This is a protest to topple Alexander Lukashenko, self-declared president of Belarus and Europe’s longest-ruling dictator.
Red and White are acknowledged Goddess colours - as in the creator of our world. The (true) Templars are her special forces. The Angels are hand-in-glove with the Templars. Well, let's say, when Angels fight here on Earth, many do so as Templars.
Maria and Nina are part of an extraordinary uprising, inspired and led by women, in the former Soviet republic of Belarus. Risking all to defy a ruthless dictator who insists they are too weak to play a leading role in their nation’s future.
Nina Baginskaya has barely arrived at her country shack, outside the capital Minsk, for a spot of gardening when the first admirer stops her.
“We’re standing next to a celebrity,” an old man shouts. “Are you going to get rid of that dumbass soon or not?”
The “dumbass” he is referring to is Alexander Lukashenko, self-declared president of Belarus and Europe’s longest-ruling dictator. Since August, people have braved riot police, bullets and stun grenades to stage near-daily protests against him.
“He’s sacked himself,” Nina assures her admirer. “People aren’t listening to him anymore.”
But the old man starts pouring out his grief to her. “I can’t stand it when young people are dying,” he says, tears suddenly welling in his eyes. “They are killing them, stabbing them, raping them, abducting them.”
“That’s why I go to the protests with young people,” Nina tells him.
“I have heart problems, cancer, I would go but I can’t,” the man cries. “I can still run. I’ll go for you,” Nina promises.
She’s been keeping her promise almost every day, marching at the front of mass protests, pensioner protests, women’s protests and neighbourhood protests, always holding the banned red and white Belarusian flag aloft.
Few have inspired more courage or taken greater risks during the months-long protests in Belarus than Nina. Her confrontations with police have become some of the most famous images of the uprising.
“I’ve never been afraid,” she tells Foreign Correspondent. She’s been arrested multiple times but refuses to back down, even when police officers take away her flag. As she marches at the head of the protests, people chant: “Nina! Nina! Nina!”
Her feisty approach has become a pop culture meme. Local rock band Dai Darogu featured an animation of her as a badass grandma in a music video on the protests.
A women’s revolution
Seeing a little old lady stand up to state brutality has given heart to people a fraction of Nina’s age. “She’s a really inspiring person,” says 27-year-old Maria Pugachjova. “She’s not scared of anything. She doesn’t give a flying f*** about all of the police.”
Before August, Maria spent her spare time partying with friends or travelling abroad, her Instagram feed a collection of glamorous poses at bars, beaches and famous landmarks. Now she spends every moment she can risking arrest and imprisonment to protest against Lukashenko.
“When people ask me, what did I do before the 9th of August, I don’t remember my life before that.” What she does remember is the violence she’s witnessed on the streets of Minsk. “I saw a lot of blood on the streets,” says Maria. “I saw a lot of awful things that are still in front of my eyes, and maybe that’s one of the reasons why I’m still protesting every single moment I have.”
Mostly, she marches in all-women groups, dressed in the red and white colours of the banned national flag. Belarusian women are at the forefront of one of the longest sustained protest movements in recent history, in a country where dictatorship seemed unassailable.
Alexander Lukashenko calls the female protesters “prostitutes and alcoholics”. Lukashenko makes no secret of having a problem with women who challenge him.
The former collective farm boss, who likes to dress up in military uniform and carry a Kalashnikov, says women just aren’t suited to running a country. “Our society hasn’t matured to vote for a woman,” he told a group of mainly female factory workers. “Our constitution is a heavy burden to carry even for a man. If you put the burden on a woman, she will collapse, poor thing.”
Sandwiched between Russia and Poland, Belarus is proving to be a testing ground for people power in the former Soviet Union, and the Kremlin is watching nervously. Six months of fearless protests here have inspired Russians to demonstrate against Vladimir Putin in recent weeks.
So it’s been a trying year for Lukashenko, who once dreamed of uniting his country with Russia and ruling both. Ahead of the last election in August, he locked up or exiled most of the men planning to run for president.
To his surprise, one of their wives ran instead. To his horror, she appeared to win. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was so popular that the government-controlled Electoral Commission pre-emptively announced an “exit poll” showing a landslide victory for Lukashenko, claiming only one in 10 voted for Tikhanovskaya.
Hundreds of thousands poured onto the streets in protest. Tikhanovskaya went to the commission to challenge the announcement and was promptly given the choice of being thrown in jail or leaving the country. She had earlier sent her young children to Vilnius, in the neighbouring country of Lithuania, for protection, fearing what Lukashenko might do to them.
Devastated, she left Belarus to join them. “I know that many will understand me, many will judge me, and many will hate me,” she said in a video to her followers. “But, you know, God forbid you face the same choice that I faced.”
The protests continued regardless, with Tikhanovskaya doing her best to represent them from abroad. What followed was a swift and brutal crackdown. A protester was killed and thousands of men were arrested.
So thousands of women took their place, forming their own protest groups among friends and neighbours. They marched peacefully, many holding flowers of red and white and linking arms in long lines through the streets.
“Women understood that they have to stand in front of [men] and to defend them,” Tikhanovskaya tells Foreign Correspondent. “They didn’t want to lead this revolution, they just wanted to support their men. It just happened so naturally.”
After months of being arrested on a regular basis, Nina might be the only protester police dare not detain. Lukashenko himself has given a mocking order to leave her be or else “there will be no opposition”.
There’s no such guarantee for others who take to the streets. Videos circulating on social media show riot police raiding flats and dragging out protesters. The fear of arrest and possible jail time hangs over Maria Pugachjova.
At a protest in Minsk, she’s forced to hide in a friend’s apartment as police ring the suburb to stop them joining the main protest. “I don’t remember a day when I didn’t have a dream with police,” Maria says. “So I’m dreaming how they enter my apartment, how they detain me.
So it’s some kind of huge national trauma.” They watch their phones in horror as videos show people grabbed off the street where they were standing moments earlier. Even a locked door doesn’t make them feel safe. Maria’s nightmare is becoming a reality.
Despite a police crackdown on the movement in Belarus, Nina holds firm to an unshakeable conviction that Lukashenko’s days are numbered. “Evil cannot win. Fascism cannot win,” she says.
In her apartment in Minsk, Nina sews the red and white flags she takes to each protest.
Lukashenko banned the national flag in favour of the red and green Soviet-era banner, hoping to one day reunite with Russia.
“Seven flags have been taken away from me by police, so this one is the eighth one,” says Nina.
Nina, a retired geologist, was a political activist even before Lukashenko came to power in 1994.
She started campaigning for Belarus’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1986 after the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine exploded, showering the countryside with radiation.
“They didn’t tell us to stay home and not go out and breathe the Chernobyl ash that was falling on us from the clouds like rain,” she recalls.
“We are not humans for them. They just care about their salaries and positions. That’s why I start to support all movements in Belarus aimed at reviving our nation.”
She’s been a thorn in the side of Lukashenko since he assumed dictatorial powers in 1996.
In the years that followed, Lukashenko not only snuffed out Belarus’s new democracy, he cracked down on its newfound independence.
He discouraged the Belarusian language in favour of Russian, and stamped out commemorations of the Chernobyl disaster.
Nina’s generation of dissidents failed to beat him, but she believes this time the protests are unstoppable.
“The time has now come,” says Nina.
“First of all, young people started protesting against these unfair elections, then people of my age joined.
“I encourage them with these words: ‘Grandmothers and grandfathers, you’re doing this right. The more you stay at home, the quicker you’ll die.’”
Police have banned media from filming the marches but protesters have been uploading video from their smartphones to independent websites.
“The youth have mastered the technology,” says Nina. “They have mobile phones, computers and the internet and they can speak the truth.”
But following Nina’s fearless example is not always easy for young protesters new to the fight against Lukashenko.
Maria is at home in her apartment, chain smoking and drinking red wine to deaden her nerves.
The nightmare that has plagued her since joining the protests has come true. On the way to a protest, she was ordered into a car and taken to a police station to be charged. After a few hours, she was released with a summons to appear in court.
Maria knows the court could give her a jail term but that’s not what’s upset her most. It’s how the police mocked and demeaned her.
“They saw me, and they’re just like, ‘I think you’re having too much fun, let’s go,’” she says.
“They were smiling and you know just like, ‘We’re going for a ride’.
“Belarus is not really a country full of feminists so a lot of men think that we’re just nice girls and that’s it.
“They don’t know how much of ourselves we put into protests. They have no idea how many emotions, how much strength we put in. They don’t know. They think that it’s a game for us.”
A few days later, Maria finds reason to regain her optimism.
Maria is meeting her idol, Nina Baginskaya. In the early days of protesting Maria took a selfie with her, but they’ve never properly met.
“Come in, we’ll have some tea inside, not in the corridor,” Nina says.
Maria has brought a cake and greets her nervously. She has many questions for Nina.
Nina’s 23-year-old granddaughter normally lives with her in the flat but she’s had to flee after being targeted by police.
“She is in hiding from our authorities,” Nina explains.
Maria starts pouring out her anguish.
“I remember the first days, the 9th, 10th and 11th, guys in white T-shirts in blood and all this violence. When you see these kinds of things with your own eyes, you will never forget it.”
“Never forget it or forgive it,” Nina says.
“Are you ever scared? I saw many times when you came to these fascists with your flag … Wow!”
“Maria, at my age it’s ridiculous to be afraid of anything,” Nina says.
“If you are sane in your head and you realise your life is getting to an end, then vice versa you want to express your abilities and your courage, your ability to resist evil.
“It’s a goal of any normal person.”
A week later it’s Maria’s day in court. An hour before dawn she’s up, packing a shoulder bag with warm clothes and books to read in case she’s given a two-week sentence. Maria walks past a mural of two women. Maria's generation are fighting more than just the removal of Lukashenko. It's about a more equal role for women in Belarusian society. Foreign Correspondent: Ilya Kuzniatsou “It’s always 50-50 if you get jail or a fine,” she says.
She walks out of her apartment, past a giant red and white flag someone has painted in her foyer, and takes the bus downtown through a city blanketed in snow.
Her case is one of the first. She’s released with a fine. There’s no sense to it. Other protesters have been sentenced to months in jail.
She knows she may not be as lucky next time but is adamant there will be a next time.
“Yes, of course. That’s what all people do after they’re arrested - they go and keep protesting.”
A few days later, she and her friends emerge from a cafe to march, all dressed in the banned colours of red and white. Red and white dresses, red and white masks and red and white umbrellas to catch the billowing snow. It’s enough to have them arrested on sight, but they march off defiantly toward police.
After six months of protesting, it’s become a battle of wills neither side can afford to lose.
Lukashenko and his army of thugs have lost all authority; Maria’s generation knows it has no future in the country if he remains in power.
The fight goes on.
“Maybe we’ll change history,” Maria says. “I don’t know. It’s scary to think about the future. But it’s even more scary to think what will happen to us if we stop.”
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