In the rubric “To read in emigration”, the team “Not Today, Not Yesterday, Not Tomorrow”, we talked to the historian-publicist, translator into Polish of Mikola Dziadok’s book “The Colours of the Parallel World” Aleksandr Laniewski. About why he decided to translate this book, how it will be interesting for foreign and Belarusian readers, as well as about the prison system in Belarus.
You translated the book “The Colours of the Parallel World” by Mikola Dziadok into Polish, what is this book about?
This book has several dimensions. In general, it is about today’s Belarus. About the prison reality and everyday life of thousands of politvyazens and politvyazynkas (political prisoners) who find themselves behind bars. One should remember that not only political prisoners or “criminals” are imprisoned. There you will find a cross-section of Belarusian society. This book is a witness of the epoch we live in, a document of the recent history of Belarus, a history of terrible and tragic. However, even in this darkness there is a place for heroism, nobility and struggle. For me personally, this is a story about people, told by an anarchist prisoner. A story about hierarchy, violence and human weaknesses, but at the same time about willpower. About the love of freedom and the struggle for ideals, human dignity even where there are no tools for it. And, of course, “The Colours” about how to stay true to yourself and your views in a place created to humiliate a person, break his will and completely subordinate to the system. Prison is not a sentence, life goes on even there. The Dziadok’s book reminds us of this.
How did the book “The Colours of the Parallel World” attract your attention? Why did you decide to translate it and write the book’s foreword?
In my scientific activity I am engaged in the history (including contemporary) of Belarusian anarchism and try to keep track of what is happening in the anarchist movement in our region. That’s why I read almost all literature devoted to anarchism. When the book was first written, I was lucky to get acquainted with its content. I read it in one breath. It seemed to me then that it was really worth reading and could also interest Polish readers and female readers. However, circumstances turned out differently, and the idea of translation was frozen.
I would like to point out right away that Mikola Dziadok is not a close friend of mine. In general, he is a rather complicated person. However, this does not cancel the importance of the book. When Mikola was detained in November 2020, I felt it was time to complete the gestalt. This is one of my small bricks of solidarity and assistance to political prisoners, as well as a small contribution to the common cause of our competition for freedom. I should emphasise that although the initiative for the Polish edition of “The Colors” belongs to me (I should add that two chapters were translated by my sister Olga Laniewska, who, incidentally, was one of the translators of Igor Oliniewicz’s “Going to Magadan“), I f found the money for it from Polish anarchist initiatives and groups. These are Fuegro, ACK Warszawa, and Spina. All editorial work as well as distribution was taken over by the Polish anarchist publishing house Bractwo Trojka. To all these collectives I would like to sincerely thank them! Naturally, no one makes money from the book (I did the translation for free) – all the money from the sales goes to support political prisoners. Some people may ask why we should spend time on publishing a book when we could have allocated the money for help. But thanks to the book we killed two birds with one stone. And we raise money, and the book will stay forever. We all know that what’s written with a pen cannot be carved with an axe.
I think the news about the Polish edition also added strength to Mikola himself. It is very important that the regime’s supporters know that we are out there doing something for them and remembering them.
And one more aspect. In my humble opinion, Dziadok’s book is an excellent addition to the excellent book of another anarchist-political prisoner Igor Oliniewicz’s “Going to Magadan”, which I would recommend to read before “The Colours”. Besides, I believe that prisons are an important element of modern Belarusian political culture. It is a shameful relic of the state, which should exist. And it should be said loudly and regularly. The prison diaries of Igor and Mikola belong to such voices.
How will this book be useful and interesting for foreign readers and Belarusians?
Those who have not read it in Belarusian or Russian and do not have paper copies can buy the Polish version and thus express their solidarity. The Belarusian diaspora in Poland can practise their Polish, compare the text with the original.
For Polish readers, it may be interesting to look at the Belarusian society from the other side. All the more so because apart from the introduction (unlike editions in other languages), I made about 100 references under the main text to make our cultural and political context more understandable to Polish readers/readeress. Someone may be interested to learn about the Belarusian penitentiary system, to compare the post-Soviet prison jargon, which in some places is quite similar to the Polish “gwary wiéziennej”. Polish anarchists/anarchistess are interested in the very experience of an individual who holds libertarian views but is forced to defend them at the cost of imprisonment. We know the remarkable works about the Soviet camps by Varlam Shalamov, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Gustaw Herling-Grudziński or Julius Margolin. Unfortunately, the authorities change, but prisons remain. And contemporary Belarusian prison prose is a worthy continuation of this genre. I am convinced that this and other books written in prisons will become part of the canon of the compulsory school programme in the new Belarus.
I believe that it is necessary not only to translate books of world literature into Belarusian, but also to translate Belarusian literature into other languages. In order to be known about us, to make the voices of Belarusians/Belarusianess be noticed, the voices of the writers/writeress, the voices of the revolutionaries/revolutionariess. For me personally, it is very important that the new Belarus should not be identified only with Tikhanovsky or the Coordinating Council, with nationalism or the so-called democratic movement, but also with anarchism and direct democracy. It is precisely because of the struggle for these ideals that some 30 individuals associated with the libertarian movement are now behind bars.
The methods of prison administrations are surrounded by a veil of secrecy. Do you think that the disclosure of prison administration methods will allow changing them for the better?
As I said above, I do not believe in the improvement of either the current political system in Belarus or in the humanisation of the Belarusian penitentiary system. They both just need to be destroyed. Remember also that the book was written almost 10 years ago, and other prison works were published after its release. Conditions in colonies and isolation centres have deteriorated considerably. Arbitrariness of law enforcers and repression reached unprecedented heights. In 2020, when tens of thousands of Belarusians and Belarussianess passed through the harsh millstones of the Belarusian “law enforcement and judicial system,” the Belarusian society became more familiar with captivity. But not everyone is able to share their traumatic experience. Not everyone wins the unequal battle with the system. Therefore, the experience of specific people, who found themselves there and who fought back, is useful for all citizens of our long-suffering Belarus. The time will come and all cats will be responsible for their actions. To answer the question, yes, I consider the disclosure of prison methods to be a very important work towards building a country where society will function according to new values. Where the heroes are not “cops”, “chekists” and other dogs of the regime, but political prisoners, doctors, teachers, scientists, cultural figures… Such books allow us to move from the level of abstract knowledge and criticism of dungeons to concrete examples of the methodical evil that the penitentiary system generates. We should think about this now, because if the political order changes again, we may forget prisons, the police or the KGB will not suddenly disappear, as there will be many other things to do. It’s not about changing people or names, it’s about new values, new social relations. The book we are talking about at least expands the knowledge about the anti-humanist philosophy of the power structures.
What examples of hidden prison techniques of the tour administration are outlined in the book? Could you give a couple examples?
I don’t want to spoil the book, but some of the methods can be mentioned. There are more obvious and well-known techniques as well as more “sophisticated” ones. The most famous of them is the good cop/bad cop game. If during interrogation two persons work with you at the same time. One tries to get into your confidence, the other on the contrary scares, humiliates or beats you. In a stressful situation, a person will trust the “good” cop and may do himself a lot of harm. This is the most popular and eternal practice of all law enforcers in the world.
Another situation is the use of criminals (“authorities”, “rogues”) to control other prisoners. It is by the hands of those who cooperate with the administration (“goats”) that the worst atrocities take place in prisons. For the sake of this, they use the prison “caste” system. Mikola writes about this in some detail.
Or, for example, the myth of noble law enforcers who are for the truth and the law. What we have been told about in primitive films and TV series (mostly Russian, but not only) in “The Colours” it is well seen that law enforcers merge into one with those who break the law. How is this portrayed? They share the same culture, the same jargon, the same rules of behaviour – hierarchy, violence and brutal submission. The rogue culture is so firmly in the consciousness of Belarusian and Russian law enforcers (and politicians) that the convicts are often lost – what rules to live by. Who is a criminal and who is a law enforcer. Who to believe? Mikola succinctly but aptly characterised these people: “”An prison officer is always a liar”. So the basic rule there is “don’t believe, don’t be afraid, don’t ask”.
This is only a small part of what the prison officers practised. For me personally, the more interesting moments were those in which Dziadok described his struggle with the administration and other prisoners. Not only is it fascinating and impressive, but it also gives practical advice on how to survive in prison. As well as hope that it can be done.
What to expect at the book premiere in Krakow? What topics will be discussed?
At the book presentation in Krakow I would like to talk about “The Colours”, about Belarusian prison prose, about Mikola and other political prisoners, as well as to touch upon the anarchist movement in Belarus. It all depends on the number of participants/participantess, on their questions, and on which way the discussion will go. I will encourage everyone to buy copies not only for themselves, but also for their Polish acquaintances in order to promote the Belarusian agenda and to show at what price Belarusians’ thirst for freedom comes at. Unfortunately, it is not obvious for everyone.
What would you advise readers to do?
To tell their Polish acquaintances about Mikalai’s and Igor’s books. To read more, to be interested in Belarusian literature, not to forget the politvyazens/politvyazynak, to express solidarity with them, to provide information about what is happening in Belarus. In other words, to demonstrate the perverted system and its myths, building new public associations here and now, freely and in solidarity. And, of course, to continue the struggle and not to lose hope!
One last question, What books has Mikola Dziadok written yet?
Mikola has two books written in Russian. This is “The Theory of Intersectionality: An Anarchist Critique”, in which the author dismantles the foundations of the theory of intersectionalism (intersectional theory), according to which women are oppressed by men, blacks by whites, gays by heterosexuals, and so on, and answers the question of whether this theory will bring leftists and anarchists closer to building a just society.
Another book People’s Mujahideen “Mojahedin Khalq” is about an Iranian Islamo-Marxist organisation that started its revolutionary path in the struggle against the Shah’s regime, continued with the struggle against the Ayatollah regime, and died in a closed military camp in Albania. In the book, the author tells about the difficult fate of an eclectic and leading revolutionary group in a world dominated by the interests of large and pragmatic players. As you can see, the themes are different and quite specific. But all of Mikola’s works, available online, can be read by anyone.
The book presentation will take place in Kraków, Krakowska 19, on 12 November at 14:00.
P. S. (Ed.) You can support Mikola Dziadok through Anarchist Black Cross Belarus (link).