«Call me Johnny». A story of a Belarusian forced to exile in Lviv

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On August 9, people went to the polling station, Johnny from Belarus explains. – Government structures exhorted everyone to vote in advance. Because in such a situation it’s easier to falsify the results.
Photo: Tetiana Bot, Natalia Voloshchuk

Photo: Tetiana Bot, Natalia Voloshchuk

Belarusians and Syrians, Pontic Greeks, Erzya, Indians, Poles, Roma, Crimean Tatars, Armenians, and Jews are just a small list of the peoples who make up the community of Lviv. Some have lived here for centuries, and others have found themselves in the city almost by accident, fleeing war or persecution.

In the joint project «Lviv Mosaic», the School of Journalism and Communications of the Ukrainian Catholic University and the media hub «Tvoe Misto» («Your City») strive to explore the ethnic landscape of Lviv. 

After the elections in August 2020, mass rallies engulfed Belarus, Ukraine’s neighbor to the north. Thousands of people across the country came together to oppose the Lukashenko regime – their common evil. But police brutally suppressed these acts of disobedience.

According to the calculations of Belarusian human right centre «Vesna» («the Spring»), as of May 2021, there have been at least 436 political prisoners since the first rallies. Those who weren’t caught live under threat. For many of them, the only way to avoid arrest is emigration.

According to the State Migration Service of Ukraine, only 17 people in Ukraine have been recognized as refugees from Belarus, who according to the law, can reside the country with no time limits. But from August to December 2020, more than one and a half thousand people received temporary residence permits, allowing them to live in Ukraine legally for one year with a prolongation possibility. Another 369 people received a document allowing permanent residence. But these are official figures. We cannot find exactly how many people live here de facto.

The attempt to change everything

It’s ten o’clock in the evening, Minsk National Airport. A 20-year-old man in a black hood, with a small backpack over his shoulders, is sitting with a frightened look on a chair near the passport control. Ivan is waiting for his fate to be decided. The duty officer runs around the airport with a passport and shouts his name in the radio transmitter. A chubby security guard hangs over the guy and watches his every move.

For the next two and a half hours, he didn’t move away from me even for a meter and a half, – says Ivan with a bitter smile on his face.

Don’t you worry, don’t worry, – they repeated to the student from Minsk.

The more I heard it, the more I worried, – he admits.

Ivan, or Johnny, is one of those who was forced to leave his native Belarus because of fear of his life.

That day, one wrong move could change everything – the icy notes in his voice make our skin get goosebumps.

Acquaintance

We arranged our meeting via social media. His account had no photo, and the phone number was hidden. We were going to meet incognito nicknamed «Johnny», only knowing that he was a student persecuted by Belarusian authorities and who fled to Ukraine. 

The guy says that he was known as Vania (informal form of Ivan) in the previous life. Later, his acquaintances from Belarusian universities started to address him as Johnny. They knew him by Telegram messenger. It’s in social media where the protesters unite. Johnny is one of those who organises rallies in Belarus.

Johnny talks about emigration and turning points in his life with childish passion. 

It seemed something, you know, unreachable!

Johnny’s eyes are widening in surprise as if he doesn’t believe his own words.

Usually, it happens in the films, when a hero is getting out of the country to avoid arrest. But in reality you understand that it’s no way any dream or film.

BRSM

It all started at the university. Johnny studied psychology at the Maxim Tank Belarusian State Pedagogical University, which he now calls a «university from a past life.» He says the institution was specific because of brutal and pro-government administration. Universities had their own rules and laws: «ideologically-washed teachers,» saboteurs, and their own «student police.»

The latter is an official state organization called the «Belarusian Republican Youth Union» (hereinafter – BRSM). And it is often compared to the German Hitlerjugend («Hitler Youth»). Its members betray their friends and classmates who oppose the authoritarian regime, Johnny says. 

Participation in the organization is «voluntary but compulsory,» though there is a system of motivation of participants: trips to summer camps, priority for entering the university and other «shniaga» (slang word for «benefits» in Russian). According to the guy, in order not to enter the BRSM, you need to resist ardently. He resisted.

Moreover, when the protests began, Johnny and his friends made leaflets, stickers, and pamphlets ridiculing their peers for serving the bloody regime.

Johnny does not regret the «lost opportunities.» He remembers how once, during a university break, his friends discussed their intention to leave the organization. The guy knew personally a fourth-year female student who was the chairman of BRSM in his institution, so he became the mediator and carried all applications to her:

When I made five applications, she thought I was urging people to leave the BRSM. There were fifty the next day. 

Entrance

The August mood of the protesters is on the top: counting hundreds of thousands, people on the streets of Belarus assembled for peaceful demonstrations. Every day since August 9, siabry («friends» in Belarusian) gather for daily actions of solidarity and strikes, and on weekends, they arrange «holiday» marches. 

The world media share photos and video materials of women’s marches with flowers, white-red-white flags and protesters’ shoes, which Belarusians considerately take off to stand on park benches.

Smiling, Johnny recalls that the cops were shocked, the TV was exploding, and Lukashenko raged from the screen with a red face. The demonstrators believed that the situation would stabilize in a few weeks. However, this did not happen.

I thought, now it’s over! And now that’s it! But more than half a year has passed – and «that’s it» is gone.

Cheerful lights suddenly fade in his brown eyes. The young man straightens his shoulders and sharply adjusts the headphones around his neck. In the Lviv park where we met, it becomes quiet for a moment, and the tone of the conversation suddenly changes.

On August 9, people went to the polling station, Johnny explains. – Government structures exhorted everyone to vote in advance. Because in such a situation it’s easier to falsify the results.

According to the guy, people delayed the voting until the end, and came as a huge crowd at the last moment. Johnny’s father was an independent observer at the polling station, but he was not allowed there.

During all days of early voting, Johnny’s father stood on the doorstep of the school where the station was located. On the last day of the election, OMON (Special Purpose Police Detachment) came there: They frightened people, made a fuss, and lined up in a narrow corridor. Then the police escorted the election commissioners with a huge black bag, packed them all in a minibus, and went away followed by outraged cries of the voters. The situation at other polling stations didn’t differ.

When the first official exit polls reported that Alexander Lukashenko received almost 80% of the vote, and Svitlana Tikhanovska – less than 7%, people appeared on the streets in Minsk and other Belarusian cities.

On his way there, 7-8 kilometers from the clashes, Johnny saw flashes in the sky and explosions of stun grenades. He felt like going to war.

To be honest, that was the only night when it was really scary. I hardly slept because I knew it would be hot in the evening.

Johnny nervously snaps his fingers recalling the police violence towards protesters: on August 10, it purged the crowd and destroyed barricades. And then it started beating everyone.

I hid in the entrance of some building. Just sat and watched through the door glass how they walked through the courtyards and invaded the buildings. A guy and a girl ran to hide with me. We spent the whole night in that entrance. Only in the morning, I returned home.

Black Thursday

For months, the waves of protests didn’t pause. The death of Minsk resident Roman Bondarenko, who tried to prevent the removal of white-red-white ribbons from fences, caused a new round on November 12, when spontaneous actions of solidarity with the victim began in the cities.

Frowning, Johnny mentally puts together puzzles of that day’s events. Fingers nervously crumple a cigarette, he exhales deeply:

We call it «Black Thursday» because during that day, 11 activists were taken from their homes, dormitories, and places of study and then arrested as suspects of committing crimes in Belarus.

Among those arrested were two of his female friends, girls from the university. Kasia and Yana. Yana was in the dormitory at night when people in black broke her door and dragged her to their car. The strangers took the girl’s and her neighbors’ equipment as well. Kasia also had her lock broken and was pulled out of the house.

Johnny then passed his phone to his parents through a friend and didn’t come home. He lived with friends, distant relatives, spent the night at work.

During the week, the guy wandered around the city.

Breaking away from the world, he occasionally read the news and corresponded with his father from the devices of other people. The guy was afraid that the two girls might blow the gab during the questioning.

Johnny let out a cloud of bitter smoke from the corner of his mouth and smiled no less bitterly. Belarusian police question the suspects «with passion.» The girls are still sitting there, now they are being judged, and neither journalists nor friends or relatives are allowed to attend, only parents.

If you could go back to your previous version, at the beginning of this story, what would you say to yourself?

I don’t know! Just, if I knew that everything I experienced would happen to me, I would probably hang myself yet in August! – Johnny throws his head back facing the gloomy sky and laughs hoarsely. His words make us embarrassed. 

«Do you know this guy?»

Because of the organization of rallies, police started to «weave» a case against Johnny. A criminal proceeding. Prior to that moment, he had several administrative proceedings for participating in protests, but crime is a completely different story.

Initially, Johnny’s friends twisted fingers near their temples and said that no one needed him, that it was paranoia. But it became not fun when one of his friends was suddenly asked «Do you know this guy?», watching a printout of Johnny’s passport.

When it became clear that someone would soon come for him, the student hurriedly packed his stuff. His parents bought him a one-way ticket for a plane.

I remember eating pasta on the way to the airport. We ate and cried. Not because the pasta was cold and tasteless.

Johnny managed to throw just a few T-shirts and a pair of underwear in his backpack. He set out wearing the same clothes in which he had been hiding on the streets for a week. He wears it even now standing in front of us.

I arrived at the airport, passed everything. My things have already been inspected, everything was fine. Passport control was the final thing. By all accounts, I could leave the country, but they apparently had some informal lists. As a result, I simply wasn’t allowed on the plane.

Without explaining the reasons, Johnny was taken to a corner, put on a chair and ordered to wait. He seemed suspicious. Each of his things was inspected closely for more than two hours.

During the rummage, Johnny managed to delete several important dialogues, and messaged his dad that he was detained. That’s all – then they shouted at him and took away the phone.

During the following night, the parents had no idea what happened to their son. Due to lengthy rummages Johnny missed his flight, but the airport staff didn’t care at all.

However, the boy was released because there were no official reasons for his detention.

I want to believe I’ve done enough to make them regret that they let me go, – Johnny’s voice begins to sound more confident.

A shelter in the chat

The guy explains that he was actually lucky to leave so easily because some of his acquaintances realized the danger too late. As a result, they crossed the border at a non-working checkpoint in winter, fleeing on bicycles over a frozen lake.

When Johnny arrived in Kyiv, he only had the phone number of a stranger who had previously agreed to host him. The contact was suggested in one of the student chat rooms – someone knew someone in Kyiv.

Finally, Johnny did arrive.

Arrived in the middle of the night. I’m ringing the bell, – the phrase breaks off, because Johnny can’t help laughing, still astonished that such a story could happen to him. – The address was correct. The guy’s name is Danylo. We are still good friends and yes, he was the first person to meet me here.

Johnny has been living in Ukraine for five months, but still continues to organize students from his home university for rallies against the authoritarian regime of Lukashenko. He does it online through chats, sometimes comes to protest actions in Kyiv. Initially, he was merely a conscious citizen and went to rallies. But later, he realized he could do more. Then he began to gather people for protests on his own.

Red marks

In Kyiv, Johnny has a friend called Sierzhuk. Before his escape to Ukraine, Sierzhuk studied in Minsk. He moved to the university from the village, where everyone spoke Belarusian. In the Russian-speaking environment, speaking Belarusian, though it is one of the two state languages, attracted bad views from the administration, which surprised him sincerely.

According to the experts at Belsat, a Polish TV channel broadcasting to Belarus, in 2019, 54% of the population called Belarusian their native language. At the same time, Russian is called the language of everyday use. Among the factors influencing these figures are education and age of the respondents. At home, only 27.3% speak Belarusian.

Johnny shifts from foot to foot, saying that after the protests began, speaking his native language became dangerous. And that the white-red-white flag, a symbol of Belarus’ sovereignty and independence, rather than the regime approved red and green banner, is likely to be listed as extremist by the government. If the petition gets enough votes, using this flag will be considered a crime.

Those who spoke Belarusian were simply marked with a coloured spray by the police… They could have their faces and heads simply poured by paint. Then they were beaten harder than those who spoke Russian.

Stop, again! That is, people just walked down the street…

People were detained at the rally, – the guy repeats sharply, – and taken to a pre-trial detention center. Those who spoke Belarusian were spotted with spray cans and later beaten. They had different label criteria and different colors. There are videos where a person with a painted face testifies.

It’s hard to believe, but we can see these labels on the video.

You can see that the girl there is barely standing on her feet, barely speaking, – Johnny sighs deeply. – Girls are young, one of them, who is now also a student political prisoner, is a year younger than me.

«Your account was signed in to»

When talking, Johnny is constantly moving back. Half a step, a step back. For a moment he stood closer to the next bench than to us. Initially, there was a feeling that this was a reaction to vulnerable topics, but actually we were talking about the same thing all the time. Non-verbal cues indicate that he simply has no trust, so it takes only to ask:

Are you afraid of us? Why are you constantly moving back?

Am I moving back? Seriously? No, I don’t know why. Maybe, because I’m being photographed, – the guy is trying to explain more to himself than to us.

When we first tried to arrange the meeting, Johnny asked for a photo of our student IDs. He could not afford careless steps by trusting strangers, so he had to get confirmation that we were really willing just to talk.

Recently, his account with a large number of potentially dangerous dialogues was hacked. After that he realized that even 600 kilometers away from home he was watched.

I got a 5-digit code. «Someone is trying to sign in to your account, if it’s not you, just don’t do anything.» – I didn’t do anything.

Next message – «Your account was signed in to».

Where the hell can state structures get these numbers, if only through mobile operators? That is, they go to their office and said – we need an SMS that will be sent to this number now. They obviously had everything done. I was hacked.

New home

In Kyiv, Johnny rented a small apartment with five other compatriots, but even with such a large number of residents, the cost was considerable. Prior to that story, the student had been to Lviv several times, even celebrated the New Year here, so when the question of further movement arose, he didn’t think much. The city reminded him of his native Minsk. In addition, here the housing prices are lower. When Johnny moved to Lviv in March 2021, more than 300 Belarusians who had fled their country due to persecution were already living here.

In Minsk, Johnny was expelled from the third year of university for organizing protests. Here in Lviv, he is trying to restore the studies on his speciality, but his attempts have failed so far. It is necessary to pass the academic difference, because otherwise it would be possible only to repeat the second year. This did not happen, because admission for a contract form of studying needs sponsors. Now, he barely has enough money for living.

Johnny is suspended for a whole semester. The move divided his life into «before» and «after» and the uncertainty is depressing. Emotionally, he doesn’t perceive Lviv as the city where he at least would like to study. Johnny does not see his future in Lviv. He does not see it anywhere at all, but in Belarus.

In fact, I don’t want to enter any university. I don’t want to tie myself to this place. Now, I don’t know what to do. I had plans when I was studying in Minsk. As you can see, things don’t always follow your plan – Johnny’s gaze blurs, as if he has just realized something obvious.

He likes Lviv architecture, the dimension of the inhabitants. Maybe he even thinks it’s cozy here. But now, it’s just a temporary point. And every day, Johnny lives with the constant hope of returning home.

Bat’kovshchyna («Homeland»)

Johnny has never been to Europe.

For me, Lviv is something in between Petersburg and Feodosia [the Crimean city on the Black Sea], – the student admits. – It’s because of these confusing streets and height differences. By architecture it’s rather like Peter. Because in Feodosia, – Johnny scratches the back of his head – there are mostly Soviet buildings and some huts in the mountains.

Ivan’s family has a small house in the Crimea. His grandmother and grandfather once bought it. The guy went there every summer. Before the events of 2014 he did it by train from Belarus. After the annexation, he took a detour through Russia and the Kerch Strait by ferry. Or across the bridge.

Getting to the Crimea unnoticed by land transport is easy, says the Ivan. Passports, luggage, and other documents are not checked at Russian customs. The entry borders are seductively open. When traveling by plane, the rules are a bit different: here they put seals.

Johnny admits that he didn’t delve into politics until his escape to Ukraine.

To my surprise, I learned that I can have troubles for trips there after the annexation of Crimea by Russia – he shrugs.

We stand on the observation deck near Lviv’s Memorial to the Heroes of the Heavenly Hundred--those who died in the 2014 Revolution of Dignity. From time to time, the sun peeks out of the gray clouds, and the blue-and-yellow flag behind us flutters above us in the wind. Johnny leaned wearily on the balcony grille.

Do you have many patriots in Minsk? – we ask.

And what is patriotism? – he answers with a question.

In his previous life, Ivan thought that being a patriot meant being good at school and joining the BRSM. Prior to the events of 2020, he avoided «weirdos» with red-white-red flags, those people who condemned Russian-speaking Belarusians. He neither associates himself with the former nor the latter. He looks bitterly at the overcast panorama of the city.

A person living in his small world may not understand the global ideas of the people who come out with flags.

For the development of mass patriotism, according to Johnny, Ukraine had some appropriate preconditions. He does not see this in the history of his homeland.

I would say that right now we have a lot of patriots. People who do what I do.

He pulls a black skinny hood over his head, his scarred fingers clinging tighter to the handrail.

I can’t say that I do it out of some overcast love for the homeland, my home yard, the parents… «Bat’kovshchyna» («fatherland»), and all that stuff. These are rather personal claims to the regime in my country.

Johnny frowns and blinks notably.

I simply left myself no moral choice but to immerse myself in it completely. If we can define patriotism as intolerance to such a situation, then okay. Let it be so. I am a patriot.

The sky above the Memorial begins to smell of rain.

Tetiana Bot, Natalia Voloshchuk

Translated by Vitalii Holich

The idea of ​​the project «Lviv. Mosaic « belongs to Svitlana Zhabyuk. The curator of the project is Olesya Yaremchuk. Reviewing – Maria Tytarenko. Literary editing – Anastasia Levkova. Alexander Khomenko taught students photo reporting.

Full or partial publication of the text without the written consent of the editors is prohibited and is considered copyright infringement

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