Updated at 14:13,24-01-2022

Unflagging Protest: Belarus's Opposition Inspired By A Pensioner And Her Outlawed Banner

By Valeriya Ulasik, Alena Shalayeva, Tony Wesolowsky, RFE/RL

Unflagging Protest: Belarus's Opposition Inspired By A Pensioner And Her Outlawed Banner
Nina Bahinskaya is a celebrity of sorts among activists. Photo: svaboda.org (RFE/RL)
Holding a bamboo pole with a red-striped white banner, the banned flag of the first independent Belarusian state, she faces a line of black-clad police officers staring down from a flight of stone steps.

The 2006 photograph transformed Nina Bahinskaya, now a pensioner and great-grandmother, into a celebrity of sorts among activists -- an endangered species in Belarus, ruled since 1994 by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who tolerates little dissent in the nation of some 9.5 million.

"Today, some may laugh at it, some may dismiss it, and some may not pay any attention at all. But in the future, that image will still be there," said Zmitser Dashkevich, leader of the opposition group Malady Front (Youth Front). "That photograph of Nina Bahinskaya with the flag will be part of Belarus's recent history. Not all these political parties, but Nina Bahinskaya with the flag in her hand."

Unflagging Protest: Belarus's Opposition Inspired By A Pensioner And Her Outlawed Banner

Nina Bahinskaya facing down a line of policemen in 2006

Bahinskaya has been protesting for decades and took part in some of the first demonstrations in what was then the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic that helped nudge the Soviet Union closer over the precipice.

The frail retiree, who lives in a modest apartment in Minsk, said she had no choice but to protest.

"I was motivated by all the injustice -- social, political, and national. And I said: 'If you're not a coward, if you're not a slave, then you should defend your country and homeland," she said in a recent interview with Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

Waving The Flag

Bahinskaya rarely heads out for demonstrations without her flag, the white-red-white symbol of the short-lived Belarusian People's Republic, which existed for about a year in 1918-19. It was also the official flag of modern Belarus for the country's first five years of independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

But it was dumped four years later by Lukashenka, a former state-farm chief who has used nostalgia for the perceived security, law, and order of the Soviet era as one of his tools for staying in power.

In 1995, he pushed through a controversial referendum that among other things changed state symbols, replacing the flag with one that is essentially the Soviet-era version -- minus the hammer and sickle.

The red-and-white flag was picked up by the country's pro-democracy opposition, becoming a powerful symbol. Officially banned by authorities, the flag was frequently confiscated by police at demonstrations in the past -- although they have changed tactics in recent years, according to Bahinskaya.

"Up until 2014, they would confiscate flags, then they started to snap them in two and take them away. But from 2016, the coffers were empty, I guess, so they stopped confiscating the flags, and started issuing fines instead," Bahinskaya said with a smile, holding a tiny first republic flag that she says rarely leaves her side.

Stalinist Repression Spawns An Activist

Bahinskaya, a former employee at Minsk's Geology Institute, first took to the streets in 1988, when one of the greatest crimes committed in Belarus under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin was first revealed to the wider public.

Historians say that between 1937 and 1941, a period of mass killings and political persecution, the Soviet secret police -- the NKVD -- carried out large-scale executions in a wooded area outside Minsk called Kurapaty.

The tragedy remained shrouded in Soviet secrecy until 1988, when a Belarus historian and one of the founders of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front exposed what had happened.

Appearing during Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost era, the newspaper article by Zyanon Paznyak and Yauhen Shmyhaleu sparked some of the first protests in the Soviet Union and gave a boost to the pro-democracy and pro-independence movement in Belarus in the waning days of the U.S.S.R.

Bahinskaya brandishes Belarus's illegal flag in Minsk in 2016

Infuriated by the article, Bahinskaya says she took part in one of those first protests in Minsk on October 30, 1988, coinciding with Dziady, an ancient Slavic feast day to commemorate the dead. Police cracked down on the unauthorized gathering, using tear gas, batons, and water cannon to disperse the crowd.

"I was horrified by this Soviet lie: 'Everything for the people.' And because the people wanted to commemorate their national holiday, Dziady, these troops were dispatched and they dispersed us."

An investigation conducted from 1988 to 1995 established that Kurapaty contained the remains of 220,000 to 250,000 people, who were identified as victims of Stalin's political terror.

Instead of embracing the findings, the state tried to downplay them and muddy the waters over who was responsible.

A government commission later revised the number of victims, first to 30,000 and then to 7,000.

Years Of Protests, Years Of Arrests

For Bahinskaya, it was the start of what would turn into a lifetime of speaking out against injustice, and in the past few years alone she has had plenty of her own brushes with the law in a country whose government has little tolerance for protest and dissent.

In 2014, Bahinskaya was detained by police for setting fire to the flag of the defunct Soviet Union outside the headquarters of the KGB, as the main state security agency is still called in Belarus, at a protest over Russia's interference in neighboring Ukraine.

In 2015, she was arrested again, this time for taking part in a ceremony for Mikhail Zhyzneuski, a Belarusian man who was one of the first protesters killed during the Euromaidan demonstrations that pushed a Moscow-friendly Ukrainian president from power in Kyiv the previous year.

Russia responded by seizing Crimea and supporting militant separatists in eastern Ukraine, actions that have led to concern in Belarus about the Kremlin's intentions toward Russia's small western neighbor.

Bahinskaya gets hauled away by police in 2017

In 2017, Bahinskaya was again hauled away by police, this time for joining a demonstration in front of KGB headquarters "to support arrested patriots" -- a reference to 20 opposition activists accused of planned armed mayhem across Belarus, an allegation that supporters said was groundless.

The claims by Lukashenka's government came amid mass demonstrations across the country against a planned tax on the unemployed.

Bahinskaya's most recent run-in with law enforcement came in April, when she got caught up in a scuffle between activists and police at the Kurapaty memorial site as heavy machinery was brought in to remove white crosses erected by activists in a straight line among the fir trees. She was among activists briefly detained.

Activists Awed

With her dedication and focus, Bahinskaya has earned the respect of activists in Belarus, many of whom are awed by her refusal to accept help, especially to contend with the mountain of fines she faces.

"Nina Bahinskaya refuses all [offers of] help. She doesn't take it from friends, acquaintances, or various human rights organizations, saying that paying fines for taking part in all the protests…is her sacrifice, her burden, her struggle with this anti-Belarusian government, and that she should contend with it by herself," said Hanna Shaputko, the coordinator of an initiative to preserve the Kurapaty memorial.

Bahinskaya has refused to pay the fines, reasoning, "Why fill the coffers and pay for the police, courts, and prosecutors."

She figures the amount of fines has now mounted into thousands of dollars.

"I stopped counting when it passed 35,000 rubles [about $17,000]."

She brushes aside concerns from friends and others worried about the treatment she has endured by the authorities.

"People ask, 'How do you cope with this?' I tell them I'm like an athlete going for a Guinness record for fines. Then a lot of times they go quiet, tears appear, but I tell them: 'Don't worry. Those in power will not be there forever. The worse things are, the better -- the sooner people will understand what is going on here.'"

Written by Tony Wesolowsky, based on reporting by Valeriya Ulasik and Alena Shalayeva of Current Time in Minsk