Reader’s note: Larysa Kuzmenka is a 50-year-old former employee of Gomeloboi, the largest wallpaper company in Belarus. Larysa was sentenced to two years in prison for, in the words of the prosecution, grabbing “a riot policeman by the hand, thus hindering his work”. She has not admitted guilt and has refused to testify. Larysa was diagnosed with a depressive disorder and experiences claustrophobia, making imprisonment especially difficult. She has called her cell in the pre-trial detention centre “gas”.
On 6 August 2021, Larysa was arrested at her workplace. After being interrogated, she was placed in a temporary detention facility for three days. On 9 August, the prosecution brought charges under Art. 364 of the Criminal Code (violence or threat of violence against an employee of the internal affairs bodies) for the fact that she “with brute physical force took Petrov P.P. by the hand, thereby displaced him from his place and did not allow him to work, and third parties committed violence against Ivanov I.I.”
From giving tips to Matvei as to how he can strengthen his legs to be “strong, courageous and hardy” to requesting updates in relation to his kindergarten, friends and toy collection, her letters, sent to her daughter and grandson, Matvei, reveals a grandmother and mother desperate to still be able to play a role in her family’s life even from behind bars.
In her letter to her daughter (Matvei’s mother), Larysa requests updates as to her friends and family, and the health of Matvei, even offering her own remedies to establish a connective thread between her and her life that has been robbed from her. The reality of imprisonment is never far from these letters. Larysa shares a list with her daughter of supplies she would like in her next care package, including food items and specific types of soap. Throughout these letters we get a clear picture of the tensions between the worlds inside and out and the steps needed to ensure that those in prison are able to continue to play a role in the lives of those closest to them.
Letter to Matvei
Hello my beloved grandson,
Today is Saturday, September 23, 2022, the twenty-third of September two thousand and twenty-two.
I miss you very much; when I get home, we will play hide and seek, and assemble jigsaw puzzles, and draw, and write. Will you do this with me? My beloved grandson, please walk on your toes. This is to strengthen your legs, especially your feet, so that they are firm and strong, and your legs won’t hurt. You are our boy, and this is very important for boys: to be strong, courageous and hardy. And it is especially necessary to talk to dad and mom, share your feelings that disturb and excite you. You have to be honest and fair. I love you very much, I miss you.
You go to kindergarten: how do they treat you there? Do you like going to kindergarten? If you like it, tell me (let your mom write to me), and if you don’t like it, then also tell me why. Do you know any letters, what numbers do you know, what toys do you have, what clothes do you like to wear? I really want to know that. What footwear do you wear now? Yes, one more thing, my dear: you need to wear comfortable shoes so that your legs do not hurt. There should be an arch support in the shoes; ask your mother what it is; let her show you this so that you know.
I really like it when you draw for me. My beloved grandson, what game do you like best, how are your friends, maybe there are any new ones? Ask your mother to write me a letter on your behalf. Kissing you, my dear grandson.
I love and miss you very much.
Hello, my beloved daughter and grandson,
Today is Sunday, November 06, 2022. This is probably my 73rd letter. :) I’m not sure about the sequential letter number. :) I miss you all very much. Yesterday, I was thinking about Vova, Ira, and Masha [family and friends of Larysa]. How are they? Write me a letter. Regarding the parcel, I’m writing to you so that you do not send me soap products; maybe, send me toothpaste only. Don’t send me things I don’t mention in the letters. I still have many disposable pads; I have soap, too. Maybe, I’ll write a list of what I need tomorrow. I just can’t organise my thoughts; here we always have a lot of people, and I feel for them, and I can’t focus my attention.
How is Matvei [Larysa’s grandson]? How is his health? He does not cough, does he? If he coughs, then warm up his back with a lamp, massage him. Do this in the evening; steam his feet; this is also very helpful; and warm up his throat; and his runny nose and his cough will be gone. Please write back with what you do to him so that his illness, his cough, will go away. I’m worried about you and especially about Matvei.
There are so many rumours about everything that is happening, and the news on TV. God help me. I am very worried about you. How is Yura? Grandfather? What about your car and my clothes washer? Maybe auntie Ira will help with the washer, talk to her. Maybe Masha’s Aleh and uncle Valera. Ask them, explain the situation.
Today is Monday, November 07, 2022. I’ll write to you with what we call the “Psychological Bulletin” [this is a magazine from which Larysa shared an article with her daughter]. I like what it publishes. I want you to read it and keep it for yourself, just in case, you will be re-reading it. I introduced my thoughts there about the fact that erroneous thoughts also had the right to be. The last thing: “and it can also be erroneous, but it has the right to be.”
I added what I wanted. I’ve not made up the list of what I need yet. But most importantly, I want fresh lard with meat, dry-cured meat, like the one you brought for a date; I liked the sausage, which they allowed me to get. But I want lard with meat more, and I want meat. Toothpaste — one tube; one soap for washing panties / household soap; maybe green soap that you used to send me or white soap, but not the usual brown soap, which smells bad. You used to send me green household soap. But if you cannot find it, then buy white soap. One, maximum two pieces. I have toothbrushes, razors too. Girls say that hair balm is allowed. And also anti-dandruff shampoo, but only a small jar. Otherwise, I have too many things. I do have hair dye. I’ll write or send you a picture of what eyebrow dye to buy; it’s good. However, you have to order it on the internet; it is not in stores. But look for it: maybe you’ll find it. I have perfume soap, I don’t need more. I’m just writing to you now. I’ll attach the list to my next letter.
My little daughter, I kiss and hug you. I miss you. I love you. Say Hi to grandfather. And to everyone. Yura, Vova, Ira, Natalia. Pass it on to everyone.
Kiss Matvei for me.