Ekaterina is 27 years old. She was born and raised in Minsk, the capital of Belarus and epicenter of the recent mass protests against the 26 year old dictatorship. She describes life in Belarus, living under a repressive regime and their fight for a more just world.
Until August 9, the life of Belarusians was quite ordinary and calm. For 26 years in a row people have been living under the rule of the autocrat Lukashenko. During this time we have adapted to live under constant violations of basic human rights, under an unofficial ban on freedom of speech, under lies from TV screens (which is actually the reason why many Belarusians don’t have TV’s at home). Perhaps it will be difficult for you to understand how can we live our lives in peace while complete absence of basic human rights. But Lukashenko’s system is built in such a way that from childhood they teach us being happy on a very little. We have a local saying that for happiness we need just “charka I shkvarka” (in Belarusian - a glass of vodka and a piece of fried pork fat). Poverty is the main condition for the Lukashenko regime. Poor people don’t think about freedom of speech, they think what they gonna have for a dinner.
But the world is changing, people are starting to travel more and for most Belarusians nowadays, especially the ones from bigger cities, it’s not enough. We used to look jealously at other countries and were planning relocations, were looking for work abroad and emigrated from the country. Population migration is growing in Belarus every year (in 2019, with a population of 9 million people, migration amounted to almost 21,000). In fact, all smart and ambitious people in Belarus, if they were not satisfied by something (medicine, education, lack of support for small and medium-sized businesses, many remnants in the system of the Soviet past - like bureaucracy, people with outdated minds etc), they preferred to move to another country rather than change what they already have. We were already so tired of waiting for changes in our homeland that no one could believe that something would ever change. It seemed that Lukashenko is going to be at power forever.
The only thing that we all badly lacked in our country and abroad was a sense of belonging to our nationality. Belarus is a tiny nation that has been under the influence of other empires and states for the last two centuries. Therefore, our culture developed under pressure, secretly. For example, during the time of the Russian Empire, the territory of Belarus was considered as suburbs of the Russian Empire and any attempt to develop a national identity was brutally destroyed. Also during the USSR, attempts to equate ourselves with the Belarusian, and not the “Soviet” people were called national chauvinism.
When Belarus finally got independence after Soviet Union collapse, the “26-year-old dictator” came to power. He replaced the symbols of “freedom of Belarus” (the white-red-white flag, which you probably saw in photos with protesters) with the symbols of the BSSR (Soviet Belarus - modern flag of Belarus, red-green). The white-red-white flag was considered “oppositional”, and any attempt to develop an opposition movement in Belarus was brutally suppressed.
By the time Lukashenko came to power, the Belarusian people were already experiencing problems with national identity. And by the time Belarus received the status of independence, people hoped for the rapid development of Belarusian culture. But with the status of independence, people in Belarus didn’t get real freedom. In fact, we were “commanded to love” what they came up with for us.
I'll give you a couple of examples so you can understand how is it. Let's say schools have a compulsory program. For example to have an idea about Belarusian literature, we were harshly forced to read it. This made most of us want to hate it. Another compulsory school program was to be taken to different parts of Belarus to learn about it, but the way they forced us to go there, the way they presented information about Belarusian sights (imagine a super boring tour guide), made us hate it again. At some point we were finding ourselves literally ashamed to be related to anything considered to be “Belarusian”. The clothes Belarusian factories were producing, the festivals Belarusian government were organising - it all looked like the village style stuff of the last century, like if they made it on purpose to make us ashamed. As if it were done by people who don't follow what is happening in the world at all.
It was difficult for Belarusians to speak about themselves and their nation. Because we knew nothing about ourselves. Many were representing themselves saying "we are Russian". It is easier for foreigners to understand this way, but at the same time it gives rise to many incorrect stereotypes about Belarusians.
Largely due to problems with self-identification of Belarusians, there are many myths around the Belarusian nation. Have you ever heard of Belarus before? I've travelled a lot, and for almost every person (even in Europe) I had to explain the phrases I had learned by heart: “no, Belarus is not part of Russia”, “yes, Belarus is a separate country”, “yes, there are many differences between Belarusians and Russians”, “Belarusians are a separate nation”. And this is not due to a lack of foreign geographical studies about Belarus. It is a lack of positioning and image of Belarus on world arena.
In many languages of the world Belarus sounds like "White Russia”. Additionally, despite the fact that Belarusians have their own language (Belarusian), most of the population of Belarus speaks Russian, and this makes people from all over the world misunderstand the national uniqueness of Belarusians.
For the last years, people of Belarus were experiencing political apathy. But something has
changed in 2020. Lukashenko made a series of political mistakes. The biggest one was his attitude to COVID-19. Belarusians realized that Lukashenko doesn't care about people at all. He was denying the presence of coronavirus for many months, there were no quarantine restrictions in Belarus at all. And when hospitals lacked resources to fight the coronavirus, but the state still didn't support or help them properly. That time we realized that we cannot rely on the state. We must take responsibility on ourselves. We helped doctors and hospitals, we sewed masks and manufactured respirators. Anyway, the time were passing and in June the upcoming elections were announced to happen on August, 9. and for the first time in history the candidates announced their participation in the presidential race were worthy and publicity. Unfortunately (but this was expected) two of them were sent to prison on false charges, and one was forced to leave Belarus. The rest of the candidates simply did not have much popular support.
So that, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya's campaign did not offer any certain political program. All they did was, together with a team of lawyers, they were keep informing us about our rights referring to the actual Belarusian Law. After all, we are used to the fact that the laws in Belarus don't work, and Svetlana brought us back to the idea of doing everything according to the law, to know our rights well. They also provided moral support to Belarusians, communicated with the people a lot. They were showing a simple respect to the people but for us it was very touching to see this because no one authority ever did it to us before. We have a lot of confidence in this woman.
The Beginning of the Protests
On election day, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya urged us to cast our vote for someone we deem worthy and personally follow the course of the election. A lot of people applied to become observers at polling stations, but most of them were rejected. According to the law in Belarus, after the votes are counted, the polling stations commission must post the results at the front door. By the end of the election day, many of us came to the doors of our polling stations to personally see the local results. But many of the results were never shown to us. Some commissions called the police on people who were just waiting for the results. They assumed that these people are angry because they suspect election frauds so that commissions were scared to leave buildings. People waited until the late evening, and then went to the city centre.
It is important to mention that starting from noon on August 9 and the next 3 days, we were in a complete information vacuum due to the lack of home and mobile Internet. We had no idea if people are going to gather in the city centre or not. We just followed the flow. I didn't spend much time in the city centre that day, but when I was leaving it, I saw endless streams of people. Then I heard some explosion. It was a first explosions of Flash Grenades. My first thought was "oh, is it a firework? Like someone's joke, or?" Innocent brain of simple peaceful human couldn't even imagine what is this weapon and what it can make to a person. the atmosphere that night was getting tense.
When I finally got home, I was able to connect my home computer to a weak Internet through a proxy server, and I could only read text news in the Telegram channel from eyewitnesses (pictures and videos were not loaded).
For several days we simply didтt sleep nor eat. Through the weak Internet, We read about shots, fire to kill, gross detentions, torture in prisons. We passed information over the phone to our parents and those who could not connect the Internet... The world we used to live in collapsed with a crash before our eyes. I believe that in these incredibly sad but important days for us, through hellish pain and suffering, the Belarusian nation was born.
After the events of August 9, the understanding came to us that there was no turning back. If we surrender, if we forget, then they (the state) will find us and repress us. They will find our families and friends, they will return the country to the times of Stalinist repression of 1937.
If someone had told us before August 9 that half a million Belarusians will follow the march, that we would proudly carry “unauthorized symbols” the size of a roadway past the KGB building and the President's residence ... we would never believed that! When I came to the first Sunday march (August 16) I was in mute shock. I've never seen so many people in one place in my life. It was a huge insight for each of us, then we realized how many of us there really are. How could they all hide us from each other this time?
Almost 3 months later, until now , Every Sunday , tens of thousands of people go out in Minsk on dangerous marches, during the week they stand in chains of solidarity, they go to support striking workers, protesting students and pensioners. So what helps us keep our motivation and not giving up?
It's sense of national unity, which we, Belarusians, received for the first time in history this summer. After the shock events of August 9, the country woke up. As if the fog had dissipated, as if we were blind for a long time and suddenly regained our sight. We saw that we are amazing, we saw how many of us are incredible. We saw how strong, courageous, peaceful, sympathetic we are. We realized that the information vacuum made us hate each other, at a time when there was an ocean of love in each of us.
That solidarity, that help that people organized INDEPENDENTLY, was simply incredible.
What did people do so unusually? Belarusians at protests didn’t break a single shop windows, didn’t set fire to tires, didn’t start riots. (By the way, for the false picture on state television, state journalists even had to use photos from the protests in Spain, where there were riots).
Imagine that 200-300,000 people gather at the same time in the city centre. And after they leave, the city becomes even cleaner than it was before. People hanging garbage bags to each tree and then remove them. People organizing points of distribution of drinking water. Volunteer medical services on duty at the marches.To get on the bench, people take off their shoes! One day, I was on a march and it started to rain. I didn’t have an umbrella. A guy with raincoats appeared from somewhere, and just gave me a raincoat. That probably means, he knew from the weather forecast that it was going to rain and that maybe not all people will to take umbrellas, and he bought a lot of raincoats in the supermarket and just handed them out to people.
People are used to doing everything on their own. We saw that the level of self-organization among Belarusians is very high. People are used to the fact that the state never helps, only interferes. All the best things that happened in Belarus - festivals, party streets with modern bars, an alley of street musicians, etc. - Belarusians did themselves without the slightest support from the state. We even have a local joke that after Lukashenko leaves, can Belarusians live a little for themselves, without the president.
Supporting a Dictator
But there are people who support Lukashenko. Even after all the events of recent months of rough detentions, prison torture, outright lies from TV screens. People know all this, but they still choose life with Lukashenko. It is logical to ask why? After all, it seems that choice of Lukashenko is not about politics at all, it’s not a choice of a politician. It’s a choice for crime, lack of law and the humiliation of human rights. Can a sane person choose this? How can you support a person who kills, who takes away your rights, your voice and your loved ones?
But as strange as it sounds, these people can also be understood. I'll make a small digression to make it easier to explain. In the countries of the former Soviet Union, there are still people who support Stalin's regime. To understand them, imagine that you have been oppressed throughout your life. You have always been in short supply of basic things for life - food, clothing, household items. Many of your friends, children and parents have been persecuted. Missing. Sent to link.
Killed. In order to morally withstand these trials, people needed an excuse. At that time, the communist ideas of the Soviet Union became such an excuse. People believed that all these sacrifices were needed for a “bright future”. And when Stalin's personality cult was exposed (1956), many people could not accept the fact that all the losses in their lives happened just like that, happened in vain. Therefore, they continued to believe in what they believed in before in order to maintain their mental health. The Belarusians who support Lukashenko are doing the same. They are ashamed that at one time they could not prevent Lukashenko from taking a firm seat in the president's chair in time. They feel guilty for the new generation, and this feeling is unbearable. So they deny all the facts.
As for the people who work for the police in Belarus, the situation is more complicated. Some are so brainwashed that all the protesters are people who were paid by Western countries to destabilize the situation in the country. Some understand everything, but cannot leave their position because they has a family and debt, but no money to pay it off, so they must continue working.
Woman and the Revolution
I would also like to tell you about the role of women in the Belarusian protest. After three days of severe beatings and detention of protesters (August 9-12), people were at a loss. Many were scared, some were very angry. People understood that they needed to change the tactic. The protest in the evening after work ended with the use of force, people suffered. Then, on the morning of August 13, chains of women dressed in white clothes with white flowers began to appear spontaneously throughout the city. We wanted to show that our intentions are exclusively peaceful. We asked for peace and to stop the violence. The police were at a loss. Detaining unarmed women with flowers was too bad an idea even for them (but nowadays everyone is being detained, they don’t care anymore ). That was the day when detentions and violence temporarily stopped. When we went out into the city, we did not know what would happen to us. But we understood that we had no other choice. Women's courage was able to stop the violence, even temporarily.
In my opinion, this act of Belarusian women is very symbolic. After the Second World War, women in Belarus played an important role in the restoration of everyday life and life in the country. Many men died in the war. The rest were wounded physically and mentally. Women built houses, raised children, looked after elderly parents, worked in all the jobs available to them. A whole generation of children has grown up and raised by women only. The balance between the female and male population of Belarus has not yet been fully restored. This summer Belarusian women once again showed their strength, courage and independence.
Belarusian solidarity has also become a completely new discovery this year. When factories go on strike, students or retirees - people from all over the city gather near them to show their solidarity. The State also puts pressure on business. For example, one coffee shop hid the protesters and locked the door. Then the police broke the glass door of the coffee shop. The next week, people were lining up for coffee. Already in the middle of the day the coffee shop was closed because they were selling all the coffee and pastries :) Also, one of the glass companies changed the glass for them for free. Another example: a man who owned a flower business was detained and morally humiliated. A video if him crying was leaked on the Internet. People still buy all the flowers in his shop every day.
Also, most of the companies producing food and other goods were divided into those that support the Lukashenko regime and those that support the Belarusian people. Belarusian programmers have created an application called Krama, which helps to do “correct” shopping in the supermarket and buy only those products, the money for which will not go to bullets and batons for the police.
There is no choice between being a protester in Belarus or just sitting at home and pretending nothing is happening. I go to the protest, or I help the protesters, because I cannot do otherwise. It is easier for me to survive the events in Belarus when I involved in these actions. Then it seems to me that I can influence the situation, like I can stop this "war".
One of the most difficult choices for a person, in my opinion, is the choice between saving himself or saving a large number of other people. You never know what you would choose in this situation until you find yourself in it. One day, the police began to detain people en masse right outside of my house. I was at home alone with two children at time. We hid about 100 people in our house, although I understood the risk of getting detained myself. But at such moments, you don't have time to think, you don't have time to assess the risks. Adrenaline rushes into the blood and you just do as you see fit. Although my hands were shaking until the end of that day :)
The situation in Belarus at the moment is such that protests and constant resistance to the regime have become a part of our daily life. Earlier, in August and September, we slept very little, read every information resource, didnt miss a single news. Now we rallied our strength and realized that in order to fight the regime we need to save our strength, because change is not going to happen quickly. Lukashenko has been building his system for 26 years, and it cannot change as quickly as we would like to. We accepted it, and each Belarusian chose his role. Some go to protests, some work as a volunteer to help detained people, some donate 10% of their salary to the solidarity fund for protesters and people who have lost their jobs due to repressions.
Also, the situation in Belarus forced people to unite in the areas where they live. For example, now every microdistrict in Minsk has its own online chat and mini-community. People there are helping each other, decorating their yards, solving common housing problems. They conduct excursions in their areas and some organize concerts or street theatre performances. Others people bake cakes and cookies, prepare meals, and share it with others on their small parties in backyards for children and adults.
Of course, sometimes it is very scary. Because now it happens that people in civilian clothes (KGB) kidnap people and take them to prisons, not allowing contact with relatives and a lawyer. Many of my friends and just people I know have gone through this. Sometimes it seems to me that sooner or later it will happen to me, too. It's very strange to feel in danger in your hometown where you were born and raised. Looking around when you go home in the evening. Calling friends every Sunday to make sure they could manage to get home safely. Shaking every time someone rings the doorbell or when you see an unknown number on your phone screen.
Nowadays many Belarusians lack a sense of security and stability, and these are practically the most basic human needs.
It is interesting how the attitude towards people who end up in prison has changed. In the standard view, people in prisons are criminals. But not in Belarus. For me, people who are now in prisons are heroes, "the flowers of the nation." I know that many people who are now in prisons are incredibly smart, active, bright personalities. In prison cameras, they are engaged in coming up with interesting projects and startups for the times of the “new Belarus”.
Standing with Belarus
Sometimes I feel like I want to hug the whole world, because it's insanely touching to receive support from different parts of the world. Now foreign media don’t cover the problem in Belarus properly, because now there is a second wave of coronavirus and other problems. And in fact there is no much news about Belarus yet. Lukashenko is still in power, people still don’t have rights and votes. Therefore, sometimes we feel forgotten and alone. Of course, this problem is just for Belarusians, we must deal with it ourselves. But sometimes, when we are tired, we feel depressed, and in such moments, moral support from all over the world is very important. It can be a text or video address to the Belarusian people with the words that you want to say to us, it can be some advice. You can organize a chain of solidarity or your own small march in support of Belarusians on Sunday, it would be very important for us to see this. We also have the BySol Solidarity Fund to help protesters, dismissed and repressed people, to which people donate from all over the world.
Lately I've been thinking a lot about life and how everything has changed. The most important insights are, firstly, that a person adapts to any conditions of life, even the most cruel ones. Secondly, it is that there are things in our life that no one can ever take away from us. For example, a sense of pride that you belong to your nation.
The most emotional moment during all this times for me which made me burst into tears was when we were marching down the main avenue of Minsk and the crowd of thousands started to chant “One for all and all for one, One for all and all for one, One for all and all for one”.
There, among thousands of Belarusians just like me, for the first time in recent months I felt safe. I felt that all these strangers around me could protect me if needed. I'm with my family. I am home.
Written by Ekaterina for FROCKUP magazine.
More ways to support the Belarusian struggle:
Media Solidarity Belarus (https://sites.google.com/belarus97.pro/media) - support to independent Belarusian media and journalists under repressions
Belarusian Culture Solidarity Fund (https://tuzinfm.by/by_culture/) - support representatives of the Belarusian cultural community who have been prosecuted for voicing their civil position.