European studies blog

09 August 2021

Documenting the Belarus Protests, 2020-2021

In August 2020, Belarus was catapulted onto the world stage as a wave of anti-government protests swept the country. Although demonstrations had begun in May after President Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994, declared his intention to run in the 2020 elections, the protests intensified when the first official results were announced on the evening of 9 August.

Thousands of protesters were arrested in the months that followed, with human rights organisations documenting hundreds of cases of torture and ill-treatment of detainees. Local and international journalists covering the events were also arrested and/or stripped of accreditation, internet access was periodically blocked, and an increasing number of books and media channels have been labelled ‘extremist’.

A year on from the elections, this blog post brings together accounts, reflections and creative responses to the protests. Published outside of Belarus – in Germany, Poland and Sweden – they include diaries, photographs, poems, essays and a play.

Photo from Ia vykhozhu, Plakaty belorusskikh protestov showing a large number of protesters holding flags and placards

L. Lirs, Ia vykhozhu, Plakaty belorusskikh protestov (Warsaw, 2021). Awaiting shelfmark

In November 2020, 31-year old artist Raman Bandarenka died in police custody after being arrested at an anti-government protest in Minsk. His last known words, Ia vykhozhu (‘I’m going out’), which he posted on Telegram, became a rallying cry for thousands of protestors in the days following his death. Those words also form the title of this book, which brings together over 350 photographs of posters from the 2020 protests in Belarus. Bold, direct, heartfelt and at times humorous, the posters speak to the creativity of the protestors and the range of issues they are fighting for.

Cover of Plays International & Europe

Andrei Kureichik, ‘Insulted. Belarus’, translated by John Freedman, in Plays International & Europe, Vol. 35, Nos 9-12 (Winter 2020), pp. 30-45. P.903/1085

Written by leading Belarusian playwright Andrei Kureichik, Insulted. Belarus (Обиженные. Беларусь(сия)) is a short, powerful play focusing on the days immediately before and after the contested presidential elections on 9 August. Through a series of monologues, we are introduced to seven fictional and non-fictional characters: Oldster, based on long-time president Alexander Lukashenko; Novice, representing opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (Svetlana Tikhanovskaya); Youth, Lukashenko’s video-game obsessed teenage son Kolya; Cheerful, a fictional character who believes in the power of the Universe; Raptor, a storm trooper engaged to Cheerful’s sister; Corpse, a 26-year-old football fan who detests the old regime; and Mentor, a middle-aged teacher involved in rigging the elections.

Kureichik contacted translator John Freedman in early September 2020 with a request to translate the play into English and to bring it to the attention of an international audience. Nearly a year later, it has been translated into more than 20 languages and performed (as readings, productions, videos and films) in more than 25 countries, including the US, Nigeria, Slovakia, Turkey and the UK. Freedman’s English translation was published in the Winter 2020 issue of Plays International & Europe.

You can watch a reading of Insulted. Belarus in English here

Cover of BELARUS! Das weibliche Gesicht der Revolution

BELARUS! Das weibliche Gesicht der Revolution (Berlin, 2020). YF.2021.a.8763

Much has been written about the central role women have played in the Belarus protests, from opposition figures Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Maria Kalesnikava to the defiant images of women, dressed in white and holding flowers, standing against police brutality.

Published in Germany in late 2020, this book (‘Belarus! The Female Face of the Revolution’) brings together analytical and journalistic texts, poems, essays, and documents by women. Among them are the poets and translators Iulia Tsimafeeva (listen to her contribution ‘My European Poem’) and Volʹha Hapeeva, artist and activist Marina Naprushkina, and Irina Solomatina, Head of the Council for the Belarusian Organization of Working Women and co-author of a 2015 book on women’s activism in Belarus.

Cover of Die Revolution hat ein weibliches Gesicht. Der Fall Belarus

Another of the contributors, the philosopher Olga Shparaga, has written a separate book on the topic of women’s participation in the protests, Die Revolution hat ein weibliches Gesicht. Der Fall Belarus (‘The Revolution has a Female Face. The Case of Belarus’).

Parallels have of course been drawn with Nobel Prize-winning writer Svetlana Alexievich’s 1985 work The Unwomanly Face of War, which documents the experience and memories of Soviet women who fought during the Second World War. As Shparaga has pointed out, however, a key difference is that women have become visible in Belarus through the protests.

Alexievich recently announced that she is also focusing on the role of women in the pro-democracy movement in Belarus for her new book.

Cover of Dagar i Belarus

Julia Tsimafejeva, Dagar i Belarus (Stockholm, 2020). Awaiting shelfmark

Iulia Tsimafeeva (Julia Tsimafejeva) also kept a diary during the protests, which was translated into Swedish and published at the end of 2020 as Dagar i Belarus (‘Days in Belarus’). Extracts from Tsimafeeva’s diary appeared in English in the Financial Times, including a passage in which she describes preparing to join the protests:

When we leave the house, we go prepared. First, I dress carefully, in case I end up spending a night or two in the detention centre. Second, I intensively water dozens of my plants. Third, we leave our cat enough food for a few days. (One of my friends says that her cat has become fat with all these Sunday rallies.) Fourth, we take passports and a bottle of water. It’s important, too, to clear the history of your mobile phone, as these are often checked in the detention centres.

Now ready, our small family brigade goes out into the street, into the unknown.

Tsimafeeva’s third poetry collection, ROT, was published in Belarus in July 2020, YF.2021.a.4086.

Cover of Die weißen Tage von Minsk with a photo of Vitali Alekseenok

Vitali Alekseenok, Die weißen Tage von Minsk (Frankfurt am Main, 2021). YF.2021.a.6322

Vitali Alekseenok, the musical director of the Abaco Orchestra of the University of Munich, organised protests in Germany last summer before returning to Belarus in August to support the protest movement there. The conductor documented his experiences during the six weeks he spent in Minsk in a book entitled Die weißen Tage von Minsk (‘The White Days of Minsk’).

A Deutsche Welle article commented that Alekseenok’s book ‘reads like a travelogue dotted throughout with matter-of-fact impressions of war. It combines background information about the country and its people into a kind of "How-to-Belarus" for those who know little about the country and its present problems’. 

Katie McElvanney, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections 

Publications and resources relating to the protests in Belarus:

Vitali Alekseenok, Die weißen Tage von Minsk (Frankfurt am Main, 2021). YF.2021.a.6322

Edyta Banaszkiewicz, Marsz Białorusi Sierpień–grudzień 2020 (Warsaw, 2021). Awaiting shelfmark

Alice Bota, Die Frauen von Belarus. Von Revolution, Mut und dem Drang nach Freiheit (Berlin, 2021). Awaiting shelfmark

Iya Kiva, My prokynemos' inshymy (Chernivtsi, 2021). Awaiting shelfmark 

Andrei Kureichik, ‘Insulted. Belarus’, translated by John Freedman, in Plays International & Europe, Vol. 35, Nos 9-12 (Winter 2020), pp. 30-45. P.903/1085

L. Lirs, Ia vykhozhu, Plakaty belorusskikh protestov (Warsaw, 2021). Awaiting shelfmark

Olga Shparaga, Die Revolution hat ein weibliches Gesicht. Der Fall Belarus (Berlin, 2021). Awaiting shelfmark

Maria Stepanova, Brev till en lycklig tid (Stockholm, 2021). Awaiting shelfmark. Stepanova’s essay is in part a response to the open letter written by Svetlana Alexievich in September 2020. 

Dmitrij Strotsev, Belarus: motståndets konst (Stockholm, 2021). Awaiting shelfmark. This essay was originally published in Russian by COLTA.RU in December 2020. 

Julia Tsimafejeva, Dagar i Belarus (Stockholm, 2020). Awaiting shelfmark

BELARUS! Das weibliche Gesicht der Revolution (Berlin, 2020). YF.2021.a.8763

I’m a Journalist. Why Are You Beating Me? Stories of repressed Belarusian journalists (Open Access e-book published by the Polish Association of Journalists. Available in Polish, English, Belarusian, Russian and Ukrainian) 

‘The Sociology of Protest in Belarus-Social Dynamics, Ideological Shifts and Demand for Change’, Slavic Review, vol. 80 (Spring 2021) 

The British Library has contributed to a collaborative web archiving project to document the events in Belarus 

Further reading:

Katerina Andreeva, and Ihor' Il'iash, Belorusskii Donbass (Khar'kov, 2020). Awaiting shelfmark

Stephen White, Elena Korosteleva and John Löwenhardt (eds.), Postcommunist Belarus (Lanham, MD, 2005). m05/.18747

Andrew Wilson, Belarus: The last dictatorship in Europe (New Haven, Conn.; London, 2011). YC.2011.a.14827 (New edition March 2021, Belarus: The Last European Dictatorship. Awaiting shelfmark)

N.B. Many of the books featured in this blog post have recently been acquired by the British Library and are not yet available to Readers. We will update the shelfmark information as soon as they are ready to order.

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