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"The Doctor Behind Bars" Brings Hope To Belarus's Imprisoned

Yuri Bandazheuski, author of “The Doctor Behind Bars”, while incarcerated in a Belarusian penal colony in 2004.
Yuri Bandazheuski criticized official reporting on the Chernobyl disaster and radiation levels in Belarus and soon found himself inside a Belarusian prison as an internationally recognized prisoner of conscience. But Bandazheuski, a doctor who also serves as a Radio Svaboda commentator, used his time behind bars to publish a how-to guide for survival in captivity.

“I saw how my own body and that of others reacted; I saw what enormous stress prisoners have to endure,” he writes. This personal experience was the impetus for “The Doctor Behind Bars,” a manual for preserving physical and psychological health that is being serialized on RFE/RL’s Belarus Service website.

“The Doctor Behind Bars” offers prisoners exercise routines, nutritional advice, and mind-strengthening techniques. Condemning “law enforcement specialists” in Belarusian prisons for working “in the field of health destruction,” he recommends ritualized activity as an antidote to such damage. This “method of self-healing” is “a form of physical training” that incorporates the mind as a way of “gaining control over one’s will.” For Bandazheuski, “Healing comes through awareness.”

I saw how my own body and that of others reacted; I saw what enormous stress prisoners have to endure.
Yuri Bandazheuski

Bandazheuski’s guide was the first of its type to appear in Belarus, according to Radio Svaboda editor Alena Radkevich, but it only reached a “very small audience” when it was first published in 2003. By serializing the manual on, Bandazheuski’s work can reach many more current and former prisoners with updated advice.

Its relevance reaches beyond prisoners, their families, and even critics. Radkevich says that for those who live in what has been called “Europe’s last dictatorship,” Bandazheuski’s advice for combating depression is especially important, because “this problem is common not only for prisoners, but society as a whole in Belarus.” The mothers of many prisoners have responded with gratitude for the guidance Bandazheuski provides.

To date, 18 of 24 chapters have been published and serialization should be completed by late August, when Bandazheuski will take part in a online conference with readers and listeners.

Bandazheuski’s guide has its critics, from prison doctors who claim their techniques are sufficient, to zealots who say prayer should be the only form of assistance for prisoners. However, the critiques are balanced by notes of thanks, support, and hopeful anticipation of the new installments.

Allen, a reader in Minsk, writes: “Yuri Ivanovich provides very important and necessary advice; many thanks to him!”

Another reader, Igor, agrees: “Good advice and good examples. The main thing is that a lot of it is basic. In our country, one has to be ready for anything: If not for prison then for other extreme conditions.”

-- JoEllen Koester