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Lessons from Minsk

The Polish writer and activist on how Belarusians are schooling the world in a mass movement for democracy.

On October 20, 2020, we published Sławomir Sierakowski’s “The Women’s March of Belarus,” a dispatch from Minsk about the pro-democracy opposition movement’s remarkable challenge to more than a quarter century of Alexander Lukashenko’s autocratic rule in the former Soviet republic. Sierakowski, a Polish writer and intellectual, hails the popular uprising as perhaps “the first mass political revolution led from start to finish by women.”

Krytyka Polityczna

Sławomir Sierakowski

He also compares the events since August in Belarus to the rise of Solidarity in his native Poland, which took off forty years ago, to the month, and with a similar sense of out-of-nowhere surprise. “No one saw this coming, to say nothing of the leadership role of women and the sheer creativity of the protesters, who include representatives of all social groups,” Sierakowski, now back in Warsaw, told me via email this week. “They [Belarusians] have given the world a lesson in how to defend civil rights, fight for freedom, and protest.”

In Poland, Sierakowski is best-known as the founder of the left-of-center journal and brain trust Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique), but his writing also appears regularly in English with Project Syndicate and he has been a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times. But it was actually at the suggestion of Review contributor and Yale scholar Timothy Snyder, who was following events in Belarus, that we contacted Sierakowski—who was then still reporting semi-undercover from Minsk. Snyder pays tribute to him as “a pioneer in postcommunist East European civil society,” someone who “embodies the classical east European intelligentsia in a new generation: erudite, opinionated, and—as he showed in Ukraine six years ago and Belarus now—eager to travel and listen and learn from others, and willing to take risks to spread the word about injustice.”

Given the comparison with Poland in 1980 that Sierakowski made in his article, I was curious to learn how he saw that remarkable episode in his own country’s history. “I was less than a year old when the strike broke out in the Gdańsk shipyard, but then all my life I breathed that air,” he said. Solidarity became “the founding myth of free Poland,” he went on, but “unfortunately, that has been trampled on and coopted for nefarious purposes.”

He would presumably see eye to eye, then, with Solidarity’s former leader, Lech Wałęsa, who warned in our recent interview with him that “a dictatorship is being created” by the rising authoritarian trend embodied in the ruling Law & Justice party (known as PiS in Poland). “Poland and Belarus are going in exactly opposite directions, something I observe with despondency and amazement,” Sierakowski responded. “We squander so easily what Belarusians are fighting for with such dedication. It is hard to believe.”

In the light of that contrast with Belarus, what kind of opposition can his group Krytyka Polityczna mount, I wondered. “As I write, the PiS government, in tandem with the Catholic Church, introduced a brutal ban on abortion, which will force women to bear to term even damaged fetuses that have no chance of survival. This will be traumatic for women and families. The poor will be condemned to underground abortions.

“Such a law must be opposed by all means,” he went on. “Krytyka Polityczna is fighting in the media, at universities, and on the streets, but without social mobilization such as we have seen in Belarus, we will not defeat PiS, which is using the state budget, the public media, the Constitutional Tribunal, the prosecutor general’s office, and the special services to consolidate its power.”

This was starting to sound ominously familiar: a supreme court, an attorney general, federal forces…all bent to the will of an increasingly autocratic, minoritarian regime. But it was Sierakowski who made the connection before I could, when I asked for his view of the phenomenon that Anne Applebaum (also a longtime Review contributor) explores in her recent book Twilight of Democracy—how a large part of the center-right in Poland’s original anticommunist coalition ended up going in such an aggressive authoritarian-populist direction. This was something, Sierakowski said, “that [the poet] Czesław Miłosz best described in The Captive Mind…in the attitude of PiS or Republicans who allowed themselves to be so easily subjugated by Trump, there is a lot of ‘the captive mind.’

“Trump is a politician who may want to cling to power after losing the election, just like Lukashenko, although, of course, they are in completely different institutional environments,” he went on. “But the fact that someone like Trump came to power at all and subjugated the Republican Party so easily shows that an institutional framework alone cannot protect democracy. Even the best-crafted law depends on the attitude of society.”

His remedy? “Americans, just like Poles, can be inspired by the impressive determination with which the Belarusian people are protesting and fighting for their rights.”

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