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Freedom's Price: Stories from Belarus

Too often, the political situation in Belarus is glossed over, forgotten, or simply ignored. Tourism agencies offer excursion packages where visitors may gaze upon the Soviet-era wonders of decayed concrete architecture and relative regional poverty. Too often, with so much democratic progress in nations surrounding Belarus, it is forgotten that ten million citizens of Belarus live under a dictatorship.

In Belarus, university students are routinely dismissed from school because of ideological conflicts. Thanks to a program sponsored by the Open Estonian Foundation, Estonia's Ministry for Education and Research, the Bureau of the Minister of Population Affairs, and the Belarus Support Group, six Belarusian students were able to immigrate to Estonia and will begin their studies this autumn. The program offers the opportunity for the students to continue their studies at any Estonian university to which they are accepted.

City Paper met with four of the students. We asked them to tell their stories.


Mihkola Ilin

My story is a hard story. It began few months before the election of the president. It was the hardest time in my life. It was really dangerous for me.

The Belarusian president is the man who controls everything, including the mass media. Belarus is a place where, even in 21st century, political killings are made. For political reasons people can't find jobs or can't study in universities. A protest, the so-called "Maidan" [Maidan means literally a meeting place, square or forum –ed.], happened on March 19th, 2006. Some days before that, the head of federal police had warned through the media that everyone who comes out on the streets that day will get five years in jail. But people went out on the streets, which was really nice to see. That day, there were snipers on the rooftops. By the 20th of March, there were up to 2,500 people in jails. The jails were overcrowded, and because of that, some medical clinics were rebuilt for the purposes of keeping prisoners.

On the 20th of March, people started to build a camp on the square. The conditions for living were poor. Police surrounded the square and severely beat anyone who wanted in or out. It was not possible to bring food there or anything. People were arrested and given 15 days in jail. I was severely beaten for attempting to bring a bio toilet. I had serious head injuries.

On television, the government claimed that those gathered in the square were drunk youngsters, junkies, and hooligans. There was tons of disinformation in the mass media, hiding the truth what was going on.

On March 23rd, at 2:30 a.m., police began an assault on the camp with tear gas. About 500 people were jailed. I was among them. I was sent to Minsk jail. People were severely beaten in jail. I was beaten. After 40 minutes of beatings I was taken in an ambulance to a clinic where doctors x-rayed me. At the clinic, I overheard plainclothes security agents talking with policemen. I heard my name. I heard them ask about me. They said I'd be given five years of jail for criminal acts. So I ran downstairs. I ran out of that place and left in a taxi.

I went to a place called Smargon, near the Lithuanian border. But someone must have betrayed me—telephones were tapped, too—because they were looking for me there, as well. So I went to the Ukraine and stayed there until September. There I heard about this Estonian program. Now I'm here to study and to tell the world my story.

(Long Live Belarus he wrote next to his name, when asked to spell it in Latin letters.)


Evgenja Trofimova

I was a third-year student at my university studying tourism marketing. I was a leader among my peers, and I was chosen as the class president in the beginning of the first year of studies. My fellow students listened to me when I spoke.

            When the elections came in the spring, all the professors at the university spoke about President Lukashenko. They said how great he was, how smart he was. I spoke up in class. I suggested my fellow students form their own opinions about political issues. I said that in my opinion the opposition was better than Lukashenko. The university stripped me of my presidency and I was made a common student. This was the first incidence of discrimination.

            On the 19thof March, I traveled to Minsk. All along the way, cars were stopped and we were asked why we were traveling to Minsk. I lied and said I was going for best friend's birthday. Really, I was going to bring back opposition information, posters, buttons, etc., to Gomel, where I lived. On the 25th, there was an opposition meeting to determine how to react.

            Back in the university, I was told to change my views or I would be dismissed. I refused, so I was given failing marks on my exams, despite the fact that I had only received the highest marks before, and all my teachers knew I was an excellent student. I was forced to sign a document which said I was voluntarily leaving the university. In July, I went to Moscow to live with my parents. It was too dangerous for me to remain in Belarus.

            (In the photograph, Evgenja wears a headdress with the Belarusian national colors.)


Denis Soldotenko

I was not on the square that day, because I was being followed already—I had worked as an election observer both independently and officially since 2001. The government had begun to monitor me long ago, and because of that, they created problems for me to continue my education.

My first problems began because I did not want to join BRSM. BRSM is a youth organization like Komsomol, which supports the president. I was told to either join the organization or they would push me out of the university. I refused to join, and so I was dismissed. Also, problems appeared at work. I tried to enter another university several times, but I was unsuccessful due to political reasons. In the summer, I heard about the Open Estonia Foundation who offered support for people who could not study because of political reasons. I registered and was invited to join. I bless them for their help.


Katya Svidinskaya

I was involved in activities to improve the city—nothing politically oriented, just gathering signatures to make some improvements in the infrastructure. Then I started collecting signatures for the opposition candidates in the election. Because of that, I began to have problems with studying and working.

            At work, I was told to stop my activities or I would lose my job. At the university, I was given a first gentle warning. I was told to change my views or I would have problems.

            I was lucky that the Open Estonian Foundation and the Estonian Ministry of Education gave me the possibility to study.