A life-sentence convict writes letters to those on the outside. Continued " />

Letters from prison: Where dreams are better than waking

A life-sentence convict writes letters to those on the outside. Continued

Drawing by Anastasia Logvinenko

‘Letters from prison’ is a new JAMnews project. It began with a letter sent to the publication from a man serving a life sentence in prison. Yuri Sarkisyan has been in prison for 23 years. He wrote  because he wanted to speak out and believes that society needs to hear from people serving time ‘on the other side’. We agreed to cooperate with him, and thus this project was born. 

Yuri Sarkisyan’s second letter

It’s the firing squad for you!

That’s what some official in a black robe decided as he read out the verdict with a dispassionate but not impartial look in his eyes. The steel ‘bracelets’ on my wrists had worn out their function. The cage of justice opened into the abyss. People clapped while standing – they demanded murder, and they got it. I didn’t look about the courtroom even once – I didn’t want to look at the faces that had been distorted by grimaces and sneers. 

And then prison. A prison in the shape of a pentagram with rounded corners.

Though that’s not to say that everything in the prison is smooth and easy…

Every day over the course of the past 23 years, I ask myself: how did I end up in this so-called ‘life’? No sunrises, no sunsets… no emotional tides… no difference between the years and days and hours…how did I end up in a place where sleep is preferable to being awake?

They demanded a ransom from my father for his only son. But the money he saved up to bail me out was, ironically, stolen by other criminals who mugged him. And I was interred in the ground.

In front of iron gates, I took one last look at the sun as it reflected in the eyes of my beloved. Was it a trick of the mind, or was she really looking into me? It’s not important. What’s important is that I believed it. This allowed me to survive and recognize not only the value of life and freedom but of the necessity of restraining oneself from the irreversible under all circumstances.

And there are all kinds of circumstances…

When did it all begin? Having been demobilized from the army, I was sent to the earthquake zone. [In Armenia in 1988, an earthquake killed some 25 000 people and left half a million people without homes]. At the end of the mission, I entered the Novosibirsk Institute of Water Transport Engineers, and at the same time I engaged in business in the Caucasus, Moscow and the Siberian regions as a middleman.

But I got into trouble fast: first a problem with the racketeers, then another problem. The idea of peacefully conquering the earth had to be abandoned. I organized a sort of ‘anti-racket’ and helped other ‘entrepreneurs’ avoid potential losses. Soon, we gained ourselves a reputation and the trust of our clientelle.

At some point, I lost my sense of vigilance and ended up taking the bait of large-scale stock market players, and I lost a significant amount of money from what I had saved up. None of my ‘companions’ criticized me, but our friendship came to an end.

I left for a while to Yerevan. And then I unexpectedly received a phone call from Ufa [Ed. Bashkortostan, Russian Federation]. My former friends had gotten caught up in some bad business: Yerevan currency traders had slipped them some false bills.

I got pulled into the mess to solve it. I met up with the money changers, and they agreed to a peaceful solution to the problem. In the beginning, everything went well, all the way up to the apartment where the money in question was being kept and which was to be returned.

And then things went south.

Ending up on the wrong end of a pistol, I panicked… and somehow both attackers ended up getting shot. I had to run and go into hiding for half a year.

I didn’t have the strength to prove to them that I had to do what I did to defend myself.

Why did a normal boy who met the requirements of a typical Soviet citizen end up rolling down hill? I don’t know. There was never any temptation to throw my responsibility for what happened on external circumstances… as if to say: “Well, look, the Union has crumbled, and all that remains are the pieces…” and so on.

The Union fell apart, and so did people: between the past and the future, the mirage and the reality. The first and only Soviet president announced perestroika which took place for the most part within our minds. Some were able to adapt, others weren’t quick enough. National conflicts, desertion from Afghanistan, the loss of Eastern Germany… these were seen as the end of the world.

For the majority, the Communist Part was still a stronghold, despite the removal of the 6th article of the Constitution of the USSR [on the reigning role of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union]. Of course, reality did not become better defined: music remained the same, but the words changed. People stopped looking back at dead idols… although they made new ones.

Crossing over the border of Armenia as a prisoner, I looked out at the foothills transformed by tragedy. As if the hills themselves had shuttered and let out a cry of horror that shook the ground from down below. One moment took with it thousands of lives, spilling rivers of tears and burying itself with graves.

In 1988, we returned home having served two years. On 7 December, we were still en route. On 9 December we reached Tbilisi. The capital was in mourning, and not just because of its neighbors. The scale of the upheaval tore the imagination to shreds. Stereotypes, beliefs, buildings were turned to dust. Everything was destroyed, everything that had been built with ‘enthusiasm’. And the fact that there was no insight to be had into the situation gave many cause for frustration.

People were falling apart, tricked and deceived by their expectations. The mind refused to accept the reality of these ‘bursting bubbles’. The political storm was inexorable: it demolished cities, villages, fates and continued on to destroy a former empire, structure and ideas.

Over a short period of time the planet completely changed. Formidable fault lines appeared not only on the earth, but were in the air too: in souls, in hearts and minds of people of a once enormous country. Large families were divided into friends and enemies of the nation. We saw hopelessness and set out to rescue people from underneath the rubble of Spitak in order not to lose ourselves as well.

The last events developed and took shape as if in a nightmare. Some saved, others profited. No one intended to compensate those that suffered for their losses. In many cases, it was simply impossible. The subterranean shockwaves that burst out onto Armenian land continue to destroy faith, heart and mind.

Nothing else could have convinced Armenians of the solidity of the earth underneath their feat. Those of us that returned from the army were welcomed home by a different world from which we had set out from.

We had to make a living somehow, not getting in the way of others and retaining some sense of humanity.

But it didn’t work out. I’m so sorry.

To be continued

Toponyms and terminology used in the article, and views, opinions and strategies they contain do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of JAMnews or any employees thereof. JAMnews reserves the right to delete comments it considers to be offensive, inflammatory, threatening, or otherwise unacceptable

More on JAMnews