‘Now there’s no fear — just sadness’ A year after Belarus’s presidential election, five protesters tell Meduza how their lives have changed as Lukashenko has tightened his grip on power

Natalia Fedosenko / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

On August 9, 2020, Belarusians went to the polls to choose a president. According to official data, Alexander Lukashenko won in a landslide, receiving more than 80% of the vote. After the results were announced, people came out to protest in unprecedented numbers — the protest march in Minsk alone had hundreds of thousands of participants. Soon after, however, the government cracked down on dissent. The authorities have prosecuted thousands of protesters, and continue to send people to penal colonies under absurd charges, though the protests themselves ended long ago. To learn more about the dramatic changes Belarus has undergone as a result of the protests, Meduza turned to the protesters themselves.

Anna

(name changed)

Before last summer, I believed there were two different Belaruses. The first Belarus was the one we knew, the one where we’d drink our coffee, go to Vilnius on the weekends, fly on budget airlines to Europe — and then come home and talk about where we’d been. We’d donate [to human rights activists and politicians] if necessary, but we basically lived in a lovely European city.

And then there was the other Belarus, with its inhuman state system — bureaucratic, complicated, full of contempt for human enterprise. We didn’t really cross paths with that Belarus, and I thought my qualms with it were mostly aesthetic in nature. Sure, there was a feeling that we weren’t totally free — it was always there, it’s difficult to explain, especially for those who fawn over Minsk’s clean streets and say everything’s wonderful. But I generally thought it was impossible to do anything that would have an effect on this regime. But the last year has shown that it’s possible, necessary, and lawful.

[…]

My husband and I went to vote in the morning. We arrived with all the paraphernalia the dissident community recommended. We wore white bracelets, photographed our ballots, and sent them to a chatbot to record our vote. We flashed the victory sign to the independent monitors who’d been kicked out of the vote count. And then we went to wait for the results.

By the evening, people had gathered outside the school to hear the results. But the results didn’t come. We stood outside for a long time. One of the men climbed a fence to try to see what was going on in the assembly hall. He could see that the process was underway, but it wasn’t clear why they weren’t posting the results. It felt like we were spies who were watching something top-secret.

At some point, people just started to knock on the locked doors and ask when the results would be posted. After that, it didn’t take long.

Literally, about five minutes later, a small bus pulled up to the schoolyard, and several riot officers jumped out. We’d already seen people get arrested in the city — but for some reason, here, in the schoolyard, where multiple generations of families had come together, I was scared for the first time. We ran away. When we stopped to catch our breath, we met the people who had run away along with us. They turned out to be our neighbors, and they had served as independent monitors at our polling place. We decided to wait for the results together.

At that point, we still didn’t realize that there wouldn’t be any results. These guys, the independent observers, were friends with a girl who worked as a government monitor. They had let her into the assembly hall when they were counting the votes. And she had managed to record the sound of the commission chairman announcing our precinct’s results. The winner was [Svetlana] Tikhanovskaya. But those results never appeared — not on that day, and not on the next one.

Law enforcement officers the night after Belarus’s presidential electionLaw enforcement officers the night after Belarus’s presidential electionPhoto by Siarhei LESKIEC / AFP

Meanwhile, bits of news started to come from the city center. We knew something scary was happening there. In the morning, it became clear that my husband’s brother wasn’t coming home — along with many, many others. We started searching for him.

I sat at the computer for entire days — writing to people and calling detention centers, RUVD [law enforcement] offices, courts. It was almost impossible to reach anyone, and they all gave conflicting information.

My husband drove around the city looking for his brother. His parents just stood for days outside of Okrestina and waited. People set up an entire volunteer camp there, where wonderful, anonymous people did everything they could for people who were released. Those exhausted people were immediately able to change clothes, drink something, eat something, have a smoke, and make phone calls. I remember the giant line of volunteers ready to drive people wherever they needed, including to other cities. It was a perfectly organized system, and, most importantly, it was sustainable.

We found his brother on the fourth day. We found out that he had been tried and sent to serve his sentence in Slutsk — a town near Minsk. Then they let him free. His medical examination showed that he had a traumatic brain injury, with soft tissue damage.

Everything you see in the scariest photos of Minsk from that August, I saw with my own eyes when we were watching those guys come out in Slutsky. I don’t know how anyone can justify that kind of cruelty.

Okrestina Detention Center. August 14, 2020Okrestina Detention Center. August 14, 2020Natalya Fedosenko / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

[…]

Over the summer and in early fall, there was still a feeling of inspiration, a feeling that we were on the right path. That our values were so pure, bright, and fair that this simply couldn’t end badly. “The Walls Will Fall” — it seemed obvious.

By November, everything changed. The Sunday marches started to peter out. They started prosecuting people the authorities found objectionable. They hit people with huge fines. People were forced to leave the country. They killed Raman Bandarenka. It was a dark wave of scary news that’s hard to wrap your head around. That’s how winter went.

In spring, the apathy came. Okay, another person is going away [to prison]. They’re extending prison terms again. Belarusians know things can always get worse: tomorrow, they’ll shut down another anti-government initiative, issue a fine against a children’s hospice, take business owners into custody and open a case against them. It all gave you the feeling that they were clamping down in real-time. And that any sign of dissent, all the way down to flying a white flag on your window, would be punished.

When they arrested [Roman] Protasevich, I realized I wanted to leave. It became clear the authorities would stop at nothing. And if we were going to abide by the principles of democracy, humanity, conscience, knowledge, and morality, the other side wasn’t playing by those rules. They don’t respect any laws — not written ones, not moral ones.

It really scares me to be spending so much of my life in fear. I can’t do the things I’d like to. I’m too afraid of retaliation. I’m scared to be in my own country. But something keeps me here, something keeps me from packing my suitcase. It’s as if us leaving would mean that they won. That we were unnecessary. And that’s not a thought I want to face.

Andrey Ostapovich

former investigator and founder of BYPOL, an organization of former Belarusian security officers

I went to work every day until August 16. There was another “strengthening,” but only the riot officers and military police were on the front lines that time. They even started letting us leave work even earlier than on Sundays. That’s how I managed to go to the protests in the evenings.

I was on duty from August 15 to August 16. At that point, the authorities were legitimately worried that the regime might fall. Riot police started cleaning up all evidence of their crimes, deleting recordings from their cameras, and coming out to the incident sites. People were emboldened — they started filing claims for property damage and bodily injuries caused by the officers.

I went out to an incident scene to investigate one of these claims. There were two parents there whose son was in the hospital. I took a look at his car — the tires are pierced, the glass is broken, and the frame is covered in blood. 15 minutes later, a man in civilian clothes arrives and says, “I was sent by General so-and-so, I have orders to discuss the incident with the victim.” He starts talking to the victim: “We’ll cover all the damage, just don’t file a claim.” What’s called addressing the issue. And you don’t know what to do. You report to your supervisor, he says, “I don’t know what you’re supposed to do. If you want, you can get it on video.”

At seven in the evening, I returned from the visit. I took my pistol, put it in a safe, and realized I needed to make a decision.

There was a pro-government rally slated for Sunday, August 16. They said in our work chat on Viber that we were required to come. When they were putting together the lists, I told my boss that I’d be going to a rally, but not to the pro-government one. He thought I was joking, so he let me go home because my shift was over. I went to the [protest] rally and left my resignation letter in my office.

A rally on August 16, 2020A rally on August 16, 2020Natalya Fedosenko / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

The next day, I went to stay with some acquaintances in Russia. I thought it would be for a few days, but that wasn’t the case (Note from Meduza: Andrey was deported from Russia back to Belarus before he ultimately escaped to Poland). At that point, it seemed like victory was inevitable. I wanted to be a part of the victory, and, most importantly, I didn’t want to be a part of the regime’s crimes.

When I was on the run, the hardest part was the 27-hour walk [from Belarus to Poland]. It’s not a small distance, and I got lost. I became extremely tired. When I was halfway there, every part of my body hurt. While I walked, I got so angry, and I distracted myself from the pain in my muscles by thinking about how I would, roughly speaking, get revenge on the system — for the way it treated me. Afterward, I was able to put some of these ideas into action.

I ended up in a strange country, where I didn’t know the language. What do you do then? I became a volunteer for the Center for Solidarity with Belarus, where BYPOL first started to take shape. One person who reached out to the center was another officer who had been forced to flee. I talked to him, he didn’t believe in the initiative, and he left. But I realized there were probably others like him. We held a press conference, and several people responded. We created an organization to relocate officers who were still in the system and were trying to decide whether to leave or not. And for officers who had already left and were being pursued by the regime.

The team slowly came into place. After that, we started receiving information [from active officers], and we created a Telegram channel and published it. The protests were also still in full swing. People wanted victory over the regime — including people inside the system. There was a lot of information coming out, and as a result, we were able to conduct high-profile investigations like those of Bandarenka and Taraikovsky’s murders. That got our name out. Early on, my own story also helped us get the word out.

The opposition initiative “Belarusian People’s Tribunal” conducted its own investigation and concluded that Taraikovsky was shot dead by Nikita Korovin, an officer in the Interior Ministry’s “Almaz” special forces group.

A gathering in memory of Raman BandarenkaA gathering in memory of Raman BandarenkaAP / Scanpix / LETA

The transitional phase began around the beginning of winter [2021]. The wave of repression and criminal prosecution of swaths of people at a time still hadn’t begun. The authorities were struggling to deal with the marches. They needed to take a breath. BYPOL took advantage of that moment. We leaked audio recordings and investigations. This kept the regime under pressure until the spring. Then it started really cracking down to move things back to the state they had been in before the elections.

But that wasn’t possible, of course. And that started to annoy them, and they started making mistakes — with Protasevich, with the Olympics, and so on. In my opinion, the regime will sink itself. It’s obsolete and illegitimate. Nobody recognizes it. Even the people supporting it right now understand that the end is coming sooner or later.

I left BYPOL. I’ve been in uniform since I was 17 years old. At first, I studied at the Interior Ministry Academy — that’s not just higher education, it’s military service. Then I served five years on the Investigative Committee, and I didn’t see anything but work the entire time. And when you finally get free, you’re determined not to be under anyone’s control ever again. As soon as I saw some inconsistencies [within BYPOL] and disagreed with my colleagues on certain points, I left [BYPOL], leaving a fully built structure in place. The organization was effective, the initiative worked. It doesn’t matter who’s behind the wheel — all that matters are the results. BYPOL can make a significant contribution to our victory.

Right now, I’m just living my life. Probably for the first time in 17 years. I like that nobody knows what I’m up to. Not my old acquaintances, not my new ones. It gives me an advantage against the authorities when they try to go after dissidents. When I was writing my letter of resignation, nobody could have guessed that this organization would appear, that I would become a media personality. It just happened that way: I didn’t give up, I put in the effort where I could, and we got help from our diaspora community and from people who care about the suffering of others. Then, when we kept receiving attention from the media, it became possible to start an organization; people were drawn to us because we showed them what it means to be an honest security officer, a true security officer.

Inna Zaitseva

independent election monitor, active protest participant

I was the only registered independent election monitor for my precinct. I was a monitor in my school — in Sokol, in the Minsk area. I knew everybody there. And everybody held their faces, nobody tried to offend me or get rid of me. They didn’t fudge the voter turnout, they always confirmed it with me. Everything was great — until the main election day.

The election commission chairman for my precinct told me they wouldn’t let me in to witness the vote count. I told her, “I’m the only independent monitor we have for this precinct. All the rest are schoolteachers. You understand that kicking me out will just make people doubt the results, right? If you do what you’re supposed to, I can only praise you.” She said she didn’t care.

That’s when we, the activists, realized things wouldn’t be quite as pleasant as we had hoped. They kicked us out at eight in the evening. A huge number of residents gathered outside the doors, about 400 people. We walked around the school to wait for the results and looked in the windows. But the table where they counted the votes had been moved away. The commission members were acting like people who had stolen a million dollars and were dividing it up.

Legally, they were required to post the election results in a visible spot. But they took their sweet time. Finally, at about 10 p.m., we started chanting “Results!” and they finally posted them. At first, we were like, “Hooray! Tikhanovskaya won!” But then we looked closer — she’d only won by 50 votes. Wait a second! Ninety percent of voters were wearing white clothes and white bracelets. Where was the 50 percent that voted for Lukashenko?

We started chanting again, and they locked themselves in the school. At that point, the election commission chairman and the officers who were guarding them escaped out the back door and hopped into a car — with our ballots — and left. We were shocked. We knew these teachers. These cops all lived in Sokol. They’d tricked us all.

[…]

When the first Sunday march was announced, we didn’t expect to see anything too grandiose. But then my husband and I realized the metro was full of people with white ribbons. We got off and started walking. All around, people were joyful, shouting, “Long Live Belarus!” Suddenly there was an ocean of people — wearing white and waving our national flag.

The first Sunday march in Minsk. August 16, 2020The first Sunday march in Minsk. August 16, 2020Natalya Fedosenko / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

The next stage was the feeling of victory. We were sure it was over — we had won. Just because it seemed impossible for them to suppress so many like-minded people. We thought Grigoryevich [Lukashenko] would announce on TV that it was over. That there was no way he could stay in power — and he’d quickly get out. For some reason, that’s what we thought.

We quickly realized Lukashenko wasn’t prepared to step down. But we expected someone from his inner circle to ask him to. We thought some of his friends would say, “Grigoryevich, you’ve overstayed your welcome a bit!” We kept expressing our dissent while we waited. We posted on social media, wore white clothes, and went to rallies, waiting all the while for something to give.

But Lukashenko surrounded himself more and more with aggressive people. And they knew they didn’t have many options [besides crushing the protests]. They couldn’t just apply for permanent residence abroad. So they didn’t leave.

And I kept going to the marches in a white wedding dressing — like a white-red-white bride. It seemed like a perfect way to show that I opposed the current regime. I thought, since I was going to the protests and I might get hit with a baton or arrested anyways, I might as well not let it be in vain.

When the marches became less theatrical and more dangerous, I decided to take a stand. I decided I wouldn’t take off the dress for anything. I had a firm conviction that this was my right, no matter what was going on around me. I cried out that I would wear whatever dress I wanted, and nobody could stop me.

Inna Zaitseva in September 2020Inna Zaitseva in September 2020Natalya Fedosenko / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Then I was arrested. I was put in a temporary detention center, in very good conditions. I got a lot of very sympathetic law enforcement officials. They put me in a pink VIP cell, let me smoke every two hours, fed me well, spoke only politely, and even gave me cigarettes to take with me.

I realized the white-red-white bride had won the hearts not only of the protesters but also of the sympathizers on the other side. But they took my dress under the pretext of photographing it for evidence. And they didn’t give it back. Eventually, I left the detention center in leggings and a jacket with nothing underneath. That was the end of the first dress.

[Later, after my husband was arrested,] I took the kids and left the country. I spent New Year’s in Kyiv feeling like a very lucky woman. I’d been able to proudly express my disapproval of everything going on in the country, while still keeping my health and freedom. Quite a few other outspoken people hadn’t been so lucky. In reality, though, they’d taken away my home — simply because I’d worn a certain dress.

Pyotr

(name changed)

On August 9, 2020, I got lucky. After the election results were announced in my precinct (supposedly, only about thirty people voted against Lukashenko), we drove out to the center of Minsk — and didn’t leave until two or three. A lot of people we knew tried to walk home and ended up getting arrested.

Something else happened on August 10. Bangalore square was full of traffic. People sat there and honked. And then the riot police came running up. Some people managed to drive away, but some people’s cars got completely smashed. But I got lucky again because they hit me but didn’t detain me. They said, “Get out of here, you democratic dickhead!” That was the first time I realized that “democratic” is a bad word in certain circles.

The first wave of protests. August 2020The first wave of protests. August 2020Natalya Fedosenko / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

I have a friend who got caught one day — then he decided to stop protesting, to spend more time with his family. I understand him because I don’t know what he went through. Usually, he just says, “I don’t wish it on anybody.”

Protesters being arrested en masse. Fall 2020Protesters being arrested en masse. Fall 2020Stringer / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

[…]

The feeling of helplessness really takes a toll on your psyche. It makes you want to do whatever you can. I remember that feeling at the marches — unity. It was incredible. The feeling of victory. The sense that there were a lot of us. The anticipation of the changes to come. We all spoke about the cool new Belarus with such enthusiasm. About how hard we were fighting to change things. About the myths and legends we would have about the women who stood up to protect the country with a white flower. But for now, we’re stuck with a black baton and a mustachioed asshole.

Olga

(name changed)

There are days you remember surprisingly clearly, down to the smallest detail. For me, that’s August 9.

I live in the center of Minsk, but I had to go to the outskirts to vote. I was having trouble getting my bike off the rack — the lock was jammed. Then some drunk trooper came out of the elevator (I live in a classic old building with a dark, shabby entryway) and offered to help. He went back to his apartment, got a hammer, and smashed the lock. Then he asked where I was going. I said, “to vote.” He goes, “I also went to vote.” And he looks at me expectantly, like, who you gonna vote for? And I don’t know who he voted for! A tattooed guy in a striped shirt, totally funky. I go, “Well, for Tikhanovskaya.” And he’s like, “Good for you, buy yourself a good lock.” It turned out later that he was a fine guy — I just caught him on a wild day.

[…]

I went to my polling place. I had my shirt on, and I noticed everybody was happy and smiling when they saw me. There were a lot of people in embroidered shirts, white-red-white clothes, and clothes with opposition symbols. The atmosphere was incomparable. It was the first time I’d ever seen that kind of unity.

I voted and headed home. For some reason, I had the spontaneous thought that I ought to get some dollars. But there wasn’t a single dollar in any ATM machine — people were getting ready.

An old man walked by and made the victory sign. I met a cool group of motorcycle guys, about 50-60 people, with white-red-white flags. I gave them the victory sign and they flashed it back. Then I met a friend who makes it impossible to be scared — which was perfect, considering what would happen later.

[…]

At some point, the road we were walking on filled up with a huge number of very determined people. They turned on the flashlights on their phones. It was like we were a sea of light.

Everyone was waiting for the results. The Internet had been shut off earlier that day, but somebody managed to get it using a VPN. We started hearing news like “In Pinsk, the riot police dropped their shields,” and the whole crowd cried, “Hooray!” We stood and waited for the same thing to happen in Minsk. Someone approached the riot officers and asked them to join the side of the people. Then they started shooting, they started pushing, but there were a lot of us. There was no fear, only euphoria.

When they started chasing us away, cutting off parts of the crowd, we started to leave. At one point, I was really scared because I’d gotten lost in the crowd. My friend understood what was happening and grabbed me by the hand.

They pushed us all the way to the KGB building, and we were trapped. All of the streets were blocked off except for one — we were going up it, and they’d already started the tear gas. We ran, I landed badly, and my heel started to hurt. But in all the excitement, I didn’t really notice it. Ultimately, we managed to break free.

[…]

The night after the presidential electionThe night after the presidential electionAP / Scanpix / LETA

When I’d almost made it home, I saw officers beating people and loading them into a police vehicle. They kicked one man so hard in the head that you could hear it from across the street. Another officer was screaming at a young woman. I was riding straight towards them, in some kind of trance, when another police car pulled up next to me and shouted, “Go home, you idiot!” I turned into the courtyard right next to the vehicle, and by the time I rode around the building, the officers were already gone. They’d put everyone into the vehicle — even though it was just a typical group of drunk people hanging out outside a convenience store.

I rode up to the girl they’d been screaming — she was really shaken up. She was wearing all white. She was drunk and crying. I asked her whether everything was okay, and I suggested she go home. Then I went home myself. It was really late already.

Later, we learned that there’d been a real hunt for people in our area. They’d taken everyone they could. People hid in bushes, in entrances, in food stalls with shawarma. To this day, my companion and I believe our guardian angels were working tirelessly — and we got very lucky.

[…]

After that came several unforgettable months — they were simultaneously very happy and very sad. I was active — I went to the protest marches, and I protested in other ways, too (although I missed the last big marches because of COVID). Then the smaller marches began, and then they fizzled out.

I have a ton of stories from that period. One time, I came this close to getting arrested after the women’s march. That’s when I used the most womanly weapon: a screech. I screamed loudly, and the police were there in civilian clothes, these two nasty guys. Back then, people still weren’t afraid. They just saw some men chewing out two young women in a courtyard. An old woman ran up, I mean really old, like 80 years old, and let us into the building. I’d thought it was an empty courtyard, but when I started screaming, everyone came running out. If you did that now, you’d probably be prosecuted.

After about the third protest march, they started capturing people in large numbers. Not a day passed without people getting arrested. But you’d wake up on Sunday and know you had to go to the march. You’d lie there for an hour, two hours, unable to get up. The fear would pin you to the bed. But as soon as you went out the door, the fear would go away.

Belarusian protesters after the pandemic worsened and the rallies started fizzling out. December 2020Belarusian protesters after the pandemic worsened and the rallies started fizzling out. December 2020AP / Scanpix / LETA

Now there’s no fear, or maybe we just learned to live with it. Instead, there’s only sadness, although the anxiety sometimes comes back when relatives are put in jail. It reminds you that you might be next. We used to walk around in T-shirts with the pogonya, or we’d drive around the city with flags. Now that’s all banned. But we still recognize each other. You can tell from a person’s eyes, the songs they listen to, a number of attributes completely invisible to the authorities. It’s impossible for them to control.

I think things are much easier for us than for them right now. I’m not afraid to walk through the city or to discuss politics with my colleagues and friends. But they’re afraid of wiretaps, afraid of going to jail. If someone resigns from the security forces, his public berating starts immediately. People are frightened, but at least we don’t have to be hypocrites in front of our loved ones. We have people we can trust, and they have nobody.

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Interviews by Konstantin Bulgakov

Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale

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