In Minsk’s October Square, hope begins at Kilometer Zero
KLAIPĖDA, Lithuania (Mennonite Mission Network) – Editor’s note: In early March, the formerly Soviet-occupied country of Belarus made headlines briefly when its controversial president, Alexander Lukashenko, was re-elected in what many say was a corrupt election. Thousands of protesters poured into Oktabrskaya Square in the capital city of Minsk over several days in a peaceful protest. Riot police were sent in to quell the protest, and many of the protesters were imprisoned.
The European Union has publicly condemned the election and the ensuing police violence, banning Lukashenko and 30 of his top aides from the 25-nation bloc.
Following the protests, a theology student at Lithuania Christian College, whose friend was arrested, reflected on the events.
This is her story.
A poet speaks
Strength is known in the hands, without tears songs are blithe,
Desirous of glory, chests quiver,
In their books a new law, with pens of sun-scythes,
New people are writing forever.
~ Yanka Kupala, 1913
“I just love Minsk at night!” I told my grandmother authoritatively on a ride along the main street on a cold December evening. She only smiled at me, a naïve seven-year-old, who was captivated by the magnificence of the tall buildings completely covered with snow, the broadness of the unusually crowded streets, and the light that was surrounding us from every corner and every side, so that it seemed like it was still daytime. I was always a quiet child, but that evening I was especially quiet, trying to notice and examine every detail of what I was about to encounter for the first time in my life.
“This is us,” Grandma said and took me by the hand in order to help me off the bus. All of a sudden, I found myself surrounded by what seemed like a sea of people — with eyes full of joy and excitement about the upcoming celebration. It was New Year’s Eve and people kept rushing into the welcoming October square, which seemed to have become stretchable in order to host all of us. When I reflect on this evening today, I smile to myself because of how much I have changed. No longer am I ready to jump up and down when I see crowds of people in the October square. In fact, most of the time I’m tempted to take the metro and lock myself into my comfortable apartment — away from this overwhelmingly large sea (or sometimes, ocean) of people. But that night, on Dec. 31, 1993, I was willing to dive deep into this sea, with all its newness, excitement, and happiness.
Little did I know back then that this place wasn’t always as happy as it seemed that night. Back in the 1950s and up until 1961, it hosted a 10-meter-tall statue of Joseph Stalin right in the middle of it. This was after the city of Minsk and everything in it had been completely wiped out by the Nazis in the Second World War, and after it was rebuilt anew by the hands of simple Belarussian citizens who were required by the government to work 15 extra hours a month in order to accomplish that.
Little did I know back then that my pure childish joy and faith would not keep the square from losing its happiness once again in the future. At seven, I did not know and could not imagine that right there, in the middle of the square, one of my closest friends, Zhenia, and over 300 other people would be harassed, beaten, gassed and arrested for setting up a tent camp in order to protest the falsified presidential election results on March 19, 2006.
Zhenia tells me that her personal revolution took place right there — in the middle of the square, in the tent camp. According to the official reports, it lasted from March 20 to March 23, 2006. In Zhenia's heart, it is still taking place. In my head, none of these events quite make sense just yet. How did the square go from being a warm and welcoming place in my New Year's Eve memory to being so cold, arrogant and hostile during the unfair arrests that took place just a few weeks ago?
The October square has a long and complicated history. It has seen more joys and injustices than, perhaps, any living person. It is there that people get arrested and beaten for taking part in a peaceful protest or even for merely trying to bring the protesters some hot tea. It is there that thousands upon thousands of Belarussians gather annually to celebrate and mark numerous important events in our history, among which are victory over the Nazis in Word War II and our Independence Day. It is there that our newly “re-elected” president had his illegitimate inauguration on April 8. And so, the question of whether or not we really are free still hangs heavily in the air upon the square and upon all of Belarus ...
There are two main buildings in the October square, one of which is the “Palace of the Republic.” As citizens of Minsk, we are proud of it. However, it was there that the police were hiding on the night of March 23, preparing to arrest hundreds of peaceful protesters. There is a McDonald’s within about 150 meters from the square. It was that McDonald’s that wouldn’t sell food to the protesters and started closing earlier in the days of the demonstrations. There is also a large, quality screen on the edge of the square. However, all that it broadcasts is the corrupt national television, completely controlled by the government. I have yet to figure out if Belarus is really free. It seems like it isn’t. Not yet.
There is one more important element to the square, however. A small monument only about half-a-meter above the ground that marks the zero kilometer. We refer to it as simply “Kilometer Zero.” Engraved into it are words of some of our most important poets, people who fought for justice and liberty, just as we are today, and distances to other capitals of Europe. Among all of the pretentious sights and marvelously designed buildings, I find this sight to be one of the most encouraging in all of Minsk. To me, “Kilometer Zero” signifies the beginning of something new — a new history, a new mentality, a new and liberated country of Belarus.
Writing a new history is never easy. But it is worth the effort. If the October square could talk, I am sure, it would tell us great stories — of life and death, grace and punishment, joy and sorrow, love and hatred, freedom and imprisonment, and most importantly, hope.
Suzanna Krivulskaya is a theology student from Belarus at Lithuania Christian College. LCC is a Christian liberal-arts college dedicated to providing a university education in an international learning community that transforms people for servant leadership. Currently a half-dozen Mennonite Mission Network representatives serve at the college in teaching, administrative and fund-raising roles.