The Belarusian Embassy in Moscow is a beautiful sky-blue, ornate building standing across the street from the ‘Department of Narcotics Control’ and containing one of the most difficult visas to acquire in Europe. As Minsk is our next stop on our graffiti tour of the post-Soviet region, our entire day was spent in the sun waiting with a Dutch journalist and a courtyard of unhappy faces for a chance to enter the building, and hopefully the country, after paying a $300+ fee.
Since the jailing of opposition leaders after another stolen election earlier this year the political situation in Belarus has only deteriorated as the economic crisis has compounded the ailments of a structurally weak, Soviet-style economy. Now the dialectical spool seems to be unravelling towards knotty moments of confrontation between a historically oppressed people and a centralized, un-apologetically repressive regime.
The day before we arrived at the embassy there were mass arrests as ‘silent demonstrations’ were held – where people came together in Minsk to simply clap in opposition, and many were beaten and jailed as a result. At this time it is not clear to us what exactly this clapping is in opposition to – Lukashenko himself, the economic crisis, or the society of repression in general – but it was reported by Radio Free Europe that demonstrating has been restricted to the more political Belarussians while the general public has not yet involved itself. Click here for an update on Belarusian events.
Standing in the sun in his stylish beige suit with his hand blocking his face from the sun and sweat beads forming on his bald-shaven head, the Dutch journalist spoke to me of “revolution in the air” in the country we were both trying to penetrate – he for his publication and us for the writing that may have appeared on the walls. He and his collegue helped negotiate us into the last spot of the morning line reserved for the desperate and pushy, and we were to come back at 4pm to pick up our expedited visas.
This gave me the opportunity to walk around and see Moscow while disavowing the possibility of being denied entry. After finding some rather apolitical graffiti, such as a permanent advert for a Chemical Brothers concert long past, I returned to the embassy to wait outside the steel door. Upon my return I found many young men standing along the road outside of the embassy holding up signs which drew the attention of onlooking passers-by. Without the ability to read Russian, I could tell that the content of the message was controversial simply through the reaction of those who would read over the sign, make a face of distinct apprehension and walk quickly on while looking back to re-capture the moment.
After standing in front of the Department of Narcotics control and taking pictures of one of the glistening protestors, I was told to move by a security agent, and approached by another man in plain clothes who gave me his email address and phone number – telling me to email him the pictures I was taking. Thinking little of the events which seemed docile in nature, I stood off to the side when security officials began videotaping the demonstrators – who I now noticed were up and down the street gaining attention from all sides.
Suddenly uniformed police and plain-clothes security agents of some sort rushed the protestors, stole their signs and hauled them into the back of a squad car. One of the demonstrators ran right past me as he tore down the sidewalk with six large men in pursuit, dodging passers-by who looked on in quiet interest – until he was taken down on the concrete between two parked cars in a crush of pounding flesh and Russian yelping. I was later told by a woman we were staying with that the signs were asking for better social support for people addicted to drugs, and critical of current drug policy in Russia.
Once I had a Belarusian visa in hand by 5pm it was clear that we were going to have to be careful while pulling out cameras and being close to any demonstrations and that dissidence, while expressed in many forms, is still a dangerous and often very brave activity in this region.