Superfluous people

On the anniversary of the protests in Belarus, Novaya gazeta. Europe publishes a photo project dedicated to the participants of the events

In August 2020, Alexander Lukashenko won the sixth election in a row in Belarus with 80.1 per cent of votes in the official elections CEC (Central Election Commission Republic of Belarus). The announcement of the official election results provoked mass protests in Belarus. In the period from 9 to 14 August, about 7,000 people were detained in the country, according to the statistics of the human rights center “Vesna”. “Vesna” also states that the Belarusian law enforcement have resorted to violence against protesters.

They were severely beaten and detained. In Belarus, the rallies started as an act of disagreement with the results of the elections and the actions of the Belarusian security forces. Factory workers, teachers, doctors, actors, scientists, athletes and students took to the streets. People from different workforces instigated strikes. They demanded to hold new elections, recount the votes and end human rights violations. Many people were subjected to pressure in their workplaces. They were asked to change their thoughts and to stop expressing their dissent and discontent openly or else leave their workplace.

Many people continue to be afraid of speaking out about their dissent because reprisals may be launched against them. The reason for this fear is our Soviet past and it is maintained by Alexander Lukashenka’s regime. Despite this fact, many Belarusians stopped being afraid of being fired and began to leave their jobs in protest of the Lukashenka regime and the actions of the Belarusian law enforcement. According to the statistics of the BYSOL — the Belarusian Foundation of Solidarity which was founded by Belarusian activist Andrey Strijak — 1,389 applications of people were processed, who applied for financial assistance after being dismissed. The main aid of the BYSOL Foundation in August was directed at helping people who lost their jobs for political reasons in Belarus.

All people who do not agree with the acting authority are “superfluous people in our country”. This is a quote from the audio record where Belarusian security forces name people who don’t support Lukashenko in Belarus. “Superfluous people” is not only a collection of stories of Belarusians who lost their jobs because of their political beliefs. It is also the story of how any social system works and how the system tries to overcome people’s dissent.

Yuri Giromsky, 28, crusher at “Atlant” factory, Minsk


It was not a revelation to me that elections in Belarus were rigged. I have been interested in the political agenda of our country since 2010. I considered it to be just another election like all those times before when Lukashenko would be re-elected for another presidential term. For the first time I felt that something could change, when I saw huge queues of people on the streets of Minsk in the spring. They were standing there for many hours just to vote in favor of one of the alternative candidates. Then in August, the postelection nightmare began. I couldn’t go to the factory and keep working. The whole of Minsk was buzzing. I repeatedly suggested to colleagues from my factory to go with me and express our dissent to what is happening in Belarus, but I was told, “You did not serve in the army, we will not follow you. You are young people and it is your time to react and change something”. I organized a strike committee at the factory I was working. At that time, 52 people participated in the strike. Then people were intimidated and the strike fell apart. Eventually, I was fired. I was evicted from the factory’s dorm room where I lived with my wife and three-year old daughter.I’d been working at the Security Department since 2018 before the elections in 2020. After August 9, when the election was held in Belarus and everyone saw what was happening in the country, I wrote a statement that I’m going to quit my position. I put it on the Internet. I did not want to work in a state structure that is connected to the Belarusian law enforcement. I disagreed with the actions of my colleagues against civilians who were taking to the streets and protesting. If all my collegues had resigned, the state would not have the resources to maintain the Belarusian law enforcement.

Kristina Drobysh, 30, actress at Yanka Kupala National Academic Theater of Belarus, Minsk


Until August 9, I was probably, like many others in our country, not interested in politics. Then I saw everything that happened after the election in Minsk with my own eyes. It was impossible to continue working at the theatre as we had been working before. We were not able to stay out of what was happening in the country after the elections. I and my collegues were one of the first who recorded a video in which we spoke against the violence and lawlessness in Belarus. After the video was posted on the Internet, our contact information were demanded from the theater’s director, Pavel Latuszko. But he refused to do so. Latuszko was fired. Almost the entire theatre group left right after him. There were 58 of us. Then other people left the theater. For me, it was the only good thing I could do in that situation. After leaving the theatre, I had to leave the State-owned apartment which was assigned to the theatre. Here I had been living with my five-year-old son from the moment of his birth before I was fired.

Varvara Shukh, 26, Court Clerk and Lawyer, Minsk


I was fired in August when I was still on maternity leave. After the election, my husband and I couldn’t sleep all three nights. I think no one slept in Minsk. The town was buzzing with explosions and people being beaten. From friends I learned that near the walls of Okrestina detention centre in Minsk — this place became a symbol of the cruelty of Belarusian security forces — a camp appeared and volunteers were needed here. I didn’t think about it long and immediately became a part of the volunteer team. We helped the prisoners and their relatives. One day journalists came to the Okrestina detention centre to do a story about the volunteer work in a camp near the detention centre. The story with my participation came to BelSat (BelarusianPolish TV channel) on the evening of the same day, and in the morning I got a call from my colleagues. I was told that any comments must be approved by the press service of the Supreme Court of the Republic of Belarus. I was told to write a resignation letter.

Andrey Vitushko, 41, children’s neonatologist and a resuscitator at GU RSPC “Mother and Child”


On August 9 after the election, the Riot Police detained me, my 16 year old son and my Christina in Minsk. When my son was detained, Christina immedietely called me. I was working then, but I went straight to Central Internal Affairs to find out where Miron was supposed to be. I and Christina were going to pick him up from there. There were other people who also wanted to know where their detained relatives were. The next moment, the police van pulled up and we were detained, too. We were not told why we were being detained. This is how we ended up in Okrestina detention centre. My wife has diabetes. She had been off her meds for over a day. I thought they’d let her out right away when they found out that she had diabetes. I will not forget this terrible feeling when I saw her in the hallway from my cell. She was facing the wall and testifying to one of the employees. I was released on the night of August 14. I arrived at work this morning and was immediately called by the director of the clinic where I worked. He asked me: “How did it happen that you got in the wrong place?”. I was told that it was completely my fault, because I went to the wrong place, and that I deserved to serve a few days in prison. A few weeks before my contract was supposed to finish, I was told that I was not going to be renewed.

Anna Severinets, 46, school teacher of Russian language and literature, Smolevichi


I was fired in June when school exams were over. I read in the media that Lukashenko was going to shoot people if they had taken to the streets, as former President Karimov of Uzbekistan had done in Andijan. To be honest I was shocked when I learned about this. How could that be? And how was it possible to tell people that you are going to shoot them if they take to the streets?! Especially if you’re the president. I went to the dacha (summer house) and there, impressed by what I’d heard, wrote a poem about Lukashenka’s son, Kolya. As a teacher and a mother, I’m thinking about his son Kolya very often. The poem was published on my social media page — I have a pretty big audience. The next day, the school director called me and asked why I had written this insulting poem. I didn’t agree with him because I hadn’t insulted Kolya and any linguistic expertise would support that. The poem was a reaction to Lukashenka’s words. Eventually, I was not renewed for a contract that was due to end in August.

Alexander Kurban, 42, miner at JSC “BELARUSKALI”, Soligorsk


I worked at the JSC “Belarus” for about 20 years. After the elections were rigged, peaceful people were harshly beaten and women took to the streets, I realized that the only peaceful way left to confront the Belarusian regime was a strike. Because we have to stop feeding this regime. I knew I would lose my job, my money and my comfortable life. And I lost it. But I couldn’t live with my contradictions either. On October 15, I decided to cuff myself to a mine near the exit. After I was brought to the surface, the doctors examined my mental state as satisfactory, no alcohol in my blood was found and I was taken home. The next day, I announced a strike. My economic and political demands were published on the Internet. Then I was fired. In December, I was forced to leave Belarus.

Andrey Kravchenko, 35, Honored Master of Sports of the Republic of Belarus, Silver Medalist of the Olympic Games, Major of the KGB


My disagreement with the Belarusian authorities began before the elections, when opposition candidates Viktor Babariko and Sergei Tikhanovsky were detained. I was outraged by the results of the election when they announced that Lukashenka had received 80 per cent of the vote. I realized that the election was rigged and we were deceived. Together with other Belarusian athletes, I signed a statement in August where we demanded Lukashenka’s resignation, fair elections, and an end to the violence against the people who were protesting. I was called to the KGB and there I was asked if I was going to change my position. I said no, I wouldn’t. I ended up getting fired. In Belarus, almost all athletes are attached to the security forces. This is an element of interaction and control of athletes. Then I was expelled from the National Team, from the ROTC (Republican Olympic Training Centre). So I was left with nothing. Just because I expressed my civilian position. Under Belarusian law, I have the right to do so. But not, if everyone’s afraid of change. It’s time to wake up.

Vadim Vensky, 38, factory chemist at the “Grodno Azot”, Grodno


I’d been working at the “Grodno Azot” factory for 18 years. I got fired for joining a strike in October which was declared by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. When I lost my job, I didn’t regret what I’d done. On October 26, when the strike was due to start I was returning from a night shift, and I saw a military vehicle and police vans near the entrance of “GrodnoAzot”. I decided to wait inside because I didn’t want to be accidentally detained. I was seeing how my collegues were beaten by the Riot Police near the factory. The Riot Police shouted to them, “Go work! You’re our feeding base!”. It had never happened before. I was overwhelemed to see it. I thought to myself it’s impossible to keep working and supporting these authorities. I didn’t go to work the next night shift, I called in sick. But as early as the evening of the same day, I wrote a statement saying that I joined the strike and put it on social media. On the following day I was informed that I had been dismissed for organizing rallies on the premises of the enterprise, resulting in damage exceeding three times the average monthly wage.

Anna Vitkovskaya, 39, Deputy Director, Social Services Centre, Leninsky District, Grodno


On the Sunday after the election, I was at church. When I went outside, I saw a lot of police vans. There was a bit of a fuss on the street. I heard gunshots and saw people being attacked with stun grenades and barely escaping the Riot Police. On Monday at work I asked the director how they counted the votes. I was told, “As always”. Later, one of my colleagues said that the Chairperson of the Election Commission brought a completed report and asked everyone to sign it. According to this protocol, Lukashenka got the most votes. I decided to take a leave of absence at my own expense to think about what to do next. When I returned, the director talked to me about my political position. She was unhappy that I had published pictures of the march with white and red and white symbols on my social media pages. I was asked to remove these publications. I refused and was forced to write a letter of resignation.

Vladimir Loiko, 62, Member of the Department of Security of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Belarus, Grodno


Sergey Kurylenko and Valentina Kharitonova, 65 and 69, actors at the Grodno Regional Drama Theatre, Grodno


My wife Valentina and I were arrested in September at a Sunday march in Grodno. We disagreed with the results of the elections and with the violent crackdown on peaceful protesters by the Belarusian security forces. During intermission, our theatre colleagues learned about the news that we were being held in custody. They did not finish the play in solidarity with us. Almost all visitors applauded when they found out why the play stopped and Valentina and I were released. Our theatre team was already under the control of officials at various levels in Grodno. In August, we — like many other people — expressed our dissent and discontent against violence. We were demanding fair elections to be held. Then Svetlana Tikhanovskaya declared a national strike in October. I and the main director of the theatre went on strike. After this, we were fired. Valentina and some of our other colleagues were also fired. Then, we were forced to leave Belarus.

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