Yulia Tymoshenko: Letter from Prison

From her cell, Ukraine’s opposition leader finds solace in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and calls for faith and defiance

Opinion | Yuliya Tymoshenko | March 2012

It has been said that there are no atheists in a foxhole. Here, after my show trial and four and a half months in a cell, I have discovered that there are no atheists in prison, either.

When, despite unbearable pain, you are interrogated – including in your cell – for dozens of hours without a break, and an authoritarian regime’s entire system of coercion, including its media, is trying to discredit and destroy you once and for all, prayer becomes the only intimate, trusting, and reassuring conversation that one can have. God, one realizes, is one’s only friend and only available family, because – deprived even of access to a trusted priest – there is no one else in whom to confide one’s worries and hopes.

Over Christmas, the season of love and family, the loneliness of the prison cell was almost unbearable. The grey, dead silence of night (guards peer in voyeuristically through a slot in the door), the sudden, disembodied shrieks of prisoners, shrieks of distress and rage, the distant rattles and clangs of prison bolts: all make sleep impossible, or so restless as to be a torment.

But what is strange is that your senses are not dulled by this dead and dreadful world. On the contrary, they are ignited by it: your mind is set free from mundane concerns to ponder the inestimable and your place within it – a freedom of spirit that is a truly unexpected gift. In the cell’s darkness, I gather strength and hope from the fact that God somehow seems so near to me here. For where else but with those who suffer and are persecuted?

Indeed, I have recently been reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s sublime and challenging letters from prison, in which he yearns for a Christ capable of offering mercy to a world then being martyred for a single man. Written in a cramped, dank, and putrid cell, where hope was meant to die before the body, Bonhoeffer crafted a book rich in faith, openness, possibility, and, yes, hope – even in humanity’s darkest hour.

One particular passage resonates with me as I contemplate Ukraine’s plight. As he awaited his approaching execution by the Nazis, Bonhoeffer wrote that, in prison, "the godlessness of the world is not... concealed but, rather, revealed and exposed to an unexpected light."

So I take some comfort in knowing that the godlessness, inhumanity, and criminality of the regime that is now ruling in Kiev is, at long last, being exposed to the world in a clear light. Its democratic posturing has been unmasked as cynical political theatre, its claim to desire a European future for Ukraine’s people revealed to be a lie, and the rapaciousness of its kleptocrats has been laid bare. The regime’s contempt for the constitution and the rule of law is now undeniable, and that clarity is empowering.

More importantly, the suffering of Ukraine’s people has also become more widely known, and we are no longer so alone in our plight. Alleviating it has been embraced as a just cause across Europe and around the world. The everyday oppression, stifled media, and shakedowns and extortion of businesses for bribes all point to a mafia state on Europe’s border. Now our European friends can no longer deny the smug vileness of the regime with which they are forced to deal. Ukrainians will be strong, knowing that they are not alone in their fight.

I do not pretend to be an expert on religious faith and spiritual values. I am only a believer who cannot accept that our existence is the result of some freak cosmic accident. We are, I believe, part of a mysterious yet integral act. Though difficult to grasp at times, it does have meaning and purpose – even when one is confined behind prison bars.

It is only faith in the idea that our lives matter, and that our decisions must be judged by their moral content, that we in Ukraine, and elsewhere, will be able to find our way out of the misery and despair that has consumed us over the last two years. It is within our power to reinvigorate our freedoms and our societies, not by individual efforts, but by joining forces with like-minded people all over the world. I know that we will manage this.

I ask my friends everywhere not to worry about me. As Anna Akhmatova, the great poetic chronicler of Stalin’s terror, said: "I am alive in this grave."  Indeed, I am more alive, I know, than the men who have imprisoned me here.

As Bonhoeffer affirmed with his last words: "This is for me... the beginning of life."

Yulia Tymoshenko,

Lukyanivska Prison, Kiev


Yulia Tymoshenko was Ukraine’s prime minister from

2007 to 2010, and a leader of the country’s "Orange Revolution"

– a 150,000-strong protest against electoral fraud by President Viktor Yanukovych in 2004. Tymoshenko received a seven-year prison sentence last October – supposedly for overstepping her powers as prime minister in a gas-deal with Russia – in a trial widely seen as retribution by her rival, President Yanukovych.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.

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