Volunteering as an unauthorized activity

It’s my privilege to speak during the Landau Convention. Yesterday I attended very interesting workshops and discussed various subjects that are related to volunteering, and I learned a lot. I am grateful to have the chance now to share some personal experience with you which seems to originate from another world. After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, my country – Belarus – enjoyed a brief period of relative democracy. However, the changes in the social landscape were seen by the political elite as a threat to its survival. So they began cracking down on civil liberties: several NGOs were shut down, students could no longer go to the US or Europe for summer jobs without first getting permission from university administration. In 2002, an ideological successor of Soviet Komsomol – the Belarus National Union of Youth – was instituted as an organization whose goal was “to promote patriotism and instill moral values into the youth of Belarus.”

Pavel Turchaninov

Given the usual policies of the regime, the presence of opposition candidates in mass media during the presidential campaign 2010 was a big surprise to many. It meant a small victory for freedom of speech in Belarus, where all conventional mass-media were state-controlled. About 30 thousand people took to the streets of Minsk in support of the opposition. I could see in the eyes of the people around me how happy they were to witness that triumph of courage and solidarity over fear and isolation.

However, the regime wasn’t too keen on letting people celebrate for long. Lukashenka perceived proactive people as the biggest threat to the stability of the regime. Therefore the efforts of the repressive state apparatus were focused on dispersing street rallies and intimidating their participants. I knew from my own earlier experience that jailed protesters do not get food or drink. So I sneaked in a court building the next morning – one of the buildings where 700 protesters were standing trial the day after the election day – and gave sandwiches and water to the accused. Most of them were sentenced to 15 days’ imprisonment for “participating in an unauthorized event.” Many people had to flee from the country, an independent FM radio-station was shut down by the state for “broadcasting extremist messages” (a radio address by one of the presidential candidates in which he said “History is made today. It’s made not in your kitchens but out in the square.”). Another candidate, Vladimir Neklyaev, managed to make it to hospital before being snatched from his hospital bed by plain-clothed KGB officers while his wife was watching and screaming for help. The OSCE office was shut down despite its objections.

History is made today. It’s made not in your kitchens but out in the square.

Those events resonated throughout the world – they made headlines on Euronews, the BBC, the Voice of America, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Economist, etc. But fairly soon a revolution in Egypt took place and mass media were quick to forget about Belarus. Landau Citizens ConventionV11 – Volunteering 2011