One way or another all people who experienced August arrests are put under surveillance. Special Service agents posing as university professors talk to Lena A. Hanna L. receives phone calls from anonymous “well-wishers” who warn her about the consequences of her subversive activities such as playing at the neighborhood block concerts, for example. Yulia G. is identified in the crowd and snatched during one of the protest rallies. Phone conversations are listened to, the women are filmed, sometimes followed, their places of work or study receive requests for information about them.
All these are forms of covert surveillance, but Belarus has overt surveillance too, which is formally defined by article 48-1 of the Criminal Executive Code as "restriction of freedom without transportation to a correctional institution," or informally called “home chemistry.” The informal name comes from the widespread Soviet practice of sending convicts to construction sites, most often those related to the chemical industry, to serve their sentence.
Olga Pavlova is the only former inmate of cell #18 who lives under such surveillance. This earns her deep and absolute respect in the eyes of her former inmates.
“Home chemistry” turns a Belarusian citizen into an ideal subject of a totalitarian state. People who live under overt surveillance are required to always be in their house or a courtyard. They are only allowed to leave for work, study, or grocery shopping. Travel time to work is defined and approved in advance.
The supervised are required to be in their apartment from 7pm to 6 am. This means that they do not have a right to any kind of leisure, no theaters, restaurants, holidays, and, obviously, protest rallies. Visits to see close relatives are allowed but must be approved by the police in advance. People must wear an ankle monitor that cannot be removed. If the monitor breaks or its battery dies, the supervised must repair it or buy a new one at their own expense.
In addition, the supervised must call the police precinct, at set times and at least once a week, to report that they have not run away. Periodically, also usually once a week, they must go to the precinct for a preventative educational lecture. The lectures can also happen at other, not previously scheduled times. The police just call and summon people to the precinct. For the duration of “home chemistry” the supervised are required to be employed. If they do not have a job or the state considers it unsuitable, the authorities find work for them and the supervised do not have the right to decline it. In general, the jobs the police consider suitable for people on “home chemistry” are those of a cleaner or a janitor. When you arrive in Minsk and marvel at the city’s cleanliness, think of the article 48-1.
The law guaranteeing home privacy does not apply to people on “home chemistry,” the police can enter their apartment at any time of day or night. Alcohol is not allowed (no drugs either), even a beer is out of the question. People cannot even be in places that sell alcohol. So, a visit to a bar to celebrate a friend’s birthday is not allowed. All trips within Belarus can only be made with police permission. If people are in a different city for a business trip or a school matter, they must immediately register in a local police precinct. Trips outside of Belarus are completely forbidden.
The slightest violation of the order above results in the actual deprivation of freedom, transfer to a prison or correction facility.
“Home chemistry,” it follows, is an everyday threat of prison. You have no protection, no rights, a step in the wrong direction- and you are a prisoner.
You wake up in the morning and go to work. You go straight home when you are done. You can stop by a grocery store, but only with a police officer’s permission. You need to be home by 7pm stay inside, call the police, and confirm your trustworthiness. If the police come, let them in immediately. If they summon you, go without question. And then go to bed, and back to work in the morning. Any tyrant would tell you that this is how all citizens should live because otherwise all these citizens only give you a headache.
Provocateurs in the service
Olga Pavlova says that police officers’ task is not really to make sure all the rules of overt supervision are observed. Their task is to provoke the supervised, to make them break these rules.
They come late at night and pound on the door. Olga is not dressed, give me just a second to throw something on, but no - open immediately. If you don’t open, that’s a violation, off to prison.
They call from unknown numbers and order you to report to the precinct for a conversation. If you do not come, they will accuse you of disobeying. If you do come, they will say that no one called, nothing is recorded in their log, Olga Pavlova’s phone records would show no calls from this precinct. This means that she violated her personal schedule, left her house after 7pm and for whatever reason just showed up at the precinct. Either way, violated the instructions – can go to jail at any minute.
They do not like the money Olga makes. They want her to find a job they can understand, like that of a cleaner or a janitor. And when Olga tries to get registered as a self-employed artisan (for tax purposes), they ask what craft she would practice: sewing, knitting, macrame? Then please show all that has been sewn, knitted, woven every week. And don’t forget the invoices to account for all the pieces you gave to the city shops to sell.
In fact, Olga could have been transferred to prison many times over. They do not transfer her, Olga thinks, not because they feel bad for a single mother or sympathize the stunning blond, but because an entire police squad feeds off of one person under supervision.
Conduct conversations, register and re-register, record phone calls, obtain personal information and schedules from work, check locations of an ankle monitor, control its safety – it is a lot of work. Day and night, 24/7, a dozen adult males watch over a single woman because god forbid she has a sip of wine or meets a friend for coffee. The paperwork is filed, the duty is served.
On top of it all, as the experience of Yulia Filippova, Olga Pavlova, Yulia G. shows that when a person is already in prison, she soon ceases to be afraid of it. Prison is only scary when you enter it for the first time.
There is one more aspect that makes “home chemistry” convenient for a totalitarian state. Prisoners are expensive in the 21st century. They only made profit in the 20th: built railways, mined uranium, launched rockets and even designed an atomic bomb without any additional investment. Imprisoned workers lived in unheated barracks. Imprisoned engineers were happy to be in sharashkas in conditions hardly better than those of slums. And no big deal - they worked.
This isn’t possible in the 21st century. First, no one needs so much physical labor. Second, cameras and social networks are everywhere, it is no longer possible to keep prisoners as if they were cattle, at least in Europe. Third, the loyalty of the police is more expensive, it cannot be ensured by simply giving a young rural kid a small room in a dorm, a nice rifle and sergeant stripes, the price is steeper – no less than an apartment in the capital and early retirement.
In short, mass repressions in today’s world are too cost- prohibitive, particularly for dictatorial regimes that are usually not wealthy to begin with. This is what makes “home chemistry” a good solution. No need to build prisons – the inmates live in their own apartments and even pay tax and utilities. No need to feed the inmates – they earn their own keep and again, pay taxes. The government only needs money to cover salaries, pensions, and apartments for police officers. A dream come true for the jailers: exploit the prisoners and keep their earnings.
And all this does not entail special effort or serious risk, there is no need to invent sophisticated tortures, the supervised are always on the edge, always afraid to lose the comforts of their home, and do not have time to store desperate prison anger.
There is only one drawback in “home chemistry.” At some point the number of people under overt surveillance will be so high that everyone will realize how many of them are out there. There will come a day when sounds from ankle monitors start ringing in all police precincts. It will mean that all the supervised are out of control, left their houses and are going somewhere. Where are they going?