Minsk in January and Minsk in March are two completely different cities. Back then, Minsk was surviving on hope. Now Minsk has been inundated with despair and consternation.
Court proceedings are underway, while searches, interrogations and the expulsion of students continue. But the most important thing is the universal and destructive distrust.
The opposition has moved from attempting to consolidate their actions to infighting about who was released from detention centres and how. Belarusian news reports have switched from “someone is being interrogated” to “what does this person think about the release of that person.” Old scores are being recalled and offenders are suspected of cooperating with the KGB.
It should be noted that presidential candidate Ales Mikhalevich, who was released after signing a written pledge not to leave the country before doing exactly that, was a kind of catalyst in this whole process. Mikhalevich’s statement on torture was essential to the family members of the “Decembrists”, demonstrators who took to the streets in December 2010 to protest presidential election results. But there were only a few of these relatives. Mikhalevich’s admission, meanwhile, that he was only released after agreeing to become an outside KGB agent became the opposition’s main theme. In addition to Mikhalevich, ten of 38 defendants were released after signing a written pledge not to leave the country. Why? Are they agents, too? Moreover, there is another list of twelve suspects and they all remain free. Two former presidential candidates, Grigory Kostusev, who has already managed to issue a vague statement about those who remain in custody, and Dmitry Uss, have aroused particular attention. But once Mikhalevich fled the country, KGB officials took Uss’s passport to avoid a similar situation, which somewhat rehabilitated him in the eyes of the opposition.
Prior to the start of court proceedings, Minsk had been hoping for a miracle with international roots. All illusions were dispelled by the first sentence in which activist Vitaly Parfenkov was given four years in a maximum-security penal colony. It became clear that the verdicts would be issued harshly and without proof. But even at the level of the court proceedings, it was obvious that the charges were flawed and therefore operational warfare would continue.
This only served to heat up the spy mania. The perception of being “in the same boat” vanished. As one young oppositionist said, “We’ve all been put in the meat grinder now and some will only get out at the expense of others.” The two latest and relatively soft sentences – a fine for Russians and three-years forced labour for businessman Dmitry Medved – did nothing to ease the opposition’s mood; this slap-on-the-wrist punishment can be attributed to the Russian embassy’s behind-the-scenes strategy. It appears the only ones who have maintained a quiet dignity are the human rights defenders, who protect everyone and are afraid for everyone, as well as the mothers and wives who are close to those in custody.
There has been nothing but bad news. The death of Svetlana Naumova had a particularly devastating effect on Minsk residents and served as another twist in Belarus’s indifferent tool of repression.
Naumova died 10 March and was buried 11 March. A PhD in History, a teacher and a political analyst, she was the brains behind the “Speak the Truth” campaign led by Vladimir Neklyaev. The campaign was launched a year ago and tried it make it possible to have real feedback between the people and government bureaucrats. Activists distributed postcards with the addresses of the Prosecutor General’s office and the presidential administration and also arranged legal consultations.
The campaign leader’s were arrested on 17 May and more than 60 searches were conducted on campaign activists and their relatives throughout the country on 18 May. Computer equipment and “financial resources” were seized, including $21,000 from Naumova, who had put this money aside for a kidney transplant.
Svetlana had polycystic disease, a very painful genetic disease. By the time KGB officials burst into her apartment, her kidneys hadn’t been working for eleven months and Svetlana was living between peritoneal dialysis and haemodialysis. Her blood was pumped through a special purifying machine four times a day. All of this cost about $700 per month in addition to medicine as well as painkillers and special food. Svetlana was on a list for a kidney transplant. The operation was supposed to be free, but preparations before and after the operation were expensive and that is why Svetlana had put this money aside.
Svetlana wrote many letters to the KGB asking them to return the money, but they never did. Naumova’s $21,000 was crucial material evidence in the case.
Svetlana herself was a witness.
At first, they called her in for interrogations at the KGB investigation department on the fourth floor of a building with no elevator. When she could no longer walk, the KGB officials came to her home. When she was taken to the hospital, they started coming to the hospital. Svetlana Naumova was last interrogated ten days before her death.
The KGB took pictures of the 300 people who attended her funeral. Not everyone came: bidding farewell to the teacher meant becoming a suspect.
People in Minsk now hate lawyers more than anything else, even KGB officials. After three lawyers who were defending the Decembrists were stripped of their licences and another was kicked out of the bar association, the professional community took the hint and was no longer keen on defending the Decembrists. And it wasn’t just a matter of not being keen on it. Family members can tell 101 stories about how lawyers backed out on the last day before proceedings were to begin, how they didn’t show up to hearings, how they lied that the judge was sick and how they dragged their feet.
After the mother of Oleg Ageyev, a lawyer, was stripped of her licence and the authorities began inquiring about his wife, fear turned into panic.
Statements in newspapers made to reporters were used as a formal excuse for reviewing licences and now lawyers refuse to talk to the press.
I nevertheless managed to speak with the main demonic figure, Alexander Pylchenko, the chairman of the Minsk City Bar Association. Pylchenko said the bar supports the lawyers who had their licenses taken away, including legally, and said that a petition had also been filed against him, which could result in his licence being revoked. In general, he said, “any article is damaging now.”
The city of Korbin, located 300 kilometres outside of Minsk, is a small military town. On a Sunday night, the streets are filled with young working people and fights often break out.
Natasha Radina, the Editor-in-Chief of the Charter’97 website, makes her residence here under a written pledge not to leave the country.
Charter is the most popular independent Internet resource in Belarus. Natasha is 31-years old and has been the editor-in-chief of Charter for eight years. She began her journalism career at the Imya newspaper, headed by editor-in-chief Irina Khalip. At that time, Belarus had dozens of independent newspapers and a few thousand independent journalists. At present, there are no more than a hundred independent journalists in the country and all of them work underground.
There is some meat, potatoes and a cake on the table as well as flowers in the corner of the room. The atmosphere is almost festive; businessmen from Polotsk have come to visit Natasha. They aren’t friends or even acquaintances; they are Charter readers.
Over a cup of coffee, Natasha calmly explains how she went to the square. When she found herself caught between the converging lines of demonstrators and the OMON riot police, she fell down and the latter started to beat her. And then some boy began pulling her up. “He was being beaten yet he was pulling and pulling at my legs, you know?”
Natasha went straight from the square to the Charter office and began writing about the news taking place on the square for the website. At 3am, her mother called and said that the door to Natasha’s apartment had been forced open and people were searching for her. But Natasha continued to write. They came and nabbed her while she was still sitting behind the computer.
The police broke down the door and detained everybody in the office. The other journalists were held for 10-15 days, while Natasha was taken to the KGB detention centre.
There she saw her former boss, Irina Khalip.
“Irina was holding up well,” Natasha said. “But for some reason she was particularly struck by the prison slang. People would yell at her, ‘Take your board!’ (the mattress and pillow used for a cot – editor). And she would reply, ‘I’m sorry, what did you say?’”
There were five people in the holding cell, which was as narrow as a coffin. Radina and Khalip were the political detainees, while the other three were “economic” detainees. Khalip had been given a cot, but the cold rose up from the floor, so Natasha and Ira slept on the plank bed together, side by side. Khalip hadn’t been given any items from the outside for some reason, so Radina just divided hers up in half.
On the third day, when the KGB officials announced that the journalists’ incarceration would be extended, Khalip and Radina started a hunger strike. But the strike didn’t last long, as Radina was taken to another cell and persuaded to end the hunger strike along the way.
“They explained something,” she said.
“Did they tell you about force-feeding?” I asked.
“No, the doctors warned me about that immediately after I arrived: ‘If you starve yourself, we’ll feed you through a tube in your nose.’ They explained something else,” she said.
There wasn’t any space in the new cell, either, and Natasha slept under the bunks. “I was lucky. The bunks were up high,” she said. This was particularly comfortable since, when you’re sleeping in the centre of a jail cell, you have to move your bunk every time someone stands up. This way you get your own personal space, which is a luxury in prison. In addition, people can’t see you through the peephole.
Natasha said the guards would look through the peephole every five to seven minutes. “They literally lived next to our door,” she said. One time the peephole actually fell out of the door from excessive use. “They were frightened and immediately turned out the lights in the cell. Then we could see them even better,” she laughed.
There was a draft coming up from the floor and her appendages began to become inflamed. There was no toilet in the cell and it was humiliating to ask the guards to go, so Natasha started drinking as little as possible.
The sound of electric shocks, dull blows and screams could be heard from the corridor. Natasha surmised that men were being tortured there.
The interrogations were infrequent. A lawyer was supposed to be present during interrogations and that seemed to bother KGB officials. Therefore, they held “conversations” in place of the interrogations. The KGB officials told Natasha that everyone had already forgotten about her. The European Union and Russia had welcomed the new and old president of Belarus and Minsk residents viewed the detained Decembrists as criminals, which they were.
There was no way of verifying this. There were no letters. Natasha later learned that bags of letters had been sent to her. She received only one from her mother. They took the television out of the cell. They were provided only with government newspapers to which a neighbour subscribed. A couple of times it was possible to glean something from them, “So if [journalist] Tatiana Vladimirova has labelled Europe a ‘traitor’ in Respublika newspaper, that means things aren’t quite so smooth and there is a major scandal on the outside.” Soon, however, the government newspapers arrived in the cell with pages torn out. And it was these ripped out pages that gave Natasha hope.
The next time she was taken in for a conversation, Natasha stated that she really liked the KGB detention facility. First, she said, the food was healthy and there was kasha in the mornings. Second of all, she had finally caught up on her sleep. Third, she had time to look after herself; her mother had sent her facial creams and masks. In short, it’s great in prison. Thanks for the excellent detention conditions. “Yeah, well how did you live earlier if you like it here so much?!” the KGB man screamed.
Natasha explained that she learned how to appreciate the small things. She was thrilled when she found the book Gloomy River among the romance novels in the prison library. Boiled beets were served at dinner instead of milk soup, which was great, she said. Nothing hurts today – that means it’s a fantastic day.
“I began to think I would never be let out,” Natasha said. “I was waiting for court and a sentence right away. I took note of everything and learned how to survive in prison. I learned the slang and, for example, that it was forbidden to take anything from strangers because it all cost something.” When Natasha was released after signing a written pledge not to leave the country, she finally got to a computer and drew up four rules, which (I know this) enable many people to survive now: “Don’t feel sorry for yourself”,
“Don’t take anything personally – everything that is happening does not have to do with you personally”, “Live in the moment” and “Make decisions.”
Natasha spent 39 days in the KGB detention centre and didn’t sign an agreement with the KGB or a letter to President Lukashenko.
“When I got out… it was euphoria, sure. And then you get a sense of all this oddness and distrust. Loneliness. My friends had either left the country or were in jail. And I realise that my Minsk has been destroyed, my Minsk doesn’t exist anymore, now it’s a different city for me. And I calmly await my return to jail because I know how to survive there now. But I still haven’t grasped how to survive here and now,” she said.
“I don’t judge Mikhalevich [for fleeing the country], but I wouldn’t have done that myself,” says Sergei Voznyak, one of the organisers of the “Speak the Truth” campaign. “The fate of those in the KGB detention centre depends on my behaviour. It’s like with hostages – if one flees, the chances of the others decline significantly.”
Voznyak was detained on 20 December and signed a written pledge not to leave the country on 29 January.
In order to be released, Sergei penned a letter to Lukashenko. In the letter, Sergei acknowledged Lukashenko’s victory in the elections and asked him to view the Decembrists as defeated political opponents and not as criminals. “I don’t see anything shameful about that letter,” Sergei said. “I’m prepared to stand behind my words.”
Sergei laughs that he wants to sign the thank you book for the KGB detention centre. He learned how to drink tea without sugar, eat food without salt, appreciate the small things and exercise every day since he was “in the same cell with the director of a physical education centre.” He then immediately began talking about how he was prevented from calling his father, who had suffered a heart attack not long before he was arrested, and how he was afraid that the love of his life wouldn’t wait for him to be released. “The KGB officials knew everything about us. Literally everything.”
“I am very grateful to Mikhalevich,” Dasha Atroshchenkova says. “Because Alexander told his father at a meeting on Saturday that ‘everything had stopped’ after Mikhalevich spoke about torture.”
Dasha’s husband, Alexander Atroshchenkov, the press secretary for opposition politician Andrei Sannikov, was sentenced to four years in prison. He is planning to appeal the sentence, which means he will remain in Minsk for now. Dasha is milling around the supermarket searching for “a normal pineapple” for a makeshift celebration in his cell.
Dasha caught a bad cold just before the court proceedings. She had a fever of 38.5 and took lots and lots of antibiotics, as well as Theraflu. She slept all the time from the Theraflu and that was a good thing because she appeared at the court well-rested with a fresh manicure and in her best dress. “Alexander was stunned,” she laughed.
They exchanged glances throughout the entire proceedings. They were looking at each other so much that the convoys yelled at them and told them to cut it out.
Dasha doesn’t “remember too much” about the actual proceedings. She only began to really listen when the arguments began. Each time the lawyer said something obvious – that there hadn’t been any mass unrest, that Atroshchenkov’s guilt hadn’t been proven at all, that the photo evidence to which the prosecutor referred wasn’t even part of the criminal case – Dasha kept her eyes on the judge. And the judge kept her eyes on her.
“It was such a gaze, but what kind? How was she looking at me?” Dasha asks. “I think it’s important to grasp this, but I don’t understand. Was she ashamed? Did she want to see if I could take it? Perhaps, she already knew that she would be giving him a longer sentence than everyone else?”
After the trial, Dasha, a blonde, died her hair black (“I want to feel strong”) and concerned herself with how to smuggle exotic fruits into the KGB detention centre.