We are the Power Here
Maryna Rusia Shukiurava has been part of the opposition movement in Belarus since she was 18 years old. She has often expressed her political opinion through her work as a musician and as an NGO activist.
So when the revolution erupted in the summer of 2020, following the widely disputed presidential election, there was no question whether she should march in the streets.
What she saw there was the clash of two mentalities. The old Soviet one, represented by Alexander Lukashenko and his system desperately clinging to power, and the new modern one, represented by a generation which values freedom above everything else and is ready to fight for it.
Shukiurava came to this conclusion when she first heard people chanting: “We are the power here”.
“I realized that for 26 years, this man had tried to persuade me that I am nothing. That I have no right to feel at home here. That I have to serve his needs with my taxes and loyalty. But now I, not this man, am a representative of the real power here”, she concluded.
This female artist and activist sees the Belarusian revolution as both a painful and terrible experience because of the violence it inflicted upon its citizens, and as the beautiful rebirth of a nation.
In the documentary film “Women Leading Protests” by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, Shukiurava shares how the protest movement transformed not only her but the whole of Belarusian society, as women took the leading role they deserved.
The documentary follows four women fighting for democracy in Belarus, Hong Kong, Venezuela, and Lebanon. Their stories reveal a wider narrative of women all around the world, who are realizing their power to move their societies towards progress and freedom. But they also show governments that are ruthless and violent in trying to weaken their influence.
Women on the frontlines
In the documentary, Maryna Rusia Shukiurava compares the role of women in the Belarusian protests to the soft, loving hands of a mother protecting her child. Every time people got scared during the protests or it seemed that the situation was desperate, women would come up with something to lift their spirits. Just like when a baby falls, its mother would pick him up and say: “It’s OK. You will do it”, Belarusian women were saying: “It’s OK, we can do this.” This not only made the protests peaceful, but uplifting.
Before the revolution, women’s role in society was important but hidden. To describe it, Shukiurava uses a metaphor, the Russian proverb that the man is the head and the woman is the neck.
By the summer of 2020, this had changed. “Everyone saw how strong, how powerful, how full of life women were. I really felt the sisterhood of brave women and now there is no doubt who is the head and who is the neck. Women are both”, Shukiurava exclaims.
She believes that the role model that initiated this shift in attitude was the opposition leader Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya. When she stood up against the regime to fight for justice in the name of her husband, everyone took notice. If the homemaker who used to cook soup and take care of her children was brave enough to face the dictator, then men felt they had no excuse not to be on the streets marching for freedom.
Shukiurava herself had to switch quickly between being on the streets every day and catering to the needs of her baby daughter. “Two days as a revolutionary woman and one day as a mother, that was my balance”, she recalls.
In the film, Shukiurava recalls the first female protest before the violence erupted. Women organized via Telegram and decided that if they showed up without men, the police wouldn’t hurt them. They gathered at the Komarovka market in Minsk, all dressed in white, standing in line, holding each other.
“We stayed silent. Everybody was so scared and shaking. I was with my younger sister and she asked me: Do you think they will beat us? I said: no, not today”, Skukiurava reflects.
But this situation only lasted a day. Very soon the police started hurting and arresting old women, pregnant women, and even girls as young as 14. “Lukashenko is crazy. He has no limits”, Rusia says, adding that women suffered just as much as men from police violence.
When activists started to disappear one by one, Shukiurava reconsidered her decision to remain in Belarus. She had a baby and had to think of its safety first.
One evening, after a huge demonstration, protesters decided to go to the Minsk prison to show their support for all its imprisoned activists and citizens.
Dressed all in black, Rusia was determined to go despite being sick to her stomach from fear.
Nothing happened that night, no one was beaten or arrested. But when she came home, Shukiurava had a nervous breakdown and realized that it was all too much for her mental health.
“Many people in Belarus say they had an experience like mine. At one moment you just find yourself absolutely crazy. You can’t control your body. Belarusians have faced so much violence that a normal person can’t accept it, can’t deal with it”, Rusia explains and adds; “I found myself in such a state that in one more day, I would have lost my mind.”
She realized she had to escape immediately. Within 24 hours, she and her family had packed their possessions into a single suitcase and left for Ukraine.
For the first few months, they were scared to even go downtown for a coffee because the sight of a police car or the sound of any high-pitched noise would transport them back to their traumatic experiences back home.
Now she feels at home in Kyiv, surrounded by family and friends and being able to practice her craft.
Although she’s not religious, Rusia reveals that she starts every day with a ritual of gratitude for being safe. “Every morning when my daughter wakes up, I kiss her and take her to the big kitchen window to look at the sky. And I say – My baby, I am so happy that we are safe”, Shukiurava says, her voice cracking.
Supporting the revolution from afar
This female activist keeps on supporting the Belarusian revolution from afar. She was involved with the Belarusian Cultural Solidarity Foundation and now works with “Friida Bell”, an NGO based in Estonia.
The Foundation raises funds to support musicians, artists, and actors who have lost their jobs because of their political views. The NGO is focused on women and supports female activism and education on the topics of sex, gender, and feminism.
Through both her artistic work and her NGO activity, Rusia Shukiurava explores the idea of a new identity for Belarusian women. She also wants to show the personal contribution of women to the revolution, lest it melts away with time.
“We have had some fiery debates about the role of feminism in the Belarusian protests. For me, it was a feminist movement because women realized their power. They were so brave, creative, and supportive while fighting with the system. But some active feminists from Belarus argue against this position. They declare that in reality, feminist issues remain unchanged. Women went onto the streets as sisters, mothers, and wives. Though they were fighting the regime on the streets, at the same time no one took away all their usual routines like cooking food, cleaning the house, and taking care of their kids and their husbands”, Shukiurava explains.
Her hope is that through this whole experience, Belarusian society will become more accepting of the differences between people and of liberal values.
“With the help of the revolution, we saw how many different people there are in Belarus. During the peaceful marches, we saw representatives from many social spheres; for example, the LGBTI with their rainbow flags, we had disabled people – not usually included in our society, we had grandmothers and grandfathers, we had teenagers, and we had people from different religions”, the activist recalls.
Shukiurava expects that this blended environment will make the Belarusian society freer and more self-sufficient, like it is in democratic countries.
As to what is next for the whole oppositional movement in Belarus, Shukiurava says: “To push, push, push the button until it blows up. We have lost too many things and people. There is no way to stop.”
"Women Leading Protests – Fighting for Democracy"
The documentary "Women Leading Protests – Fighting for Democracy" by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom tells the stories of four women who were actively involved in the protests in Belarus, Hong Kong, Venezuela and Lebanon in different ways. Their stories represent women all around the world, who are fighting for democratic change in their countries. Several of the protagonists describe how those in power systematically underestimated them, because „they were women“, which the women in turn sometimes used to their advantage. But as their influence grew, so did the violence that many of the governments were willing to use against them.