Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Young Belarusians Dream of Creating a Normal European Country

A generation of entrepreneurs and artists are facing prison sentences.

Masked women hold flowers during an anti-government protest in Belarus.
Women wearing black clothing and tape crossed over their mouths hold white roses as they march in protest against the government in Minsk, Belarus, on March 2. Stringer/AFP via Getty Images

Kasia Syramalot, 32, sat beside her apartment window, watching snow blanket her native Minsk and waiting for news of her sister, imprisoned the last three months. This past November, Kseniya Syramalot, a student of philosophy and social science at the Belarusian State University, was taken from her parents’ home by the secret police, becoming one of tens of thousands of people detained by the government in the wake of last August’s presidential elections, which the European Union declared rigged. She turned 21 inside the infamous Amerikanka penitentiary, used since the Soviet era to house political dissidents. Although she and her family were initially allowed to exchange letters, the prison censor recently took ill with COVID-19, and since then all communication has gone through their lawyer. “It is still hard to cry,” Kasia told me via Zoom. “I have no tears. It is a constant situation of danger … [but] normal life is still here—like nice coffee shops, friends, good people.”

And so Kasia keeps going as best she can, waiting for her sister’s release or for the visit from the secret police that will reunite them. Kasia and Kseniya are part of a generation of Belarusians who make up the majority of the opposition in Belarus, young people caught between the hope of normal, democratic life and the stifling reality of Europe’s most persistent dictatorship. As the regime cracks down, the most productive and creative portions of Belarusian society are being forced into prison, exile, or retreat.

When I first met Kasia in 2009, Minsk was a city of faded tenement blocks and scowling babushkas, offering little to a tourist except the opportunity to indulge in Soviet kitsch. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, while surrounding nations at least made attempts at establishing democracy, Belarus remained in sad stasis, with a secret police who seemed omnipresent and a second-rate Stalin in the form of local tyrant Aleksandr Lukashenko.

Kasia Syramalot, 32, sat beside her apartment window, watching snow blanket her native Minsk and waiting for news of her sister, imprisoned the last three months. This past November, Kseniya Syramalot, a student of philosophy and social science at the Belarusian State University, was taken from her parents’ home by the secret police, becoming one of tens of thousands of people detained by the government in the wake of last August’s presidential elections, which the European Union declared rigged. She turned 21 inside the infamous Amerikanka penitentiary, used since the Soviet era to house political dissidents. Although she and her family were initially allowed to exchange letters, the prison censor recently took ill with COVID-19, and since then all communication has gone through their lawyer. “It is still hard to cry,” Kasia told me via Zoom. “I have no tears. It is a constant situation of danger … [but] normal life is still here—like nice coffee shops, friends, good people.”

And so Kasia keeps going as best she can, waiting for her sister’s release or for the visit from the secret police that will reunite them. Kasia and Kseniya are part of a generation of Belarusians who make up the majority of the opposition in Belarus, young people caught between the hope of normal, democratic life and the stifling reality of Europe’s most persistent dictatorship. As the regime cracks down, the most productive and creative portions of Belarusian society are being forced into prison, exile, or retreat.

When I first met Kasia in 2009, Minsk was a city of faded tenement blocks and scowling babushkas, offering little to a tourist except the opportunity to indulge in Soviet kitsch. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, while surrounding nations at least made attempts at establishing democracy, Belarus remained in sad stasis, with a secret police who seemed omnipresent and a second-rate Stalin in the form of local tyrant Aleksandr Lukashenko.

But if the country felt cliched, Kasia and her friends did not. The first generation of Belarusians to be born after communism, they were Western-influenced and forward-looking, with a scrappy, DIY aesthetic sprung from generations of want and hardship. “The older generation emigrated,” Kasia said, “but we were young, in our early 20s. We still believed in fairy tales.” Unable to alter the political circumstances of their country, they threw themselves into any avenues of expression available to them: “If you could open an art gallery, you opened an art gallery. If you could write a good article, you wrote a good article.” Kasia herself would become an internationally renowned photographer, a polymath who filmed concerts and designed restaurants in her spare time. Returning to Minsk in 2018, I found the city unrecognizable, with coffee shops tucked into abandoned factories, vibrant street art, and lively beer bars serving boutique IPAs. Though influenced by Brooklyn and Berlin, Minsk had its own unique character, boasting a tight-knit community committed to the cultural rejuvenation of their city.

Last summer, this group of artists, intellectuals, and entrepreneurs would be largely responsible for sparking the first serious threat to Lukashenko’s 26-year stranglehold on political power.

Last summer, this group of artists, intellectuals, and entrepreneurs would be largely responsible for sparking the first serious threat to Lukashenko’s 26-year stranglehold on political power. Expectations leading into last August’s elections were low, with Lukashenko refusing to allow foreign observers and imprisoning the main opposition candidate. But even with their leaders jailed or in exile, the Belarusian opposition proved surprisingly resilient. Tech-savvy and well-organized, they harnessed social media to reveal the extent of the government’s manipulation in real time. Reports of fraud spread rapidly, and a movement grew for voters to submit pictures of their ballots to an online voter protection platform. The results of these informal polls suggested that Lukashenko’s support, which was generally considered weak in Minsk but robust in the provinces, had cratered across the nation. “We had always thought that we were a minority within the country,” Kasia said, “but we began to see that we were not.”

Despite widespread international repudiation, Lukashenko insisted on the legitimacy of his victory, reacting to the ensuing protests with the predictable violence. Kasia recalled sheltering in her downtown apartment on the night after the election, with Minsk a battleground between the opposition and military police. Inspired to protect their husbands and brothers, the opposition developed a plan for a “Women’s March” to contrast with the earlier, mostly nocturnal and male-led protests: a daylight procession of women dressed in stark white, a Belarusian national color. Kasia described attending in a state of blank terror, but the Women’s March quickly proved a stroke of political genius. The authorities were initially reluctant to respond with force, and the images of Belarusian women offering flowers out to their armed oppressors galvanized the nation. For weeks, hundreds of thousands of protesters brought Minsk to a standstill, their numbers so vast that the authorities effectively fled the stage, leaving the opposition in control of the capital. “Everyone behaves like heroes,” Kasia messaged me at the time, her Instagram feed filled with photos of bright-eyed young people and smiling elders radiating an enthusiastic optimism that their country might, at long last, be free.

But Lukashenko played for time, indifferent to the protests and the ensuing objections from Western Europe. With his control over the army and police unshaken, and Russian President Vladimir Putin continuing to offer his assistance, Lukashenko proved able to ignore the objections of his people and the international community, going so far as swear himself into office during a secret inauguration ceremony. In time, the crowds began to winnow, the eyes of the world turned to the next crisis, and the government returned to its policy of savage violence, with opposition supporters beaten to death by goon squads, and leaders kidnapped and threatened with death.

Kseniya’s arrest on Nov. 12 was part of this second wave of repression. In mid-January, word arrived that her term in prison had been extended another two months. The broader situation seems likewise to be worsening, with protest leaders given lengthy prison sentences, and recently leaked audio of a top interior ministry official proposing to put protesters in internment camps. “[We] now are experts in the rules of different prisons,” Kasia said. “We have a lot of humor … but it is not normal to have jokes about constant searches, violence, and arrests.”

At the moment, last summer’s optimism seems unfounded, and political freedom for Belarus looks as distant as ever. It remains unclear whether the preelection detente that allowed for Minsk’s rapid development will return, with Kasia and her cohort facing the stark choice of fleeing their homeland or remaining beneath the authority of a leader who shows no signs of giving up his dubious distinction as Europe’s last dictator. As for Kasia, last December she and her husband spent a week in Kyiv, where a community of expat Belarusians has already begun to form. It was a comfort, she said—“we slept for three days straight”—but in the end they decided to return home. “This situation has uncovered a lot of things,” she said. “You see people’s faces clear—and you see bad things in some people, they were trying to hide all the time. Sad moments, when you see that some of your relatives are cowards, or they hate people who are better than they are and they want you to fail.” But at the same time, “there are a huge amount of good people and help and love. I’m in my place. Once in a lifetime, you have a chance for that.”

Daniel Polansky, winner of the Prix Imaginales, is the author of the critically acclaimed Low Town trilogy and The Builders, which was a 2016 Hugo Award finalist.

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