On Thursday, Belarusian authorities began releasing prisoners from the jails. These were people who had been arrested during the days of protest following Sunday’s presidential election, which European officials said “was neither free nor fair” and in which Aleksander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for 26 years, claimed to win over 80 precent of the vote. After the country broke out in protest, Lukahsenko dismissed the people in the streets as foreign-funded “puppets” and police rounded up some 6,000 protestors. Their families and lawyers had no way to get in touch or to learn what was happening to their loved ones. All signs, however, pointed to the utterly terrifying. Agonized screams could be heard outside prison walls, and those protestors who were being let out, had usually been leaving in the back of ambulances.
But on Thursday, a clearer picture began to emerge of what had transpired inside the jails. After hundreds of protestors and journalists were released, they described being severely beaten and humiliated, handcuffed and packed in jail cells and forced to lie face down on the concrete, “like a living carpet,” in pools of their own blood. Others described being in a cell with 65 other people and being given one loaf of bread for everyone to share. People fainted from hunger, thirst, and a lack of fresh air. “A toilet was also a luxury and our trips there were supervised by mockery and yelling,” one young protestor wrote on Instagram. “Three people peed at one time so that we’d all have a chance to go during the allotted time.” One young woman, in tears, recounted how the police beat her and pulled off her pants, telling her, “We’ll fuck you so hard, your own mother won’t recognize you.” A young man claimed that gay men were singled out for special humiliation: the police threatened to force them to perform oral sex on each other. People posted gruesome photos of their injuries, along with the clinical descriptions of what they had endured: “traumatic injury of the rectum, blunt trauma of the scrotum and perineum, multiple fractures, concussion.”
In the meantime, liberal, pro-Western Russians and Belarussians are asking: where are the Americans? Russia and Belarus are tied by a common history and culture, and Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin are mostly allies, which explains why the Russian opposition is watching the events in Belarus closely and cheering on the protestors-seeing in them a sliver of hope that they too can challenge their authoritarian ruler and perhaps build a democracy.
But the events in Belarus have barely registered here in the U.S. We have been so consumed with our own chaos-a pandemic that has taken the lives of 165,000 Americans and cratered the economy, a once-in-a-generation reckoning over systemic racism, and a presidential race where the fate of the nation really does seem to hang in the balance-that there is little bandwidth left to face what’s happening anywhere else, which is exactly how people like Lukashenko and Putin want it. As long as America is chasing its own tail, it will be too busy to bother with the rest of the world.
But what’s happening in tiny little Belarus should be a lesson for us all. Lukashenko is known as the “last dictator of Europe,” but he didn’t start out that way. When he was first elected in 1994, he was the change candidate, the one offering to shake things up. He has been in power ever since, winning rigged election after rigged election. Many of the people who are now protesting his rule, the ones suffering the most horrible consequences for their protest, had not even been born when Lukashenko first took office. They have never had any real experience of democracy, but they are willing to risk their lives and limbs for the idea of a free election-something they had never once participated in. But it isn’t just idealistic young people flooding the streets. Factory workers all over the country walked out of their jobs to demand free and fair elections, risking their livelihood for a concept that is as basic as it is vague, especially in comparison with feeding your family. And the tales of police sadism haven’t had the effect that the regime may have intended: soldiers and police officers are resigning because they don’t want to take part in brutalizing their fellow citizens.
Once upon a time, we cared about people like this, people agitating for democracy in Russia, in Egypt, in Iran, in Hong Kong. They were people who were fighting for our ideals and doing so at tremendous risk to themselves. We used to lionize these people and give them awards for their bravery. For neoconservatives and Republicans, like South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, a signature issue used to be supporting people around the world rising up to demand freedom from their authoritarian leaders. We Americans loved foreign freedom fighters. They did all the things we were too scared to do in order to defend the ideals and liberties that we propagated abroad and had learned to take for granted at home.
But when the same authoritarianism came home, how did we respond? When a man who didn’t hide his authoritarian fantasies won an election, when he openly admired the dictators who crush their dissenters, what did we do? People like Graham turned into Trump’s biggest enablers. When the largest protests in a generation swept the streets of the nation, neoconservatives seemed to worry more about statues and America’s established intellectuals fretted over people being mean to them on Twitter. Major networks, like CNN, censored and silenced Trump critics in a vain search for “balance.” Major newspapers, like the Washington Post, cracked down on journalists-mostly women and people of color-who had expressed their alarm on Twitter. When civil rights icon John Lewis died last month, members of the political and chattering classes of Washington mourned his passing with quotes about “good trouble,” though almost none of them would ever make any kind of trouble themselves. They have careers and mortgages and children to put through college, you see.
And while many Americans have thrown themselves into politics-organizing, running for office-so many more of us were content to rely on the system to do what it was designed to do and check Trump’s worst impulses. We sang ourselves a lullaby to better sleep at night: the institutions will save us, the institutions will save us, the institutions will save us.
But here we are, three and a half years into Trump’s presidency, and where are these institutions? The judiciary has been transformed by a Senate Majority Leader more interested in power for power’s sake. All but one Republican in the upper chamber of Congress refused to punish a president for flagrantly abusing his power and inviting a foreign country to help him win reelection. The rest were more afraid of their base than of the constitutional principles they were violating. Now, some Republicans in the Senate, a body designed for calm deliberation, are openly admitting to using the Senate to help Trump win in November. The Department of Justice has been commandeered by a loyalist who believes that the president should have near total power, a man who is more than happy to help President Trump use the American military against American civilians in the streets of the American capital. And though Republicans dutifully pushed back when the president suggested rescheduling November’s election, they have remained shockingly silent after his most recent admission that he was trying to starve the Post Office so that people couldn’t vote by mail in the middle of a pandemic. The institutions didn’t anticipate such cynical party loyalty, even to a man who has repeatedly said that he may not accept the election results if he loses, a man who would likely be all too happy to make the presidential election of November 2016 our last.
If the young people in the streets of Belarus don’t remember the last free election their country had, their parents do. So do many people in Russia, who vividly remember where they were in 2000 when Putin won his first presidential election. It was the last relatively free election they had before he started them on the path back to authoritarianism. But here’s the difference: if Americans have been working on the democratic project for 244 years, the people of Belarus enjoyed freedom-however chaotic or hungry it was-for three years after the fall of the Soviet Union. The people of Russia had nine years to taste a semblance of democracy. The people of Egypt, who came out to protest in Tahrir in 2010, hadn’t tried it in decades. The same was true of the people who came out to protest in Tehran in 2009. These people are willing to sacrifice their comfort, safety, and their lives for something that, to them, is mostly a vague idea. In the off-chance that they ever won, they would be starting from scratch, not playing defense.
Belarus seems far away, but it is becoming increasingly, uncomfortably close. Trump, enabled by his attorney general and Republicans in Congress, is still striving to be like the authoritarians he admires. Despite our traditions, laws, and institutions, he has been successful to an alarming degree in an unfathomably short amount of time. Belarus may be a tiny country on another continent, but we should all be watching its people and asking ourselves if we are as brave as they are, if we care as much about democracy as they do, and if we would fight as hard for it. The fate of the American experiment depends on our answer.
Julia Ioffe is a GQ correspondent.