Minsk’s Most Fearless Activist is Challenging Oppression On All Levels

 

Waking up in Minsk on my first proper day in May after arriving the night before, I was told to be at a random apartment in the city centre at 14:30 by my friend Dina. I initially thought I would be meeting a queer activist that Dina had told me about the night before while we drank but instead just said we’d be going to some office. I arrived at the address behind a flat where I sat waiting for Dina to show up.

Arriving a few minutes late, Dina arrived with another queer activist, Vika Biran. We were at the office for MAKEOUT, which had emerged as one of the cities most exciting and radical organizations with their intersectional queer activism. Before the conversation could start about the organization and activism in Belarus though, Dina and Vika needed to smoke.

Laughing while apologizing about being late, they informed me they had taken some photos before coming to meet me. They told me about how the Interior Minister of Belarus, Igor Shunevich had referred to queer relationships as “fake” because they could not reproduce when he responded to the British embassy flying a Pride flag. They made jokes about their respected relationships and mocked Shunevich for his stupidity. Quickly, we went into the office and while Vika signed onto a computer to post the photos on social media.

On Vika’s laptop I saw the famous KGB building in the center of Minsk with Vika confidently standing in front of it holding a sign saying “It Is You Who Is Fake” in Russian. There were also shots in front of the Interior Ministry and parliament with Vika holding the same sign. I was a little bit shocked because I’ve always been told never to take a photo in front of those buildings, I was slightly calmed by Vika’s reassuring tone while she announced that her pictures got 4 likes.

Soon, I left with Dina the office to head to another engagement. For the rest of the afternoon, Dina’s phone continued to vibrate with updates with friend’s re-sharing the pictures, random people sending her questions, and basically every major media outlet in the country publishing articles about the photos they took. Vika’s protest had gone viral. While eating vareniki that evening, Dina just said, “Maybe this is a much bigger deal than I thought.” It certainly was. Vika was soon charged with three accounts of illegally protesting. Adding to the absurdity, she was charged in three different courts because each building was technically in a different neighborhood.

While talking to Vika a couple weeks after the event, she spoke about how Shunevich pathetic attempt at humiliating queer people first made her feel overwhelmed in the face of the state’s violence but soon felt a sudden urge to resist. Instead of allowing the anger to eat her up, she knew she had to allow the state to know she was not powerless.

Speaking about her protest, Vika said, “I didn’t want to make a long and well-analyzed plan. I just wanted to react, as a Belarusian, as a lesbian, and just as a human being. I decided to take these photos and to tell to all these people sitting inside that “I’m not afraid of you, you are assholes, and I will not let you hurt me and my relatives.”

What fascinated me about this act of protest that Vika had undertaken was that it directly confronted oppression on multiple levels. On the most obvious level, she had directly confronted and subverted Belarus’s most oppressive institutions. These institutions regularly assault individual human rights while arrogantly placing their buildings straight in the middle of the city as an assertion of power. They exist as a constant reminder of the stability of the Lukashenko regime’s claim to power that overshadows every passerby. Vika had brazenly challenged the state’s claim to indissoluble power despite it wide use of violence in face of any provocation. She exposed the cheap façade of their power. Yet, something far deeper was at hand in this protest.

What was significant about Vika’s protest was that it directly confronted the violence of the Lukashenko’s regime while not pandering to the nationalist narrative. Perhaps because Vika was not holding up a red-and-white Belarusian flag and chanting the familiar nationalist concerns that her protests did not get much Western attention. It did not fit into the neat yet limited confines of what Western media expects from Belarusian activism. She was speaking about a matter of oppression that pro-government and pro-nationalists are complicit in. She cuts across the dominant binary that the Western narrative of democratization is based upon between pro-Russian and pro-Westerners. She targets the prevailing hatred and oppression towards LGBTQ+ community along with women, migrants, and workers that sustains this artificial binary. With a barrage of insulting comments in internet comments, harassing messages, and denunciations, Vika’s act of protest showed the superficial difference between these groups and that the only hope for change was through a radical critique of society.

The framework for democratization in the post-Soviet region since 1991 had been built upon a gradual integration into the Western sphere of influence first by deregulation and neoliberalization followed by eventually EU membership. It has been framed not within ideological terms but within teleological terms. This has lead Western governments to support the so-called “Colour Revolutions” while the leaders of these revolutions like Saakashvili, Poroshenko, and Yushchenko espoused reactionary politics. This vacant notion of democratic change postulated on an economic system that contributes to inequality and foreign policy build on being anti-Russia provides for unstable grounds for serious change. As we see in places like Ukraine and Georgia, so-called Westernized governments do very little to rein in the power of nationalists, religious groups, and other reactionaries. It offers very little in the way of liberation other than changing the personalities who lead these corrupt regimes.

The consequence of this shallow narrative has been that liberalization across the post-socialist world has lost its currency and nationalism has replaced it as the dominant ideology. In the face of the rise of kleptocratic and xenophobic regimes across the region, there is a demand for a counter-narrative to challenge reactionary politics. With the belief in neoliberalism waning, space is presented for a more localized notion of political change where both global and local manifestations of oppression are critiqued for a radical sense of justice.

Despite Minsk’s reputation for being conservative, there has been a growing movement to construct a radical critique of not only the Lukashenko regime but also other varieties of domination. This critique has involved rejecting the simplistic binary of either pro-Europe and pro-Russia camps. Instead, it looks to locate the sources of oppression that marginalize and oppress individuals then resist it. Despite the narrative of the omniscient power of the Lukashenko regime, the resourcefulness and fearlessness enable these activists to always stay one step ahead of the curve.

As a result, there has been a proliferation of narratives that look to critique these power structures and construct an organic opposition. We see them raging from 34mag’s support for progressive causes in Minsk, MAKEOUT’s intersectional activism, Inga Lindarenka critique of Western perceptions of the post-Soviet Union, or Andrei Zavalei theorization of a post-Soviet notion of queerness. What is evident is that Belarus is helping lead the way in offering a more localized critique of oppression.

Soon after Vika’s protest, she went to America where she took her protests on the road. She hilariously took a cut out figure of Igor Shunevich to plenty of queer events where she humorously said she was taking him of an American road trip. Upon returning from America, Vika was charged with three accounts of holding illegal protests. Facetious as ever, Vika joked throughout the process through social media remained unrepentant. She was eventually fined €200 by two courts. Bizarrely, the charges for her picture in front of the KGB building were dropped for unknown reasons. Lucky to avoid jail, she remains unrepentant and committed to her activism. She along with other Belarusian activists look less to fit into conventional political discourse but instead critique and resist any varieties of oppression.