In the aftermath of the presidential election in August 2020, thousands of people fled Belarus to seek refuge in neighbouring countries such as Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine, and Czech Republic. Sviatlana Kutkovich was one of many that took the fateful decision to flee the country in order to protect her and her family’s freedom and well-being. The 500 km trip to Lithuania, which was only supposed to take five hours, turned into a six month journey over 8200 km. It was an endeavour punctuated by time spent in hiding, illegal border crossings and separation from her children. She was only able to get through it thanks to the kindness of those who helped her along the way.
Standing in her new house in Lentvaris, Lithuania, Sviatlana seems relaxed. She has colourful braids and she’s wearing a top that reveals Banksy tattoos on her shoulder. The 40 year-old is originally from Mogilev, a city in the far east of Belarus. This region was once president Alexander Lukashenko’s “stronghold”: it’s where he was born, and he still enjoys more support there than any other part of the country.
As a single mother of three children – Aleksey (15), Taisiya (13), and Alina (6) – Sviatlana used to consider herself apolitical. Even though she has never supported Lukashenko, and took part in a couple of opposition rallies back in 2011 and 2017, for the most part she has lived a quiet family life with her kids and her mother Tamara, working as an electronic technician, fixing laptops, phones, and other computer devices.
That all changed in the summer of 2020 when she decided to volunteer as an independent observer for the elections at her local polling station. On election day, on 9 August, she was made to wait in the street together with three other observers while the officials counted the votes. “There’s no way Lukashenko got 80%… we counted at least 50% for Tiachanovskaya (the opposition candidate representing the democratic movement). People came to vote dressed in white, and flashed us victory signs or heart signs to show they were supporting her,” explains Sviatlana.
That night the arrests began. Some of Sviatlana’s friends were rounded-up by the special police unit, Omon. The official reason: having attended an unauthorized mass gathering. According to the website Mogilev Online hundreds of people were arrested that day. The exact number is still unknown, but in the period from 9-12 August, all the city’s detention centers were overflowing, and the excess prisoners were distributed among local police stations across the Mogilev region.
By the middle of September, Sviatlana had started to attend peaceful demonstrations in Mogilev and had joined a Telegram group which was run by opponents of the regime. A month later she was on the radar of the security services, and received her first police summons. “I was called to the District Police Department as a witness, but left with a case – based on article 23.34 – open against me.”
23.34 is a number that many Belarusians learned very quickly during the months of peaceful demonstrations that followed. The digits refer to a section of the ‘Administrative Offences Code’ which regards the “violation of the organisation or holding of public gatherings or events.” This article is used to justify arrests and unlawful detentions as well as fines, beatings and abuse. Literally anyone attending any kind of demonstration can be taken into custody as a result of it. The human rights organisation Viasna claims that over the last year there were more than 33,000 detentions and over 1000 testimonies of torture in Belarusian prisons.
Very soon after her first arrest, Sviatlana was once again taken-in to the police station. This time the officer on duty went as far as to threaten her family, as she refused to give-up the names of individuals who had been organising protests.
“There’s this well-known detective, Timur Pachomenko, who’s a real sadist. He already knew where my children were. I refused to sign the protocol, but they were threatening me: ‘Now we’re going to pick up your son from high school and your older daughter from music school. And what about your little one? Is she in kindergarten today? We’re going to pick her up as well.’ […] They told me they were going to give my daughter up for adoption to a ‘normal family’, and that women like me should be sterilized.”
In the end Sviatlana gave in. She signed the papers without providing any names. On 11 November she faced a court and was fined 15 basic units (approx 150 euros). Soon after the hearing, she began receiving visits from the DCFS (Department of Child and Family Services). They claimed to have received an anonymous call regarding violence and alcohol abuse in her family.
“I understood that from that moment on I would have to hide. And hiding with children would be way harder”
On 13 November the whole country was shaken by the arrest and later death of the Belarusian artist Roman Bondarenko. He was picked-up in front of his home by plain clothes policemen, and then severely beaten in a detention centre in Minsk. Following these events Sviatlana found she could not remain silent. Members of her Telegram group organised a demonstration that would prove fateful for all involved. The participants gathered on the town’s most important bridge, where alongside red-white-and-red flags they displayed scarecrows of Lukashenko and Ermoshina; a member of Belarus’s central election commission. This act was later described by the police as causing “unbearable suffering” for Lukashenko.
Sviatlana’s struggles began in earnest a few days later when the police turned up at her home. She was taken to the Investigation Committee to discuss the scarecrow incident. Sviatlana could feel that she was no longer safe. She managed to wipe her two phones. “While being questioned I asked to go to the restroom, where I flushed my two SIM cards down the toilet, as I knew they could restore my Telegram passwords.”
Later, the lead investigator called her aside to a room with no surveillance and asked her to provide any information she could about the protests, threatening to lock her up if she didn’t. In the end, Sviatlana decided to testify. “I was mostly giving them things they already knew, trying not to get anyone hurt, just confirming the information they had.” At 3 am they finally let her go.
Next morning the police searched her house. Luckily Sviatlana had removed and hidden all her hard drives days before, so they didn’t find anything. That was the moment she made the decision to leave. The same evening she packed her bags and, together with the children, took a bus to Minsk.
Sviatlana and her three kids reached the Belarusian capital on a cold November evening. Arriving in Minsk they spent the night at the house of a local activist named Olga Krachiova who was also planning on leaving the country. The next morning they took the first bus together to Ashmyany, a border town between Belarus and Lithuania. Soon after arriving in the town, as they were having lunch, Sviatlana received a call from an activist friend from Mogilev. The police were already looking for her.
Kamenny Log is the main crossing point between Vilnius and Minsk. Most of the time it’s heavily congested with lorries and buses travelling between the two capitals. Crossing the border on foot is forbidden. As Sviatlana, Olga and the kids got out of the taxi that had brought them there, they had to hitchhike to continue their journey. A van full of workers enroute to Lithuania stopped and gave them a ride to the first checkpoint.
As they arrived at the frontier, Sviatlana was told that she couldn’t pass. The border officers gave her no reason as to why, but stamped her passport with an injunction that forbade her from leaving the country. They advised her to contact the local police for an explanation. At this point, the family was forced to split-up. “I understood that from that moment on I would have to hide. And hiding with children would be way harder,” recalls Sviatlana. She asked if her kids could continue their journey with Olga, and the border officer agreed. She gave the children’s passports to the activist and took a clean phone from her daughter.
“I remember seeing my daughter leaving, and I had this thought that it was probably the last time I’d ever see my kids… that was the scariest part of my journey,” says Sviatlana. To this day, she cannot understand why the border officer let her children go. Most likely, she speculates, he’d assumed that Olga was a distant relative of theirs.
According to the official statistics, which are no longer available on the Belarus Department of Migration website, 13,500 people left the country in the months following the presidential election. Shortly afterwards, from 20 December onwards, Belarus completely shut its borders with all neighbouring countries except Russia. By preventing its citizens from leaving, save for exceptional circumstances, the regime has effectively turned everyone who disagrees with its policies into hostages. The official explanation was the need to prevent the spread of Covid-19 (even though Lukashenko has personally downplayed the dangers of the virus, proclaiming that the best cures for any illness are vodka, saunas and ice-hockey).
At Kamenny Log, the border officers put Sviatlana on a bus back to Mogilev. Yet she managed to get off once again, not far from Ashmianay. “I was hysterical. I had no internet connection, no news. To calm myself down I went to the catholic church, even though I’m orthodox… but I think, in a situation like that, it doesn’t really matter which god you pray to.”
“Can you imagine? You're sitting in a rented room at night without any possessions. And you need to write an official note to protect your children”
Back in Ashmianay – alone – she pulled herself together and rented a place for the night. She received news from Olga that they were still at the border. A local NGO, Dopomoga, had organised a humanitarian corridor and their volunteers were waiting for Olga and the kids on the other side. The Lithuanian officials, though, required some scanned documents from Sviatlana, to confirm that she was entrusting her children to Olga.
“Can you imagine? You’re sitting in a rented room at night without any possessions. And you need to write an official note to protect your children.. I had no pen, no paper, nothing at all… I started to look around, and found a pencil and a torn piece of wallpaper. I scribbled down a formal declaration, signed it, and that paper allowed my children to enter Lithuania with Olga.”
Sviatlana had been put on a list of people that were forbidden from leaving the country. Back in Mogilev, her friend Yulya – a prominent member of the local Telegram group – was questioned by the investigator of the scarecrow case. According to Yulya, when the investigator realised that Sviatlana had run away, she exploded and declared she was setting-up a manhunt to find her. Staying in Ashmianay was no longer an option.
Off to Russia
Next morning the activists were already mobilising to help. Two people came from Minsk and took Sviatlana to Vitebsk, a city in the north-east of Belarus, an hour from the Russian border. The area is home to a network of NGOs and volunteers, who are working across the borders between Belarus and its neighbouring countries, to help people in situations like Sviatlana’s. In this instance, Lithuanian activists, who met Sviatlana’s children on the border, contacted volunteers in Minsk and asked them to come and pick her up.
After a three and a half hour drive to Vitebsk, Sviatlana was hosted and hidden by other local activists for the next couple of days. “I met amazing people in Vitebsk, Maria and Aleksandr. Unfortunately Aleksandr is now in prison… They gave me shelter and food. By this point I had almost no money, only 100 euros left.”
They also helped her prepare a last-minute Latvian visa application. The plan was to get to Russia illegally and then to try and cross into the Baltic state. The borders between Belarus and Latvia are too heavily guarded to enter directly. This is not the case regarding Russia, however, as the frontier is much longer. In most circumstances, Russian and Belarussian citizens can travel visa free across the border, simply by showing a travel document at one of the checkpoints. Given Sviatlana was forbidden from leaving the country, though, she couldn’t risk an encounter with the officials.
Three days later, thanks to the help she had received, Sviatlana was off to the Russian border. Local smugglers, who know the area, usually facilitate the illegal crossing. The van Sviatlana took was full of people, many of whom were Central Asian citizens hoping to find work in Russia.
“I will never forget that crossing. We went along dirt roads and through little villages until we arrived at a field. There was a tractor there. It attached a cable to the van and then pulled us across the grass. At the end of the field there was a ravine and a creek with a self-made bridge. Cars were already waiting for us on the other side of the ravine. We split-up and they took us where we needed to go; some to Smolensk, others to Bryansk, others even further.”
Brain drain in the Baltic states
In the summer of 2018 I found myself in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia working on a report. In the Lithuanian town of Visaginas, I met Irina. She was sitting on a bench in the centre, enjoying the morning sun and looking elegant with her floral dress and walking stick. She told me she’d lived there since the 70s, when her husband had been called-up to work as an engineer at the Ignalina nuclear plant, a few kilometers away. They’d moved there from a small Siberian village.
A few days later in Narva, an Estonian city on the border with Russia, I took a walk with George, an architecture student in his 20s. He spoke Estonian, Russian and Georgian, his parents’ mother tongue, who, for their part, were the children of workers that had been “relocated” from the Caucasus to Estonia during the Stalin era.
Finally, in a park in the Latvian capital Riga, I interviewed Amuna, a drag queen. They told me that – having spent some time in Berlin – they were hoping to go and live in Great Britain, where, they said, they’d always felt freer to do what they wanted.
These three encounters, two of which took place entirely by chance, provide small glimpses into the constant migration that has always characterised the countries of the ex-Soviet-Union. These are territories which, for decades, have become used to huge flows of people, first within their own borders, then, after 1991, among the new republics. The UNHCR has calculated that in the years between 1990 and 2000 over 9 million residents of the ex-USSR moved back to their countries of origin following the political upheavals that characterised dissolution. Today that flux has not stopped, it’s only changed route. Since 1990 Lithuania has lost 899,000 residents, while, according to EU estimates, the Estonian population will have dropped from 1.6 million in 1990 to 1.2 by 2100. Yet the country which seems to have suffered most as a result of emigration is Latvia, which since its independence in 1991 has lost around 25% of its population and has even had to create the official position of an ambassador for the diaspora.
And to Latvia
Once in Russia Sviatlana got off in Smolensk and that same evening, after a couple more bus transfers, she reached the Latvian border crossing at Burachk in the east of Russia. Unfortunately, once again, she was unable to get in. An agreement between Russia and Belarus from 2015 dictates that if one party forbids a person from leaving the country, the other has the right to deny transit as well.
“I’m happy that at least they didn’t arrest me. They saw a stamp in my passport, showing that I was forbidden from exiting Belarus and they called a guy from the Federal Security Service. I guess he was from the FSB, because what else could he be? A huge man dressed all in black, not exactly talkative… He started asking questions and writing down information. […] Mostly I told him the truth, and it seemed he was most angry about having had to wake up and come down there at midnight. Other guards were very friendly to me, and curious about the situation in Belarus. Finally at 3 am my entry was officially denied. The officers put me on a truck going back to Russia and tacitly advised me to hide somewhere in the country.”
A couple of hours later, in the cold early morning of the Russian November, Sviatlana left the truck in the middle of nowhere and, with only her backpack, headed to the nearest town on foot. She spent most of what was left of her money on a hostel.
The next morning she got in touch with local Russian activists who visited her that same day. They said it was dangerous for her to stay in the hostel. They claimed they had witnessed a similar situation involving another refugee in the recent past: shortly after he had checked-in, the police had turned up to arrest him.
Russia’s political climate was also heating-up at the time, following the poisoning of the opposition leader Aleksey Navalny on 20 August. The people hiding Sviatlana in Russia were local activists fighting Putin’s regime. She was put in touch with them via the same network of activists that had been helping her all along the way. Their communication was mediated throughout by Lithuanian NGO’s who had ties to other groups across the region.
The activists hid Sviatlana at their flat, providing food and other necessities. At this point she knew she would be unable to leave Russia legally, and that sooner or later the police would find her. A couple of weeks later she attempted to cross illegally into Ukraine, though she claims the guides who were supposed to help her do so were bandits of some kind, and the operation failed.
The beginning of the family reunion
Ever since the family had left Mogilev, Tamara, Sviatlana’s mother, had been unable to sleep, and had been losing weight due to stress. She had no idea how her daughter and grandchildren had got on at the border. Finally, Aleksey texted one of his former classmates to say that he was in Vilnius. Tamara soon learnt the family had been forced to split-up.
As for their first month in Lithuania, the three kids were looked after by Olga. Later, from the middle of December, they moved between different families, until 11 January when their grandmother was finally able to come to Lithuania. Throughout this period, the children were uprooted four times and made to move constantly between hostels, apartments and the care of different adults.
“We always hoped that mum would come soon,” recalls Aleksey, the eldest.“Different people were taking care of us, and, in that sense, we never actually felt abandoned, or in need of anything […] but there was always a feeling of being an outsider, it seemed like people were looking down on us for speaking Russian […] I felt sad… no friends… no relatives.. and the people that took care of us… we basically didn’t know them.”
Two NGOs in particular – Nash Dom and Dopomoga – were responsible for helping the children. They paid the rent, bought food and clothes, and even provided them with some pocket money. Meanwhile, back in Mogilev, Tamara was in a state of constant worry, trying to reach her grandchildren.
“My nephew helped me install Telegram, and the activists helped me to get connected with the kids […] I was always crying. It was so hard to use Telegram, every time I needed to make a call it would take me forever. I couldn’t figure out how to turn on the camera, or where to tap…”
Just before New Year Sviatlana was able to contact her mother and asked her to go to Vilnius, which she did a few days later. Tamara recalls that her hands were shaking as she went through passport control. When asked about the purpose of her visit, she answered that she was going to Druskininkai, a Lithuanian spa resort, for health reasons.
At this point Sviatlana was still in Russia. A representative of the Lithuanian child custody office contacted her, saying that in order to prevent her kids from being deported they needed to proceed with a temporary custody order in her mother’s name. The children also had to apply for asylum-seeker status in Lithuania. Otherwise, due to international agreements, the state would be forced to inform Belarus that her children were in the country, and they could potentially be sent back.
Fortunately, Tamara had taken copies of the children’s birth certificates with her, so she managed to gain the temporary custody. Thanks to the cooperation of the Lithuanian officials, the paperwork was dealt with quickly and smoothly.
Not there yet
With Tamara’s arrival to Vilnius, things were beginning to look up for the children. Sviatlana, meanwhile, was stuck. By now she had been in Russia for almost three months. A fundraising campaign was set-up to help her cross into Ukraine. As she waited for her chance to move she decided to use her time, and the connections she’d made along the way, to help other people from her Telegram group in Mogilev. She posted in the chat, to check who had managed to avoid arrest and might still need help leaving Belarus.
Based on Sviatlana’s account it appears that after she left Mogilev the police took away the passports of eight other participants in the scarecrow protest, to make it almost impossible for them to escape. According to Belarusian law, the only times when confiscating this document is permitted are when a person is in prison or in a psychiatric hospital. In this instance no official reason was given. It was early February – just before the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly – one of the most important political gatherings in Belarus, which takes place once every five years. In the weeks leading up to the event, the arrests reached yet another peak as the regime tried to purge the country of all opposition.
What can revive the protests in Belarus?
The Belarusian protests are certainly not as large-scale as they were last autumn: a few dozen people sporadically demonstrate in the urban areas, but by now these are isolated incidents. This is due to the harsh repression on the part of the state, which is looking to eradicate any signs of dissent in the country.
Another factor that, generally, undermines the mobilisations is the continued organisational, informational and (albeit limited) economic support that Russia is providing to Lukashenko’s regime. Nevertheless, the consolidation of the international community’s position regarding the situation in Belarus is an important prerequisite for the revival of collective action.
In this context, it is very difficult to maintain large-scale protests, even though there is still potential. We can see this in the number of civic initiatives that mushroomed following the mobilisations last autumn and winter. Launched by grassroots activists, they are devoted to various activities such as documenting torture, supporting the victims of violence, assisting with relocation abroad and providing education.
Tiachanovskaya’s office, located in Vilnius, Lithuania, is trying to organise and maintain the communication with the protesters. They conduct regular online discussions about the priorities and problems the activists face, and they debate how best to represent the interests of Belarusians at an international level. Tiachanovskaya’s team, which consists of members of the “old” opposition (such as Viacorka, Dabravolski) and “newer” figures (Kavaleuski, Kuchynski), has succeeded in raising funds to help victims of repression and is distributing these via decentralized digital currency. The team also disseminates policy recommendations (working documents and newsletters) and gives speeches to the EU institutions.
Although it’s difficult to make any prognoses about future developments at this stage, the overall work of Tiachanovskaya’s office and the civic initiatives allows for a further delegitimization of the regime on an international scale and has already led to the introduction of sanctions. As a result, some of the more capable public officials have now left the country, such as the former Minister of Culture Pavel Latushko. Lukashenko’s regime is error-prone and lacking expertise. The killing of Roman Bondarenko, the arrest of Roman Protassevich and the recent attempt to forcefully return Tsimanouskaya from the Tokyo Olympic games are just a few examples. This provides fertile conditions for a revival in the protests as and when the level of repression decreases or another mistake is made.
Sviatlana’s friend Yulya was the first to run. She had been arrested multiple times already, and on the day she was planning to escape the police came to her house four times, knocking aggressively on her door. She had to flee in a man’s clothes, carrying all her stuff in a garbage bag. She followed Sviatlana’s route from Vitebsk to Russia, eventually making it to the place where her friend was hiding.
“I’ll never forget her eyes when I picked her up. They were open so wide it seemed like they were taking up her entire face. And her face was grey, and her hands were shaking. We picked her up and took her to the shopping mall, because she arrived with nothing, not even a toothbrush. Can you imagine, running away with just a garbage bag and a couple of changes of clothes?”
During her almost three months of hiding, Sviatlana, together with other activists from Belarus, Lithuania and Russia, managed to help numerous people, including the rest of Yulya’s family, to flee to Europe. At the beginning of March, the network finally collected enough money to pay for one person’s journey from Russia to Ukraine. The smugglers usually request a fee of between 1500 and 1800 euros per person for such an operation. Yulya didn’t have a passport, which made her presence in Russia even more dangerous. It was therefore decided that she should go first.
“The chase was like a Need for Speed game, when you run from the police, racing 150 km/h in the complete darkness through the fields”
It took Yulya two attempts to eventually cross the border. During the first effort she was spotted by Russian officials, along with the guides and two other Belarusians. The guards then opened fire on the group using flare guns. According to protocol, officials are required to shoot into the air in such instances, but Yulya claims they aimed the devices directly at them.
“The chase was like a Need for Speed game, when you run from the police, racing 150 km/h in the complete darkness through the fields. It was scary, we were lucky that the car was a 4×4, suitable for the conditions,” recalls Yulya. Eventually the guides managed to lure the guards away and she was able to escape.
The second attempt, a few days later, went more smoothly and Yulya made her way to Kiev where she was reunited with her husband and three children who were already there waiting for her.
Two weeks later, Sviatlana repeated Yulya’s feat. In her case, though, she made the entire journey on foot, together with the guides. They started walking at 5 am, and after three hours they reached the first Ukrainian town. Their clothes were soaked from the long trudge through the forests and fields, so they changed into clean ones before continuing the journey to Kiev.
Sviatlana stayed with Yulya and her family for the next few weeks, trying to figure out ways to get to Europe. Yulya went to the police and told them she had lost her passport. She received a form that she took to the Belarusian embassy, asking for a temporary document that would allow her to return home. “When I came to the embassy they already knew about me. I saw a photocopy of my passport printed out, and I heard the officers giving a call to the national security service notifying them of my presence in the embassy. Then they muted the microphone, so I couldn’t hear. I wanted to run, but it was clear that I wouldn’t succeed. There were about eight guards and a bunch of people in civilian clothes. I was hoping that Sviatlana, and others who were waiting for me outside, would make a scene and wouldn’t let them take me away. To my huge surprise, they gave me the document, and asked when I was leaving. I said today.” This document allowed her to buy a plane ticket to Minsk with a transfer in Warsaw. She got off the plane there and asked for asylum. Her family soon followed.
Sviatlana left Kiev and landed in Vilnius on 20 May. She’d prefer not to explain how she managed to board the flight. “You always have to think about people who will follow the same path, and if I were to make this information public, that road might become closed for them.”
The entire family was waiting for her at the airport. Six months had passed since they had seen one another. “The children were very happy, especially the little one. The eldest had changed a lot. I left him as a child, and I was met by a grown up, with a deep voice and a bearded face.”
The family is now waiting for political refugee status. On 12 September, Tamara and the kids will receive the verdict of their application. Sviatlana’s will come later. Since she is not allowed to work until then she is dedicating her time to volunteering. Using the contacts she has made during her journey, she’s connecting those who need to flee Belarus with those who can provide help. Other than that, she’s also taking a coding course, learning the Lithuanian language, and has applied for a grant to the Marine Academy.
“I’d like to wish peace and cooperation to all our diaspora, because only through cooperation will we be able to help one other. In my case, help came from everywhere […] a little help from everyone is a huge contribution. If I hadn’t received this kind of assistance from each person, my story wouldn’t have been possible. Bysol helped me with the escape, Natalya Kolegova, Dopomoga and Nash Dom helped my family with paying the rent and buying food. The volunteers from the Netherlands paid the plane tickets for my mother and I […] The Russian volunteers are something out of this world, they helped me and Yulya completely selflessly, paying for us out of their own pockets […] The most important thing is unity.”
Sviatlana, her mother and her kids are now living in a house with white walls, which they share with another Lithuanian family. Their home is filled with life; the children are visited constantly by Lithuanian and Belarusian friends. They live in the town of Lentvaris, 40 minutes from Vilnius. Many Belarusian families have settled here since people began fleeing the country. “Shortly after we moved here, we met the girls next door. They’re also from Belarus but their story is different to ours. Their parents weren’t arrested, but their godfather was,” says Sviatlana’s oldest daughter, Taisiya.
In Belarus, Sviatlana has been charged with a criminal offence based on the scarecrow protest. Officially her case has been described as “angry hooliganism, clinically and nihilistically neglecting society’s norms and ideals, as well as insulting the president.” Around thirty people were part of the Telegram chat that organised the demonstration. Three other participants were sentenced to over three years each in prison. Seven have fled the country. The rest were not identified by the authorities and still live in Mogilev.
Across the country, the Belarusian opposition continues to be persecuted. On 23 May, the exiled journalist Roman Protassevitch was arrested in Minsk airport after his flight to Vilnius was diverted there. He has been detained by the authorities ever since. On 6 July another opposition leader and presidential candidate, Victor Babariko, was sentenced to 14 years in jail for corruption and money laundering. The day before, on 5 July, the United Nations envoy for Belarus called for the immediate release of 530 political prisoners.
This story was produced in partnership with the Lithuanian journalist collective Nara.