An LGBT Poet in Kurapaty
Letters from Belarus
Kurapaty, the wooded area in the North of Minsk, is a majestic sight. Sky-high pines whisper their lullabies to the bones buried between their roots. In the 1930s, thousands of people were executed by NKVD there. Nobody knows exactly who, how many, and why: from 7,000 up to 250,000 people according to various contesting sources. People who wanted to remember these bones raised a memorial there: dozens of tall wooden crosses, a silent company for the innocently murdered, stand along the beltway watching the ant-like cars rush in and out of Minsk.
These crosses bothered Alexander Lukashenko so much that in the Spring of 2019, he ordered to “clean up the place.” A photograph then went viral: a “Belarus” tractor extracting a tall wooden cross.
“Godless people,” many of us thought then.
Could have we imagined the kind of memorials that would appear and be “cleaned up” by the police boots in Minsk within one year?
When, following the mass detention of peaceful protesters in August, the news and evidence of torture broke out, people formed a nine-kilometre human chain between Kurapaty and the Akrescina prison in Minsk,where the detainees screamed all night, keeping the surround neighbourhood awake. Less than a hundred years later, NKVD methods were back.
“Godless people,” I thought to myself on 29 October on my way to Kurapaty for the “Night of the Executed Poets.”
This is the darkest moment in the history of Belarusian literature. On the night from 29 October to 30 October, 1937, Soviet authorities executed more than 100 people of culture in Belarus – poets, musicians, actors, scientists. Every year, Belarusians come to Kurapaty on this night to honour the dead.
Not me though: I had never been to Kurapaty until this year. I had never felt that I had the right to step on this ground even though Stalin’s red terror didn’t bypass my family. The thing is that Christians have taken Kurapaty into their care, turning it into a Christian memorial. And they see me – an LGBT person – as a great evil.
This year, after brutal violence was unleashed against innocent people, I couldn’t not go. I felt closer than ever to the bones buried under the sky-high pines in Kurapaty. This year, the atmosphere in the woods seemed morbidly authentic: the forest was surrounded by Lukashenko’s riot police forces. These are the men who spray teargas into the eyes of elderly people; men who beat women below their stomachs with truncheons; these are the men who have imprisoned priests and doctors speaking out against violence; these are the people who, in the dark of the night, destroyed the memorial to Alyaksandar Tarajnowski, shot dead by one of theirs – the first victim of police brutality after the presidential election.
I stood in a sea of people and listened to poetry, a candle in my hands. People went up to the microphone for hours, one after another, reciting poetry – their own and other’s. As a poet under the sky-high pines, I stood with my eyes closed. My imagination sent shivers down my spine: it was too easy to imagine how 22 writers, many of them my age, were shot dead here. Before they were shot, their manuscripts and archives had been gathered in the prison yard and burned. Had their work survived, the bones buried here would have been my literary parents.
I thought to myself that this is exactly where, how, and why poetry should be recited – poetry about anything. Every poem says that we are all human, and not one of us is above another.
For a moment I was glad I came and spent a night in the sea of people in the Kurapaty forest. It was important for me to know that as I came out to the streets risking my life, I stood no lower than others.
Then something happened. I couldn’t believe my ears. At the end of the night, somebody went to the microphone and read a poem in which he listed things that were equally despicable to him: “NKVD, LGBT.” What a rhyme. I felt slapped on the face. “NKVD, LGBT, BT” – the line added a third rhyme, the abbreviation that stands for a state TV channel, the voice of propaganda that covers up terror. Standing next to my friends, I tried hard to hold back tears. “So, this is it then,” I thought to myself.
So, there is no place for me here after all. Not now, not yet. Perhaps, for some people, Belarus would truly be new soon. Not for me.
After hearing this poem on the Night of Executed Poets, I couldn’t make myself join the demonstrations in the next few days. I numbed myself with mindless movie watching. I held the grudge and felt it physically between my ribs: what else should I do to secure my right to be here?
In the meantime, Lukashenko’s men kept “cleaning up.” Soon, they would surround the mourners gathered on the self-renamed Square of Changes, throw stun grenades into a crowd of people holding candles and flowers; all in order to destroy another memorial, this time to Raman Banderenka, the latest innocent victim of the regime. They would stomp on candles and flowers, on people’s memory, on morality – demonstratively rough and degrading, proving (to themselves first of all) that they follow no law – neither human nor divine. That they, not us, would decide how and who would be remembered and honoured, who would be mourned.
What now? I do not have any answers. I’m back on the streets. I don’t remember the moment when things turned from the joy of solidarity to this moment when we stopped smiling, when going to the streets became a duty. I don’t remember when this transformation happened to me. I carry no flags, no posters. I don’t take pictures and don’t join in the chants. I come out serious and ready for anything.