Maksim, 28: ”I will keep taking to the streets until we win”

This article is part of the Let The World Hear Project, which is a collaboration between Stockholm Free World Forum’s webzine Säkerhetsrådet and a number of Belarusian volunteers. Together we have gathered stories from victims of the dictatorship regime in 2020. The world must know what happened.

Read more about the project here

This is the story of 28-year-old Maksim from the city of Gomel who was arrested on the 9th of August 2020 after a brief participation in a spontaneous protest.

Protests in Minsk. Photo: Artem Podrez/Pexels

It was around 10 p.m. on 9 August. My friend and I went for a walk and then popped into a bar for a pint. We live in the city of Gomel. We walked towards the Circus and then back towards Lenin Square. A lot of people were on the streets and we saw the OMON already arresting people. Actually, these were probably not even OMON officers, but rather regular police officers dressed as the OMON – as they were not particularly fit and struggled to run without catching a breath. One even had a beer belly and people kept laughing at him.

Around the Circus area, people were lining up on the streets, clapping and shouting, and cars were signaling. We joined in, of course. This was exhilarating, such a memorable experience, an atmosphere of a joint celebration. Everything was peaceful and orderly, even though avtozaks were driving up and down and the fake “OMON” were grabbing people from time to time. Just before we got detained, we were standing on a corner near the bar. We had managed to escape the OMON three times by then. On the fourth attempt they surrounded us, so we realized we were stuck – we could either try to break the circle or surrender. I am not one to give up easily so I ran again. My friend Dima broke through, two girls also ran. I managed to escape two officers, but the third one blocked me and I fell on the pavement hearing “you are finished” behind me, accompanied by swearing. 

They grabbed me, forced my hands behind my back and hit me in the stomach with a truncheon. Everything went black for a moment, but I regained my consciousness quickly, and asked them to stop as I got the message. They softened up a bit and dragged me to the avtozak. A couple more guys were thrown in, including Dima. I joked that he had joined in to support me. Out of four officers in the autozak, three were really aggressive. One kept asking, “what the fuck are you doing here?”, “who is the leader?”,  “who paid you?” and so on. I responded that it was our own initiative. Even though they were abusive I tried not to provoke these morons further. Another detained guy – a tall one, with curly hair – asked them why we were detained and got punched in the face. The officer next to me said, “don’t show off and you will be ok”. The avtozak circled around the main streets for a bit, until they transferred us to another vehicle. Personal things such as phones and wallets were taken from us at that point. It was a rather long ride to the RUVD.

I was lucky to have arrived on the 9th as officers treated us decently. Those arrested on the 10th and 11th were severely beaten and held face down for hours, with their hands behind their backs and their legs restrained. I think that the guards became more violent overtime because people kept taking to the streets. The idea was to instill fear. We were searched and our temperature taken [due to COVID-19]. I ended up in the “green” zone and was taken upstairs to the economic crime unit. While walking up I saw a dozen men and women, of different ages – it looked like the authorities were letting them go without a hearing. This would not be the case for for me. 

The officers in the room were laughing and making rude jokes. “Process them as terrorists”, one said. The officer drawing up my protocol made a few grammar mistakes and I pointed them out. He asked me a few questions; I answered them honestly and the records more or less reflected that. They also took my fingerprints. There were a couple more officers there, one young one who must have graduated recently. I could see sympathy in his eyes even though he had chosen to be a part of the system. “How was your night out guys, did you enjoy that pint?” another one asked. They weren’t abusive or threatening so I joined in and joked around with them, making sarcastic comments. 

NC: What happened after processing?

They took us to an assembly hall where there were about 25 people, a mix of men and women. We were silent at first, then we started to chat in order to pass the time. We must have been there for five hours or so. Eight guards were watching our group, like we were dangerous criminals. We asked them questions – why were we detained, what happens next? They didn’t give us much information. From time to time someone was called upstairs to hear what they were accused of  – usually “participation in unauthorized activities” or “resisting arrest”. I personally didn’t admit to resisting. After all, they were the ones who had loaded us into the avtozak.

They searched me, took my shoelaces, gave me a mattress and took me to a prison cell. It was a single cell with two beds. Another guy was in there. It turned out that he was on the opposition leader’s Sergei Tsihanouski team and was sentenced to five days in prison on some made-up charge. He had health issues with one of his legs. They let him go however; he didn’t stay for the full sentence. I was soon joined by another guy – he hadn’t even participated in any rallies, he was in a sauna with his friends and was trying to catch a taxi when the OMON arrested him. 

The conditions in the cell were strange, a bright light was constantly on so you didn’t know whether it was day or night. The food was terrible, but I ate it anyway. They also allowed a food parcel from my family which I shared with my cellmate. 

Maksim while in the avtozak and the cells in the avtozak. Photo: private

The next day they took us to another detention centre in order to wait for the court hearing. The officers were clearly better educated and quite reasonable over there, so we managed to talk to them. I asked a lieutenant colonel who they were serving: the people of Belarus or Lukashenka. His excuse was a long police career, good salary, nearing retirement and bank loans to pay. There was another one who had ended up in the police force instead of the army. He was sympathetic to us and even showed us some videos of detentions on his phone. The conditions were fine, they brought in another food parcel from my parents and toilet breaks were allowed.

My sentence was read eventually. None of the facts were correct – the time and the place of detention were wrong, plus allegedly I had cursed and resisted. The judge kept asking me why I was out on the street and if it had appeared suspicious that there were so many people outside. I was playing dumb. Overall I was quite calm. I only worried for my mom as I hadn’t managed to text her before the transfer, though as it turned out she found out my location herself. Since I didn’t confess anything, they sentenced me to 15 days in detention. My friend Dima got seven, and we ended up in the same cell. When we went out for a smoke – the guards would let us do so – a guy wearing a face covering came over and started to ask questions, “Why were you doing this?”, “What didn’t you like?”, clearly trying to provoke us. But the guard told him to get lost. 

Later, we were transferred to a different detention centre. The young officer who had earlier showed us videos on his phone even wished us good luck.

Upon arrival, they told us to run, with our hands above our heads, and face the wall – like in the movies. Clearly, a military division was running the show here. They put us in a cell, a big one with 50 other people. Oxygen was scarce. While chatting, it turned out one of the group was supposed to get married that weekend. We started cheering and joking that it was quite the bachelor party he had arranged. An officer came and ordered us to calm down. 

A lot of detainees in that prison were transferred from the city of Zhlobin. Apparently over there detainees had gotten aggressive and started to throw pavement slabs at the police. In Gomel things were more quiet. There, they had detained 152 people on the night of the 9th.

NC: How long were you there in total?

6 days out of the 15 that I was sentenced to – they let me go early as there was no more space left in the detention centre. They held us in a basement cell – I was told that this was actually decent conditions. At least we had somewhere to lie down. In other places, they had to sleep standing as there was no space. Also, the mass protests carried on and this probably helped too. 

NC: Did they feed you?

Yes, with some delays though. From the 6 a.m. rise, they didn’t feed us until midday, and sometimes lunch was combined with dinner. But they did allow food parcels from families so we had lots of food. Fruit, nuts, sweets – a whole feast. 

Outside the Gomel detention centre. Photo: private

NC: How did you pass the time?

Talking and sharing stories of the detentions. Many hadn’t even been participating in any rallies when the OMON arrested them – they were on their way home, going to the grocery store, walking a girl home. There were even funny ones – someone had moonshine in a plastic bottle on him when he got detained and he managed to drink it in the avtozak. He was soon singing songs and inviting others to join in “for the ride”. There was one guy in the cell that didn’t even live in Belarus; he was studying in Berlin and had come over to see his parents for the holidays. He got detained while walking with a girl. 

NC: Was this your first detention?

Yes. It was cool in a way – experiencing “life”, something you would have only seen in movies or a video game. It becomes part of your history. It’s only cool for a day or two though, then it becomes boring, despite you meeting great people and time passed in conversations. Overall, the guards made it clear that if we didn’t cause trouble we would be ok. They didn’t let us outside for walks at first. As time passed they softened up a bit and would let us out for a smoke sometimes. I smoked a cigarette on my first day and on the last although I am not a smoker. 

At one point they called me up for an interview, asked what I had on my phone, why I was out, what I did for a living and so on. I took it that they were going to let me out, so I packed up my things and waited, but they didn’t release me until days later. By next Saturday they let all of us out. On the first day a man had gotten really ill, his face turned blue – it turned out that he was having an epileptic seizure. We started to make noise and rang the bell. The guards came running, shook him up and managed to revive him. He was taken to the hospital and I haven’t seen him since. This was apparently his first seizure, he had no prior health issues. So we nearly had a dead man on day one.

NC: What did you learn from yourself from this experience?

I thought I’d be more scared and intimidated, that the masculine part of me would somehow be lost … because of this whole repressive system; the uncertainty – waiting and not knowing what will happen. I surprised myself by my lack of fear, staying true to myself, by being daring but not responding to provocation. I was worried for my mother, how she would take it, but I was not scared for myself. I did feel a rush of adrenaline and anger though, so this probably helped me to display courage. 

NC: Do you feel connected to the events of the past few weeks, to the transformation of civil society in Belarus? Do you see yourself playing a part in this?

Yes, absolutely. I signed a paper on being released that I will not participate in rallies under threat of further detention and even criminal charges. Despite all those threats, they let me out on Saturday and on Sunday I was back out on the street with everyone else. Also, I’m more active on social media, sharing news of what is going on, as well as my own opinion. For example, when they started forcing people at state-run companies to go to pro-government rallies, I shared that my parents were forced to go but refused. Any remaining apathy is gone, I can’t be indifferent to what is happening. It’s not that I was indifferent before, I was angry with the situation, as well as the apathy – my own included. I remember the presidential elections back in 2010, I was 18 back then. Those who are 18 now – I feel this unity with them, this fire inside. 

I got angry when I learned about people, women in particular, being beaten and abused, about what was happening in Akrestina. When we were being released, I heard cheering and clapping from the people outside, they were greeting us like heroes. I heard that the people still on the inside were also cheering, making rattling noises with cups and spoons, to the point where the guards were getting nervous. When I was released, I immediately saw a girl I knew. She ran towards me sobbing, she was so happy to see that I was doing fine. Seeing the women’s tears – even though these were tears of joy in this case – is yet another strong trigger for me to take action. All these atrocities, towards women in particular, mean that a point of no return has been reached. All apathy is gone. 


NC: Do you believe in victory?

Yes, this is what keeps us going – we need to finish what we’ve started. Yesterday we even set out driving to Minsk to join the Sunday rally there, but our car broke down on the way. We later learned about all the absurdities that were happening: Lukashenka running around with a gun, the pressure put on teachers, and so on. We need to carry on and I will keep taking to the streets until we win. My parents are supportive as well, only my grandmother believes in the state propaganda. Sadly, it really does work on that one generation.

The story was originally told to Nadia C and translated by Maria Thompson.