Reader’s note: Ivan Datsyshyn, known to his family and friends as Vanya, is a 21-year-old student of radiophysics and computer technology at the Belarusian State University. On the night of 11 August 2020, two days after the highly disputed presidential election, Ivan witnessed the detentions of protesters on Dzerzhinsky Avenue in Minsk. In an effort to force the authorities to leave and not detain people, he allegedly threw a stone at the police bus.
Ivan was taken into custody on 30 October 2020, accused of “participating in riots” under article 293 of the criminal code. In Maskoŭski District Court Ivan fully admitted his guilt and two police officers, who were presented as victims, said they had no claims against him. However, on 18 March 2021, Ivan was found guilty and sentenced to four years in a medium-security penal colony.
The letters below are to his mother and his friend Dashka. Ivan talks about the rhythm of his life in detention, down to the food deliveries, watching prison dramas on prison TV, the books he can access and the ways he and the other inmates pass the time. Reading the work of literary greats (or Mastodons, in Ivan’s words) and Solzhenitsyn, as well as learning about the development of animation studio, Pixar, or working to improve the food offered by the prison, the letters show someone offering both courage and comfort to their family, while also trying to navigate the uncertainties as to what will happen to them.
The first trial just happened. I don’t even know what to say about it. Most of my thoughts were about seeing you, Dad, my sisters, Yura, and Nastya. And in the matters of the court case, everything is generally clear. We’ll see, but we will end up having to wait :)
They didn’t transfer me into a new cell. I think this will happen at the end of the trial.You could say it’s not possible. There’s only the option of me requesting to not have my things picked up if I go back to the old cell.
Everything’s okay here. I’m persevering. Just don’t be upset. Perhaps when you see me behind bars, you will get very sad, but that is complete nonsense. So what, it’s just a cell. Things would nearly be the same without a cell. Just imagine it as you being called to the director’s office for my bad behaviour at school. There was no such event like that, but here we had to go, only a little late. Don’t cry, everything will be fine. Don’t you know this? Of course you know it. So remind yourself of this every time you get sad.
Salmon was delivered again today. And a real fresh carrot came in! We make vegetable salad almost every day. The ingredients are tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, peppers, cabbage, and olive oil or mayonnaise. Sometimes even cheese, but that was a while back. Sometimes Charlotka [apple cake] and other homemade things get delivered.
Now I’m reading a book about the development of Pixar, about their business model, their growth strategy in difficult conditions, but with innovative technology and access to an IPO, or initial public offering. It’s a very interesting book, I finished it in one day. Today they brought in a list of products for broth. The prices have risen unbelievably. I’ve come to understand that this situation is the same outside of prison. Now I have access to a sufficient number of informative newspapers: they bring subscriptions of New Hour, Intex Press, Belarus and the Market, and of course, CB, aside from any scientific journals such as National Geographic and cultural publications such as the history section in Nasha Niva, when I move, I’ll have to subscribe to something new, so that I can at least have some kind of information, but this will be later.
We will see each other again soon, everything will be alright. Please remember that I am not a criminal or a bad person. If that were the case, then you would indeed have a reason to be upset. This is my path and it’s hard to say exactly where it will lead me, but it won’t change me for the worse. This is all just time, and I’m sure it won’t be long.
I love you very much Mama, and I await our next meeting.
Kisses, your Vanya.
I am very saddened by the fact that my last letter, which I sent around 10 March, didn’t reach you. It was long and detailed, and fun. I drew an owl, according to your request, and told my interesting riddles and stories, and I was pretty confident that you would like it all. I think they just threw it all in the trash because it never came back to me. In my last monologue, I described my life in the Minsk pre-trial center, the time when I went on a short trip around Belarus, where the first stop was the city of Baranovichi. I’ll try to rewrite the approximate content of my lost manuscript first, and then I’ll tell you about how existence is for me in this new place. First thing’s first: the owl, last time it turned out better, I swear!
Let me tell you about my past and current acquaintances, especially since you asked me to talk about people. In fact, even in such a confined space, one can sense the differences in people according to their places of residence. In Minsk, I’m accompanied by students, pensioners, lawyers, managers, programmers (but all of these professions fade into the background when a cook or hairdresser joins our cell.) In Baranovichi, more than half the residents in my cell were potential tourists of the medical and labour dispensary. Over the past three months in Minsk, we’ve developed a cool atmosphere, which I will miss a lot. We developed our own jokes and rituals, and went through various adversities and philosophical experiences together. We quit smoking together (we only lasted a month), played sports, and we found ways to improve prison rations, or create our own unique dishes from our limited list of permitted foods. And of course, we watched the Turkish TV series Inside on the Belarus 2 channel. But this is a separate [illegible in original] (or a kind of masochism). While it was cold, our walks became an intellectual exercise, in which we talked about the questions from the free-thinking viewers on What? Where? When? [a popular Russian TV game show]. Everyone also played yes-no, and pub-quiz.
The library in Minsk [a previous detention facility] was good. As I understand it, it’s periodically supplied with various literature, thanks to volunteers. I even managed to get a couple books in English. In Baranovichi, the choices are more limited – apart from the artistic classics, it’s difficult to find something. So far, I have collected “mastodons” [literary heavyweights] and Solzhenitsyn, so there is something to read. In Minsk it was difficult to get books from you, but in Baranovichi, it seems they can be sent by post. This route hasn’t been tested yet but if it works I will be able to continue my studies through posted textbooks. Has your interest in poetry continued? The poem by Larysa Geniyush, which you have shared with me – I have quoted it three times already in my previous letters. It was quite inspiring to me.
Dinner should be brought in any minute now. There is a category of people who, on their life journey, want to comprehend the art of cooking. What they don’t know is that there is an art of improving cooking, which is turning it from semi-edible to exquisite, which can only be learned here. And the worse the base for the dish is, the more incredible the result is. The main additions to the meals are nuts, condensed milk, and – I forgot the names of the multicolored kind of marmalade-dried fruits (again possibly a manifestation of this slight perversion [fixating on unattainable things while in prison]) – for breakfast, mayonnaise, seasoning, and for dinner, vegetables. The improvement of the initial concoction takes place individually in accordance with the individual tastes of each cook. Sometimes there is a complete transformation: red fish into an exquisite panini or fish pie, watery puree into a meat stew. All in all, we are only limited by imagination and the list of permitted ingredients.
Breaking news! A couple weeks ago, for the first time in half a year, I was able to taste real cola again. Yes, even a thing like that is news here, such as, for example, our delight with the fact that on Easter they brought us seven brown eggs with the words, “Christ is Risen”. That was entertaining.
Dashka, I think you no longer have to worry about the delivery of your letters, and you can send them all in one envelope. I can already see that this letter is getting a little superficial and is becoming about the more trivial part of my experience here. Ask all the questions that interest you, and we will dive deeper into the comprehension of prison life through the eyes of a young student.
It’s very pleasant to know I’m not forgotten, and that I am still a part of [the] elective [a class that Ivan took prior to his detention], and the entire independent student community. It’s cool that I can say that I became part of it after meeting you, because you were also one of the first.
From this letter, we can conclude that if you ask the universe something, sometimes you can still get an answer. I’m certain now that there won’t be any more communication errors. I look forward to hearing about your movies and new virtual hugs. I will be eager to answer them virtually (some kind of virtual exchange :) Thank you for being here for me.
Until we meet!