Maksim. Belarus

‘I’m Here For My Country’: Belarusian Protester Talks About Iconic Photo

Maksim, a young man who was photographed arm in arm with a riot policeman when Belarus's political future seemed to hang in the balance on August 9, 2020, speaks about his experience that night and why he believes sanctions won't change anything.

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I ran a construction business with my dad in Minsk. I was apolitical, though inside I despised the regime and its existence in the heart of Europe in the 21st century.

I’d seen many places — the United States, China, European countries — I knew what life could be like. It didn’t have to be like ours! Such a high cost of living, authorities’ attitudes toward citizens, and tensions between people. And most importantly, we didn’t have to have a “head of state” like ours in power.

Maksim (left) confronts riot police on election night in 2020.
Maksim (left) confronts riot police on election night in 2020.

And so the election arrived on August 9, 2020.

It was an exciting event! We chose the president for whom the majority voted! Svyatlana Tsikhanovskaya outpaced all the other candidates by a wide margin, according to my sources, who had access to polling information.

I was born under Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s reign, and I’ve never known another president. Yet here, at last, we had achieved change. But Lukashenka apparently had his own views on the matter. And he had an army.

Maksim (with dreadlocks) photographed with a riot policeman in Minsk on August 9, 2020.
Maksim (with dreadlocks) photographed with a riot policeman in Minsk on August 9, 2020.

We went out to celebrate, but it turned into a protest. This photo was taken late in the evening on August 9. We were celebrating what we thought was our victory, and then these uniformed, helmeted riot police — looking like “black cockroaches” — came out into the streets.

Before all of this, I often went for walks around the Sports Palace. Now, suddenly, in the same place where I used to stroll, there were explosions, flash-bang grenades, and cops beating people. I’d never seen such a thing in my life. No one was prepared. I wouldn’t say there were serious “clashes” per se — it was just riot police beating unarmed people.

The photo shows me, my dad, his wife, and a riot policeman. The cop wanted to detain me at first, but I spoke with him and he changed his mind. Something must have clicked in him. A few minutes later, another brawl broke out and I lost sight of him. I don’t know what became of the guy.

Just in front of us was a crowd of cops in helmets. We approached them, lifted their helmets, shouted things. Eighty percent of them stood there, failing to understand what was happening; they just knew they had orders to beat people.

But in that police line, there were some who were special. They gleefully swung their batons without even waiting for an order. These were real monsters, it was obvious that they enjoyed it.

Violence rages during the night of August 9 in Minsk.
Violence rages during the night of August 9 in Minsk.

I stood in front of the police officers with a smile; I wasn’t going anywhere. I even thought at the time: If I have to die, I’ll die. I stood still as the crowd of protesters ran past me, then the riot police walked past me, giving me a few whacks from their batons.

At the time, I still believed police were there to enforce the law. Later, it became clear how mistaken I was about that.

Eventually the cops knocked me to the ground and tried to hold me down, but they couldn’t subdue me until I stopped fighting. Then they picked me up and told me to go home. I told them I wasn’t going anywhere. After all, I told them, I was there for the sake of my country. A bunch of cops beat me badly when they heard that.

My wife was also there, helping to provide first aid; she’s a nurse. Dad got me out from the crowd of police. But, surprisingly, neither I nor my dad was taken away. Over the next few days, I didn’t sleep at all. I worked all day, and at night I was on the streets protesting. At some point, the authorities unblocked the Internet and I fielded a thousand calls — all because of that photo being published all over the place. But I didn’t want such glory.

I have a distinctive appearance. One day I saw cops burst into the building where our office is located and pull out a guy with dreadlocks. Apparently they were looking for me.

I had a valid British visa at the time, so I decided to leave. It’s safe here in the United Kingdom, that’s the main thing. I’ve applied for political asylum, and now I’m waiting for my case to be evaluated.

Maksim photographed in London, holding a sign in support of dissident Belarusian blogger Raman Pratasevich, who was dragged off an Athens-to-Vilnius flight that was diverted to Minsk on May 23 and arrested along with his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapaga.
Maksim photographed in London, holding a sign in support of dissident Belarusian blogger Raman Pratasevich, who was dragged off an Athens-to-Vilnius flight that was diverted to Minsk on May 23 and arrested along with his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapaga.

There’s nothing I can do for Belarus. Without the “night parties” of intense street protests, as in the first days after the election, it seems impossible to do anything. During the early days of the protests, I could really sense that “97 percent” of us. (Editor’s note: This is a reference to a popular meme claiming 97 percent of Belarusians oppose Lukashenka’s regime.) Now I don’t know.

I don’t think sanctions or anything else will help. There are more dangerous countries for the world than Belarus: North Korea, for example. And even in that case, nothing seems to change. Why would Lukashenka step down now? Just because people chant, “Leave!”?

When I left Belarus, they started looking for my father and he also had to flee. Now we’re here in the U.K. together. There’s no talk of going home just yet.

  • RFE/RL’s Belarus Service

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