“Strength is known in the hands, without tears songs are blithe,
Desirous of glory, chests quiver,
In their books a new law, with pens of sun-scythes,
New people are writing forever.”
~ Yanka Kupala, 1913
“I just love Minsk at night!” I told my grandmother, authoritatively, on a ride along the main street on
a cold December evening. She only smiled at me, a naïve seven year-old, who was captivated by the
magnificence of the tall buildings completely covered with snow, the broadness of the unusually
crowded streets, and the light that was surrounding us from every corner and every side, so that it
seemed like it was still daytime. I was always a quiet child, but that evening I was especially quiet,
trying to notice and examine every detail of what I was about to encounter for the first time in my life.
“This is us,” grandma said, and took me by the hand in order to help me off the bus. All of a sudden,
I found myself surrounded by, what seemed like, a sea of people—with eyes full of joy and excitement
about the upcoming celebration. It was New Year’s Eve and people kept rushing into the welcoming
October square, which seemed to have become stretchable in order to host all of us. When I reflect on
this evening today, I smile to myself because of how much I have changed. No longer am I ready to
jump up and down when I see crowds of people in the October square. In fact, most of the time I’m
tempted to take the metro and lock myself into my comfortable apartment—away from this
overwhelmingly large sea (or sometimes, ocean) of people. But that night, on December 31st 1993, I
was willing to dive deep into this sea, with all its newness, excitement, and happiness.
Little did I know back then that this place wasn’t always as happy as it seemed that night. Back in
the 1950s and up until 1961, it hosted a ten meter-tall statue of Joseph Stalin right in the middle of it.
This was after the city of Minsk and everything in it had been completely wiped out by the Nazis in
the Second World War, and after it was rebuilt anew by the hands of simple Belarussian citizens who
were required by the government to work 15 extra hours a month in order to accomplish that.
Little did I know back then that my pure childish joy and faith would not keep the square from losing
its happiness once again in the future. At seven, I did not know and could not imagine that right
there, in the middle of the square, one of my closest friends, Zhenia, and over 300 other people would
be harassed, beaten, tear-gassed, and arrested, for setting up a tent camp in order to protest the
falsified presidential election results on March 19, 2006.
Zhenia tells me that her personal revolution took place right there—in the middle of the square, in the
tent camp. According to the official reports, it lasted from March 20 to March 23, 2006. In Zhenia’s
heart, it is still taking place. In my head, none of these events quite make sense just yet. How did the
square go from being a warm and welcoming place in my New Year’s Eve memory to being so cold,
arrogant, and hostile during the unfair arrests that took place just a few weeks ago?
The October square has a long and complicated history. It has seen more joys and injustices than,
perhaps, any living person. It is there that people get arrested and beaten for taking part in a peaceful
protest or even for merely trying to bring the protesters some hot tea. It is there that thousands upon
thousands of Belarussians gather annually to celebrate and mark numerous important events in our
history, among which are victory over the Nazis in Word War II and our Independence Day. It is
there that our newly-“re-elected” president will have his illegitimate inauguration on April 8. And so,
the question of whether or not we really are free still hangs heavily in the air upon the square and
upon all of Belarus…
There are two main buildings in the October square, one of which is the “Palace of the Republic.” As
citizens of Minsk, we are proud of it. However, it was there that the police hid on the night of the 23rd
of March, preparing to arrest hundreds of peaceful protesters. There is a McDonald’s within about
150 meters from the square. It was that McDonald’s that wouldn’t sell food to the protesters and
started closing earlier in the days of the demonstrations. There is also a large, quality screen on the
edge of the square. However, all that it broadcasts is the corrupt national television, completely
controlled by the government. I have yet to figure out if Belarus is really free. It seems like it isn’t.
There is one more important element to the square, however. A small monument only about half a
meter above the ground that marks the zero kilometer. We refer to it as simply “Kilometer Zero.”
Engraved into it are words of some of our most important poets, people who fought for justice and
liberty, just like we are today, and distances to other capitals of Europe. Among all of the pretentious
sights and marvelously designed buildings, I find this sight to be one of the most encouraging in all of
Minsk. To me, “Kilometer Zero” signifies the beginning of something new—a new history, a new
mentality, a new and liberated country of Belarus.
Writing a new history is never easy. But it is worth the effort. If the October square could talk, I am
sure, it would tell us great stories—of life and death, grace and punishment, joy and sorrow, love and
hatred, freedom and imprisonment, and most importantly, hope.