From Prison Notebooks. THE BROWN NOTEBOOK

From Prison Notebooks. THE BROWN NOTEBOOK

By Aleś Bialacki
Translation: Jim Dingley


There was just the final school to be visited[1]. I am going from home to Rakaǔ. I’ve put the empty glass jars in my rucksack. The Metro station – in front of the Viasna office I am warned that there some people hanging around, so I go back (just in case).

I thought that maybe it’s just another routine search[2].

A little bloke stops me on the Round Square[3]. He shows me his ID, his hands are trembling. There’s a whole team waiting in the yard. They show me the warrant for my arrest.

We go upstairs. They conduct their search. They find the petty cash, I hand over my lanyard with a flash drive[4].

There are two guys in black ski masks and all the rest of their riot gear, and a cop in civvies (his jeans are torn) filming. He threatens Adam[5]. They take some papers, the petty cash, a notebook that belongs to Adam’s girlfriend and a hard drive from the loo[6].

Then there was an odd search in Viasna. They seized the TV, the xerox and the fax machine in our apartment. They took a few sheets of paper, but left the old notebooks that were lying inside the sofa[7].

I’m driven off to the KGB “office” (HQ). First interrogation. I refuse to make a statement. I am taken off to “sleep” in Kolas Lane[8]. I’m driven there in an unmarked car. Minsk on an August night.

They put me in the “monkey house”, the cell in the Internal Affairs building. The benches are narrow. There are some drunken lads there already, they had smashed some lighting in a bowling alley. They’re shouting and making threats, the fuzz have got skin like an elephant’s. They are let out three hours later, at night. I get some sleep.

We go back in the morning. Second interrogation. I acknowledge the accounts, I tell them that the income is not mine. They inform me that there is a Polish account. Everything goes black. We go out into the corridor. It becomes easier to breathe

I think to myself: so they have dared shut us down after all. So, no more neutrality, then[9].

They took me straight to the ‘Valadarka’[10], not to Sapper Street[11]. They tell me it’ll be better that way – things won’t be dragged out.

The ‘Valadarka’ gate, I’m handed over to the prison authorities, I have a blood test and an x-ray. I’m given a skin test. Now to the store room to hand my things over.  The whole time there’s a chubby chap with me who’s fallen foul of the Financial Affairs Investigation Department – something involving shady dealings with salami and selling it on to Russia.

They hand me a mattress, a blanket and a ‘zečka’ (aluminium mug). They take me up to the second floor, cell 22.

I’m told to put my mattress on my bunk. The senior inmate asks questions and explains how things are. My spot is by the window, there are sixteen bunks, two ventilators, I’m number sixteen in the cell. Someone shows me how to use the light switch in the toilet, and where I should eat. I do more looking and taking note of things.

Sakub[12]. He’s charged under the same article of the Criminal Code as me, §243 (tax evasion), he’s a builder. “There’s a lot of us here,” he says, and laughs. Young hackers, company directors, an Iranian doctor learning German. Organised fuss. I have no appetite. I’m slow cleaning my teeth. There’s a bit of shouting. My first exercise period.


Exercise: leave the cell, clanking of keys, “Let’s be having you!”. Descent to the castle basement level. A quick description: vaulted ceilings, disused cells, somewhere on the left there’s another corridor…[13] We walk on, hands behind our backs, then there’s the way out to the door for the tower, we go on past it. Straight ahead are the tiny exercise yards nos. 1-10, the ones numbered above that are to the right. Weeds, catkins, crudely plastered walls, brick floor in the corner of one of the yards, wire mesh and bars, sky, leaves, bench. In the summer I do press-ups and squats, in the autumn we walk. We take bottles of water with us to get the muscles working. In the tiny yards there are puddles that cover half the ground surface. The radio comes on loud at 3pm.

At weekends our exercise period is before lunch, it’s after lunch on weekdays.

You can talk more freely out in the exercise yard; it’s more difficult to listen in to conversations, but still possible.

I take deep breaths because my head is aching the whole time. There are different kinds of stickers on the walls – one wall has a little green flower stuck to it. Our exercise period is long, we come to an agreement about the time the period lasts and about the best yards. In one of the yards there’s an iron hatch. I joke: just right for nipping outside for a bit of freedom and coming back.

I joke: “I bet that if you kick the wall hard, it will shudder and fall… Freedom!” I added this at the top of my voice.

From the yard we can see the gable end of the wing where they keep the women and the juveniles.

One time a shouting match broke out between senior prison officers and their juniors. There were three groups of inmates being taken for their exercise period, and they all came together in the basement corridor. One of the junior officers yells: “What do they want for the amount of money we get…”

It’s a dry autumn.

The corners of the yards are bespattled; the walls are studded with used matches and dog ends.

Max[14] and I are walking together, and I’m telling him: “Here we are, walking along the Avenue[15]. We’re going towards the Circus.” Max asks: “Where are we going next?”

I pretend I’m strolling around the city. Sometimes I talk to myself.

If there are too many people to go walking, they just go out into the yard and simply stand there.


Scraping sound of the food hatch at 5.30am, half-an-hour later at weekends.

Black bread, white bread if you’re on a diet.

There are prison officers who force us to get up and get busy, but otherwise we sleep.

I’m OK, I have a mattress and a blanket.

Others have it worse, and some have two blankets.

8am – cell inspection (or whenever).

Afterwards (or beforehand) – breakfast.

Then we do whatever we want. Some sleep, others read or write.

Off to court – either early at 6.15am or at 8.30am.

Start preparing lunch at 12.30pm. At 1.30pm – lunch.

2.15pm – exercise until 4pm, then obligatory tea.

6.30pm – start preparing supper.

8pm – cell inspection.

10pm – lights out.

About 11am – nurse.

Before lunch – injections.

Before and after lunch – defence lawyer.

9am on Mondays – shower.

11.30am – letters.

12.30pm – newspapers.

After lunch – distribution of ‘boars’ (parcels).

7pm – back from court. On Wednesdays – distribution of medicines, perhaps watches or other items.

Once a week – whole-prison inspection by the bosses.


Diet: groats, pearl barley, split peas, milk soups (with groats or macaroni), potatoes, ‘kisiel’ (thickened fruit drink), milk, cabbage.

Our own exclusive soups and salads.

Immersion water heater, spoons, plates.

A ‘boar’ has arrived (someone has received a parcel).

‘Zečka’, ‘viaslo’, ‘šliomka’ (mug, spoon, bowl).

Cold water, water purifier.

List of what the prison shop has for sale (for the inmates’ own money) – sweets, meringues, butter, chocolate, mineral water, loo paper, wafer biscuits.

What the ‘boar’ brings – meat, ‘salo’ (cured pork fat), frankfurters, buckwheat, rice.

There’s no fridge (anyone who asks for one is going to go ‘for a ride’ – that means he’ll be moved from cell to cell).

Black tea, green tea (Chinese), my coffee and the local “Jockey” brand of coffee.

Russian tablets with a sell-by date seven months ahead.

Dried milk.

For the court – a bar of chocolate, wafers, water. A prison official hands to me personally the things I have ordered from the prison shop.

Bread, both prison and freedom varieties.

Various soup recipes. Green veg is something I don’t boil.

We put Ihar Azaronak’s[16] diet – meat, fresh or tinned – into the soup.

Azaronak’s diet in the morning – butter, sliced meat or salami from his food parcels. (“We’ll say ‘thank you’ to our relatives, not us.”)

In the first little food parcels – “mistakes” (the kind of stuff we don’t much need): water, bread.

Max didn’t get any parcels. I wrote home for him to get some, and Natalia handed them in.


‘Dalniak’ (the far place) – the loo, shielded by shower curtains with little fish.

‘Škonka’ – bunk, on the other side of the wall.

‘Kešary’ (bags in which prisoners keep their personal things), yellow communal table, walls, white ceiling, concrete floor finished to look like tiny white pebbles.

There are compartments beneath the communal table.

There’s a shelf with medicines, books and a television, sweets and thread, and a nightstand with supplies inside. The teapot and the water purifier stand on it. When we cook, we replace the water purifier with a ‘kamaz’ (plastic container) and put the immersion water heater in it to heat food. Sometimes the ‘kamaz’ may get burnt through, and then we have to weld the hole by wrapping a plastic bag around the immersion heater and allow the melting bag to drip into the hole and so seal it.

We cover up the night light.

There’s food on the window ledge, between the bars. There are bottles of water in the corner.

The radiator on which we dry our clothes.

We exercise by using the bars above the door.

We managed to turn the radio off once and for all by using a stick.

Tin cistern with a prong at the end of which there is an old toothpaste tube screw top that you have to push upwards to allow the water to come out. There’s also a tub and small dishes for soap. Tooth brushes stand in old plastic water bottles that have had their tops cut off.

On the wall hang the prison rules and regulations.

The inmates’ bags are underneath the bunks.

We wash and sweep up the cell once every other day.

The telly comes from Viciebsk. It’s small and kept switching off. It’s been sent for repair.


I write a lot, it’s possible here, the conditions allow it.

For the first two months I read and studied English.

Then I got down to dealing with the matter at hand.

I write to others that I have become a better, purer person; Ginzburg[17] describes what is going on inside me, but the conditions in which I am living are easier than hers, and I am older. Even so, you can’t do anything bad here, because there’s no way you could, you can’t ask anyone for anything, you can’t come to some kind of arrangement with anyone, and no one makes any demands on you, you’re not obliged to anybody. The brain begins to work more actively, and habits that have withered away find new life. The ability to dream is number one. The absence of strong drink cleanses the brain. The spirit is roused by the primitive way of life. Your sensations are sharpened – you see less variety, but on the other hand your hearing is more acute – for example, you can hear the slightest rustle out on the corridor.

It’s the same with the other inmates. You notice everything. And you too are in full view.

Your innermost feelings come alive – you learn to write letters again, you express your emotions in words.

Your feelings become more complex, keener and more vivid: love, companionship, friendship, dislike, disapproval – all is thrown into greater relief and acquires greater significance when untrammelled by the humdrum routine of every day.

I talk a great deal less than I used to, I think more, I am much more aware, I make greater sense of things. In my innermost being I have become younger. I recall that I felt something similar when I was in my twenties.

I reflect more deeply about my place in life, my “co-ordinates of existence”.

I have begun once again to “really talk to people”, I now have the desire and the time to do so.

I can recall much more of how things were.

After three and a half months I have become more self-assured. I have settled in. I no longer act with restraint in the cell, I talk freely with other people, with the men who bring the food round and with the screws. I have calmed down and no longer look at the world with wild eyes. The ‘Valadarka’ has gradually become home.

In an interview with the poet Hienadź Buraǔkin that I read in the journal Dziejasloǔ he says: “It’s often too late to put things right, the years have flown past. You can’t turn the clock back, and now I find myself thinking more and more frequently and with ever more poignant sorrow, that I should have valued life more, valued the sense of being at one with nature, with my friends and with great literature.”

This is exactly the same feeling as I have now, but I am certain that I will still be able to fix things, to set my life on a more correct path, to live it as it should be lived.

Buraǔkin goes on to say: “My older friends used to tell me how war sharpened their senses, especially when they ended up in hospital after a battle.

I too can put my name to these words. The senses are indeed sharpened when you are sent to prison. And then, so they say, everything passes. So how can this heightened state of awareness be preserved?

My senses were numbed after the trial. Awaiting the trial and sentencing was replaced by waiting for transfer to the prison where I would serve my sentence, which, by all appearances, was soon going to happen.


It has started up again. I remember how I used to dream when I was a boy in school and later in university. Then the pace of life was such that the dreams simply faded away, but now Saša[18] has just written and, without being aware of it, I have begun to dream again. It is becoming something of an obsession, but an attractive one nevertheless. What are my dreams about? About Viasna. So here we are: we have gained legal status, the state has provided us with an office, we’ve begun our work and everyone is counting on us. In addition, Andrej[19] has been talking enthusiastically about Saki, Crimea, about how we could spend a longer period of time there, about the sea, about the mountains, about Novy Sviet or Sudak.

Then there are dreams involving Vilnius and Warsaw,

Or about the cottage in the Naliboki forest, and I’m going mushrooming there in September or August.

And then there’s a dream about how Natalia and I go on holiday somewhere in Turkey, or Spain or Italy and Portugal.

And one about having a party in the Viasna office, and simply talking to Adam or Natalia. And about a nice, warm cosy dive with good beer. And going for walks in the Rakaŭ forest and along Independence Avenue.

I dream of meeting Natalia and Adam in Warsaw, and what we all talk about together in a café somewhere.

I dream of being set free – either from the courtroom, or from here, the ‘Valadarka’, or the penal colony, which is where I’ll most probably end up – and immediately going to my father.

And I have managed to complete my family tree as well.

I dream of us getting together in our home, and all our friends and acquaintances coming too. Of heating up the bathhouse in Rakaŭ and being joined by Siaržuk and Edzik[20].

I dream of sipping a measure of fine cognac. And also about going to the ballet or the theatre or the opera with Natalia.
More and more my dreams are about active relaxation and the possibility of being able to write in peace.

I dream of doing some hard digging in the kitchen garden in Rakaŭ.


[1]     Human Rights Summer Schools organised by Belarusian human rights defenders for young people from Belarus, held in the Belarusian Human Rights House in Vilnius. Four such schools were held in the summer of 2011; I visited three of them. Even though the Financial Investigation Department and the KGB were already taking a keen interest in what I was doing, I was allowed to leave Belarus for Lithuania in the hope that I would stay abroad and not return to Belarus.

[2]     At the exit from the ‘Academy of Sciences’ metro station when I was heading for the Viasna office, I met a colleague from Viasna who warned me that there were some suspicious-looking types hanging around near the office. I decided not to go to the office, so I returned to the metro station and went home. Two searches had been conducted in the office of the Human Rights Centre Viasna, in December 2010 and January 2011. Militia officers had also visited the office on several occasions for reasons that were entirely spurious.

[3]     I was arrested by the entrance to the metro station on the Round Square. [translator’s note: this is the old name; the current name is Victory Square].

[4]     In full view of the officer in charge of the arrest party I passed the flash drive that was hanging round my neck to my wife Natalia. He was really cross but did not dare seize it from her by force.

[5]     Adam is our son.

[6]     I managed to make a phone call when I was being arrested; Natalia and Adam hid the hard drives of two desktop computers in the loo ventilation shaft. They were found during the search. The hard drives were password-protected, and the investigators were unable to use any of the information on them against me.

[7]     After all the searches and confiscations in the Viasna office, my colleagues usually took their notebooks home with them. They hid a couple of old notebooks in the sofa.

[8]     The Internal Affairs Department of the Soviet District of Miensk is situated at 3, Jakub Kolas Lane.

[9]     It became clear right away that my arrest was a political matter.

[10]   [translator’s note] ‘Valadarka’ is the popular name for Miensk Detention Centre no. 1 on Valadarskaja Street, housed in a building called the Piščalaǔski Castle, built as a prison in 1825. It is used primarily to house prisoners on remand awaiting trial or transfer to a penal colony after sentencing. as well as prisoners on death row awaiting execution.

[11]   There is a temporary detention prison here.

[12]   Siarhiej Bukas, the director of the tourist agency Sakub was in the ‘Valadarka’ at that time, awaiting a re-examination of his case.

[13]   This is death row.

[14]   Max is an 18-year old lad from Kurasoǔščyna in Miensk. He has been in the ‘Valadarka’ for almost a year, accused of taking part in a fight.

[15]   [translator’s note] ‘The Avenue’ is Independence Avenue, the broad, main street of Miensk.

[16]   Major General Ihar Azaronak, Commander of the Air Force and Air Defence Forces. He was accused of and subsequently sentenced for taking a bribe. He continued to maintain his innocence.

[17]   [translator’s note] Evgeniya Ginzburg, Крутой маршрут, translated into English as Journey into the Whirlwind.]

[18] Saša Kulajeva – human rights defender, worked in the Federation for Human Rights on Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

[19] Andrej Šembiarecki

[20] My university friends Siaržuk Sys and Eduard Akulin