‘The people just went crazy’ The story behind one of the most famous photos from the Belarus protests
The above photograph, taken by Vasily Fedosenko for Reuters, has become one of the most famous snapshots from the start of the protests Belarus. It was taken during the night of August 9–10, near the Hero City Obelisk in downtown Minsk, where most of the mass arrests took place. The photo shows an officer from the security forces in a black balaclava, gesturing towards a half-naked protester, who is lying on the ground.
A video of this scene also appeared online; it was first uploaded by the Telegram channel Onliner.by. The video shows two officers — the one in the balaclava and another, wearing a helmet — carrying a detainee out of a police van. In the background, people begin shouting “Let him go!” — “Yes, I let him go! Call an ambulance!” the security officer in the balaclava shouts back.
The detainee in the photo is Yauhen Zaichkin. He was initially reported dead during the first night of protests in Minsk (possibly due to a second, widely-circulated snapshot from Reuters, where he’s lying on the ground with his eyes open). But it quickly emerged that Zaichkin was alive. He told the Belarusian outlets Vot-tak.tv and Tut.by that he was arrested and beaten during the protests, even though he didn’t put up any resistance. He lost consciousness in the police van. Someone called an ambulance and he was taken to the hospital.
The ‘other side’ of the story, as told by RT
The Russian state-controlled television channel RT, which has been reporting on the protests from the perspective of the Belarusian authorities, published an interview with an officer from the Interior Ministry’s internal troops, who is allegedly the same security officer (the one in the balaclava) from the Reuters photo and the Onliner.by video (a clip of the interview was released on August 24, and the full version was published on August 25). In the RT interview, the man, whose face is hidden and whose last name isn’t mentioned, explains the circumstances surrounding Zaichkin’s arrest. According to his version of the events, Zaichkin was both drunk and under the influence of drugs.
“We had one detainee. It later turned out that he was very heavily intoxicated with alcohol and drugs. Later, they told us simply, they said ‘Thank God you sought us, the doctors, because it could have been trouble’,” the man told RT. He specified that Zaichkin became ill after his arrest, and that he (the officer) instructed his colleagues to take the protester to the doctor: “Because a person’s life and health is above all else. He needed to be treated, no matter how bad he was that evening, he mustn’t die, he must live.”
When they pulled Zaichkin from the police van, he was unconscious, the officer continued: “He lay down and [continued] lying on the ground. I tried to revive him. And right there, 50 meters away on the right, people were standing and shouting ‘Let him go!’ I told them that I was getting him medical help, but they didn’t hear [me]. The people just went crazy. So I get up, take my hands [off of him], and show [them]: I let him go — and what now? Now he’s just lying [there]. And they don’t know what to say. Realizing that there wouldn’t be any help from the people, I told my comrade to run and get the doctors. […] He was evacuated by ambulance,” the officer explained.
He also said that they didn’t beat Zaichkin. But immediately offered some caveats. “If they did beat him, then it was [during] a situation where he jumped at the [riot police officers’] shields. […] Their group took a running jump at the guys with shields. […] They said over the loudspeaker many times: ‘Stop the illegal actions, go home.’ He and another group didn’t understand it. They ran at the guys with shields and started beating them. Accordingly, he got hit somewhere several times, and we pulled him into our car. He was sitting in the car and then he got sick,” the officer told RT.
The doctors say Zaichkin wasn’t intoxicated
Zaichkin has denied that he was under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of his arrest. He shared his discharge papers from the Emergency Medical Hospital where he was taken that night with TUT.by. According to the documents, Zaichkin was diagnosed with a “closed brain injury of mild severity, a concussion, and bruising to the upper lip,” as well as a “distortion of the capsular ligaments of the cervical spine” (in other words, whiplash). There’s no mention of alcohol or drugs.
The Emergency Hospital in Minsk confirmed that the discharge papers are a legal document, “and if the person had any kind of intoxication, it would be indicated [there].”
Demonstrators respond to Lukashenko’s claims about “drunk and stoned” protesters with humor
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (Alyaksandr Lukashenka) made claims about many of the protesters being “stoned, drunk, and on drugs” on August 10. He later made derisive comments about convicts and unemployed individuals allegedly joining the protests. In addition, he called the protesters “sheep,” controlled by “puppeteers” from the West. The Belarusian authorities have also repeatedly claimed that the protesters are paid.
During recent rallies, Lukashenko’s opponents have ridiculed the authorities’ attempts to discredit the demonstrations. For example, among the participants at a major demonstration in Minsk on August 24, (which, according to Meduza’s estimates, drew around 150,000 people, and according to TUT.by drew almost 180,000) were people carrying signs that read: “Everyone is here: the drug addicts, prostitutes, and other intelligent people” and “Sasha, we hate you for free.” Other protesters shouted out roll calls, asking if the “drug addicts, parasites, and prostitutes” were in attendance. Each question was met with a resounding “Here!”
Translation by Eilish Hart