The story of Olga, a Belarusian refugee

I got to know the paintress Olga Silivanchyk through the Association “Bielorussi in Italia – Supolka”. She was introduced to me as a very active member of the group.

Her personal story helps us to understand what it means to live in the country dominated by Lukashenko. The work, ideas and political action she embraces from her Italian exile are a clear sign of the growing opposition brewing against the regime dubbed by many as the “last dictatorship in Europe” and that Olga calls “Agro-Fuhrer” 

Olga’s family and her childhood in USSR

Olga was born in Minsk in 1980, in what was then USSR, from a family of highly educated artists and scientists. Her family’s history mirrors the events that occurred in that part of the world through the 20th century. What she says about her two grandmothers is particularly significant: “they were two women born in hard times, one had to leave her homeland due to the war, and the other lost her father during the stalinist purges.”

Her maternal grandmother was born in Baku (Azeirbaigian) in 1926, from a well respected local engineer. In 1943 she had to flee her country in order to escape the nazi invasion of the region, and found shelter in Kazakistan first, and then, once the war had ended, in Belarus. Here she met her future husband, a Belarusian soldier who had just gotten back from Berlin. From her grandma’s recounts, Olga has started familiarizing with the hardship of war and exile. “My grandmother was a war refugee, she had to leave her home and her country with just a bag in her hand”.

Olga’s paternal grandmother was Belarusian and she was born in 1923, right after the collapse of the newborn Belarusian Republic under the pressure of the Red Army that instated the Belarusian Soviet Republic. From 1922 up to the beginning of WWII were the years of the forced collectivizations and stalinist purges. During these times Olga’s great grandfather -just like her, a painter- lost his life:

“My grandmother told me that one night they came for him and since then he literally disappeared. Fifteen years later came the letter that communicated his death”.

When Lukashenko came to power here grandmother cried “This is the end!”. These words are even stronger if we take in consideration that they were uttered by a woman who, after having lost her father in such a manner, was a volunteer in WWII against nazis.

Olga jokes about it and says that more than a patriarchy her family was a matriarchy. Olga was born in this matriarchy during the last decade of the USSR. Sher has a bold memory of those years:

“The one in the USSR was my childhood, and everyone’s got their own. I came from a good family and have beautiful memory of those times. I didn’t see war nor hunger. When the whole thing collapsed in the 90’s, we went through hard times with closed shops and lines for the groceries. For months there was no meat in our diet. But for me this was never a real issue because I had different values and was brought up in a certain way”

The power grab by Lukashenko

Alexander Lukashenko was able to present himself as the only one able to navigate the crisis ignited  by the collapse of the USSR.

“In that moment he offered a sense of stability and continuity. To many he appeared as the antidote to chaos, but the price we paid was the loss of the chance to build a new democratic Belarus. With him, the country fell back into dictatorship” Olga thinks.

A long-term member of the Soviet Communist party, Lukashenko had made a name for himself as a local kolchoz administrator. In 1994, in the first and only free elections the country has ever known, he is elected president. Since then he has never left power, ruling the country with an iron fist. Lukashism, as the opposition calls the regime’s ideology, is a mix of a nostalgic vision of the soviet past, total control of the State over economy, machismo, cult of the leader and systemic political violence.

Olga was 14 when Lukashenko took power in Belarus. She is an ordinary teenager with a passion for dogs. At 19 she got her certificate as a  canine trainer and began to look immediately for a job, which  she found quite quickly. It was as a dog trainer in a military facility. After she passed the test, she was told that she would be actually employed only at the condition that on her work documents (a booklet inherited from the soviet past that contains the whole working history of every single citizen) she would appear to be there as a cook! Olga explains:

“The system created by Lukashenko is founded upon a conservative and misogynistic vision of society. Women are prohibited to work in certain fields. Lukashenko comes from a rural context with no formal education, and has brought this archaic mentality to power.”

Olga couldn’t accept the proposal. “I was discriminated against. It was an offer I couldn’t accept. It would have killed my carrier from the start.” In fact, in Belarus one cannot be employed without these work documents, and whatever is stated inside is the only proof of one’s qualifications and previous works. “This were my first encounters with Lukashenko’s regime”. After her refusal she started working on her own as a dog trainer.

During these years Olga was not really politically involved. “I observed the events that followed every fake election and referendum. I saw the protests and the violence used to stomp them down. I didn’t get involved because I was scared” she remembers.

Lukashenko, freshly elected president of the newborn Republic of Belarus is already planning the way to annihilate any democratic sentiment started after the fall of the Soviet Union. In 1996 he imposes a rigged referendum that extends his mandate from 5 to 7 years and empowers him to epurate most deputies of the opposition. From then on, Belarus’ political life is dead. Of all the ex-soviet states, Belarus is the only one where today’s secret police holds on to the name KGB, and those are the methods that have guaranteed 20 years of power to Lukashenko.

Eugenio is born, Olga’s son, was born in 2001. What should be a happy moment, was fraught with uncertainty. She was preoccupied because having a son comes with undesirable consequences. “When I discovered he was a boy I cried. And not with joy. Those tears were because I was already in pain thinking of the day I would have to protect him from the compulsory conscription.”

Recounting this episode, Olga stresses that back then she simply could not imagine a Belarus where her adult son would not have been under Lukashenko’s power. “In Belarus you are in a bubble. There are many people that can’t see the way out and have lost faith. You go by your life convinced that the regime is eternal.”

The Academy of Fine Arts in Minsk

At 24 Olga had what she describes as a miraculous encounter with art. In a tough period of her life she started drawing, just to manage the stress. One day she brought some painting to two friends of hers who happened to be painters; they told her she had a special talent and that she must study. After eight weeks of preparation she finally passed the exams and entered the Academy of Fine Arts in Minsk.

She was a straight a student, but the long hand of the regime reached her anyway. Olga remembers one episode particularly. During the 2016 protests, erupted after the rigged elections, many students were arrested and the Academy was targeted in order to find members of the opposition. After the director was expelled, came the turn of Olga’s drawing professor, “an intelligent man, precise, a free spirit that everyone respected.” The harassment went on for a while, until one morning: “That morning he didn’t come to class, a very strange fact for him…then later we discovered that he was found hanging in his house”.

A farewell letter was retrieved. Olga remembers: “In this letter he told us that he couldn’t bare the harassments anymore. He preferred taking his life rather than that humiliating life.”

The last year Olga was asked to renew the membership to the youth party and pay her fee. This meant that the past years someone else had enrolled her in such organization since she says she never did.

“They told me”, Olga remembers, “that if I didn’t sign this year’s documents and paid the membership I would be barred from the exams. I had to choose between fighting the system or get the degree I had worked for so hard. I signed and felt immediately wrong. I didn’t even go to graduation day. It wasn’t a party for me, since I had felt the pressure of the regime in my life.

Working as a teacher

Once out of the Academy, Olga started to work as an art teacher in a school for children. It’s a job she really enjoys.

For Lukashenko, schools have a pivotal role in controlling society and, Olga says, “as a teacher you work more for the regime itself than for children.” For example, she remembers that at least one painting made by the students had to be in line with the political propaganda. For disobeying and letting her pupils free to paint whatever they liked, she had her salary cut off. 

As the 2010 elections approached, Olga realized that the teachers are those who are involved in all the processes, from the registration of the voters to the final count of the ballot papers. She cannot stand being part of the system: “It is the regime that steals the elections, but it does so with the work of the teachers. If I continued to work in a school I would have became part of the electoral fraud, and I didn’t want to. The work that I love, teaching art to children, has nothing to do with all of this.”

The rigged elections take place in any case, and bring a fourth mandate for Lukashenko. The peaceful protests that erupt afterward will be fiercely silenced and seven opposition candidates end up in prison. The country is in a full economic and political crisis, and if this wasn’t enough, in April a bomb goes off in the Minsk metro station.

Moving to Italy

Olga had to be in the station that blew up because she was headed to an Italian course she had just started; that day she is lucky enough and meets a friend who stops her for a chat and saves her life. In that period Olga had discovered Italy and falls in love with it: “I passed a lot of time with a couple of friends who had been there, and through them I discovered pasta, risotto…I started to know Italy without ever having been there!” 

In a couple of years she came to Italy to live in Italy with an Italian man with whom she had started a relationship and who she wanted to marry. After a while her relationship came to an end, but not her life in Italy. “My son and I stayed here. I had left my country to start a new family, but as years went by in Belarus things just got worse and I decided to stay in Italy for political reasons. The last eight years were hard. I thought many times of going back…but with Eugenio now fully integrated in the country and with the tragedies going on back home, I had no choice but to stay.”

Today Olga lives with her son on the coast near Rome and is a successful paintress. Deeply part of her local community, she sells her paintings and teaches drawing to a number of young students, just as she wished to do in her country.

The pandemic, the elections and her political involvement

The years of the pandemic have been decisive for her, as for many other Belarusians. As the virus burned through society, Lukashenko denied the existence of Covid or said it could be stopped just by drinking vodka and doing saunas. “Everyone was abandoned in this new crisis. Doctors had no masks, no protections. For the first time people started uniting and dealing with problems on their own. The pandemic was a point of no return for people’s mindset. United we could do the things the State didn’t.

In the midst of this crisis, new elections are set by August 2020. Lukashenko uses once again violence to secure victory: “The election campaign was marked by the usual intimidation and violence. But this time we had also a pandemic going on”

After three of the main candidates got arrested, or had to flee, the opposition runs united with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. This time people have faith it will be the end for the regime, but just a few hours after the elections are closed, Lukashenko claims victory with 80% of votes. People take it to the streets for massive -and peaceful- protests that go on for weeks and are unprecedented for Belarus.

Olga decides it’s time to do her part, and puts her art at the service of the opposition cause. One of the paintings she is more emotionally attached to is the one of Nina Bahinskaja, a grannie symbol of the protest around the country: “For this painting I risk up to three and a half years of prison!”.

All these political activities have made of Olga a target for the regime, and have eliminated any chance for her and her son to go back to Belarus until Lukashenko is in power. She has thus decided to seek asylum in Italy, that se has luckily obtained: “My son and I have taken a strong political stance and this really endangers us if we are ever to go back to our country.”

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