There’s a reason Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn referred to a chain of islands in the title of The Gulag Archipelago, his book on the horrors he had experienced first-hand of the gulags in the ‘40s and ‘50s. The prison system consisted of remote, closed universes, which could only be reached by gruelling journeys, and which were designed to entirely cut prisoners off from society. This forced exile not only minimised escape attempts through the frozen expanses of the taiga but compounded the weight of solitude and a sense of being consigned to forgotten oblivion. This isolation was, after all, as much psychological as it was physical — a way to break the spirits of prisoners, as their ties to family and community belonging were reduced to memory and a sluggish, censored trickle of letters. There was very little to offer solidarity and succour, in other words, against the labour camps’ abyss of dehumanising brutality.
The detention centres of Belarus are not gulags — but they too use isolation as a psychological weapon. Tens of thousands have been arrested in connection to the mass protests over last year’s undemocratic election and the declared victory of Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power for 27 years, amid widespread allegations . . .
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