About the Artist

Awards & Honors













Episodes from an English Prison

In 2000, the Georgian non­conformist artist Vladimir Kandelaki, spent just over a month under lock and key in Wormwood Scrubs, London. He was arrested off a BA flight from Tbilisi, charged with drinking, smoking and sexual harassment aboard. He was wearing a Cossack general's uniform at the time. Kandelaki denied the charges and they were later with­drawn for lack of evidence, after 6 months' bail in London. Recently, he published a book about his English prison experiences. It includes his equally unfortunate 'adventures' in America.


Bikov, apologetic and embarrassed, requested the bottom bunk:

"Volodya, it won't be easy for me to get up there..."

I've always pre­ferred the top shelf myself - in train com­partments, and even more so in this instance. Up top I've always felt freer: no one reels past, no one sits down on you; and here there was the bonus of being closer to the window. Also, one had to take Bikov's          colossal weight into account...

"Are you out of your mind?" I replied. "Having you on top of me is the last thing I need. You'd go through the bunk and crush me. And any­way you wouldn't be able to get up there without the assistance of an entire army divi­sion with a winch".

Bikov was very happy and whispered to himself: "And we can talk..."

Looking around the narrow cell, he began thinking aloud: "It's no worse than an international train compartment, except that the toilet's in here with us".

On the walls there were some half-clad women torn from newspapers, and football timetables.

Most people thought Bikov was insane, which I could not agree with. I was even glad that I had guardianship over him, as it were. 


It was time for lunch... Bikov got out his customary sign: "I'm a Muslim. No pork." It produced differ­ent reactions from the multinational kitchen staff: smiles, confusion or astonishment. I noticed that on this occasion every single main course was pork. I kept quiet. Having taken our portions back to our cell, I watched Bikov attentively. He was finishing his lunch with appetite.

"You know you just ate pig?"

"I know. But what could I do? It tasted nice."

Keeping up the conversation, I asked:

"So how did you become a Muslim?"

"Well I just told myself I was, and that's it."

"How d'you mean?"

"I have a copy of the Koran," -Bikov answered with pride.

"Well so do I, and what's more it's an ancient manuscript which is in my Tbilisi collection. But this does not mean that I'm a Muslim. You know very well that they have their traditions, priest, mullahs and prayers. It's not enough to just have the Koran lying around in some trunk somewhere..."

"Well I don't think all that stuffs obligatory," - mumbled Ivan.

"By the way, on your sign the word 'Muslim' is written with an 'N' -'Muslim'.

"That can't be possible, I checked it."

"So go ahead and check..."

I wasn't about to quarrel with him about it.


There was a temporary break in the football. It looked like I would have to sit under lock and key with a sleeping Bikov. The evening did not show much promise. But somehow we found an interesting programme about plastic surgery on TV. Bikov suddenly and unexpectedly began to demonstrate his knowledge of the human anatomy.

"How do you know all that?"

"I was interested in medicine once."

"Bikov, you mean to tell me you wanted to enter medical institute?"

"No, I just had a lot of books. I was interested in criminal medicine mostly. As for higher education, I wanted the Academy of Arts -1 even attended some courses."

"And at the time, did you also intend to become Adolph II? You and Hitler have similar biographies. He also applied to the Academy of Arts, but didn't get in. If only the examiners had known -that instead he'd embark down a bloody path from which they themselves would suffer- then they'd have welcomed him with open arms. And as for your Jewishness and your Adolphism, you and yours would've been the first ones he'd have turned his atten­tions to."

But I didn't want to get onto this theme with him, as far as we lived in one cell a difference of opinion wouldn't have led to anything good. Though I was interested in his posi­tion and the substance of his idea. To my concrete question he replied:

"Naturally. This means that's how it was meant to be."

"But then there'd have been no Adolph II. That is - you."              ,,-s

"Yes but I exist."

..."Bikov, you can tell a person's age from his teeth you know. But not from yours. By the way, how do you manage to keep them in such good condition, especially having a sweet-tooth and when you don't clean them. I've never once seen you with a toothbrush.

"Tea, Volodya, with tea." .   "What with chifii* in Vorkuta?" ^   "That as well."

"That means you had time to look after yourself. I never had the time, nor the desire, nor the means. Especially not in America, in one of my most difficult periods without a sponsor or a translator... Bikov, have you ever pulled your own tooth  out?”

"Of course not."

"Well I had no choice. In the absence of tongs, pliars, or any kind of instrument whatsoever, I made use of a plain steel nail file. By bending back the end, -I used it like a hook. Wobbling loose the bad tooth, I broke it in half and sticking the bent end of the 'instrument' into the gum, I began to force my way in... Then I hooked onto half of the tooth with the file, which levered it up and it unexpectedly leapt out. The tooth ricocheted off the wall into the far corner of the room. I found it there some days later and was sur­prised at its size. The remaining root was more difficult. Whatever I tried it just didn't want to come out. I used the file, my hands, shoving the file deeper and deeper with the aid of my fingers. Tearing my lips and almost breaking my jaw, I gradually teased it out. The 'operation' lasted almost 3 hours, maybe more. And you talk about tea...

Meanwhile, back in Tbilisi every­one envied me and said that Kandelaki had left everything and everyone to go and have a good time in America.

After a few days my absent sponsor, that conman, finally turned up. Pointing to my tooth, he asked (he knew about my torturous tooth aches):

"Medicine - interesting?"

I replied "Tsenkyu very match", meanwhile thinking: "somehow I've managed without you, you bastard. Well let's go to sleep, Bikov. If you need any little ser­vice, just let me know. I don't have the nail file, but we'll find some other suitable replacement."

I had the impression that Bikov had already fallen asleep. I won­dered whether he'd heard the end of my story.


Ivan was grumbling and pacing around the cell.

"Volodya, however much I sweep this floor it's dusty again."

Then he had some kind of illumination  and  suddenly  with   horror, realised:

"Ah but it's prison dust, how did I fail to see that before!"

"What d'you mean 'prison dust'? You want to say it's eternal or some­thing? Are you going mystical on me? - that dust is indelible, perma­nent, what? Take a look at the floor, have a good look - d'you see any blood stains? As much as you scrub, you won't get rid of those traces of prisoners tortured before us."

Bikov looked at the floor and fell silent.

"I was only talking about dust... Volodya."

"And I'm talking about ghosts. Who knows who was here before us and what happened in this prison, even in this very cell?"

Adolph II quickly lay down and got under his covers. Evidently, he wasn't ready for meetings with ghosts. But anyway, walking barefoot on the floor suddenly didn't seem like a very inviting prospect. »


The older prisoner, comparatively respectable-looking but twitchy and ner­vous, turned out to be an egotistic, Scrooge-like psy­chopath. I made least of all contact with him and didn't even attempt to remember his name. From his expla­nations, I understood that he'd been arrested for an argument with his wife, dur­ing which he poured petrol over her. With the aid of a lighted cigarette, mimicry and the sound "fu"*, I tried to establish whether he'd actually set her alight. It seemed that he under­stood, because he answered indignantly:

"No, no," waving his hands - to signify that he was no murderer.

Our dialogue continued. I remembered some English words and asked:

"Wife no goot?"

"Very goot," he replied.

"So what was with the petrol?" I mean, why did he pour it over her if she was "very goot"? He pointed a finger at himself, to explain that it was he that was bad.

I know the peculiar qualities of petrol because I have person­ally experienced them. There was an occasion when we were travelling to the mountainous region of Khevsureti by car. Our tank was empty and we couldn't manage to find a flat place to fill it up. At last we found a relative­ly level place in the shade of trees by a stream. The car was so red-hot that it was impossible to get even close. 1 put the petrol canister on the ground, opened it, and from strong pressure it blew up. Petrol gushed straight into my face. .1 was so surprised I didn't have time to close my eyes. I couldn't see anything. I lost all sense of direction. I stood like that for a while, with terrible eye pain. None of the other trav­ellers, including my son, knew how to drive. We were high up in the mountains - so it was use­less to rely on a passing car.

My fellow travellers led me to the stream. With difficulty I rinsed my eyes, but my sight didn't return for almost an hour. Obviously it was impossible to go any further into the moun­tains. We started back along a dangerously narrow road, which ran between a cliff and a chasm.


How we got to the village of Barisakho it is difficult to imagine. I drove practically blind, guided by the directions of my son and friend at every turn. At the time they didn't realise that I couldn't see any­thing.


I began to tell a story from my first years in America [to his cellmate Ivan Bikov].

"My sponsors changed regularly. One set of scumbags replaced another. The next ones worse than the lastO Unhappy with [the current one's] answers and promises, I left the house, without remembering or having written down my address or telephone number; and without any money since my spon­sor simply hadn't given me any. In my pocket, I had some miserable sum that was just enough for a taxi fare. But I knewOa region where a few Russian-speaking friends lived. I decided to go and look them up, hoping for some calming company and maybe a drink as well.

'I paid the taxi-driver, you can say - with my last money. But here nobody answered the door. Even though I could see there was a light on in the flat. Neither did I find other friends at home. I popped into a bar I knew and where they knew meO I bought a beer with what small change I had left. I made that drink lastO Then the bar closed and I remained in com­plete solitude on an empty street. And then I understood: Saturday night -maybe my friends had gone some­where for the week-end.

Standing around and walking to and fro, I didn't know what to do. I could­n't walk home because I didn't physically know how - I didn't have money for a taxi and I didn't know my address either.

'In an attempt to warm up I walked up and down the deserted streets. Typical, again in another ridicu­lous position. How fortunate I am with these situations! And suddenly I see a police car going past. I made a hand sign and they stopped. There were two policewomen in the car - a blonde one and a black one. I didn't even know what to say to them, or how to say it; so I began explaining in my own way:

"No co-ordinates, no money, I Soviet Union, no speak English."

At that time, the Soviet Union still existed. The policewomen laughed and drove off. Obviously, it wasn't within their functions to pick lost penniless wayfar­ers up off the street. What was I sup­posed to do? I was chilled to the bone and out of confusion couldn't think of an effective course of action. I kept going back and forth. Everything was locked. There were no night clubs and who would have let me in without any money anyway? Right next door was the negro region, which people had warned me off. All I needed now was for someone to steal my coat, I thought, and then I'd freeze comprehensively.

'Just then I noticed a substantial shop-window-front. After some thought I picked up a brick and thew it at the glass. But it turned out to be very thick impene­trable glass. I crashed the brick at it again, but the glass remained whole. Then I crossed over the street and taking the brick in my hands like a discus I swung my arm back a few times, before hurling it into the centre of the window. It crumbled into tiny pieces. It turned out like one of those western filmsO

'I looked at my broken window with mil­lions of glass splinters and a ringing alarm bellO Breaking off my story, I said jokingly,

"Ivan, why aren't you wondering where I got the brick from? After all, this wasn't the Soviet Union where all kinds of unclaimed building materials just lay abandoned all over the place."

Without waiting for an answer, I con­tinued:

"By the shop window there was an old dried-out wooden barrel underneath which three bricks had been placed."

Listening attentively, Ivan asked me what happened next. I unhurriedly rolled a cigarette and, pointing out that there weren't many matches left, lit it. I continued -

"here the police turned up, caught me, put handcuffs on and shoved me into the police car. At the station, they took off the handcuffs and handed me over to another policeman who put on another pair of handcuffsO While they were writing something down I stood there dejectedly. But without anywhere to stay at least I'd accomplished my aim of getting to a warm police station. And suddenly those 2 policewomen burst in. This region was obviously part of their beat. Seeing me, they laughed again, repeating my words:

"no coordinate, no money, Soviet Union". And no doubt they added that I'd probably done it specially just to get picked up by the police.

They confiscated my belt and shoelaces and locked me in an empty cell. There it was no warmer than it had been on the streetO. At 6 in the morning they took me out and to my surprise - sent me packing. I resisted, I didn't want to go outside.

"You see Bikov, over there they forcibly ejected me and over here they feed you and keep you in."

'Strangely, I remembered the tele­phone number of a friendly, excellent Russian-speaking priest called Father Mark. They gave him a call. On my way out I saw other shivering home­less people like myself sitting on the stairs. But at least I'd been allowed to stay the night." »

"Queen of Spades" is currently available in Georgian and Russian (priced around 7 iari from local retail­ers). It is expected to appear in English soon. Watch this space.

Translated from the Russian by A. Spurling