I have lost sleep thinking about a man you do not know. In plain daylight, he was kidnapped in the cleanest city in Europe. Not the old, je ne sais quoi kind of city, but the bombed-down-and-rebuilt-from-the-ground kind, the leave-your-human-rights-at-home kind of European city. He was kidnapped five days after his thirty-ninth birthday, on September 9, by men whose faces were concealed under black ski masks. Since then, he has been held in jail without a trial. Of course, all Belarusians live inside a prison anyway. But inside this open prison, like a Russian matryoshka doll, there are actual prisons with small cells. This is where Maxim Znak is at present.
Max is a lawyer. He worked on the legal team of presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka, who himself was jailed in June, two months before the election that marked the twenty-sixth year of Aliaksandar G. Lukashenka’s presidency. Since Lukashenka is not used to having alternatives to himself on offer, every step of Babaryka’s campaign had to be legally justified, with lawyers playing a key role. After Babaryka was detained, Max worked for the resistance leader Sviatlana Tsikhanowskaya, who became the single alternative candidate, mostly because Lukashenko thought that she had no chance. After she was forced to flee to Lithuania, Max worked with Maria Kalesnikava, and he was a member of the Coordination Council —a group of people who were supposed to negotiate Lukashenka’s release of power—until they were detained, separately, around the same time. By then Max probably knew they were coming for him; most people on the Council were arrested. He might have even had a pre-packed jail bag ready, with warm clothes, a pillow, and a toothbrush.
What have you heard about the jail conditions in a country that prides itself on cleanliness? They say that prisoners have to sleep on newspapers. They say that men, when beaten, cry like children, asking to be killed. They say that women sing from their cells. They say that the cells are packed so tightly with detainees that it’s impossible to breathe—and this has not changed during the pandemic, though the state has used Covid- 19 as an excuse to prevent lawyers from visiting their clients for weeks on end.
Doctors, who see hundreds of patients severely injured by police every week, come out to protest police violence.
Maxim’s kidnapping is part of a larger wave of political suppression. Since August 9, when the majority of the country didn’t believe in Lukashenka’s sixth presidential victory, he has unleashed a campaign of brutal violence, mass detentions, sexual abuse, and torture against peaceful protesters. Nobody is safe. Every person is a potential target for detention. Lawyers, professors, doctors, factory workers, and even undergraduates have been taken away. The state’s tactics vary: Men in civilian clothes can place a bag over your head as you are walking on the street. Or they can break into your apartment without having to show a warrant or any documents. Your family is left to search through lists of the detained and hospitalized. If they are lucky, they find you in jail. Upon your release in two weeks, you might say: “I’m fortunate. I wasn’t beaten as hard as others.” Doctors, who see hundreds of patients severely injured by police every week, come out to protest police violence. They are in turn packed into police vans as dangerous criminals, fifty at a time.
Maxim and I studied together through middle school. But there was nothing “middle” about that time. The Soviet empire was collapsing, which had some bearing on the national curriculum. For instance, when we were in fifth grade, a new class was added: History of Belarus. That a country could have its own history—what a scandal! The only history our parents studied was the history of communism. Before the nineties, only ideology was allowed a history; people had silence. In the event, our new history textbooks were hastily printed, cheaply glued together, single-spaced; they fell apart like a deck of cards. There was not a single illustration in them, not a single portrait or a map. The covers were identical for all the grades: white background with a red stripe in the middle. That was our new national flag, which had been our old historical flag.
Once we discovered we had an independent history, all kinds of things emerged from it: a flag, an anthem, a language; names of kings that sounded nothing like Nikolai or Alexander; sites of mass executions; martyrs, heroes, artists, and scholars; struggles for independence from both Poland and Russia, carried out under the white-red-white flag. In 1994, Lukashenka won the first elections in the Republic of Belarus. He was sworn in as president, with a white-red-white flag standing next to him like a silent bride.
Everybody is made to step on the flag that once covered our first history books.
After a few years of Belarusization, Lukashenka turned the country back toward Soviet ways, enshrining Russophone culture and Soviet nostalgia. Our current official flag is a close version of the flag of Soviet Belarus. These days, people are stopped randomly and searched to check if they have a white-red-white flag inside their backpack, a white-red-white pin on the back of their collar. The police place a white-red-white flag of our independence on the threshold of detention centers and at the entrance to prison vans. When the detained make an effort not to step on the flag, they receive a smashing by truncheons. Everybody is made to step on the flag that once covered our first history books—a flag that stood next the first president who would soon eliminate anybody who refused to recognize his absolute power.
As I write this, I learn about the thirty-one-year-old artist Raman Bandarenka, who stepped out of his apartment building in Minsk on a November night after noticing an unmarked van stop by his courtyard. Men in civilian clothes had arrived to take down white-red-white ribbons tied over a fence, like wishing ribbons on a wishing tree. When Raman came out to speak with the police, they dragged him into a van, dropping him at a police station an hour and a half later, by which time he was in a coma. At to the intensive care unit, doctors declared his chances of survival were one in a thousand.
Maxim and I were not close friends, but two particular memories of him have stuck with me. Since his detention, they’ve moved up and down between my chest and throat, like heavy sand in an hourglass.
The first has to do with a city-wide school competition in historical trivia. I was on the team and Maxim was our captain. I remember him in a shapeless wool sweater that couldn’t decide on its own color, his hair pointing in different directions. The first question was: “What did the territory of Belarus look like sixteen thousand years ago?” It’s an easy question: sixteen thousand years ago, the territory of Belarus was covered in ice. As we turned to each other to scream-whisper “Ice Age,” our heads came together like the petals of a predatory flower closing on an insect. “Ice Age!” “I got it,” Max said as he rang the button. He took the microphone and spoke into it: “We believe that sixteen thousand years ago, Belarus was a place of green meadows and blooming trees.” The round was lost.
Why did he say that? I’ve asked myself this question for many years, not knowing why it mattered. Now that Max is a political prisoner, it occurs to me that he had to say it. On a spur of the moment, at the beginning of the new Belarusian history marked by Lukashenka’s ascent to power, something in him rejected the obvious. He confronted the first page of our unraveling history book, replacing Ice Age with blooming.
Today, the detainees in Belarus’s prisons describe the frigid cold their cells plunge into at night. They describe stuffing their socks with newspaper and embracing all night on bare metal cots—no mattresses or pillows are provided. In the forties, during the German occupation, the genocide of Belarusian peasants had a code name, “Winter Magic.” But we refuse the Ice Age of genocide, we refuse the Ice Age of prisons. Speak of blooming, Maxim.
The fact that Maxim is neither out, nor on trial, can mean only one thing: they haven’t broken him.
The second memory has to do with a school assembly. Fifth graders were buzzing in the auditorium, mocking our teachers who must have been making some kind of proclamations from the stage. The teachers wore pantsuits that would make Hillary Clinton groan and had hairdos that could have been used as models in physics and engineering classes. Some parents were there, too, though not mine.
Somebody’s mother went up on stage, prompting excited hushing: “Whose mom is that? Why?” There she spoke, and at some point, I realized that she was reciting a poem. Not the kind of a poem we read in literature classes, but a contemporary poem, with a political smell—a smell new to our perestroika air. There was a refrain in it: “Davajte, malchiki!” (“Come on now, boys.”) The woman was Max’s mother.
It is by virtue of this refrain that I can find this poem now without any difficult. It is by the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Here is a straightforward translation:
Come on now, boys.
When we cease being cruel,
we cease being young.
Come on now, boys,
but keep in mind that as you age,
your cruelty will lessen,
your empathy will enlarge.
But other boys, arrogant and despotic,
will come clutching their sweaty fists.
Come on now, boys.
Why do I remember this refrain? Because I remember it with a question mark. What kind of a “come on, now” is it? What exactly was Max’s mother asking of our boys? Could she imagine the cruelty Belarusian riot police would one day unleash on defenseless, peaceful people? As she recited a poem about boys with sweaty fists, could she imagine our current terror?
It’s been three months now that the captain of my school history team has been a political prisoner in a country occupied by a madman. The fact that Maxim is neither out, nor on trial, can mean only one thing: they haven’t broken him. Bloom, Maxim. “Conduct your blooming,” as Gwendolyn Brooks put it, “in the noise and the whip / of the whirlwind.”