‘It changed when the brutality began’ ‘Meduza’ correspondent Maxim Solopov describes his arrest and detention in Belarus
On the night of August 10, Meduza special correspondent Maxim Solopov was arrested in the center of Minsk amid mass protests that erupted after election officials announced Alexander Lukashenko’s supposed landslide victory. The arresting officers beat Solopov and held him for almost two days, allowing him no contact with the outside world. During that time, his whereabouts were unknown to his friends, his family, his lawyer, and to Meduza’s editors. Around 8 p.m. on August 11, Solopov was transferred from the infamous Okrestina detention facility in Minsk to the custody of Russian diplomats, who promptly delivered him to the Russian border. He’s now back in Moscow. At Meduza’s request, photojournalist Evgeny Feldman met with Solopov outside the Smolensk for an interview.
What was your original plan there in Minsk?
My plan was to do some work at the campaign headquarters on election day, and that’s what I did. I was at the so-called joint opposition headquarters, located at [Viktor] Babriko’s headquarters, where [Svetlana] Tikhanovskaya and the other candidates’ teams were setting up then.
I figured I’d observe a protest that evening and I expected it to be peaceful like the previous rallies. I figured I’d be writing up the election by the next day, with something about the protest and the election results. My plan was exactly that — to go to the protest in the evening because nothing exciting was going on at the headquarters. I didn’t expect events to develop the way they did. Without any urging from Tikhanovskaya, a lot of people turned out to demonstrate. All of Minsk was in motion, but I didn’t expect things to play out so brutally.
At what point did you realize things were getting bad?
I got there and saw a crowd of people near Nemiga subway station, near the bars on Zabitsky Street where they were playing [the Viktor Tsoi protest anthem] “Changes.” There were some bikers and crowds of people.
How big were the crowds? On what scale are we talking?
A few thousand people. Not a lot, but I knew this wasn’t the main crowd because it was far from where people were assembling for the protest itself, near the [Minsk Hero City] Obelisk. I waited a little bit and then I heard that something was happening nearby. You could hear the bursts of stun grenades, but at Nemiga everything was quiet, at first. Then a line of riot police started marching in — several hundred troopers, all lined up. They were there to disperse the crowd.
Were they banging on their shields?
Yeah. They were banging on their shields. But people were inclined to be pretty peaceful. The main slogan was: “The police are with the people.” Many Belarusians later admitted that they didn’t expect things would develop so brutally. The moment I realized things were about to get rough was when the armored cars showed up — vehicles like Hummers, except manufactured in Belarus [note to readers: they’re actually made in China]. They were packed with special forces troops, also dressed in camo. They resembled Russian “Alpha” group troops in action, flash-bang rounds at the ready.
With rubber bullets?
They didn’t have rubber bullets then. They weren’t using them. They’d rush in and single out people for arrests, but it was maximum brutality from the start. They stormed the area and got to work. Stones rained down on them along with some other things.
Internet service was probably out by then?
Yes. Internet service was shut off as soon as the election started. There wasn’t any access at the campaign headquarters and I was worried that I’d be arrested like the Dozhd reporters [Russian journalists detained a day earlier in Minsk]. I thought they might arrest me right away and I wouldn’t get to see what was happening. I tried to work, to call the editorial office, and to explain what was happening.
Afterward, everything became even more like a military operation all over the city. It seemed like a state of emergency when they blocked off the roads and a huge number of riot police, Interior Ministry troops, and all kinds of law-enforcement officers poured in from all sides, making arrests. At one point, I ended up in an area blocked off from every side by a bunch of jacked troopers.
They held you for about an hour?
Yeah. That happened in one place where they were clearing out a crowd, but [they released me] and I kept going. Later, I was walking down the street and there were definitely 10,000 [people] there at the [rally’s] peak. All these passersby were joining the group — it was mostly young people between the ages of 20 and 40. And there were teenagers and people as old as 50.
And the vibe in the crowd was peaceful? The mood hadn’t changed?
It changed when the brutality began. But the aggression wasn’t explicit exactly. The sheer force presented by the riot police, the water cannons, and the special forces made such an impression that people kinda shouted at them and then retreated. There weren’t clashes so much as statements from excited youths and tough guys like “Everybody, we’re going to stay here. We’re going to fight them. We need to take a stand,” but all that ended with the first bangs from the stun grenades and the officers charging ahead with metal shields. Then people scattered. It was like moving a crowd that was being divided up and blocked off. At some point, I found myself in the blocked-off part of the crowd.
What happened next?
Then the clean-up operation began in that area and they started arresting people violently. They fired tear gas around the public square a bit north of Nemiga, a few miles away. A crowd of mostly young people had gathered there, too. Somehow they actually managed to psych out the riot police a bit. That crowd went in a few different directions until people realized that they’d also been blocked in.
They tried to find an exit — a street, an alley, or anything — but there was no way out. People started bunching up together at some point. I remember the last place they were huddled together was outside the steps of the Gorky Theater. Actually, I was standing there when I dictated my last report over the phone [to Meduza’s newsroom]. Then the stun grenades started flying. We’d only just escaped a cloud of tear gas when the flashbangs started flying. And I realized that I needed to get out of there through the bushes or by finding a fence to climb.
Did everyone scatter?
Yes. At that point, I met some guys from the Daily Storm in “Press” jackets, I ran up to them, and they recognized me. Together, we tried to follow part the crowd through the back streets towards fence, which we thought would get us out of the clean-up operation zone.
As it happened, I was the first to climb it — a guy from the Daily Storm helped me, I was already preparing to help him climb from the other side. And at that moment I saw another detention team running from my side of the fence. I realized that there was no sense in trying to run away, that would only aggravate my situation. I put up my hands, making it totally clear...
There’s video of that moment.
Yes, but I didn’t know about it [at the time]. I only knew that the guys from the Daily Storm were witnesses. I was almost calmer, because I knew there were some witnesses to my arrest — but I didn’t know what happened to them.
Did you tell them that you’re a journalist from Russia?
I started to yell, while they were still running towards me, that I was a journalist, that I was Russian. I repeated this the whole time, but this was a combat operation, and generally they acted without thinking about whether you were a journalist or not. There were already no distinctions — [it didn’t matter if] you were a journalist, a prosecutor, or Lukashenko’s son.
Were you lying on the ground?
They hammered me into the pavement a bit, then grabbed my hands immediately. And I just shouted that I was a journalist. But I think that that had an effect. Because [at first] I was just some guy with short hair in paramilitary trousers, fitting the description of [their] main targets. If there had been some fragile young lady in my place it probably would have all been more civil. I saw a lot of things, of course, but I was a suitable target for them — not an old man…
Later, even more [security officers] wanted to beat me up along the way, but not all of them were able to do so. I kept shouting “I’m a journalist,” and one of the officers intervened: “Okay, okay, okay.” Then they threw me into the bus, facedown on the floor. At this point there was already no point in explaining whether or not you’re a journalist. I told everyone I could. Then I heard that people in other places shouted “I’m a journalist” and got clubbed in response.
Were there a lot of people there?
There weren’t that many people there, because this was a detention team that worked in a local precinct, where the stragglers from the crowd were. They arrested some young woman, some minor kid. I couldn’t observe, I had a head injury, I lay in the bus with my face on the floor. I understood that if I moved, I would get it even worse.
Did they treat the others the same way?
Yes. They spoke to all of them roughly. But they were allowed to sit down normally right away, and I was only allowed to kneel later. [One] teenager was afraid of the blood that was dripping off me. But they calmed him down in a harsh way, like, stay still and no one will touch you. Then they put us in the transport van that was similar to the type of car that takes prisoners to court — a “Gazelle” with sections. There, too, there was an order not to say anything, or it would be worse for us. The person responsible for us said, “Everybody shut up.”
Were you handcuff?
I wasn’t handcuffed. They just shut the grate and that was it. Then they unloaded us, and I don’t even want to get into the topic of the isolation center where they took me and all of the others. There was a state of emergency there, martial law. I didn’t understand where we were or what was happening. Considering that there are still journalists there, I think it would be better to discuss the details later. But I can say that generally speaking, I wasn’t there as a journalist, but rather as part of a general stream of detainees.
How many people were there?
There were hundreds of people, because I was in a group of forty locked in one [eight-person] cell. I personally experienced the whole system that was applied to the rest of the protesters. They joked among themselves that everyone was just passing through, but everyone knew where they were going.
Can you tell us what happened to you there?
I had no way of contacting anybody. That center had become the place where a significant number of the detainees were taken. It was crowded, it was very harsh there, to put it mildly. They were more severe with some of the detainees, less so with others. You could say I was relatively lucky — keeping in mind that in principle I wasn’t a protester.
Watching from afar, it’s hard to understand what really happened there. There are fragmentary videos showing rows of people lying on the pavement in police courtyards, and there are testimonies about people being stretched out for several hours and getting beaten with clubs.
People spent a lot of time on their knees or stretched out. There were a lot of people there and there were also a lot of people at other detention centers; all of these facilities were not only working under intensified conditions, but also significantly exceeding their resources. It was frightening. I’m a person who’s seen a lot, but this was frightening. I didn’t understand where I was [or] what awaited me, and outside the windows, the stun grenades continued to blaze. I can’t exactly remember the first night, but the second night you could hear clashes nearby. It wasn’t clear what was happening in the city.
I didn’t really know who was directing the actions of the security forces [or] what their plans were; I could imagine different scenarios, [for example], that clashes were going on there between different security forces.
Anything from the taking of the Bastille to shootings in stadiums?
In my mind the situation was so tense that I couldn’t rule out any scenarios. You’re in an isolated place, you could simply be forgotten there, you could be taken somewhere else, you’re outside of the law.
In the jail, did you say you were a journalist?
There was no trial where I could have done that. If anyone started to argue it made the situation worse, both for that person and everyone around him. I realized that trying to convince anyone that my case was special was useless.
Did anyone come into your cell and ask for your names?
They packed us into the cell. We were in a vacuum, but when they took down our names for a second and third time, we realized that we were within a procedural framework, that they were possibly preparing us for criminal prosecution — or possibly administrative prosecution. Everyone proceeded on this basis — the fact that we were placed in cells, that there are rules, [meant] that trying to assert our rights wouldn’t make anything better now. This was made very clear to us. So I just started waiting.
At the time, did you feel that the Belarusians were treated more harshly than you were?
No, there were no distinctions at the time when I was there. When the prison staff member who took everyone’s name down came, [she] made lists, asked where we worked — I emphasized that I was a journalist, a Russian citizen. It was clear that this surprised them a bit. How did you end up here? But then nothing happened.
Did they separate the men and the women?
Men and women were held separately. They observed all aspects [of procedure]. They took my personal belongings and returned everything after I was released. It seemed like chaos from the outside, but they gave me my little bag and my backpack, all safe and sound.
[At the same time] the Italians were treated more [kindly] — they said, those are Europeans. A Russian can [fraternize] with the opposition, but Italians — even if they’re some sort of spies — are still Europeans. From the snippets of [Italian] conversation that I heard, I realized that they were speaking pretty freely, that they were being treated correctly, according to the standards of the situation.
The arrested Daily Storm journalists managed to get out in under 24 hours, but you were missing for more than 40 hours. What happened?
Compared with the other [arrested journalists] I was there for a long time, in the position of an ordinary detainee. I was only picked out of that mass after all the noise. Apparently, they simply couldn’t find me. There really were a lot of people there, someone lost these lists, my last name could have been misspelled a few times. There was a big stream of people, when they started doing rounds, my last name was read out wrong a couple times: Solodov, Solonov. I corrected [them] because I knew that someone was looking for me and couldn’t find me because I had gotten lost on the lists. It’s possible that was the main problem in my case.
Did the police officers or prison staff behave differently on the second day? When the protests became more severe?
The tension was there on both the first and the second day. Nobody understood what was going on in the country and the city, but everyone understood that it was something very brutal. Grenade explosions were within hearing range. You could hear the harsh response of the next rounds. There was a group of nationalists — they were very hard on them.
At the same time, there were [staff members] who were very tough on any protesters, but there were some people who behaved appropriately. Sometimes you’d run into real hard-liners, other times you’d find yourself among people who used the formal “you” [Vy] and addressed you by your name and patronymic. Most of [the time], my interactions were with people who behaved harshly, I only saw the floor or the wall in front of me. Looking the other way simply wasn’t allowed.
I can only assume that they were the ones who were involved in the confrontations [on the streets] in one way or another, because as far as I can tell, a variety of different forces were used in the street protests. This includes police from different departments, and others — maybe prison guards were used as reinforcements in the streets, along with riot police.
On the second day, they started to come and take the detainees out of our cell one by one — they returned with 15-day administrative arrest sentences.
Did they serve their sentences at the jail?
I can’t say what their fate was afterward. They weren’t taken away, they were returned, but they could have been sent somewhere else later.
Did they issue the sentences right there, in the jail?
Yes, there was a mobile court in the jail.
Were you put on trial as well?
No, in fact I was waiting — [thinking], maybe now it will be my turn, and I’ll try to explain how I got here, try to ask for a lawyer. But the others were tried extremely fast.
How long did it take?
They could be returned to the cell with a 15-day sentence within five or ten minutes. This brought some certainty with it, because we spent the second night [listening to] stun grenade explosions, cries for help, club blows ringing out, and the cursing of guards beyond the jail’s walls. When people began to receive terms for administrative detention, it inspired hope that there wouldn’t be mass criminal prosecutions. Well, maybe there might be, but later, when they [could] sort them out individually. Before that it was totally uncertain what would come next.
When all these trials ended — almost everyone in the cell had been sentenced to 15 days, one person to 12, — I realized that they hadn’t summoned me with all the others, which possibly meant that they’d somehow sort me out [differently] later.
Was there anyone who was released from your cell?
There were a couple of people who left and didn’t come back. We assumed that they had been released. They even drew up protocols for some of them on the same day. Evidently, these were the most harmless detainees, who definitely weren’t suspected of anything. They wanted to release them to make room in the jail as fast as possible. But then they came back to the cell.
What did you assume was going on when they didn’t summon you?
I thought, “Ah, here [they hold you for] 72 hours, not 48 hours [like in Russia].”And my situation is different since I’m Russian. They may also be taking into account that I’m a journalist— and they’ll probably deal with me the next day. But at least they didn’t give me an administrative protocol and they didn’t give me jail time. This was already giving me hope. On the one hand, it created uncertainty, on the other, there was the hope that now they wouldn’t give me 15 days and keep me here.
What did the people in the jail talk about? What were their expectations? Their fears?
First and foremost they worried about what would happen to them next. But at some point people calmed down and, based on experience, predicted their own fates — several days of administrative detention. And some optimists even guessed that they would give out fines, quite impressive [ones] by Belarusian standards, and let them go home. Because the stream of detainees was too great and nobody needed to cram the jails with random people who had been accidentally arrested. There wasn’t even one opposition activist among the people in my cell.
Are you sure?
Yes. Maybe one or two people were ideological in some way, a couple of people were soccer fans, one was in a t-shirt with a Belarusian symbol. As for the rest, there was a mechanic at a factory, a businessman from the restaurant industry, a student at a Polish university, and some sort of ex-guard who helped us get our bearings a bit, because he knew that jail.
Did the former prison guard participate in the protests?
They all said they didn’t take part in the protests, they were just passing by. But there was an understanding that at the very least, they supported the protests. For the most part, those who were with me were people who’d been arrested on the streets at night. The majority admitted that they had gone out, supporting the mood of the protesters, but didn’t do anything — some went out of curiosity, but still. Many of them weren’t arrested in the crowd, but rather as they were leaving the scene of the events.
Let’s get back to your release.
It happened at a time when I understood that, most likely, I’d be staying there overnight. They summoned me from the cell. They took me somewhere [different than] where they’d taken everyone else; it wasn’t to a quick trial in the very same jail — they took me to the first floor. There was a person in civilian clothing there who said, “Everybody, guys, calm down. You are now being deported to Russia.”
You weren’t alone?
They brought out a guy from another cell or some other place at the same time as me, Igor Rogov from “Open Russia.” I knew he was Russian. They told us that we would be sent home now. At that point, the technical questions had already been resolved: we had to find our things among everyone else’s and sign off on the fact that everything had been returned to [us]. I signed a paper saying that I had been working without [journalistic] accreditation and had offered to leave Belarus of my own accord, with a five-year entry ban.
From here on out everything was [done] correctly. There were Russian diplomats nearby, who made every effort to make sure everything went well. They took us to the embassy. The diplomats were continuing to deal with the cases of other Russian citizens simultaneously, most of them were journalists.
Did you speak to the ambassador?
As soon as we got out, we talked to the [embassy employees] about the general situation, trying to find out some sort of news. They told us that there was a team dealing with the cases of Russian citizens, that there was a dedicated team of embassy employees handling this.They told me how everyone had been trying to find me, to get me out, that they had made every effort.
They took me to the embassy where the ambassador himself talked to us about [our experiences] in custody. He asked us what we knew about the fate of other Russians, and repeated once again that they were doing everything possible to free Russian citizens. And we really saw this with our own eyes, I can’t fault the embassy for anything at all here.
Have you heard the stories about other arrested Russians who faced more serious threats?
I’ve heard [them]. Firstly, Rogov from “Open Russia” found himself in a very difficult situation — they could have charged him with a criminal offense, because there were already stories [about this] on Belarusian television. They really had begun to suspect him of some sort of political, rather than journalistic, activity — of being some sort of coordinator. But [the embassy] managed to free him regardless.
So the Belarusian government remains a loyal partner?
I think it’s difficult to generalize right now — the situation there is so complicated that it’s all individual efforts, individual work. Each time [someone is freed] it’s through different officials. There isn’t any kind of clear channel where [Moscow tells Minsk] “free these people” and they are freed — no. All circumstances are being clarified. And each time a person is freed it’s through different means.
Could you give a general evaluation of the situation in Belarus, in the context of these protests?
I was isolated, so I can only tell you what I saw after my release. Today [August 11], I didn’t hear stun grenades, like the day before. Although there were some popping sounds somewhere far from the city center. On outer streets, people are busy honking, coming out with ribbons, [and] there are small groups of riot police. There’s the feeling of a state of emergency, [but] a curfew has yet to be introduced. At the same time, people continue honking, greeting each other, showing each other their white ribbons [an opposition symbol].
I caught a moving moment when some young guys brought pizza to [a group of] riot police, who were also young guys. As a sign of reconciliation between Belarusians. I saw this from the window of the car. On the whole, there’s a feeling in Belarusian society that the conflict will be resolved without people becoming rigidly divided, without polarization. In Belarus, as opposed to Russia, there is a serious level of trust in the police and security officials. This is, in part, my subjective opinion: before the conflicts at the beginning of the protests the people didn’t have any aggression towards people in uniforms. They went out [in protest] with the feeling of “police with the people, lay down your shields.” And I heard from the detainees that in some cities in Belarus, that’s what happened. But I don’t know if this gossip is true, because I haven’t been able to take a proper look at the news.
Translation by Maya Chhabra