• Lizaveta Stecko

Review: "I look at Belarus and think – prison. The aspect of prison in Belarusian art"

Belarus leads Europe in terms of the number of prisoners relative to its population. According to Wisevoter data (since 2021), there are 345 prisoners per 100,000 people, and this number continues to rise. Among them, at the moment 1446 individuals are recognized as prisoners of conscience.

In this text we will bring closer the creativity of people with prison experience. We will also focus on artworks that express solidarity with prisoners or reflect on the theme of punitive institutions.

The prison system in Belarus

In the country there are around 30 correctional colonies, most of which are located in Vitebsk and Mogilev regions. There are three prisons in Grodno, Mogilev, and Zhodino. Several dozen investigative isolators, open-type correctional institutions and medical-labor dispensaries operate as well. Correctional colonies in Belarus are categorized into several types: strict, general regime or reinforced. Prisoners are sorted based on a similar "criminal" background. The regimes in these colonies differ in their communication opportunities with the outside world. The majority of those serving sentences are in correctional colonies where they are obliged to work. All prisoners, regardless of preferences or health conditions, are mandated to labor. They are usually assigned to sewing or woodworking shops. For their work they receive a disproportionately low salary. The Ministry of Internal Affairs sells manufactured products at retail or with the help of business partners. Settlement colonies are considered the most lenient regime for serving sentences. Apart from amenities like their own clothes, outdoor walks and access to phones, inmates in these colonies can leave the colony's territory under escort.

Prisons in Belarus represent the most severe confinement institutions, where individuals are sent for particularly serious crimes or offenses committed within the colonies. This is where those sentenced to life imprisonment or death penalty serve their terms. There's a special system of incarceration for Belarusian women with two containment regimes – general and strict, they are not sentenced to death penalty or life imprisonment. Women receive no more than 25 years in prison. Colonies designated for women include children's rooms where they can visit their children several times a day. Women can sleep with their children in separate rooms. Belarus doesn't have juvenile prisons, but there are several colonies for minors.

© / anti-propaganda posters about Belarusian prisons, 2021–2023

In therapeutic labor colonies, inmates live in isolated buildings where they are treated for alcoholism. They are obligated to earn their own living and support. Investigative isolators in Belarus serve as places where individuals suspected of crimes are kept in custody. There are only six of them in the country, along with three prisons that also perform this function. Special attention should be given to republican scientific-practical centers — organizations engaged in healthcare. In Belarus, there are several institutions of this type, the most famous being the RPC Navinki, which deals with "innovative approaches in psychiatry and narcology" or punitive therapy. It is used for forensic examinations and compulsory treatment.

Life in a Belarusian prison

The essence of imprisonment lies in the forced isolation of a person from the outside world. It is assumed that the representatives of the state's internal organs protect us from unfriendly elements in society and punish those who act contrary to the Constitution. Unfortunately, the number of political prisoners in the country indicates that this system is not working (or is working incorrectly). The court decides on an individual basis what measure of deprivation of liberty should be applied to the lawbreaker. Each person in detention undergoes immense emotional pressure. Prisoners face a situation of deprivation: their basic needs can't be fully or partially satisfied. They are obliged to comply with the system and the realities of the institution they find themselves in; any "offenses" are severely punished. As a result, many of the detainees experience an identity crisis, depersonalization and degradation, both externally and internally.

People adapt to imprisonment differently: for many, creativity serves as a helpful outlet, allowing them to express their inner voice relatively freely and immerse themselves in another reality. However, inmates are limited in artistic tools, we learn about their creativity through letters. In most cases, prisoners cannot take the objects they've created in prison back into freedom.

After serving their sentence, convicts cannot easily and quickly return to society and socialize. Their imprisonment and hard labor often remain unseen by the public, and the prison experience is often associated with stigma. Comparing the conditions of imprisonment in Belarus and other countries, the system of punishment, and subsequent rehabilitation can be disheartening, and those who've served their terms must be equated with martyrs.

© Vladimir Sulkowski: / 1982

The beginning of the 20th century for Belarusianswas the beginning of endless detentions, repression and a struggle for freedom of speech. Unfortunately, not all historical artifacts bearing witness to the prison experience have survived to this day. For instance, between 1908 and 1911, the Belarusian national poet Yakub Kolas was imprisoned at Volodarka. His moment of incarceration was captured in an oil painting by . Kolas was imprisoned for political reasons. He depicted his prison experience in the poetic work In Prison . Reflecting on his ordeal, the poet wrote, "Better to spend three years in prison out of foolishness than a minute as a coward in freedom. What was I supposed to do? Betray a comrade, turn to treachery?" In prison, Kolas began writing his poems Novaja Ziamla (New Land) and Symon-Muzyka (Symon-Musician), and his prison experience became useful while working on the novel Na Rostaniach (At Crossroads).

© Marc Chagall: / 1931

Around the same time, the artist ended up in prison after being arrested in St. Petersburg. His experience during that time is depicted in his drawing titled A Prisoner.

Detentions in the 1930s

TThe history of Belarusian art and the experience of imprisonment cannot be told without the dramatic events of the 1930s, during the time of Stalinist repressions. During that period, the country witnessed a wave of mass political arrests and killings of Belarusian and Jewish intellectuals, cultural figures, scientists and artists. Tens of thousands of individuals who formed the foundation of Belarusian culture fell victim to the machinery of terror.

Often, we only know the names of those repressed, sometimes their professions, and the creative legacy of many has not survived to our days. Prominent figures such as , , , , , , were arrested and later executed, among many others.

© Raman Semashkevich: Prisoners' Walk, 1937

ccreated portraits and paintings depicting rural and urban themes. He graduated from the art university as one of the top graduates, soon held his first solo exhibition and became a member of the artists' association called Thirteen. He was first arrested in 1935. After his release, he faced severe financial difficulties and continued his creative expression by working on cardboard and pieces of plywood. Two years later, he was arrested again on charges of counter-revolutionary fascist agitation and espionage for Poland. A month and a half later, on December 22, 1937, at the age of 37, Roman Semashkevich was executed by firing squad. The NKVD confiscated the artworks from his studio. He was posthumously rehabilitated. .

was first arrested in 1936 as a member of a "counter-revolutionary group". The artist was sentenced by the NKVD to 10 years of corrective labor with property confiscation. He served his sentence in exile in Komi, working in logging camps, oil fields and gypsum quarries. Despite his imprisonment, the artist continued to create. During his exile, he produced a series of works dedicated to Jews – victims of Nazism. During World War II, Zhitnitsky's entire family, except for his daughter, died. He was released in 1946 but was arrested again three years later and sentenced to indefinite exile in the Krasnoyarsk region. He was rehabilitated in 1956. Mark Zhitnitsky continued to create a series of works dedicated to the victims of Nazi and Communist terror. Few of the artist's works have survived to the present day, with particular value placed on his autobiographical sketches describing his arrest and life in a Soviet labor camp.


The history of Soviet Belarus in the second half of the 20th century was tumultuous. During the war, several partisan armies operated independently, engaging in fierce battles. This affected the population and intergenerational connections. For instance, after the war, Minsk had around 40,000 residents, but by the mid-1970s, this number had increased to one and a half million. Cities were filled with new stories and new inhabitants arriving from all over the union.

New artistic groups often didn’t know of each other's existence or didn't trust one another, meaning there wasn't a unified artistic space in the country. Progressive youth gathered around charismatic leaders behind closed doors in apartments. One such leader was , an intellectual dissident who has been in prison more than once and even earned the nickname The Furious British Encyclopedia from his fellow inmates.

Kim Khadeev (sitting, third from left) in a Moscow dissident company, in the house of Yuri Aikhenvald, 1970s

The first time Kim Khadeev ended up in prison (Gulag) was in 1948 for discussing enemies of the people and advocating for the punishment of Stalin rather than honest doctors. Fortunately, the intellectual escaped a death sentence. His second imprisonment occurred during the infamous Crosses period in 1962. During his incarceration, Kim Khadeev actively utilized the extensive library of the KGB, where one could find diverse literature, including prohibited material. The prison conditions significantly impacted his method of knowledge preservation – due to the impossibility of keeping diaries, Kim was forced to memorize and retain everything in his head.

In the 1980s, Belarusians tried to avoid involvement in the war in Afghanistan, mourned officials and waited for perestroika. During this period, a tragedy occurred that affected a significant part of the population – the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant accident. Belarusian art still was developing mainly underground. Performative practices became increasingly common.

Artist ended up in prison due to his attempt to hijack an airplane. On September 13, 1987, during the Minsk to Rostov-on-Don flight, the artist tried to divert the plane to Paris using a homemade fake bomb as a threat. The aircraft eventually landed in Rostov-on-Don, where Khatskevich was immediately detained. Through the efforts of the public (especially his then-wife, artist ), they influenced the 8-month-long legal process and managed to transfer Genadz back to Belarus. There he was sent for compulsory treatment at the Novinki Republican Scientific and Practical Center, where they decided to use his talent.

© Siarhei Hudzilin: fragment of photographic (2018) with images of stained glass windows by Genadz Khatskevich in Novinki (1988)

In 1988, Genadz Khatskevich received a commission from the Republican Scientific and Practical Center (RNPC) to decorate the passage between the center's buildings. Since Novinki is a closed establishment, we cannot evaluate the artist’s work with our own eyes. Thanks to the efforts of , there are photographs showcasing a series comprising over 80 stained glass objects.

Forced treatment in psychiatric clinics, sometimes experimental ones, was one of the most well-known methods used by the Soviet authorities against dissidents, including avant-garde artists. For instance, the diagnosis given to the artist during the Soviet era for his painting for the exhibition ultimately turned out to be in 2011.

The death penalty

Belarus is the only country in Europe that still upholds the death penalty. It's applied for particularly severe crimes, including acts of terrorism. Since 2022, the death penalty may also be applied to officials and military personnel for treason or an attempt to commit it. Over the country's existence, the death sentence has been executed more than 400 times.

In 2011, , being part of the art group , commits an unprecedented humanistic act – he sends a to the KGB, in which he declares the group's involvement in terrorist attack on April 11, 2011 in the Minsk metro. In his appeal, Limonov attempted to prolong the trial of the individuals convicted for the bombing, Konovalov and Kolesnikov, by taking the blame upon himself. He implied that the acts of terrorism committed by the art group were artistic creations dedicated to the victims of the oppressive state machine. The letter mentioned those sentenced to execution and requested the consideration of new information that could influence the verdict. Limonov did not receive an official response from the prosecution, and the investigation did not take into account the new versions of the bombings.

© Sergey Hrynevych: Grodno Prison, 2012

Belarusians not only often hear about prison, but it happens that they see it every day; prison institutions in many cities are part of the landscape. For example, in Grodno the prison is located in the city center, next to the square where a number of cultural events take place. The reality surrounded by prisons found its representation in 's . In 2012, the artist created a massive canvas depicting the Grodno prison. In the painting we see a terrifying and ominous building situated right in the heart of the city.

Among all forms of creative self-expression, can be considered as the most persecuted. Belarusian authorities are reluctant to delve into acute social themes and prefer to detain and restrict the freedom of artists before, during and after their actions. An example of this is the iconic figure in Belarusian activism and performance art, , who tragically died in prison in 2023.

Ales Pushkin in court (it was impossible to take a photo of the action itself with a cut stomach due to the closed court), March 11, 2022

Ales often carried out performances for which he faced repression and was sentenced to restrictions on his freedom. One of his most notable detentions occurred in 1999 when the artist was sentenced to a two-year suspended prison term for the performance . Pushkin was also detained for actions in 2001, 2005, 2006 and 2010. In 2019, a collection of Pushkin's prison artwork was released as part of the Belarusian Prison Literature series. The publication showcased works created during his time in Smorgon and Minsk detention facilities. On March 30, 2021, Ales Pushkin was detained for the last time. He declined legal representation and expressed distrust toward the court. During the trial, he held in protest against his detention and the 5,000 political criminal cases. While the sentence was being announced, the artist bared his stomach to reveal scratch marks in the shape of a cross, demanding the release of all political prisoners. Ales Pushkin was sentenced to five years of strict regime imprisonment. He was then transferred to Grodno prison, where, under "unexplained circumstances", he passed away in 2023 . During his forced captivity in Belarusian prisons, the artist continued his creative activity. A of over 70 prison drawings (and ) created by Ales during his detention in 2021 is accessible to the wider public.

© Ales Pushkin: installation Prison Cell (2022) and canvas Image of Freedom (2014), Ujazdów Castle, Warsaw, 2022

In 2022, at Ujazdów Castle, a series of works by Ales Pushkin was presented. The exhibition also featured an installation called the , where the artist recreated his confinement space. Ales aimed for the artworks displayed at the exhibition to return to Belarus after the country was liberated from dictatorship.

Belarus 2020 and after

The events of 2020 in Belarus sparked a significant wave of civic engagement and artistic expression. People who had not previously engaged in creative activities found a way to express their stance through activism. Across the country, protests took place against the lawlessness of law enforcement and unlawful detentions.

My Cell campaign / © Photo: Natalia Fedosenko (TASS)

In 2020, there was an event called in which former prisoners, friends and relatives of detainees participated. Participants drew the outline of a 6-person cell on the pavement and 50 people fit inside the drawn boundaries. The event aimed to demonstrate the inhumane conditions people endure in prisons. Activists held signs displaying testimonies of violence experienced in detention facilities.

© Nadya Sayapina: installation with prison drawings Dollhouse (2020–2021) at the exhibition "Every Day. Art. Solidarity. Resistance", Mystetskyi Arsenal, Kyiv, 2021

Arrests in Belarus can extend beyond people to encompass works of art. This occurred with 146 exhibits from the Art-Belarus Gallery. On July 1, 2020, around 20 cultural figures organized an action called . Participants attached images of detained artworks to their backs and stood in the places where these objects had previously been displayed throughout the day. The idea for this action came from the artist . In 2020, for her participation in the protest action, Nadya Sayapina was detained and sentenced to 15 days of arrest. The experience she underwent can be seen in the installation for the exhibition “”, where she included drawings created by her in the Okrestina and Zhodino prisons.

© Ulyana Nevzorova: This Poster Can Be a Reason for My Detention, 2020

In 2020, during widespread detentions, artist conducted an action titled in the Minsk metro. Holding a poster with the same inscription, the artist traveled in metro carriages. The reactions from random viewers varied significantly: some ripped off the poster and shouted "Shame!" while others showed sympathy and solidarity. It so happened that one of the passengers unexpectedly unfurled a white-red-white flag, which also could have led to detention. The video of the action garnered significant resonance in the media.

Prison drawing after 2020

The year 2020 was marked by repression against representatives of Belarus' cultural sphere. Artists, philosophers, musicians, healthcare workers and others were detained and deprived of their freedom. Individuals who experienced or are experiencing imprisonment couldn't engage in their activities to the same extent as before. One condition of captivity in Belarusian prisons is the inability to transmit art objects beyond its borders. In most cases, inmates cannot take with them what they've created upon release. That's why the testimonies they send in letters are crucial. Thanks to these, we can learn about their daily lives and the development of their creative work.

Another aspect of imprisonment can be the discovery of new talents among the captives. For example, individuals who previously didn't practice drawing resort to it for self-expression. In October 2020, faced repression and spent 27 days in prison. As a philosopher who didn't previously practice drawing, she transferred her experiences into sketches. In them we see the daily life of the female colony, a visual dialogue about sisterhood.

© Olga Shparaga: (2020) at the exhibition "Every Day. Art. Solidarity. Resistance", Mystetskyi Arsenal, Kyiv, 2021

Olga Shparaga about her prison experience: "[...] I saw the light at the end of the tunnel and heard two things: I need to accept the inevitable and this situation won't be able to break my life. I had already seen the light at the end of the tunnel during the revolution; now I understood that I could be the light myself because I will handle this situation."

© Uladzimir Hramovich: drawing from the series Chorny Busel (Black Stork), 2021

Two days before his release, received sheets of A4 paper on which the artist managed to capture his experience using charcoal. During his time in Chorny Busel prison (Zhodino E-8), the artist also managed to create a series of (Black Stork) graphic works .

Here are some more stories with prison drawings (descriptions in the image captions):

On October 17, 2023, former political prisoner Asya Bulybenko opened an exhibition titled at the Center for Belarusian Community and Culture in Vilnius. It showcased her artwork created after her release and from her time in prison: postcards glued with condensed milk, embroidery made on the uniform of punitive authorities. The artist dedicated the exhibition to the third anniversary of the March of Youth.


The events of 2020 sparked a huge wave of solidarity among the civilian population. While we can learn about the artwork of political prisoners through letters, those behind bars don't always have the opportunity to know what's happening outside. And a lot is happening: over the course of more than three years, Belarusian artists have created a significant number of works that thematically relate to the prison experiences of those wrongfully convicted.

© Rufina Bazlova: fragments of the project called Framed in Belarus, since 2021

In 2021, the artist and curator Sofia Tokar created a socially activating project called . Through the folk art form of embroidery Rufina Bazlova narrates the stories of political prisoners. Anyone interested can join the project by filling out a form to receive the embroidery pattern depicting the story of a prisoner of conscience. While creating these patterns, Rufina aims to convey the unique traits of the political prisoners' personalities, often referencing their interests and family status. The context of their arrest and sentencing is also raised.

© Mikhail Gulin: public art installation and three-day action called Jonah, Lublin, 2021

In 2021, carried out the project called . The artist constructed a representation of a whale's insides, which he placed on the streets of Lublin. During the public installation, the artist spent three days and three nights without food. According to Gulin, he couldn't shake off the anxiety related to Belarus. Despite the performance taking place in Poland, mentally he remained in Belarus. While inside the "whale's stomach", the artist contemplated the experience of political prisoners in Belarus.

© Xisha Angelova: from the series Belarusian Martyrology, 2020

The artist specializing in icon painting, , has painted over 200 portraits of political prisoners. She named this series of works . In November 2023, the artist opened an exhibition in Warsaw , where she showcased the portraits of political prisoners.

© Igor Shugaleev and Sergey Shabohin: performance 75 0908 2334 The body you are calling is currently not available / © photo: Alexandra Kononchenko

In the performance its creators and , together with a working group, recreate the conditions of detention and violence that occurred after 2020. The title of the action encodes the telephone code of Belarus, the day of the presidential elections and the number of the administrative article under which more than 40,000 people were convicted after August 2020.

© Gleb Burnashev: The Republic’s Ritual of Guilt and Shame, 2022

In 2022, created a video installation called . In his work on the "board of honor," the artist displayed repentant videos of detained Belarusians after 2020.

Belarusian artists and curators regularly create works in solidarity with political prisoners. We'll mention some other notable projects and statements: impressive video created by ; the action in the center of Tallinn ; the series of ; performances of ; demonstrations of solidarity and protest of ; the video of called ; anti-propaganda posters of ; the series of ; with political prisoners and the series of actions of and many others.

Special attention should be given to organizations that popularize art created by political prisoners and work to improve the situation of prisoners.

The interiors of the cell at Volodarka, recreated in a 3D model by the project to help political prisoners – / © Screenshots of the image:

In 2023, the initiative at the Nobel Peace festival presented a VR model of a prison cell at Volodarka . The project was developed based on a 3D model created by former political prisoner Levon Khalatryan. Event participants could find themselves at the center of the cell and hear stories from the prisoners.

The human rights center Viasna (Spring) has launched the website , where drawings created by political prisoners are collected. The site publishes information from open sources; currently the works of more than 60 prisoners are posted there.

In 2023, the in Warsaw opened an exhibition featuring the works of 17 artists from Belarus who had experienced repression for political reasons.

The Politvyazynka project presents stories of Belarusian women who have been sentenced to confinement for political reasons. The project's Instagram page showcases stories and portraits of political prisoners.

How to help?

The prison experience leaves a heavy mark on the life of every political prisoner. It's the responsibility of civil society to show solidarity and provide support to those in need. Many of those currently behind bars did not choose this path for themselves; every day they face severe limitations on their freedom. The active segment of society still at liberty has the choice to act. That's why we suggest paying attention to initiatives that can offer assistance.

The mentioned website,, allows you to discover the stories of political prisoners , connect with them and learn about opportunities for help. The organizing team actively manages social media profiles, arranges memorial events and devises tasks to engage society and establish connections with the prisoners.

The volunteer initiative Solidarity Postcard Workshop is dedicated to sending postcards and letters to political prisoners in Belarus. The workshop also organizes informational meetings and shares useful knowledge. A crucial aspect of the organization's work involves hand-copying texts.

The organization Dissidentby supports political prisoners in Belarus. They provide direct assistance to prisoners of conscience through deliveries, arranging subscriptions to newspapers and magazines and transferring resources to the personal accounts of political prisoners. They organize solidarity evenings, concerts, educational events and provide information about the prisoners.

The Human Rights Center Viasna (Spring) has made a significant contribution to shaping civil society, supporting political prisoners and advocating for their rights. On the organization's website you can find reliable news and an information database. The center provides individual assistance to those seeking legal help.

By supporting such initiatives, you can be assured that the organization's staff will be able to provide assistance to those who critically need it.