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For young exiles, guarded hope for change in Belarus

As protests continue in Minsk, those who fled for Poland ponder what comes next for their homeland.

Known as the “last dictatorship” in Europe, for decades Belarus has been caught in a tug-of-war between Russia — its former imperial master — and the West. Since 1994, its president, Alexander Lukashenko, has ruled the nation with an iron fist and great nostalgia for the former Soviet Union. In the wake of the August election that kept Lukashenko in power, with — his government says — 80 percent of the vote, the opposition was again defeated, or so thought the ruling party. Protests began swiftly, with a ferocity never before seen in the country: For more than a month now, thousands have taken to the streets to demand democracy and new elections, and have been met with severe police brutality.

Before it became the sight of major political upheaval, Minsk, the Belarusian capital, seemed a place where time had stood still: gigantic avenues, statues of Lenin and Stalin on every street corner, fervent patriots replaying battles of the Red Army, a museum dedicated to the heyday of communism. Yet pockets of resistance have always existed, especially among the younger generations. Now they’re more visible than ever — even if they are no longer in the country.

Over the years, many young, ambitious Belarusians fled to neighboring Poland — Europe proper, in their eyes. And with that new home came freedom of expression. In Poland, these young Belarusian exiles feel they can finally breathe, out from under the gray skies of their country’s Soviet past.

These diptychs, by photographer Aude Osnowycz, pair the exiles — in Poland — with iconic symbols of communism back in Belarus. Many are still afraid, especially that they are being watched and could face repercussions at home. But as the pro-democracy movement continues to put pressure on Lukashenko’s regime in Belarus, others are projecting courage, and allowing a glimmer of hope to peek through, that their one-time home may yet emerge from its decades of dictatorship.

Photographs and interviews by Aude Osnowycz for POLITICO

Alessia arrived in Poland just a few months ago. “In Belarus I couldn’t find my place, spending my life in hiding, being wary of others. Being watched was becoming unbearable for me, so I moved to Poland. In my head I am a rebel. I have anger but I also love my country, which is a carrier of values before the Soviet Union. I hope the demonstrators take that into account.”


Alexander arrived in Poland three years ago. “In Belarus everything is gray, heavy and everyone is suspicious. With my dreadlocks I was always suspected of some wrongdoing. Here in Poland I feel safe, I feel free. I can live in accordance with my values … but I miss my country, its traditions, its way of thinking.”


Matsvey arrived in Poland four years ago. His look is much less “rebellious” than the others and he makes a good living modeling in Poland, but he continues to work for his country. “I could no longer support the Lukashenko dictatorship, the omnipresent Soviet past. I am from another generation, I want openness, freedom, novelty — values anchored in the present and turned toward the future. I want my country to evolve while preserving its traditions and folklore.”


Pavel, 28, works as a cook, but dreams of making his own beer and opening a small bar. He arrived in Poland five years ago. “In Belarus, I had no future. Both the Soviet atmosphere and the population were gray; individuals similar to each other. Being different was almost a crime and I hate those Soviet values; the often-delusional injunctions of the government, confinement. All that is against my philosophy: freedom of expression, to be yourself, openness to the world. One day all this will change. I hope that the demonstrations can put an end to the dictatorial power of Lukashenko, but I don’t want chaos either.”


Micro Cobaque, a DJ and artist, left Belarus two years ago. “Over there, I was constantly afraid. In Poland I feel freer, I am not accountable to anyone, I am no longer seen as a fairground animal, and above all I am no longer afraid. But if the regime changes, if Lukashenko leaves power, everything will be different. A new society to be invented and I want to be part of it.”


Kristina and Olga have been living a beautiful love story in Poland for almost a year that would have been almost impossible in Belarus.

“Lukashenko is blatantly homophobic, so in Belarus, we did not show off together, yet our love is real. In Minsk, we were part of an anti-establishment movement and working to further gay rights. It was beautiful, what we were doing, but we were harassed more and more, and in the end nothing changed. So we moved to Poland and continue the fight from here.”


Anna, 21, arrived in Poland two years ago, and calls herself an “anti-establishment goth.”

“In Belarus, I hid my goth look — too dangerous, too atypical. What is atypical has no place in Belarus, anyone who does not match the image Lukashenko wants to show to the rest of the world is being watched and harassed. Here in Poland, I do not question my appearance.” Today she fights the Belarusian establishment from abroad.


Vadim arrived in Poland three years ago. With his blue hair and tattoos, he did not go unnoticed. “In Belarus, when you don’t follow the norm, it’s difficult to find a job. People look at you with a bad eye, but above all you suffocate in this gray, lifeless climate, where nobody steps out of line, anchored in a Soviet past which does not correspond at all to my values. For some, it represents security, but for me it is a prison. I don’t want unbridled capitalism, but a Belarus that keeps its own values and opens up little by little.”


Valentina, a 29-year-old makeup artist, arrived in Poland in 2018. “Life in Belarus had become unbearable, I was followed because of my look — with constant fear of being arrested. In Belarus, even for a joint of marijuana you can go to jail for years. The whole system is in the hands of Lukashenko and his repressive policies. And the Soviet atmosphere, with its values from another age, suffocated me. In Poland, I can breathe, I can make plans … even though I miss my country, my family and my friends.”


Lydia arrived in Poland just a few months ago, still jumpy from a life in Belarus.

“I was at an outdoor concert, and the police showed up, so I ran, ran, ran … because that’s what I would do in Belarus. Spending my life in hiding, being wary of others, being watched — it was becoming unbearable to me, so I went to Poland. If Lukashenko falls, and a new era arrives, I might be able to go home.”


Bozena, 27, has lived in Warsaw for the last five years. She works in a vegan café and teaches Russian. “I left Belarus because I was studying journalism and the state required me to work for the government for two years. Two years working for Lukashenko? Never! So I went to Poland. I don’t like Belarus today; its post-Soviet atmosphere weighs me down. The gray landscape suffocates me, when what I love in life is the joy, the colors, the celebration. My motto is ‘no border, no flags, no patriots,” which is the total opposite of the values advocated by the Lukashenko regime, a closed and nationalistic universe, where everyone is wary of everyone, especially strangers. But I’m optimistic. There are more and more demonstrations against Lukashenko. Things are moving forward and may I return to my country one day.”


Alissa arrived in Poland six months ago. She was part of a collective that brought in foreign artists and programmed anti-establishment plays, and subtly opposed President Lukashenko.

“In Belarus we did beautiful things. I think we have helped change minds, but it became too dangerous. In Poland, we can do anything, but there is no taste for dissent. The adrenaline, the fight against a repressive system gave me wings and pushed me every day to move forward. My life made more sense. But here I have security, I am no longer afraid and I try to fight from the outside, though I know that even abroad, they continue to watch us.”


Julia, 26, moved to Poland a year and a half ago. She works in a vegetarian restaurant. “Here I thrive, while in Belarus I was afraid of everything. Yet I love my country and I would like Belarus to change — to be more open, less repressive — because there are many wonderful people living there.

“That’s why I believe so much in demonstrations against Lukashenko’s ‘victory’ in the election. Belarus is changing. Nothing will be the same.”


Pamedor, a sweet dreamer, likes raves, techno house music and spiritualities from around the world. Yet he is also an activist. He arrived in Poland 10 years ago and writes critically about Lukashenko’s regime. Everything has its price: “Even here in Poland I know that I am being watched and I know very well that I will never return to Belarus … unless Lukashenko leaves.”


Pavel arrived in Poland a year ago, a member of the punk movement opposed to Lukashenko’s regime. “The punks have always been the most anti-establishment: organizing underground concerts, singing songs openly against the regime. Our motto is simple: ‘Anarchy; fuck the system.’ We have rebellion and rage in us, but in Belarus this is not enough. Our ideas are only shared by young people, so I decided to flee to Poland and continue the fight from a more democratic country where freedom of expression and protest is possible.”

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