Essay / 4 December 2020

Revolution by Sisterhood

Letters from Belarus

I am not the only one in Belarus today who has this strong feeling that life would not be the same. This means that each Belarusian in these past months – someone already in May, someone after the terror of August 9/11 – has crossed a certain line, has taken a step which is so important that turning back is impossible.

Olga Shparaga with her husband at Minsk protests. Click on photo to read an interview with her in Die Zeit.

My personal choice in this situation is the transformation of my philosophical position into a position not only of an intellectual, but also of a political activist. When, on 14 August, as she was being forced to leave Belarus for Lithuania, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya announced the creation of a Coordinating Council in order to organise the process of overcoming the political crisis in the country, I very quickly applied to join. I did it because different people and communities started turning to me, offering to become their representative; I did it because I thought that women should have a voice in such a Council.

Women has played a significant role in our revolution: in June, women united around the portrait of “Eve,” a painting by Chaim Soutine (1928). Eve became the symbol of the political arrest of Viktor Babariko, one of the presidential candidates in the 2020 election. A month later, it took three women – Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Maria Kolesnikova and Veronika Tsepkalo – only fifteen minutes to form a joint headquarters to help Svetlana Tikhanovskaya win the election. Svetlana ran for president after her husband, a presidential candidate himself, got arrested and put in prison. She said that she did it for love, but not only for him – love for all Belarusians, for her country. During the two weeks before the election, the three women visited more than ten cities, gathering thousands of participants at their rallies. That is why, due to wide public support, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya won the elections, as evidenced by the unfalsified vote counting protocols, as well as the protests that swept the country after the elections.

            The protests broke out also in response to the unprecedented violence unleashed by Lukashenko and his armed henchmen during the first days after the elections. Thousands of people were mutilated, maimed, and several killed; the very possibility of such violence exerted by the authorities has irrevocably changed the Belarusian society. By expelling Svetlana Tikhanovskaya from the country, Lukashenko admitted that he has a real rival recognised by the Belarusian people. On 12 August, 250 women went to the first women’s chain of solidarity, which showed that women are ready not only to participate in politics on an equal basis with men, but also to expose their bodies under batons. This action launched a largely peaceful wave of public protest, which continues to this day.

My work in the Coordination Council where, together with other women we created the Fem Group, was also part of this large, decentralised solidarity protest. Already on 20 August, four days after the launch of the Council, the authorities opened a criminal case against it. Members of our Presidium were either expelled from the country or imprisoned. Maria Kolesnikova, resisting the forced expulsion, tore her passport at the Ukrainian border. This brave act has turned her, judging by the reaction on social media, not just into a hero, but rather into a legend. 

            In early October, I too ended up in prison, along with two more members of the Fem group. Before that, I had participated in numerous protests and marches. From 16 August, large Sunday marches began to take place throughout Belarus, bringing together more than one hundred thousand Belarusians. 29 August is the date of the first Women’s March that brought together ten thousand women, including the representatives of the Feminist movement. The following Women’s March included the representatives of the LGBT community. LGBT people, like feminists, with the help of their posters, revealed how much the violence, unleashed by the authorities against the entire Belarusian society, is associated with violence against certain groups – women or LGBT people. This statement is important because it emphasises that violence is never general or abstract, but that it is always specific, and it is impossible to fight violence in any one area, allowing its possibility elsewhere.

Women’s marches finally transformed women into an active collective subject, which led to their first arrests, during or just after the second Women’s March. Ecologist Irina Sukhy, artist Nadya Sayapina, social activist Stanislava Gusakova, journalist Nasta Zahrevich, poet Hanna Komar – these are the names of just a few of the brightest and most significant women in Belarusian society who have been held detained in Belarusian prisons. Some of them, like human rights activist Marfa Rabkova or youth activist and member of the Coordination Council Alana Gebremariam, remain there to this day, under criminal charges.

However, the administrative arrests did not break the women – something that became especially obvious to me in prison. Having been sentenced to fifteen days of imprisonment, I decided that I would not give in to the regime of life imposed upon me for a minute, and I would remain what I consider myself to be in the first place, a philosopher. Unfortunately, prison and philosophy are inseparable from each other, starting with Socrates. A year ago, as I was discussing Plato’s “Apology for Socrates” – a dialogue dedicated to the history of Socrates’s death sentence – with my students at ECLAB in Minsk, I was surprised at the extreme relevance of this text. Socrates was convicted for criticising traditionalism! His philosophical position was that all things, without exception, should be questioned, within the boundaries of our own knowledge and possibilities. Socrates – and my own prison experience – demonstrate that such a position does not mean relativism, or the equivalence of all values. Quite the opposite: the Socratic position of testing boundaries makes it possible to find something really solid for a given time and place, and then test whether this system of support is still relevant under new conditions.

             In prison, it was sisterhood that supported me. It meant that one can and should draw strength from caring for each other, from empathy and willingness to share with each other everything that is possible to share, from knowledge to hygiene items, food and underwear. The Belarusian revolution, which reminded me of the Great French Revolution, took its final shape precisely in this mutual willingness to help each other, showing how strongly freedom, equality and sisterhood are linked.

            After 15 days spent in prison, I left the country. I had to leave because I had reached an extreme level of tension; also, because I was sentenced to another twelve days in prison. What I feel now is the need to live in the rhythm of the ongoing protest. Of course, in Minsk, it is much more difficult. But this can be done outside Belarus as well, for example, by participating in work aimed at providing assistance to victims of political repression. Now, in a different, new sense, I do not know how it could be possible to return to normal life, when so many of my fellow citizens – persecuted, political prisoners – continue the struggle while living “abnormal” lives. In a sense, we all already live in a new, democratic Belarus. Yet this is not entirely true as long as Lukashenko remains in power and people in Belarus are subjected to violence. We are searching for the systems of support that cannot exit until we win. At the same time, we ourselves are the support; we are the pillars, we are the boundaries between the past and the future, which can only be crossed in one direction – forward.


Olga Shparaga

Olga Shparaga is a philosopher and professor at the European College of Liberal Arts, Belarus (ECLAB). She is a member of the ‘Coordination Council’ initiated by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya to  “organise the process of overcoming the political crisis and ensure social cohesion, as well as protect the sovereignty and independence of the Republic of Belarus”.

From 2006 until 2014, she was the co-editor of Novaja Europa, and she is now member of the Editorial Board of The Ideology and Politics JournalThe Interlocutor and pARTisan, as well as of the International Philosophical Book Series “Libri Nigri”. She has published two monographs: Community-after-Holocaust: On the way to the inclusion society (Minsk: ECLAB books, 2018, in Russian) and Wake of Political Life: An Essay on the Philosophy of the Public Sphere (Vilnius: EHU, 2010, in Russian).