Reader’s note: Aliaksandr Vasilevich is a businessman, owner of the Vondel/Hepta advertising agency and the “Ў” Gallery, which was formerly one of the main cultural centres in Belarus. He is also the co-founder of the online media outlets Kyky.org and TheVillage Belarus. He was detained on 28 August 2020 and charged on 4 September 2020. However, his lawyer has been prohibited from disclosing information about the investigation, so the charges against him remain unknown.
Aliaksandr has two daughters. Below is an example of the stories he has been writing in letters to his eldest daughter, Adelia, who is eight years old. His second daughter, Urshula (referred to in the letter as “Ursh”) was born while he was in detention so he hasn’t met her yet. The stories below were sent in three separate letters between May and July 2021.
Letter 1: Papa and the Penguin, or, How to Stay Sane in Prison
Papa was sitting in his cell, drinking coffee and eating chocolate cake. His friends had given him the cake and it was delicious. And Daddy simply loved coffee.
The door opened, and in walked Penguin with a mattress in one hand and bag in the other. The door slammed shut behind him. Penguin looked exhausted and dishevelled. “Hello,” he said. “Hi there!” said Papa in reply, as he showed Penguin where to put his mattress and his belongings.
After drinking his tea, Penguin sat on the bed and looked at Papa.
“Why are you so calm and not miserable? After all, you and I have had a bad run of luck. It was all fine, and now it’s terrible :(”
Papa smiled at the Penguin. “And if it was never bad, how would you know when it was good? Unfortunate things happen to everyone. Even in cartoons. Even to princesses and villains. To good people and bad people.”
Penguin looked even sadder. “Sure, sure, sure. But you’re not sad?”
Papa took a gulp of coffee and said: “Why should I be? I’m here, in prison. I can’t change that or influence the situation. But I can choose to be sad or happy. I have power over myself. What would you choose – to be sad or happy? Or at least calm.”
Penguin responded without thinking: “Of course, I’d choose to be happy, or at least calm. But how?”
“Have you been happy before? Told jokes? Played? Read books? Chatted with your friends? Watched cartoons? Played games?”
“Yeah…” muttered Penguin.
“That’s how you stay cheerful, don’t let yourself be changed. Keep being just the way you like to be.”
“But I’m prison, aren’t I!?” said Penguin.
“Yeah, so what? Right now, we’re sitting and having a chat. Right this second. Are you enjoying our conversation?”
“It’s better than thinking about how bad I feel. I’m enjoying it.”
“So you’re feeling okay now?”
“Mm-hmm. Probably, I guess, but later…”
“There isn’t a later! Think about now! Enjoy every moment. Look, here’s a low-calorie biscuit.”
“It gets better!” said Penguin, munching on the biscuit.
“And you can create even more little pleasures; think on them and concentrate on them,” said Daddy, as he took a biscuit himself. The last biscuit of the day.
“Do I have to eat biscuits all the time?” Penguin wondered. “Won’t I get fat? That’s unhealthy.”
Daddy smiled. “Read if you enjoy it. Get to know the people around you. Treat them the way you want to be treated. Make jokes. Write letters to your friends.”
“But I want to play on my iPad.”
“Well, you don’t have an iPad. So choose. Do you want to sit there all miserable, or would you prefer to read an interesting book?”
“A boooook!” shouted Penguin, as he flapped his wings.
“Here you go.” Papa had taken a book out from under his mattress.
Penguin read the title: Papa and Penguin!
Adelia, hi. If you liked this story, please draw the penguin :) I love you and miss you so much. Dad.
Letter 2: Penguin’s Wings
Wheezing, panting, grunting, groaning…
“Breathe in, breathe out.” Penguin was doing rhythmic push-ups. His right wing and leg were on the bed on the right; his left wing and leg were on the bed on the left. As he breathed in, Penguin lowered himself below the second tier of the bunk beds, hovering at a height of just under two meters. The grey and yellow walls of the cell flashed before his eyes like a reproduction of Kazimir’s Malevich’s ‘Red Cavalry Riding’ and a boring programme on TV. Penguin liked to work out on the second level of the bunk beds – the cell was cramped, with 12 prisoners aside from him in the room, which was slightly bigger than a child’s room.
“200,” exhaled Penguin. “And tomorrow, I’ll do push-ups, and after that, bar work.”
“You’re doing a great job,” said Papa. “You’ll be the first jock-penguin :)”
“A gym bunny!” the others joked.
During their assigned walking time, Penguin and Papa paced nonstop from wall to wall. To the guards above, they must have looked like zombies flailing around the little courtyard in desperation :) The cement walls are in bad condition, and there’s a lattice overhead, and a few green leaves higher up along the walls. Sometimes good things can grow, even in cement.
“I wish I could make my wings big enough to fly,” Penguin said dreamily as they reached their ten-thousandth step. Papa remained tactfully silent as a response. He turned his face up towards the sun’s rays which had made their way through the lattice.
“I know I can’t fly. But I won’t crawl either,” Penguin continued.
“You’ll get better. And movement and improvement make life better,” answered Papa.
In the evening, lying on his bed before going to sleep, Papa decided to continue: “It’s like with goodness and light. Darkness and boredom all around. But you’re doing something good. Even a little thing. Acts of kindness. And the light gets stronger. The world changes. Even if the change is not as quick as everyone would like.”
“Is that how you build a nest out of a bunch of tiny useless pebbles?” Penguin was asking for clarification.
“Sort of :)” grunted Papa, and he fell asleep.
A few days later, a neighbour approached Papa and Penguin, who were doing some intense push-ups and panting heavily.
“Can I try?”
The neighbour climbed up and, panting even more vigorously than Papa and Penguin, was only able to do five push-ups.
“Don’t worry, don’t give up! Try to do more, and you’ll be able to do even more than me,” Penguin encouraged his neighbour, who was bright red, and dripping with sweat. After a couple of weeks, more than half the cell had started to join in on their workouts.
The neighbour, Papa, and Penguin were drinking coffee. The neighbour was chewing on an unsweetened, but still tasty biscuit, given to Papa by his mother-in-law. “I haven’t done anything in 10 years. And today I feel better. I wrote a letter to my son, telling him I’d started working out,” recounted the neighbour contentedly. “I should take up English too.”
The sadness seemed to clear a little. The bleak wasted time was gone. But Penguin still couldn’t fly. Penguins can’t fly. Another month passed. Penguin’s term had been extended by two months. He climbed up the bunk beds. “I’m going to do 300 push-ups,” he thought. And when half of his cellmates, who had been taking their turns to do their own push-ups with him, finally decided to rest, one of his new friends said: “I heard you want to fly. When we get out of here, you can come to me. I’ll teach you how to fly a glider. And then maybe you can learn to fly a plane. You’re a persistent guy.”
Letter 3: The Penguin and the Frame
“What shall we have with our tea?” asked Penguin.
“Hmmm…. Biscuits or chocolate brownies?” asked Papa.
“What’s healthier?” asked Penguin, with a sigh, as he looked at his waist.
“Well, cookies are 10% unhealthy, and brownies are 90% healthy,” laughed Papa.
“Brownies, then!” His companion was decisive.
Papa let him enjoy the moment. And when Penguin reached for a second piece of brownie, he asked him: “Why did you choose the brownie?”
“Don’t you know that 10% unhealthy and 90% healthy mean the same thing?”
“Oops. How did that happen?”
“You fell for the framing effect. It’s an effect of formulation. Often our decision is a result not of what we want, what is correct, or what we like more, but how the question is asked.
“So what do we do, how do we not get caught in that trap?”
“Be careful and think :) So you don’t get manipulated.”
“Can I have a biscuit? I prefer them.”
“Of course, here you are. And I like brownies more.”
“And what are we having for lunch?”
“A salad. 100% healthy. :)”
“Great! I’m getting sick of these biscuits. :)”
Check out the new story :) Have a great time celebrating your mum’s birthday. I love you and miss you a lot. Hugs! And give Ursh a hug too!