During his stay in hospital in Minsk, former political prisoner Mikalai Autukhovich in an interview to the Human Rights Center “Viasna” told about his attitude to life and health, which were often at risk during his detention.
– Mikalai, do you remember the “suicide”? So many media were talking about the fact that you cut your veins in the Ivatsevichy colony, then you cut your abdomen in the Hrodna prison. The investigation called this “acts of self-mutilation”. What meaning did these acts have to you in prison?
– Yes, as far as I’ve heard, some people were saying that I wanted to commit suicide. However, I have not found who said this on the internet… So, I did not. I always had control of the situation. It was not despair. It was a protest. After all, I’m well aware that hunger strikes and complaints do not decide anything in the colony or in prison. It begins with the same things – an oral complaint, then you write this complaint, and if they do not react, you begin a hunger strike. As for the hunger strike in prison, it is still possible that the information comes out. Because I arranged it so that as soon as something happened in the colony, everyone phoned Radio Liberty to tell what it’s all about, and they immediately became aware of what was going on… And in prison it was difficult to do so because it is complete isolation. You do not have any contacts with anyone who leaves prison. All around, there are just controllers, the administration’s watchmen – you’re not going to solve the issues with them, so that they could tell something to someone in freedom. Therefore, there remains only such protest as cutting your veins. You are taken to hospital or they call an ambulance, you have an opportunity to call a lawyer or tell someone to pass information to the lawyer. There you can refuse to be sutured until you talk to a lawyer. The administration is very afraid of it. For them, it was the last thing convicts were ready to do. There was a case in the colony when a man doused himself with something and set himself on fire, eighty percent of his skin were burnt. But he did not want to commit suicide, I do not think he did. It was a protest – because otherwise they do not hear or understand. And when I told them that one more trick – and I will cut my neck, they realized that I was not trying to scare them, but it would be so, and for the last few months it was more or less OK, without provocations.
– Your friends and colleagues repeatedly expressed serious concern in the media about the threats of your life – both during the hunger strike and during your acts of protest. Many said about this that “the truth cannot be won in this way…” Perhaps, you yourself knew it. Why, then, did you take such steps?
– Being in such an emotional state, when you see that you face all kinds of injustice, you are looking for means to protect yourself. When I say that I’m on hunger strike and will not take food until the end, then, if I’m a man, I must do so. When I said it, I might not be aware that it would last for so long… They tried everything… When it was very bad, I agreed to the dropper, but I did not eat because I needed some result. And yet, I would have to find some words to justify the fact that I stopped the hunger strike – I would never do that. I had to go all the way. And when I say “I won’t budge”, I do not give in because I cannot stand injustice.
– Another question is about fear as a natural feeling inherent in every human, the instinct for survival…
– That’s how it is called – the survival instinct… You think, look, listen. When you are in prison, you are listening to every sound. Because you know that if this sound had not been there before and then it appeared – something is wrong. You start listening more attentively: what are they planning over there, what are they inventing? (laughs) Because there were a lot of provocations and you’re always wide awake. All the time, you are thinking how to stop them, how to ruin their plans. Here it is – the survival instinct. And fear… I guess there was fear, too. But they could not see it on my face. There were all sorts of cases in which a reasonable person would not be able not to fear. Fear, it is like that, there it is and you’re not going to immediately get down on your knees when you are afraid… If you think that you are stronger than them, it is not scary. I’ll put it like that. If you know that you are not going to give in, that they will feel worse because of that, that they will kick themselves – you feel like a winner. Even though you’re in prison, locked in a cell, but you’re the winner. Perhaps it is to be experience in order to understand…
– From the standpoint of self-preservation, where is it safer – in the colony or in prison – for prisoners against whom deliberate provocations are organized?
– Everything will depend on what goals are set for the prison administration. In the colony, there’s great danger about that there are so many people. If you want to catch someone, to provoke him – there, it is very easily done. There may just toss you in the side, push you so hard that your head hits the bunk. And everything happens accidentally, as it seems… When there are a lot of people, it is easier to do that.
Of course, you are in isolation in prison, but provocations do happen there. And you can die in prison, for example, of “heart attack”. When I was held in small cells, with no more than two people, they can only poison you there. However, there were cases when they put “fiery” people to my cell, who can very easily start a fight. Just one word, and it starts. And if you fight in a small cell, with corners and metal things everywhere, you can also make a person “accidentally” hit his head. That’s it.
Again, it all depends on what goals are set for the administration. After all, whatever they say, it is not the administration that controls in such cases. What instructions will be given to them from behind the fence – they will do so. Not all prison staff can carry out criminal orders, but there will always be people who will do it. I know that many people refused to provoke me, but there were also the ones willing to do it.
– You are a war veteran, you passed through colonies and prisons, you saw the darkest edge of life… What for you are the basic values of life?
– An interesting question. Here you can talk in several directions, I do not know… First, as a soldier, as a man who always fought for justice, I believe that everything should be done according to conscience. If not, for me it is not normal… I understand that there will always be some petty scoundrels, because there are so many people around who just do not understand this. But it is done by people of the power – I cannot put up with this. Need to win this evil, which, unfortunately, is still plenty in our society…
– And if we talk about the cost of the human life?
– There are times when people are not thinking. For me, dignity is something that can I give my life for. If I say something, then I never take my words back. Because before saying I try to weigh every word. In my opinion, dignity is the main thing that should be in a person. And I believe that each person has a certain limit, there is something for which he would give his life. Everyone has it in his own way. For me it’s dignity.
– What is your attitude to faith and religion?
– I am a believer… I turned to God many times. There were such cases both in the war and afterwards. I do not go to church. I learned prayers, but I do not remember them, when I’m addressing God – I use my own words… I was baptized in the Orthodox Church.
I am very disappointed in the people who serve this religion. When you see how they live, how they lie and deceive people. I read a lot about the Orthodox and Catholics. What some priests do today – it is terrible… My mother, when she came to Minsk, she went somewhere to ask for me, she was told to bring a paper saying that I helped churches. She knew that I helped a lot to Vaukavysk churches. The one and the other, when they were being built, and I gave money for windows and heating, and the dome and the bells, I fueled the churchmen’s cars… And I asked other people to help. So they did not give my mother the paper, they said that he did not help. Then people found those volunteers who brought them the money, they somehow convinced the priest, so he wrote a paper. He wrote that I helped with fuel.
I tried to choose some religion that would have attracted me, but I haven’t selected any so far.
– Both in freedom and in prison, you are an uncompromising fighter against lawlessness and arbitrariness. Where did you get it, where are its roots, in your opinion?
– Perhaps it’s since childhood. I grew up on the street, as they say. In various disputes I always defended the truth. And when I saw injustice, I fought even with older kids. And after the war I had a so-called “Afghan syndrome” — categorical, unrestrained reaction to injustice, meanness.
– Seven political prisoners remain behind bars, six of them are young guys who are probably looking at their older brothers in misfortune – Mikalai Statkevich and you… From the perspective of today, what can you advise them – is it worth to adopt your methods of resistance in detention?
– Everyone has his own mind. I just do not have the right to advise something to someone. After all, everyone has his own problems. I cannot condemn those people who wrote a clemency petition because I do not know why they did it. Maybe they could not do otherwise. If I could talk with the man, then I would give some evaluations… Let everyone do what he sees is better. But we must always remain human. Including in detention. I’m not saying that you need to perceive hostility everything that the administration is doing. You just have to do everything so that you will not be ashamed to look people in the eyes. And these guys need to understand that their every move will be judged by society. Their actions show what they are like – people who are in prison on political grounds.
I’ve thought a lot about the opposition. Many people who consider themselves members of the opposition do such things that I do not even want to shake their hands. Before you touch this man – you’re stained… Then you’ll never wash it off… And I want people who are now in prison to remember that not a single of their moves will be ignored. Let people be decent – no need to make a deal with your conscience. And do not cut yourselves, do not repeat my methods, as there may be other, much more serious consequences, not the ones on which they count. If I had known that if it were just a little more to the side [points to the elbow – Ed.], I would not have been saved… There were twenty minutes when nobody touched me when I bleed, and if I had cut it right here, where the artery is, then in some five minutes I would have be dead…
It is difficult to give any advice. Everyone is a different story.