What a holiday without you?

A St. Valentine’s Day interview with Belarusian political prisoners’ loved ones.

This interview was prepared by the Freedom Postcards initiative in partnership with "A Country to Live in" Foundation. We talked to the loved ones of political prisoners to hear the stories of their relationships and find out about the people who are unfairly behind bars.

"He's the kindest and most caring person I know."  Anastasiya, political prisoner Ivan Datsyshyn's girlfriend

"We used to hang out with the same people and for a long time, we were just party friends. At some point, Ivan wanted us to become more than just friends, but somehow I wasn't ready for that. Eventually, as it always happens, I changed my mind when I realized he could switch to someone else. Once friends asked us if we were dating. I said no, but Ivan said yes. But then we had a conversation about that, and as it turned out, I just didn't know yet. That's how our relationship started," Anastasiya laughs. She’s glad they had been friends before and knew each other as they were.

Ivan loves traveling, including hitchhiking. He is also into literature and programming.

"He's the kindest and most caring person I know. He has an awesome sense of humor, and is also passionate about spontaneous adventures and delicious food. Food is one of the things we both like.” 

In the past, Ivan practiced ballroom dancing and was the Junior Champion of Belarus. In prison, sports, drawing, and reading are his top-3 hobbies. He also practices English and even helps others learn it.

(Drawings from Ivan Datsyshyn's letters. Anastasiya’s archive)

Ivan is currently in the penal colony No. 22, Ivatsevichy. We do not know about the conditions there since he cannot write about that in letters.

"He is missing us but tries not to feel down. Spending 1.5 years in a place where you shouldn't be is wrong. Ivan receives letters mainly from close people, but the communication is unstable. He also receives letters from people he doesn’t know, but those are rare. For example, on Ivan’s birthday, he only received letters from family, although I know for sure that other people sent him congratulations, too."

Letters are still the best way to support Ivan, Anastasiya notes.

"Write letters about anything: travel, new music and movies, scientific discoveries. Ivan also loves the yes/no riddles and all sorts of puzzles (like matchsticks puzzles), so you can send some in your letter. If you do not receive an answer, write again. That’s it."

To send Ivan a letter, use vkletochku.org/en. Choose Datsishin Ivan.

“Even after 14 years together, we can still talk for hours.” Yuliyana, Aliaksandr Stankevich’s wife 

"I got to know Aliaksandr on a dating site almost 14 years ago, when you could still find decent people there," laughs Yuliyana. “We started dating because of our common sense of humor. We have been together for so many years, and we’ve always really liked each other. Even after 14 years together, we can still talk for hours. And yet we do not like romantic stardust. For us, the best romantic dinner is beer and meat,” the wife of political prisoner Aliaksandr Stankevich says.

(Aliaksandr Stankevich’s drawing)

Yuliyana was immediately amazed by the various hobbies of Aliaksandr. 

"He was a reenactor at a Knights Club, and often took part in role-playing games based on various books/movies, such as The Witcher or The Lord of the Rings. As for recent years, unfortunately, Aliaksandr had to work a lot, so he had no time left for hobbies, though he played airsoft and was still into board games. Our eldest son is already 9, they often went to board games and VR clubs together."

Aliaksandr is a great father. Yuliyana says he loves children and, despite the heavy workload, spends a lot of time with them.

“When grandparents could look after the children for us, we would go out together, and could not help visit a pub. Beer and meat, you already know,” grins Juliana. “We have a tradition, visiting the waterpark on Birthdays. Since we were all born in the cold season, a waterpark is the best option. We would spend the whole day there."

Stankevichs love Christmas and Easter and always celebrate them together.

“We have both Catholics and Orthodox in our family, so we celebrate Christmas twice! Unfortunately, COVID made its adjustments. In recent years, the family has split up, my cousin and her husband moved abroad. We are also worried about our grandparents’ health and do not want to infect them. So we celebrate holidays in a small circle."

Yuliyana recalls funny stories involving her husband. Aliaksandr dedicated a drawing to one of these stories.

(Sümeg Castle, Hungary. Drawing by Aliaksandr Stankevich)

“We were resting on Lake Balaton. The place is really impressive! We also forayed into some cities. And so we decided to visit the Castle of Sümeg, well-known in Hungary. It seemed not far, but we needed to get there by train with a transfer, and then on foot. And all would be well if not for July and the heat. I overestimated my abilities. The weather was +35 C, and even hotter inside the train. When we arrived in the town, I was already tired, but we had to go another couple of miles to the Castle on foot, as well as climb the mountain where it’s standing.”

Yuliyana remembers that after they climbed the mountain, she felt exhausted and mad, but Aliaksandr, on the contrary, felt good and encouraged her.

Finally, they reached the Castle. “And it finished me off! “That’s enough,” I told my husband, “I'll stay standing here, in front of the entrance.” He calmed me down and bought the tickets, but I was so mad that I stayed at the gate. Aliaksandr first went to look around the Castle but quickly came back. He said he was afraid to leave me alone because I looked like I was going to throw myself off the cliff! The road back was easier. In the layover, we visited a nice pub at the station. I will remember it for the rest of my life. That’s our romance. Then, the situation has shifted in the right direction and the heat has stopped bothering me so much."

Now, Aliaksandr is in the detention center in Zhodzina, and, given the situation, the conditions there are not so bad, says Yuliyana.

“I regularly receive letters from him. Aliaksandr also receives letters from close people, relatives, and friends. Acquaintances also write to him. Letters are the only way to support Aliaksandr. Thank God, our whole family provides enough care packages for him. But he will be glad to receive your letters and will definitely reply to them."

Yuliyana says she does not need financial support yet, but she doesn't know how life will turn out after the verdict.

Send Aliaksandr some words of support using vkletochku.org/en. He’s Stankevich Aliaksandr.

"Yana is kind, sympathetic, and is always willing to help." Nikita, Yana Pinchuk's future husband

"Our relationship started after we met online. I am a Russian citizen, but when we got to know each other, I lived in Spain, and Yana lived in Russia. As we texted, we started to realize our chats were growing into something more. Without thinking twice, I bought tickets and flew to Yana. What united us was that we both detest injustice. When protests sparked [in Belarus], especially after August 9-11 and all the terrible things that were happening on the streets, I wanted to somehow support Belarusians. I would DM people on Instagram asking for any funds or organizations I could contact to offer help. And quite by chance, I came across Yana. We didn't even discuss the protests, but rather shared our pain. We could not understand why [security officers] would treat people like that."

Just 2 months after Nikita got to know Yana, he proposed to her.

“It’s been a long time [since I proposed], but on February 1 I submitted an application to the registry office to get married in the detention center. Now, we are waiting for permission."

(Yana’s drawing for Nikita; photo from Nikita’s archive) 

"Yana is kind, sympathetic, and is always willing to help if someone needs her. She loves animals, but she is allergic to wool and can't even pet them. She is into self-discovery, and wants to know how the human brain works, what makes people act in one way or another." 

The couple has a special romantic tradition.

"We call it "our little Spain". The Spanish flavor has been haunting us in Russia. I try to put jamon in every care package, so that even in jail Yana can feel "our little Spain". We also loved going to the bay and just sitting there with our arms around each other, looking at the water."

(Photo from Nikita’s archive)

Yana is currently held in Russia’s detention center No. 5, the so-called “Arsenalka”, in St. Petersburg. Russian and Belarusian police authorities work in cooperation, including on protest-related cases. Russia has been neglecting the prohibitions issued by the EHRC and extraditing protesters to Belarus.

"As in any prison, the conditions are far from decent, but let's call them that. They are not bad, though Yana faces health issues, in particular stomach problems, and needs special nutrition. A lot of people write letters to Yana, from Belarus, Russia, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Spain, Finland, Italy, as far as I know, she has received quite a lot of letters already."

(Yana’s open letter. She wrote it to thank everyone who sent her letters, congratulate them on 2022 and wish love, friendship, and all the best. “We shall never surrender.”)

"If you want to support Yana, write letters. They are the best support for people behind bars”

Yana’s future husband organized a fundraiser to support her, you can donate any amount: https://www.tinkoff.ru/cf/117YCP6rvdw 

Send Yana a letter. The easiest way is to use FSIN Pismo, an online platform maintained by Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service. 
Go to the website and use your browser’s built-in translation tool. In Region, select St. Petersburg and LO (Санкт-Петербург и ЛО). In institution/facility, СИЗО-5 Арсеналка. Last name Пинчук, name Яна, year of birth 1997.
Your letter must be in Russian, so translate it. Yandex. Translate might be better with Russian than Google. 

“Yauhen instantly charmed me.” Nina Kharashkevich, political prisoner Yauhen Kharashkevich’s wife 

"I met Yauhen on September 12, 2014, in Polatsk. I saw him at the bank, we looked at each other for a moment while standing in line. I finished up at the bank and went home. When I was crossing the road, I heard someone shouting "Hello!" after me. I turned around and saw Yauhen. I was a little confused as he started asking me questions, like my name or where I was going. Yauhen talked to me so freely that for a second I thought I might know him, but I couldn’t remember. He cleverly got on the right side of me, and I told him my VK [social media popular in Belarus] page," says Nina, the wife of political prisoner Yauhen Kharashkevich.

In the evening, the guy texted Nina and invited her for a walk around Polatsk, offering to show the town.

"I was afraid to go out with a stranger, especially such an assertive one, but Yauhen instantly charmed me and I forgot all precautions," Nina smiles. “I remember how on the next day Yauhen asked me if we could hug. It was so cute! On September 14, we went out again, he took me to a cafe and said he wanted me to become his girlfriend and asked me if I agreed. Of course, I agreed, because by that time I had already fallen head over heels for him. We have been together ever since."

In 2016, the couple moved in together. And already in 2017, Yauhen proposed to Nina and they got married.

"I still don't know what made Yauhen go after me and start that conversation. That day, I felt some warmth and kindness from him, I think. And I admit, I liked Yauhen as he was tall, slender, and his cheeks were cute! At first sight, I knew he was all I needed. That's how it all happened with us."

In his hobbies, Yauhen is like a boy, Nina grins. 

"He loves cars and everything about them. He is also into video games, airsoft. Yauhen and I are cat people, which is why almost as soon as we moved in, we took a cat from a shelter, and in a year, we took another one." 

Nina says Yauhen is not a romantic by nature, but his straightforwardness and temperament are charming in their own way.

"With him, I could never feel bored. We would spend all our free time together and we liked that. We never got sick of each other at all. With Yauhen, we always had something to talk about. He is cheerful, open-minded, and honest. Yauhen and I could talk about anything."

Nina and Yauhen have a lot of stories.

"We had an electric car and once we decided to drive it to Viciebsk [180 miles / 290 km from Minsk] late at night. We got there, but the car wasn’t charged enough for the road back. And Yauhen, using some ridiculous life hacks to extend the battery charge, tried to make the car use what remained of its own power to get us to Minsk. Almost half the way we were moving at 20 km/h, and the car finally stopped under a Built-up area sign. I joked that Yauhen promised to get us home, and, formally, we actually reached (someone’s) home. Eventually, [to charge the car], we had to push it through the ice to a building, it took half an hour. We managed to do it by two in the morning. And our remaining road to Minsk was a real adventure,” Nina recalls. “We drove from one charger to another (and there was very few at the time) for about 16 hours, sleeping in the car. It was fun."

(Drawings from Yauhen’s letters. Nina’s archive)

"He was so happy to see the sky for the first time in forever"

Yauhen was detained on January 18, 2021, and since then his loved ones have not had the opportunity to freely talk to him. When Yauhen was detained, Nina was five months pregnant.

“We both took the separation very painfully. It hurts that we can’t be around for each other and care for our baby girl together. Yauhen was often transferred from one cell to another, placed with strange people in so-called press-khatas [press-khata=sweatbox; cell where prisoners are pressured and, in some cases, tortured]. Yauhen spent 10 days in solitary confinement twice. He lost 20 kilograms in a couple of months. I always felt how difficult it was for him, but I couldn't find the right words to describe it because I didn’t see everything. I felt like I wanted to help him but didn’t know how. I tried my best to make Yauhen feel my love and support, even when I felt depressed, too.

In December 2021, Yauhen was transferred to the penal colony in Shklou. That’s where he is now.

"He was so happy to see the sky for the first time in forever. He likes the food in the colony better than in jail. But he does not share much about his life. In fact, he says nothing, just some common phrases. Probably, he just can’t [because of censorship]”.

Censors do not block letters to Yauhen, though he receives them with delay.

"He gets letters from people he does not know, but I’m not sure if all the letters reach him. He also said, though, that he has practically no time to answer. Even to me, he writes very few letters, 1-2 a month. But he is glad to receive support from the outside. He often sends words of gratitude through me for those who have ever sent him warm letters. In general, letters are the best way to support a political prisoner. A couple of kinds and genuine words never hurt anyone! I will be very glad and grateful if someone wants to support Yauhen. He’s in a terrible situation. He misses his family and his daughter, whom he has never seen or held in his arms."

To send Yauhen a letter, use vkletochku.org/en. Find Kharashkevich Yauhen at the end of the drop-down list.

"When we video call Dzianis, our son takes a soccer ball, stands in front of the phone, and says, "Catch it, Dad!" Yulia Plotnikova, wife of political prisoner Dzianis Ivanou

Yulia is from Russia. She never thought she could marry a Belarusian because she didn’t like the accent some Belarusians have, with [sh] instead of [ch], [h] instead of [g]. 

“I have two children from my first marriage, 19 and 12 years old. I met Dzianis at TV presenter courses. He was there to teach us something about filmmaking. I didn’t understand anything at his lecture, and I still ask him to explain the topic again,” laughs Yuliya. “All the women in my group liked him and I really didn't get it. Dzianis was bald, wore a rumpled jacket and ridiculous pants. He talked in some peculiar, humorous way and everyone laughed, but I didn't like his jokes."

After a while, Yulia and Dzianis made friends online and settled on a date.

"We hung out all night, laughing nonstop. The next day he came back early, peeled tangerines for me, then caressed my heel while reading some stories about penguins. I was just lying, while he fed me and read stories to me – what a life! And the funny thing is that he went to a pick-up master class that night! Then he started texting me, saying he was bored and looking forward to our meeting,” says Yulia. After a week of those texts, she decided to move in with Ivan. “That happened fast. Love, at first sight, is OK, I think."

(Yulia’s archive)

Dzianis’s work was filmmaking, also he loved playing football, says Yulia.

At amateur games, Yulia just stood there watching Dzianis lose goals. “Then, I would try to comfort him and we would go home. As you understand, humor is our language. That's how we live together. We feel comfortable with each other. We had a lot of funny situations. Once, after a romantic evening, we almost burned down the apartment, as the candles suddenly lit up and we had to use a dresser to extinguish them. It happened in a rental apartment, so don't worry," Yulia recalls.

Dzianis and Yulia have a tradition: every New Year they paint their T-shirts. On previous New Year’s Eve, they painted “23.34”, as Dzianis had served an arrest earlier. 23.34 is the article of Code of Administrative Offences thousands of protesters have been convicted under (“violation of the organization or holding of mass events”).

Once Yulia gifted Dzianis a natural-size motorcycle made of balloons. When he came home, he was amazed. I like that Denis knows how to accept any gift, and we never repeat ourselves!"

Not long ago, when Dzianis was already in the facility, he gave Yulia a ring in a box of sweets during her visit. That happened after he had proposed to Yulia.

(Photo from Yulia’s archive)

"We are preparing for our wedding. We already know exactly what it will look like. We only have to wait for the release. Our son is 4 years old and we are not officially married, but that’s more because of me. First, I had already been married, and second, we had a lot of paperwork to do because of different citizenship."

Dzianis is currently in the open-type correctional facility in Viciebsk.

"Initially they wanted to sentence him to two years in penal colony but showed some compassion. I often visit him when I have days off and can afford that. The letters get through to him. On New Year’s Eve, he received a T-shirt from Krumkachy*. On the evening of December 31, the staff brought him 21 letters. A lot of people send letters from abroad, he received one from the British Embassy. Even a pope wrote to him, although Denis is not a believer. He answers every letter. A woman brought me a lot of envelopes [from Dzianis]; some people also gave me postcards [from him]."
*a local football team that publicly supported the protest movement. One of its players, Aliaksandr Ivulin, was sentenced to 2 years in the penal colony.

Yulia says you can support her and Dzianis by texting them sun emojis on social networks.

"We are not asking for any assistance. Our colleagues hire us, and this is enough. We are professionals and have much expertise in our field, so if you need to film a movie, an advertisement, or a clip, feel free to contact us.” By the way, the facility staff knows Dzianis from "Mukhtar", a popular TV show in which he appeared as a character. “A fun story happened when, during an educational conversation with a psychologist [at the facility], they watched a TV show in which I [Yulia] appeared. Everyone knows about us, so when I visit Dzianis, the attendants always ask me about the [shows] we are filming. Dzianis, even from the facility, has already worked on many projects and many do not even realize it. On the set, it’s always me, of course."

The political prisoner is obliged to work at the BelTIZ enterprise as a loader. He earns 211 rubles ($85) a month. 

(Letters from Dzianis’s drawings. Yulia’s archive)

"When we video call Dzianis, our son plays with his dad. He takes a soccer ball, stands in front of the phone, says, "Catch it, Dad!" and hits the ball. While I’m shocked, dad “catches” the ball, and Misha is happy. Misha often draws the sea for his dad. We are waiting for our dad and always visit him together."

To write Dzianis a letter, use vkletochku.org/en. Find him under the name Ivanov Denis.

"Yana is a real Atlantis". Valer, Yana Arabeika’s husband 

(Postcards with Yana’s drawings)

"What I liked about Yana is that she is a real Atlantis. I mean, she looks quiet, but she’s a real BOMBSHELL, you wouldn’t even believe it. She is so beautiful, sincere, creative, willful, temperamental, and strong. You need time and trust to see it all, but Yana really impressed me,” shares Yana Arabeika’s husband Valer.

Valer says his wife loves doing something with her own hands.

"She is into arts. Any needlework, too, DIYs as well. And, of course, she follows youth movements and any action in general."

The couple invented cool nicknames for each other.

"We could only come up with the idea that I am a "potato" and she is a "corn." That’s it. We used to celebrate almost everything that happened in prison. We tried to do something for each other. She would make postcards and drawings for me, and I would bring cool care packages for her. But obviously, it hurts that everything is like this."

Yana is now in the penal colony in Homiel. The conditions there, just like in any other facility, are terrible. That’s why Yana needs support.

"It is important for her to feel that everything is not in vain. She also likes stickers. And some simple fun stuff. But not funny stuff as well, like interesting stories. She's really, really awesome!"

(Freedom postcards with Yana Arabeika’s drawings. Freedom postcards’ archive) 

To send Yana a letter, use vkletochku.org/en. Find Orobeiko Yana.

"Our connection is like magic." Anastasiya, the girlfriend of political prisoner Anton

This interview is anonymous, and the names are changed for security reasons. 

"Anton and I met online in January 2015. We caught a movie but we didn't really like each other. He looked at me like: what a weirdo? And I looked at him the same way. We didn't talk or text until September, and then Anton just asked me out again. We took a walk and somehow that time it felt different. It’s hard to explain, but I told him right away: "We’re going to get married." He was like, "Noooo. I'm not going to get married before 30, it's too early for me." We went out a lot, talked a lot. And a couple of weeks later, on his birthday, I was already sitting in the same room with his mom. I joined his family very quickly and we spent a lot of time together," shares Anastasiya, political prisoner Anton’s girlfriend.

After that, the two started seeing each other daily.

"I know that some couples meet 2-3 times a week. But we used to meet every day. Wherever I was, wherever he was, regardless of work or other issues, we still saw each other every day. The only thing that could separate us was my studies. I used to study in another town and had to go there for exams, but he would make it to me to surprise me. We've always been there for each other."

Anton loves cars and fishing. The girl admits that she liked him for being a real, grown man.

“His mindset is different, he’s been ahead of guys his age. Normally, girls develop faster, and boys, unfortunately, lag behind in terms of some family values, life goals. But Anton was always thought as a grown man. With Anton, we always feel each other even at a distance. I love him so much! I have so many stories from the time he was already in prison. I congratulated him on the New Year, shouting from beneath the walls of the detention center: "Happy New Year!". I shouted once when it was about one o'clock in the morning. I was with my younger sister, we walked away a bit, and stood there for half an hour. I said, "I don't think he could hear us, let’s shout again." We came back, I shouted again, and we went home. And then, a few months later, when I visited him, he told me, "I warned everyone that my girl would come to congratulate me." He added, “I heard you the first time. Then, everyone had already gone to bed, so I warned my cellmates that you would shout again, I knew for sure."

The two keep the mental connection. A story happened on New Year’s Eve, says Anastasiya.

“Before the New Year, I got Belarusian ornament tattooed on my legs. And for the New Year Anton sent me a postcard with the same ornament. Actually, he strongly opposes tattoos, so I live it up while he's away. Later, I tattooed a stork on my arm. And I came home, opened the letter from Anton, and saw a postcard with a stork. I was shocked. Once I saw a peculiar heart on the snow “drawn” by a car pulling over. When I came home, I saw a postcard with two similar hearts."

Even in the worst moments that happen to Anton, Anastasia feels him mentally.

"I remember how I felt that he was in solitary confinement. I couldn’t sleep all night, I was shaking. I felt that something was wrong. So I told the lawyer to find out. She visited him, and he was really in solitary confinement. And in general, I feel all his problems. Family members say our connection is like magic."

Now Anastasiya’s boyfriend is in Mahilou. Anton compares the conditions of his detention with conditions in the army.

“The very fact of why he is there is unjust. But the food there is OK, living conditions are adequate, and his work is not that hard. Once prisoners were sculpting snow figures, and some guys sculpted ones that were just WOW, as he described. Prisoners never dawdle there. Although I know that in many other colonies, prisoners have a lot of spare time. Anton is in a 15-man cell. They have a balanced work schedule and some activities. As Anton says, they are quite exciting. Though we (relatives) can’t imagine the colony: it seems to us that it is terrible, with shabby walls and wooden beds. But the rooms are renovated, there is even a cat who is about to give birth to kittens, in some units, there are even aquariums. Everything is relatively decent."

For security reasons, Anastasiya, who wants to remain anonymous, cannot share her boyfriend’s name and address, but she stresses the importance of letters for other prisoners.

“There is a chance that your letter will pass the censorship. Yet the censors might also be different. I urge everyone to write letters because it is really important. Letters cheer up political prisoners. Anton remembers everyone who wrote him letters, made friends with many of them and maintains connections in letters. And I’m telling you, the people who support Anton will be the VIP guests at our wedding.”

We made these interviews for our special St. Valentine's Day project. This day is a great occasion not only to support political prisoners but also to remember that each and every one of them has family and friends who miss their imprisoned loved one. We also prepared a dedicated set of Freedom Postcards. We mail our items worldwide – see how to receive the set. 

A Country to Live in Foundation supports political prisoners and their families with children. The foundation takes care of 80 such families, to which it pays 300 euros a month: https://en.stranafund.org/article/donate 

The foundation’s Family friend Solidarity Program allows you to take the patronage of political prisoners’ families. A Friend is free to choose the amount and period of assistance: it can be 100 or 300 euros, and 3, 6, or 12 months. The proposed families list is diverse: you can support large families, families with one child, or families with children who have health problems or developmental disabilities.

Finally, send letters to political prisoners! There are plenty of options: you can do it online, anonymously, and for free.
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