See”Firm in reliance, laugh a defiance,
(Laugh in hope, for sure is the end)
March, march—many as one,
Shoulder to shoulder and friend to friend” (The March of the Women – Anthem of the Suffragettes. Ethyl Smyth, 1911)
In October, 2020 a large group of Belarusian women based in London and elsewhere in the UK joined similar events worldwide to show solidarity with the women of Belarus who are playing a pivotal role in the ongoing demonstrations against the Lukashenko regime.
The London March had a very distinct theme – following in the footsteps of the Suffragettes who fought for the right of women to vote. I came up with it and dared myself to dress as a Suffragette to lead the march.
I have a 30 year long deep connection with Belarus which has been life-changing in both good and bad ways. I am very often asked why as a Scot with no family connections in Belarus, I am so actively involved in pushing for the liberation of my beloved Belarus from the iron grip of the dicator Lukashenko, and why I choose to devote myself to helping with solidarity demonstrations in the UK.
The aim of this blog is hopefully to answer these questions by reflecting on what shaped my thinking on the whole issue of power and leadership in Belarus.
These days, I am happy to describe myself as an activist in accordance with this definition by Eve Ensler:
Activists are both born and made. I have always been motivated by a sense of justice. I am just wired this way. Turning a blind eye and sitting on the fence are not part of my make-up. Life events which have involved being silenced and negated, added further layers of activism as hopefully this blog will illustrate:
The journey begins
I arrived in my new job in Aberdeen City Council fresh out of University with my Russian degree. I was to be my City’s new International Relations Officer.
On my first meeting with my new manager, a chinovnik through and through, I was told two important things – one that the Lord Provost (our equivalent of Mayor) was “a bastard on a good day”, and two, that Aberdeen had agreed to Twin with a “Russian” City. I summoned the courage to make two points:
1. This City, Homiel, was NOT in Russia. It was 1990, so it was in the then Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic 2. I followed this up with, “have you looked on a map?”.
Homiel was the centre of a region heavily contaminated by fallout from Chernobyl four years before. As was their wont, a bunch of our whisky-laden Councillors had met their vodka-laden Belarusian counterparts on a publicly funded “fact-finding mission” aka free holiday, in France. They had been seen coming, as they had undoubtedly been bragging about oil revenue and the £28 million Common Good Fund otherwise known locally as Robert the Bruce’s Sporran. The historic and binding deal was sealed, making our Cities friends for life, through thick and thin, dictatorship and plutonium.
My first visit to Homiel was in 1990 so I started working on projects in Belarus before the arrival of Lukashenko. Even then, I was struck by how women were taking the lead in finding constructive solutions for their own issues rather than sitting back and waiting from assistance from outside. They had started forming themselves into self-help groups such as the “Mothers of Children with Cancer”, and others not related to Chernobyl directly, such as “Mothers of Afghanistan veterans” and “Mothers of Children with Cerebral Palsy”.
I started getting concerned about the UK’s emphasis on well-meaning initiatives that portrayed the people of Belarus as “victims” of Chernobyl. I was one of very few voices expressing a note of concern around the holidays arranged by charities for so-called “Children of Chernobyl”. I was and still am absolutely committed to the power of enabling children and young people to meet across cultural and geographical borders but as EQUALS – decidedly not as passive victims. I knew from first-hand experience that these projects were often riddled with corruption in terms of which children were allowed to participate, and the pitfalls of lavishing some children with gifts, then returning them home. Claims of somehow “curing” children of after effects of radiation were also very dubious scientifically.
I felt then, and still do, that our funds would have been much better spent developing the capacity for Belarusians to find their own solutions to their own problems, and more importantly have control over their own future, their own destiny.
These fledging women’s groups encountered in Belarus in the dying days of the USSR and then early days of independence were already lobbying political institutions. They already understood that strength was obtained through unity.
I remember attending an international women’s conference in Belarus in the early 1990s. The afternoon was spent visiting some of the groups I mentioned. I went to the local cancer hospital where I met the Mothers of Children with Cancer together with the female Chief Oncologist. This was a joyful, inspiring and uniquely Belarusian experience. We simply connected over tea and home made cakes. I do believe vodka was also involved. The doctor brought out her guitar and we sang together I song I already knew: “How to live in a world without love”. We decided rather than report back to the main conference in the usual (Western) rather dull manner, we would bring this doctor with us and report back in song. We invaded the conference platform – doctors, mothers, conference delegates, and reprised this song. I remember this event more clearly than any of the hundreds of conferences I have attended worldwide since.
This I understand now was a distinctly Belarusian way of doing things. They got the idea of holding a women’s conference from us, then they ran with it and created their own version rather than a carbon copy, with a uniquely Belarusian stamp on it. I became convinced that there is such power in the room when we “experts” stand back and allow Belarusians to do their own thing their way….
A few years later, the Lukashenka regime had tightened its stranglehold on Belarus. Belarusians became adept at finding ways round this. We continued to create some wonderful projects together from which I can categorically state, we in Aberdeen were learning every bit as much, if not more so, than giving. We were colleagues, we were equal partners, and we were friends.
In the late 1980s, in the latter days of the USSR I studied in Russia for a while as part of my degree in Russian. We were followed, spied upon, force-fed Lenin at every possible moment. We were forced to take part in Subbotniks and help the local Komsomol builder brigades. We were told we were “not academic” so we were sent off to singing lessons. We had hoped this might be a Lenin-free zone but it was not for the song we were taught was “Lenin is Always with you”. I was an activist in the making so gave up on classes choosing instead to meet up with dissidents, banned rock musicians, refuseniks etc. I learned the art of reading between lines and reading covert messages such as the true meaning of the sudden unscheduled appearance of Swan Lake on TV.
These skills enabled me to operate in the Soviet-style regime created by Lukashenko and his people. I learned to know when there was a problem simply from my Belarusian colleague Larisa’s change in tone of voice on the phone. Her voice would go up a few notes and the way she said “thank you Alison” in a particular way let me know immediately that something was wrong. I was always on alert for hidden agendas.
In 1995, the bombshell happened that would direct the course of my life for the next decades and to a certain extent still does. This was the death in Homiel of my immediate boss Ann and Iain, another colleague, on an official visit to Belarus.
The day it happened, I was called to the office of my Chief Executive who said they were missing presumed drowned. They decided to send me over to Belarus immediately. It was mentioned in our newspapers that I was going there somehow to sort everything out. Rumours already abounded as to what had happened out there.
By the time I got there with Neil, a detective from Grampian Police, they had found what remained of Ann. She had been dragged into the propellers of a boat on the River Sozh and had been dismembered. Iain was dragged down after her in a vortex so he drowned and was found further down the river some days later. They had dredged the river and found some ten other corpses. We have no idea to this day who they were. It was 1995, it was not uncommon for people simply to disappear.
This all happened at the time of consolidation of Lukashenka’s authoritarian rule. The female democratically elected Mayor Svetlana Goldade had been sidelined and Lukashenka supporting bureacrats now ruled with a chain of command heading vertically up to the President (the rather Orwellian-sounding Presidential Vertical system)..
Who showed genuine Leadership at this time? It was Svetlana Goldade and her team. The Lukashists fell apart. They were good at following orders with blind obedience, but as for initiative and ability to solve problems creatively and spontaneously, they had none. The blame game commenced immediately. Who was to blame for the foreigners’ deaths? The Verticals, the Lukashists, immediately pointed the finger at Svetlana Goldade despite the fact she was not involved in organising the drunken orgy that involved so-called politicians from Belarus and Scotland that day. She was not present during the drunken debauchery that led to such a loss of control that two people ended up dead. Svetlana asked me to go on radio and I made absolutely certain that she was not implicated in any way. I praised her leadership and publicly thanked her for managing the situation so majestically.. .
The River Sozh, Homiel Region, scene of the accident.
Once back in the UK, I found myself in the middle of two factions each of which expected me to protect their interests. My employers expected me to cover up the reason for the deaths and stay silent about the depravity of the “party” on the banks of the river. The Embassy of Belarus in London started to pressurise me into ensuring there would be no legal claim agains Belarus. These attempts either to silence me or to make me act contrary to my conscience were relentless and took their toll on my health. I am not wired to turn a blind eye. Suppressing the truth against my conscience had a corrosive impact on me.
The article below is largely fabricated in an early example of #FakeNews
Though my health was rapidly declining, I continued on with my work. It was at this time that I met up with the Belarusian diaspora in London based mainly around the church and library in Finchley, north London. I met Father Alexander Nadson who showed me round the library and gave me my first white-red-white badge that I wore with pride.
I was a frequent guest at the Belarusian embassy at that time. They were very different in those days but they of course had a vested interest in keeping me onside. I had no idea I was so ill so allowed myself to be rather colonised by them.
Demonstrations against the Lukashenka regime were happening more and more often in London. I remember looking out at protestors through the net curtains at the embassy window. One of the younger diplomats whispered “I wish I could join them”. He has just finished a posting as Ambassador of the Republic of Belarus to the Netherlands. Has he completely lost the integrity and independent-mindedness he had then? Rhetorical question. He had a term as Lukashenka’s Press Spokesman…this speaks volumes.
Also in 1996 the referendum on Lukashenka took place. By this time I was in personal correspondence with the then Ambassador of Belarus in London who was, it was clear, in a state of increasing despair at developments. He was a passionate defender of Belarusian language, art, literature, culture and identity. It was at odds with his position as Lukashenka’s UK (and Irish) mouthpiece – a role which he described as “weeping silent tears and laughing silent laughter”. He was however able to work within the constraints of the regime by very clever and highly creative means which meant that we did manage to carry out some good projects despite the political situation. After the results of the referendum came out in 1996 consolidating Lukashenka’s authoritarian regime he wrote this in a letter to me:
“I knew before that we are farmers, but I did not expect that so many of us want to be collective farmers. In my opinion, we are very of a hermit type. However tricks may have been done”
I urged him to quit as he was clearly being damaged psychologically by the constant need to suppress his personal views. I have tried to effect change from within oppressive structures myself and while I still believe there is power from being an outsider inside, it can be a lonely and damaging place.
In the end I was forced to give up my job as I became too ill to sustain it. With no income, I lost my home. I descended into what I call the Twilight Zone. I ended up moving to London where away from my support network, I ended up on the streets and almost entirely alienated from society and from myself.
A Voyage of (Re)discovery Scots, like Belarusians, are a resilient lot when the chips are down. Somehow I survived. I kept myself afloat with the help of friends such as the late Vera Rich, great friend of and campaigner for Belarus. The Belarusian community in London were also very supportive and I remain closely connected to them.
I gradually rebuilt my life, and emerged with my commitment to justice and to helping those who have been silenced to find their voice, stronger than ever. I have been through what most people fear most – loss of home, health, job, sense of worth, even identity, and I came out the other side. This means I am pretty much unafraid to say and do exactly what my conscience dictates. It does not give me an easy life but at least I no longer compromise my principles.
I will speak truth to power even if my voice shakes. It frequently does.
In the Footsteps of the Suffragettes
Why did I choose the theme of the Suffragettes from the early 1900s for a solidarity March of Belarusian women and their friends?
FIrst, I was struck by similarities in the images coming out of Belarus of women being manhandled by police and hauled off into police vans.
I could see so much in common in terms of symbolism between the two groups of women and their shared ability to maintain dignity and show courage in exremis. Note in particular the defiant jut of the chin in the photograph of Belarusian heroine, great-grandmother Nina Bahinskaya and her undoubted soul sister from over a hundred years previously.
This is why I suggested to the organisers of the London March that we could follow directly in the footsteps of our Edwardian sisters both in our minds but also by physically following the route they would often take, from Caxton Hall in Westminster scene of many Suffragette meetings in Westminster to Downing Street via Parliament Square.
Who were the Suffragettes?
The Women’s Suffrage Political Union (WSPU) was a women-only political movement campaigning for women’s suffrage (right to vote). In 1906 London became their headquarters. For the next eight years, the fight for suffrage became a highly public struggle played out against the backdrop of Edwardian London.
They were well organised, adopting tactics that modern-day activists would recognise as Flash Mobs. They understood the importance of “branding”, attracting maximum publicity and frequently marching in white or in their campaign colours of purple representing loyalty and dignity, white for purity, and green for hope.
They were familiar sight in Central London, maintaining a constant presence in Whitehall, petitioning Downing Street, heckling M.P.s and chaining themselves to government buildings.
In prison they endured force feeding by tube through the nose. Many of them never regained their health after going through this repeatedly. Despite this while in prison they campaigned for better conditions in Holloway Women’s prison, held literacy classes and they kept singing.
They learned how to smash windows as safely as possible in special evening classes, they learned how to make bombs, they learned martial arts. They avoided being counted in the 1911 Census in a range of ingenious ways including hiding out in a vegetarian restaurant (200 women spent the night there). They liked to roller skate and often skated during marches. They published newspapers, posters and were early adopters of merchandising. They believed in empowering their sisters through training and education. While in prison, despite being on hunger strike and force fed, they campaigned for better conditions for all prisonsers. They ran training courses in organising, and public speaking which enabled women from working class backgrounds to become effective campaigners.
These days we have other means at our disposal such as the power of social media to unite people of similar convictions. Metropolitan Police in London have praised our Belarusian rallies for their peaceful nature. We do not chain ourselves to railings, we do not smash windows, and we are not thrown in prison. (I am pretty militant I must confess, but I have been on my best behaviour so I do not show up our wonderful dignified Belarusian friends.)
The Folly of Underestimation
But there are other distinct parallels. Like their modern day sisters in Belarus, the Suffragettes knew they were at risk of arrest, detention, torture, and assault. They were under a constant threat of losing their children and any livelihood they may have had, and faced long-term damage to their physical and mental health as a result. This did not stop them from going out on the streets and fighting for their cause. If anything, it strengthened their resolve.
I was very struck too by the similarity in the underlying assumptions by Lukashenko and his regime, that women are profoundly unsuited to politics and leadership. Compare this to the prevailing view of men (and some women!) to the fight for the right of women to the vote in early 20th Century UK.
These are quotes from the records of parliamentary debates in the House of Commons:
‘Women are likely to be affected by gusts and waves of sentiment. Their emotional temperament makes them so liable to it. But those are not the people best fitted in this practical world either to sit in this House… or to be entrusted with the immense power which this bill gives them.’ Frederick Banbury, MP for the City of London
‘We are controlled and worried enough by women at the present time, and I have heard no reason why we should alter the present state of affairs.’Sir James Grant, MP for Whitehaven.
‘There are obvious disadvantages about having women in Parliament. I do not know what is going to be done about their hats. “How is a poor little man to get on with a couple of women wearing enormous hats in front of him?’ Sir John Rees, MP for Nottingham East.
‘Women are tremendously accessible, extraordinarily impressionable, noted for the adoption of any new thing, and for the easy acceptance of other people’s views…Are those qualities which fit women to rule over the home and foreign affairs of a mighty empire?’ Sir John Rees, MP for Nottingham East
I firmly believe Alexander Lukashenko would have found his tribe among such relics of the Edwardian past. He made the enormous mistake of writing off President Elect Svetlana Tikhanovskaya as a mere housewife who should remain in the kitchen. Only yesterday, I was trolled by one of his supporters on social media after referring to Maria Kolesnikova, who is currently in detention, as a Leader:
“Women should not be leaders. Their role is something different”. Petr Mironenko, Post to Facebook, October, 2020.
No prizes for guessing what that role might entail – being ‘seen and not heard’, I assume.
I always knew women would be a key element of resistance to this dictatorship and a vital part of transformational change in the country. I am sorry that it has taken so long but the genie is now out of the bottle and will not be pushed back in. I was involved before Lukashenka arrived and I am determined to see him go. Then and only then, will I consider returning to Belarus. And when I do, what a reunion that will be.
I am proud and rather in awe of the brave women of Belarus of all ages. I will continue to support their efforts with all the passion of the Suffragettes, to whom the current struggle and determination to be heard of the women of Belarus would be startlingly familiar:
‘I know that women, once convinced that they are doing what is right, that their rebellion is just, will go on, no matter what the difficulties, no matter what the dangers, so long as there is a woman alive to hold up the flag of rebellion” – Emmeline Pankhurst
My thanks go to the wonderful Belarusian women who helped bring my mad idea to fruition – Nastya, Valentina, Vera, Tatsiana – I salute you, you are Honorary Suffragettes.
Thanks to brilliant photographer Anahita Moradi who came forward to volunteer after finding the event online. She is from Iran so understands deeply the impact of being silenced as a woman.
Thanks to every single woman who joined us last Saturday and of course to our “male assistants” (the Suffragettes had male supporters but they always knew their place)….