How summer protests in Russia and Belarus dragged me kicking and screaming into belief of a brighter tomorrow and even our shared humanity
Mila Yarovaya, Co-Editor-in-Chief
So… here we are – caught in the final gasp of a dying world which seems to show no signs of stopping as it hurls into the abyss. All these metaphysical ramblings can of course be referring to any number of disasters we are cohabitating on this planet with and are summed up in the retrospection of the old year that is inevitable with the beginning of the new. Like a benediction, as long as you take account of everything that happened before, it can have no hold over you in the brand new and shining now – which we will naturally bemoan in 365 days as well. I’m not going to lie or sugarcoat – 2020 had been a doozy. I think that there would seldom have been a year in which a global pandemic would be just another thing that happened among a myriad of unlikely and horrifying events. It is doubtless incredibly important to remember and learn lessons from these events but right now, if you will allow me an indulgence, I will posit the idea that 2020 had its silver linings after all – I mean, Sai and I started our own whole newspaper and if we can do that then trust me you can do anything (it’s funnier if you actually know us). More importantly, what 2020 did for me was facilitate a political awakening that I didn’t think would ever happen or that I needed, which is in part what spurred me to launch this wonderful publication and what I had spent the past 8 months trying to rationalize through various written forms of written media. Hence, I must apologize if any of this article is trite or redundant. I’ll try to spice it up as much as I can and shed light on protests that perhaps went overlooked by the general public in the wake of pandemic uncertainty and generations of reckoning exhibited in the Black Lives Matter protests.That is the Khabarovsk and Belarus protests that took place over the summer and continue in various forms to this day.
What the lockdown that sent us reeling at the end of March inevitably gave us was free time. Loads and loads of copious free time that most of us workaholics hooked on the idea of constant self-optimization, knew little what to do with. My wonderful mother however, knew exactly where to direct my pent-up energy (yes, I had to move back in with my parents – boo hoo – but let’s all admit that it’s not nearly as bad as we complain it is) and put me to the task of deep cleaning our entire living quarters two times a week. No, fair reader, I didn’t rise up in rebellion against the yoke of domestic work, but rather had to find an effective way to keep myself entertained. To my aid came the weekly broadcasts of the Russian opposition – that mythical and fruitless entity – led by Alexei Navalny, since poisoned by the Russian government. I was never one to concern myself with Russian politics. After an unsuccessful and incredibly youthful attempt to bring to record a YouTube video explaining Boris Nemtsov’s assassination in 2015 ended with my mother telling me that we don’t do things like this because “we still have family back home” and after trying to engage in political discussion with said family who seemed to have drunk the Kool-Aid and completely internalized state propaganda, I was convinced that nothing was ever going to change in the great and fabled motherland. For if some of the most intelligent and educated people that I knew had lost their reason, then what could have been said of the rest of the populace?
However, what I found surrounding the channel and many like them which can still thrive on YouTube due to its relative autonomy, is a community of people who are not confined to the patterns of their past and who are not indifferent to their future. That’s when the protests happened. Here’s the Sparknotes version: Khabarovsk region in Russia’s far east had elected a governor – Sergei Furgal – who did not belong to the current ruling party which kept winning elections by landslides practically everywhere else (I wonder why, *cough cough* it’s allegedly election fraud *cough cough*). As such, citizens of the region had a natural attachment to their democratically elected governor. This attachment was only further solidified when Furgal was arrested on charges over a decade old and transferred to Moscow for his trial. What the government thought was going to be another humiliation that the people swallowed and bent a little lower under their yoke, spilled out into truly massive protests that began on July 11 2020 and which first called for the extradition of the governor back to his region for the trial and then organically merged into anti-Putin and anti-administration protests along the way. Gigantic crowds filled the streets nearly everyday over the summer and my heart leaped as I saw that the movement saw no signs of stopping. What you need to understand is that throughout its long and storied history, Russia had never had a functioning democracy. The Imperial regime transitioned to the Soviet one, which in turn transitioned to the “democratic” Russian federation which since 2012 is merely paying lip service to the tenets of self-government. Thus, the impression that one might get, especially one who had emigrated and grew up in the luxurious lap of democracy for most of her life, is that this is just the way it is. That maybe people truly do deserve the government that they receive and we should all be thankful that things aren’t worse. The Khabarovsk protests flipped that narrative on its head by showing how people who had finally tasted self-governance were willing to stand up for their freedom. This made me feel proud again of being Russian and, more inexplicably, made it seem like the regime’s days were truly numbered.
What exacerbated this feeling are the protests that began in Belarus shortly after, in August. Here’s the sparknotes: Belarus was having an election in which the incumbent of over 20 years – Aleksandr Lukashenko – who had effectively established an authoritarian regime in the country, was slated to win by a landslide (*cough cough* it’s allegedly election fraud *cough cough*). After putting away all of his political opponents, their wives – spearheaded by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya – registered as candidates and began an aggressive campaign. People flocked, Lukashenko cowered. After the election in which Lukashenko received an unimaginable 80% of the vote, people took to the streets, proclaiming that Tikhanovskaya was their real president and demanding that Lukashenko step down. Politicians resigned, factories went on strike, police brutality was rampant. The movement was massive and inspiring, and the warm summer breeze brought with it a real feeling of inevitable change.
While these two movements were separated by borders and an entire continent, their shared ideology couldn’t be denied. These were people who were tired of being mistreated and overlooked and who were finally rising up to fight for themselves and the future of their countries. Both protests even sent encouraging messages to one another via posters and murals. Although summer is long gone, the protests quieted down, with Khabarovsk receiving a new governor and Tikhanovskaya in exile and Lukashenko inaugurated, the spirit that they carried within them remains alive still. For one, I am a changed woman, ready and willing to finally have some ideals and fight for them despite the consequences.
By age 16 I had become a complete cynic believing, perhaps rightly or perhaps wrongly, that people were not possibly capable of bringing about real change. That the world is ruled by corporations, politicians, and cold hard cash, and the only way to game the system is to ingratiate yourself within it and hope to get to the top in the mad scramble. But what all the protests and movements across the world have shown me is that there is a base level of decency and truth still left within the bloodstream of the global society that we share. That the meek can rise up and perchance even finally inherit the earth. Perhaps this is what they wanted all along, but maybe this is the beginning of a new era (please allow me my melodramatics, they’re all I have left). One in which the people are able to topple whole regimes and systems of oppression based solely on their love for one another and pursuit of justice. One which we won’t have to fear.