My father left Belarus because immigration was easier than toppling a dictator
I don’t remember what I was doing when I first heard about the protests in Belarus last summer but I do remember how shocked I felt. Shocked not with an almost traditional, post-election march organized by the people living in Minsk but with how massively involved the rest of the country was. This time even people from the deep periphery mobilized to address their political discomfort.
I lived in the deep periphery with those people. I knew that our long and violent history left them wanting nothing but a life free of war and hunger. Protesting the rigged presidential elections didn’t advance this two-item wish list. It did the opposite. Many protestors were savagely brutalized, some died, and the whole country spiraled into another economic crisis. Suddenly, I couldn’t recognize anymore my conflict-avoiding people but then I thought about my father and realized my country had always had a third wish—freedom.
Growing up, I knew about the protests in Minsk but only from my father. He had been to one in the early 2000s and instructed us not to talk to anyone about it. But after I learnt about the pictures he took of the event and that he stored them in his closet, I searched for them. In them I saw my father in a Lenin leather hat and a matching dark brown leather jacket. His face was stoic as he stood among white-red-white flags and homemade posters. The empty look in his eyes was all too familiar to me, he didn’t want to be there.
I don’t know if attending one political march classified my father as a political activist, but he didn’t stop there. He arranged for our mailwoman to secretly deliver to the house a banned nationalist newspaper printed abroad. He read it in the garage with the doors closed, sometimes with other neighbors. If caught, he could lose his job but also respect of his parents and brothers. They would have shamed him for being ungrateful and needy. He lived in a peaceful country and had food on the table—what else could he want?
Father cared about Belarus but he cared more about getting out of it. He didn’t march in Minsk to start a revolution, he went there to build a case for political asylum. He talked about Canada and the U.S. For him, immigration was more realistic than toppling the dictator. He wanted to change his circumstances in a way that still preserved the relationships with his family, so instead of removing the dictator, he removed himself.
When I learnt about the protests last summer, shock was not all I felt. I also felt jealousy. As a little girl, I dreamed about liberating Belarus from its oppressors and becoming a sacrificing revolutionary like my childhood hero Konstanty Kalinowski. I was ready for a life in exile and poverty and I didn’t even mind downgrading to the status of my father – someone who marched symbolically. But by the time of last summer’s protests, I had already been an American immigrant for sixteen years. Belarus wasn’t mine anymore and I had no stakes in the outcome of that revolution.
But I kept on watching and reading everything about the events. They consumed me. The need to understand my people made me eat, walk, and even work with the news on Belarus playing in the background. I felt more connected to my country than ever and, for the first time since our immigration, I wished I still lived there.
Maybe if I stayed, I would have also had an opportunity to do something good for my country. But then again, I think about my father and I am not so sure anymore. He lived his life based not on what was right for the country but on what was right for him. Ostracizing himself from his family because of his political views would have been suicidal—his parents fed and clothed us.
Maybe if I stayed, I would have also tried to get out. Perhaps my admiration and love for Belarus would have also dwindled from humiliating inability to live in dignity. Plus toppling a dictator doesn’t change the reality for the average person overnight. Change takes time and those who create change may not even live long enough to bear the fruits of their labor. So why even bother? But the opposite could have also been true—I could have fulfilled my childhood fantasy and become that sacrificing revolutionary.
I might never understand what made my people wake up from their decades-long reverie, but I do know that most make decisions based on what is right for them. I just hope they won’t be cornered by their circumstances to make the decision my father made. He could have not possibly known that removing himself from Belarus would still extinguish the relationships with his family. Being an immigrant does nobody any good.