Prison Universities in Belarus

by Yuri Zarakhovich

On October 29, a group of young people filed a formal protest with a Minsk district prosecutor against the brutal breaking up by the riot police of a peaceful protest in the Belarus capital a week earlier.

Opposition activists are well aware of the fact that their protests against police violence will be turned down, but such formal protests also require the police to send a formal reply. On previous occasions the prosecutors’ responses were similar. Still, the opposition reasonably seeks to keep all these illegalities on the record.

Brutal police beatings and arrests of any protesters have long become a fixture of political life in Belarus. Only within the last five weeks, the riot police violently broke up three peaceful opposition rallies.

Powerful, well-trained policemen knock down protesters, shove their faces into the tarmac, beat them with clubs and heavy boots—and then throw them into huge armored trucks – the highest technological achievement of Alexander Lukashenko’s 15 year-old dictatorial rule.

I saw those trucks while covering Belarus’ “presidential election”—they are specious enough for the cops to push several dozen people in, and wield clubs to keep beating them on the way to jail. By the time they arrive, the blooded prisoners usually cannot stand on their feet.

This is followed by detentions—and more beatings.

Young protesters whom I met in Belarus in recent years, account for more days spent in jail between them, than for the number of years they have lived. Each has a broken head, or a damaged kidney, or broken ribs as mementos of senseless and vicious police brutality, as seeking democracy is a criminal offense in Lukashenko’s Belarus.

Once a Belarusian student acquires a police record, he or she is expelled from school. As protests against the dictatorship attract the best and the brightest, the most promising generations in Belarus now risk losing their education, while the state risks finding itself out on the limb. What future does any country have, if it denies education to its young?

However, the kids don’t feel they miss much. “They mostly teach Lukashenko’s state ideology at official schools these days,” they laughed in response to my questions. “In jails, we are getting the best of the real thing.” Indeed, they share jail cells with Belarus’ top intellectuals, professors, scholars and artists, who read them lectures they never had at school. “I lectured them on Freud and the arts,” the prominent Belarus documentary cinema director Yuri Khashchevatsky once explained to me, after he had served his ten days in jail with young people for taking part in a street protest action.

This is reminiscent of what we all read during our childhoods about 19th century oppression in East European monarchies where the best and the brightest obtained an education in jail rather than at school. Reproducing this pattern in the 21st century doesn’t bode well for Belarus.