‘Your heart is a muscle the size of your fist’: The promise of the Belarusian protest movement

Anika Walke is associate professor of history; women, gender, and sexuality Studies; and international and area studies. She is author of “Pioneers and Partisans: An Oral History of Nazi Genocide in Belorussia.”

Heart, fist, victory sign — Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s campaign logo is memorable for its hip design and for taking major parts of the Belarusian population, and the global social media circuit, by storm. The three signs, displayed by presidential candidate Tikhanovskaya, Veronika Tsepkalo, and Maria Kolesnikova during their joint rallies, were a refreshing intervention in Belarusian politics. Since the late 1990s Belarus has been widely known for the authoritarian leadership of the beleaguered, (still) sitting president on the one hand, and a splintered opposition that has been systematically destroyed and largely unable to gain any substantial ground on the other. However, Tikhanovskaya’s campaign reflects a changing Belarusian society, a society in which in the past decade or so a growing number of especially 20- to 50-year-olds have laid the foundation for what the wider world now encounters for the first time. Citizens from all walks of life have built what is commonly referred to as a civil society—a network of organizations, group, and initiatives that address issues such as domestic abuse, environmental pollution, state neglect of people with disabilities, discrimination of the LGBTQ community, and, most recently, protection against COVID-19. Artists, performers, scholars and educators, many of them women, have created a lively cultural scene outside of the state-supported cultural institutions, displaying immense creativity and persistence in shoring up the resources to reach a growing audience. The necessity for self-organization and mutual aid as well as the ability to access critical perspectives on society have encouraged and empowered the population to recognize and criticize the flaws and failures of state institutions. These tendencies facilitated the emergence of a mass movement that was more than willing to rally behind Tikhanovskaya. It was also this parallel society that gave rise to the campaign with its distinct look and appeal—hundreds of others could have stepped up in a similar way. Does the campaign offer a glimpse of what a new Belarusian society could, indeed, look like?

One might think that Tikhanovskaya’s candidature mirrors the dreadful events of the 1990s, when several opposition activists disappeared and, presumably, were killed on official orders. The wives of, among others, Gennadi Karpenko, Yury Zakharenko, Viktor Gonchar, Anatol Krasovsky and Dmitry Zavadsky, travelled to several European countries to call on respective governments to respond to the political murders in Belarus. Tikhanovskaya ran for office during the 2020 election because her husband was imprisoned for doing so, Tsepkalo’s husband was excluded from the ballot, and Maria Kolesnikova had worked for another, now also imprisoned candidate, Viktor Babariko. Beyond this parallel of women taking the lead after men are undermined, however, nothing is the same. Tikhanovskaya, often viewed as an “accidental leader,” injected the growing opposition to the authoritarian leader with energy precisely because she was like anyone else who was dissatisfied or who was being harmed, ostracized, or isolated. The campaign thus morphed into a mass movement for whom the combination of fist and heart, of courageous struggle, compassion and care for each other, promised the defeat of the hated status quo.

Earlier this year, the sitting president’s comments that women would be crushed under the burden of the presidentship enraged thousands, particularly women, and fueled the success of Tikhanovskaya’s campaign as well as of feminist positions. This rage is also one of the driving forces of the recent Women’s Marches in Minsk, as well as many other marches and mass rallies around the country. Whereas the first of these marches were primarily addressing the brutal violence against protesters who took to the streets in the aftermath of the fraud election, subsequent rallies and activities have begun to look beyond the current moment and the calls for free elections, the release of all political prisoners, and the liberation of all protesters who have been jailed recently. In more and more neighborhoods around the country, people begin to organize support groups, organize festivals, and develop other forms of engagement that model a society built on principles of mutual recognition and equality. Posters at rallies call for an end to domestic violence against women or for the recognition of women’s labor, thereby calling out the patriarchal hierarchies and the conservative sexism that are pervasive in Belarusian society. Members of the LGBTQ community have taken to openly display rainbow flags at the marches and demand an end to homophobia. Many of them cite specifically an interview with Maria Kolesnikova in which she indicated that she may engage in romantic relationships not only with men, but also with women, as a moment that indicated to them a new era. (Whether Kolesnikova indeed outed herself here or not is irrelevant, the fact that her statement was published with this possible interpretation and not immediately challenged does indeed signal an important shift.) And while responses to these calls for more openness toward queer lives are mixed, ranging from applause and active support to angry calls to shut up or demands to postpone “this discussion” so as not to hinder the fight for free elections and a free Belarus, there is more of a national conversation than there ever has been.

The true test, however, for realizing the goal of a free and democratic society in Belarus will be the ability of the new society, which is currently emerging in the streets and neighborhoods of Belarus, to overcome entrenched and violent hierarchies and to care for each other across differences. Struggle and victory cannot be successful without empathy and the mundane labor of caring for each other. Belarusian history has demonstrated this time and again, and it was usually women who secured survival, be it during World War I, the German occupation during World War II, or during the long postwar period of rebuilding and recovery. May the heart, so prominently shown by the now imprisoned Maria Kolesnikova, continue to help guide the movement for a free Belarus.

This article is excerpted from “On Free Women and a Free Belarus” (Zeitgeschichte Online, Sept. 22, 2020), a look at the female force behind the protests in Belarus by scholars Juliane Fürst, Anika Walke and Sasha Razor.


Headline image: Artwork by Antonina Slobodchikova. Headline note: Quote taken from woodcut by Dalia Sapon-Shevin, artist, 1999.