Volha Babkova: Belarusian Summer
default, Volha Babkova:
Belarusian Summer, Opposition protests, Minsk, Belarus, 3rd September 2020, photo: Sergei Bobylev / TASS / Forum, center, #000000, bialorus_minst_protest_swiece_forum.jpg
Joe Cocker has this song called Summer in the City, which sounds best when you’re whizzing by with an open window, or sitting in an outdoor café, or walking the streets and wearing headphones – just ‘a little life’, as they say.
The Belarusian summer of 2020 was huge.
Truth be told, it was a summer where I didn’t manage to enjoy the lilac alleys in Oscar Milosz’s home village of Chereya; I missed the blossoming of the linden trees and didn’t taste forest strawberries… I must have also missed the blossoming of heather growing along the paths.
Instead, I’ve seen how a fully fledged nation has developed. It was worth it! It has been my most valued experience. From time to time, one of my friends would exclaim with delight, ‘We’re living in the central plot of a novel or history textbook’, or would express with perplexity: ‘Somebody pinch me! I must be dreaming!‘
This summer taught us how to be great. As Emily Dickinson put it:
We never know how high we are
Till we are called to rise
And then if we are true to plan
Our statures touch the skies
It seems that the entire nation was called to rise in August of this year. And not to reach out for amusement, riches or weapons but to testify to their pride. All-out lies, hypocrisy, arbitrariness and meanness burst the dam of Belarusian forbearance, the proverbial Litvinian patience, which gave rise to an incredible movement.
We made it through the difficult time of the election campaign, with its black mark involving the theft of the world-famous painting Eva by Chaim Soutine (which, by the way, resulted in the emergence in politics of the ‘Three Graces’ and women’s ‘Evolution’) and the arrests of all the ‘guarantor’s’ potential rivals. And this period ended with the announcement of the impossible figure of 82.6%. And then there was an unprecedented explosion.
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‘March of the New Belarus’, Independence Square, Minsk, 25th August 2020, photo: Tatiana Zenkovich / EAP / PAP
A terror machine against human dissent and protest was launched. The Hero City of Minsk was turned into a bloodbath during the two nights that followed the election. Explosions of flash bangs, gunshots and blaring sirens brought to mind phantasmagorical New Year’s Eve celebrations with thousands of fireworks... But these sounds were different. It was on these two terrible nights that we had the first victims.
The names of the Akrestina and Zhodzina prisons in Minsk became symbols of the sadistic abuse of innocent people who wanted to be heard. The atrocities committed by one human being against another human being, men against their compatriots, are a black page in the modern history of Belarus.
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And then there emerged a sea. A real living sea of people which filled the squares, boulevards and streets every Sunday. It then split into rivers flowing along the main streets in the city’s neighbourhoods. The sea of protesters gave birth to a tradition of songs, circle dances and shared street prayers near the now-closed Kupala Theatre and on the steps of the Philharmonic Hall. Almost every day, people have been singing the Pahonia, the Kupalinka and the prayer song Mahutny Bozha (God Almighty) in buildings with good acoustics, in supermarkets, at an open-air marketplace and at the railway station…
Everyone is looking to the workers of large and small enterprises, construction and railway workers, health professionals, TV journalists… Everyone is ready to support any dissent, any protest for a good cause.
It seems that the Belarusian August revolution engendered a spontaneous tradition of local patriotism. City residents have been coming together in their streets and neighbourhoods in order to buy huge canvasses of historical national banners, hang them on their houses and watch over them together. They go out onto their streets to join others in human chains of solidarity, reconstruct painted-over murals, treat each other to coffee and tea, and invent humorous poster slogans which will be part of the legacy of the future Belarusian Resistance Museum. And Minsk toponyms such as Novaya Borovaya, Serebryanka, Grushevka, Kamennaya Gorka, and Charvyakova Street no longer have the same ring to them. There are free people and a beautiful tradition behind these names!
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The Saturday women’s march in Minsk, as well as many other events this summer, will go down in the annals of European history, and will perhaps be featured in European or Hollywood films. Peaceful, laughing, beautiful female pranksters would completely corner the siloviki; the women would zigzag in a colourful column, changing streets, routes and directions. They would lie down in front of the military and their armoured vehicles, which looked terrifying to a peaceful city. While lying there, they would hold posters with the words ‘I am not afraid’ written on them.
And then students returned to the cities. On 1st September, Knowledge Day, they were not allowed to leave the university buildings; they were dispersed near the universities. Graduates were beaten up in the courtyard of one of the most renowned Minsk schools, the Belarus State University lyceum. Around 300 students from all over the city were imprisoned that day. Students were detained all over the country.
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Last Sunday, a grumbling elderly couple drew my attention in a city bus. They were looking, with condemnation, out the window at young men who were carrying a flag with the symbol of Pahonia. I could hear a hissing of irritation: ‘These young people…‘. And on the same day, among very different but inspired and beautiful people in the Sunday march, I could spot another couple of ripe old age who frequent our theatre. They were walking together with everyone else, carrying flowers and smiling.
Happiness is to be on the side of the light.
Originally written in Belarusian by Volha Babkova, Sep 2020, translated from Russian by Natalia Mamul, Oct 2020