There’s a reason Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn referred to a chain of islands in the title of The Gulag Archipelago, his book on the horrors he had experienced first-hand of the gulags in the ‘40s and ‘50s. The prison system consisted of remote, closed universes, which could only be reached by gruelling journeys, and which were designed to entirely cut prisoners off from society. This forced exile not only minimised escape attempts through the frozen expanses of the taiga but compounded the weight of solitude and a sense of being consigned to forgotten oblivion. This isolation was, after all, as much psychological as it was physical — a way to break the spirits of prisoners, as their ties to family and community belonging were reduced to memory and a sluggish, censored trickle of letters. There was very little to offer solidarity and succour, in other words, against the labour camps’ abyss of dehumanising brutality.
The detention centres of Belarus are not gulags — but they too use isolation as a psychological weapon. Tens of thousands have been arrested in connection to the mass protests over last year’s undemocratic election and the declared victory of Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power for 27 years, amid widespread allegations of vote rigging. As well as widely documented torture and mistreatment, blackouts on information flowing in and out of prisons are used to further terrorise confined protesters and those they hold dear. This has prompted many to compare the methods of the strongman leader in suppressing dissent to those of wartime dictators.
The unbearable window
Belarussian director Andrei Kutsila’s short documentary Walls, screened at the 61st Krakow Film Festival, is a film of waiting; of that nearly unbearable window of not knowing, when the persecuted imagination fills in possible outcomes, amid the void of withheld facts. Outside the prison walls, detainees can’t be seen. Milling around are parents and others close to those suspected of being inside, who did not return from protests. Most have been standing there for a long time. Some cry out to transmit signs of their presence, and encouragement: «I love you! Hold on!» But there are no signals back over the grey, hulking divide.
The detention centres of Belarus are not gulags — but they too use isolation as a psychological weapon.
Walls shows those outside the prison connecting to grainy videos labelled «Nexta» on their mobile phones, accessing citizen-shot footage of violent actions by the nation’s riot police. This highlights a major point of difference to today’s landscape of dissent in contemporary Belarus: the capability of new technologies and social media to bypass official reporting and attempts by the state to clampdown on awareness of what is really happening on the ground. State-controlled news channels are limited in their chokehold over the narrative, when clips freely circulate on the internet allowing citizens to see with their own eyes evidence that refutes the official version. Nexta is a channel that became popular on Telegram — one of the few social media platforms that remained sporadically accessible after the government restricted internet access to quell the unrest — as an alternative source of news in the heavily censored information space of Belarus, publishing footage of rallies and extensive coverage of violence from security forces, as well as coordinating protesters.
The enemy within
Nexta (playing on the Russian word for «someone», and the English word «next», signifying a new generation who will have a voice) has received renewed worldwide attention this month, as Roman Protasevich — the journalist and opposition activist taken into custody after his Vilnius-bound commercial plane was redirected to Minsk following a bomb scare — was its co-founder and former editor. This act of transnational authoritarian brazenness in taking a dissident out of commission shows just how afraid Lukashenko is of his new inability to stifle the truth; an unease he is countering with a ramping up of draconian methods of brute force. It is a tactical approach that the riot police and guards seem only too happy to follow, according to the crowd in the film, who compare their physical appearance to that of animals. The line differentiating humanity and its obverse, and the point at which ordinary citizens must stand up against power abuses, is a heavy consideration that hangs in the air. «Fines don’t interest them anymore, they’ve smelt blood», says a citizen of the guards, suggesting the increased violence has spread with an emboldened group mentality.
This is by no means the first, or harshest, experience with suffering or sacrifice that has struck Belarusians and their ancestors, we’re reminded, as one man recalls that his great-aunts survived the blockade of Leningrad. He expresses a willingness to starve to death, if that’s what it takes to bring down the economy of the corrupt state he lives in. Within his comment, we can feel the essence of a will that just might bring Lukashenko down yet. The siege was, after all, a time of great forbearance against a foreign wartime invader. Now, the enemy is within, and pockets of independent news sources are showing that it is not the protesters people have to fear, but a self-appointed leader whose propaganda is ill-suited to our times, and who can no longer seal off islands of punishment from the eyes of the outside world.
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