In September 2020, I wrote an article for The Big Issue published under the headline “Standing up to tyranny… with music”. It was about the popular revolt raging at the time on the streets of Belarus, and how it was being soundtracked by a 30-year-old rock’n’roll protest anthem, Kino’s Khochu Peremen (in English I Want Changes or simply Changes), written by the Russian band’s half-Korean proletariat-poet frontman Viktor Tsoi.
I interviewed several young Belarusians for the piece, all of them energised by the song and supportive of, if not actively involved with, protests on the streets of Minsk and other towns and cities across the country. All of whom expressed hope that a wind of change might finally be about to blow through the Russian-backed former Soviet state dubbed “Europe’s last dictatorship”.
Memorable among these voices was Nadezhda Kalach, a young musician with Belarusian self-styled “fantasy folk” band Irdorath. Her image had days before been beamed all over the world, on social media and on international news sites such as the BBC, after she had marched together with friends through Minsk in a bright red dress, blaring the melody of Changes on her bagpipes, as part of a peaceful protest tens of thousands strong.
“A very powerful feeling,” Kalach reflected to me afterwards, communicating via social media direct message. “You must understand that everyone who took to the streets was afraid of being arrested, beaten, simply ‘disappeared’. But we understood that music really supports people and gives them strength. So we did it. And people answered us with gratitude. It was a very strong sense of solidarity.”
Despite continuing for several more months after that, the popular movement against President Alexander Lukashenko – the largest anti-government protest in the history of Belarus – was eventually violently quashed by security services, without bringing about any major leadership or policy change. The revolution’s leaders were either forced into exile or imprisoned; hundreds – likely thousands – of people were beaten, arrested, tortured or worse according to UN human rights experts. The tyranny in Belarus is, tragically, far from over.
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I’ve remained connected with Kalach on social media since and was shocked late last summer to notice her friends expressing concern on her timeline, after she and her bandmate and husband Uladzimir Kalach, together with several friends, were brutally ambushed and disappeared at a birthday party in the Belarus countryside by unidentified masked gunmen firing automatic weapons.