How to Topple a Tyrant: A Conversation with Belarusian Democratic Leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya

August 9, 2021

A recent Netflix docuseries, How to Become a Tyrant, shows how a dictator can rise to power. Meanwhile, Belarusian Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, 38, exemplifies what a person of humble origin can accomplish when fighting against one. Over a year ago, the stay-at-home mother from a small town in the Republic of Belarus challenged the 27-year rule of Aliaksandr Lukashenka, Europe’s last dictator. Sviatlana’s husband, blogger Siarhei Tsikhanousky, was arrested in May 2020 after expressing his presidential ambitions. She ran in his place, uniting and successfully leading Belarus’ pro-democracy movement along with two other leaders, Maria Kalesnikava and Veranika Tsapkala. A year later, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is heading the Belarusian Revolution-in-progress from Vilnius, Lithuania, where she was exiled immediately following the fraudulent presidential elections of August 2020. Maria Kalesnikava has been in jail since September, when she was abducted on the street by state security forces and taken to the Belarusian–Ukrainian border. Protesting a forced deportation, she tore up her passport and is currently facing 12 years in jail. Veranika Tsapkala is now in Latvia, running a charity foundation for women who have suffered under the Lukashenka regime. Over the past year, Sviatlana and her team have visited more than 20 countries, gathering support and advocating for the release of over 600 political prisoners and the peaceful transition of power through free and fair elections. From July 17 to the 31st, Tsikhanouskaya toured the United States to meet with the newly-launched bipartisan Congressional Friends of Belarus Caucus, President Joseph Biden, and several top-ranking officials. During her visits to Washington, D.C., New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, she also engaged in cultural diplomacy and met with members of the Belarusian diaspora, many of whom fled Belarus to avoid persecution by the regime.

On July 30, 2021, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya visited the Wende museum in Culver City and gave an interview after the tour as part of the museum’s special program. Holding a conversation at a space dedicated to the Cold War felt symbolic, because during the past year, life in the Republic of Belarus has begun to resemble its Soviet-era past. On top of massive human rights violations and state-sponsored violence, leaving Belarus is becoming increasingly difficult. Western airplanes no longer fly over the country, following the forced landing of a Ryanair flight and the arrest of blogger Roman Protasevich in May 2021. Leaving to the West by land is also complicated. The latest story about the Belarusian sprinter Krystyna Tsimanouskaya defecting from the Tokyo summer Olympics seems to come straight out of a Cold War history book.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya appeared in front of the audience wearing an oatmeal suit over a white t-shirt. She viewed the museum’s Leniniana and other Soviet-era paraphernalia with interest, commenting on how the exhibition reminded her of her childhood. She addressed questions with dignity and sincerity, unafraid to admit her own uncertainty, which is perfectly understandable: if becoming a tyrant has some sort of formula to it, as the creators of the Netflix series suggest, there are no ready-made handbooks for toppling one. At the reception, a classical trio played “The Walls Will Fall,” which has become the anthem of the Belarusian Revolution. As Sviatlana stood listening to the music by the replica of the Berlin Wall in the Wende’s courtyard, I kept thinking that the location could not be more appropriate. After all, in German, “Wende means “the turning point” or “change,” and this is exactly what Belarusians are longing for.

The interview took place on the eve of August 9, the date marking one year since the fraudulent presidential elections took place in Belarus, leading to the detention and torture of over 35,000 people, over 600 political prisoners, and 12 dead. I interviewed Sviatlana in English in a hybrid format, via Zoom and for a live audience, and edited the transcript for clarity.


SASHA RAZOR: How do you see your political career at this point? The media reports on you in various ways: a human rights activist, opposition leader, Belarusian democracy leader. Finally, Professor Michael McFaul, a former US Ambassador to Russia, addressed you as President Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya at Stanford University yesterday.

SVIATLANA TSIKHANOUSKAYA: I have also heard a lot of definitions about me: Madame President, President of Belarus, leader of democratic forces and whatever else. But I always say that it is not important what people call you, it is important what you are doing. I even agree with the propagandists who call me a housewife. You know, this is me, and I can’t do anything with this. But I am doing what I can: I represent my country on the international arena. I am speaking on behalf of the Belarusian people, on behalf of those who are repressed, tortured and jailed. This is what is important. Feel free to call me however you’d like, but always keep the Belarusians in mind.

According to the Golos independent platform, an app developed in Belarus last summer to keep track of the alternative voting count, you won in the first round with 56% of the votes. Still, the Lukashenka regime stole this election from you, falsified the results, and forced you to go into exile in Lithuania. Could you talk about the circumstances under which you had to leave?

Next day after the election, I went to the Central Election Commission to submit documents stating that we are against the fraudulent elections, that our votes had been stolen. In the cabinet (office) of Lidzyia Yarmoshyna, the Central Election Commission Chairwoman, I was met by the law enforcement officers and had a very difficult three-hour conversation with them. They made threats to my safety and that of my children. At that moment, I understood that I was the only person who could take care of them, and my inner mother won. I chose my children. It was a very difficult choice, and I could not make this decision for two and a half hours. Then this person with a camera came to this cabinet, and I still do not know if it was the right thing to do. After I came to Vilnius, I could not sleep, I did not know how to behave because I was overstressed, I felt it was a betrayal to leave the country. Then I started getting messages, thousands of messages, supporting me. People were writing that they were glad that I have left, that I can continue my fight. It inspired me again the same way that the Belarusian people inspired me in my pre-election campaign. I saw that people did not think that I did something wrong. This is what happened.

You ran in your husband’s place because he was detained, and he has been in jail for more than a year now. How did your role and the role of other women in the Belarusian pro-democracy movement change during this time?

We often hear that the Belarusian revolution has a woman’s face, and maybe it is true because people believed in three women they saw on the stage: Maria Kalesnikava, Veranika Tsapkala and myself. Also, after August 9, after the three days of hell that the regime had after fraudulent elections, women went out on the streets in white dresses to show that they have to defend our men who are being tortured in jails at this moment, and so many people have joined this movement. So maybe we were the inspiration for them, or perhaps our women were always strong and brave, or maybe women are not always put in circumstances that they have to show how strong they are. At that moment, however, women understood that we have to be there instead of our men. Many women are now symbols of this revolution. Let’s take Maria Kalesnikava. Her action, when she tore her passport, was such a significant moment for our revolution. She is our hero, and now she is sending letters from prison, inspiring us. I always read her letters on Instagram, I am communicating to her sister, and she believes she knows how strong we are, and it is so inspiring. Or take Natallia Hershe, who could leave jail. I am sure that she had options, but she considers herself innocent and is not willing to trade herself. And Nina Bahinskaya, of course, this wonderful woman, who during the repressions went to the streets alone. I would also like to recall today’s declaration made by Aliaksandr Lukashenka that he is not fighting with women. It is strange to hear this, because let him say this to Maria Kalesnikava, to Natallia Lubneuskaya, a journalist who was wounded in the first days of the protests, to Volha Zalatar, a political prisoner who has five children, to Natallia Hershe and other women who are behind the bars.

This is the end to your first American visit, which we know has been a success because you met key regional policymakers and had a brief audience with President Joe Biden just two days ago. What are your most memorable impressions from this visit?

You know, I’ll tell you something personal about what surprised me. Once I returned back to the hotel, I heard music. I did not know what’s going on, but I saw people standing like this [putting her right hand over her heart], and I understood that it was an anthem playing. It surprised me because I understood that people love their country, love their government, love their symbols and music so much that they do this in the middle of the day to show their respect. And I really want our people to show this respect to the government who takes care of them. It is a symbolic gesture, but it is so important for our understanding of the place that people take in their country.

Andrei Dynko, the editor of Nasha Niva, who was released from jail earlier this week, has called for more practical and fewer symbolic acts of solidarity. What could ordinary people, like our viewers today, do to help political prisoners and their families in Belarus?

First of all, it is our task to make all the people know about us. This is our pain, and we are unknown to the majority of Americans. Maybe they were inspired by Belarus in August and September but then this attention decreased. First of all, we have to talk about Belarus and to help understand what people can do. It is also important to donate, to raise funds for political prisoners, for their families, or for the refugees who often have to leave without any belongings and start a new life, a temporary life, they need help. Also we need different initiatives with the mass media. And the simplest thing that everyone can do, and I always ask for this, is to write to political prisoners. It is important and very simple to do, you don’t even have to go to the post office and buy an envelope, everything can be done on the internet. It is so important to those behind the bars. For Americans and for people from other democratic countries, it is also easy to organize protest events every week, every month, and this sort of help cannot be underestimated.

You frequently mention your trips to Ireland as a child of Chernobyl, and I think that your experience relates to our entire generation. As the children of Chernobyl, many of us traveled to the West for rehabilitation, learned about the world, learned languages, and gained upward social mobility as a result. Are there any initiatives that support the children of the dictatorship today, and how can we help?

Visiting different countries, I try to get these countries to take a small part of responsibilities. I ask about pressure, assisting the civil society, and investing in the future of Belarus. But I want every country to do something separate. For example, in Greece we’ve asked about launching a program for rehabilitation of political prisoners because one day, they will be out of jail, and they will be in deep psychological trauma and they will need rehabilitation. In warm countries like Italy, Portugal, Greece, they could launch such programs and accept people for months to treat their bodies and souls there. In Ireland, the country I recently visited, I asked them to launch a program for children of prisoners. It is very easy to do because there is a program that already exists. Now we are working this out. My visit to Ireland was the first step on a long road. We invented something and have to work hard to launch this program. It is now in progress and I hope of course that our prisoners will be released soon, but it does not mean that those children of prisoners should not be sent to different countries. I hope that we will fulfill this. I don’t know when, because sometimes it is so difficult to fight with bureaucracy even in democratic countries.

That’s right. You have the autocracy fight, and the democratic countries have the bureaucracy fight, but very different kinds of fights and very different repercussions.

True, when there is a political will, it is much easier.

So many of our culture workers — authors, artists, and musicians  gave voice to the protest and made it visible. Yet, they remain the most precarious group, and many are currently in danger. What do you want the role of arts and culture to be in Belarus in the future?

Artists, musicians, and poets always play a huge role in the country, especially in historical moments. People of culture are always inspired by revolutions, by changes, and they express everything they feel in their works. We are presenting the book I Аm Going Out! everywhere to show these wonderful slogans and pictures. It is also art, and people invented these beautiful slogans, and everywhere I ask governments to organize exhibitions, to organize visits of our musicians, poets, and artists to just give them opportunity to survive and earn money, and in Vilnius we saw many, already many exhibitions. As for musicians, we try to organize online concerts and people are donating through concerts, so we try to help somehow. Of course, in the future Belarus, people of culture will play a huge role. They will always be our eyes, voices and hands, and they would capture the present moments and the future changes.

Belarusians are happy to have a leader who speaks Russian, Belarusian, and English. Following you in the media, I’ve noticed that you have been using the Belarusian language more and more lately. What was your relationship to the Belarusian language and culture before, and how did it change during this year?

I have already said that if not for the summers at my grandparents’ village, I doubt that I could speak Belarusian at all. I don’t speak this language well, but as I have a Belarusian-speaking team, they speak Belarusian every day. I got used to this idea, I hear new words and it is difficult for me, but I am trying. It is difficult to start, and it is important to stay consistent in speaking Belarusian. You know, in my childhood, I just remember, and I grew up in a small city, when you spoke Belarusian or used some words, you were despised by your friends, you were a kolkhoznitsa [literally a member of a collective farm, a Soviet era term for a country bumpkin], it was put in our mind that you don’t have to use it because it is something weird. And for many years we were thinking about language like this, I mean the majority. There were people who continued to speak Belarusian and this is important. Now I understand how significant speaking your native tongue is. Times change, and I am sure that more and more people will be involved in this stream of speaking Belarusian, because it is a feature of a nation, a very important feature. And we will teach our children to speak Belarusian and it needs time. Now when we are talking about the constitution, there are still arguments about how many languages need to be in this constitution. I think that the process of speaking Belarusian should not be pushy. It is up to everyone and something should happen inside of a person to understand that it is important for him or her. I hope that the new Belarusian president will speak Belarusian well and promote the idea of the importance of the language.

I have two fantastic questions in the chat. There is one that speaks to me as an immigrant. With the democratic win in Belarus (which is supposed to happen in the future) what are the ways to bring the Belarusian people scattered all over the world back to the country?

Those who left our country a long time ago maybe will never come back to Belarus to live there, but those who left the country because of the repressions, they are living and waiting for the moment they can return back. Even those who are not going to come back, they also feel responsible for the future of our country and some are willing to do everything possible with their knowledge and experience and financial support to help the future Belarus as well. In future Belarus we will be waiting for those people who want to be useful. We understand that it will be difficult, and we will need experience, brains, and I hope that, maybe not for life, but wonderful specialists from abroad will come to share their views and experience. I know that there are a lot of IT specialists who work here and have wonderful views for the future industry in Belarus and will be helpful.

We have a great question from another viewer: how do you see the next step in your fight? What’s next?

It is a very strange question: what’s next? We have to be consistent, we have to build institutions on the ground. Underground, secretly, but when the moment comes, and I do not know when it will happen, we will be ready for this. We have to build structures, we have to be involved in different initiatives in Belarus and around the world, to stay united. It may sound banal, but just do everything possible you can. It is really so. What’s the next step, guys?


Photographs by Roxie Fuller.


Sasha Razor holds a PhD in Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Languages and Cultures from UCLA. Her dissertation focused on the screenplays of Russian prose authors in the 1920s and 1930s.