Just two hours from Vilnius, young Belarusians idealise life in Lithuania – the closest getaway to perceived freedom in Europe. At home, they say, a mere appearance at a rally is enough to cost your job or a place at a university.
In the run up to the August 9 election, we followed several Belarusians who have lived their entire lives under the 26-year rule of Alexander Lukashenko.
Attending a single protest “is enough to flag up” and be noticed by the authorities, said Mary, an anarchist in her early 20s.
An activist for a number of years, she has been confined to living with her parents, drifting from one job to another in wait for the inevitable call when she would be fired again.
It’s no secret that people are dismissed for their activism, she said. Her last manager didn’t attempt to hide it – he admitted that the state-owned company received a call and was told that Mary needed to go. And she did.
With 40 to 70 percent of Belarusian jobs in the public sector, according to diverging official and independent statistics, the regime has an easy reach to pressure managers to have the dissident employees fired.
The life of anarchists in Belarus is a far cry from the squats, direct action, and alternative lifestyles followed by their counterparts in Western Europe. Here, “we live like everybody else”, said Mary, often unable to move from their parents’ homes.
Even before the August 9 election, anarchists in Belarus were under close watch by the regime. Some had already been preemptively detained and arbitrarily sentenced to two weeks in prison by the regime.
One of Mary’s friends, also an anarchist, had to practically self-isolate in his home, knowing that venturing outside would get him arrested; the KGB and their unmarked vans were routinely cruising past the front yard of his home, according to Mary.
She herself would notice figures in tracksuits around her house, very likely plain-clothes KGB agents.
We met several days before the election. Walking through a park in the centre of Minsk, she said her feelings about the protests that had already started were hopeless.
“We travelled across the countryside some time ago,” she recalled. The group had been handing out brochures and holding talks on how to self-organise. “It wasn’t, like, how to pick up a gun and do a revolution.”
“But we saw that Belarusian people are completely unprepared for that,” said Mary, adding that nothing would ever change unless people were ready to use force against the regime.
“There were moments like this before”, with anti-government graffiti appearing here and there across Minsk, but “they pass”, she shrugged.
Suddenly, a man appeared on a vacant bench besides us. An ear piece with a microphone dangled on his chest. Mary and I exchanged looks, nodded, and silently decided to move away.
The next day, she departed Belarus. “When you cross the border into Europe, you feel yourself immediately relaxed.”
As the protest momentum was building up, musicians, artists and cultural figures across the country signed a cultural resistance manifesto in summer 2020, pledging not to support the government.
“It’s a cultural protest, meaning you say to the public that you will never play in government shows and that you don’t need their support,” said Yuri.
Yuri is part of Nürnberg, a post-punk band in Minsk. Together with Aleh, they have been part of resurgent Belarusian musical exports that reviewers lauded for capturing the melancholy of post-Soviet stagnation.
Meanwhile, the song Changes by the legendary Russian post-punk band Kino became the anthem of Belarusian resistance even before the August 9 election.
A monument to Viktor Tsoy, the band’s frontman, stands in the centre of Minsk. “You knew it would be bad, but you didn’t know it would be so soon,” reads a graffiti on the concrete slab covered with pictures and writings. Melancholic couples huddle on the benches in front of the statue, playing Tsoy’s unmistakable voice on their phones.
On the other side of the makeshift monument, a graffiti in fresh paint declares the opposite – "changes will come."
Bands like Nürnberg or Molchat Doma, now famous across Europe, have picked up where Kino’s Perestroika blues left off.
On August 6, several days before the election, we headed down to an opposition flashmob together with Yuri and Aleh. From afar, Tsoy’s voice broke the thick air filled with anxiety. The music was soon drowned out by voices of several thousand protesters singing along.
Only a few weeks later, the two DJs who played the song would be forced to flee to Lithuania.
On that sunny August afternoon, we joined the crowd circling the stage that the government had rapidly transformed to host a festival for families and children – a thinly-veiled tactic to occupy the open space that the opposition supporters planned to use on the day.
“We have great kids’ parties,” Yury laughed.
For musicians like the Nürnberg duo, choosing to sing in Belarusian and playing music at odds with the regime’s understanding of “cultural value” – a criterion used to deny concert permits for alternative artists – means being confined to underground venues and fringe festivals.
To aspire to any artistic success, young Belarusians have to join governmental youth organisations, according to Yuri. “If you want to be famous and have money, you need to support the government and work with them,” he said.
Many Belarusian bands known across Europe, including in Lithuania, remain largely obscure in their native country.
When the protest began wrapping up, Yuri turned to me: “Come, we’ll show you our hood.”
As our taxi sped past grandiose government buildings in the centre, the view through the window gradually filled up with high-rise apartment blocks, before the manic concrete rhythm abruptly gave way to an open farmland.
“The [concrete] districts had a strong influence on me since childhood,” said Yuri.
In the beginning, he and Aleh were playing indie rock, but gradually their music turned to the dark tones of post-punk. “In the end, it was cold and depressive,” smiled Yuri.
“We were born when Lukashenko was president and we haven’t seen a different Belarus,” said Aleh. “Maybe this whole situation subconsciously influenced us.”
A few days before the protests, they joked that they would make a “happy” indie EP, if Lukashenko lost the election. “It helps knowing that you need to stay [in Belarus] and do everything you can to make a change,” said Aleh.
Changing perspectives in emigration
But many had to look abroad to find their space of expression. Marta is one of many Belarusian emigres and studies acting in the United Kingdom.
“[In Minsk] I sometimes forget and can do crazy stuff like I do in London, like walking drunk and saying something loud, for example about politics,” she said. “I get my friends stopping me from doing it and warning that ‘darling, it’s not London, you can get arrested here for this’.”
Years spent abroad have changed her perspective on Belarus. “It took me years to realise everything I’ve realised by now.”
She became aware of the repressions and silent authoritarianism that was hidden beneath the facade of clean streets and nightlife culture allowed to thrive in parts of Minsk.
“When I was hearing different kinds of stories about Belarus while being abroad, I was never taking them too seriously until this time I’m here,” she said.
“I heard stories that people could get arrested or fined for [speaking out against] Lukasheko, [...] I realised that this was happening all the time, but quietly. Now it’s on the surface.”
Protesting as a drug
In Minsk, Marta was surrounded by a small group of young Belarusians that craved nightlife, parties and freedom of their peers elsewhere in Europe. They also idealised life in Vilnius, a mere two-hour drive away from Minsk.
For them, the Lithuanian capital is the closest thing to personal liberty denied by Lukashenko’s regime.
They organised a party a few hours from Minsk, in an artist commune set up by Marta’s mother. The “hippie farm”, as they jokingly referred to it, offered an off-the-grid getaway for people like Marta.
The gathering drew a diverse crowd of people – from creatives to a firefighter and a medic who fought the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We work for the people, not the regime,” said Pasha, the firefighter. His friend added that although they are in the public service, firefighters are among the staunchest opponents of Lukashenko. In March and April, they also had to brave through the pandemic, even as Lukashenko declared it a “psychosis”.
Officially, just two people from Pasha’s brigade got ill. In reality, it was closer to 15. He also became infected.
“We all have relatives and colleagues who died or fell ill,” said a Belarusian woman in her early 20s. A paramedic herself, she fell ill, but had to continue going into work.
“There was simply no one left to work. My ambulance driver died [of Covid-19],” she added.
Anger at the government’s mismanagement of the crisis prompted an even stronger sense of solidarity among the people. According to many locals, the pandemic helped cultivate the anger in the run-up to the elections.
Even the die-hard supporters of the regime were turning away.
“My grandmother always supported Lukashenko,” said Seva, a young Belarusian artist and a volunteer at the election campaign of Viktar Babaryka who is now in prison.
“She used to have a picture of herself receiving an award from Lukashenko,” Seva said at the party. “But now for the first time, she doesn’t support him.”
“Coronavirus is the best thing that happened” as it galvanised the opposition, he said. "I hated Lukashenko all my life. But I thought, if he was a leader he claimed to be, he could close borders, protect us. But he did nothing.”
With techno music by a popular Lithuanian producer blasting, Seva reminisced in well-spoken English about the party scene he saw in Vilnius. In the Lithuanian capital, the food, the bars are amazing, he said dreamily.
As strobe lights flashed along the grass fields and wooden farmhouses, white bracelets worn by Seva and others flickered in the darkness. In Minsk, virtually every young person wore them to show their support for the opposition.
Even before the August 9 election, Seva and others would attend protests that started off from just several hundred people, but grew into mass rallies of thousands of people.
“When you go to the demonstrations, you don’t need drugs or alcohol,” said one Belarusian at the party. “The atmosphere itself is enough, people are there simply demanding changes.”
After a pause, he added: “Of course, I’d like to take some drugs as well, like everyone else. But we get 15 years of jail [for that] – people simply want freedom.”
‘We are not Ukraine, not Lithuania’
If somebody wants to use drugs, they will find a way, said Maksim Kavaleu in Minsk. “It’s better to make it safe for them” than to allow people to overdose, he added.
Kavaleu is from a Belarusian NGO, Legalise Belarus, that seeks to change the country’s draconian drug laws. According to Kavaleu, over 15,000 people have been imprisoned for possessing even the smallest amount of marijuana or other drugs.
“Legalise Belarus is not about drugs, it’s about people,” he said. “I really don’t respect any drugs [but] the drug war is a failed war.”
The NGO has three main goals: to legalise marijuana for medical use, to draw on international practices for drug control, and to give amnesty to those sentenced for minor drug offences.
But as the members of the NGO advocate for those in prison, they have themselves been persecuted by the regime.
“They take us to a detention centre and arrest us for 25 days, for example,” he said, describing the same punitive detentions that target activists nationwide.
On August 6, three days before the election, three members of Legalise Belarus were detained on suspicions of drug trafficking. The trio were held for days, but the case was eventually dropped, predictably, for lack of evidence.
The charges are always the same, said Kavaleu: “hooliganism, not following police orders.”
But not the whole government apparatus is against their initiative. “We had a lot of responses [from the government], except for the president’s office,” said Kavaleu.
“Unofficially, the Health and Environment Ministries support us. We only have problems with the Supreme Court and the Interior Ministry [that] are totally against us.”
In their network of like-minded activists, Legalise Belarus tried cooperating with the country’s loose anarchist community. But Kavaleu and his colleagues were threatened by the authorities – if you keep helping anarchists host their talks, they said, you will be next.
When Legalise Belarus tried to rent a space for a conference together with the anarchists, Kavaleu recalled, the government pressured the venue to cancel the booking.
He, too, felt the government’s eyes on him in the run-up to the election. He rented a hotel room in the centre of Minsk – “It’s safer to be here” in case the government decided to detain him, he said, as it would be more difficult to make him disappear without a trace.
“Before, the police only [detained] the opposition,” he added. “But now, everybody sees that no one is safe – [the regime] is taking us away every day and every night.”
The climate of fear was pervasive even before the election and the ensuing crackdown. People were afraid of losing jobs, university places, or receiving at least three years in prison for fighting back against police violence.
“In Armenia, they blocked cars. In Belarus, people observe red traffic lights during protests,” added Kavaleu.
His brother was fired from a state university after reporting a falsification during a parliamentary election. “He now studies in Poland,” said Kavaleu.
A day before the election, perched on a windowsill overlooking Nemiga, the central area favoured by protesters, he sighed, worried but smiling – “tomorrow will be very dangerous.”
“We are not Ukraine, not Lithuania” where people were ready to fight, he said. “It will be very good if 100,000 people come out into the streets; 200,000 would be the best case [scenario].”
The next day, Alexander Lukashenko declared landslide victory in the presidential election. Thousands of Belarusians streamed into the streets and were met with brutal repressions, torture, and abuse. A week after the election, some estimates said over 200,000 people gathered in the street below Maksim’s hotel.
The protests have been taking place daily since the election night.
Many Belarusians, however, including the two DJs that dared to play a protest song at the pre-election rally, have been forced to flee. As of late September, close to a hundred of them ended up in Lithuania.
Second part of the story coming soon.