Winds of change – reflections on Minsk, democracy and dictatorship

Courage Monument, Brest. Image by Aline (Алевтина) Mueller from Pixabay
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“I’m going to Russia, well, Belarus.” “Where’s that?” “Next to Poland. Where most of the Chernobyl cloud went.” So went conversations with friends in early 1995, as I prepared to depart for Minsk for a Russian language course.

Minsk was a slightly strange place to be learning Russian. In the brave new world of the mid 1990s, following the collapse of the USSR, the republics that made up the Union were striking out on their own and asserting national and linguistic independence. A little like studying Spanish in Catalan Barcelona, I walked the streets of Minsk to find different names from what I’d expected. The iconic Cyrillic letter и, familiar to us as the backwards N, is written as a Roman letter i in Belarusian. Pobeda, which is Russian for victory and, as part of the imagery and vernacular of heroes and struggles, features on many a propaganda poster, cropped up early in the necessary vocabulary for a student of Russian. But here in Belarus, the main square by the university was not Ploshchad Pobedi but Ploshcha Peramogi. Very evidently an independent nation with its own language!

Still, amid all this Belarusian-ness, there were lessons to be attended, places to explore and friends to be made. A stream of eager, hospitable students took us to local nightspots, interrogated us about the meaning and grammatical construction of 1980s soft rock lyrics, swapped phone numbers on worthless 100 ruble bills and joined in our parties. Everyone’s favourite was the leather jacketed Viktor with his weary English catchphrase “in this bullshit country…” drawled in a mid Atlantic accent, seeming not to catch the winds of change referenced on his Scorpions t-shirt.

A few weeks into my five month stay there was huge excitement that the great Boris Yeltsin was coming to visit the newly elected Belarusian president (Luka… something). We rushed to the city centre to try and catch a glimpse of this legendary change maker, but there was no grandstanding on tanks these days. We stood in the drizzle and saw nothing to compensate for getting wet.

Lenin still overlooks Minsk city centre. Image by Arkadiusz Förster from Pixabay

Although I treasure the experience of those five months, at that point in time I really never greatly understood nor dug into the detail of what Belarus was facing, Luka-whats-his-name being one of the less interesting stories in the complex post-Soviet fallout. The young country had an opportunity to recast itself outside of the control of the USSR, but the old school Lukashenko wasn’t really so keen on his country standing alone, preferring to cling to Mother Russia. It also seems the Belarusians had historically never really been as clear about their national identity as their neighbours in Ukraine or Lithuania. Although Belarusian may appear on street signs, it is estimated to be spoken day to day by no more than 10 to 20 per cent of the population, having been pushed into obscurity and counterculture by the dominance of Russian.

I always thought I’d return to explore Minsk again, but my relationship with Belarus since 1995 has only been through the Belarus Free Theatre . This incredible activist theatre group, banned in their home country, has been forced to perform abroad or in clandestine events on the outskirts of Minsk, accessed by word of mouth like an acid house party in the late 1980s. Their pieces are thrilling, shocking, creative, deeply thought provoking and caused me to re-examine this quiet land that sits between west and east Europe. How had it ended up in such a repressive situation? My theatre programmes from Minsk listed “hero artists” but were the arts now something to be feared and stifled? I thought about Igor, the mysterious rep who dropped by every few weeks to check in on us.

I discovered that there had been changes to street names since 1995: the main boulevard named for the Belarusian 16th Century printer, translator and cultural icon, Frantzisk Skaryna, had been renamed ‘Independence Avenue’ on the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II (known to Belarusians as the Great Patriotic War) and Prospekt Masherova, which honoured Belarusian war hero and politician, Pyotr Masherov became the more populist “Victors’ Avenue”. I realised the Charter ‘97 referenced by Belarus Free Theatre had been drawn up only three years into Lukashenko’s tenure: so soon had the people felt the need to make a plea for real democracy.

And so here we are, 25 years later, and Lukashenko has been in power so long that I have had plenty of time to take note of all four syllables in his name. This weekend saw him contest his sixth election and win with another unrealistically Soviet proportion of the vote. The pro democracy movement includes a significant campaign to “Tell The Truth” in response to the media manipulation and blizzard of misinformation his government hides behind.

“I am sure that it is the Belarus people who are the masters in our state” said Lukashenko shortly after winning a modest 85 per cent of the vote in 2006. This time around the people seem determined to be just that and I hope this time it is, at last, a chance for change. The cadre has closed ranks and declared yet another world beating victory for their man, but the recent demonstrations and mounting evidence from a handful of brave reporters like Franak Viacorka, Tadeusz Giczan and surely indicate the beginning of the end for Lukashenko.

In the meantime, I wonder where our old friend Viktor is now. Is he marching through the streets this evening? How does he feel about his country? Can it finally crawl out from the ‘bullshit country’ status he gave it and assert that bright post-Soviet future?

And I reflect on how precious democracy is, how easily it can be lost when independence becomes dictatorship and how brutal the fightback might need to be if it slips through a nation’s fingers.