‘We’re locked in with a psychopath’ The story of a changing Belarus — through the eyes of the people who live there
From a disastrous pandemic response and blatantly rigged elections, to nationwide protests and brutal crackdowns, this past year has been one of the most volatile in Belarus’s history. To find out more about what’s changed (and what hasn’t) during this time, journalist Shura Burtin turned to residents of Minsk. The article before you is the result of these interviews, a piece of documentary prose based on the memories of people who decided to try and influence the fate of their country. It attempts to capture events that aren’t over yet — and bring us, the readers, a little closer to understanding what’s happening in Belarus today.
Please note. This article was originally published in Russian on May 19, 2021, and has been abridged for length and clarity.
The people I spoke to in Minsk don’t represent anybody but themselves. I wanted to understand what was going on there, but I didn’t know anybody in the city, so I reached out to some friends of friends. I was meeting nearly all of these people for the first time, so I won’t describe them to you. I arrived, I recorded the interview, and I left. These are just their voices.
I conducted 15 interviews in total, but only 10 of them were included in this report. The rest helped me learn something. I ended up speaking to musicians and IT workers, an engineer and an emergency doctor, a camera operator, a photographer, and an animator, among others. It later became clear that publishing their stories under their real names would be too dangerous. As a result, all of the names in this story have been changed.
26 years of Lukashenko
What were our lives like before? Well, nothing bright, dynamic, or progressive ever happened here — the ordinary reigned supreme, just like in the Russian countryside. Not bad, not good. There was no use fighting it — everyone just created their own little worlds, stayed in their own little corners. If you were a business owner, a director, a musician, you lived completely independent of the state. No contact at all with the authorities — just with firefighters, or, I don’t know, the municipal education department. People built communities based on mutual support: you help me, I help you. Today I’ll photograph you for free, tomorrow you do my makeup — then someone puts us both in their music video for free, then we invite that person to play at a company gathering. A barter system, all based on trust. Both for artists and for small businesses.
As for Lukashenko, he’s kind of a freak. It’s like if [Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir] Zhirinovsky came to power in Russia. He’s weird, wild, oafish. Nobody took him seriously. Everything was straight out of the late Soviet years: you’d get a certificate, slip out, leave — and laugh at it all. It didn’t seem threatening, just kind of backward, redneck, weak. There weren’t mass repressions. Everything seemed to be rolling along.
The scariest thing was when several opposition leaders disappeared. Everyone knew they’d been killed on Lukashenko’s orders, but, as terrible as it sounds, these were isolated incidents. It just became clear that it was better not to talk about certain things, not to act like part of the opposition. You could maintain your lifestyle — they’d build the road a little closer, maybe it got a little noisier outside, but life went on.
We laughed at everything that was happening, but somewhere deep down we hated it, of course. When they introduce a law against parasitism, you laugh. When they start sending people to prison for a tiny bit of marijuana, you start to get scared, to hate them. In the collective consciousness, this all gets tangled up in a strange little ball, and you don’t know whether to laugh or cry — but after 26 years, everyone has learned to live with it.
Sometimes he’d be lenient, turn a blind eye to somethings. Oktyabrskaya Street, a kind of hipster street, opened up. It was a chance to exist under less control. And people filled the gaps. They tried to build their lives around having as little contact with the state as possible.
Tatyana, camera operator
How did we live alongside the regime? We never talked about it, because everybody just understood. Belarusians are very rational and pragmatic. Very unemotional, inward-facing people. The state is wretched, of course, but we stayed away from it. There was some annoyance, but it was deeply hidden. Everyone who managed not to cross paths [with the authorities] felt great. But the atmosphere was stifling — nobody could breathe deeply. Look at the people — even now, they’re smiling more than they were a year ago. They’re more open-minded, encounters are more spontaneous. Why was there this unexpected wave? You can push, push, push yourself down — but at some point, things have to come to the surface.
The first person to die from covid-19 officially was an actor, the father of some of my close friends. Lukashenko dismissed it, saying, “Why was he going to work? He should have stayed home.” But he didn’t have the chance — everyone was going to work. He couldn’t take a vacation, take time off — theater isn’t like manufacturing, you have to actually be there. Everyone was panicking, nobody knew anything, and we all felt completely abandoned.
A year ago, a critical mass of people realized the system is untenable. I knew it would be a catastrophe. It was even kind of satisfying — I mean, what the fuck did you want? You assholes have spent the last 20 years creating this yourself. Who are you going to pin it on now? Our healthcare system isn’t ready for any challenges at all, it can barely deal with everyday issues. We didn’t have anything — there weren’t enough masks in the hospitals, not to mention [protective] suits. A whole bunch of medical workers are gone now. And their [the government’s] attitude was, what do you want from us?
But the volunteer efforts began, people started coming and buying things with their own money, sewing things themselves. They brought meals to Hospital 10, and the entire medical staff was almost put on rations. That was very important. It was physically and mentally draining being on their feet all day, not peeing, not drinking, people constantly dying around them. And I thought, how is this possible? These are Belarusians? They’re capable of this? I gave up on you a long time ago, and now you’re doing this?
In June and July of 2020, opposition candidates for president received widespread support in Belarus. Tens of thousands of people stood in line to sign forms supporting their candidates’ nominations. Ultimately, two candidates — Sergey Tihkanovsky (Siarhei Tikhanousky) and Viktor Babariko (Viktar Babarika) — were arrested, while a third, Valery Tsepkalo (Valery Tsepkala), fled the country.
The only opposition candidate the authorities allowed to run in the election was Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya), Sergey Tikhanovsky’s wife. In July, the opposition headquarters announced they were uniting in support of three women: Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Veronika Tsepkalo (Veranika Tsapkala), and Maria Kolesnikova (Maryia Kalesnikava). By August, it was clear from the polls that Tikhanovskaya had a huge lead.
At the beginning of August, special military equipment was sent to Minsk. The presidential election on August 9 drew a huge turnout — 84 percent, according to the election commission. In the evening, it was announced that Lukashenko had won with more than 80 percent of the vote. The Internet was turned off nationwide. Thousands of protesters started to gather in the center of Minsk, and the authorities responded with pepper spray, rubber bullets, and stun grenades. Under pressure from the authorities, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya left the country on August 11.
On August 12, the Internet was turned back on. People started circulating evidence of police brutality and torture of detainees. On August 13, the women of Minsk held a protest march. After that, people started protesting and striking en masse throughout the country. On August 16, between 200-400 thousand people came out to protest in Minsk. To many, it seemed like a breaking point.
In late August, Vladimir Putin announced his willingness to provide Belarus with military aid. Knowing they had Russia’s support, the Belarusian authorities started breaking up marches again, ultimately detaining over 30 thousand people. In September, Maria Kolesnikova and other opposition leaders were arrested.
Protest marches were held every Sunday until the end of September. By October, protest activity had shifted from the center of Minsk to more remote areas and to courtyards, where people held small rallies and concerts. By November, the authorities started cracking down on these as well.
On November 12, activist Raman Bandarenka was killed after making a remark to plainclothes officers who were removing protest ribbons in his yard. Bondarenko was severely beaten and later died in the hospital. Alexander Lukashenko announced that Bondarenko had been drunk. Artsiom Sorokin, a doctor at the hospital, refuted the claim, publishing the lab results with help of Tut.by journalist Katerina Borisevich (Katsiaryna Barysevich). Sorokin was arrested, sentenced to a year and a half in prison, and released on probation. Katerina Borisevich served six months in a penal colony.
In total, more than 2,300 criminal cases have been opened against opposition protesters in Belarus.
Then the election began. Some of the candidates were convincing and likeable — they spoke to people with respect. They weren’t perfect, but they were a whole lot more pleasant. People started to believe, and there was a flash of hope.
A huge number of people didn’t believe in any of the candidates but wanted change, wanted to transform the system. There was an incredible amount of enthusiasm, even in small towns, out in the swamps. There was a beautiful, delicious sense of excitement.
Then the insanity began. People were standing in line to give their signatures [in support of candidates] when the authorities came to disperse them, detaining people. The crackdown was so brutal they neglected to even keep up appearances. For the most part, people will be satisfied as long as the cops have some common decency. But no, they just chased us out like cattle. “What are you doing here? Get the fuck out of here!” And this was nationwide — not just a few people, millions.
There’s a new apartment building, a big one, with a whole polling place assigned to it. Of course the people who paid good money for apartments here aren’t going to vote for Lukashenko. In the areas with five-story buildings, everything works great, but over here there’s always something that doesn’t work — there’s only one voting booth, or there’s a line. But people wait for four, five, six hours — and don’t get upset: “We’ll wait.” And for a moment, it felt like there was a chance to change all the things I thought I’d never see change. And ultimately, they still didn’t change — but the people changed, a lot changed, I changed. Then the riot police vehicle pulled up, the voting commission fled. And people stood around, chanting, “Shame!” It was mesmerizing, especially in a state like ours, where nothing ever happens.
We all huddled around the precincts. They shut off the Internet across the country. Everyone was on their phones, terribly anxious. My sister called and said 700 people with white bracelets had voted, but Tikhanovskaya only received 50 votes. People were standing there, totally depressed, and the commission escaped through the back door, taking huge bags of gifts, carpets, teakettles.
People stood there with their strollers, with their dogs. People with strollers went home in the dark, and people without dogs headed to the city center. Then you could hear shots, explosions, nobody could sleep all night. It was dizzyingly scary — we knew something terrible was happening. A huge number of people were injured, it was unthinkable. They detained thousands of people, and a few days later the first accounts of torture, of horrific abuse, appeared. My friends volunteered at Okrestina — they heard the screams, caught people in the bushes who had been let free, and drove them home. These people had just fled, run away into the night. It really was just like the Gestapo, it was that cruel.
The first night, there weren’t so many people, maybe twenty thousand. But everyone was really happy to be there. I’ve never loved crowds, but at that moment, I knew I needed to join. Cars honked their horns, and it was so joyful. I felt like we were heroes, and we were surrounded by heroes. And it still felt that way when everyone lit their lighters — literally just 15 minutes before they attacked. Those first three days were scary and joyful, and I spent all three days sober. The third night, I was in Serebryanka, it was terrible, I looked right into the barrel, and they came this close to shooting us. Tikhari in unmarked Jeeps would grab people randomly, and we’d try to beat them back — then the windows came down and they started shooting rubber bullets at us. And from 20 meters [66 feet] away, a rubber bullet is no different from a regular bullet. It was scary, and we dispersed. We saw a column of armoured vehicles headed for Serebryanka.
I knew they would beat people, but nobody imagined they’d throw grenades, shoot people, torture people. We didn’t think people would have their limbs ripped off, or that cops would deprive people of medical care. Or that the head of Okrestina would call the ambulance and yell at the clinic’s chief physician.
They were given a carte blanche, just like under Hitler: do what you want, shoot them, rape them, kill them — we’ll take care of you, just save the motherland.
[On August 10,] My wife and I came to the Pushkinskaya [subway station] and saw that something enormous was happening. Cops dressed like astronauts streamed out of a bus and started beating random bystanders with batons. It’s a common sight now, but back then, I just stood there, stunned. I saw how they threw grenades at a car, pulled people out of it, and dragged them away. Soldiers poked people with guns, saying, “We’ll shoot you if you don’t get out of here.” It was totally surreal. It was both scary and infuriating: what are you assholes doing? They stopped us: “What do you have in your backpacks?” I could see it was a draftee, and I said, “Tomorrow, when your mom comes to bring you pie, what will you tell her?” And he said, “Everything’s fine, Mom, I’ve just been shooting people.”
‘It was like a valve had opened’
This combination of kindness and rage — simultaneously, in one situation — is a sign of mental illness. He [Lukashenko] screams at everyone, and he’s the only one to speak at meetings. He’ll chew everyone out, then he’ll make a joke, and everyone will be like, “Oh, the master’s not mad anymore.” And then his crazy temper makes its way down the hierarchy. You can go to any government institution and realize the official wouldn’t be acting the way he is if there wasn’t someone above him acting the same way.
The conditions Lukashenko’s created around himself have led people to develop such base qualities. You have to be a snake, a bootlicker, have a whole complex of negative traits that let you survive in the system, otherwise you’re out. You risk quite a lot, especially your freedom. They’ve arrested a lot of officials, factory directors. He comes, he doesn’t like something — somebody goes to jail for 15 years.
His psyche is like that of a cattle farmer. He really does love them, he lives off of them, he cleans up their manure, scratches them, takes them to the vet, brings in bulls for breeding. But he’ll never have a dialogue with them. For Lukashenko, it’s like the cows are rioting on the farm — hey, you might have to shoot ten of them so they’ll be quiet, but it’s not a huge problem. And that’s the root of the mental disorder: for him, people are just cattle. He’s a collective farm chairman and the people are cows, or rather chickens. They’re asking him to have a dialogue with chickens.
The first three days after the election were very scary. We knew they might kill us. When I realized the confrontation wouldn’t have a fourth day, I became depressed. I thought, well, here we are, that’s it. Total apathy — I didn’t have any faith at all. But on the fourth day [August 13], the women went out to the women’s march. It was after we, the men, had wussed out, sitting at home. But the women are just fearless. Some guy went to hand out flowers at the crosswalk and started crying, and they all went and hugged him. I saw it and started crying, too. In contrast to the fear, these feelings were so strong!
We had a crowd of ten thousand people for the women’s march, and every ten seconds you’d shout, “We’ll wait, we’ll wait!” and wait for the light to turn green so the people at the end could cross. The cops surrounded us, and the crowd started screaming this high pitched wail, the kind of scream men hate. When the cops covered their ears, there was this childish delight. But the thing that angered them off the most was when the women chanted, “No one’s gonna give it to you!”
Tatyana, camera operator
It was like a valve had opened, people were speaking freely, it was wonderful. I was happy to hear pretty smart things coming from the mouths of people you wouldn’t expect, like older women. Nobody knew what to do with this explosion. But I’m proud to have seen these people. Now that I know I share a city with them, it’s easier for me to live.
In those days, people still believed they’d won. I’d ask, “So what’s Lukashenko going to do now?” “What? What Lukashenko? It’s over, he’s gone! We’re here, and he’s gone!” was the feeling. It sent a little chill down my spine. “That’s it, we showed him. Look how many of us there are. We’ve won!” I’d ask how it was going to work, but people had complete faith. “Do you feel this energy? Pretty soon it’s going to hit him, and he’ll dissolve — turn into dust.”
On Sundays, people would see how many of us there were, feel recharged, lose that feeling over the course of the week, and then on Thursday or Friday they’d start preparing for Sunday’s dangerous gathering again. It’s like a Charcot Shower. It was like we were living as one body in those days — we were feeling all the same things almost down to the minute.
There was a sense that our victory over Lukashenko was coming soon. We thought it was a question of a couple weeks. Everyone was so happy that we didn’t have leaders, that nobody was controlling us. That we weren’t a resource for someone else’s goals, just human energy, motivated by a common desire for change.
We were so sure he was about to go, because the aversion to him was so unanimous. It seemed like since we had so little respect for him, since he’d shit the bed so badly, how else could it go? If someone’s sitting at the table in his own poop, he has to either wash off or leave the room. But he sat there, and sat there — how? We didn’t understand what the problem was. We thought some political process must be happening, something unknown to us.
There was hope that Russia would do the right thing. Putin would come peacefully into Belarus, happily, on a white horse. But when he said the election had been fair, we all made up our minds: you’re traitors, you’re no brothers of ours!
Tatyana, camera operator
Even though they’d detain a thousand people every week, the following Sunday we’d be back out. The bloodletting was something we did to ourselves — a way of atoning for the previous years of inaction.
Of course, we were hoping for some support from the global community. We’re locked in with a psychopath, peacefully protesting, and who knows what he’ll do. We’re just standing here voicing our dissent. We were counting on the international community having some kind of reaction. It turned out that no, they all sympathized with us, but they didn’t do anything. And for me personally, it was a big disappointment.
I don’t know what it means to “take power.” It’s probably childish of me. But I do know about a person bringing a tea and coffee machine and food they bought themselves and standing outside the walls of a prison. Feeding whoever comes out, then feeding us too. And making so many jokes that it feels like you went to a funeral and ended up at a wedding. You end up in a country you actually want to live in. And the guy with the tea, I think his name was Pasha, he’s a symbol of that country. He had this enormous energy, going about his business and joking endlessly. If someone started to complain, he just dispelled it like smoke over a grill.
Tatyana, camera operator
At first there was silence. Then the commands started coming from above. Then they reached the people who disagreed with what had happened. Maybe you disagree with the election results, with violence. But suddenly your boss is telling you to do something, something that seems tiny — drive the riot officers somewhere, or take your [opposition] ribbon off. Well, since nothing’s happening, and my boss told me to — and everyone started obeying. This deference to authority, which is deep in our blood, worked. People started obeying small commands, and the wheels started turning.
Every Saturday was the women’s march, Sunday was the main march, Monday was the pensioners’ march, Tuesday was the march for disabled people, students, and workers. At some point, it became a routine. Darn it, another protest, okay, I’d better go. But there was sort of an endorphin shortage. A huge number of arrests — it got harsher every time. We saw they were learning. Every day, you’d look at the list of detainees: one friend detained, another, always having to arrange packages for them. Prison life began.
It became impossible to gather for big marches — they had water cannons, and they would detain everyone. There were some small courtyard marches, some concerts. I’d lived in this building for two years and hadn’t met anyone, hadn’t even thought about them. But there turned out to be such good people here: there’s a trucker, an insurance agent, an engineer, a nurse. We set up some tables, someone brought pie, cake, I made a huge pot of pumpkin porridge for Halloween, we’d do stuff for the kids. Look at the fence — see those stains? That’s where they painted over our signs.
I wrote in the neighborhood chat: Guys, I’m friends with Olga, she’s ready to perform. We need to improvise a stage, a sound system, lights, a cover in case it rains. They organized everything, cobbled together a stage, printed some kick-ass banners, and hung them up in all the entrances. Every neighborhood did something like that. There was an unspoken competition: who can get the coolest artists, the most interesting ones. We’d all visit each other. Then it became too dangerous, especially for the artists — they’d find them and catch them.
We were missing a leader. We didn’t have a plan, an idea of where we were going with this. But people were seeing that there were a lot of like-minded people, even in their own apartment buildings. Everyone started getting to know one another, befriending one another, getting together for tea. Fine, if you don’t let us do what we want, we’ll just live in our own little countries. And we’ll drink tea! And we’ll have little concerts! We’ll support each other — we’ll send money to the prisoners, the doctors, and that family whose grandmother died.
When the courtyard performances began, they took away our equipment. They arrested the drummers who played at the marches. They got together to rehearse, and were taken straight from their rehearsal by people from GUBOPiK. Give us your drums, give us your Telegram password, otherwise I’ll stick a club up your ass. Oh, you have a group chat with the other drummers? That’s organized crime.
They detained me on November 8. When the raid started, they surrounded us from all sides. I was with my wife and one other woman. If I’d been alone, I would have tried to escape. First they stuck us on a minibus, then they dragged us out and started beating us. They poured pepper spray in my eyes, even though I was just lying there with my hands tied behind my back. A guy just came up to me, lifted me up by the hair, and poured this yellow shit into my eyes. I couldn’t open my eyes for several hours, my whole face was swollen. Then they took us from vehicle to vehicle — I couldn’t see anything, and they beat me every time. I tried to protest: what did I do? But there was nobody to talk to, and I didn’t even know who was around me.
Then they took us to the central police station, where I stood outside for an hour. They took my fingerprints, photographed me, interrogated me. I kept trying to get through to these people: “Guys, what are you doing? What did I do to you?” “I’m just doing my job.” When the guy was getting my fingerprints, I asked, “Do they give you gloves or do you buy them yourself?” “They give them to us.” “Imagine that — I have to buy my own, only I’m a doctor, and you’re a pig.”
I didn’t go to the protests much. I have young children, my mother’s bedridden — a lot of people need me. When they start arresting all your friends, but not you, you start to feel guilty. You think, what if I’m just making excuses for my cowardice? Sometimes I would think, what if I just go to the police to get it over with? Of course, you realize later on that it’s nonsense.
I’ve realized that they won’t back down — they’re going to smother us. So that leaves the question, will I back down? I know I’m willing to go to jail. But I don’t know if I could stand to be tortured, and that worries me. I remember my grandfather — he hated the Soviet authorities, and he always had the radio on, arguing with it. I don’t want to turn into my grandfather, arguing with the radio.
My Russian friends were sincerely worried, but when they would ask me about it, I was so ashamed. What could I say? I wake up every day not knowing whether I’ll be arrested? That I go to bed hugging my daughter, happy to be with her because tomorrow I might not be? That I was forced to give away my computer because I’m afraid they’ll demand to search it? That I have money I’ve saved that I keep with my friends, because I’m afraid the authorities will come and take it away? And lawyers can’t help — all they can do is tell your relatives that you’re being tortured.
So much desperate anger, waves of aggression I didn’t want to feel. The inability to strike back made us feel exhausted, impotent. Like we’d already died but our bodies were still functioning. Like they’d killed us all. I know they kill people here, and if I don’t protect them, I’ll die along with them. And I understood that I couldn’t allow myself, because I have my [daughter], Dusya. It didn’t take them long to find everyone’s weak spots — taking our children, sending parents to prison so they could send kids to the orphanage — and that’s the scariest thing I could imagine. And for me, that was a good reason to shut up. I still hate myself for it.
* * *
One evening, Olga says she wants to show me a couple places.
“I want to tell you about Minsk,” she says. “It has its own spirit, but it’s difficult to see at first. It’s like a funny little man, fifty or so, in a threadbare jacket and sweater, tidy and modest. A good Soviet person.”
We end up on Oktyabrskaya Street. A few years ago, Viktor Babariko turned an industrial area here into a cultural hub, kind of like Moscow’s Winzavod or St. Petersburg’s Sevkabel Port. The factory walls are covered in huge, psychedelic murals done by Brazilian artists. Strings of light dangle in the wind, and outside the bars people laugh and young women sing songs. “It’s like Berlin, isn’t it?” says Olga, and I see the street through her eyes.
Translated and abridged by Sam Breazeale