges. In his “Utopia of a Tired Man,” there is an entertaining dialogue:
What happened to the government?
Traditionally, they gradually went out of business. They appointed elections, declared wars, collected taxes, confiscated property, undertook arrests and imposed censorship, and no one on earth honored them. The press stopped publishing their declarations and images. Politicians had to find worthy occupations. Some became good comedians, others became good medicine men. In reality, of course, things were much more complicated than in this account of mine.
At the very beginning of the current captivity, I was greatly encouraged by McMurphy in Ken Kesey’s “Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” “He knows: you have to laugh at what torments you, or you can’t keep your balance, or the world will drive you crazy. He knows that life has a painful side, but he doesn’t let pain overshadow comedy, just as comedy doesn’t let pain overshadow comedy.”
Like the Little Prince, I tried to follow a firm rule: “get up in the morning, wash your face, tidy up, and immediately tidy up your planet.
Together with Jean Batista, I strolled through Amsterdam in Albert Camus’s The Fall. I looked at the world through the eyes of Hermann Hesse’s Damien. Reread Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Words” about his decision to become a writer. “The whole man, absorbed in all men, he is worth all, he is worth anyone.”
Of the “thematic” I read Dovlatov’s The Zone, Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Dead House, the first volume of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago (in part). I reread again Akhmatova’s beautiful and terrible Requiem.
I wanted to finally read the novels of Andrei Platonov, but here his texts don’t appeal to me at all. But I read his little fairy tale story “The Unknown Flower”, such a beauty.
I reread good old Erich Fromm’s “The Art of Loving” and “Man to Himself”. More than 10 years ago he left a strong imprint, now the patriarchal notes of his works are more critical. I’ve been reading Frederick Perls’s Gestalt Therapy Practicum.
My boldest encroachment was Ricoeur and Gadamer’s Phenomenology of Poetry. I only got through the introduction, but learned that language is metaphorical at its core and that rationality is only a superstructure, that metaphor for poetic language is like a model for scientific language.
This paragraph from Michel Houellebecq’s Opera Bianco hooked me:
There must have been a moment of inclusion when we had nothing against this world. Why is our loneliness so great now? Perhaps something must have happened, but the reasons for the explosion remain incomprehensible to us. We look around, but nothing seems real to us anymore, nothing seems lasting to us anymore.
The last thing I read so far was Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea: “man can be destroyed, but he cannot be defeated”.
My acquaintance with 10 volumes of paperwork about a non-existent extremist entity is coming to an end. Next will be “the trial.” And so “I lie on my bunk, clutching a volume of Kafka to my chest”.
Do you get postcards or messages from your comrades on the outside?
I get letters from family, and intermittently, and not all from friends. In six months I have received three letters from people I do not know. Postcards of solidarity do not reach me, but several from St. Petersburg were passed on through my mother. From other countries nothing comes either, except Russia. However, in early January 2022 I received a parcel from Warsaw with chocolate and Christmas cards, without the letter. I was very surprised and glad to get such a surprise.
Tell us a couple of stories/people that you remember from your time in the detention center.
There are a lot of interesting people, not all stories can be told. My first roommate was Alexei Shchitnikov, whose car accident in August turned into a 364. There was a man on 342 who took the world very literally and tried intrusively to impose his own rules. Later a man from Borisov stopped by and told me about a military doctor with the same peculiar traits. I believe in accidents less and less. Andrei Pocheryko from Grodno, who cut the stickers of Rabochy Rukh, and got an article for treason against the state. Countless “success stories” by clutchmen, jokes about bitcoins buried in the vegetable garden, and startup ideas a la “drone mephedrone”. An Armenian calling a Turkmen a Tajik.
Here’s the story of a great guy. He was running shisha houses in Minsk, the son of a famous female Gestaltist, and is still learning her craft himself. Three of them got drugs for the purpose of using, one of the company was followed, they detained him too. The charges were part. 3 under 328, they managed to prove part 1. Got 4.5 years open prison arrest. It was a year ago. Already served half a year. Re-examined the case, all the testimony is unchanged. Even the guy who bought it told me how it was. Part 3, 6.5 years in the penitentiary.
Can you tell us a little bit about how you became an anarchist, and why you continue to believe in these ideas?
After this question, I close my eyes, go through my memories all the way back to my childhood, and rather ask myself “why?” and “what does this mean to me?”
There is a sense of justice and a desire for freedom. The only question is how far one can go: psychologically, philosophically, politically. Sensitivity to what is happening inside and outside seeks some kind of harmonious synthesis of the personal and the social. This need stung me from the inside and demanded a concrete resolution. At the same time, anyone who has experienced the effects of power knows of its oppressive effect. This is the point from which the search began, both theoretical and practical.
With this kind of worldview, it is not surprising that of the books that “made me an anarchist” the most was Albert Camus’ The Rebellious Man, which consists of an analysis of the development of existential and historical rebellion. I love music. Having the coolest diy-punk scene in the country, it was hard not to learn that “black rubber is made of power” and meet people with similar views. The personal factor is huge. Meeting amazing people, I realized that many of them were anarchists. The song “Only anarchists are pretty” set the record straight. I’m kidding. Feminists influenced me just as much.
I’ve been helping the homeless people of Minsk for about 10 years as part of the Food Not Bombs initiative. Starting out of a personal desire to help people in need, I became increasingly aware of society’s social problems. Or rather, the role of the state in creating problems for society. In 2012, I was detained at a concert in support of this initiative. That was my first encounter with the police. The authoritarian state itself pushed me to radicalize my views. This is how I became an anarchist.
For me it was important to change the social in an anti-authoritarian direction. I participated in various social, educational and environmental initiatives. In our collectives, interaction and decision-making sought to conform to the ideals of equality, our rhythms of resistance supported all of us in the streets.
Admittedly, for a while, having already developed an anti-authoritarian worldview, I did not call myself an anarchist, treating the word respectfully. It was too cool for me. And scary. Sitting in Volodarka now, accused of participating in the extremist formation Pramen (it doesn’t matter that I am not a member of this media group), I realize that in the common people’s mind, which is represented by the current government, this same fear has not gone anywhere. Solidarity, mutual assistance, self-government and self-organization, personal and social freedom and responsibility still sound too extremist and are called destructive activities.
Has prison had any effect on your political views lately?
It took me a long time to come to these views, and not painlessly. And the current imprisonment only confirms their validity. Wherever there are people, there is solidarity with mutual aid. “Human hut, we live in common,” is how we greet the newly arrived passengers. Together, sharing the experience of captivity, the detainees know how to support each other in word and deed.
On the other hand, I am convinced that the penitentiary system definitely needs to be revised, the emphasis should be moved from punishment to restorative practices, some crimes should be decriminalized and the number of prisons should decrease (in my rosy dreams, to zero). And this I haven’t been to camp yet, only the SIZO.
I’m a politician, but my heart hurts just as much for the people at 328. Crazy sentences, broken lives. Simple consumption is punishable, users are often hanged by Part 3, strangers are grouped in an organized group (especially on the infamous “scorpion” store). It’s not uncommon for stories to come after a person for opposition flag, find the weight, and only get shut down on 328. Convenient.
The new trendy article is 333. There is a list of banned strong substances. There are people who sell drugs to jocks, including pigs. Substances on the list – and people get ch. 2, 2 to 10 years of camp.
The same question is being asked within these walls: who decides what people will go to prison for? Is the state asking society how anyone feels about substances? Doesn’t the state know that borderlands survive on transportation (non-payment of taxes)? No need to talk about retaliation against society because of protests hoping to change the current state of affairs. The state needs more convicts, stigmatized people, and it doesn’t care about bringing people back into society.
Many of the actions of people are not socially dangerous, but are unacceptable to the state. In this vein, there are more “politicized” articles than is commonly believed.
As far as we know, you were already outside Belarus in July, but decided to come back. Could you tell us a little about your reasons for coming back?
I just lived my life the way I wanted to. I missed my friends who had left the country after the crackdown in the fall of 2020, and I went to see them. I did not want to become a political emigrant myself, I had no plans to leave the country, and the prospect of prison was understandable. The fem-punk band “Lono” had a concert in Minsk, and I wanted to go to their concert, so I went back. That’s the whole story.
I was driving home, listening to Anna Akhmatova’s lines from her “Requiem” in 1961:
No, and not under an alien sky,
Not under the protection of foreign wings.
I was then with my people,
Where my people, unfortunately, were.
My business is to live life to the full. The business of the cops is to carry out repression. On July 29, 2021, our lives crossed paths.
The fight against Lukashenko continues at large. Is there anything you’d like to pass on to those who continue to resist at large?
Do what you yourself think is right. Or don’t do it, regain your strength. Don’t engage in self-injury, don’t cultivate guilt that someone is in prison and you aren’t. I need you all alive and well. And all regimes fall sooner or later. “Don’t hang your nose, brothers and sisters…” Well, you get the idea.
Is there anything else you’d like to say to our readers?
There is much to talk about, but words cannot replace a friendly hug or a handshake, a look in the eye with a sense of mutual trust and respect. I would like to remind you of the value of this once again. Freedom lives in our lives when we choose to live this way, not that way. See you in freedom!