Kazakh poet Aron Atabek, serving an 18-year sentence in a maximum-security penitentiary, has been held in solitary confinement since his book, The Heart of Eurasia, was published while he was in jail. He was previously held in solitary confinement for two years from 2010 to 2012 for refusing to wear a prison uniform. His book, a mixture of poetry and prose and a blunt critique of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, was smuggled out of prison and published on the Internet in 2012. Atabek was again placed in solitary confinement in December 2012 after authorities discovered the breach, and will reportedly stay there until the end of 2014.

Recently, Atabek was able to respond to a letter of support sent by German PEN. His personal message—including a poem written for German PEN—is below.

Letter to German PEN from Aron Atabek

I received your letter on September 17, 2013, in the “strict conditions” block of the LSP (life sentence prisoner) section of the prison in the city of Arkalyk.

I am touched by your attention and concern. In my books I often criticize the West’s liberalism for its double-standards: human right defenders attack the dictator’s (Nazarbayev’s) regime in Kazakhstan, while at the same time officials share hugs with the same dictator standing on a red carpet.

If there was no policy of double standards, democracy and social justice would be the winners in Kazakhstan (and in neighboring countries). We are sacrificing our lives and liberty to achieve this victory.

I hope there are persons in the West who are not drunk on Kazakh oil and gas, and for whom the principles of freedom and progress are more important than short-term economic profits.

I send you my response in the form of a poem. The philosopher said: “In one’s soul there is a miniature portrait of his nation.” The portrait of my people is in my poems. Your great classic, Goethe, said: “Only those who struggle for them deserve happiness and freedom!”

I hope we are worthy of freedom, democracy, and progress. I ask you to accept my poem—written especially for you—as a sign of great respect to your great nation and civilization.

Aron Atabek (Edigeev)
City of Arkalyk Prison,
Life Sentence Prisoner Section


(translated by Askar Aidarkhan, Aron Atabek’s son)

Dedicated to PEN Zentrum Deutschland, Hon-Prof. Dr. Sascha Feuchert, Manuel Emmerich

Poems of German genius
Where Mermaids and fairies live,
Schiller, Goethe, Heine —
And songs of Lorelei.

These poems are known to everyone —
I re-read them in my memory;
I listen to these songs,
Seated in my prison cell.

We are the nomads of Aryana,
Our god is Tengri* — the Sky.
Impassioned devotees of Truth,
We race through space and time.

In the saddles of Hunnish horses,
As princes we came to Europe:
Celestial people —
A breed of burnished gold.

As Poets-warriors we ascended the throne —
And Seri** became Herr and Sir!

We live in Germanic sagas —
In the heroic song of Beowulf.
We are alive in the greatest dramas —
Faust and Mephistopheles!

I can save my soul —
This spark of heavenly fire.
But though my fiery burden glows immortal,
I, mere mortal, wait in death’s cell.

We are the Knights of Aquarius —
Freedom’s warriors.
And the Lorelei sings to me
Her faerie songs.

The city of Arkalyk, “krytka”, LSP
УЧ УК 161/12

*Tengri is the Mongolian word for sky
**Seri means poet-warrior in Kazakh

To learn more about Aron Atabek, visit PEN International’s website.