The Battle for the Mural – and the Future of Belarus – awsforwp

In mid-August, the buildings woke up to the DJ mural. Stepan messaged the building chat that everyone should come to the playground. Residents arrived with thermoses. They hung red and white ribbons on their fence and began to gather for tea every night. A few mornings later, the building chat pinged with a message:

“The mural was painted over.”

“The paint is not very good!” someone replied. “Looks like the municipal workers saved money and mixed the paint with water!”

“Let’s wash it off!”

Diana was already at the salon, but Vasili joined a dozen others with rags and water. The paint rubbed off easily. The DJs re-emerged from the gray background.

In the chat, meanwhile, others were composing a letter:

Dear Citizen of the Republic of Belarus constantly painting over the current mural with persistence worthy of another use,

We appreciate your hard work, whether you work under compulsion or out of personal conviction. After all, we ourselves had to work hard to build these beautiful houses, playgrounds and this exit from the parking lot that our authorities dislike so much. We appreciate all work and even though we do not agree with you, we want you to be happy. It hurts to see the camera recordings where you have such a sad face. Smile. Go to the coffee house at 62 Chervyakova Street. There is paid coffee and cookies for you and your comrade. Every labor should bring joy. (Thank you for putting down a tarp.)

– Tenants of the yard.

They hung it next to the mural and waited.

By the end of August, Lukashenko’s system seemed to be teetering. Hundreds of thousands of citizens had joined weekly Sunday marches demanding a recount. State-run factories held walkouts. Siloviki publicly handed over their badges. State-TV journalists resigned or even dared to air segments devoted to the protests. On a visit to Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant, Lukashenko was greeted with loud boos and shouts of “Leave!” He appeared shaken and vowed that they would have to kill him first.

One Sunday march, Lukashenko reportedly took to the skies in a helicopter, buzzing over the crowds. He returned to the presidential palace and stalked the grounds brandishing a Kalashnikov with his 15-year-old son, Nikolai, wearing a bulletproof vest and condemning the “rats.”

Neighborhood and building courtyard chats had proliferated around Minsk to coordinate smaller actions. Residents of Diana’s building sewed giant red-and-white flags and hung them off the balconies, spanning four floors. Then Stepan, the arborist, strung up a home-sewn red-and-white flag between two buildings, using children’s socks stuffed with uncooked rice as weights. Almost immediately, a fire truck arrived to take it down, but the firefighters could not figure out how to get on the roof. They sat in their truck all night, waiting. By morning, one line had sagged, and they were able to cut the rope. But they still could not get on the second building’s roof to cut the line on the other side, so they left to find a door cutter. Stepan quickly pulled the cut side back up again. When the siloviki returned with the fire truck, dressed in all black, the whole group stormed the building. “Look, it’s Special Operation Flag!” residents taunted on their neighborhood chat.

And so it became a routine. Each time the municipality painted over the mural, the residents came right back down to wipe the paint off. Whenever they cut down the ribbons on the fence, the group put them back up again. One day in September, the residents had to wash the paint off twice in one day. At some point the authorities seemed to tire of cutting the ribbons and a man came with a blowtorch and burned them instead. Someone had made a Square of Change sign in the same style and lettering as all the street signs in Minsk, white letters against a blue background. When the authorities knocked it down, residents nailed it back.

People had started making pilgrimages to the Square, taking photos of themselves against the famous backdrop. Visitors left gifts – candies, honey, cookies and notes of support. They came from other parts of Belarus or as far away as Moscow and Vilnius. A Belarusian American from Florida visiting Minsk came to take a photograph. Someone programmed “Square of Change” into Yandex – the Russian Google Maps equivalent, which is widely used in Belarus – and it was official.