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Don’t forget the imprisoned protesters of Belarus

Nadezhda Kalach and her husband Uladzimir, musicians with the Belarusian band Irdorath, were sentenced to two years in jail as part of a brutal crackdown on peaceful protest

In September 2020, I wrote an article for The Big Issue published under the headline “Standing up to tyranny… with music”. It was about the popular revolt raging at the time on the streets of Belarus, and how it was being soundtracked by a 30-year-old rock’n’roll protest anthem, Kino’s Khochu Peremen (in English I Want Changes or simply Changes), written by the Russian band’s half-Korean proletariat-poet frontman Viktor Tsoi. 

I interviewed several young Belarusians for the piece, all of them energised by the song and supportive of, if not actively involved with, protests on the streets of Minsk and other towns and cities across the country. All of whom expressed hope that a wind of change might finally be about to blow through the Russian-backed former Soviet state dubbed “Europe’s last dictatorship”.

Memorable among these voices was Nadezhda Kalach, a young musician with Belarusian self-styled “fantasy folk” band Irdorath. Her image had days before been beamed all over the world, on social media and on international news sites such as the BBC, after she had marched together with friends through Minsk in a bright red dress, blaring the melody of Changes on her bagpipes, as part of a peaceful protest tens of thousands strong. 

“A very powerful feeling,” Kalach reflected to me afterwards, communicating via social media direct message. “You must understand that everyone who took to the streets was afraid of being arrested, beaten, simply ‘disappeared’. But we understood that music really supports people and gives them strength. So we did it. And people answered us with gratitude. It was a very strong sense of solidarity.”

Despite continuing for several more months after that, the popular movement against President Alexander Lukashenko – the largest anti-government protest in the history of Belarus – was eventually violently quashed by security services, without bringing about any major leadership or policy change. The revolution’s leaders were either forced into exile or imprisoned; hundreds – likely thousands – of people were beaten, arrested, tortured or worse according to UN human rights experts. The tyranny in Belarus is, tragically, far from over.

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I’ve remained connected with Kalach on social media since and was shocked late last summer to notice her friends expressing concern on her timeline, after she and her bandmate and husband Uladzimir Kalach, together with several friends, were brutally ambushed and disappeared at a birthday party in the Belarus countryside by unidentified masked gunmen firing automatic weapons.

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They had been arrested by government security services, and were held on remand until trial. On December 14, 2021, Nadezhda and Uladzimir were each sentenced to two years in prison. Their crimes, according to prosecutors: “using wind instruments to involve passers-by in unauthorised mass events,” in a way that “strengthened protest moods” and “egged the protesters on to commit wrongful acts against police forces”. 

With the gaze of the world and its media now turned away from Belarus, government forces there continue to move with impunity against protesters, seeking vengeance, cooking up absurd charges and handing down draconian sentences. That musicians anywhere, much less in a cultured and civilised society such as Belarus – just a few short hours’ drive from the borders of the EU and the heart of Europe – could be arrested and imprisoned for “using wind instruments” at a protest would be laughable if it weren’t so shocking and depressing.

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When I read of Kalach’s sentencing last month, I looked back on our message thread from September 2020. In our final exchange I sent her a copy of the article after it was published. “We will not post it in social media because it is dangerous,” she said, “but I am happy that it exists.”

After reading that, and understanding the risk she had taken to speak to The Big Issue, it seemed only right that I should share news of what has happened to her since, as well as re-share her quotes, which have assumed an even deeper resonance in light of subsequent events.  

“The words of his song have not changed their strength over the years,” said Kalach, of Viktor Tsoi’s Khochu Peremen, and its empowering cry for a new beginning. “We really need a change.”

The Belarusian Council for Culture is campaigning to #FreeIrdorath and raise money for their legal costs and rehabilitation; find out more here

@MBJack

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