Mass protests are sweeping Belarus following the country’s presidential election on Sunday 9 August, after Alexandr Lukashenko — Belarus’ leader for the past 26 years — supposedly scooped another term in a vote the opposition condemned as rigged. The dissent seems irrepressible. When the government used brutal force to imprison and assault more than 6,000 protesters (overwhelmingly men), eventually killing two, thousands of women took to the streets to protest with flowers. Policemen abandoned their uniforms. Artists and cultural workers, as well as doctors, and workers from major factories, have gone on strike.
In collaboration with the Belarusian contemporary art magazine Chrysalis Mag, The Calvert Journal has asked five Belarusian artists to share their thoughts on, and hopes for, the biggest protest movement the country has faced in generations.
“In Belarus, the authorities have tried to keep society apolitical, monopolising politics to the point that the law stopped being applied to an entire hierarchical chain of pro-government supporters. The judiciary began to work not according to the law, but to instructions. The security forces began to use torture and perjury without fear. Ultimately, this use of the law has resulted in the rigging of elections. We, as artists, could not help but react.
Artists are the nervous system of society. We cannot remain silent, we cannot help but react, we are tired of dictatorship, and are ripe to join forces. Vasilisa Polyanina and I wrote down our own manifesto, supporting the general mood of Belarusian society.”
“I managed to hold an exhibition on the subject of dictatorship in the Belarusian town of Grodno. Following its opening on 14 July, the owners of the place were afraid of the influx of journalists. They thought the gallery would be shut down. But in the end, they left the exhibition to run as planned, overcoming their fears. The exhibition was dismantled on 10 August, [when the protests began], when dictatorship ended, and a civil society was formed.”
“On one hand, today’s mass protests are distinguished by their unprecedented size, as well as their decentralised and spontaneous character. On the other, the government has also used means of suppression that we have never seen at peaceful protests before: stun grenades, rubber bullets, water cannons, as well as unjustified cruelty and the torture of detainees.
Even since election day, and the first time I went out into the streets, I have been haunted night and day by hopelessness: fear for the safety of my family and friends, and my own powerlessness in the face of the lawlessness of the security forces.
When I learned that the shockproof shields used by the security forces in the post-Soviet space have the poetic name — “Vitrazh-AT” (or “Stained Glass” in English) — I thought it was important for me, as an artist working with glass, to turn this symbol of the police state into something sublime instead. That is what the art of stained glass is for me. But is such a transformation possible? Can strong opposition bring positive change, or will it only bring grief and disaster for those who struggle for something new?”
Sergei Belaoki is a Minsk-based artist working with glass. Follow him on Instagram.
“Protests in Belarus are not rare events, but usually they concern the few: activists, businessmen, or the unemployed. The protests happening now concern everyone. I feel like they are turning a new page for a new generation. We have new faces: a new political scene, a new generation of voters, and new technologies.
The problem is that our enthusiasm is like a brand of new software that isn’t compatible with the very old PC that is our political system. And honestly, I have no idea how those two things will ever be compatible.
I hope that these protests will unite people, give us reasons to respect ourselves, and find new names and faces who can represent Belarusian people. We have had a government that we’ve endured but not chosen for far too long.”
Andrei Busel is an artist based in Minsk. His poster Never Again is a reference to Lukashenko’s first name and patronymic, Alexander Gregorievich, and his toy truck references one of the most popular souvenirs tourists bring from Belarus — the mini-police van.
“Honestly, I haven’t attended any protests. I live in a small village in the suburbs of Minsk. By the evening of election day, I knew that the opposition had won: in my village, 70 per cent of the population voted for [opposition leader Svetlana] Tikhanovskaya, and the results hadn’t been rigged to try and change those results. We waited at the entrance of the polling station until 10PM, and everyone was crying and cheering, thanking the election committee for the fair results. The internet connection was already unstable, but I was about to set a new VPN and access the internet, even if speeds were much slower than usual. On our way home from the polling station, we were sure that everything would be okay — but then the protests in Minsk broke. Even watching the videos was horrifying. Before election day on 9 August, so many people were so certain that the police, and the military would not fight those people that they were charged by law to protect. But they did. More than 6000 people were arrested during the first three days of the protest. In detention centers, the police beat and tortured people, not giving them any food and barely any water.
I’ve not been able to work properly for the last week due to the internet shutdown, as well as my overall state of mind. The only thing I did was read the news, shake nervously, and check on my family and friends. I barely ate or slept. When rumors about martial law and curfew kicked off, my husband and I (and our cat) decided to leave for Kyiv, with my employer’s support.
After we left, one of my friends told me that this was a two-faced betrayal. But I was terrified for my family’s safety. Every time I left the house, I expected to be arrested and beaten up. I can’t help by attending protests, but I help by donating money and spreading awareness. Everyone’s contribution is important. I don’t consider my artwork very political. It’s just me processing the world around. Right now, I don’t know what to expect, and whether we will return to Belarus in a week, or a year’s time. ”
Yuliya Spinoza is an illustrator. She has just fled with her family to Kyiv, Ukraine, fearing for their safety. Follow her on Instagram.
“I hope these protests will give us confidence in ourselves, and freedom for Belarus.
To be honest, I am going through a lot of stress, and trying to figure out what I can do from Prague, where I am based. Together with other Belarusians here, I am organising pickets, sharing information, and raising funds for protesters’ legal fees. We’re trying to support Belarusians however we can.
Together with colleagues from St Petersburg, we’re preparing to print t-shirts using motifs from my works. All funds will be donated to support the victims of repression in Belarus.
This is not the first time that I’ve used Belarusian embroidery in my work. All Belarusian embroidery, whether on traditional clothes, tablecloths, or kitchen towels, uses symbols — you can guess the gender, age, social status, and regional origins of the customer or artist, using this encoded language. For me, this represents the history of the Belarusian people, written in embroidery. The red thread also traditionally serves as a talisman against evil spirits.”
Rufina Bazlova is a Belarusian artist based in Prague. Follow her on Instagram.