The first chain of women appeared on Wednesday: a few hundred brave souls, dressed in white and holding aloft flowers, in a quietly powerful response to the gruesome violence inflicted on thousands of Belarusians over the previous days.
By the next afternoon, columns of flower-waving women were everywhere, parading along the broad avenues of central Minsk smiling, laughing and resolutely demanding political change.
“We are here to show solidarity with all our men who were beaten up and abused,” said Tatyana, a 31-year-old waitress who was at the very front of a column of about 1,000 women holding flowers – one of many such groups walking through the centre of Minsk. She and her friend were holding a white flag, which she said was a sign of their desire for no more violence.
On Friday evening, thousands of protesters descended on the Belarusian parliament, potentially setting the scene for a new show-down with riot police. As the demand for change intensifies and reaches even the factories that are the pride of Alexander Lukashenko’s neo-Soviet economy, the authoritarian ruler ends the week clinging on to power in defiance of an ever-broader coalition of opponents. But from the beginning, this has been an uprising inspired and led by women.
After several male presidential candidates were arrested or fled in the run-up to the vote, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of one of them, stepped in. Together with two other women, the trio offered a simple programme that inspired many Belarusians: swift new elections that would be free and fair.
Lukashenko, misreading the mood of the country he has led for 26 years, laughed at Tikhanovskaya, suggesting she should focus on cooking dinner for her children. The attacks only made people admire the resolve of Tikhanovskaya more.
“The three of us were able to show that we had taken responsibly for what is happening and for the future of Belarus,” said Maria Kolesnikova, the only one of the all-female trio who remains in Belarus, in an interview in central Minsk this week. “The west won’t help, Russia won’t help, we can only help ourselves. Our female faces became a signal for all women – and for the men too – that every person should take responsibility.”
Nobody knows the real result of Sunday’s election, but it seem unlikely that Lukashenko won anything close to a majority, and certainly not the claimed 80%, a wildly implausible number that inflamed the protest mood and brought thousands onto the street.
Authorities responded to the protest with some of the most egregious police violence in modern European history. On Sunday and Monday evenings, riot police fanned out through Minsk like they were playing a computer game, scooping up anyone wearing protest ribbons, anyone chanting and many random bystanders.
Those who were snatched were subjected to brutal violence, and no one was immune. Not the 47-year-old man on his way home to his wife, arrested at random and later given an extended ritual beating by a gang of police while he was forced to lay face down on the floor. Not the 51-year-old journalist in the city of Grodno, who shouted “journalist” and waved his accreditation in the air, only to be kicked in the face and lose four teeth (and then be detained, and fined). Not the man captured on video as he was dragged away by riot police, shouting in disbelief: “I fucking voted for Lukashenko!” And not roughly 6,700 others, detained over four nights this week.
The epicentre of terror was a detention centre on Okrestina Street on the outskirts of Minsk: two imposing buildings, one white and one terracotta, behind high walls and topped with barbed wire.
In scenes that might have come from the pages of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, weeping relatives waited outside, desperate for information about the whereabouts of missing children, siblings or partners. A long line snaked back from a grey metal door, which had a tiny hatch that would open briefly every few hours. When it did, those waiting could give the names of their missing and wait for a yest or a nyet to be barked at them from an unseen person inside.
By day, snipers patrolled the rooftops, and appeared to be communicating with thinly disguised plain-clothed watchers stationed among the crowd of weary relatives. By night, anguished cries of pain could be heard from behind the walls. Occasionally, ambulances arrived to carry away those whose injuries from beatings had become critical. Judges arrived in minibuses to perform show trials right inside the prison, with many detainees saying they were forced to sign papers with fabricated information about where, when and how they were detained.
By Wednesday morning, it seemed the protest had been decisively crushed. The reappearance of the internet, crudely switched off across the country just after the vote, seemed to be a sign that the authorities felt back in control of the situation. The picture painted by opposition social media channels of a country on the verge of a successful revolution seemed just as detached from reality as the nightly spots about grain harvest targets and rapeseed oil prices on Lukashenko’s state television.
But as prisoners began to be released, thousands of graphic videos of their injuries and testimony were shared with disgust on messaging apps. The mood changed again, as the country began to appreciate the scale and brazenness of the abuse.
Marina, a 28-year-old musician who took part in the initial demonstration of women on Wednesday, said that prior to this year she had not been interested in politics, simply living her own life in parallel to the repressive state and not feeling restricted by it. However, she was energised by the campaign of Tikhanovskaya and disgusted at Lukashenko’s violent response.
“Now when I see his face, I can’t even explain the feeling. It’s something worse than hatred, it’s something black inside me I didn’t even know was there,” she said.
As shock turned to catharsis, Minsk on Thursday and Friday resembled a carnival, as large groups of women marched through the streets, and cars honking their horns in support provided a constant backdrop of noise. The riot police retreated and the authorities launched a belated strategy of half-hearted reconciliation.
Tikhanovskaya may now be out of the country, but her video appeal on Friday calling for protests over the weekend, combined with growing resolve among the protesters and the increasing number of striking factories, suggests the next days will be crucial.
There has been total absence of demonstrations of support for the dictator, with none of the flag-waving youth groups or angry grandmas that presidents in Russia and Ukraine have mustered over recent years in attempts to showcase the depth of their support as protest movements flared. Lukashenko appears to be in control of little except the police and army.
Kolesnikova, who has remained in Minsk despite a series of threats and the arrest of many colleagues, dismissed talk of things turning violent. “I don’t think there should be a revolution, and the only person who is using words like revolution is the current president. We always talked only about peaceful methods of protest,” she said on Wednesday.
But events in Minsk were moving fast, with crowds massing on Friday evening set to be the biggest demonstration yet, and uncertainty about how riot police will respond. A new demonstration planned for Sunday could be the biggest in the country’s history. Nobody really believes in the prospect of dialogue with the dictator, leaving a bloody crackdown or the sudden fall of the regime as the most likely outcomes.
At Pushkinskaya, an intersection of two broad avenues on the edge of the city where a protester was killed on Monday night, people who had never before dreamed of attending a protest came to pay their respects throughout the week. The crimson bloodstains are still visible on the pavement.
“I’m scared. Of course I’m scared. But I have a son, and I don’t want him to live in this kind of country,” said 54-year-old Marina, who started crying as she was speaking. As she brushed away the tears, a young man passed along the row of protesters on a scooter.
“Thank you, wonderful women of Belarus!” he shouted, handing out flowers to each of them as he passed.