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Life is Beautiful

Another 10 days of the punishment cell in Shklov colony No. 17. This time I was lucky: 'm not alone in the cell, there are three of us. It’s warmer like that, because the radiators are almost cold, and it’s more fun - there is someone to spend the time with. One of my neighbours is a young pal with a one-year term, he is to be released in five days. The other one is Sanya aka ‘Pilot’. His hair is grey, though he must be under forty. Lived-in voice. Old wolf’s look. He’s been inside for thirteen years, and seven more are ahead - it’s for domestic homicide. In those ten days that we spent together, I heard a lot of interesting things from him, like how he got to serve in the army before his imprisonment (his service fell right within the period of Soviet decay). I learned how at the beginning of his stretch he used to be a ‘blatnoy’ in Orsha correctional colony No. 8, where he was a witness of the ‘black course’ - wrangles among the ‘blatnoys’ right inside the pen, almost free access to mobile phones, cops ready to bring any drugs for bribes. He remembered how cons used to stay in the punishment cell according to the system ‘one day the weather is flyable - the other it is not’, i.e. one day they were fed on hot food, the other - on a slice of bread and a cup of hot water; and many other things.

But it was not the stories, but the philosophy of the Pilot that burnt into my memory.

One day I felt a bit down. I don’t remember the reason anymore, either after another sleepless night, or after routine screw’s tricks, but the irritation that had been accumulating for many days finally burst out in a stream of rudderless abuse of the institution, the screws and generally of our former situation. Pilot was listening. Then he agreed: “You bet your ass. The pen here is cockish. It is no match for the number eight! In the morning while everyone’s asleep, I used to go out to the yard and sit on a bench sipping a tea... The sun is shining, birds are singing. The mood is fucking awesome... Don’t you worry. Soon you’ll get back to the ward-type housing unit, make yourself some tea... And you’ve got just a bit'. Cut the shit, man...

He was silent for a moment, then looked at me with his tired and a bit mad eyes and added:

‘Life is beautiful. Even in here...’

Life is beautiful. Even in here... This phrase struck with a hammer and at the same time rang the bell in my head creating an invisible explosion in the neural networks. I clammed up. With every minute I got the meaning of it more and more.

Just imagine a stifling gloomy concrete box in which you are doing push-ups and squats to warm up and get some sleep and in which you stay as long as the governor wants. Outside the ‘box’ is the colony with an aggressive and mostly wily and obedient population, people that one shouldn’t turn ones back upon, and in addition to them - you are accustomed to screws who act with impunity, who have sadistic tendencies and who don’t see a person in you. There are no rights, there is no freedom, no wife that would come for visits, no wellbeing or simple human joy. And it’s been thirteen years like that, seven more are ahead. But ‘Life is beautiful. Even in here...’

This willpower and lust for life struck and inspired me with great respect to this person. How much vitality, craving for freedom and moral courage he must have to reason like that in his situation, and how awkward it is to feel unhappy with your lot for most of those who think that they have problems in life!

Much later, when in Mogilev prison after number seventeen with its ‘blatnoys’ and ‘crime lords’, when the censors and operatives were throwing out my mail in bulk trying to isolate me from the outside, when screws in Zhodino were putting me up against the wall, hitting my legs and handcuffing me for the fact that I was a ‘political’, when in the prison I wasn’t getting out of the dungeons for twenty days, when I got one more year of imprisonment five days before my release, when in Gorky colony they deprived me of visits from relatives and the lawyer, every time, sooner or later, when I really wanted to take it hard, become sad or feel sorry for myself, the Pilot’s face appeared in front of my eyes and I heard his words:

‘Life is beautiful. Even in here...’

January 2016

Life is beautiful. Even here.

An Open Letter