Flowers against bullets Belarusian women are turning everyday objects in protest symbols — and facing persecution for it
On March 25, Belarus commemorated Freedom Day — an unofficial holiday marking the date in 1918 when the Belarusian Democratic Republic declared its independence. Traditionally, this day is an occasion for opposition marches and rallies, making it a thorn in the side of dictator Alexander Lukashenko (Alyaksandr Lukashenka) and his regime. Ahead of Freedom Day 2021, Meduza asked a photographer known by the pseudonym Volya to photograph Belarusian women involved in the country’s ongoing protest movement, alongside the everyday objects they have used to express their political discontent. Since these women are under threat in Belarus, their stories and commentary remain anonymous.
On March 25, Belarus marks Freedom Day, an unofficial holiday symbolic of Belarusian national identity, which traditionally displeases Alexander Lukashenko’s regime and is accompanied by reprisals against those who take part in public gatherings (i.e., opposition protests) marking this occasion.
On the eve of this year’s Freedom Day, Meduza asked a photographer who goes by the pseudonym Volya to take a series of photographs of Belarusian women involved in the opposition protests, alongside their possessions (since August 2020, women have often formed the backbone of the protest movement against Belarus’s dictator, Lukashenko). As the photographer explains, in present-day Belarus, wearing the colors of the opposition — white-red-white, or any combination thereof — can easily become a pretext for persecution, even criminal persecution.
This project is dedicated to the new life given to everyday objects amid the protests, and how they have evolved from mundane accessories into a political statement. In addition to photographing these items and their owners, Volya also recorded the stories behind the objects. As such, Meduza has chosen to share these pictures, as well as the photographer’s commentary. Since the women featured in this project are under threat, they appear here anonymously.
In October 2020, a 75-year-old woman was tried and fined in Zhodino for a photo with a white-red-white pastila [a traditional confectionery made from pressed fruit]. “Yes, this is how she expresses protest. With a marshmallow,” police captain Evgeny Semashko told the court. This color pastila is now difficult to find in Belarusian stores.
A sheet of paper
Belarusians stuck white sheets of paper to their windows as a safe way to show that you’re protesting. Sometimes, a white sheet was placed on one window, a red one on another, and another white one on the next. But now they’re detaining [people] for this. According to the human rights center Viasna, on February 24 in the Leninsky Court in Minsk, Judge Marina Klimchuk sentenced a man to 15 days “for an A4 sheet on a loggia.”
Since the security forces detained men much more often in the first weeks of the protests, Belarusian women started going out walking in their place. They began to do this especially actively after the publication of a video of 73-year-old activist Nina Baginskaya holding a white-red-white flag, where she tells a riot policeman that she’s walking and he should leave her alone.
The women were smartly dressed, and since people were detained for [carrying] the flag almost immediately, in its place they held white-red-white umbrellas, and slowly walked around the city with them. Then they began detaining [people] for the umbrellas too. As a result, the umbrella became one of the main symbols of the women’s protest. Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya) gave German Chancellor Angela Merkel such an umbrella as a gift.
On November 11, 2020, Minsk resident Raman Bandarenka saw a group of tikhari cutting down white-and-red ribbons on Changes Square, and said something to them. In response, the men cutting the ribbons beat him up and then took him to the central police station. That night, Bandarenka was hospitalized with multiple injuries. He died the next day.
In Minsk on February 26, 2021, 15 women were arrested and sent to the detention center on Okrestina Street — for reading classic Belarusian books on a commuter train (one of these books is in the photograph). Some of the women spent several days in the detention center, then a court issued them fines, but 66-year-old Galina Gulenkova was put under arrest for 20 days. In response, activists organized flash mobs with [people] reading books on commuter trains.
A white bracelet
“We were taken to the inner courtyard of the police station — there were already guys from the car they brought in ahead of us lying there on the pavement, and a girl was standing near the wall,” one of the protesters recalled. “They put me not far from her, also facing the wall, and [they put] the guys along the other wall. And I heard the blows and realized that they were beating my husband — because the person doing the beating said: ‘What do you need a white bracelet for?’ It was the white rubber bracelet on my husband’s arm — a symbol of our support for Tikhanovskaya and peaceful changes.”
A riot police officer advised another detainee to hide her white bracelet, because otherwise “they’ll kill her.”
Mass arrests of protesters also took place in September 2020. In Minsk on September 13, more than 400 people were arrested at a march — Belarusian police attacked the people who took to the streets using rubber bullets, flash grenades, and water cannons. In response, women with flowers started taking to the streets under the slogan “Riot police have truncheons, protesters have flowers.” The women’s solidarity chain, the women’s demarche, and the action “Flowers against bullets,” also involved flowers.
Many florists and farmers in Belarus responded to what was happening [by] giving away flowers at their shops, or selling them at cost. About two weeks later, they started detaining people for carrying flowers. Flower shop owner Maxim Khoroshin was arrested and beaten up for giving flowers to Belarusian women when they were standing in solidarity chains.
Participants in the rallies are forced to hide their faces: the security forces break into their homes, take them off the streets, from cafes, and stores, follow them on social networks, and start cases based on photographs from the protests. All the images in this photo are real disguises, which the women have worn to protest actions.
Clothes and makeup
Walking around in white-red-white clothing is punishable by up to 30 days in jail or heavy fines in Belarus. In the photographs, the women are depicted in the exact clothing they wore to go out and protest.
Translated by Eilish Hart