Today
Fri 17 September 2021

Iain Overton recounts the story of Oleh Galzyuk, who was imprisoned in the Donbas region of Ukraine for more than two years for writing about the conflict raging in the region

There was a small space of calm in that prison, where in the damp depths, he was held: the two hours and 57 minutes that existed between the night-guard leaving his shift and the reveille call at three minutes to six. It was a silence broken by the Russian national anthem sounding around that eastern Ukraine jail, signalling the endless days to begin once more. But, in those minutes, Oleh Galzyuk – a prisoner with no number, a man with no voice – was able to unscrew the naked lightbulb that lit his cell and, in a velvet dark, lie with quiet breath. To feel, for a moment, hell suspended.

Twice in his captivity, which stretched for two years, four months and six days between the long summer of 2017 and the winter of 2019, Galzyuk was able to see the moon from where he lay upon his thin mattress. It was low enough in the sky to shine through the grilled window, onto his bunk-bed, where it caught his face and made him feel that the world spin beneath him. 

Under its glow, he let his mind roam. He thought of his doctorate thesis on Plato. He remembered his mother, who spent her life working alongside his father in the mines of Donbas, ensuring that each man descended into Ukraine’s black earth equipped with a headlamp that worked. He recalled his time as a railway driver, a cook, a teacher of English. And he contemplated the words that had put him there in prison: the 60 articles for Radio Liberty that earned him a sentence for criminal sedition.

After all, he was writing journalism in a province of south-eastern Ukraine that had, with Russia’s backing, declared independence and avowed loyalty to the Kremlin. It was not a loyalty that he held, and his pro-Ukrainian reporting in that separatist state had led to his arrest, torture and imprisonment.

It was a sentence that meant, each day, as the recording of the Russian anthem kicked in, he would slip from his bed and begin his own daily protest.

Rossia – sviashennaia nasha derzhava,” the song would sound, “Rossia – lubimaia nasha strana!” (Russia is our sacred state, Russia is our beloved land!).

In defiance, this prisoner who earned the nickname Socrates for his professorial seriousness, sang back: “Shche ne vmerla Ukrainy, i slava, i volia, Shche nam, brattia molodii, usmikhnetsia dolia!” (Ukraine’s glory, Ukraine’s freedom did not disappear, Fate will smile on us Ukrainians, our skies will be clear!).

It was an act that had consequences. One prisoner, who was in the cell next to him, took offence at this display of Ukrainian nationalism. He once turned on Galzyuk in the bath-house: the heavily-tattooed criminal, pumped full of steroids, had lunged; Galzyuk, who exercised with bags filled with 25kg of water in a daily routine of press-ups and pull-ups, had swerved the punch and retaliated with a hard kick to his assailant’s legs. It took 12 guards to drag them apart, but nobody attacked the professor again.

His singing protest over, the morning found its rhythm. For more than a year, he shared a two metre by one-and-a-half metre cell with Dr Yuri Shapovalov, a neuropathologist seized in January 2018 and sentenced to 13 years for taking photographs of the Russian military in Donetsk. The doctor’s posts were said to have the capacity of “destabilising the situation” of the DPR (Donetsk People’s Republic).

A toothpaste packet on the back of which Oleh Galzyuk wrote the lyrics to the Ukrainian national anthem. Photo: Iain Overton

Space was small and the two inmates would give each other a modicum of privacy as they prepared for the day. They turned away as the other washed themselves in the small sink or visited a toilet that stood beside the peppers and onions and carrots they had planted in small tubs. Others in that prison put on weight, fuelled by the weekly allowance of sugar and the diet of calorie-rich noodles, but Oleh Galzyuk did not want his belly to sag and his neck to grow fat. So, instead, they exercised after a light breakfast. 

The broth they were given was often filled with pieces of frozen fish or rough cut, un-plucked chicken. He’d fish the meat out and add spices from the sachets of noodles that humanitarian agencies had sent him. They weren’t allowed salt, as prisoners had been known to throw it in the guard’s eyes, blinding the officers. Instead, modelling a small heater from a metal zip and two wires, he’d strip the inedible food from its bone, mix it with Asian seasonings and cook meatballs in tinfoil. 


By the time it was 10 am, the sun was reaching the interiors of the exercise cells on the roof of the dilapidated prison. He was let out of their cell and taken up for one precious hour a day. There, he would let the sun rest on his face and, under an arching sky, he would stretch upwards to the infinite blue. 

The walls around the roof compound of Donetsk Remand Prison did not permit a view of the city, let alone the industrial zone within which it was housed. From either side spread the Hughesovka ironworks, built by a Welshman in the 19th Century, but all he could see was a small ledge of a roof. So, taking a piece of under-cooked bread, he would practise throwing it out onto that ledge, to see birds such as the Siberian accentor or Rock sparrow fly down to claim the prize.

At 11 am, the alarm sounded again, and he was taken back underground; where mould had blossomed across the grey concrete walls and the sound of clanging doors echoed. For the next 23 hours, apart from once a week in the baths, this was all the world he knew. Sure, the television that the doctor’s mother had rented for the two of them offered a window to more – but all the channels were Russian and all the news was propaganda. 

He watched sports. Took delight when the Russian team were banned from marching under their flag following the 2018 Winter Olympics doping scandal. He read books by Enrique Remarquez and the Polish philosopher Zenon Kosidowski. He sewed socks with a needle and thread smuggled into his cell using the age-old trick of being baked in a pie. And he practised his Spanish, writing insults about Vladimir Putin on his cell’s toilet paper.

The hours passed. Sand in a glass. He tried not to think of the time separatists had chained him to a radiator. When they had put on a TV at full volume showing the 2014 comedy series Kvartal 95, starring the now Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. It was so loud he didn’t sleep for three days. Weeks’ old bottles of piss had lined that room, and he still remembers the smell.

He tried, too, not to think of the time they made a noose out of the Ukrainian flag and placed it over his head. Or when they put a gun to his temple and, laughingly, told him these were his final moments.   

The insults about Vladimir Putin Oleh Galzyuk wrote on toilet paper to practice his Spanish. Photo: Iain Overton

Instead, he killed the cockroaches that came into his cell, pouring boiling water down into the thin cracks that traced up the walls. He would strip off the labels of cured sausages and canned vegetable and paste them against the leprous surfaces. And he’d work out ways to feed the tree outside his bars, squirting water through the gaps and blowing ash onto its roots.

In this way, the hours passed, until dinner came at 7 pm, roughly ladled onto plastic bowls held through prison doors. Then, it was only another three hours before the night-guards came and music was banned, and the lights were dimmed, but not put out.

The other prisoners would get high during this time, smoking noxious mixes of chemicals and dope. But he chose, instead, to write a small diary – noting what he had read, what he had done, what he had thought. After all, if words had put him there, perhaps they could release him.

Like this, the long days and months passed, until a prisoner exchange was arranged and he was bussed out to a freezing border in the depths of December. There, along with 78 others, he was traded for other prisoners, held by Ukraine. There, he felt freedom again, leaving behind the doctor who was facing 12 more years of a sentence passed down.

Today, as he tells the story of the life he once lived, he says his memory is as clear as water. That he sometimes dreams of being back there, in the depths, watching the moon. And, even though so much of what he says cannot be corroborated and cannot be proven, one truth in his words slips like a confession from his mouth: he does not regret writing the words that others locked him up for.

Because, for him – for the prisoner they once knew as Socrates – his truth has come, not only from knowing the hell of prison, but from knowing the joy of the freedom that was to follow.

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