March of Justice in Minsk, September 20, 2020. Photo by Yulya Tsimafeyeva
September 20, 2020
The March of Justice/Марш справядлівасці
Some photos from the 6th Sunday march. Не ведаю, як апісаць тым, хто ніколі не хадзіў на нашыя маршы, што гэта такое. Я пачала пісаць, што гэта і як, але і праўда не ведаю. :) Нерэальна дзіўныя адчуванні: пачынаючы ад дабірання да хоць нейкага месца збору пры зачыненым метро, адмененым руху транспарту, выключаным інтэрнэце і сканчаючы пошукамі бяспечнага спосабу (закрэслена: адступлення) вяртання назад… (І гэтыя загадкі штонядзелі вырашаюць тысячы дарослых людзей.) Але сарцавіна — гэта любоў, адназначна. :)
[Some photos from the 6th Sunday march. I don’t know how to describe what it is to those who have never attended our marches. I started writing about what it is like, but I really don’t know. :) Unreal strange feelings: starting from making your way to at least some kind of gathering place with the subway closed, traffic blocked, and the internet turned off, and ending with looking for a safe way (crossed out: of retreating) of getting back… (And these puzzles are solved every Sunday by thousands of adults.) But the core is love, definitely. :)]
“Put the Court on Trial.” Photo by Yulya Tsimafeyeva
Tens of Thousands Protest in Belarus Capital Against Lukashenko
Tatiana Kalinovskaya (AFP)
September 20, 2020
Tens of thousands of opposition supporters marched in the Belarusian capital of Minsk on Sunday despite authorities deploying a heavy police presence.
The protest came a day after officers detained hundreds of demonstrators at a women’s march in the capital.
The opposition movement has kept up a wave of large-scale demonstrations every Sunday since President Alexander Lukashenko won a disputed victory in August 9 polls.
“Anschluss. The Putin Organized Crime Syndicate Is ‘Novichok” for the Independence of Belarus!” Photo by Yulya Tsimafeyeva
People holding red-and-white protest flags gathered at the “March of Justice” that occupied the whole of a central avenue and walked towards the heavily guarded Palace of Independence, where Lukashenko has his offices.
They held placards with slogans such as “Cowards beat up women” and “Get out!”.
Before the march, police and internal troops had positioned military trucks and armored personnel carriers in the city center and set up barbed wire.
March of Justice in Minsk, September 20, 2020. Photo by Yulya Tsimafeyeva
Riot police in black balaclavas sporadically detained protesters carrying flags and signs at the start, while some people took shelter in a shopping mall and in a fast-food restaurant to escape arrest.
The Viasna rights group said at least 16 had been detained in Minsk as well as eight at protests in other cities.
The government ordered a reduction in mobile internet coverage during the event while central metro stations were closed.
Demonstrator at March of Justice in Minsk, September 20, 2020. Photo by Yulya Tsimafeyeva
The mass protest came after riot police cracked down on peaceful women demonstrators on Saturday who were wearing shiny accessories for their so-called “Sparkly March.”
They dragged protesters into vans, lifted some women off their feet and carrying them.
Belarusian interior ministry spokeswoman Olga Chemodanova said Sunday that police had detained 415 people on that march in Minsk and 15 in other cities for breaking rules on mass demonstrations. She said 385 had been released.
“Wake up, cities! Our motherland is in distress!” Photo by Yulya Tsimafeyeva
‘Worth fighting for’
The scale of Saturday’s detentions prompted the opposition’s Coordination Council to warn of a “new phase in the escalation of violence against peaceful protesters
Among those detained was one of the most prominent faces of the protest movement, 73-year-old activist Nina Baginskaya, although she was later released.
“From Khabarovsk to Brest There Is No Place for Dictatorship!” Photo by Yulya Tsimafeyeva
The aggressive police tactics prompted an opposition Telegram channel, Nexta, which has more than 2 million subscribers, to publish what it said was a list of the names and ranks of more than 1,000 police.
Protesters have sought to expose the identity of police who appear at demonstrations in plain clothes or in uniforms without insignia or name badges, trying to pull off their masks and balaclavas.
March of Justice in Minsk, September 20, 2020. Photo by Yulya Tsimafeyeva
Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who claimed victory over Lukashenko in the polls and has taken shelter in Lithuania, on Saturday said Belarusians were ready to strip police obeying “criminal orders” of anonymity.
Lukashenko has dismissed opposition calls for his resignation and sought help from Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who has promised law enforcement backup if needed and a $1.5 billion loan.
“Fear the indifferent! It is with their tacit consent that all evil on earth is committed!” Photo by Yulya Tsimafeyeva
Tikhanovskaya is set to meet European Union foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday as the EU prepares sanctions against those it blames for rigging the election and the regime’s violent crackdown on protesters.
Authorities have jailed many of Tikhanovskaya’s allies who formed the leadership of the Coordination Council or driven them out of the country.
One of her campaign partners, Maria Kolesnikova, has been imprisoned and charged with undermining national security.
She released a message to protesters on Sunday saying: “Freedom is worth fighting for. Don’t be afraid to be free!”
Go to Yulya Tsimafeyeva’s Facebook page to see the rest of her photos from the March of Justice and other dispatches from the events in Belarus. || TRR
Minsk, September 6, 2020
There Is No One in Russia to Support Belarus
September 11, 2020
Svetlana Alexievich, a world-renowned humanist writer of Belarus, is surprised that the Russian intelligentsia is silent about Lukashenko’s state terrorism. Who else, if not with a writer, can we talk about the metamorphoses of spiritual values occurring both to the east and the west of the Belarusian borders?
Svetlana, the Russian intelligentsia is silent because it no longer exists. It was not destroyed by either tsarism or the Soviet government, although the latter tried especially brutally to eradicate it, but it rotted on the stalk when political freedoms came to post-Soviet perestroika Russia. Although these freedoms were scanty, they were simply unprecedented for Russia.
The Russian intelligentsia was a remarkable, myth-making caste that fought for freedom, justice, and grassroots happiness. At the end of the twentieth century, it transpired that everyone had their own idea of happiness, justice, and even the grassroots. Russian society is currently in a state of diffusion. It is divided to such an extent that it is nervously, mercilessly at odds with itself, floundering in internal contradictions. Some people will not shake the hands of certain other people, while a second group of people suspect a third group of making deals with the regime. Meanwhile, a fourth group really has sold out to the authorities, and a fifth group has simply left the game. There was no such confusion in the post-Stalinist Soviet Union, where there were the so-called Sixtiers, the Village Prose movement, and the Soviet dissident movement—that is, different forms of joint opposition to the authorities.
Several conscientious middle-aged writers and courageous groups of committed opposition activists who write letters of protest on various occasions will respond to Alexievich’s letter, or have already responded from Russia, and that will be it. Russian TV viewers do not read these letters. Protests against the beating of Belarusian civilians will be drowned in the wild fabrications of Kremlin propaganda, which, like Zmei Gorynych, the dragon in Russian folktales, has several heads and confuses ordinary people with its “versions” of events.
This applies not only to Belarus. Before our eyes, monstrous things have happened to Alexei Navalny. We also haven’t see much support for Alexei from Russia’s cultural and academic figures, Svetlana.
If there is no intelligentsia in Russia, then “the people” [narod] that the intelligentsia invented, a grassroots crushed by the authorities but dreaming of liberation, also does not exist. We have a populace. They may be outraged, as has happened in Khabarovsk, but these are emotions, not political maturity.
Even words of support for Belarus offered by independent Russian figures show that the events in Belarus have taken them by surprise, that they did not expect such a turn of events, and that Belarus and Europe are incompatible things for many Russians. Meanwhile, in the wake of the events in Belarus, we (the Russian post-intelligentsia) are now turning from an older brother, cultured and wise, into a younger one, who has not wised up yet. So let’s set aside our hopes for the best until later.
Meanwhile, around us, above us, and sometimes even inside us, a regime that identifies itself with Russia has firmly ensconced itself, and instead of Louis XIV, who said that he was the state [“L’etat c’est moi”], Russia has a president about whom the head of the Duma has said that he is Russia, and Russia is him. Putin’s cause is alive and well. His system has been maturing and running for twenty years, and its direct impact on Belarus could be militarized, devouring, and fatal.
This system has issued a challenge not only to its rebellious neighbors, but also to the entire west. This system is pushy, quick on its feet, and confident that it speaks for the truth, which has an exceptional spiritual basis (Russia Orthodoxy) and the finest moral and material capacities in the world (which Russian TV trumpets rudely and sweetly).
Oddly enough, the west shies away, as if frightened, from the “flying troika” of the Putin regime. The west manifests outrage, it threatens sanctions and imposes them, and then it splits into groups based on national, economic, anti-American and other interests. Western democracy, which has deep philosophical roots and defeated communism, clearly does not know what to do with Russia, and is outplayed by it when it comes to agility and reckless decision-making. And it is also too painful for the west to part with large-scale joint economic projects.
Russia’s future remains a mystery. A new generation will grow up, and it may follow the Belarusian and European path. Or perhaps the strong-arm techniques, bribery, corruption, and ideological emptiness inherited from the Russian intelligentsia will suggest to Russia a different career: the career of western civilization’s perennial antagonist.
But in any case, dear Svetlana, the peaceful uprising in Belarus is a great historical event, and I bow down to the heroines and heroes of your rebellion.
Viktor Yerofeyev is a writer, literary critic, TV presenter, author of the books Russian Beauty, The Good Stalin, The Akimuds, The Pink Mouse, and many others, and a Chevalier of the French Legion Of Honor.
Translated by the Russian Reader
A Statement from Svetlana Alexievich, Nobel Laureate and Chair of Belarusian PEN
Belarusian PEN Centre
September 9, 2020
There is no one left of my friends and associates in the opposition’s Coordination Council. They are all in prison, or they have been thrown out of the country. The last, Maksim Znak, was taken today.
First they seized our country, and now they are seizing the best of us. But hundreds of others will come and fill the places of those who have been taken from our ranks. It is the whole country which has risen up, not just the Coordination Council. I want to say again what I have always said: that we were not attempting to start a coup. We did not want to split the country. We wanted to start a dialogue in society. Lukashenko has said he won’t speak ‘with the street’ – but the streets are filled with hundreds of thousands of people who come out to protest every Sunday, and every day. It isn’t the street, it is the nation.
People are coming out to protest with their small children because they believe they will win.
I also want to address the Russian intelligentsia, to call it by its old name. Why have you remained silent? We hear very few voices supporting us. Why don’t you speak when you can see this proud little nation is being crushed? We are still your brothers.
To my own people, I want to say this: I love you and I am proud of you.
And now there is another unknown person ringing at my door.
Putin’s “Last Autumn”? (Song of the Ordinary Man)
Echo of Moscow
August 28, 2020
I’m an ordinary guy, not lacking in simplicity.
I’m just like him, I’m just like you.
I don’t see the point in talking to me —
It’s the same as talking to yourself.
The are the opening lines from Mike Naumenko’s “Song of the Ordinary Man.” Mike Naumenko died on August 27, 1991, twenty-nine years ago, an anniversary that many remembered, especially since in recent years Mike’s legacy has been held in high esteem, and rightly so. However, I’m sorry to say I won’t be talking about my late friend this time, but about something else entirely. I recalled Mike’s song because I am a one-hundred-percent “ordinary man” in Mike’s sense of the term, someone who has neither inside info nor insights, nor political science tricks up his sleeve, nor political party experience, and besides I am absolutely indifferent to conspiracy theories. At the same time, I am quite interested in what is happening in Russia, and I want to get to the bottom of it without resorting to any bells and whistles except for publicly available information and common sense.
For many months, the popular expert and lonely nightingale known as Valery Solovey has been trying to persuade his audience, weary with uncertainty, that this autumn 1) mass protests of unprecedented power will kick off; 2) the authorities will most likely be unable to cope with this “turbulence,” especially since 3) President Putin, due to “force majeure” circumstances, will hardly be able to be involved in this process and generally has been fading away; 4) although Putin has appointed a successor, there is little chance that the Kremlin’s scenario will be implemented; 5) consequently, we will probably be “living in a different country” by 2022. Needless to say, this all appears quite appetizing (to a person with my anarcho-libertarian tastes).
Because I live abroad permanently, I did not attend Solovey’s private lectures. I was too bashful to shout “Give me the details!” over the phone, so I didn’t think it possible to get into a debate or, on the contrary, celebrate our country’s imminent deliverance from the hated regime. But another dear “talker and troublemaker,” Gennady Gudkov, has just made a similar forecast (in an article entitled “Putin is leaving: the transition has already begun”). Gudkov is super-experienced: he’s an KGB officer, a former MP, and a prominent opposition figure. At the same time, like the “ordinary man” that I am, Gudkov does not rely on secret data from the backstreets of the deep state, instead making his conclusions based on news bulletins. And his conclusions, in short, are that Putin is going to leave the Kremlin, either due to unbearably bad health, or because he is just very tired. Accordingly, the people of Russia are going to be transported from one reality to another like a passenger changing planes.
This, unfortunately, is what I would like to argue with.
First of all, I don’t enjoy regularly watching Putin on screen, but from the bits and pieces I have come across, I wouldn’t conclude that he has physically and/or mentally noticeably thrown in the towel. Sixty-eight is a laid-back age: I am sixty-five, say, but I don’t do sports and fitness, I’m not under the care of doctors, I don’t inject Botox and stem cells, I don’t deny myself any “harmful excesses” (except smoking tobacco), and I feel great. And since when did a ruler’s feeble state affect anything in Russia? Let’s remember dear old Leonid Brezhnev, who could barely move his tongue, the zombie-like Chernenko, and late-period Yeltsin. Secondly, it is absolutely impossible that Putin would voluntarily deign to vacate the throne due to fatigue or anything else. He’s only going out on a gun carriage. In my opinion, it is quite clear: this is Lukashenko’s scenario, not F****ace’s. And we should note that the Reset One doesn’t even have Consanguineous Kolenka to fall back on, while iPhone Boy, the Buddhist, and the Reindeer Herder are . . . Even arguing this point is boring.
Nikolai “Kolenka” Lukashenko (far left) and his father, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, at a meeting “in the situation room of Independence Palace” on August 23, 2020. Screenshot from the Telegram channel Pul Pervogo. Courtesy of Mediazona Belarus
Nor do I think that the predictions of mighty grassroots turbulence are more realistic. Why should I? Russians have learned to put up with poverty, and empty store shelves, and “elections,” and the riot police. Russians who haven’t learned to put with these things have left the country and will continue to leave it: as many who can get out will get out as soon as the quarantine is lifted. What happened on Maidan and is happening in Belarus is regarded by the majority of the Russian populace as a nightmare, while the minority sees it as a miracle, an impossible miracle. The only obvious reaction to the events in Belarus has been on the darned social networks. In tiny Lithuania, fifty thousand people turned out for a rally of solidarity with the rebellious people of Belarus; in Tallinn, two or three thousand people lined up in a chain; in Moscow, a couple of hundred young people protested outside the Belarusian embassy on Maroseyka, most of them Belarusian nationals. And what about the Russian city of Khabarovsk? Everyone is, like, amazed at the resilience of the protesters (for the time being it’s as if they’re talking to a brick wall), but only solo picketers come out in support of them in other parts of Russia. Or have I fallen behind the times in my own little corner of Europe, and it’s just the good weather that is to blame for everything? And in the autumn Russians are going to cut loose and go bonkers?
This is how Mike’s song ends:
If you ask me what the moral is,
I will turn my gaze into the misty distance
And I’ll tell you: I’m sorry,
But, by God, I don’t know what the moral is.
We live the way we lived before,
And we’ll live that way until we die,
And if we live like this,
That means that’s how we should live!
Mike always spat out the last line with fury. I don’t know whether this was the desperate rage of a stoic or the impotent rage of a fatalist . . . Let’s hope, in any case, that I’m wrong.
Artemy Troitsky is a well-known Russian journalist and musical critic. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up. Thanks to TL, VL, NK, and AR for helping me to identify the Belarusian and Russian supervillains mentioned at the end of the fifth paragraph. Translated by the Russian Reader
August 23, 2020
bringing the girlfriend to the square at long last
in the morning the country’s chief warmonger cried foul
let them call it genocide of our own people
first soldiers should fire into the air
and then shoot to kill
walking down the boulevard hand in hand
like last time
and suddenly on the square breathing
the neighbors have the keys
the dog has water and enough biscuits for a whole day
going through the courtyard
where a reckless shadow falls
coming out on the street
where holy humdrum trudges
maybe out of everyone these two
are moving into our madness
to be shot
it’s not too late
nausea panic attack
of course you can always turn
eyes and eyes and eyes
all is lost boss we are going to win
all is lost boss we are going to win
who turns primitive blind fear
into freedom and happiness
who are these twenty people
who annoy the dictator so much
why do they dance before his eyes
Lukashenko’s evacuation from the palace
has begun right this very minute
Lukashenko is leaving the palace
right this very second
no the dragon has returned
a machine gun in its claw
all is lost boss we are going to win
we are very tired
we are going to win
The references to “drunken juveniles, hoodlums,” etc., allude to claims by President Lukashenko that only such marginal elements are behind the nationwide popular protests in Belarus. Thanks to many friends on Facebook for the heads-up. // TRR
Learn more about the events in Belarus:
“Video footage shared on social media showed opposition figure Maria Kolesnikova joining the female protesters in Minsk, holding a bunch of flowers.” Courtesy of BBC
Belarus: ‘Without organisation, without struggle, the oppressive unfreedom will never disappear’
People and Nature
August 14, 2020
The revolt against the authoritarian regime in Belarus has spread from the city streets, where thousands of protesters have been battling with police, to the workplaces. On Thursday 13 August workers at large enterprises – including chemical and food factories, and construction and transport companies – downed tools in protest at the monstrous surge of police violence and arrests. People are quitting the state-supported trade unions. Films and photographs of workers’ meetings, at which participants denounced police violence and the fraudulent election results, are spreading like wildfire across social media. Womens’ organisations are taking to the streets – against a president whose fury was provoked, especially, by the support for Svetlana Tikhonovskaya, the woman who dared to stand against him for election. Here are two appeals by independent trade union organisations that were published yesterday. Please share and re-post. GL.
The authorities’ actions – in falsifying the election results, breaching human rights, instigating mass arrests and beatings of peaceful protesters and passers-by across the whole country – could all lead to irreversible consequences for Belarus. We are hearing ever-louder announcements from the European Union and the United States, that they are ready to impose various sanctions, including economic ones, on Belarus as a state that is trampling cynically on the rights and freedoms of its citizens.
A factory meeting in Minsk earlier this week
Closure of the western markets for our products and services would be a catastrophe for our enterprises. The impact of this would be borne first of all by ordinary workers, who are in a bad enough situation already.
To defend ourselves and our freedom of action at the workplace, we propose the following pattern of simple collective actions:
1. Quit the state’s social organisations, such as the [government-supported] Federation of Belarusian Trade Unions, [the pro-presidential civic-political association] Belaya Rus and the Belarusian Republican Union of Youth. If you remain in these organisations, you are actually confirming your support for [president] Aleksandr Lukashenko.
2. Join the independent trade unions at your workplace, and if there is not one, organise it yourself.
3. Organise a mass meeting, declare “no confidence” in the results of the elections, and send it to the Central Electoral Commission. Collect the signatures of those who did not vote for Lukashenko.
4. Present demands to the management of your workplace, and the local authorities, for the cessation of aggression and violence on the part of the security services; for guarantees of safety for the enterprises’ workers and their families; of a guarantee that no-one will be dismissed on account of being seized [by the police] on the streets.
5. Record any mass meetings and demands in minutes; record videos; take photos and send this material to independent media.
In unity there is strength!
In solidarity, Maksim Poznyakov, president of the Belarusian Independent Trade Union.
Belarusian Independent Trade Union contact details: Telephone.+375 17 424 18 80. Fax. +375 17 424 18 90. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Belarus is in the grip of a protest movement … and now many people are demanding that the factories be stopped, in order to stop police violence. But that is just the start.
We don’t just need a one-off strike for free elections. We need an organisation, that will rouse workers every time that the manager or boss “loses the plot”. All of us spend most of the day at our workplaces, and it is from the situation there, from the fear of losing our jobs, that the most oppressive unfreedom grows among us.
We need effective organisations of working people, constantly active, and independent of the authorities and the owners of companies.
Furthermore, such organisations are needed not only at the gigantic state-controlled industrial enterprises. Today the majority of Belarusians already work in the private sector, and the situation there is often no better than at the state-owned workplaces. And those private bosses, no less than the state enterprises, are “sponsors of the system”.
We hear about these issues less often, because there is not a single businessman who would want an organisation in his enterprise that could stop him feeding his appetites. But without organisation by working people, and without struggle in the private sector, that feeling of oppressive unfreedom that is suffered by most Belarusians will never disappear.
What we are fighting for:
►The democratisation of the political system;
►The immediate release of those who have been detained without cause at demonstrations;
►A ban on the privatisation of enterprises;
►No job losses;
►Abolition of Decree no. 3 “on the prevention of social parasitism”;
►A ban on fines and the cancellation of bonuses [in workplaces];
►Abolition of the contract [labour] system;
►Expansion of social welfare provision;
►No to the pension reform;
►For trade unions that stand up for our rights.
What to do:
Meet up with your colleagues outside of work time. Organise chats on social media and messaging networks. Work out which departments could most effectively stop production or the provision of services by striking. Join up with our resources, and at the right moment be ready to go on strike. (14 August 2020.)
■ Londoners! There’s a picket at the Belarusian embassy tomorrow (Saturday).
Some social media clips
■ Film of a mass meeting at Grodnozhilstroya, a construction company. The chair asks who has voted for Lukashenko, “don’t be shy”, a handful raise their hands. He asks who voted against, an overwhelming cheer goes up. Posted on Facebook.
■ Film of a mass meeting at the huge Minsk automobile factory (MAZ). The crowd shouts “[Lukashenko] Go!” and “honest elections!”. Posted on Facebook by Boris Kravchenko, a Russian trade union official.
■ Medical staff demonstrating in Minsk, as reported by Current Time TV. Those interviewed say they are protesting at the appalling character of the wounds inflicted on patients by the security forces.
■ A film circulating widely on Russian social media. A police officer, completely unprovoked and without warning, smashes the windscreen of a passing car. The elderly driver gets up to complain and is beaten by five officers, in broad daylight, and arrested. Those filming the incident are exclaiming “bandits! fascists!”.
Thanks to Gabriel Levy for sending this to me and graciously permitting me to repost it here. // TRR
How many Belaruses would fit into Mother Russia? Eighty-three! And yet, as Ivan Davydov argues, the current Russian regime is a “failed police state,” unlike the Belarusian regime. Neither fish nor fowl (although most certainly foul), Putin and his vassals have tanked their country’s economy while also signally failing to save people’s lives, nor have they been able to conjure away the coronavirus pandemic (rhetorically, if not in reality) as successfully as their frenemy the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko. Image courtesy of Wikipedia
My apartment looks onto the Yauza River and the park on the shore. In peacetime, there are crowds of people strolling there when the weather is good. And lots of shishkebabers, who are famously to blame for all our troubles.
For more than a month now, I have been locked up like all law–abiding Russians, making only occasional trips out of the house on urgent business. I watch the world mostly from my balcony, and my world has narrowed to the size of this selfsame park.
Going to parks has been prohibited in Moscow by a special decree of the city’s all-powerful mayor. In parks, the coronavirus is particularly brutal, tracking down rare passersby, lonely morning jogging enthusiasts, and mothers with children, attacking and devouring them. On construction sites, on the contrary, the virus is weak and cowardly: it is afraid of construction workers, whom it does not touch.
Parks are a different matter.
The irresponsible residents of my neighborhood would still go to the park. Not in droves, as was the case before, no. They would go in small groups, as families, apparently. Joggers occasionally popped up, and bicyclists flashed by. Children made their way to the playgrounds (which were also closed, of course). In other words, they violated the mayor’s wise orders.
To put a stop to this unbridled lawlessness, police patrols would come to the park. The guardians of law and order would park their car on a hillock and stand around smoking and watching people walking. Once, when it was particularly cold, wet snow was pouring down, and only a lone madman was sitting on a bench, they went up to the madman and forced him to sign some papers.
And once they went down to the park and fed the ducks, pointedly ignoring the people walking around, before returning to their car. Oh yes, and a couple of times they shouted into a megaphone about the fact that going to parks was temporarily prohibited, and that citizens should look out for themselves and their loved ones.
I will explain later what this pastoral sketch was all about, but in the meantime let us look through the window at our neighbor to the west. It is a fascinating story.
A Wonderful Neighbor
While the rest of the world has been in quarantine, Alexander Lukashenko has gained fame as a maestro of fiery speeches and colorful aphorisms. He has suggested treating the coronavirus with vodka, a bath, and field work. He has advised Belarusians who have lost their jobs to find a job and get to work. (It’s brilliant, really, and simple, like all brilliant solutions.) He advised overly light-minded men to be patient and not to mix with other men’s women for a while. Lukashenko is a president with real gusto, not a president who talks about ancient battles with the Polovtsy from his bunker.
To the frenzied delight of Russian jingoists, Lukashenko held a parade on May 9 [Victory Day], attracting crowds of people, including the elderly. And the very elderly—veterans, in fact. But that was only half the trouble. He also said that after the parade, the statistics on the incidence of pneumonia had gone down. He confessed (he’s an honest man) that he had feared an increase in the incidence of pneumonia, but it didn’t happen. “Well, what did we end up with? There has been a significant reduction in pneumonia in Minsk: it dropped by half yesterday. And I made the sign of the cross yesterday: God grant that we will continue giving hell to pneumonia like this.” Fresh air, he said, helps a lot.
And if Lukashenko had wanted, he could have said that people who died from the coronavirus had begun resurrecting after the parade. (As of May 12, according to the official statistics, 142 people in Belarus had died from the coronavirus.) Why? Because he can, that’s why. He can stamp out any protest. He can ignore the reports from the doctors.
It’s not even the Swedish model. The Swedish model, whose success is a matter of debate (a debate we will have later) stipulates that big public events not be held, and citizens behave responsibly. The Belarusian model assumes that there are no citizens. There is a populace that absolutely obeys the decisions of the supreme leader. Happily for us, the new virus is not the medieval black death: clearly, the country will not die off if you purposely avoid imposing a quarantine in order to save the economy. The Belarusian president made his choice by deliberately deciding to sacrifice a certain (non-essential) number of inhabitants, who cannot be saved by vodka or field work.
And after Vladimir Putin announced a “phased exit” from the semi-imposed non-quarantine, Lukashenko condescendingly praised his junior comrade, saying that Russia had followed the Belarusian path.
The Russian Miracle
But in fact, Russia has its own special path. The “non-working weeks” battered the economy considerably, but it is questionable whether they were able to protect residents. When the quarantine was imposed, there were very few cases. When the government started lifting the quarantine, Russia shot up to second place worldwide in the number of infected people.
Discussing the reliability of Russian statistics is a risky business: nowadays, the prosecutor’s office does not see much difference between well-founded criticism and “spreading fake news” about the coronavirus. But we will not make any arguments, we will just note what respected officials and politicians have been saying.
On May 12, Anna Popova, the head of [Russian federal consumer watchdog] Rospotrebnadzor, said that 28.4% of people identified in Russia as infected with the coronavirus were hospitalized. At the time, the total number of people identified as infected was around 230,000; a simple mathematical calculation gives us approximately 65,000 people in hospitals. (In fact, the real figure is another ten thousand less, since we are not taking into account the people who have recovered). But the next day, Health Minister Mikhail Murashko said at a cabinet meeting that there were more than 100,000 Russians hospitalized with the coronavirus. You would agree that all this makes it seem that our government is surprisingly footless and fancy-free with statistics, even with their own official statistics, with statistics intended for the public.
On May 13, the Moscow Health Department reported that 60% of those who died with a diagnosed coronavirus had not been included in the coronavirus fatality statistics for capital, because they had died from “obvious alternative causes.” The governor of Petersburg also reported that there had been a spike in the incidence of pneumonia in the city: the indicators were “five and a half times higher than the average.” Since the first of March, 694 residents of Petersburg have died from pneumonia, and 63 from the coronavirus.
Perhaps this is the reason for the Russian miracle of rather low mortality rates from the coronavirus infection. Especially if you remember that Russia is not only made up of capital districts and metropolitan areas, that in the regions, as a rule, all or almost all media outlets are controlled by the local administrations, and it is even easier for them to turn statistics from an enemy into an ally.
And why did the head honcho announce the end of the “non-working weeks”? Well, it’s not so hard to turn a terrible virus into a non-scary one. It’s like with elections: what matters is not what really happened, but who counts the votes and how they count them.
Amulets for MPs
But what’s really going on? In fact, our high officials are afraid, and they are trying to protect themselves by turning the nightmare into a joke and not standing on ceremony with the public. Saving your own life is more important than standing on ceremony.
On May 13, Igor Molyakov, an MP from A Just Russia, asked State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin why some of their colleagues were coming to sessions of parliament not wearing their MP pins, as required by law, but wearing quite different pins featuring a white cross on a black background. Molyakov added that he was a dog breeder himself and would like to know whether it would be possible for him to wear the pin of his kennel club instead of the Russian tricolor on his lapel.
Volodin’s answer, I hope, will go down in the annals: “Let’s ask the people who are wearing these pins, but as far as my colleagues have told me, they are special devices for repelling the virus.”
I wouldn’t be surprised if, one day soon, MPs ran naked around the State Duma building on Okhotny Ryad banging on pots: this method of fighting pestilence has been described by anthropologists. And we can only pray that no one tells them that fresh human flesh, for example, staves off the virus. They would believe them.
Dmitry Peskov, the president’s press Secretary, has fallen ill. And now he remembers regretfully the “virus blocker” that he wore and then stopped wearing after he was mocked in the press.
Here it is important to understand that the people wearing the miracle badges and warding off the virus with life-giving white crosses are the same people who explain why “phasing out restrictions” at the peak of the epidemic is justified, and make decisions that affect our lives.
Of course, they themselves get sick and get infected, but let’s not forget that we will be treated in slightly different hospitals, if push comes to shove.
It’s hard to stop. For dessert we have another intellectual delicacy, this time from Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov. He has explained why masks cannot be distributed for free in the city during the mandatory mask regime: “Yesterday, we adopted a resolution not to give out free masks, but to hand out money. There are a lot of people in our city, both visitors and non-visitors, and people from other regions. How should we should distribute these masks? We should make you show your passport and ask where you are registered.”
The virus, you understand, asks to see people’s residence permits and attacks only native Petersburgers. It presents no danger to out-of-towners and migrant workers, nor can they themselves infect anyone. Governor Beglov is in charge of Russia’s second largest city, the home to millions of people and a “pneumonia outbreak” that, of course, has nothing to do with the coronavirus.
By the way, Beglov’s “money” amounts to 800 rubles [approx. 10 euros] for pensioners and members of large families to buy masks.
A Failed Police State
But let’s go back to my park. I started with it to illustrate the fact that the police state in Russia has failed. There has been a lot of overkill, and people all over Russia have been pretty annoyed, but the police have been unable to ensure compliance with the imposed restrictions. They are good at breaking up peaceful protest rallies, but bad at everything else.
The government had a choice. It could have engaged the citizenry in dialogue, rejected intimidation in favor of education, sought compromises where possible, and, of course, provided direct financial assistance to those forced to stay at home. It could have made Russia’s citizens its allies instead of making them the targets of an incoherent police dragnet. To do this, however, it would have had to see the populace as citizens, but we have a big problem with this sort of thing in Russia.
The government could have done it, but it was impossible—forbidden—for the government to do it.
It would have been possible to issue endless prohibitions of varying degrees of savagery and to force the population to comply with them using an old and proven argument—the police billy club. But that didn’t work out either. It turns out that there is no police state in these parts. There is a useless system of governance that starts to crumble at the first serious test. Ensconced in his bunker, the head honcho denounces the immorality of the Spartans, while his subordinates are decked out in life-saving amulets, expecting that by summer everything will have somehow worked itself out.
The reason they terminated the “non-working weeks” is that they simply could not enforce the lockdown measures. And they decided to rescue the economy since they had been unable to save people. But there was a tiny twist: they did this only after after the economy had been dealt a serious blow.
The Russian state makes war on Russian citizens as if they were the main threat when, in fact, there are no real threats to it, but it simply vanishes when there is a real threat. This is exactly what Putin has built over the last twenty years. This is the whole “Russian federal system”—terrifying, unsinkable, tending to totalitarianism. It’s a poor excuse for a Belarus. It’s a slightly rotten Belarus.
Take care of yourselves and help each other. No one else is going to help us.
Translated by the Russian Reader
Pavel Sheremet, Belarussian Journalist
The Pensive Quill
July 22, 2016
Ukraine’s political life has been shaken by the car-bomb killing of Pavel Sheremet, the Belarussian journalist, in Kyiv on Wednesday – a brazen, brutal murder in broad daylight in the city centre.
Sheremet was an extraordinarily talented and honest reporter, which is why many people with power and money hated him. He was jailed, beaten and harassed by the authorities in Belarus; worked on Russian state television and then quit in protest at its one-sided coverage of Ukraine; and moved to Ukraine where he worked on television and on Ukrainska Pravda, the largest news web site.
Sheremet graduated from a prestigious university of international economic relations, right after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. “My classmates became oligarchs, ministers, diplomats – and, true, some of them ended up in jail. When I moved from a bank job to work on TV, everyone said I was mad, but I never regretted it”, Sheremet said in an article, published by his colleagues this morning, entitled “Every Day As If It’s the Last: Rules for Living”.
The early 1990s was a golden era for journalism in the former Soviet Union. Sheremet hosted a popular news analysis programme on Belarussian state TV that was banned by president Aleksandr Lukashenko in 1995. Sheremet switched to Russia’s main state channel, ORT, as the head of its bureau in Minsk.
As Lukashenko’s regime descended into authoritarianism, Sheremet became a prominent dissident and spokesman for the Charter 97 human rights organisation. In 1997 his classic reportage on smuggling across the Belarussian-Lithuanian border earned him a two-year prison sentence. After serving three months he moved to Moscow.
The spirit of media freedom was still alive and kicking in Russia. Sheremet investigated the disappearances of Belarussian dissidents, some of them his close friends, and made cutting-edge documentaries, including one about the Chechen war. He set up Belaruspartizan.org, the most effective Belarus-focused dissident web resource. He won the International Press Freedom Award in 1998, the first of a string of such prizes.
“Pavel was a really rare bird among post-Soviet journalists”, wrote the Russian journalist Konstantin Eggert in one of a host of tributes. “He very well understood Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, and maybe because of that he was a European – and not a Russian, Ukrainian or Belarussian – journalist.”
From 2010, Sheremet began to spend more time in Ukraine, and then moved to Kyiv, continuing to work for the main Russian state TV channel (ORT, later renamed Channel One). But in July 2014, four months after the overthrow of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich by the Maidan movement, Sheremet resigned from the station, complaining that those who contradict Kremlin propaganda were “hounded”.
“The TV still gives the impression that nothing has happened. That irritates people”, Sheremet wrote in the article published today. “The life people actually live is one thing, and then they turn on the TV and see a completely different picture. I quit [Channel One] because it became impossible to work there and preserve my reputation and good name.”
The news web site Ukrainska Pravda, where Sheremet worked for the last couple of years, along with broadcasting commitments, was his natural home. The site was set up in 2000 by Gyorgy Gongadze, another fearless child of the post-Soviet boom in free speech.
In September 2000, Gongadze was kidnapped and murdered by three police officers, who were many years later jailed for their part in the crime. The killers were clearly acting on the orders of elements in Ukraine’s political elite – although the connections beyond the internal affairs minister of the time, Yuri Kravchenko, who also died violently, were never completely clear.
The Gongadze case became a watchword for democratic rights in Ukraine. Rising to the challenge of censorship by thuggery, Gongadze’s colleagues turned Ukrainska Pravda from a penniless blog into the country’s prime web-based news resource, a position it enjoys to this day. Its news output is underpinned by comprehensive reporting on Ukraine’s oligarchs and the corruption that surrounds them. After the Maidan events two Ukrainska Pravda journalists, Sergei Leshchenko and Mustafa Nayyem, entered parliament on an anti-corruption platform.
Sheremet fitted in well in this company. The car he was driving when killed belonged to Aliona Prytula, Ukrainska Pravda’s co-founder and owner. The police at first suspected she may have been the intended victim, although on Thursday it was reported that investigating officers now thought the attack was most likely targeted at Sheremet himself.
There is no guarantee that we will ever know who killed Pavel Sheremet, and who ordered the killing. In the cases of many of the journalists murdered in former Soviet countries in the past 25 years, the trail of infamy that led to their deaths has been successfully covered up, often with the help of law enforcement agencies.
All we can be sure of is that the military conflict unleashed in eastern Ukraine over the past two years makes murders such as Sheremet’s more likely.
The complex clashes in eastern Ukraine that followed from Yanukovich’s removal were turned into war by the influx of huge quantities of military hardware and volunteer fighters from Russia, an influx for which the Russian state bears the main responsibility. Human life has been cheapened; more than 9400 people have died; human rights organisations now routinely issue reports (the most recent from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch on 21 July) of torture, disappearances and arbitrary detentions.
All this has ratcheted up the danger to people like Pavel Sheremet, who so well understand the dynamics of such conflicts, and could explain them with frankness and good humour to their fellow citizens who don’t believe most of what the media tells them. (Pavel’s recent blog posts ladled sarcasm and wit on Russian war propagandists, Ukrainian business oligarchs and Ukrainian “volunteers”-turned-criminals alike, leaving us none the wiser about which of his enemies might have been involved in his killing.)
I have been travelling to Russia and Ukraine for the past 25 years as a journalist and a researcher. It’s easy for me: I have a British passport in my pocket and can leave at any time. For many like Sheremet, who in recent years I counted not just as a colleague but as a good friend, there is no such protection.
My thanks to Simon Pirani for his permission to reproduce this obituary here. TRR