In Belarus, a nationwide peaceful protest movement is on the verge of forcing out the country’s longtime authoritarian ruler. If your only source of information is American television news, then you might not know about this. If your only source of information is Russian television news, then you definitely don’t know about this.
The actual circumstances surrounding the tumult in Belarus could not be any clearer. Since 1994, when he won the country’s only ever free-and-fair presidential election, Soviet collective farm boss Aleksander Lukashenko has maintained power in Minsk by jailing opponents, falsifying vote counts, and cultivating the loyalty of the KGB. Slavic surnames in large groups are confusing, and so in honor of the several memes that his fading support and solid mustache inspired during the most recent unfree and unfair election campaign, Lukashenko will be referred to for the remainder of this text simply as “Cockroach.”
In the run-up to the August 9 vote, Cockroach’s three most promising challengers—“Blogger,” “Banker,” and “Diplomat”—all came under criminal investigation. Blogger was arrested in late May. Banker was arrested in mid-June. Diplomat got the message and fled the country in early July.
It is still not clear why Blogger’s spouse was permitted to throw her hat into the ring, but the incumbent president’s sexist notion that a suburban housewife could not possibly possess the courage and stamina to threaten a virile Cockroach certainly played a role. And so, on July 14, the Belarusian Central Election Commission approved 37-year-old Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s application to add her name to the ballot alongside those of Cockroach himself plus three other token opposition candidates deemed to be sufficiently weak by the powers that be.
On July 16, Tikhanovskaya attended a joint meeting with Diplomat’s wife and with the female head of Banker’s defunct campaign. With Tikhanovskaya as the candidate, the three women joined forces on a simple platform: release all political prisoners, and hold legitimate presidential elections within six months of taking office. A vote for Tikhanovskaya would simply be a vote to be allowed to vote.
The proposition was irresistible. For three weeks, as the three women toured the country, they were met at every stop by thousands of cheering supporters, who adopted rock icon Viktor Tsoi’s late-Soviet anthem “Change!” as the campaign’s unofficial theme song. When the accidental candidate’s rallies became too popular for comfort, local bureaucrats began preempting them with government-sponsored events at sites where Tikhanovskaya had been scheduled to speak. This practice backfired and two DJs were arrested for “hooliganism,” however, after “Change!” was added to the playlist of an August 6 gathering meant to honor the great contributions to Belarusian society of the country’s Military Railroad Transport workers, who erupted in applause the second they heard the opening bass guitar riff. Private political opinion polling is illegal in Belarus, but when the enterprising online journal Tut.by ran a survey asking readers about their favorite films, Three Women topped A Single Man by a vote of 61 percent to 3 percent.
On August 9, Sunday, election day, as the streets of the capital filled up with riot police, Tikhanovskaya’s supporters folded their ballots into “accordions” so that they would be visible in the clear plastic urns used at every polling station. No independent exit pollsters or election observers were allowed to monitor events, but surreptitious smartphone photos of accordion-filled urns helped cast doubt on the veracity of the election’s official outcome, which awarded just over 80 percent of the vote to Cockroach. State security services were ready for the wave of protest that everyone expected would follow from such an assault against reason, and black-clad “cosmonauts” spent the evening assaulting and arresting the massive crowds that came out all over the country to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the putative results of the electoral process. Three thousand protesters were arrested and, as became known only a few days later, they were beaten severely when not simply left to lie in pools of their own urine in the detention center yard. It is still not known how many protesters were literally tortured to death by guards yelling “You want democracy? This is democracy!”
On Monday, Cockroach toured a state-run agribusiness research center, where he mixed his metaphors. The protesters, he tried to explain to a group of skeptical-looking reporters, were nothing more than simple sheep under the control of puppet masters pulling the strings from, of all places, Czechia. Out in the real world, however, surreptitiously recorded audio of a bureaucrat in Vitebsk bullying schoolteacher poll workers into falsifying official results in Cockroach’s favor circulated through Telegram channels, and Tikhanovskaya was on her way to the Central Election Commission to lodge a formal complaint demanding a full recount under the eye of international election observers. The second evening of protests in the country of ten million produced nearly as many documented incidents of police brutality as the first week of June in the United States. Special-forces soldiers on the street fired rubber bullets at anything that moved and, in at least one lethal incident, riot police used live ammunition. To protect the protesters on foot in the center of Minsk, people in cars created traffic jams that prevented police vehicles from moving around the city as freely as they had the night before, but when the police caught on to the tactic, they just started walking through the lines of stalled cars, smashing windows at random. In one of the most beautiful moments of the evening, a vlogger asked a middle-aged woman in the crowd if she was scared to be out under the circumstances. She seemed confused. Her interlocutor pointed to the tear gas and flashbang grenades going off all around them. “I work in a kindergarten,” the middle-aged woman replied, “nothing scares me.”
On Tuesday morning there were videos of the hundreds of people who had gathered around detention centers in search of information about relatives who had not come home the night before. Cockroach added to his list of accusations from the previous day, claiming that the protesters were under the influence not only of Czech secret agents, but of drugs and alcohol as well. (By the next evening, Belarusian state TV would be supporting their president’s claims with interrogation videos of swastika-tattooed, rough-looking career criminals reciting their past misdeeds—assault, robbery, hooliganism—and adding to their rap sheet the confession that they had been responsible for organizing all of the post-electoral mayhem; the special report also accused a used car salesman, apprehended in Minsk with a few thousand dollars in foreign currency in his accounts book, of having distributed the protesters’ real motivation for braving tear gas and rubber bullets.)
It was also announced—accurately in this case—that Tikhanovskaya had conceded the election and fled to Lithuania. She herself confirmed the second part of this story in a sleepy video post that begged her supporters to forgive “a weak woman” who “prayed to god none of you ever faces the choice I did . . . children are the most important thing in our lives.” Two hours later, Belarusian state TV aired a hostage video recorded the previous evening. It showed Tikhanovskaya, sitting in the director’s office at the Central Election Commission building in Minsk, reading in a shaky voice from a written script “with gratitude and warmth” her desire that no one dispute the official results of the vote. But Tikhanovskaya’s supporters did not heed her forced advice. On the third night of mass unrest, flashbang grenades were met with commercial fireworks. Any civilian seen filming the scene from street level was beaten and hauled into a police van (where they would be beaten again), and so sympathetic onlookers began shooting events from their balconies, from which they hurled insults (and, in one documented case, a door) any time riot police approached within earshot. The police, aiming for open apartment windows, responded with rubber bullets and tear gas.
On Wednesday afternoon, hundreds of bouquet-bearing women lined the streets of central Minsk to the sound of supportive car horns honking in rhythm. The evening news answered with a veiled threat. Onscreen were the backsides of six casually clothed people, slightly bent over so that their heads could rest on the cream-colored wall in front of them. Their hands were bound behind their backs. The state news clip then cut to a shot of the detainees turned around and standing up straight. “Are we going to continue making revolution?” the disguised voice of a security official asked the six good-looking, college-aged, beaten-up, scared-to-death children of despotism. The camera panned the group again as the four young men against the wall dejectedly mumbled things like “never again in my life” and “no, never,” while the two steely-eyed young women among them silently conceded only minimal shakes of the head. On Telegram, though, a new genre of amateur video was filling up protester channels: riot policemen and special-forces soldiers from around the country were tearing off their insignia, tossing their berets into the garbage, and condemning the actions of their now-former brothers in arms. When masses of free Belarusians took to the streets for a fourth consecutive night, they were met with noticeably less resistance.
By Thursday evening, it was difficult to remember that the protesters had not yet actually won. Starting from mid-morning, more videos of flowery, female human chains filled Telegram channels. The state philharmonic was on strike, its choir holding an a capella demonstration against police brutality on the steps of their theater in central Minsk. They were joined by medical workers, who took their breaks to stand in front of hospitals in solidarity with the protesters. By early afternoon, blue-collar guys were walking off of state-owned factory floors while chanting “go away!” in Cockroach’s general direction. A trickle of the 7,000 jailed protesters was being released from detention centers, hematomae on their legs and backs supporting their oral testimony about the state security services’ total sadism. Actors, singers, and Belarusian Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich were all coming out in favor of the protest movement. Police officers were turning in their badges. The head of the interior ministry was asking for “forgiveness for injury caused to innocent bystanders around the protests” (and was getting no sympathy from the members of the popular movement). A leading correspondent from the main state news channel was spilling the open secret that his nightly broadcast had really just been pro-regime propaganda all along.
As night fell, central streets around the country continued to fill up, and no one was fighting to take them back. The best response the regime could muster was a state TV bombshell report featuring the full confession of what was purported to be one of Banker’s former staffers. On camera, the bespectacled accused radical told his interrogator all about how a political operative in Moscow named Dmitri had given him $12,000 at a cafe near the train station and ordered him to return to Minsk and use the money to buy laser pointers, which protesters were supposed to use to disrupt police operations. The dastardly plan never came to fruition, however, as alert border guards had noticed that the pudgy, middle-aged man was attempting to enter Belarusian territory carrying ten gas masks, eight little green plastic water bottles shaped like grenades, a couple of hard hat helmets, four mobile phones, some sort of Ukrainian nationalist secret society membership card, and a book about Israel’s targeted assassination program, all of which state TV laid out for its shrinking audience to see.
Friday saw the largest demonstrations yet. By the time a well-rested Tikhanovskaya had put out a new video claiming victory in the election and calling for Belarusians to assert their democratic right to protest, flowery human chains were already connected up in several cities. More state-owned factories lost shifts to worker demands that their bosses use whatever political capital they had to get a new election called. On the streets, doctors and nurses and taxi drivers and IT specialists called for peace and democracy. Alumni of schools that had served as polling stations were returning their diplomas in disgust at the role their teachers had conceded to play in all of this. Cockroach was on TV refuting rumors that he was dead and imploring his subjects to “Remember, you and your children are being used as cannon fodder. Today, already, intruders have arrived from Poland, Holland, Ukraine . . .” Armored vehicles were making their way back into the center of Minsk as a column of protesters marched toward the capital’s main government district. When the two groups met, young women simply ran up to the line of riot police and showered the boys with hugs and flowers. All over the country, the scene was the same, and all over the country, everyone saw the whole thing through Telegram channels. The question was no longer if Cockroach could hold onto power, but rather how long it would take the semi-literate bumpkin to decipher the writing on the wall.
If you were watching CNN, you probably didn’t see this story. There were, of course, several Western media outlets that managed to get reporters into the country, and Belarusian independent journalists themselves did most of the dangerous work that made it possible for me to watch the whole thing unfold from the safety of my kitchen in Moscow.
But the fact of my relative geographical proximity to the events in Belarus did not give me any advantage in understanding what was really happening on the other edge of the time zone. If you’ve ever compared Fox News commentary on Portland to the hours of video that Robert Evans posts, showing actual events on the ground around the federal courthouse there, then you already understand the dynamic. The past week in Belarus has been as clean a story of good versus evil as exists in the world. It is not a surprise that Belarusian state media took up the cause of evil, but Russian state media was at least faced with a choice. They chose evil too.
In Russian state media, in the run-up to the August 9 vote, no attention was paid to the political opponents Cockroach had jailed, nor to the groundswell of support for Tikhanovskaya. Instead, the farcical political ritual next door became major news in Russia only on July 29, when Belarusian special forces raided a sanatorium on the outskirts of Minsk and arrested thirty-three Russian mercenaries whom Cockroach implausibly accused of planning to subvert his plans for a good, clean election. The Russian mercenaries’ belongings included Sudanese currency and Sudanese SIM cards, suggesting that they were only using Belarus as a transit point, as they have done in the past, with the full knowledge and tacit approval of the all-knowing Belarusian KGB. The story only got more absurd a few days later, when Russia’s Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper published an investigative report alleging that the whole mercenary fracas had been a special operation organized by Ukrainian spies. The fact that none of it made any goddamn sense did not stop Russian state TV from filling several hours of airtime with discussion of their southern neighbor’s devious plan to drive a wedge between Moscow and Minsk.
But the real evil did not start until after the election. On Monday, the day after the vote, I was invited onto one of the daytime political talk shows to comment on the critical Western reaction to Cockroach’s overwhelming electoral victory. Usually these shows court conflict, as the shouting matches that result from bringing a villain like me into the studio help hold the attention of the security guards and pensioners absentmindedly tuning in. That Monday, however, I was bumped from the Belarus block at the last minute, something that only happens when producers upstairs understand that the Kremlin line might not be strong enough to hold up to even thirty seconds of criticism delivered in American-accented Russian. And so I sat in the green room while five patriotic “experts” calmly repeated their talking points about the irrefutable genuine popularity of the dictator next door. Some mention was made of American attempts to foment a “color revolution,” intended to break off Belarus from Moscow’s geopolitical orbit, but off-duty taxi drivers from Smolensk to Vladivostok were assured by people who acted like they knew what they were talking about: the security services of the two post-Soviet brotherly nations had the situation under control.
The next day, Russian news started accusing protesters in Belarus of inciting violence with the use of such weapons as: garbage cans, benches, sticks, stones, fragments of sidewalk slabs, explosive devices, and plastic bottles. It was reported that one protester had died as a result of an “explosive device” going off while still in his hands, but when video of the incident came out later that day, it showed that riot police had simply shot the guy with live ammunition. Neither Russian nor Belarusian state television aired the footage, nor did they offer any correction to their previous reporting. There was, however, footage of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya “voluntarily” crossing the border from Belarus to Lithuania, followed by footage of her hostage video scripted statement “calling all of you to use common sense and . . . not put yourselves in danger by going out onto the square.” Then the talk shows spent hours arguing that, seeing as how even the leading opposition candidate had come out against the protest movement, anyone still on the street could only possibly be there in the pay of Western intelligence services.
Wednesday was even worse. Russian state news channels enthusiastically ran with the Belarusian fairy tale about the petty thug movement ringleaders and their used-car-dealer money man. One brave talk show had started bringing in an intelligent, poised Belarusian political analyst named Dmitri to play a role normally reserved for Ukrainians and Americans like me: standing in a studio surrounded by five or six hostile “experts” and two hostile hosts, Dmitri was conceded thirty or so seconds to respond to seven different questions before being interrupted by a chorus of “patriots” paid handsomely to know nothing, but to do so loudly: didn’t you see the news? the puppet masters and financiers have all been rounded up! now what kind of idiot would take to the streets to risk life and limb for free? Dmitri could only smile in disbelief as his opponents shouted over one another with their identical predictions about the imminent end of the artificial protest movement.
By the end of the week, Russian news at least noted that the anti-Cockroach demonstrations popping up in ever more Belarusian towns and factories had become entirely peaceful, though they failed to note that this was thanks to the fact that the police had stopped beating and arresting protesters at random. Other than that slight concession to reality, though, the story was the same. Margarita Simonyan, the head of Congressional bugbear broadcaster RT, was calling for an undercover Russian invasion force to cross the border and “restore order.” Talk-show talking heads were now accusing the protesters of using the “technology” of peaceful demonstration as a sneaky ploy to sway both international and domestic popular opinion in their favor. All of which is to say: these idiots were out of ideas. The laser-pointer accusations made on Belarusian state TV by the Banker’s purported staffer probably would have been too much even for Russian political talk shows, but seeing as how the political activist Dmitri accused of financing the protest movement’s nonexistent laser-pointer scheme was the same Dmitri who had been shouted over while trying to tell Siberian security guards the truth about the Belarusian regime for the past two weeks, the topic came up, which just gave Dmitri one more opportunity to smile in disbelief at the stupidity surrounding him in this strange land so close to home.
I have a Moscow friend group composed of regular guys from the neighborhood banya. Not all of them are completely delusional, but several of them are cops. I have tried for two years now to convince them that, as a frequent visitor myself to the Russian state TV guano factory, I know firsthand how the guano is made and can smell our product on the breath of every cab driver and park-bench alcoholic who recognizes me, asks for a selfie, and then launches into a ten-minute lecture about how exactly the moon landing was faked—but it’s just no use. No matter how many videos I uploaded to our WhatsApp group chat—first of peaceful protesters herding into groups to shield their comrades from riot police batons, then of riot police trashing their uniforms, then of protesters chanting for change unopposed in every town square and along every central street across the Belarus—my patriotic Russian buddies would not believe their lying eyes. First, they argued, the hundreds of documented examples of police brutality all must have been manipulated so as to deprive the cops of some larger context that surely would have justified, for example, the baton beating of three motorcyclists compliantly lying facedown on the side of the road. Next, as members of the state security brotherhood, they were sure that nothing could ever convince any genuine member of their ranks to trash their livelihood. Finally, each of them had a half-Belarusian cousin, or a cousin of a cousin, or a cousin of a high school classmate who they still ran into occasionally, and so they understood better than I that the protest movement would fizzle out in a week or two and everything would go back to being exactly the way it was in the good old days of June, when everyone in Belarus was poor, sure, but so, so happy. I might have put down thirty liters of moonshine with these guys over the past two years, but if after the Russian masses finally wake up I find myself in their detention center, they’ll beat me as if I really were the Soros secret agent that the file in front of them will inform them that I have been all along.
None of this, sadly, can sound all that foreign anymore. Like the right-wing information sphere that voluntarily props up the current regime in the United States, Belarusian and Russian state media have charmed a salivating audience with “proof” that the world is divided between good and evil, and that the dumbest BMW-driving conspiracy theorist charlatans are all with them on the side of good. As I find myself increasingly in argument one minute with a lost Facebook friend who believes that Black Lives Matter is a fascist movement funded by a Holocaust survivor, and the next minute with a banya buddy convinced that pro-democracy demonstrators in Belarus are paid instruments of that same Holocaust survivor, I have realized that the only difference between the two interlocutors is that they live on separate continents, where they speak different languages and deceive themselves with absurdist fantasies adapted to meet the realities of local political circumstances. Other than that, they’re exactly the same people. In America, they’re still only a well-armed minority. In Russia, they’re a shrinking majority. In Belarus, no matter how all of this ends, the spell has been broken. There is hope.