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Ukrainian Journalist in Russian Prison Makes Art with Tea, Ink, and Onion Skins

Throughout the ages, incarcerated people have had to make do with what they can find, when trying to express themselves artistically.

Whether it’s a writer using toilet paper, a sculptor using old newspapers to make papier mache or a seamstress using old clothing and sheets for a quilt, ingenuity is often the key.

The Unique Tools and Mediums used by Imprisoned Artists

There are those who believe that truly good art is only created by artists who’ve mastered their craft by practising for years with premium materials and tools.

They might be surprised to learn that there have been scores of impressive artists creating unique and breathtaking work from inside the confines of a prison cell. Art can have a transformative power that affects not only the artist but those who appreciate it.

The fact that a piece might have been crafted from materials such as candy wrappers, bed sheets, floor wax, wood scraps and cardboard is a testament to the ingenuity of inmates who have limited access and gives the work more substance.

While some more enlightened prison systems have art programs, many rural institutions might be pushed to give their inmates access to paper and pencils. It’s much worse in countries where human rights abuses are accepted as the norm, especially if you’re a prisoner.

Portrait of a Prison Artist

From 2002 to 2010, Roman Sushchenko was employed by Ukrinform, Ukraine’s news service. As from 2010, he was a correspondent reporting on culture and the arts in France, including political reports and exposing Russia’s propaganda that was infiltrating the country’s news agencies.

Along with other journalists in France, he criticized the Russian documentary, “Ukraine: Masks of the Revolution”, which was exposed for misrepresenting the events of the Maidan. This could be one of the reasons he was targeted once he arrived in Russia that fateful day in September 2016.

The Detention of Roman Sushchenko

Traveling to Moscow on vacation to visit family members, Roman Sushchenko was detained at the airport in Moscow, Russia on the 30th of September 2016. Charged with espionage, he has been incarcerated in Lefortovo Prison ever since then.

Sushchenko was not allowed to call his wife. He advised that he was psychologically tormented, with authorities deciding at that time not to advise his family, the Ukranian government or his employer of the situation, which violated international law.

His wife was horrified to learn of his predicament three days later.

Under article 276 of the Criminal Code, Sushchenko could be held for 10 to 20 years with the charge of espionage and Ukraine’s Defense Ministry refutes the statement by the FSB that this prisoner is “a member of the principal intelligence services of Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense.”

Continually extending the term of his pre-trial detention, the court system sentenced Sushchenko to 2 months imprisonment on October 1st 2016. For the first time since his arrest, he was allowed to speak to his son on May 31st 2017, but only for 10 minutes.

He was sentenced again on June 27th 2017, with a further term to be served until September 30th 2017. His Defense Attorney was not allowed access to him for a while and then he appealed the decision to detain him until September, which was rejected on July 13th 2017.

Sushchenko’s employer and his colleagues tried to help him by guaranteeing his reputation as an exemplary journalist, suggesting that the charge of espionage was a provocation, which was also rejected by the courts in Moscow.

As he continues his seemingly endless sentence, while his attorney tries new tactics such as appealing to the Russian President for an exchange, the Moscow court has extended his stay for at least another 6 months.

Heartbreaking Art using Ink, Tea and Onion Skins

His daughter Julia only recently discovered the amazing artwork created by her father while enduring his imprisonment in the Lefortovo detention center.

She and her mother were finally allowed to visit Sushchenko in August 2017 and were relieved to find him in good health, despite the conditions.

Created in August and December 2017, Julia first saw them on April 3rd 2018 and posted two of them on Facebook, which were drawn with pencil and pen on onion skins, along with the use of tea for coloring.

One is a beautifully detailed drawing that depicts a courtyard in the suburbs of Parma, an Italian city. The tiles and brickwork of the old buildings are painstakingly recreated and the shadows in the doorways hint at the sunshine Sushchenko might never see as a free man again.

Complete with cobblestones, clouds and a fountain in the center of the courtyard, you can imagine walking the ancient streets; such is the realism employed by this unfortunate, talented artist.

The other drawing is of the Ar Men lighthouse in France’s Brittany, with various shades of white and blue for the sky and the ocean. The lighthouse stands in the foreground, sustaining a large wave crashing against it from behind.

Breathtakingly realistic, this picture could be interpreted as a depiction of a stoic prisoner standing resilient against the torrent of lies and trumped up charges that continue to wash over him.

He may be detained, but his spirit remains unbroken. We hope that the lighthouse of truth and justice shines a light of freedom on Roman Sushchenko soon.

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