"Our children led us onto the streets"

Notes of an ordinary person

“It is clear as day to me that the Belarusians have now lost their patience. They have blown a fuse. I admit that, as recently as a week ago, I would never have thought that in a country where for many years all major changes came exclusively from above, this kind of initiative from below, and such a large one at that, was possible. Don’t compare us to the Ukrainians. Compare us to what we were like a year, a month, a week ago.” In an impassioned first-hand account, an “ordinary resident” of Minsk talks about what the demonstrations in March meant to her.

And today yet again
We are put to the test
Can you take to the square,
Dare you take to the square,
At the hour agreed?!

Alexander Galich

Minsk, 25 March 2006: demonstrators making their way to the special confinement centre on Okrestin Street to express their solidarity with the political prisoners were violently dispersed. There were a number of casualties. Not many, but more than enough for Minsk. This was the climax of the events around the elections in Belarus in March 2006.

I am not going to analyse the reasons for what happened: I’m not an analyst, I’m an average person torn out of my habitual lifestyle by what happened during these few days. Whatever my future life will be like, it will be different: that I know for sure.

Why am I writing about this? Because a huge number of Belarusians have found themselves in the same predicament: since 19 March, their everyday lives have been turned upside down and will scarcely be able to return to how they were. “You cannot step into the same river twice”, even if it’s not a river but the stagnant morass of neo-Sov life. The revolution a few bold spirits were dreaming about has occurred – where all the main revolutions always occur: in the hearts and minds.

Please excuse the banality: truth is often banal.

As can be seen from the publications of “external observers”, opinion is divided: some enthuse over the “denim revolution” and express their outrage at the actions of the authorities; others are talking about the Belarusians’ paradisiacal life and are indignant at their ingratitude towards the batka (Father); others still laugh at the small numbers of protestors and once more blame the Belarusians for their “slavish resignation”. All are wrong.

The first ones are wrong because there has not been a revolution as such; rather, these events are a catalyst for the changes taking place inside people. The process has been set off. The glimmer of disgust for the regime flared up in the right place at the right time – on 19 March on October Square. Now the fire has once again died down into embers, and every one has left, illuminated by his or her own light. That’s not a little. And the consequences are not far off. I never used to doubt Lukashenko would one day perform a tap-dance on the tombstone of his haters’ communal grave, singing a humorous ditty. Now I am convinced of the opposite. This conviction did not begin to gather strength during the recent events; it had been growing earlier, over the last, terrible year of screw-tightening, and it only grew firmer during the pre-electoral mayhem.

The second ones are wrong both literally and in substance. They are literally wrong because contemporary Belarus is something like a huge Potemkin village. The best example is the perpetual talk about the clean streets. How much has been written about this! One gets the impression that we’re talking about the purity of the authorities’ intentions rather than the cleanness of Minsk’s avenues. But Minsk, or at any rate its centre, has always been clean – not only in Soviet times but also through the hunger and cold of early perestroika. It’s a tradition – the “face” must look presentable. But have any of the batka’s admirers peeped through those doorways that don’t have code locks? They should do that in the bedroom communities, which is precisely where most of the president’s devotees live. At the dawn of his reign, an eloquent announcement was put up in a lift in the micro-district of Serebryanka: “Lukashenko’s electorate! Stop pi**ing in the lift!” As they say in online forums, I agree with every word.

The second myth is about salaries. The fact that they are paid on time, and growing, is clearly due to external conditions – Putin’s forced “charity”. But, as Alexander Kozulin correctly remarked in his half-hour pre-electoral appeal on TV (in total there were two such appeals), we have Belarusian salaries, but European prices. How many inhabitants of Minsk can afford to buy an apartment when the cheapest one-room flat costs US$ 30 000, whereas a “good salary” is US$ 200? How many dozens of years will it take to save up that kind of money, even if they feed on their own saliva, like Taoists or Indian yogis? The same goes for the cost of food or domestic electric appliances. And attempts to “earn something on the side” are exorbitantly taxed (between 9 and 20 per cent).

The third myth is about the calm and “stability” proclaimed from the rostrum and the little satellite tribunes that surround it. There is not and cannot be any calm or stability in a country that is drenched in fear. Everyone is afraid – from the dissidents to the closest retainers – the latter because our ruler’s favourite pastime is “screwing up the apparatus”. This expression is not only linguistically precise; it is also a fitting metaphor. Have you ever heard how the Belarusian president, while in his usual state of hysterical dissatisfaction, talks to his subordinates – ministers, kolkhoz chairmen, workers (to whom he occasionally used to condescend at the dawn of time, but no longer)? I have, and I don’t recommend the experience: the impertinent familiar “you” he uses to address elderly people, the threats and yells turning into screams are enough to make a normal person sick. Not in a metaphorical sense – it literally makes you want to throw up.

This prompts me to turn to substance. Those who say that “Fear is better than the ‘savage grin of capitalism'” have simply forgotten what fear is. What’s more, our post-Stalin generation has never even known the kind of fear that is prevalent in Belarus in recent years. In the 1970s and 1980s, people in the USSR were afraid, but they could also laugh. There was no universal clingy horror. At least people knew the rules of the game, unwillingly obeying and skilfully circumventing them. The horror of life here and now is that the rules are changing before our very eyes and are updated after the event. For example, charges are brought against the authors of online cartoon films about the president, and then the corresponding law is passed. Laws about “discrediting” and “slander” that can be used to ban anything, and that everyone can be accused of infringing, hang over our heads, flapping ominously like the wings of the crows that for some reason have taken a liking to our “clean” and “prospering” city in recent years.

But there doesn’t need to be a law. If nothing is handed down from above, the ones at the bottom will come up with something. A lecturer in economics is fired within a week of having said where the “Belarusian economic miracle” comes from: students informed on him. An historian from an institute of the Academy of Sciences is refused renewal of his annual employment contract because of an anonymous letter saying that, under the guise of a scientific work, he wrote a “spiteful anti-Soviet lampoon” (this in an independent Republic, fifteen years after the collapse of the USSR!) and “is breathing zoological hatred against the authorities”. Recognise the hackneyed phrase? An innocent students’ joke at a student comedy festival, mainly consisting in a skilful imitation of the batka’s accent, caused the dismissal of two pro-rectors and the woman in charge of “cultural work among the masses”. The “signal” had come from one of the deans, who, forestalling possible reprisals, took a videotape to the presidential administration. All the rectors of all the universities were summoned; they in turn gave instructions to the pro-rectors; and so on, avalanche-like, from the top down. After this incident, which happened a year and a half ago, all those who had previously “kept aloof from the scuffle”, thinking they were not in danger, were gripped by fear. It became clear – no, palpable – that the disappearances, the closure of oppositional newspapers, the politically-motivated imprisonments, were not happening somewhere far away. They were here, nearby. People realised that their children could be expelled from university at any moment; that they could be refused employment because of a joke they told in the smoking-room; that they could be beaten up in the street…

Interlude: a taxi driver’s story. This fellow gets in. The respectable type, with a brief case… We get into conversation. He keeps asking how I’m finding work, this and that. Well, I tell him everything like it is. The next evening I get a phone call: are you the one who’s working in that car? They mentioned the plate number and all… That’s me, I says, so what? Did you say those things? Well I did. We’ll get you… And two days later they thrash the life out of me on the stairwell.

Stability is precisely what we don’t have. When you get up in the morning you shrink with presentiment: what are our president or his faithful dogs going to come up with next? What’s it going to be this time? And then you learn that the chemists’ booths are going to be closed – including the one next door – because, didn’t you know, they don’t comply with the sanitary regulations. It’s a wonderful, clean chemists’ booth with a kind woman who will never fail to order a medicine for you if she doesn’t have it in stock. And now you – an old or sick person – will have to crawl around town to look for your medicine, possibly in vain. Or you learn that commercial medical establishments are having their licences withdrawn (all of them on the same day) for overcharging. Need I add that state polyclinics immediately start charging more money for an ultrasound scan than the commercial clinics did a month ago? Or you learn that a presidential decree bans children (our post-Chernobyl children, almost all of whom are ill) from going abroad for treatment during their holidays – always, now and forever, to the end of time… Why? Because they pick up “Western values” and are tempted by the “world of filthy lucre”. Or you learn that a student can be expelled from university for going to nearby Poland for an academic student conference. Or how about when in March your child hears that university admissions procedures have (yet again) been changed, and all his preparations have gone to the dogs. Or when your daughter – a girl from Minsk, Brest, or Mogilev – is assigned to work in one of the villages near Chernobyl.

I would like the batka’s supporters from the “near abroad” to understand: these are no isolated cases, this is our life, and the snow-ball is growing bigger every day, clogging our noses, our mouths, our lungs, making it difficult to breathe. I would like you to put yourself in our shoes. I intentionally do not write about that base unfreedom that seeps into every crack and crevice. About the fear of denunciation, of treason, of provocation that is gripping everyone. About the terror that hits your solar plexus and freezes your stomach, twisting your guts into a lump, when you realise that you said something “wrong” at work – even if you said something trivial, for example complaining about the closure of the chemists’ booths. I don’t write about what a normal person feels when watching the non-stop documentary series about “wise, dear, beloved” Stalin on Belarusian television, when learning that a museum about “Stalin’s lineage” is being built, or when hearing Stalin being presented as an exemplary leader in order to legitimate the current repressions with the aid of this idealised image. All this can and must be described in detail, but I won’t. Because such arguments only have an effect on those who understand the value of a human being’s personal freedom. Advocates of “stability order and a firm hand” usually do not. As Zinaida Gippius wrote, “if you need to explain, then don’t explain”. I ask you to do one thing: put yourself – and your children – into these “Spanish boots”. If only in your imagination. If only for a minute.

And, finally, about the third point of view, that Belarusians are slaves, and that only a handful are different. The unforgettable Professor Preobrazhensky said: “Don’t read Soviet newspapers”. Don’t watch Belarusian and (some) Russian TV stations! I am not prone to exaggeration, but neither do I understate things. When, on the first night, people gathered in the square, the Russian papers spoke of 3000, while the oppositional Belarusian websites and the “corrupting voices” [Western-funded radio stations – trans.] mentioned 40 000. To paraphrase the old joke, I would say, “you are both wrong’. According to my calculations, during the “best’ moments of the nightly meetings there were about 20 000 to 25 000 people present, and at the “worst” moments about 15 000. But what matters is not the quantity, but the tendency. When we left on the nineteenth, on the First Day, most of us thought nobody would come the next day, including ourselves. But on the twentieth people did come. And set up four tents. The next day more people came, putting up ten tents. By the morning of the twenty-fourth, when the camp was broken up, there were thirty-nine tents. On the first night a few dozen people remained to protect the “tent people”; on the second night there were two hundred; and on the third night, half a thousand. More people kept coming from the morning onwards, numbering several thousand by the evening. Yes, there were far fewer than in Kiev. The loathsome candidate Gaydukevich, a prot�g� of the batka, called this a “little blue Maidan”. Without getting into details about this petty, wretched, cockroach-moustached little character’s personality – or rather lack thereof – I shall say one thing only. People who had been at the Maidan in Kiev told me: “Had we been facing conditions when old people and women are put into prison for fifteen days for taking food and water to the camp; when a fellow is nearly beaten to death for bringing a bio-toilet; when there are base provocations every minute; when it’s minus ten outside and you can’t pop out of the square to warm up a bit because you’ll immediately be beaten up and arrested, and even if you manage there’s no point because all caf�s, shops and public toilets in the neighbourhood are closed for a permanent ‘technical break’ – we wouldn’t have held out for a single night.”
There’s more. Yesterday, on the twenty-fifth, there were many more people out on the streets than were shown on the only truthful TV channel, Euronews – although even that would have been quite impressive. Their footage was shot only on Skorin Avenue (which the batka renamed Independence Avenue out of an indistinct personal dislike of the printing pioneer) and in one segment of Yanka Kupala Park. But how many people were out in the neighbouring streets leading up to the park! How many of them couldn’t force their way into the avenue and were thronging in the side-streets, kept back by helmet-wearing and shield-wielding ecilops! The ecilops themselves said there were about 1500 on the crossing of Lenin and Skorina streets. And something else (those who know Minsk will understand): the column of protestors extended the entire length of Nemig Street: its “head” was at the Musical Comedy Theatre, while its “tail” was at the Opera House. That’s not ten thousand, that’s more. Much more. We were walking, singing, laughing and feeling that life is worth living. Now several people are in hospital with their spines broken. How many more have been bandaged and released? How many are those who were afraid of going to hospital and are nursing their wounds at home? They are countless.
Interlude. From a conversation on Lenin Street on 25 March:
“Mum, why are there so many people?” “It’s a celebration, sonny.” “Then why are the men holding truncheons behind their backs?”

And something else. I have spent my entire life here, and I know Belarusian history. It is clear as day to me that the Belarusians (I mean all inhabitants of Belarus, irrespective of their ethnic origins, including Russians, Jews, Lithuanians, Poles, Ukrainians, Tatars) have now lost their patience. They have blown a fuse. I admit that, as recently as a week ago, I would never have thought that in a country where for many years all major changes came exclusively from above, this kind of initiative from below, and such a large one at that, was possible. Don’t compare us to the Ukrainians. Compare us to what we were like a year, a month, a week ago.

Out of our warm flats that are slightly quaking with concealed fear and jangling tension, our children led us into the streets. It’s the story of the pied piper turned on its head.

Dana and others

The American anthropologist Margaret Mead developed a famous typology of cultures: postfigurative (deeply traditional cultures where young people live their lives following the example of the older generations), cofigurative (where children learn from their coevals) and prefigurative (where adults learn from children). We are at the junction between the first two, tending towards the postfigurative. But all of a sudden we found ourselves standing in the free, young, cold, terrifying, but also bracing wind of the third.
Interlude. From Dana’s diary: When people suddenly moved aside, clearing the way, the first tents fell to the asphalt. Mine was among them. Five people had started to set them up. I didn’t have the time to walk up there – out of the crowd jumped some sturdy fellows with plump, inexpressive faces, wearing black caps. Furiously, they trampled down the tents, broke the poles, grabbed the sleeping-bags and tents and carried them away; they tried to hit those who had been setting them up. They acted in a co-ordinated and efficient way. People managed to snatch a few items out of their hands, but most things they carried away. Luckily that had only been the first batch. Then people simply formed a wall around us, keeping their elbows firmly locked and not letting anyone get in. They used their shoulders to push back those who tried to force their way through. It was behind this live wall, this cordon, that we pitched our tents. I clearly remember the moment when I was standing in the cordon, hesitating whether to go inside, and Svetka, my friend who was already working in there, called me. I wasn’t feeling anything special then. I just stepped inside and took a pole, helping to pitch a tent. The shock came later. First I hid my face under my hood because numerous video and photographic cameras were aiming straight at our eyes. Then I decided this was a half-hearted decision, and I took off the hood. We set up the tents, spread out the mats and sat on them. That’s when I started to shake. I had come to realise WHAT we had done. And that my whole previous life was very possibly sifting through my fingers like sand. All of it! The mind sport games, the children’s club that had been my joy for so many years. My comfortable existence, my job at an academic journal, my friends, my books, my parents. My beloved Minsk. And, possibly, Belarus… and, possibly, freedom. I tried to hide my tears under the hood so the journalists wouldn’t see them. A person shaking and twisted with sobs is not a nice sight. Then I calmed down: what is done is done. There is no going back. Indeed, what was the point of reading such good books as a child and listening to such good songs if one is to keep out of everything later in life? There was only one thing left to do, and I did it. I called the person I have loved for two years, and told him. I had wanted to for a long time, but hadn’t been able to make up my mind. Now there is nothing left to be afraid of.
What struck me in this diary – apart from the honesty and nobleness of this girl I do not know? She defined the mechanism that forced us to take to the square day after day, and some of us to stand there for nights on end. It’s the “My-friend-Svetka-called-me” mechanism. “The old man took hold of the turnip, the old woman took hold of the old man”. It’s the system of joint responsibility. The most inviolable, the most traditional, the most ancient link between people. A friend of mine was there. Now he is in Zhodino, there is no space left in Minsk’s prisons. “The old man took hold of the turnip.” Another friend of mine was there – a quiet, good-natured, homely woman. “The old woman took hold of the old man”.

And there was another jolt that forced us to go out on the nineteenth, even before joint responsibility set in, because the first decision was made individually by everyone. I am not talking about students – I mean us adult, reasonable, tolerant and “amenable” Belarusians. No, it wasn’t Milinkevich or Kozulin – we knew little about them, we didn’t have any access to information about the candidates except for two half-hour TV broadcasts and (for a relatively small part of the population) web sites. One candidate, however, was never off the screen. You don’t need to be Nostradamus or Vanga to guess which one.
So what did draw us into the square? It wasn’t the children – we didn’t know how many would go, and who would. We didn’t even know our children would be there. Not in a figurative sense, as in “our Belarusian children”, but literally our own dear children. What made us take to the square then, on the first day?

Interlude. Answers to this question: On the first day I simply understood I couldn’t take it anymore. I was fed up with being afraid. Then, when they started lying on television, I realised I would go again (man, 30 years old, manager). I don’t want to feel like a cowardly scumbag (woman, 40 years old, programmer). Am I a trembling creature or have I the right? (woman, 44 years old, teacher). I’m sick of the lies (man, 45 years old, company director). An attempt to preserve my honour and dignity (man, 28 years old, lecturer). My children’s eyes (woman, 55 years old, occupation unknown). I am ashamed. Galich keeps spinning in my head: “Can you take to the square at that resolute hour?” (man, over 40.)

I think that if we had asked everyone who was standing in the square, the answers would have been similar. I’m ashamed. I’m fed up with being afraid. I want to preserve my honour. All these concepts are somehow aerial, unreliable. Remember how Pierre Bezukhov tells a Frenchman in Moscow about his love for Natasha, and the man answers: “Clouds…”? Well, all these are clouds too. You can’t put them in your pocket, you can’t eat them, you can’t drink them, you can’t put them to any use. The most powerful thing in the world are clouds. Ideals. Dana is right to write about the good books she read and the songs she listened to. Justice, honour and dignity are woven from such “cloudy” material. From clouds alone – there’s no other way.

This is why the most insulting thing were the TV lies about people in the square having been paid. First they mentioned 20 000 roubles, or US $9. Then they raised that rate to US$ 50. “Run to earn your bucks!” an old woman in the street cried yesterday, in a heart-rending voice. Laughter was the reply, no one objected. Although this was painful to hear: after all, this was a local granny, one of us.

But let’s return to the square. Perhaps we adult, intelligent, reasonable and prudent Belarusians – not all of us, maybe, but many – would have contented ourselves with going to the mass meeting on the nineteenth – a sufficiently courageous gesture under our conditions. After all we had been threatened with terrorist attacks, arrests, explosions and dead rats. We overcame our fear, we came: enough done. We could have ticked this off mentally as a worthy deed, and continued to live passively. But then the children came in.

Interlude: Natasha’s story. I placed a letter into my parents’ letterbox. They had shouted at me, stamping their feet: “We’ll curse you, we won’t let you in the door!’ I took a sweater and a toothbrush in case they arrested me. There. And I took a mug. I placed a letter to my mum in the letterbox. I decided that if everything went well I would take it out myself. It turned out alright. By the next day mum was no longer cursing, she was standing in the square. Dad was cursing. Then dad stopped cursing too. When our relatives from the provinces phoned and began to say: “We’re laughing so much about your halfwits in Minsk”, mum and dad were screaming again. But not at me – at them. The story of Inna Sergeevna, a philosophy lecturer: I wasn’t going anywhere. I’m a completely apolitical person. I’m trying to keep away… well, you know. I live in my own internal world. I’d been lecturing about “Freedom as understood by the existentialists”… Sartre, Camus. After the lecture a girl came up to me and said: “Thank you, now I know what to do. Your lecture taught me.” And she left with her little rucksack. When I came home in the evening I was restless, there was nothing I could do… I got ready, took a vacuum flask and food for them. And off I went. From a phone conversation with Anatoly, a car mechanic: They arrested Olya, my daughter. Now we’re standing in front of the special confinement centre on Okrestin Street. They don’t take parcels. Of course it’s dreadful. But we don’t have anything to blame her for. She did everything right. A mobile phone conversation I overheard: Grandma, I can’t, you know. All my friends are there… Granny, I’m sorry. Don’t cry, granny. I can’t, you know… Thanks, granny.

It’s us, Lord!

They kept standing there. A sharp wind was blowing. Someone said: “Lukashenko has made a pact with the devil”. People were dancing and singing a little. They were playing thread-needle and blind man’s buff. At first they had a ball, but it bounced off and a policeman stole it. It would have been easier had there been strong drinks, but then they would have been carted off in no time. So not only were they not drinking – they chased away anyone who offered them drinks. Perhaps this was unfair to some people, but they shouldn’t feel hurt: the cause was more important. The cause demanded to stand firm and keep sober. It was only after the tent camp was broken up that “they” threw syringes, bottles and condoms into the tents. As if no better place could have been found to drink and frolic than the country’s central square (when I was a child that’s what it was called: Central Square), surrounded by policemen. In a tent where five people were sleeping. In ten degrees below zero, on thinly covered concrete.

What’s most ridiculous is that people believed this nonsense – but then they also believed a lot of other things, as we had been warned before the First Day they would. They believed that the opposition’s main weapon were drowned rats they were planning to dump in the water-supply. That Arab terrorists trained in Georgia by American instructors would take to the square. This oxymoron (Arabs supervised by Americans) not only encountered no resistance at all on its way into the empty minds of Lukashenko’s electorate – it even had a lot of success. Because two enemies are even better than one. The electorate likes to live inside a “ring of enemies” (our president’s favourite figure of speech). After all it’s so easy to blame it all on an enemy: the low salaries, the high utilities bills, the expensive food and medicines, and, most importantly, the fear of the regime that grinds you at night. We’ve been through all that – as tragedy in 1937, and now as farce. But alas, farces are also sometimes tragic. This is why the electorate, intoxicated as it is by the “stunning” victory which has eclipsed even the previous, “elegant” one, is inclined to accuse the people from the tent camp of all evils. Them of all people. Luckily, the “electorate” numbers much, much less than 82 per cent.

But where does this desire to believe in smut come from? Maybe it stems from the hope that other people’s filthiness will cover up one’s own cowardice?

On the second night there were more tents. And more people around them. There was a clear tendency. But I’ve already mentioned that. Now I want to talk about those who brought food, blankets and medicines. And those who blocked them.
Interlude. A few stories. A student made pancakes stuffed with meat. She’s a vegetarian, but decided that those standing in the square could do with some meat. She was caught, taken to the police station and forced to eat all the pancakes. She wept and ate. Ate and wept. Doesn’t that remind you of the SS as portrayed in old Soviet films? Maybe that’s where they got it from? A young doctoral student tried to carry food through the cordon. She was caught. I can’t remember how much she got – from ten to fifteen days. The defence of her dissertation was scheduled for the next day. Obviously, as long as this regime exists, she will not be able to defend her thesis. An elderly woman came to see her son. When she was leaving the square she was taken away. They pushed her into a bus and drove her away. In the bus she started feeling ill. They called an ambulance. They wanted to put her in hospital, but she refused: her disabled daughter was alone at home. They let her go after she signed a statement she would not leave the city. But her son was arrested and beaten up. A woman voted for Lukashenko in all sincerity. One evening her son went to the GUM (State Universal Store) which is a five minute walk away from October Square. When he got off the bus he was caught, beaten up and taken away. She will never vote for Lukashenko again.

Dana was also caught when she tried to carry a sleeping bag into the camp. I won’t retell the story. I’ll quote a passage from her diary:
We were talking to the police, I tried to explain my position to them, to make them understand that we are no drunken scumbags. The policemen were telling me there would be a swoop tonight, they would beat people up and take them to the station. In short, they tried everything to scare us.
Just once I was close to losing my temper – when plainclothes KGB officers appeared. There’s a way in which they’re all alike: they all have the same plump, inexpressive faces, the same smugness and assurance of their impunity. They wear dark and inconspicuous clothes, which is how people recognise them. These here were wearing badges – our “For Freedom” badges! At the station they were behaving like absolute masters. One of them, the one who was taller and stouter, looked at my sleeping-bag and said with satisfaction: “Oh! A sleeping-bag! I’ll take it to the car for Nikolaich, he must be freezing after four hours”… First they wanted to draw up a report and take me to the special confinement centre on Okrestin Street. But then the tall one said: “Ah, forget her! Let’s go to those nitwits, otherwise they’ll eat all the yummy things in the cordon while we’re driving her around.”
And he pinned on a white-red-and-white badge for all to see.
I have never felt such hatred and pain. I wanted to jump at his throat, that smug, cynical hog who arrests us and gorges on our food. Food brought by people who are risking ten days’ confinement. Distributed by the frozen hands of girls who have been standing in the
Maidan for two days without sleep.

What strikes me most is the base, wretched and petty way in which these strong, fat, smug bullies were fighting a handful of people – those who were standing in the square and those who were bringing them food. Taking it away and gobbling it up. Shoving it into their mouths in their presence and having a good laugh. Wrapping blankets around their broad shoulders and leaving. Giving a 62-year-old woman 15 days for a few sandwiches. What were they taking revenge on? Their fear, no doubt. For the incomprehensible always causes fear. And what was happening in the square was totally incomprehensible to these brawny beings. They hadn’t been taught that.

I once read a story somewhere. In the 1950s, when Adenauer took the German prisoners-of-war back to Germany, those who had been working as lumberjacks took bits of wood with them, one each. In Germany they stuck these scantlings of wood together to form a monument: a Russian woman in a headscarf, holding out a piece of bread. Maybe there is no such monument; I admit I don’t know. But that women were giving food to the prisoners is a well-known fact. They were feeding the enemy, following the eternal Slavic tradition of giving alms to the convict, the prisoner. And here our own men (but are they really men?) didn’t let people feed our own children!

Another cunning trick was to weld the sewer hatch that people were using as a toilet. Necessity is the mother of invention: they found a different solution. They weren’t defecating in front of the Museum of the Great Patriotic War, as the television was bawling. Firstly, simply because for every Belarusian, no matter their age, the war is sacred. And secondly, had they stepped out, for example towards the museum, they would have been arrested immediately. The point is precisely that while it was possible to get through to the square and even, sometimes, bring food and a few sweaters on one’s person if one was adroit enough, it was very dangerous to make a single step out of the square. I won’t say what the solution was. Perhaps it will serve again one day? Who knows…

Incidentally, it was the lavatorial topic which, for some reason, drove the myrmidons of law and order to the highest flights of fancy (what would Freud have said about this?). Thus, at the special confinement centre on Okrestin Street after the tent camp was dispersed, only people with passports were led to the toilet: “Without a scrap of paper you’re an insect”.

How are you going to sleep at night, hangmen? Not well, I think. You are going to be afraid…

But the dull idiocy of the myrmidons was partly due to the fact that they simply didn’t know what to do. There was no order. Then the order came, and dull idiocy turned into clinical hysteria. That was last night, when people wielding shields and wearing flak jackets were using truncheons, letting off grenades, jumping up and down on those lying on the ground, breaking people’s legs and spines.

I don’t nurture any tender love for the authorities, nor do I trust them. But they could have taken a step that might have postponed their death agony somewhat. That step would have been to go out into the square. Without a retinue and unarmed. Just talk, ask people to leave and have the magnanimity not to punish them. Our president has more than enough capacity for gaining people’s confidence: a charismatic personality is a charismatic personality, even in Belarus.

But he didn’t come out. Firstly because if he did this would have been a different president. A different president wouldn’t have arrogated such “stunning” and “elegant” figures to himself. He wouldn’t issue orders for the arrest of people whose faces he doesn’t like. He wouldn’t crush business. He wouldn’t wage war on writers – either living or dead ones. Like Vasil Bykov, the world-famous prose writer whose (non-existent) poems our “Sunlike One” says he was brought up on. He wouldn’t scare the miserable electorate with tales of a “ring of enemies”. In brief, he wouldn’t be Alexander Grigorievich Lukashenko.

And secondly, over the past days – for the first time in twelve years – one hasn’t heard anything about him. He has disappeared from the TV screens. He hasn’t reacted to the events. He doesn’t manifest himself in any way. He’s not decorating or scolding anyone, he’s not waltzing with students or making a national laughing stock of himself by holding yet another King’s Speech. One is tempted to ask: “Was there a boy anyway?” And if there was, where did he go?

So Jacob was left alone

And now I’m afraid. Genuinely afraid. The young people haven’t been sentenced yet, but they have already been expelled from their universities. Officially for non-attendance. Although some of them would run off to their classes in the mornings – as a group, so they wouldn’t be arrested. However, Poland, Ukraine, and Slovenia have offered to let finish their education for free at universities in those countries.

Here’s what I’m thinking. Those standing there were the best. Honest, conscientious, and intelligent young people. Not coincidentally, there were many award-holders and A-grade students among them. Who will we be left with?

Recently, faces we had forgotten have emerged from nowhere – onto the screens, into presidiums, onto the pages of newspapers, into the offices of universities and official institutions. Fat, pompous, smug, and thoroughly cynical faces. The nomenclature faces of careerists and lickspittles. Familiar clich�s have cropped up again: “five-year plan”, “we’ll catch up with them and overtake them”, “labouring people”, and so on.

The most monstrous thing is that they’re not the same people. We thought Lukashenko was the god of the pensioners. It turns out we were wrong. Firstly, there were enough pensioners in the square. Lovely old women with crosses. Wonderful old men with sticks. And secondly, those careerists and lickspittles so astonishingly reminiscent of freed Komsomol workers are young. This is a new generation that has emerged over the past few years.

There are the former young people, and there are the latter. Who should we side with?

In spite of everything, I believe it’s the first group. I believe that because I saw their faces in the square. Because it’s impossible to go on living like this. And most importantly, I don’t simply believe it, I know it: we have changed. Or rather, we have become ourselves again. The Belarusians are an astonishing people. They don’t break; they bend. They bend beyond breaking point. This is why they are often considered obedient, spineless, indifferent and passive. But there comes a point when the Belarusians unbend. All together, as a “scrum”. And this moment has come.

The question is not “what next”: it’s entirely obvious that nothing can be turned back. If they believe in us, we will be grateful for the understanding and support. If we are forgotten as soon as we step off Euronews, well, then a long but not infinite “guerrilla war” awaits us, and truly, the Belarusians are still unrivalled masters of this type of warfare. Our propensity for it seems to stem from our “genetic memory”. I’m joking, of course. But wanting to joke is already a good sign. Perhaps because yesterday spring came to our country – not on the calendar, but in reality, with all its amazing details – blue sky, birds chirping, brooks babbling, and people’s happy faces?

P.S. One doesn’t usually dedicate articles. However, I’d like to dedicate my “Notes of an ordinary person” to two people: the journalist Vadim Kaznacheev, who was with the people from the tent camp until the end, and the journalist Pavel Sheremet, who came to Minsk with croupous pneumonia to defend his Fatherland. Now both are awaiting tomorrow’s trial. Stand firm! You would have written this better.

26 March 2006

Published 5 May 2006
Original in Russian
Translated by Mischa Gabowitsch

© Olga Timokhina Eurozine


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