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A liberty to follow my own will in all things where that rule prescribes not,—John Locke, Second Treatise of Government
not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man,
as freedom of nature is to be under no other restraint but the law of Nature.
Kids in neat uniforms nervously clutching bouquets and shyly smiling at their parents’ mobile cameras, solemn speeches about the significance of good education held by headmasters, white balloons and the First Bell—on September 1 the ceremonies and rituals across more or less all the CIS countries remain unchanged for almost half a century. The so-called “Knowledge Day” marking the start of the academic year was introduced in 1984 by the Decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, and its importance in the collective mind of several generations has not been lost since then.
However, this year for Belarusian educational institutions “Knowledge Day” did differ from the previous ones both in terms of organizational processes and curricula—ruthlessly censored as one of the strategies the regime applies to fight its own people who had stood against the rigged presidential elections in summer 2020.
Large-scale peaceful manifestations that unfolded since August 9, 2020 and were brutally suppressed by the police within several months have clearly shown—knowledge is power and thus is seen as dangerous. Lawlessness can be won by compassion and support, the ability of self-organization and determination to stand for one’s views. However, the fight so far has been uneven. Literally in accordance with Stalin’s dictator’s playbook and the tactics used during the Great Purge any dissent started being stifled, which resulted in more than 656 political prisoners and 7 murders—none of them investigated and brought to court.
Universities and academic communities, logically being places where critical mind and free thinking were cultivated, joined the protests at the early stages of their development. Probably the most massive students’ demonstration was held on September 1, 2020 with around 3,000 to 5,000 participants from almost all the central higher educational establishments of the capital. Gathering along Independence Avenue, students from Belarusian National Technical University, Belarusian University of Informatics and Radioelectronics, Minsk State Linguistics University, and the Academy of Arts aimed to head towards Independence Square. The youth shouted the slogan of the peaceful revolution We believe! We can! We will win! and Students—with the People!, held Free Prisoners of Conscience! posters and the national white-red/white flags (a historical state symbol replaced on Lukashenko’s initiative in 1995 by the red and green one used when Belarus was a part of the USSR).
However, hardly making it half the route, the protesters were attacked by balaclaved police that started to randomly pick girls and boys from the crowd and violently drag them to paddy wagons. Those who had managed to escape the clashes went as far as the city center.
On that day only, more than 70 people were detained with students, university staff, and journalists among them. Videos posted on social media showed that some young people were caught even inside their alma mater and dragged through the crowded halls of Minsk State Linguistic University with zero reaction on the part of the University administration. In response to the demand to explain how and why the balaclaved men had been allowed on campus, it was said that students had no right to articulate their opinion, should it had to do with politics. As it soon became obvious—in fact, no opinion that differed from the «official one» was allowed. Otherwise . . . The punishment for exercising one’s right to free speech and assembly was not long in coming.
The dispersal of the September march turned out to be only the start of massive repressions against students and the academic community—detentions went on for many months with young activists arrested in apartments and dormitories, on their way to college or home. The flats of students and their families were searched and their laptops confiscated. At least 139 received administrative arrests and more than 70—were made to pay fines.
As the report on the repressions against students states, the average term of arrest has so far been 14 days, and the average sum of the fines—20 base values (540 BYN, about 215 USD). For comparison, the minimum scholarship at some Belarusian universities is now 77.08 BYN (about 30 USD). In total, students paid the country’s treasury $15,796 for expressing their disagreement with the fraudulent elections, lawlessness, and systematic human rights violations.
According to the data collected by the Students’ Initiative Group, since September 2020, 492 students have been arrested in Belarus—160 of them got expelled from their higher educational establishments and 41 criminal cases were started.
Black Thursday is the description the independent press introduced when speaking about November 12, 2020—the day Professor Volha Filatchankava, Medical University postgraduate Alana Gebremariam and 10 students among whom 5 were activists of the Belarussian Students’ Association were detained and charged with Art.342 part 1 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus (conspiracy, preparation, and organization or participation in group actions that seriously violate public order).
After almost 7 months of imprisonment, without any trial held and any guilt proved, on May 14, 2020 the arrestees were finally brought to court and the hearings on the students’ case started—however, one can hardly call anything connected with the judicial system in Belarus these decades fair or legal. The verdict appeared to have been clear to all beforehand, the young people were given from 2 to 2.5-years of imprisonment—the punishment the prosecutor had requested.
Alongside with repression clearly targeting the intellectual youth, the military junta kept on staging demonstrative trials aimed at inducing fear in anyone who felt disagreement with the authorities and in any way expressed it. Absurd sentences for even minor offenses were shocking—and there was no condition in the arrestee’s status, age, health, or family situation that was taken into account. The only evidence that mattered were the verbal “proofs” presented by the balaclaved policemen who often confused the names, dates, or places of the committed “criminal acts” and were allowed by judges to identify themselves with fake names during the hearings.
The arborist Stepan Latypov received 8.5 years of corrective labor colony for demanding plainclothed men who were attacking his neighbors at the backyard of their common block of flats to identify themselves. 18-year-old Sophia Malashevich was sentenced to 2 years for painting the police shields with a spray can. Aliaksey Machalau got 18 months of home arrest for a comment left in a Telegram chat in which he had insulted a policeperson. The list is continuing to grow.
Probably, the last straw to ultimately confirm that no educational institution would from now on tolerate its students or teaching staff showing disapproval or criticism of the official ideology was the case of Katsyaryna Vinnikava. This student of the Law Faculty of the Belarusian State University was sentenced to 15 days of arrest for her public speech held at the graduation ceremony on June 29, 2021. In it Katsyaryna honored the former members of the teaching staff sacked for their views and a graduate of her faculty, lawyer Maksim Znak arrested in September 2020 under charges of “conspiracy to seize power” and “creation of an extremist group”—another victim of the regime.
“I wish each of us to love, defend and stand up for the rule of law with the honor and dignity of a real lawyer, regardless of the current difficulties and the difficulties that are to come. Know the law, believe in the law. […] Please remember that law is the art of kindness and justice. And kindness, reason, and human dignity together always win,” the young woman said. The next morning she was detained, interrogated, and accused of “holding an unauthorized rally.” Ironically, Katsyaryna Vinnikava was not allowed access to her lawyer.
So, it is in such circumstances—with 10,436 members of the teaching staff sacked because of their political views in July only, 160 politically motivated expulsions, and 41 criminal cases started against the young people—was “Knowledge Day 2021” celebrated in Belarus.
Those still living in the country cannot but remark that the latest news related to the sphere of education now resemble military bulletins—apart from the regular teaching staff, pupils will have to study a new discipline Pre-conscription Medical Training administered byWar and Patriotic Education Leaders as well as take part in field training exercises. Among other additions to the curriculum, The Basics of Spiritual and Moral Upbringing and Patriotism, a discipline pupils of 5th and 6th grade will be taught, and the collective performance of the national anthem—a symbolic ritual all the pupils regardless of their age have to follow at the beginning of every school day.
Also, each school will have to replace their janitors with policemen responsible for the tranquility and safety of Minsk schools. Probably, among those, there will be the same balaclaved men who were forcefully dragging students down the University halls a year ago or witnessing against 16-years-old teenager Mikita Zalatarou sentenced to 5 years of imprisonment for «violence against an internal affairs officer».
Self-proclaimed president Alexander Lukashenko, who has run the country for 27 years, does not try to hide the heavy emphasis on the ideological and militaristic components in educational institutions across the country, as well as a total disregard for the Constitution.
At the Republican Pedagogical Council held on August 23–24, he publicly said something that went against any logic of the very essence of higher education and contradicted his own arguments of autumn 2020 when University was positioned as a place out of politics and for this very reason protesting students were detained directly at its entrance. But Lukashenko is notoriously known for following a peculiar ill logic of his own and changing the rules of the game is a rhetoric tool he frequently uses. “No school is thinkable without politics, but there is only one politics that ought to be taught there—that of the state,” the dictator claimed. The point was supported by the Minister of Education Igor Karpenko who stressed the necessity of establishing the state’s rigid control over the upbringing and teaching of children.
Does this mean that the fight for the freedom of Belarus and democratic values is over? Is following the Constitution of its own country something that would keep on being classified as a crime? Would free minds survive in the conditions of schools, colleges and universities virtually turned into detention centers with teachers sacked for doing their jobs or replaced by policemen and ideologists?
Can critical thinking at all be brought up in an environment of non-freedom?
All these are questions I, as a former University Professor with 13 years of teaching experience, have been asking myself these months. They reflect my concern for the future of this country, my pain for the next generation of Belarusians and my hope for a new democratic Belarus where no one would use police batons, conscious disinformation, and fear to make school pupils and university students love their own country.
On July 12, 2021, the accused in the students’ case were given an opportunity to say their last word in court. 19-years-old Anastasiya Bulybenko, a former student of Belarusian National Technical University, addressed the judge with these words:
I am a Belarusian and have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and expression. While exercising them, I have never broken any law. I am not a criminal.
I am 19 years old, I am far from politics, but there are things that can be understood regardless of one’s age. The summer of 2020 divided my life into “before” and “after”. I did not take to the street against the authorities, I did it to protest against violence, humiliation, lawlessness, and lies—and you cannot force me to look and not to see.
Nobody can tell when a new Belarus is going to become this country’s reality—in our classrooms, in textbooks, and on curricula, but what we already know for sure —it is already in our hearts. And, paraphrasing the words of John Locke from Second Treatise of Government, I can add: the regime can take our freedom, but it cannot force us not to be free.
Alaiza Pashkevich is a pseudonym that the author of this text has asked the platform editor to use due to personal safety reasons.