Belarus — arrest & imprisonment — personal testimony of Sergei Stepanov, Minsk

This interview was carried out by Marieke Genard from Belgium. Kate Gallant prepared the transcription. Both Marieke and Kate have known Sergei for many years through their work with Service Civil International. Sergei has retained contacts with many partners from the former Soviet Union and from SCI. It was important to us that his experiences were heard. The transcription has been written to represent Sergei’s own narration. Notes have been added for people who are not following the situation in Belarus so closely. We hope that you find it interesting to read and that people will reflect on how they can show their solidarity with Belarus. Sergei shows both the positive and negative experiences of the protests and imprisonment. Something I am sure many who have been involved in direct action will recognise.

The interview commences with Sergei giving full permission for the recording and use of his interview — Sergei: I don’t have the feeling of fear, I feel protected. I’m not that desperate that any time somebody will come and arrest me again. I don’t care. Really. Interviewer M: It’s possible not to mention your full name. Sergei: It is alright. I was there and I’m ready to testify. Because what I saw I don’t like — what I saw — people should know.

M: that’s why we’re doing this, people should know and there should be more awareness.

S: that’s what I’m trying to do all this time. So people are aware. Sergei confirms he is happy for people to use his photos of the demonstrations and events in Belarus.

M: our aim to use the interview & story/pictures at a time when Belarus is prominent (to bring attention to it).

S: Now somehow, I look at the retrospective and try to analyse what happened. My personal conclusion is that they were following me for some time, mainly because they were thinking I was a reporter or someone from the media. I think it began when I was shooting the Nobel Laureate (Alexievitch[1]) from Belarus when they asked her to come to the investigation committee. At the beginning (of the protests) — it was looking like a revolution of the idealists. In a way people were thinking that there was huge support, and that Lukashenko will be wise enough to leave the place. I was at the elections; they rigged the elections, and everybody knows it. Because they begin these repressions to just slide the elections into place. They were not prepared for these huge crowds. For a while they were just threatening people, but day by day they were putting more and more pressure. As for the reporters they began to arrest them. But somehow, I was not amongst those people, and then I realised, as the centre of Minsk is now more or less clean, and the opposition have decided to go for meetings in different places of Minsk, that I had to change how I was shooting (photographing). The marchers are scattered, so for me it was more difficult to follow all these events, I had to be at many places at one time.

Sergei (taken from interview footage)

I had noticed that my camera was somehow under attention, but once again there was a feeling that it was not that dangerous. The other thing that they (the state/Lukashenko) have learned how to do, they have learned how to — not exactly to quash the protests, but in a way how to deal with them. They were cutting people from coming to the centre of Minsk. They don’t have enough forces, but somehow, you have to admit that there are people in the government who have learned step by step how to deal with the situation. And for them it is rather easy because people are trying very hard, not to be aggressive, very hard, even after all these atrocities have taken place at Okrestina, it’s a detention centre in Minsk, where people were beaten and raped. I was there, on the nights after people were released, I saw how they were beaten, I heard the accounts of what happened to them. (Note: Sergei regularly visited and photographed people outside of the detention centre).

There was a volunteer camp (outside of the prison), I told them about myself, I told them there was many years ago in Belarus a volunteer organisation[2]. Somehow this volunteer camp (outside the prison) was prohibited. They were really doing a good job. Now volunteers are there, but only on days when it is permitted to give food and clothes to prisoners, but it is only once a week. But they are still there, under cover, they really help people. They tell people what is permitted and what they can do, what is the procedure and all that they can do to help the prisoners. I have their flyer (there may be an Italian connection). I really have a big file on all of what’s happening. Until I can put things out on social media, I want to have it for myself, so I can publish information later.

They were following me, but somehow, I did not feel danger. The last time I went on out on 23 November, I went to film the march of the senior citizens which takes place every Monday. It is not a big group marching there are maximum mainly 300–400, and people join all the way (into the column). They don’t go into the main street, they just walk on the pavement, they are over 60, 65, 70 and move quite slowly. The police (militia) — they are making like a huge military operation, how to deal with them. When I was inside the police bus, they were talking on their walkie talkies that people are coming so they (police) have to switch to the silent regime. I stayed there (at the march) for 20/25 minutes. As I have some experience of seeing them march, I decided there was nothing more to shoot. I decided to go home. What had taken my attention, was that the undercover agents, who were with the militia, they are in civil clothing and with cameras, they are shooting face to face the old people, they are putting their cameras right into their faces, it makes them (the older people) very uncomfortable, the older people do not know how to react to these things. The militia’s faces are covered. For me it was something you look at and it’s disgusting really to watch them behave like that. So, I began to shoot the people with the cameras, I have seen them before, I was really appalled, they have no respect, these people could be their mothers, fathers. In a way they are helpless. [3]

Older protester, Minsk October 2020

So, I decided to return to my house, It was 2–5 minutes’ walk to take a regular city bus. And in 10 minutes I was at my home bus stop, I disembarked and moved back from the bus stop. I saw the bus had gone, and in its place was a small minivan, I was looking at it and then 5 masked guys in uniform jumped out and were running at me. I looked at one guy, I nodded at him, that I knew he was coming for me. There was no where to run, they came up to me and it was clear I should go with them. People took notice, but there was no time to react, they put me professionally into the van. I did not resist. They put me inside, they asked me for my phone. They ask for the code to open it up, usually, then they look at your participation in other meetings (marches). I talked about this with others in prison, then they say you are guilty of participation in marches. But anyway, I never carry a phone on me. Who will phone me? People know that if they want to talk to me it’s not by phone. They searched me. They were surprised. I told them I had the camera. The things that was surprising were that: there were so many people to arrest one guy. Then that they followed the city bus — this was unbelievable, I did not feel so important. Also, whilst we were driving in the bus the senior guy, who was in charge of the operation, he called somebody, and said Sir, your instructions are carried out. It is not the military lingo, usually you would say your order is carried out. It sounds like the guy who gave the order to detain me was s civilian. Either from the security services, or from the investigation committee. Usually the militia, act on orders not instructions. The guys in the bus who were all masked, I looked at their eyes, they were all young under 35, not heavily built, people from the special brigades are recognisable — from their training. They were strong, but not massively. They were carrying batons. I don’t know if they were carrying guns. They were the special forces, OMON, have badges on them. These are the policeman who usually quash the marches. People who directly participate in detentions during the marches, or people who are there to guard the place. They are not the special forces. We have special forces of the ‘so called’ President who are brutal, then the special forces of the militia, who are trained ALMAZ. The last are also trained to kill, but mainly they are more trained to detain and struggle with the marches.

They did nothing. We arrived at the local police station, not in my region, but in the area where the march took place. They transferred me to the investigation department of this district office. There were four investigators, when I first came in, they told me I was charged with 23.34 article of the code, that I was participating in a meeting that was not permitted by the government. I told them I was just shooting photos and that they could look and see the date, time, and distance from which I was shooting the march; I was not participating. The answer was: we have witnesses. Then I was told to take off my shoes and remove the laces. I realised that I was going to be arrested. I told them I hold a US citizenship. They told me it doesn’t matter. I think they did not believe in it. I tell you why, they asked — do I hold the Belarusian citizenship. Yes, but I also have US citizenship. They were a bit taken aback; I think he thought I was trying to cheat on him. He asked me what is called the main street in Los Angeles. I thought I am sorry guys, I spent 20 years in LA. And then I tried another idea — I told them I have a dog in my house, they said the dog will die. I said perhaps my neighbour will come and look after the dog. They were young — 25–30 years — I noticed they had disrespect amongst them. The senior guys don’t like those they command, because they don’t respect each other. It suggests they don’t like what they do. They did not like the people who brought me, because they are from another department/branch of police, and they used bad words about those people. They brought me to prison, and they also dislike the prison guards. There is a kind of tension in between the groups of militias.

It is not only the protestors who are tired. I think there is understanding of what they are doing, they are really young, and my impression is that they don’t exactly like what they are doing, they do it because it is their job, they think they are defending the state. But I think they are coming to the realisation that they defend only one guy (Lukashenko), and not the state or the constitution.

The biggest point was when I was trying to explain I was not participating. I told them I was detained near my house, and not at the demonstration. He told me it was an operation to detain me. They chose to send the bus after me. When they brought me to prison the investigators role was over. I was put under the prison system control, and it is quite different, and a different set of prison rules. They told me to take off all my clothes. I was naked. They told me to sit down twice, to look for something inside me. After that I was put in a prison cell. The cell was for 7 people and there were already 9, and I was the 10th. So, it was overcrowded. The people inside were wonderful. I began to make notes, of the names of the people. During the first night they gave me a mat to sleep on the floor, one other person slept on a bench. Only 2 of the group (in the first cell) were awaiting court. The others had been arrested during the anti-fascist march on the Sunday, and so they had all been sentenced already.

Prison bus, Orkestina prison October 2020

When they took 1,000 prisoners per march it was too many for the prison system it began to collapse. It is too small for this number. Now they have calculated that 300 maximum 400 are enough. In Minsk there is only one big detention centre that can take max 300 people. You go first to temporary detention, then court. Then you are sent across the Minsk region to other prisons, and some people remain in Minsk. Then they have free places for another Sunday. These people were there, and I was the only one who came from the senior citizens march, so people were asking how it was going.

The next day there was court. My court was maximum 5 minutes. There was Skype[4], the judge asks for name, place of birth, what happened. I began to tell her what happened, she asked where I was arrested. It was the same information as when I was arrested. She then had her protocol ready, and she began to read it to me. There were not even any witnesses. They also took my camera, I was told I would get it back when I was free. That meant that I would get a term (a sentence). Otherwise, they also give fines, a fine is around $600 — it is given to women only who have young children. This is a lot of money for this. It is cheaper to be in prison, in prison it is $150 for 15 days. You pay for food. They are making money! She (the judge) interrupted me and said I have 13 days to serve for the participation. I asked her why are you doing this? A guy near me told me she would give me more days if I asked questions. 13 days is not the maximum for this offence it is 15 days.

In the cell they thought that this court appearance was very short, usually they are there for around 20 minutes. This was around 5 minutes, a very short one. I then stayed another night at the detention centre. The following day people were told to get up and get ready for the transfer to the prison, as everyone now has the prison term confirmed. There is no need to leave people in the temporary facility. They moved around 15 people to Baranavichy — which is considered to not be a bad place for serving terms. I was transferred to two more cells, one after the other. Then I was transferred to the prison, Okrestina, in Minsk, on 26th, I stayed there until 4 December.

On the 8th day, when I was already thinking about how only two days were left until my release, the guy in my cell, decided (to make a protest action), and I don’t have a lot of complaints about this cell, because actually people have learned, and the attitude was more or less bearable (from the staff). Only there was no hot water, once a day you were supposed to go outside — but there were no walks outside. You can sit on your bed and read books that is all there was. You are closed, but there was not that much pressure, they check names in the morning. The food was bad, the guys who had been inside for a while got food packages from their families. Drinking water was only from the bathroom taps.

‘Power to the towel’ — published October 2020

On the 8th day, a guy in my cell decided to put one white towel, his red shirt, and another white towel on his bed — I don’t know why. This is the colours of the opposition flag. He was a young guy, working in telecommunications. We are all there under the cameras. The bathroom was more or less closed (no cameras), but in the cell they can follow you. In 10 minutes, the shift manager came, was in the cell. The thing is when anybody first opens the door of the cell, when they first open the door of the cell, my bed was immediately there when you came in. He came in shouting at me. I didn’t answer and looked — why are you shouting at me? He then started shouting at the guy — telling us he will make us see what life is like here. Firstly, they took out our mattresses, we slept on the floor that night — as you could not sleep on the steel bars of the beds. On the next day, he decided that it was not enough. They called us into the corridor and began again some kind of brain washing and scalding. Then I asked this person, why do you punish all the people in the cell when you find only one guy is guilty. He was looking at me, I told him it was like punishing everybody in a tall storey building, rather than one flat. And he went completely mad and nuts and was shouting, for 10/15 minutes. Then a prison guard came in, he announced the name of the guy (who put out the flag) and my name and we had to leave the cell with our things. They put us on a transfer, which usually is not done, as I had only two nights left. The other guy had three nights more nights to stay. It is somehow useless to send you somewhere. They send us to the prison Zhodino (outside of Minsk) and this is the worst place, and that was really cruel.

From the beginning they put us in a militia truck — one with small compartments (3 metres by 0.5 metres) people sit on a bench. But they added 7 persons instead of 5 people, two were standing. The guards were very aggressive. They were like trained dogs, you could not speak, look around — you are just trash. Anyway, they brought us to Zhodino — it is where Kolesnikova[5] is. It is a very old Soviet prison probably build in early 50s. They have long corridors underneath the prison, and they put us on a run, and you run with your hands behind you, and if you are too slow, they threaten to beat you. You run like crazy, they stop you — faces to the wall, if you turn your head they will beat you. They pushed me several times, as I tried to understand — it was a small shock. Then there was small room, with one guy with at a table, before the table they put a red/white flag on the floor. So then everybody who has to sign has to go over this flag — they think it is some kind of humiliation. And then after that, they take you in another room and again you must take off all your clothes. And this time they did not give you enough time to put your underwear back, they just push you in the corridor and people are trying to put their underwear and so on back on. The prison cell was very bad, the toilet place is open, there are around 10 people in the cell, the air is very, very bad. One or two people were lying down with temperatures and it is a much stricter regime, you are not allowed to sit on your bed. The lights are on night and day, no hot water and the food is worse than in Minsk. The prison guards are not responsive mainly, if you call them usually what you get is some kind of the outburst and the cell is closed. The cell is very depressing.

I was thinking why — if they have decided to prolong my sentence, which is also a regular practice you go there for 13 days and I saw people who go out only after 45 days, they give you another and another sentence so that the people lose motivation. I thought if they give me another sentence then I will go on dry hunger strike and will demand the American consul. This was something like my advantage because I can still appeal to someone. Most people there cannot appeal to anyone and they are helpless, so this was something like a way out, so I was more or less calm. I was not pushing my citizenship, as I thought 13 days was ok. I thought that if I was not released then I will start another round. After two or three attempts I was told I can be released.

In general, what I think about this, now around 35,000 people have gone through these arrests. I was like in 4–5 cells and every cell was full of really creative young people, the average is 20–35 (years of age) — I was the oldest guy there, I met one guy who was 56. What startled me is that these guys were so active, I was going from one roundtable to another roundtable, discussions, discussions. So I think that Lukashenko has already made a huge mistake, because he united these people, this is the core, the nucleus, these people now know each other, these people share tactics, these people share their experiences, these people now know each other. They are now not so idealist as in the first marches. They understand and know what they face. I was so happy to participate in this roundtable (discussions).

I told them many times that I was so grateful that I was here, I was so happy to participate in these seminars, practical part, and theoretical part. I was speaking — the guys were speaking and there is respect for each other’s opinions and it was wonderful. And I think it is a huge mistake and I think this is his (Lukashenko’s) grave what he has done. Perhaps 10% of these people think well we better take another course, others go out again with full understanding and they think and analyse what happened and they think about how not to go into the hands of these police guys again (not be arrested). It was wonderful really, and I saw it in every cell. There is discussion before lunch, then there is a pause then more discussions, new people are coming, and discussions continue. I saw this everywhere, I have not seen that people are disillusioned, people stay motivated, they go out to fight, these are clever, intelligent, people, they speak languages. There are people from different social strata, there are working class people, students there are young people, old people. There are IT people, from the building industry, guys from factories and they are united by one goal and this is that the regime shall fall. They are so united, and I was so grateful that I was there. It was not like this many years ago (at the start of the dictatorship) — now there is no misunderstanding — for perspective is there. Even if this winter war would be less productive, because Russia is here, that’s another problem in its way, but spring will be spring in its real sense.

M: that’s hopeful.

Marieke (taken from interview footage)

S: One thing I saw you know, when I shoot (photographs) from the outside, of course you are proud that people are going, but these marches are going but nothing happens in a way. Now I heard so much more. There were days — 2–3 days after the election when people could have taken power, but because people do not have experience of what they were dealing with and they thought that the guys in power are understandable and that they think like them. These people do not think like them, these people think only of how to hold to power, this was a mistake, idealistic. Now it is not there anymore.

I think the protests will stay scattered, as this is the tactic they want to use. They also recognise the western support and they are for the sanctions and they are for more strict sanctions, and they think that all of us are waiting for Biden who promised that America will help with sanctions against Russian oligarchs that help the regime. They think that whilst he has money to feed his (Lukashenko’s) henchman he is there (he will remain in power). Once he stops to feed them then they will run from him. I guess he probably has the support of 10–15% (of the population), but these people will not go out to defend him. It is passive support. So, the majority is really for the change and that’s why I keep repeating that it was one of the best experiences, I was happy to be there. It is a long time since I have been in meetings like this (reference back to the 1990s). Even in prison, I was surprised I gave people talks about how it used to be. They now call me, for me I put it as a positive thing in my life. It was bad, but it was okay.

M: You removed your political pictures, but Sergei confirmed that he regularly removes photos, as he believes news/images get old. S: I tend to put up a big album, I let it stay for a few days and then it goes.

After the interview Sergei was able to reclaim his camera and continues to take photos and follow progress with the protests.

[1] Svetlana Alexandrovna Alexievich (born 31 May 1948) is a Belarusian investigative journalist, essayist and oral historian who writes in Russian. She was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”.

Born: 31 May 1948, Ivano-Frankivsk

Profession: Writer, Journalist

Education: Belarusian State University

Svetlana Alexievich — Wikipedia

[2] In the 1990s — Sergei founded an organisation which became the Belarus partner of Service Civil International — the partnership arranged volunteering opportunities/workcamps across Europe that people from Belarus were able to attend. SCI is an international peace organisation — that promotes civil service (rather than military service). Workcamps also took place within Belarus.

[3] Since the time of Sergei’s arrest the authorities have now started to arrest older people on the pensioners march — including some in their 80s and 90s.

[4] Skype has been almost exclusively used for trials of protestors in Minsk. The protestors would like to highlight how US corporations (in this case Microsoft) are allowing their communication tools to be used as a way of supressing dissent. They would like to see people in the west pick up and highlight this issue.

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/sep/07/belarus-opposition-leader-maria-kolesnikova-snatched-from-street-in-minsk-reports

Community investment & service improvement professional working in the voluntary sector and social housing