A Trip to Minsk
Marches and trials in Belarus
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On August 9, 2020, Belarus was swept up in a wave of street protests and other forms of resistance following the contested reelection of Alexander Lukashenko, who had been running the country for twenty-seven years—practically since the fall of the Soviet Union. While those of us in Russia were sitting around posting about the futility of fighting authoritarian regimes, Belarusians had gone out into the streets and braved rubber bullets, stun grenades, and water cannons. Now some of us wanted to go to Belarus ourselves, but the Russian side of the border had been closed since March because of the pandemic.
Monday—A Black Day
In Minsk, Saturday was the day of the Women’s March; on Sunday, thousands of people went out in the streets to demonstrate, and then on Monday came the arrests and the court dates for those who had protested over the weekend.
I got to Minsk on Monday, September 7, the day the government started arresting activist artists. The artist Nadya Sayapina had been part of a political performance; she was taken from her home. That same day, the well-known eco-activist Irina Sukhiy was sentenced for participating in an unsanctioned rally. Other activists showed up to the court to support her.
Many people wore masks, less because they didn’t want to be infected than to protect their identities from the ever-present titushky (hired thugs), a constant feature of every political event in Minsk. Belarusians joke that they’ve actually beaten the pandemic, because they’ve managed to put it out of their minds for the moment.
I was able to get into the tiny courtroom, where people were seated in every other chair. But there was nothing to draw there: both the accused and the witness, a police officer, were testifying via Skype. Only the judge could see them, on her laptop.
“We law enforcement officers monitor the streams on Telegram and the social networks,” the police officer said. “We went through photos of the Women’s March and recognized citizen Sukhiy. I saw a white and red non-government flag and heard anti-government protesters chanting, ‘Shame!’”
Irina Sukhiy was sentenced to five days of administrative detention. The following day, Nadya Sayapina got fifteen days in jail.
Women on the Front lines of the Protest Movement
After Lukashenko disqualified all the male presidential candidates, he felt there was no harm in letting one of their wives run. “She cooked up a nice meat patty and fed the kiddies,” he told an interviewer who asked about Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. “The smell of that tasty patty is still in the air, but now she has to go and debate these terrible issues.” Belarusians are sure that Tikhanovskaya actually won the election. She has become a symbol of the protest movement.
“Yesterday I saw a woman lie down on top of a man to protect him while he was getting beat up by enforcers,” said N., an activist. At first, the women were not detained with the same kind of brutality as the men. On several occasions, women formed chains of solidarity without any of them getting arrested. Some even brought their children.
Just as in Russia, twentysomethings are especially active at the protests. No one expected this from the generation that grew up under Putin and Lukashenko, but it turned out that having been born in a world without an Iron Curtain—and getting the opportunity to compare the difference between the quality of life in post-Soviet countries and in the West—was enough.“When I was little, I saw Russia as an interesting, progressive country,” Diana said. “But after 2012, it became obvious that you guys were living under your own authoritarian regime.”
Vika recalled the events of August 10, which she took part in. “That day, they killed a man on Pushkinskaya Street. Something terrible happened, there was shooting. We hadn’t reached the intersection when they started throwing stun grenades. In the courtyard, enforcers chased and caught people and shot at us with rubber bullets. Everything everywhere went off like fireworks until three in the morning. It felt like war.”
On Tuesday, September 8, a call went out on the NEXTA Telegram channel for a women’s action in support of Maria Kolesnikov, one of the leaders of the opposition, who had just been kidnapped by police. The majority of protest rallies in Minsk are organized spontaneously through Telegram. A crowd of women gathered next to the Komarovsky Market and began to march in the direction of the city center. People stuck their heads out of their windows as the column passed by, and red and white flags appeared.
One of the slogans chanted by the protesters—“We’re in power here!”—was conceived in 2012 by the Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny during anti-government demonstrations in Moscow, which were attended by thousands. The government responded to our peaceful protests with repression, new laws, and stronger censorship.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, giant, dark-green Minsk police vans appeared and stopped next to the marching women. Men in black balaclavas and unmarked khaki uniforms jumped out and started throwing the women into the vans. As someone who lives in Putin’s Russia and takes part in protests, I’m not easily shocked by brutality, but I got scared. I ran across the street at a red light and fled. Later, in photos and videos, I saw that the Belarusian women had not tried to run. They formed human chains, ripped off the men’s balaclavas, and even attempted to fight their friends out of the men’s grasp.
Signs of Resistance
On weekdays, Minsk can seem like a sleepy place where nothing much happens. But if you look closely, it’s full of signs of resistance. Everyone is their own leader and any neighborhood spot can become a locus of protest.
On a street full of half-empty establishments, there’s a tiny coffee shop with an incredibly long line out the door. A few days ago, O’Petit had sheltered protesters fleeing the police. One of the officers broke the café’s glass door as revenge.
Now people stand in line for up to an hour and a half at a time, just to have a cup of coffee here and leave a generous tip. The guestbook is full of hearts, red and white symbols, and messages like, “May the New Free Belarus be filled with people like the ones who work at this café and those who spend all day standing in line outside of it!”
You can even go to a Catholic church and hear a sermon in support of peaceful protest.
Red and white bouquets lie at the exit of the Pushkinskaya subway station. In August, a peaceful protester died here during a demonstration. Now there’s a spontaneous people’s memorial that is constantly being taken down by police. In the ten minutes it took me to draw it, five people stopped by with fresh bouquets. Drivers of passing cars honked at them and people waved from the buses.
In Minsk, people even arrange their laundry to resemble the flag, hanging it out—white, red, white. “The police’s main task right now,” Minskers joke, “is taking down all the red and white ribbons people are tying on all the fences.”
“Most of the people who live here are young and progressive. They’re the ones who put out the flags,” one building resident explained to me. “When the police tear them down, our people get them back up right away.”
A new form of resistance has emerged: “protest courtyards.” The people who live in these courtyards meet to discuss what is happening, hold concerts, organize flash mobs, put up protest grafitti, and project videos. The most well-known “protest courtyard” is called the Courtyard of Changes.
The graffiti on the transformer box in the Courtyard of Changes depicts two Minsk DJs who played Viktor Tsoi’s cult anthem “We’re Waiting for Change” at a pro-government rally. They were held in jail for ten days. “We’re waiting for change” is a seminal work from my youth, from the last days of the Soviet Union. The fact that this song still drives authorities crazy shows that the final farewell with the Soviet past is only now taking place.
I was in a cab headed to the Courtyard of Changes when my friends texted to say that the police had just painted over the mural. But by the time I got there, building residents had almost finished repainting it. “This is the sixth time they’ve painted over it, and we always put it up again right away,” they told me, laughing.
Trial of the Illegal Strike
On Friday, September 11, I was drawing at the Minsk Regional Courthouse, where they were hearing the case against the strike committee of Belaruskali, the largest enterprise in Belarus. Belaruskali’s workers had been charged with holding an illegal strike. There was no legal precedent for a case of this kind in Belarus.
Belaruskali, like many other large enterprises in Belarus, belongs to the government, which is more threatened by strikes than by protests.
While we waited for the proceedings to start, men in black balaclavas came into the courtroom and grabbed several women who had come to support the strikers. The court bailiffs stood by, doing nothing to stop them. The women were pushed into a minibus without a license plate and driven away in an unknown direction.
The defendant was Belaruskali’s strike committee, represented in court by Sergey Shitz, the committee’s former cochairman. “There was a massive mopping-up operation taking place in the city. Workers were beaten,” he said, describing what had happened following the presidential election in Soligorsk, where Belaruskali is located.
The workers’ main demands were that the presidential elections be deemed void, that charges be pressed against Alexander Lukashenko, and that all political prisoners be freed.
The workers had promised to strike indefinitely, but the majority of them returned to work within several days. Sergey Shitz said he considered this a betrayal.
It felt like it wasn’t just the strike organizers who were on trial, but also the company administration, which had failed to immediately quash the protest. During questioning, the judge collected a list of the names of the workers who had actively supported the strike and had not yet returned to work. The court declared the strike illegal.
The Long-Awaited Weekend
Toward the end of the week, word went around Telegram that on Saturday the “loudest women’s march yet” would take place on Freedom Square. I was more interested in drawing than demonstrating, so I got there early and sat down at an outdoor café with a view of the square. Small groups of women slowly strolled around, dressed in red and white. At the appointed time, they quickly formed a crowd. Immediately, unmarked minibuses pulled up and men in balaclavas jumped out and started grabbing the women.
A woman and her son watched from a neighboring table:
“Those gangsters are back . . .”
“But Mama, I thought they were policemen.”
“Now they’re gangsters.”
I tried warning women who were hurrying to get to the square:
The square slowly filled up with police vans; it looked like the set for a war movie. The women formed a column and simply began to march down another route.
The following day they held a March of Heroes, one of those Sunday demonstrations that thousands of people attended, the kind I’d jealously seen in photos back at home in depressing Moscow. I’d wanted so badly to find myself inside that picture.
Early on Sunday morning, I looked out the window where I was staying and saw the police vans and unmarked buses convoying downtown to surround the city center. Fifteen minutes later, as I was jumping into a taxi, soldiers were already marching into the courtyard.
In the afternoon, I headed toward the Nyamiha subway station, where protesters were collecting.
The violent arrests began as soon as people started unfurling their flags. Some ran into cafés, others into stores, but the enforcers managed to drag some of them out. Many businesses had closed their doors ahead of time.
Along with hundreds of others, I found myself cut off from the main crowd which was now moving into the neighborhood around the Cascade apartment complex. By then, the authorities had shut down the subway and cut off mobile internet. We were trying to catch up with the crowd. The most unpleasant part was crossing a long bridge over the railroad. I remembered stories I’d heard about how, the previous weekend, people had jumped into the cold river to get away from the police.
That day, protesters reached the elite suburb of Drozdy, home to one of Lukashenko’s residences as well as the country homes of his close associates. I couldn’t take the pressure again and turned back halfway.
Instead of the two weeks I’d planned to spend in Minsk, one was enough for me. I was hoping to get back to Moscow without any unwanted adventures. The border on the way back was open to those with Russian passports, but the other passengers on the private coach bus I took back to Moscow were all Belarusian and not allowed in because of the pandemic—which is why the driver drove around along the border, hoping to cross through a country road. The other passengers read Telegram channels and discussed Sunday’s rally. One man assured everyone that people in the know had just called him and told him that tomorrow Russia would bring in its army and put down the protests. I watched the black sky through the window and thought about how, in the course of history, it wasn’t that important what Putin or Lukashenko were going to do now . . . The river of time moves forward, even if it’s moving slowly, washing away the traces of everything Soviet like so much flotsam.
Translated by Bela Shayevich