The angry and the powerless How the opposition protests in Belarus became a guerilla movement. Liliya Yapparova reports from Minsk.
In the summer and fall of 2020, protest marches drew tens and even hundreds of thousands of people to the main streets of cities in Belarus. The authorities responded by deliberately beating up protesters and arresting them en masse. With the onset of winter, there are no longer large-scale demonstrations, but the people of Minsk continue to attend rallies that increasingly rely on guerilla tactics. At night, street artists paint politically-charged graffiti on the walls of buildings; city residents protest in small, neighborhood groups, emerging from nowhere and disappearing just as quickly; opposition supporters deploy lookouts around their apartment complexes and alert each other when law enforcement officers are on their way; and musicians organize spontaneous, open-air concerts that end with them running from the police. In December, Meduza special correspondent Liliya Yapparova went to Minsk, to get a firsthand look at how the Belarusian opposition protests have changed and speak to the artists and activists keeping the movement alive heading into 2021.
Pytor walks ahead quickly into the darkness, trying to light a cigarette as he goes. In the silence of the winter night, a can of spray paint can be heard rattling along with him. “The cops are used to catching us by this sound, so you have to attach a magnet to the bottom of the can,” the graffiti artist says in a low voice.
For the last six months, all of Pyotr’s street art has been related to the ongoing opposition protests in Belarus. “Do you have your passport?” he asks Meduza’s correspondent. “Officially, they can’t detain you for more than three hours [if you have] a passport — any longer and they have to present some charges. Though it no longer works that way here.”
Pyotr stops at an intersection, perplexed: there’s a surveillance camera hanging above an ideal wall for painting. “Minsk has them up the wazoo, there’s also a smart system for identifying people. However, it doesn’t work when you need it to,” the artist explains. When he himself was beaten up by a group of strangers in civilian clothes (following the appearance of street art featuring portraits of the riot police (OMON) commander and the former interior minister), he wasn’t able to obtain any video surveillance footage.
A parked car with the engine running catches Pytor’s eye. “When two guys are sitting on the street at half past one in the morning and are glued to their phones, it’s strange. They could be tikhari,” he warns, referring to the plain-clothes officers who keep tabs on opposition protesters.
There’s a transformer box in the center of the microdistrict that’s covered with brown squares — a sign that the public utility services have been spending their nights painting over white-and-red flags, one of the symbols of the Belarusian opposition. “You just feel it,” Pyotr says, touching the side of the box. “You see a wall and you understand you have to do it.”
The sound of the crackling scotch tape is deafening as Pyotr sticks the stencil to the wall. “I was once taught that you have to feel your legitimacy internally,” he comments as he works. “Like, you’re doing nothing wrong.”
Pytor tests the can of spray paint in the snow. Finally, he asks Meduza’s correspondent to keep a lookout. After a few seconds the graffiti artist steps back from the wall. The transformer box now has a red rose with a barbed-wire stem on it. Wiping paint off his hands, Pyotr says the piece’s name in Belarusian: “Vyasna budze” — spring will come. “When your work is messy, with streaks, that’s okay: people see that the work isn’t done perfectly and they think ‘I can do it too’.”
New graffiti, posters, murals, and tags appear on the streets of Belarusian cities every day (despite the harsh sentences that have been handed down to opposition artists) and most of these works don’t require artistic skill. “They are being done by regular guys and girls who didn’t have any connection to art before,” Gleb, a street artist also working in Minsk, tells Meduza. “Because you’re absolutely angry at what’s happening, but you’re also absolutely powerless: you’re a small person facing a huge state machine. You don’t need to be a creative person to do graffiti, being an angry Belarusian is enough.”
‘You just need to not go to jail’
Constant apprehension about being arrested has led Minsk resident Elena to try going to see a psychotherapist. “When I’m at home in bed, there’s a very small chance that they’ll come for me — I’m trying to learn to understand this again,” she tells Meduza. Throughout the entire period of the opposition protests, Elena only missed a few marches in September — when she was serving time in a temporary detention center.
“And on Sunday, it’s the other way around, I have to work on the reflexes that help me survive. There’s no ‘calm down and breathe’ — you just need to not go to jail,” she says, recalling her psychotherapist’s advice.
It’s Sunday, December 20, and Minsk is practically empty. “The whole city is preparing for rallies,” Elena explains, as she herself waits for a meeting point to be announced. Throughout the day, groups including anywhere from several dozen to several hundred people will conduct various marches across the city’s urban and residential areas; since the onset of winter (and the record numbers of arrests during mass protests in November), the opposition protesters have left the city center and begun gathering in their respective neighborhoods.
“When we stopped going out in one big column in the city center, the security forces were at a loss: they didn’t understand where to run to and how to divide themselves between the hundreds of courtyard protests,” Elena recalls. The main thing, she continues, is for the protesters to keep on fooling law enforcement: to appear when and where they are least expected. “Today a small march took place in Sukhareva before 9:00 a.m., they thought it was safer because the security forces and the tikhari [plain-clothes officers] hadn’t managed to get to the neighborhood yet. Now we in Oktyabrsky are also discussing, it might be safer to go out later, when they [the security officers] are already exhausted,” Elena tells Meduza.
Elena moved into Minsk’s Oktyabrsky district recently and is getting to know the local alert system on the fly. “The tikhari have long been in the Telegram channel for the whole district, following when and where we announce rallies. So now people are gathering in 10-person chat groups: before joining you have to send the admin a selfie in front of a window, so that the view of the street is visible, and register your address. And before the column leaves the big channel simply contacts the admins of the smaller ones. I remember how in August Nexta simply wrote ‘in the city center at 2:00 p.m.’ and everything was clear. And now it’s already a conscious, guerilla struggle,” she explains to Meduza.
Elena gets a notification from the chat, warning that police vans are preparing to ambush the neighborhood. “We have lookouts who monitor whether the security forces are in the district. For example, mothers with children who can’t go to the rallies but want to help — now they’re walking around with strollers and keeping an eye out so they can tip us off about where the riot police bus has arrived or where the tikhari are going.”
During the protests, Elena learned how to run from the police properly, dress inconspicuously, and clear her correspondence. “Before each Sunday I remove myself from all of the chats where me and my friends discuss the political situation, and in the evening, if everything is okay, I add myself back,” she tells Meduza. “I clear my browser history, regularly delete messaging apps, and everything is password protected.” Elena goes to protests wearing a dark-gray jacket, a black hat, and black sneakers. “They need to remember us somehow, but without a colorful accent it’s difficult to pick you out in a crowd,” she explains.
Elena says she finds it very difficult to sit at home on Sundays — especially when the rallies are slated to start later in the day. “I want to go out in the street first thing in the morning […] and I’m scared to go out in the evenings because it’s dark and hard to see where they [law enforcement officers] are coming from,” she worries. If the security forces come to the neighborhood and don’t find a column of protesters, they start grabbing passersby at random and even arrest protesters that try to escape by going into stores.
“We were standing on the pharmacy’s doorstep,” Elena recalls. “The security forces simply got out of a van, went up to one of us and said: ‘Girl, come with me.’ Why, what for? ‘Come with me’ — and they took her to the bus by the arm. Then they followed us into the pharmacy, [talking] among themselves: ‘[A girl] in a hat? — Yes, a brown hat.’ They went after her and took her away. That shocked me. When they approach a person who’s just standing there, they disappear. Absolutely anyone at absolutely any moment.”
While waiting for the signal for the start of the march in Minsk’s Novaya Borovaya microdistrict, Meduza’s correspondent sits in a local coffee shop with good pastries and a huge panoramic window. The police nearly strangled an old man right here, a local named Vasily says.
Novaya Borovaya is one of the most well-developed neighborhoods in the Belarusian capital; the lobbies of its newly constructed buildings have advertisements for programming courses and QR-codes for delivery services offering fresh fruit and vegetables. During the August 2020 presidential election, opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya) won the vote by a large margin here — and local polling stations even dared to publish this result. Thus, Novaya Borovaya became one of the opposition hotspots in Minsk — the neighborhood, home to about 15,000 people, even had its water shut off for several days back in November. “At the time, the water department dropped strong hints to people: ‘deal with the mess and you’ll have water’,” another local resident, Svetlana, recalls.
Vasily worked as an election monitor during last summer’s presidential vote. “In this country, I have always felt like a person who the Eye of Sauron hadn’t seen yet,” he continues, taking off his puffer coat to reveal a t-shirt with the symbol of the opposition “triumvirate.” “If I were to leave this cafe in this t-shirt right now then that’s it, goodbye,” Vasily tells Meduza’s correspondent. “How many days [in jail] I would get is unpredictable.”
Vasily’s t-shirt is perfectly visible from the street; a suspicious man in a navy-blue sports jacket and black hat walks past; he’s close to the window, but looking down at his phone. Vasily ignores the man, even though he could be a plain-clothes officer, and keeps talking. “Are we afraid of the police vans? We’re afraid, but we fight against it. The latest successful protest action that we’ve come up with is called ‘flickering’: small columns that appear out of nowhere and then disappear — there’s not even a set schedule,” Vasily says in the tone of a professional revolutionary. He then interrupts himself, suddenly: “Hey look, turns out he’s just an ordinary local with a young lady.” The man in the jacket walks by the coffee shop window again, this time with an ice cream and his wife.
Yet another police car pulls up. At the same time, a message comes in from the neighborhood chat group with the time and place for the start of today’s march. “They drove us to revolution. I really want to make them understand that they aren’t immortal,” Vasily concludes, carefully doing up his puffer coat before leaving the cafe.
‘During the last song we call a taxi’
The Belarusian modern-folk band Rechna (Echo) performed one of its most dangerous concerts in Novaya Borovaya. “At the time, I started wearing sneakers without laces, two pairs of socks, pants that won’t fall off without a belt, and warm hoodies, in case of possible arrest,” recalls the band’s founder, Andrus Takindang. “But when you start playing, when people surround you, it’s like you exhale. It gets easier. Also, we had it all worked out: during the last song we call a taxi. When the police arrived [at the concert], people surrounded us in a circle and led us to the taxi so they [couldn’t] touch us. But we always finish signing the last song.”
In the fall of 2020, Rechna played more than 60 of these open concerts in Minsk; for the city, these months became a period of what Takindang calls “courtyard movements.” “People realized that they have the right to exist — this never happened before. They started to talk, to discuss common problems, open up to each other,” the musician recalls. “And there was a renaissance of Belarusian culture: residents began to invite artists to their courtyards. Perhaps the people wanted to somehow say that life isn’t just war and hell: let them shoot us with rubber bullets, but we will get together and drink tea.”
During the first week of November, the security forces in Minsk began purposefully targeting musicians. Rechna played their last courtyard concert at 4 Nemanskaya Street. “They arrested us in the courtyard where they were unveiling a mural: they got permission from the housing department to draw cats on the wall. Children were dancing, adults sang along to the songs. Playing was very comfortable — I even thought that since they allowed the painting, the concert would be peaceful. After the concert we took photos for a long time, people gave us cookies, candies, and flowers. We knew that we needed to leave quickly but the people wouldn’t let us go. And once we had already gotten into the taxi and exhaled, a SWAT team with machine guns runs out, surrounds the taxi, and transfers us to a bus — on the floor. It was both funny and tragic somehow. And the younger ones, the 20-year-olds, they started taunting us [for getting caught] ‘red-handed’: ‘What do you have here? Cookies? Yeah, red-and-white cookies!’ They had given us cookies with colored frosting in the courtyard.”
The four musicians were written up for “participation in an unauthorized mass event.” Their instruments were seized. “At the police station there was a guy who told me; ‘You’re feeling a little too calm!’ He takes my instrument and throws it on the ground — winding [me up],” Takindang recalls.
The band members met Meduza’s correspondent in downtown Minsk; they asked her not to disclose the exact location. “Simply say, ‘a beer bar with creative potential’,” advises drummer Leonid Pavlenok. “This is where political prisoners get together after their release,” says Takindang, explaining the choice of location. “IT specialists, businessmen, engineers, painters, artists — in the temporary detention center they find themselves in a world that’s new to them, many discover a lot of new things, and then they get together to discuss it all and laugh.”
“For example, [they talk about] how one prison guard was like Bruce Lee and another was like Sylvester Stallone: his blow was more powerful, but not as quick. These are the kinds of discussions that take place,” Pavlenok adds.
Both Andrus and Leonid remember that they mostly laughed while inside their cells. “It was so loud that they even cut off our hot water over it,” Takindang says. “One guy gave everyone a lecture on Roman history, I drew portraits of the inmates — there was life!”
“In my cell there were three IT specialists, a boxing coach, a theologian, and a trauma surgeon — and everyone had a lot of stories. Moreover, there, Belarusian radio isn’t constantly shut off — the official, national channel, where our mustache speaks every hour. Of course, we were all laughing. ‘Oy, Poland is attacking the country! Lithuania is attacking the country!’,” Pavlenok says, mimicking Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
“And the detention center’s staff only quarrel among themselves — do you remember how they swore at each other? Worse than at us! They’re living in their prison and when they go home, they stay in it,” Takindang says. “I even felt sorry for them. A lot of people were waiting for me outside the temporary detention center — musicians, relatives, friends, colleagues. But — in a general sense — no one is waiting for them [the prison guards]. They built their lives so that at some point they ended up in that place. Maybe they’ll ruin your health a bit — but they’ve torn their own souls apart.”
Pavlenok leans back, irritated. “These are guys with great potential and a thirst for sadism,” he says dryly. “Bullies who are allowed to pick on people. And they’re waiting for this moment like dogs. For them, it’s a thrill: catching, beating up, humiliating. They’re doing their favorite thing!”
‘It’s enough for one person to leave’
“If the traffic police drive by, it means we have five to seven minutes before the bulk of the ‘cosmonauts’ arrive. The traffic police are like their scouts […] they keep watch and if they see a column somewhere, they call for reinforcements,” explains Novaya Borovaya resident Svetlana, without taking her cell phone from her ear: the neighborhood’s lookouts are monitoring the movements of the security forces ahead of the rally.
A few minutes later she hears that there’s a police car parked near the local chapel where a service has been commissioned today to mark the 40 days that have passed since the death of opposition protester Raman Bandarenka.
The neighborhood Telegram channel, which police officers read, has already announced a fake meeting point. In fact, the rally will begin between the apartment blocks. “We’re now going beyond what has been sent to the general chat,” Vasily explains. He slows down suddenly, letting an athletic young man in inconspicuous clothes pass by.
“The tikhari are always an ambush, because you can’t always spot them. They’re trying to overhear what we’re talking about, they leak the meeting points. They transmit information — and we don’t always know how it’s going to work,” Svetlana explains.
At the meeting point — on a minor street where there aren’t usually any patrols — around 100 locals have already gathered. From the first cry of “Long Live Belarus!” the crowd wraps themselves in white-and-red flags. After the second cry — “Tribunal!” — the windows in the neighboring building begin to light up.
The courtyards of the high-rises in Novaya Borovaya are separated by lattice fences, locked with magnetic keys, so the protesters in the procession make sure to close the gates behind them. “We’re together, we are many! Victory is ours!” they chant in Belarusian. There’s a growing hum coming from above the crowd: people are shouting “Zhyve!” (Long Live!) from their windows.
“Why should the people of Belarus leave if it’s enough for one person to leave?” one of the protesters starts telling Meduza’s correspondent, alluding to Lukashenko. “I’m ready to give my life along with him — just to free the people from him,” another pipes in. Suddenly, people begin to scatter: a police car has driven up to the courtyard. “They’re running because the others are running,” Vasily complains as they go.
‘When I work, all I hear is my heart’
A few hours after the protest in Novaya Borovaya was dispersed, a new piece of graffiti appeared on the other side of town: four riot police officers straining under the weight of the phrase “Common Sense” as they load it into a police van.
One of the authors of the piece — an artist who goes by 84n30, — tells Meduza’s correspondent that it would have been “unrealistic” to bring a journalist along when putting up “illegal art.” “Besides, there were passersby walking past there yesterday — and what would have happened if [someone] started giving us a hard time?” the graffiti artist asks, while trying to scrape last night’s black and white paint from his nails.
Approaching his own work, 84n30 picks at a white drip of paint with his finger. “The letters were supposed to be red initially — that was my idea,” the artist explains. As we’re talking, a photo of the new graffiti piece appears on Telegram; at this point, it’s too late to fix anything. “Our can of red wasn’t working last night,” 84n30 continues. “It’s such a fight there, a struggle against time: you have to do it quickly and run away. [...] It’s like a Hollywood film robbery: one person looks after the hostages, another attaches the TNT to the safe. You need synergy: we [work] in silence. We blinked and agreed. Light isn’t allowed but after 15 minutes in the dark a person can see pretty well.”
Yesterday, the team started to get behind schedule. “In the middle of the night, when no one is around, even the rustling of the drawing paper can give you a heart attack,” 84n30 says. “You’re working and you’re completely damp: your palms, your face, the sweat runs down your temples. And your knees are shaking. And you can really hear your heart — how it’s beating. When I work, all I hear is my heart.”
84n30 moved to Minsk just a month ago — and to this day he likes to remember how he used to be the main (and the only) protest artist in 18,000-person town of Pruzhany. “In Puzhany they didn’t touch me. And I had street credibility: I could work in broad daylight with a stepladder. I knew which walls I could afford to take,” the artist recalls.
Since 2019, when “it became clear from the leader that he was generally insane,” 84n30’s work has become politically charged. And on August 13, 2020 (just days after the presidential elections), the artist hoisted an opposition flag above Pruzhany — from the chimney of an abandoned cannery. “It was 11-stories high and I didn’t have any insurance. My mom helped sew the flag: she has a sewing background. She was sewing and crying: ‘You’re going to get killed there, [for what]! They will find out who it is and start a case against you, add you i to the database, and from the database they’ll figure out who your mother is and they’ll fire me from work — I’ve got three years until I retire, your sister has children […] you’re ruining your own life and ours.’ And she said all of this in a choking voice, she was crying — and she sewed the flag anyway.”
The Belarusian authorities have been cracking down on street artists. Performance and visual artist Nadya Sayapina served 15 days. The police visited the father of Gleb Kashtanov, a graffiti artist from Vitebsk who painted a mural of opposition activist Nina Baginskaya, a source close to the family also told Meduza. An art manager specializing in street art was also summoned to the Interior Ministry for a conversation. On December 24, the Belarusian Investigative Committee brought criminal charges against an 18-year-old girl on three counts, for allegedly “damaging special equipment” by spray painting “inscriptions” on it. Police officials in Mogilev used service dogs to look for street artists. While some artists have chosen to emigrate, “some were told directly: leave, otherwise you’ll be investigated,” an artist named Gleb told Meduza.
“At first I thought of coating the steps in grease and locking the top hatch so it would be impossible to take it down so easily. But they didn’t even climb up there — they were afraid it was mined. So it hung for a long time — five hours. In the end they brought up a lift and removed the flag with trembling hands,” 84n30 shows a video of what happened. “Do you see? Do you see?” he continues, angrily. “They cut the ladder [leading up the chimney], the three bottom steps. As if that will stop someone!”
All of Meduza’s interviewees planned to meet on the streets of Minsk on December 31. But even before that, the city’s residents had begun shouting a new toast for 2021: “A New Year without Lukashenko.”
Translated and abridged by Eilish Hart