Жыве Беларусь!


He was brought to our house, 152, in the evening. He was a bare-boned, smutty creature of about sixteen years old with a fearful glance - just like a baited animal. In the first few minutes we couldn’t get any sense out of him. Who is he? Which house is he from? He only shook his head, and sullenly blinked in confusion. Eventually we took him to the table, gave him some tea and finally got something out of him. Meet Sasha K., twenty-one years old, from Cherven'. He was staying in a house with cons who were under high security, but they made him ask the screws to be transferred to another cell. It was only later that we figured out why.

He had been convicted of possessing a stolen backpack with a camera. [ jokingly called him Mowgli, because he looked like someone who had just come out of the forest, plus he had a dark complexion. The nickname caught on quickly.

A few days passed. In a consolidated effort the house dressed Mowgli, cut his hair and made him have a wash. He started to look more human. He didn’t have anything on him, not even a razor, but we provided him with everything that he needed. Sasha didn’t receive parcels or letters, but he ate and smoked with us since we lived communally.

As time went on he began to grow bolder, and as he saw that we were people and not beasts, he started to put his worst foot forward. He would butt in on people’s conversations and talk nonsense. He would comment when it was not welcome, or come to the feeder and talk to the cops - which he doesn’t know how to do at all — and he’d snap at fair criticism. After a few such episodes the main method of communicating with him became screaming. Mowgli was screamed at from dusk till dawn, since there wasn’t an hour when he wasn’t doing something wrong. Sasha didn’t care a bit.

I was interested in him, and I felt he was a rare individual. Of course, on the outside I didn’t have a chance to communicate with such people, but here I could to my heart’s content. I was probably the only one in the house who never shouted at him - well, almost never - and spoke to him as an equal, though it wasn’t always easy.

Soon, many interesting details about Mowgli’s background revealed themselves. His father was in Glubokoye colony No. 13, and had been for a long time. Where his mother was, was not clear, and Mowgli used to live with an aunt who apparently wasn’t very fond of him. The guy had been growing up on his own; at least I didn’t see any signs of a meaningful upbringing. Sasha had spent almost his whole life on the street; drinking, sniffing glue and stealing. He had finished studying at a technical school but could hardly write, and it was an overwhelming task for him to read more than a few lines. In my estimation, his development was equal to that of an eleven or twelve year old child. Sometimes I looked at Mowgli and thought: ‘So much for the 21st century in the centre of Europe’. Under the nose of the highly regarded social, welfare and educational institutions, a shut-in grew up who can’t read at twenty-one - and the only thing they could think to do with him was to put him in prison. Now it’s almost inevitable that he will drink, steal and sit in jail for his whole life, and nobody cares. Nobody, apart from a local police department which has a higher crime rate because of him. But if the state didn’t care for Mowgli, NGO’s did. As a child, he went to Italy on a Chernobyl rehabilitation project. I don’t remember the details, the only thing that comes to mind is how he told us about his call to the Italians from Belarus:

‘I’'m calling, she picks up the phone... And I'm like: “Hello!” She’s like: “Pronto! Pronto!” And I'm like: “Khuyonto!”? and I hang up!” At this point Mowgli burst into laughter, apparently satisfied with his subtle humour.

Mowgli also had asthma. Sometimes he would burst into a heavy cough and then ask the screw for an inhaler. He couldn’t take it into the cell because it was metal, so they left it in the locker in the hall. The inhaler was actually ‘from the Italians’. However, despite the horrible seizures he suffered, Sasha wouldn’t even consider quitting smoking.

Days passed, and Mowgli was clearly turning into a pariah in the house. Apart from not being able to behave himself, Sasha constantly screwed up; he would spoil a communal object, or drink a lot of diesel® late at night and then vomit the whole night, preventing everyone from sleeping. He always had to be forced to wash his clothes and do his part in the cleaning of the house. At first, I defended him as he was constantly yelled at. It was a pity to watch him shrink at the dreadful roar and popping eyes of our cellmates. A lot of times I tried to explain to him in a friendly way the rules of life in the house. These ‘edifying’ conversations helped for half a day at best, so after a few attempts I dropped the ball. Like I said before, iron-fist methods also didn’t help him with his education. We soon became aware of an interesting psychological tendency; it was vital to Mowgli to be the centre of attention, even if this attention manifested itself solely in abuse and shouting. In order to be ‘the star of the house’ and be able to listen to everyone discussing him, he was ready to endure insults, attacks and threats.

In the following years I saw that it took a special kind of person to create this dynamic in the cell system. I often witnessed people who would deliberately annoy everyone around them to focus all attention on themselves, by any means possible.

Soon we ran out of ways to try and get through to him, apart from physical ways. He was asked, shouted at, threatened with many things, intimidated, deprived of cigarettes and ignored - but all this attention excited our Mowgli even more.

He started complaining that we treated him badly. He warned the screw of his intention to harm himself, and declared a hunger strike that lasted for just 15 minutes before he received his first portion of soup from the chow server. Once he even wrote an application to be transferred again. On a sheet of paper from a notebook, in wiggly lines, hardly legible and in unbelievably curved letters he wrote something like:


Pleas can u bring me to anotha hous becus Ive done a thousand screwups, Im in everybodys way they always shout at me

To be fair, he never filed this application. At the same time, the process of drawing it up and the discussion of this act of Mowgli’s took half a day, and he couldn’t wish for more.

After the New Year in 2011, I was sent to the hospital in Zhodino prison (where I stayed at the pretrial facility during the investigation) to be treated for an ingrowing toenail. When I returned two weeks later, Mowgli was not in the house anymore. My cellies informed me that just after my departure, Sasha went rogue — he either experienced some mental issue, or successfully imitated it. In particular, he would bang on the walls for no reason, talk nonsense more than ever, hide behind the toilet door, steal things from the collective pot, and he even stole and hid someone else’s letter. Eventually they could bear it no longer, and started kicking him heartily. As a result, the cops realised that something was wrong with Sasha and took him to the infirmary.

It’s been almost three years. I'm in Zhodino prison again, but not as a defendant anymore. They brought me here from Mogilev prison to treat my stomach, since Zhodino has a wing of the Republican infirmary. When I got here I was called in to see the Operative, probably to suss me out. On the wall of the Operative’s office there are photos of convicts who are on the preventive registry. While scanning the line ‘Inclined to commit suicide or self-harm’, I met Mowgli’s eyes. Holy crap! It’s him, indeed. The surname corresponds. He probably went down for a second or even third time after the end of his term. I returned to my house and started recalling everything I'm telling you now. I remembered the asthma inhaler, the wolf- ling’s gaze, totally rotten teeth at twenty-one, locks of hair falling to a basin with soapy water when we were shaving his head... And a question came to my mind: what would happen with Sasha when he dies? Unfortunately, 'm pretty sure he will not last long, unless he gets a long term sentence and the prison ‘preserves’ him.

‘Who would weep for him? Will there be anyone to carry his coffin?

Will he repeat the fate of Balzac’s Father Goriot, who was dying almost totally alone, and it was strangers who took care of his final journey?

Mowgli doesn’t have relatives, hardly any friends, and if he has any they are obviously not the best representatives of the human race. It occurred to me that it must be very boring and bleak not only to live like that, but to die as well, when you are all alone. It also occurred to me that the one who threw me in jail for a political crime, and the one who made a thief and an outcast in the margins of life out of Mowgli, is the same leviathan.

March 2015

The Spaced-Out