Belarus: The Alphabet of Protest
default, Opposition demonstration at Independence Square, Minsk, Belarus, 23rd August 2020, photo: Valery Sharifulin / TASS / Forum, center, #000000, bialorus_protesty_opozycji_forum_.jpg
The Belarusians as a nation had been asleep for two decades before they finally woke up in the summer of 2020. They now want to make up for lost time and experience the whole year in a day.
That’s why it’s almost impossible to write an up-to-date essay on the post-election events in Belarus. Words written in the morning are already out of date by evening. To harness the eruption of events and emotions somewhat, and to preserve the moment, I’ve selected five ordinary words which completely changed in meaning this summer. Still, keep in mind that this text will be hopelessly obsolete by the time you start reading it...
Volha Babkova: Belarusian Summer
Belarus has been paved over both literally and figuratively during the last quarter of a century. Like the streets, human hearts have been deprived of any genuine emotion. Suppression of any initiative has been at the core of state policy. Urban planning has boiled down to cutting down the trees in every public garden and paving them over. It was not until recently that city residents woke up and learnt how to defend trees against public officials; communities have organised themselves and are supporting one another in a variety of ways.
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Cleanliness is Belarusians’ trademark. This is what visitors say. Stability and order have been achieved under the rule of Aleksander Lukashenka. This is what Belarusian propaganda communicates to the outside world. And it simply tears us apart.
It seems that one in two Belarusians has this mania of obsessively wiping and cleaning everything. The Belarusian eye will always rest on a plucked patch of land which is spick and span. The Belarusians feel cheated when they hear that the regime equals cleanliness.
In patriotic literature, Belaya Rus’ is often interpreted as Pure Rus’. These days, the Belarusians have become famous for their fight to reclaim the concept of purity. Protesters ostentatiously clean up after themselves. Young people in T-shirts with national symbols on them take off their shoes before climbing onto benches, kiosks and other municipal property. After the protests, the barricades are carefully dismantled, and municipal property is put back.
At the same time, the fight to reclaim space is under way. Three stripes – white, red and white – made of fabric, ribbons, Scotch tape, paper or anything else available embellish fences, concrete walls and other surfaces painted grey, the standard colour used by city crews (by the way, people in Belarus love this colour). The impeccable asphalt of our roads and pavements has become a Belarusian tabula rasa.
On 1st September, students from the Linguistics Faculty at Belarusian State University used chalk to write quotes from Belarusian classics on the asphalt. Two female students were detained that day. The hashtag #вершынаасфальце (poems on the asphalt) is a creative initiative in support of freedom of expression in Belarus, which anyone in the world can join.
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The Internet disappeared in Belarus for three days, beginning at midday on 9th August. Hearing explosions and gunshots in the streets of their cities, and with no access to information, the residents of our country were confused, disoriented and downhearted.
Suddenly, amidst this information blackout, the screen on my mobile phone lit up: ‘This is Pavel Durov, the founder of Telegram. We’ve amplified the channel for Belarus. Keep your spirits up!‘
Having read these words, it dawned on me that we would be fine no matter what.
I also had an insight after past presidential elections. On the evening of 19th December 2010, I realised that no matter what happened next, nothing good would come of it. We would have Lukashenka for at least another five years, and no one seemed to care anyway.
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This was the effect of news coverage by the Euronews channel, which drastically underreported the number of Minsk protesters who rallied against election fraud. It also justified the violent dispersal of the peaceful rally because the protesters had allegedly smashed windows in the CEC building. This was an obvious provocation by the regime, but nobody cared.
Had any Belarusians been enchanted by Europe before then, the scales fell from their eyes. We were unable to shout louder than the TV channels in our own and in neighbouring countries; these were governments that were involved in political bargaining with a dictator, and nobody cared about the people who were taken hostage by him.
Andrei Adamovich, a friend of mine, wrote an essay about a lily back then. A girl was selling naïve drawings in a crowd of protesters. Andrei compared the protest, which poured into the frosty streets of Minsk and was transformed into a single strong root, to the petals of the lily drawn by the child. He spoke of his impression that something important was sprouting inside us.
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I then translated the essay into several languages and sent it to everyone I knew abroad. There was not much interest in publishing the text.
In 2020, the obsolescent dictator decided to repeat his success from ten years earlier. The protests in Belarus were called ‘aggressive’ in advance (the propaganda used the Ukrainian word ‘Maidan’, which became a synonym for violence in the minds of ordinary Belarusians as a result of years of propaganda by Russian TV channels). Flash bangs purchased from the Czech Republic elicited vivid images of a civil war. Peace-loving people (this is how Belarusians sing about themselves in the national anthem) were called ‘yellow vests’ by the propaganda. Viewers worldwide were fed a simple message: ‘people are fighting in the streets of Eastern Europe again’.
But something went wrong this time.
And above all, it’s because now we don’t have to appeal to major information channels. Thanks to Telegram, every neighbourhood in Belarus has its own channel today. And it’s not just about the availability of first-hand information: local communities can now formulate their own agendas.
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And the chilly lily from Andrei Adamovich’s essay has grown into powerful projects such as the Voice of Belarus, where volunteers describe events in our country in six languages for the international press.
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‘Chase’ – the coat of arms of Belarus – with a horsewoman instead of a horseman, photo: twitter.com/artsiadziba
A knight on horseback is the central element of the Pahonia coat of arms. The ancient emblem has been redesigned several times throughout history and is best known in the version by artist Vladimir Krukousky. He designed it in the early 1990s, when the knight was still the official coat of arms of Belarus for several years before Lukashenka came to power.
Nothing has changed in the vocabulary of the Belarusians regarding the meaning of the word – except that it is now of the feminine gender.
When the designer Julia Golovina and the poet Ales Plotka invented the white-pink-white horsewoman, many took it to be a parody of the archetypal symbol. The nationalists were offended, as usual. But in August 2020, when the Belarusian protests were increasingly often being called a women’s revolution, some male activists said that Pahonia should take a feminine form as a national symbol in a free Belarus. And it seems this is not a joke.
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And I wouldn’t mind this at all, except that I’ll support the new coat of arms if the woman on horseback is dark-haired.
Still, it’s actually a bit sad. The fascination with Belarusian feminism is premature; Belarusian women still have a long way to go. What looks like Eastern European feminism is actually a forced matriarchy. Again, it’s an unfortunate tradition that has been around for a long time, where our women take over when the men are killed or taken captive. A tradition of covering them with their bodies, hoping for chivalry on the part of the enemy. Especially if they are their sons and loved ones.
This is probably why Belarus is still alive. But when we are safe, the men are released, the boys grow up, everything goes back to normal.
Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya behaved the way a Belarusian woman is supposed to behave. She took over when her husband was imprisoned. The main commitment of her campaign team was to hold a new election. And I have this gut feeling that in a free Belarus, a man will be in power again.
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However, I also have this gut feeling: there will be a woman on horseback on our national coat of arms.
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Children of protesters playing near the sculpture of Grandfather Talash on Yakuba Kolasa Square, 6th September 2020
One of the most frequent reactions to the Belarusian events on social media, especially from residents of Ukraine, is their disappointment with the humbleness with which Belarusians turn the other cheek. Flowers, women dressed in white, group prayers, students singing, children drawing – all of these are disparagingly dismissed by critics as Gandhism. In their opinion, if you’re being beaten up, you have to fight back, shed blood in retaliation and die, if you have to.
As it turns out, a conscious choice to protest peacefully can be perceived as a weakness and deficiency of the people.
Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), a fighter for India’s independence and founder of a philosophy of nonviolence (satyagraha), might have inspired Belarusians in some way. But personally, it seems to me that our protests have a different spiritual leader. And he is a Belarusian – a Poleshuk, to be more precise, which explains a lot.
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Vasil Talash (1844-1946) was born and lived his long life in a village near Pyetrykav. He was 19 when the Kalinouski uprising broke out in Belarus, but I found no accounts from that period of his life. Grandfather Talash, as he is affectionately called by Belarusians, was a partisan in two wars. In 1919, during the Russian Civil War, being of an advanced age, he was a partisan on the Pripyat and fought the Poles. At the age of 100, this Bolshevik was on the side of the partisan movement as a symbol of the fight against the invaders. This made him even more of a legendary figure.
In peacetime, Talash was rather notorious for squabbling. For example, in 1933, as a protagonist of the narrative poem Drygva (Swamp, trans. N.M.), he demanded part of the author’s royalties from the poet Jakub Kolas. But when his Motherland was in danger…
In August 2020, it unexpectedly turned out that there was a little Grandfather Talash living in the heart of every Belarusian. Our Talashism manifested itself in the decentralisation, spontaneity and creativity of the Belarusian protests. Having realised that the main task of Lukashenka’s siloviki was to prevent a repetition of Ploshcha [the 2010 protests at Kastrychnitskaya and Niezalezhnasti Squares], people decided to relive the Ploshcha experience without gathering on the squares.
For the residents of Charvyakova Street in Minsk, a patch of land around the transformer cabin became their Ploshcha. Every day, the residents put graffiti there, and city crews remove them. The cabin is now guarded by seven OMON officers. Still, the residents haven’t given up and are coming up with increasingly resourceful forms of artistic sabotage. The entire world is following this epic struggle.
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Today, Belarus is a limitless space of soc art. If one comes across something white, red will certainly be added to it, and vice versa. When cranes began removing national flags from balconies, women started hanging their panties and bras in patriotic colours. Pranks at the expense of the fatigued siloviki have become one of the main weapons used by city partisans.
Another competition is under way in Belarus: people are competing for the funniest poster. An online literary translation journal, Praydzisvet (Adventurer), collected several thousand examples of folk art in a month.
Were Grandfather Talash still alive, he would probably be an ardent supporter of Lukashenka. Still, he would have appreciated the methods his descendants have been using in their partisan struggle.
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Woman being detained during an opposition rally on 19th September 2020, Minsk, Belarus, photo: BelaPAN / Reuters / Forum
When the Internet connection was restored in Belarus, people heard the terrible testimonies about acts of violence and torture committed against civilians by OMON troops at police stations and in the prison on Akrestina Street in Minsk. Many of those detained were captured by accident, far from the protest sites. Physicians spoke out anonymously about the victims of rubber bullets that were used to shoot and kill unarmed people. People who were beaten and wounded were also reported in other cities in Belarus. At least five people in the country were killed during police actions.
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The first thing I wanted to do after hearing all this was to visit the Holocaust memorial site at the Bronnaya Hara (Bronna Mount) station, where I stayed in the summer. Between 1942 and 1943, more than 50,000 civilians were shot here. The victims were mostly Jews from surrounding cities and towns.
In 1944, when the Nazis were retreating, they dug up all the bodies, burned them and scattered the ashes in the forest. They also murdered all the slave workers brought there to exhume the graves. All the inhabitants of the village of Bronnaya Hara were exterminated as well.
I have carefully read the dreadful details of the massacres in Bronnaya only now, in parallel with the testimonies of eyewitnesses to the brutal torture conducted on 9th to 12th August. The similarities are striking. People packed like sardines in vehicles, people stacked on the floor by OMON troops behaving like the Nazis in Bronnaya Hara.
The words ‘Fascists’, ‘death squads’ and ‘gestapo’ have been on everyone’s lips for a month now. The rhetoric of the sacred war of liberation, the fundamentals of Lukashenka’s state ideology, has ultimately been discredited.
By giving a green light to torturing people, the dictator in fact launched a giant T-34 tank against himself.
Another similarity between the two tragedies that I spotted while reading about the massacres in Bronnaya Hara is the desire of witnesses to document the atrocities, to remember the names of the murderers and the torturers. Zavadsky is the only Slavic surname among the SS officers who were in command of the extermination operations in Bronnaya Hara. Most of the torturers who battered detainees at the Akrestina detention centre are Belarusians.
The Architecture of Places of Memory
Why a country that suffered from mass exterminations by the Nazis and Stalinists was close to reliving the same experience in the relatively peaceful 21st century is a theme for another piece or even several pieces of writing. This time, not as a result of an invasion from outside, but at the initiative of a leader who compared this country to a beloved woman he was not going to relinquish.
Let me say more about words. A couple of years ago, I assisted an American Jewish family whose ancestors left Kopyl in 1920 and who were looking for the graves of their relatives. All inquiries referred us to Holocaust memorials. The Americans asked me: ‘Why is the word uznik always translated as “prisoner” in English? After all, if a person is in prison, she or he is a criminal. And what were these people guilty of?‘
This made me think about the Belarusian word vyazen and the Russian word uznik. When we utter these words, we mean only that a person has been tied up and taken captive. The fact that a person can be put behind bars not necessarily for a crime is part of our worldview.
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What else can you add, except: ‘For our freedom and yours’? Let’s change the world and our view of it.
Maria Martysevich is a Belarusian writer, poet, translator and journalist.
Originally written in Belarusian by Maria Martysevich, translated from Russian by Natalia Mamul, Oct 2020