People in Belarus Barely Know What It Means to Be Belarusian

A mural in a Minsk park gave them something to fight and die for
By Mike L. Ford,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 3, 2022 1:35 PM CDT
Authoritarianism Is All Belarusians Have Ever Known
August 2020, Belarusian opposition supporters rally at Independence Square in Minsk, Belarus. The massive protests prompted authoritarian ruler Alexander Lukashenko to respond with exceptional force.   (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka, File)

"The Battle for the Mural"—a New York Times Magazine piece by Sarah A. Topol—opens with a crime-thriller vibe: a man on a high-stakes mission, calculating every move through blind spots in the 40 security cameras he and his cohorts must dodge to reach the one place on the block where nobody will witness their deed. One misstep and everyone involved will be imprisoned, or worse. But as he executes his plan, the man wonders, "How can a person be afraid to do something like this?" After all, his mission is simply to hang a cloth flag painted with a peace sign and the phrase NO WAR. Topol's piece about a country that, in many ways, never really broke from the Soviet Union reads a bit like an absurdist novella.

But that’s what it takes to explain Belarus, where masked siloviki routinely come in the night to seize and torture anyone who raises a voice or paintbrush against the regime. (Those same agents might also help you scrub your phone before it is sent for analysis.) The story centers on a public park in Minsk, where the struggle to protect a mural depicting DJs with their arms raised from censors transformed a playground into the "Square of Change," and where many Belarusians first discovered a national identity worth fighting and dying for—or escaping from. Events there certainly altered the life of activist Diana Karankevich, who escaped and finally breathed "particles of freedom" in Ukraine, not long after "Lukashenko had sold their country to the Kremlin as a giant military base." She and her son are safe in Warsaw now. (Read more about her purely Belarusian odyssey here.)

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