In Pictures: Elderly protesters defy Belarus’ strongman

The retirees share their stories.

An elderly woman reacts as police officers detain women during an opposition rally in Minsk, Belarus
An elderly woman reacts as police officers detain women during an opposition rally in Minsk, Belarus

Thousands of protesters who have flooded Belarusian cities for six weeks of demonstrations to demand an end to the 26-year rule of the country’s authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko include people of all ages, professions and social groups.

While younger people make up the bulk of the protests pushing for Mr Lukashenko’s resignation after the August 9 vote that the opposition sees as rigged, many retirees also have joined the daily demonstrations. Here they share their motives and hopes.

Nina Bahinskaya

The 73-year-old former geologist has become one of the most recognisable faces of Belarus protests, fearlessly waving a huge red-and-white opposition flag in front of riot police.

Nina Bahinskaya
(AP)

On more than 100 occasions, the police seized the flag from her, but every time she would make a new one.

When police told her that she was violating a ban on unauthorised demonstrations, she responded by saying “I’m taking a walk” – the snappy reply now chanted by thousands of participants in daily protests.

She said “I noticed that the riot police more rarely beat protesters when they see elderly people among them. So I come out to protest as a defender, an observer and a witness. I’m psychologically and intellectually stronger than the police. Even among those who detained me, there were people who respected me.”

Mikhail Batsyan

The 69-year-old former diplomat took part in opposition protests long before last month’s vote. His daughter fled the country to Ukraine with her boyfriend after they were beaten by police in the first days after the election, but Mr Batsyan continued to attend demonstrations together with his wife.

Mikhail Batsyan, 69, and his wife Ludmila Batsyan, 65
(AP)

He said: “Now we attend the marches together. Our dream is to live in a free Belarus at least for a while. I have seen a lot in my life, I don’t fear anything any more and I can’t look at what’s going on with indifference.”

The opposition has adopted the red-and-white flag that was the state flag of Belarus in the first years after the Soviet collapse until it was replaced with a modified version of its Soviet-era flag in 1995. Mr Batsyan proudly takes the red-and-white flag that flew over the Belarusian Embassy in Vienna when he worked there in the early 1990s to protests.

Tamara Ruzhenkova

Ms Ruzhenkova, a 66-year-old former cello teacher at a musical school, sees the regular protests as a “breath of fresh air”.

Tamara Ruzhenkova
(AP)

She denounced Mr Lukashenko’s description of protesters as “drug addicts,” noting that his speeches demonstrate a “complete lack of culture”.

“I don’t want that president. I have no respect for him and feel shame” for what he says and how he says it, she said.

Ms Ruzhenkova said Mr Lukashenko’s cavalier dismissal of the coronavirus outbreak, which he advised people to ward off by riding a tractor, having a regular shot of vodka and visiting saunas, angered Belarusians and helped fuel the protests.

Vital Ravinski

Mr Ravinski, a 75-year-old pathologist, attended some protests with his daughter and a granddaughter.

Vital Ravinski
(AP)

“I come out to protest so that my children and grandchildren have a good life,” he said. “By joining the protests, I show that everyone can do it without any fear.”

Mr Ravinski has become widely popular on social networks when he faced a phalanx of police in full riot gear at a protest shortly after the vote and said: “I can’t keep watching this madness, and that’s why I came here. And I will keep coming until I get killed.”

Larisa Koval

The 68-year-old former sales expert said she had little interest in politics before signing up to work as an observer during the August 9 election and witnessing vote-rigging.

Larisa Koval
(AP)

“The way election officials treated us was disgusting and it made me angry,” she said. “I can’t accept such massive lies. Lukashenko has lost his mind, dignity and conscience, he’s trying to cheat the entire nation.”

Early during the protests, she sheltered a young protester when he was hunted by police during a post-election raid in the Belarusian capital. Ms Koval said she attends opposition demonstrations despite having heart problems.

“I can’t allow the thought that Lukashenko will not step down,” she said. “And I will fight to end his desperate clinging onto power.”

Ales Marachkin

Mr Marachkin, an 80-year-old painter, denounces the Belarusian leader who frequently admired the Soviet Union as a “Soviet holdover”.

Ales Marachkin
(AP)

The authorities have barred Mr Marachkin from having personal exhibitions and removed his paintings from the national art museum.

“Taking part in protests is a therapy for me,” Mr Marachkin said. “Otherwise, I would have stayed in bed and would have died long ago. The opposition marches fill me with energy.”

Halina Lahatskaya

The 60-year-old Ms Lahatskaya, who worked in the construction sector, said she tries to speak to riot police when she attends protests, which she has been doing almost every day for a month.

Halina Lahatskaya
(AP)

“I’m trying to find something humane in them,” she said.

She argued that the Belarusian leader has lost public support, noting that even her 94-year-old father who always voted for Mr Lukashenko cast his ballot in August for opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.

She would like to personally speak to the Belarusian leader to persuade him to step down.

“I want to talk to Lukashenko. I think he will listen to me,” she said.

Yan Hryb

The 85-year-old Mr Hryb, a former teacher, said he hopes to live to the day when Mr Lukashenko steps down, adding that it should be declared a national holiday.

Yan Gryb
(AP)

“It will become the country’s main holiday,” he said.

Mr Hryb lamented that the Belarusians have been patient with Mr Lukashenko for too long.

“I join protests to make Belarus a democratic and economically developed European country,” he said. “I have been struggling for it for my entire life.”

Natalya Kachanouskaya

Ms Kachanouskaya, a 72-year-old English teacher, said she has participated in protests against Mr Lukashenko’s rule ever since he took the helm in 1994.

Natalya Kachanovskaya
(AP)

“It’s necessary to learn how to control natural fear,” she said. “Why should I fear – I do everything right!”

She said she has instructed her 16-year-old grandson how to avoid being detained by police, adding that he was rounded up once because he failed to follow her advice.

“I’m very proud of him!” she said.

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