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‘My child was there, all alone — that’s all I could think about’ In a heart-wrenching excerpt from her book, Russian activist Anastasia Shevchenko recalls losing her daughter while under house arrest

Source: Meduza
Vasily Deryugin / Kommersant

Anastasia Shevchenko was the first person in Russia to be charged with the criminal offense of taking part in the activities of an “undesirable” organization. At the time, she was a member of the federal board of the human rights group Open Russia. A criminal case was launched against her for organizing a political debate and publishing a post about a lecture. Shevchenko was placed under house arrest on January 23, 2019, and on February 18, 2021, she was sentenced to four years’ probation. While under house arrest, Shevchenko was initially denied permission to visit her eldest daughter Alina, who was in the hospital in critical condition. A judge eventually allowed Shevchenko to go to her daughter’s side the night before she passed away. Earlier this year, Anastasia Shevchenko published a book titled “Undesirable” (edited by Olga Borisova). Meduza shares a translated excerpt from her memoir here.

In the morning, I called Alina. The care home’s phone number was saved under my daughter’s name. I usually spoke with a medical assistant, and over the years, we had come to recognize each other’s voices. I was terrified that Alina would get sick. She couldn’t get sick now. The assistant immediately reassured me: her condition was stable, but she needed medicine — nothing too serious, just as a precaution. I warned her that my phone number had been disconnected, and if something were to happen suddenly, she would need to call Alina’s grandmother or father. She promised to get her the medication. This conversation calmed me down. 

On the day of the house arrest appeal, my husband called my mother and said that Alina had fallen ill, nevertheless. Bronchitis. And they were taking her to the hospital in Zverevo, for some reason, and not to the one in Shakhty as usual. I was overcome with despair. I had to persuade the court to let me go to the hospital to arrange everything, bring the necessities, find an aide, and hold Alina’s hand for a bit. I showed them how small my daughter’s body was, how she had to be held during feeding. I explained that even the most trivial illness could be her last. Judge Ishchenko listened to me with a smirk. My appeal was denied. 

I was forced to ask my husband through Vlada to find an aide for Alina, or, even better, to go there himself. He couldn’t go. He has a new family; tomorrow was his little daughter’s birthday. But he promised to find a aide. 

An interrogation and an indictment were awaiting me the next day. There’s nothing scary about that when you’re with two lawyers — it’s just a pile of paperwork. But after the interrogation, my lawyer told me that Alina was in intensive care. I felt as if I’d been stunned. Investigator Kuchin bustled around, scrambling to negotiate something. He called the care home and then the hospital. We waited and waited for a fax from the doctor to confirm that my daughter was in the ICU. 

At the same time, we looked for somebody who was prepared to take me to Zverevo. The fax didn’t come through. For permission to leave, it was absolutely necessary to provide the license plate number of the car I’d be riding in. I sat in silence. My child was there, all alone — that’s all I could think about. Because criminal charges had been brought against her mother over two lectures, and because now a bunch of cops couldn’t get the necessary paperwork together. The ICU. She’d never been in the ICU before. Was this really it? Hadn’t they said it was just bronchitis? 

It was Natalia who rescued me yet again. She waited outside the Investigative Committee office for several hours, ready to drive me to Zverevo. 

It was late at night when my lawyers and I finally received permission to break house arrest and go to the hospital for three days. It was dark and cold; snow swirled above the city. We got home, I sat down in the kitchen and let my hands drop. Natalia, it seemed, had run off to the store for diapers and formula. My mother and Vlada paced around me, nervous, worrying for us both: the road ahead was difficult — two hours on ice in a snowstorm. Natalia tried to talk me out of leaving so late at night — after all, they wouldn’t even let me see Alina this late. But I needed to go. I had to go that night. And we set off. Natalia tried to distract me with conversations the entire way. We drove slowly, creeping through the fog. You couldn’t see a single thing. The investigator called Natalia a couple of times to ask where we were, whether we had strayed in the direction of Ukraine. Very funny. There had never been any proper roads to Zverevo, especially not that night. We drove through the terrible potholes in complete darkness. I hardly recognized the city. The entry point to the hospital was already closed, of course, as was the front door. Natalia and I ran along the fence, across the ice, searching for any kind of way in. I was ready to climb over the fence. 

Some nurses came across us. Natalia haltingly explained that I had an ankle monitor, I couldn’t use the phone, I couldn’t talk to anybody, but I really needed to see my daughter. They wouldn’t let me into the ICU, they asked me to wait until morning, and put me in the ward where Alina would be the next day. Her empty bed stood in the corner. I settled myself nearby, took the diapers and formula out of my bag, and began to cry. If only she could use all this stuff, if only she’d be returned to the ward! The ICU was in a completely different building, you had to take a snow-covered pathway to get there, and after that, you still had to walk through the long corridors filled with people. 

In the morning, the doctors gathered for a briefing, and I paced about the room in anticipation. I knew absolutely nothing about Alina’s condition, what had happened, and why bronchitis had such an effect. Entering the ward, the doctor immediately told me that her condition was serious, and her breathing was zero. I didn’t understand what “zero” meant. The doctor explained: Alina couldn’t breathe on her own; her lungs were being artificially ventilated. Yesterday she’d had a high fever that they couldn’t bring down, then her heart stopped. They got her heart going, but my daughter was still unconscious and couldn’t breathe on her own. I could go to the ICU right now. The doctor spoke to me as if I already knew this, but I didn’t know a single thing and couldn’t have even imagined that everything was this bad. Why had her heart stopped? What would’ve happened if I had been there, holding her hand?

They led me along a narrow path to the ICU. It was a freezing, impossibly beautiful morning. The sun shone, the tall trees all around were completely white and sparkling, they swayed in the wind with a light creak, a thin crust of ice crunched underfoot, and the air was scaldingly fresh. They asked me to wait at the ICU’s entrance. There, finally, I saw a familiar face — the medical assistant from the care home. She walked outside, opening the heavy door, and talked with somebody, not yet noticing me. I heard a snippet of their conversation: “…they’re going to gradually turn off the ventilator and start her lungs.” Did that mean there was still a chance? 

I really wanted somebody to reassure me and say that everything would be okay, but on that day people spoke to me like an adult, directly, without preamble. The medical assistant asked me to prepare for the worst, to remember that for Alina, this might be for the best; after all, my child had been suffering for so many years. I just nodded silently: I couldn’t talk because of the lump in my throat. Finally, the intensive care doctor arrived — a very pleasant and beautiful young woman. She handed me a white gown and told me to follow her. In the intensive care ward, on white sheets, surrounded by all kinds of devices and wires, three people lay in a row: my Alina and two very old grandfathers. And the grandfathers looked far healthier, peering at me with curiosity, while Alina did not even open her eyes. I’d never seen her like this. She’d gotten even smaller, completely hunched over, her skin was pale blue, there were tubes in her mouth, there were traces from injections on her thin, little legs and marks on her chest from something round, too. There was barely any life left in her; she was hanging by a fine thread. I burst into tears. My head started spinning, I began to fall, but the doctor caught me and sat me down next to Alina. I’d caught the tubes that extended to Alina as I fell, and I got scared that I could harm her, so I tried to pull myself together somehow and, at the very least, bawl silently. I sat on the edge of the couch, listened to my daughter’s breathing, understanding that it was not hers — it was artificial. 

I held her completely cold, thin palm, unsuccessfully trying to warm it, and gazed at dear, dear face of my little girl. The curls at the nape of her neck had settled into rings; her eyelashes were long and curled, just like Misha’s; her nose was like mine, except that it was beautiful. At that moment, Alina looked just like me — exhausted, worn-out me. We had spent only a few minutes together, very little time. I should have been holding her hand yesterday, too; today was already too late. The pulmonologist came into the ICU, and I was asked to leave. I still couldn’t calm down and sobbed periodically — this happens to children, when they cry for a long time, but I’m an adult. I apologized to the doctor for my lack of self-control. The doctor put her hand on my shoulder and said that she was very moved by my tears and my love, because “usually nobody cares about such children.” And she added that I am a good mother.

I walked back to the children’s wing alone. I didn’t have the strength to go inside. I wanted to collapse into the snow and weep. I stood by the door, sobbing, with red eyes, until a nurse walked out, who’d evidently been watching me from the window. She called me inside; I asked for a couple more minutes to compose myself. When I finally went in, the nurse asked me matter-of-factly: “She died?” Nobody tiptoed around me that day.

We agreed that I’d be let back into the ICU again at three o’clock in the afternoon, and in the meantime, the doctors would work on Alina. Wiping the tears from my face, I went back to the ward. Some women in white smocks came in to support me, and I learned that one of them was our aide. She told me how it had been for Alina in the hospital without me. There was nothing to feed her — after all, she could only be fed pureed food, and the hospital didn’t have any. The aide had even run home to get her chicken broth. Her diapers also went unchanged for a long time. In the aide’s words, when she arrived, Alina had “crapped herself up to her ears,” and she had to draw a bath and wash her, which was far from a simple task. That poor child of mine. All alone. Not cared for by anyone. 

Then another woman in a white smock came up to me with a mop and also burst into tears. She told me that she had nothing to live on, that she was forced to work a side job and wash the floors for 100 rubles a day just to survive. My head was aching from the tears and the horror of what was happening, and I lay down on the bed and fell asleep. 

I don’t know how long I slept, probably twenty minutes or half an hour. I woke up because it seemed as though somebody was standing nearby. I jolted upright. In the corridor, steps could be heard, and a man’s voice rang out: “The little disabled girl has died.” “Poor thing,” answered a woman’s voice. There was a large window across from my bed, on the other side of it tall, frost-covered trees were swaying. “Fly, my little bird,” I said, staring at the bright blue sky. 

About five minutes later, the doctor and medical assistant came into the room. I was crying by the window. They didn’t say anything and immediately got down to business: we had to organize the funeral, usually the care home handles this, and the children are buried in Zverevo, they needed my consent. In my mind, I thanked them for talking to me without a note of pity, in a business-like manner. I couldn’t bear their pity. I answered that I’d take care of the burial myself, that I’d take Alina to Rostov, take her back home. Nobody at the care home had done this before, so I had to clarify the details and write down instructions — where and when to collect the body, what documents to receive and where. The medical assistant kept calling somewhere and making inquiries. The doctor called my attention to another matter. 

As it turned out, the media had written that I was dissatisfied with the hospital and upset that I hadn’t been let into the ICU. I couldn’t understand it. The doctor could see that I didn’t have a phone, and I hadn’t talked with a single person. I had no idea how the media knew I was in the hospital. The doctor clarified that the media knew my daughter had died, and they were blowing up the chief physician’s phones. How did they know, if I’d just found out myself? And then I realized that the doctor had called my husband and mother first, and my mother had called my lawyer or Natalia. And then it made its way to the media. So the journalists had learned about everything before me. They invited me into the chief physician’s office to explain myself. I couldn’t pull myself together, I couldn’t grasp it. My eyes were swollen from tears, my head was hurting. Ten minutes ago, I had learned that Alina was gone, and I already had to go somewhere and explain myself. In the meantime, I was terribly worried about my mother. How had she handled the news? Who was there to support her? I had to go home. I called my husband from the chief physician’s phone to ask him to take the next day off to organize the funeral and pick me up. Sasha picked up the phone. As it turned out, he was already on his way to get me. 

I went to offer an explanation, walking along the very same snow-covered path, and then through the very same crowded corridors. Everybody was looking at me, somebody called after me: “What, did they tell you the wrong diagnosis too?”

In the chief physician’s office were her deputy and the familiar intensive care doctor. Seeing my my swollen face, the doctors offered their condolences and got straight to the point: “What are you unhappy with? What crime did you commit that the media is writing about you? What are your complaints?” I didn’t have any complaints. I could only think about where Alina was now. I didn’t see the point of the conversation until they brought me a printed-out article. I briefly ran my eyes across the page and said I didn’t have anything to do with this, and I was ready to thank the doctors in writing for everything they’d done for my daughter if necessary. Just then, a priest stepped into the office without knocking, and before saying a single word, sprinkled holy water onto us. My eyes widened in surprise. Embarrassed, the chief physician explained with a smile that today, the hospital’s services were “all-inclusive”: they provide treatment and forgive sins. I smiled, too, for the first time in a long while. We parted on a peaceful note. At the building’s exit, I met the nurse aide from the care home, who hugged me tightly. I thanked her for all she’d done for my little girl, for her care and sensitivity. In response, I heard for the second time that day: “You’re a good mother, I can tell.” 

I trudged along the path to the children’s wing. I wanted less than anything to be left alone in the ward, next to the empty bed. Fortunately, my husband was already waiting for me at the entrance. I didn’t understand how he had gotten here so quickly — it took two hours to drive on the ice. I’d probably lost track of time. We hugged wordlessly. At that moment, he became completely dear to me again. After all, it was his daughter, too — he’d rocked her in his arms, bathed her, watched cartoons with her. I asked Sasha to tell the investigator that we were leaving and went to collect my things. 

There was a uniformed man waiting for me in the ward — a corrections officer. He’d come to verify that I wasn’t committing any violations and that I hadn’t run away. I felt the hospital staff grow indignant; the women in the white smocks began to explain that I’d just lost my daughter and, naturally, hadn’t left the hospital. The man answered that he’d assumed so, that he was just fulfilling the instructions of his superiors. I didn’t have the strength to argue. I showed him my documents and my purse, which held only some things and a book. “The Empire Must Die.” The inspector completed his task and left, but they didn’t give me permission to leave for another 40 minutes. I stopped trying to understand what was happening and why. First, they wouldn’t let me go to the hospital, now they wouldn’t let me leave. The whole time, my husband and I sat in the car and talked — about what, I don’t remember.

I met Sasha in the spring of 2000. He wasn’t at all my type — a childish face, blond-haired, blue-eyed, eyebrows barely visible, hair cut short, like a hoodlum from “Yeralash.” A young lieutenant who preferred a sporty style and baseball hat over a uniform and cap. Once we were visiting mutual friends, it was noisy and cheerful, everyone was engrossed in conversations and arguments. The hosts had a little kid at home, probably about two or three years old. Out of all the grown-ups, he had only taken a liking to Sasha. And Sasha, in turn, forgetting about everything else, happily sat down to play and spent the entire evening with the child. They laughed and babbled, ran around and hid, and I watched with a smile. “This guy’s going to be such a good dad,” I thought. Soon after, we began dating, and within half a year, we’d married. And Sasha is a good father, as a matter of fact. He can do it all: change diapers, bathe, play, feed, tuck the kids into bed. He stayed home with Alina on paternity leave while I was taking my state exams, carried Vlada in his arms, and he plays games with Misha to this day. The most important thing of all is that he loves his children. He doesn’t know how to raise them, he just loves them. I chose a father for my children rather than choosing an ideal husband for myself. For us, it’s better to be friends. 

He kept himself calm, but I knew it was terrible for him too. He lost a child on his youngest daughter’s birthday, and now a birthday and a day of death would forever be entwined. He should have been spending this day in a celebratory mood, but instead of cake and balloons, there would be funeral chores. 

Alina is no more. Is this better for her? Yes, it probably is, her suffering is over. But she died alone among strangers, she didn’t have a chance to see her mama, and I didn’t have the chance to help her. I know I could have — I’ve spent many nights and days sitting at my children’s bedsides when they were sick. I know it helps them. I will never forgive Judge Ishchenko for not letting me go to the hospital.

Translation from Russian by Helen Poe

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