Political prisoners

“We’ll get Katya out, hang in there.” Interview with the husband of political prisoner Katerina Bakhvalova (Andreeva)

Journalist Katerina Bakhvalova (Andreeva) was first convicted for streaming for two years (they were tried together with journalist Daria Chultsova), and then sentenced for another eight years. For journalism. Katerina is the face of independent journalism. Belarusians know her for her very interesting broadcasts and professional materials.  We are contacted by released pals who tell us that it is very difficult for Katerina in the colony.

We talked to Katya’s husband, journalist Igor Ilyash. It was a very personal interview about what it was like to wait for your loved one from jail.

Igor and Katya had a total of 9 visits: Eight short and one long. The last time the couple saw each other was at the end of September 2022. It was a standard non-contact visit through the glass and phone.


What did Katya ask you to bring her on a long date?


A few dresses, cosmetics, beautiful lingerie, various goodies, Brodsky’s poems, and Nasha Gistoria magazines. In general, everything that should recreate a sense of normalcy.

They say that a long date looks exactly like life before.

In part, yes. We settled in very quickly during a long date. I made dinner, my signature dish, a tortilla with vegetables and chicken. At one point the atmosphere was so idyllic that I thought: even in this tiny room we could be moved away from people, away from the darkness around us, and we wouldn’t need anything else, just the two of us.


How does it feel to hold a loved one after so many days apart?


In fact, it is a very delicate moment from a psychological point of view. A person who is in prison is almost completely deprived of positive tactile contact. For a prisoner, tactile contact is usually associated with something bad, with threat, perhaps even pain. So when we met during a long visit in August 2021, Katya couldn’t get used to my embrace for the first half hour-it involuntarily caused her fear, she shut down, clenched up. We overcame this quickly, but still: hugging a loved one after a long separation is primarily a process of getting used to.


Has Katya changed a lot? The question is not about her physical condition, but her moral one.


Of course, there is an enormous moral fatigue and exhaustion – she admits it herself and it can also be seen in her letters. If we’re talking about any deeper internal changes, it’s hard to judge now, it will become clear only when we’re together in freedom. Katya thinks she has changed a lot. She recently read the novel “The Plague” by Albert Camus in prison. She says it’s her favorite book now, it’s very much in tune with her worldview at the moment. So Katya was most moved by the final scene, where the epidemic retreats and the train arrives with her loved ones: the wife rushes into the arms of one of the characters, and he still does not understand whether it is the person he knew, or he “sees a stranger in front of him. Katya is a little afraid that in the end, after all she has been through, she will seem like some kind of stranger to her loved ones. But I’m sure that in the most important respects, Katya certainly hasn’t changed. Whatever trace the prison left behind, it can all be gradually overcome – with love, tenderness, and care. And we will overcome it all.


Katya wrote that she would do anything to keep prison from penetrating her. What do you think she meant by that?


Katya was talking about the fact that in the camp often human values change beyond recognition. And it’s very important not to let this ugly world in, not to accept these rules of the game. In one of her letters, in the summer of 2021, she wrote: “I firmly know that the right present is there, not here. And it’s also inside me. And decency, warmth, compassion cannot be etched from my soul by any deadline. I will never live by the principle “don’t believe, don’t be afraid, don’t ask,” I am an “open-minded person” who cannot seek petty gain, intrigue, flatter the top of the food chain and peck at the bottom.


They say that when a person’s loved one or loved one goes to prison, the person automatically shuts down and is in his or her own circle. Is this true?



Yes, it’s exactly like that. And it’s good if there is at least some inner circle in which one can close oneself off. We live in an age in which human destinies are grinded up by the thousands, when the very environment in which you used to live is washed away. The friends and colleagues who made up your social circle are now either in prison or in exile. Therefore, you often have to close yourself off, and sometimes this makes you feel like some kind of hermit. To live in Minsk today is to walk through a dead city where you have almost no acquaintances left. When you suddenly meet someone from your past life, you are genuinely puzzled: “Oh, how did you get here?


Is it safe to say that when a loved one is in jail, his family is in jail with him?


Certainly, when a loved one is in prison, it is a huge ordeal. It is a kind of moral torture. Still, one should not put the experience of political prisoners and their loved ones on the same level. It is immeasurably more difficult for those behind bars. If only because they are forced to spend 24 hours without interruption in an extremely hostile environment.

It is much easier for those who remain on the outside. Today, the relatives of political prisoners in Belarus are not outcasts, but quite the opposite. For example, Katya’s relatives regularly encounter complete strangers – in a store, a hairdresser’s or a clinic – expressing their solidarity, saying words of support, trying to support them. People also regularly come up to me on the street to shake my hand and tell me that they are very worried about Katya. But political prisoners are deprived of these expressions of humanity and solidarity.


Tell us, what does Katya like, besides journalism?


Katya likes traveling (but not active, but contemplative), books, music and movies. Sitting on the beach with a book, music in headphones and a glass of wine is probably the best vacation for us. Katya wrote that after her release, she wants first of all to go to Paris – “because it’s the city of love, and love overflows to the brim” – and then to go to the English Channel coast and lie on the beach there.


Does she ask you to send her news?


Of course she does. Katya really suffers from information hunger. She even subscribes to the SB and even the Miinskaya Prauda, trying to get hold of some particles of information and read the propaganda as a coded message.  In the summer she wrote: “I rarely talk about it, but I really miss the work. The process itself: I often imagine an open notebook, a white sheet on the screen, my fingers touching the keyboard… I miss the lens, the microphone in my hand… I believe there are unforgettable events and great professional achievements ahead of us, but I will also keep in my memory the feeling that we were jumping into a minibus and rushing to some district center, opening the office doors, sitting late at night to write a text, and toasting the success of the material. I had a great start, even a little crazy for a 21- to 22-year-old, and the sequel was worthy of such a start.


When Dasha was released, were you sad?


I have to admit, I approached that day with a slight fear – I thought I would be very reflexive. But it went much easier than I thought it would. We went to meet Dasha with colleagues, a fun company, and I was able to distract myself from difficult thoughts. Well, and Dasha herself cheered me up. Her first words when we hugged were these: “We’ll get Katya out, hang in there. It’s clear that Dasha has no power to get anyone out of jail, but the fact that this was the first thing she spoke about after her release – well, that was a very powerful moment. So this existential date, September 3, I got over it pretty calmly. After all, why should it be sad at this moment? A man getting out of prison is a joy, after all. That’s the only way to take it.


Can you imagine the day of her release?


I guess the more time passes, the harder it is to imagine this moment. But, of course, thoughts of it often come up. For some reason, this is the image that sticks out to me. There is a very touching and funny movie – “Joe-Joe Rabbit”. Katya and I saw it just in 2020. It is a movie about a boy and a girl in Hitler’s Germany. The girl hides from the Nazis in the attic all through the war and at the very end, when peace comes, she is finally able to go outside with the boy. They go out together, look around, see Nazi flags lying on the ground and the Allies have won. They look at each other in silence and then, realizing that they are finally free, start dancing right on the street. I wrote in one of my letters to Katya: why don’t we meet the moment of liberation that way, too? Let’s just start dancing. Katya supported my idea:)

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