by Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac

In August 2015, Gabriela Bulisova and I worked in the only penal colony in Ukraine for women ages 14-20, which is located in the southeastern city of Melitopol. The project focused on the important recollections of the women who live in the penal colony. For 13 participating women, we created diptychs that include a portrait of each individual and an image of a place, object, photograph, or article of clothing that is particularly important to their memory. In some cases, the participating women are minors, so their faces cannot be shown. The women were also interviewed about the object they selected. For women who are incarcerated, memories of other times and places are particularly important to their identity. In fact, the interviews reveal that memories need not be solely focused on the past, but can be an inspiration to take action for the future.

Working with the residents of the Melitopol penal colony was one part of a larger “Festival of Memory” that also included volunteer participants from the city of Melitopol, a multicultural city that, prior to the Russian annexation of Crimea, was known as the gateway to the Crimean Peninsula. Both parts of the “Festival of Memory” were funded by Tandem and organized by Yulia Kostereva and Yuriy Kruchak of Open Place in Kiev, Ukraine. They were also carried out with the exceptionally welcoming and kind cooperation of the Melitopol Museum.



In this picture, my mother is 17 years old. It’s the first picture of her in her youth that I saw, and I realized how similar we look. Mom often jokes that I am her copy, except enhanced. When I saw the photograph, I was 14 years old, and I understood that we are very similar. This picture brought us even closer together because of that. Before then, I never asked her questions. When I was born, Mom was already an adult, and I didn’t think that we had anything to talk about, but in the moment I saw the picture, I knew we are on the same wavelength. And for me, she became always young and positive and joyful.


In March 2011, I started to keep a diary for my mother. At that time, I had already lived in prison for half a year, and I wrote my mother 11 letters, but I never received a response. Therefore, the moments that I wanted to discuss with her, the questions that I wanted to ask her, I wrote them in the notebook in the form of letters. I marked the dates when I wrote to her on different colored stickers that I also put in the notebook.

My mother finally wrote me a letter after one year. I got very happy and the response that I wrote to her was very long. I asked her how she was doing and why she did not write me. After a month, Mom wrote me an answer and gave me a telephone number. I called her. She was not sober. She began to chide me and we quarreled. As a result, I tore the notebook apart and threw it away. The stickers remained and they were there until 2014 when I started a new notebook. But by then, mother wasn’t there anymore.


My grandmother and my grandfather didn’t communicate, because my grandfather led a bad life — he drank and beat my mother and grandmother and threw them out onto the street. My grandmother harbored a great resentment toward him. They did not communicate for 20 years.

In 2010, for the first and only time in his life, he called me. He told me that he regrets that he mistreated my grandmother, that they don’t talk or even say hello if they happen to meet. I did not pay much attention to it all. He cried very much, and I felt joy in my heart that he is experiencing the same pain he inflicted upon my mother and my grandmother.

A few days later, I learned from my grandmother that he passed away. My grandmother did not go to the funeral, but she said that she forgave him, and she gave him her place in the cemetery.


I would like to tell a story about my toy. This toy was given to me ten years ago by my stepfather. It’s dear to me as a memory of him. He died of a disease after my mother separated from him. We continued to be in touch, but later on I accidentally dropped this toy that I was keeping into a fire. This photograph was made on Christmas when the whole family was together. This picture will always remind me about my stepfather. Always!


I love to draw. In the Zaporozhye region, where I live, I painted four drawings in the tradition of feng shui, something my mother practices. According to the teachings, I drew a dragon on the east side, a tiger on the west wall, a turtle on the north, and the south side features a phoenix.

The dragon signifies wealth. The tiger drives away all troubles. The phoenix promises well-being. And the turtle — I don’t remember what the turtle symbolizes. I finished all these pictures just a week before I had to leave home for the colony. I have not had a chance to color them yet, but I think [my family] will color them while I’m gone.


It just so happened in my life that nobody ever bought me anything. My mother drank her entire life, as far back as I can remember. At first, the money that she earned was spent, then the money that was given to us was spent, and then food and other things started to disappear from the house. Because of that, nobody ever bought anything for me.

Then, before I was sent to prison, my mother bought a bottle of shampoo for me. I was using it, washing my hair, but then, when there was just a little bit left, I decided to keep it. The bottle* was lying in my nightstand amongst my personal things. Every day, when I opened the nightstand and I saw the shampoo bottle, I remembered my mother. Then, I called home. At first, they didn’t want to tell me, but I heard in their voices that something had happened. Then they told me that my mother had died. From that point on, the bottle became especially precious to me. I take it out every day, I smell it, I hold it in my hands, and I remember my mother.

Now, it would be a great joy for me, even if for one minute, my mother were back. At home, I lived with her my whole life, but I didn’t appreciate her. But now I treasure every memory that is connected to her, no matter how simple or banal, good or even bad.

*Vika incorrectly expressed this word in the feminine in Russian, although the word is masculine.


I want to tell you about my life after I am released. I have a dream to open an orphanage for kids who have no parents. I feel deeply sorry for them. I would like to work with children; they are good and they need to be taught good things.

I am glad that I have reestablished a relationship with my mother and with my family, because previously, I had a bad attitude. I want all people, all boys and girls, to value their parents, because parents are the most important thing we have in our life.


I want to tell you about my postcards. Each card is associated with the memory of the person who wrote it; the kind of person, his character, and the relationship you have with him. And it makes you realize that this person left an imprint on your life and perhaps taught you certain things. I have different associations with them – some are good; some not as much. And that’s because different people left a different imprint on my soul. But when I think of it now, I’m trying to look at certain things differently, and I am trying to better understand people and become aware of the mistakes I’ve made.

One of the cards, the most important one for me, is from my mom and dad. When I first arrived here, I was really worried that I would not have a good relationship with my parents, that they wouldn’t like me anymore. And when I got the birthday card, I realized that they remember me and love me and that our relationship remained the same. I am so far away from them, but I’ll come back and be reunited with them.


When I was a child I saw several photo albums at my friend’s house. There were pictures of all their relatives for two generations. I did not even have a single picture of my mother, and we did not have a photo album. When I was 13, I decided to create an album. But there was no time, or I just wasted it, mainly. And now being here, I have plenty to think about because everything turned upside down in my life. So I put an album together. I call the album “Our Family Tree,” and I decided this will be a chronicle of one generation, because there were no picture of the earlier ones. Currently, there are five people on the tree, and they are starting to grow and blossom.


I want to tell you a story from my childhood. I was maybe three or four years old, I don’t remember, and I had a cousin, a year younger than me. We were very close friends, we always played together and we walked everywhere together. And one time we had a bad fight,  and we stopped talking to each other. But we shared all our toys, so we had to make up.

This was when we learned about God, who God is, and that we need to pray to him. And my cousin said to me: “Let’s pray to God that we’ll never fight again.” And the two of us kneeled down and prayed to God that we would never quarrel again. We believed in the prayer so much that we never quarreled again.

Remembering those moments, I feel the same feeling I felt then – happiness. But then there are other moments that I don’t want to remember, and I don’t know how to erase them from my memory.

My grandmother was a very dear person to me. There were times in my life when she replaced my mother. I spent most of my childhood with her. One of her traditions was to collect headscarves. When she started to collect them I asked her why she was doing it, and she told me it was for her funeral. I did not believe her. I did not want to accept that answer; it was just too hard to think of it. Then Grandma added, “When I die, I want you to know that they are in this wardrobe.”

About two weeks before my grandmother’s death, her house caught fire and burned down. She had already been ill, and she was not living there anymore. Grandpa was able to save some things but not all, but he did save her scarves. Now, seven years later, they lie in our wardrobe. And when I was still living at home, I would open the wardrobe, and there it was, the unforgettable smell of my grandmother. The headscarves are still there. They are old and perhaps useless, but my grandfather treasures them and will never throw them away.

There wasn’t really a good situation in my family, so I decided to learn how to box so that I could defend myself. Boxing was a sport that did not lead me in the right direction. Rather, it was how I expressed my frustration and gained the strength to accomplish my goals. It is said that boxing doesn’t develop aggression, but all the anger that I had in me, I decided to put into boxing. I wasn’t attached to the sport of boxing the way I was supposed to be. I trained, I went to matches, but I abused what I learned.

In the colony, for the first time I walked in shoes with heels. For me it was terribly uncomfortable, but I was also glad that I learned something new. I am grateful for the teacher who taught me how to do this. Here, I became somebody different. I am trying to be more feminine. I threw away my bad habits. When I look at this photograph, I immediately think of the life that I led before, filled with unpleasant situations. I cannot say that I have any warm memories, but I’m often reminded of bad and aggressive memories.

I have a sister, Olga, she is 22. She’s my co-offender. She is now in prison in Odessa, where she gave birth to a girl, Valeria, my niece. I have never seen her in person, but I have a picture of her. And this picture is very dear to me. I am very sad for Valeria to be in prison. She’s little, and I do not want her to stay there. I want to get out and take her away from there so she can grow up in freedom.