Maryja (20) and Uladź (22) study media and communication at the European Humanities University, the Belarusian university in exile based in Vilnius. Together with their professor of social sciences Siarhei Liubimau they organized the Summer School „The last European dictatorship and a platformization frontier? Platforms and infrastructures of political power in Belarus 2020”, in which I participated during August. Due to their political activities since 2020, both cannot return to Belarus at the moment. In the following interview I asked them about the impact of 2020, their student lives in Vilnius and what their plans for the future look like.
What was your motivation to help organize the Summer School?
Uladź: We had a class dedicated to the topic of digitalization this semester during which we were speaking about how online platforms influenced the situation in Belarus 2020. It was also the focus of my research for a course paper. Siarhei saw my interest in the topic and asked me if I wanted to join the team to help him organize the Summer School. I then asked Maryja to join because I saw that we share the same ideas, so it would be easy to work together. Besides being interested in the topic, I saw the possibility of spreading the word of Belarusians to people from Western societies. As I mentioned before, I was surprised about how many
Uladź and Maryja in Vilnius
Belarusians don´t know English well enough to communicate with academics from Western Europe (editor´s note: Uladź explained to me earlier that a lot of potential speakers turned down an invitation to the summer school because they felt their English skills were insufficient.) There is so much information about Belarus that is not translated into English. If I could help to change this situation, I would feel like I have done something good.
Maryja: When Uladź offered me to participate, I thought it was a great idea because I´ve never organized something like this before. It was also interesting because we were to organize discussions for which we could invite the people we were interested in and create the concept of the discussions ourselves. I also share Uladź idea of spreading the word. I think that I am a suitable person for the job as I know a lot about Belarus, I speak a high level of English language and I´m good at communicating. I believe it´s important for people outside of Belarus to know as much as possible about Belarus.
Uladź: If we plan for Belarus to have a future in Europe, then we have to communicate and build bridges now so later it will be easier to connect. I recently had an experience that moved me to being interested in spreading the word about Belarus. I went to Poland on an Erasmus+ exchange, where people from all around Europe participated. But only people from Poland knew about the situation in Belarus. Other participants from Romania, Croatia, Greece, Portugal and other countries didn´t know anything – they didn´t know that we had our revolution, that Lukashenka is a murderer, that people were detained. Before going there I thought everybody knows about Belarus, but then I had this reality check. I realized that we still have to do a lot to inform more people. We are the only source of information. Who else would speak for Belarus if not us?
How were you involved in the protest of 2020 in Belarus?
Uladź: I was here in Vilnius when the protests happened. I had mixed feelings: I wanted to participate but I was also scared of being detained. So I stayed here and went to protests in Vilnius.
Maryja: I was in Minsk in 2020 (editor´s note: Maryja who is originally from Minsk studied partly online partly at the EHU in Vilnius until 2021). I participated in all the Sunday actions and women’s marches – in almost all of them.
Uladź: And you were detained for one.
Maryja: Yes, I was detained once. For four months I also volunteered as a translator. I translated information about Belarus to English for an online newspaper.
Were you detained during a protest or how did it happen?
Maryja: I was detained during the protest at the women´s march on September 26th, 2020. It happened when the march just started. People started gathering and at that moment the police came and they detained maybe around ten people at that location.
Uladź: And you were detained for 13 days, as far as I remember?
Maryja: I was arrested for 13 days. They brought us to a regional police station in Minsk. We stayed there for some time when they wrote the protocols. It was written in the protocols that I shouted: “Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is the president”, “Put Lukashenka to Police Van”, “Žyvie Bielaruś” (Long Live Belarus). I don´t remember shouting anything because the rally was just in the process of starting. But even if I did – I did that many times before – it is not illegal. The day I was detained was the first time they imprisoned women for more than seven days. Before that women were either released right away or they would just keep them for a couple of days. I was waiting for my trial in Akrescina (editor´s note: Akrescina is a pre-trial detention center in Minsk, where many activists were kept during the mass protests of 2020). Then I had my trial where I heard the charge. They said it would be 13 days. I spent a couple of more days in Akrescina and then I was transferred to Baranavicy, another pre-trial detention center.
So, there was a different treatment of women and men?
Uladź: At first yes. They had the idea that only men were dangerous. There was also this phenomenon during the protests that women were building circles around men to protect them from the police.
Maryja: Women were trying to protect the men, so that the policemen would not be able to touch them.
Were the police less brutal on women?
Uladź: Less brutal because they didn´t see women as a threat. But that changed after a month or so. Then they understood that if they continue this way, the protests will win. They started treating every person the same way.
There is no difference anymore also regarding the punishment?
Maryja: I would not say so.
What impact did the events of 2020 have on your life?
Uladź: For me it was a huge change. Before 2020 I was not involved in politics. As I told you earlier, this authoritarian system we have is promoting the idea that people should avoid politics at all costs because the big guys on top will solve everything for you. You just have to work and care about your life and that´s it, that´s all you need to do. I was in this sleeping mode, but then suddenly when the mass mobilization started, I woke up. I started to read news to put myself in the context of what´s going on. Later I started to read about history and culture. I had two years of transition, where I fully transferred to Belarusian language. I use it now as my main communication language with people from Belarus (editor´s note: Uladź is from Mahilioŭ, the third biggest city in Belarus, located in the Eastern part close to the Russian border. He told me that it is very uncommon to speak Belarusian in the region and that until 2020 he never had a conversation in Belarusian). Now I read Belarusian books, I am interested in Belarusian history and promoting Belarus. It is funny, I came here to Vilnius in 2019 and I was not very happy about having a Belarusian passport. I thought that my passport wasn´t providing me any good positions because I still had to get a visa to enter the European Union. I was escaping Belarus with the idea of never turning back. But when the 2020 protests happened, I realized that I would like to come back to Belarus at some point in time because that´s all I am interested in now. For me 2020 had a huge impact. We have this word in the Belarusian language – śviadomaś´c – how can we translate it?
Maryja: National, historical and cultural consciousness.
Uladź: 2020 gave this idea that we should wake up and be conscious of our country to a ton of people in Belarus.
Maryja: For me it was kind of the opposite situation. Before 2020 I was nationally oriented and fully aware. I also participated in protests against Russian integration in 2019. I already used Belarusian language on a daily basis and I was trying to educate people on it. I remember in 2019 when I moved into my dormitory I hung up a white-red-white flag on the wall and I looked at it and I was like: At some point this will be the official flag of Belarus. I was wondering how many years would pass and what I should do for it to happen. But I was certain that this moment would come eventually. It was just a question of time. I was not expecting this question to arise so sharply and so soon. 2020 was a very hard but at the same time a very happy time. People got together, expressed their solidarity and we felt freedom – total and pure freedom for some time. Once you experience freedom, you can no longer fully live without it and you´ll always seek it. I think that´s what happened in 2020. I was fascinated by the Belarusian solidarity. I think this is how we should live as a perfect society. We should stick to it and develop it. 2020 gave me confidence in my opinions and my aspirations. The victims of the regime are also part of my motivation and a motivation for many other people too to continue their fight wherever they are.
You are both students at the EHU in Vilnius. How do you like studying here?
Uladź: I think that studying is not just about the university itself but it is also about the student´s life you have including your friends. EHU is not perfect, as in any university there are positive and negative sides, but comparing it to other Belarusian universities, it´s the best humanitarian university to choose. As you are not in Belarus, you can express yourself freely. You are not scared of doing any political activism because you wouldn’t be detained here in Lithuania. I like my studies since I began to study seriously. If you start taking things seriously, then you start to get joy out of them. I started to put hours into studying and connect my assignments with my interests. The EHU is liberal, so you can discuss your interests with the teachers and connect it to the study program. Here in Vilnius, Lithuanians are hospitable. They also fully understand the context of Belarus and show a lot of support. The Lithuanian language is a bit hard to learn but young people speak English and to older people you can speak in Russian as well. My decision to enter the EHU was the best decision that I could make at that time.
Maryja: It´s a difficult question. It depends on the teacher but in general I think that there is a problem with the number of people working here. I think that we should have more teachers. Sometimes they do a lot of courses at the same time. If a person who is into urbanism gives a course on humanities like philosophy, that´s kind of weird. I think there are problems at the EHU like at any university. Our courses could involve more information and tasks. But I think it also depends on the student because if he or she is not interested, regardless how good the course or the teacher is, the student won´t really be involved. What I like about the EHU is that it gives you many opportunities for studies, internships, networking and the freedom to create your own project and get funding for it. At the end of the day, it is all about a person and how they see their potential and try to focus on it. The EHU gives many opportunities to fulfill your interests whether they are academic or non-academic.
Uladź: If you are an initiative person you can find a lot of things to do, for example co-organizing this summer school. The university is promoting activism and initiatives from students. We have a lot of student´s projects. Another problem is that they are not getting enough financial support but that is the reality that we are living in.
What role does the fact that you are from Belarus play in your everyday life here in Vilnius?
Maryja: I wouldn´t say that it influences me a lot.
Uladź: It is your identity.
Maryja: People mostly perceive me with respect and they are friendly. If I tell them that I am from Belarus, they ask something like: So, what is it like in Belarus now? I tell them that it´s really bad, but we are fighting. They usually reply something like: We are with you – or stuff like that. I feel comfortable here because I think that the Belarusian and the Lithuanian mentality have a lot in common. People here are pretty reserved, they like their personal space and are not really talkative – that is comfortable for me (laughs). I would say people here are generally friendly. I never had any situation where I would be perceived aggressively in any way because I was a Belarusian or because I was a woman or because I had a green dress or whatever.
Uladź: I think it is important to distinguish between two ways that are coexisting now of identifying yourself as a Belarusian person. It can be an ethnical or passport identity – that you were just born in Belarus or you work and stay in Belarus and that´s what makes you Belarusian. I choose another definition of building your Belarusian identity based on language, culture and history. I think identity is not just something you can be born with; you have to build it and fight for it. We have this long history of repression and russification in Belarus. That means that we have to put an extra effort to build a Belarusian identity. For now, I am still in this process of building my identity.
What are your plans and hopes for your future?
Maryja: My perfect plan? I guess I got used to the idea of not making long term plans right now and I feel ok. I want to do everything I can to survive and build a meaningful life wherever I am. But my perfect future is a future in Belarus of course – a future dedicated to making Belarus a better country year by year, making it a great comfortable place to live and die (laughs). I think that every person born in Belarus should have the right to die peacefully in Belarus, looking at Belarusian trees, listening to Belarusian language and smelling Belarusian…
Uladź: …cuisine? (laughs)
Maryja: forests (laughs).
Uladź: The plan of all exile people is to come back to Belarus. But for now we don´t have this opportunity. There is this idea that is constantly in your mind: When will the situation change, when will I have the chance to come back? I had this philosophical session with myself where I basically relieved myself of that idea. I think that the best way to go through this situation is to tell yourself: You will never come back – just to accept this notion that we may never come back to Belarus. You have to accept it and understand that you cannot influence the situation, you can only influence the way you look at and experience things. After that it got a bit easier. Previously I was held back by these emotions – I was thinking ok maybe one day, maybe soon, maybe in a year,
maybe in 5 years I will be back. And as you never know, it brings you down. After you accept this idea that you may never come back, you feel relief. You are free to move forward. For now, I am planning initiatives here in Vilnius that will be connected to Belarus to promote Belarusian culture and literature like writing letters to political prisoners. It helps me to do something helpful that brings meaning to my life and that will maybe help bring about the day when I will be able to come back to Belarus.
In the two weeks we worked together, did you learn something new or was there anything that surprised you?
Maryja: I was surprised, in a nice way, that many of you (editor´s note: participants of the summer school) are aware of the Belarusian context to a greater extent than I expected. I have more confidence about the importance of talking to foreigners about Belarus and creating projects and cooperations to help Belarus right now.
Uladź: I organized a school with focus on Belarus for the first time and I feel empowered to do more. It was a great experience to contact people who don´t know you but are still open to speak for their initiative to spread the word about Belarus and help people from outside Belarus to get deeper into the context. It was also interesting for me to hear about problems in Germany. When even weird people have the right to protest, it´s a sign that you have democracy (editor´s note: We earlier had a discussion on German protesters belonging to “Querdenker” and AfD). I hope that one day we will have something like this in Belarus. It´s cool when even the people whose ideology I don´t like are given the right to express it. I mean, it´s not cool that they have this opinion, but the fact that they can express it shows that the country is democratic and there is political life in it.
Is there anything else you two would like to add?
Maryja: Spread the word!
If you are interested in getting in touch with Uladź and Maryja for a cooperation or further information about student activism for Belarus, don´t hesitate to contact me.