Week Seven in Belarus

Recorded and Knit together by WSM

Autumn has blown in and plonked her grab bag of swirling leaves down on every street and alley-way in London. Thoughts of letting tomatoes linger on the vine to ripen are swept away. We would be wise to pick what remains and be grateful for onions, windfall apples and green tomato chutney.

The cooler air is over Europe too and though the weather has turned in the seven weeks since the Belarusian elections that declared Lukashenko president the protests have continued. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who, in place of her detained husband, was on the ballot against Lukashenko, and Veronika Tsepkalo are in exile while Maria Kolesnikova remains in custody. Tikhanovskaya speaks in a video made for the New York Times about the situation in Belarus as the protest movement is left almost rudderless.

Anyone who steps into that leadership role is putting their life in danger and they know it. The news shows a young organizer using his phone to coordinate protesters while his wife phones every fifteen minutes to check that he is safe. Many of the Belarusian men protesting are often sturdy, thick-set, of truck driving ilk, alongside the student, intellectual types. The O.M.O.H. Police special forces remain fully masked under their helmets and are also stocky but one suspects younger and not so street savvy. Often they need four officers to capture one man. It is easier picking up the women, two officers can grab them off the streets, toss them into vans and drive to police stations. The photographs and reports of beatings and other tortures from released prisoners seeking medical aide are chilling. Tikhanovskaya knows she is no politician, “I am just a teacher. I will preside for six months to oversee fair and democratic elections. I am a wife and a mother and just want my husband back.” It is clear that though some protesters may be released, others may not, and some may never return.

Nina Baginskia and her flag. Photographer unknown

It is now illegal to carry the old State Belarusian flag but the streets are filled with the strong red and white fluttering flags waving among the signs carried by the protestors. Nina, a 73 year old great grandmother, is especially fond of hers. Though momentarily detained she is back on the street with the protesters and Nina may be the one force that brings the O.M.O.H. to a halt. Childhood religious respect for an elder does give the masked police pause, while Nina does half-apologize for kicking a police officer when he takes her flag away from her, “That was not very good behavior, I know, but when someone takes something of yours you don’t just say ‘Thank you.’” But not everyone approves, “You follow an old babushka,” Shouted a old-Lukashenko supporter.

Yes, they do. One of the privileges of reaching a certain age is the grounding of your collective wisdom and the ability to commit to what you know is right. Among the younger generations, Nina’s grey hair is a beacon, shining like that of the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, as she marches. At last the United Nations have stated it is time these allegations are investigated. This week the French president, Emmanual Marcon, said that Lukashenko must step aside. Several other European countries, including Britain, have stated they don’t recognize Mr. Lukashenko as the legitimate president of Belarus. Even the U.S. agrees, though, as the U.S. is prone to do, they may change their statement later in the year. Poised as the U.S. is for the November’s presidential elections these events in tiny Belarus are being watched in detail by those who hold the White House at this time.

Changing statements is what some governments do best. Balancing the effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic and salvaging the economy is proving a difficult business. The rigidity of the Lukashenko’s and Putin’s of the world can be contrasted with the melting iron of Johnson and other European leaders, who are struggling with this gordian knot. World wide COVID-19 cases are reported at over thirty-three million and today’s death toll has crested one million people.

France, German, Spain, Portugal and Italy are among the countries we heard about, each country trying to balance their economy with their country’s safety. Germany has already said they are putting the economy first and so other countries will be watching. Even with the governments’ ever changing statements it seems that being sensible as we go about our restricted lives with our smaller groupings of family and friends is the right thing to do. Medical personnel and hospitals are rearranging their priorities once more. Pubs and restaurants opened and last orders are called by 9 p.m. for 10 p.m. closure. I find this charming but I expect it has to do with my age. I remember those nice little drink, a nice little snack and then a nice little – not too tired, not too drunk – ‘Shall I walk you home moments’.

Primary schools have reopened and students are returning. The hardest hit are the new and returning students to University. Though all of the universities have worked really hard, there are bound to be cases of infections and illness. The numbers are just too high, the spaces just too small and the students, just as exuberant as they should be at this time in their lives.

So tonight’s headline from the Evening Standard newspaper “London Lockdown Moves a step closer” has us pause again. Though we will go out for supper tonight, it maybe the last time we can do so for a while. We will mask up to walk along the two streets and dine in the company of a few strangers trying to feel a little more connected to each other and the world.

This has been A Letter from A. Broad,
written and read for you by Muriel Murch

Week Two of UK Lockdown

And it continues. We listen to the wireless almost hourly for news and watch the BBC ten p.m. evening broadcasts each night for updates on the UK Corona virus figures. And with such intense scrutiny it is clear that something is happening at ‘Auntie’. Over the last two years the BBC has seen budget cuts of up to 80 million pounds. This has caused the loss of 450 jobs from its news and story departments. Those BBC executives who still have their jobs warn that the corporation is facing an unprecedented threat to its future. The National Union of Journalists has said the BBC was facing an “existential threat”, while the sharing of radio bulletins across the BBC will result in further job losses. Newsnight, a nightly, popular political program will lose a dozen personal, production of its in-depth films will be halved, and its investigative journalism diminished.

There is also an effort to reduce the number of on-screen news presenters, which brings up the question of where is Huw Edwards, the main BBC News anchor? Even beloved Clive Myrie is rarely seen. The news presentation team is now almost entirely women and that raises another question of pay scale equality.  Commenting on changes due to the Corona Virus situation a memo reads… “We’ve tightened hygiene and safety measures. Our presenters are now doing their own make-up.” And it shows.

On Friday Sir Keir Starmer was elected the new Labour Party leader. He gives his speech trying to be as passionate as he can, (not his strongest suit) and with the transmission through one microphone to another and then to the airwaves his words loose a certain panache. Thankfully his somewhat swept hair will be a change for the cartoonists who are getting a little bored by Boris’s haystack haircut. But we wish Starmer luck with uniting the Labour party and in the parliamentary collaboration with the conservatives that must come at this time. 

For my allotted daily exercise I alternate between riding a rental bike and walking in Regent’s Park. A four mile cycle around the outer circle is pretty good. I am alone and not so nervous as there is less traffic and the car drivers and fast bikers now travel with a little more consideration. At the North West corner of the park sits Grove House, the first of the six gated, fenced and locked villas built by Quinlan Terry between 1988 and 2004. All of them are owned by one Sultan or another to be close to the mosque, while in town. Before Grove House there is a small stretch of parkland. The daffodils have begun to fade here and an old elm tree lies fallen on its side. A pair of lovers, wrapped in their winter scarves are standing close. She is hesitant but he pulls her towards him. He wants to feel her body through the rough wool of their heavy coats. I can’t help but smile as I see them. He, ever watchful, catches my eye and with an almost apologetic grin asks that I understand. And I do.   

It is a sunny Saturday morning but I am missing lemons and cumin. Risking the disapproval of our neighbors, I walk to Shepherd’s Market in the village. Regent’s Park Road would normally be bustling with activity but this Saturday is different. There are only a few people out on the street and those that are zig-zag across the road to keep at a distance. Two young people almost take themselves off of the pavement as they pass close to me and we smile. I can’t tell if they are being considerate of me or careful of themselves. At the market, a notice reads that only one customer is allowed to enter the shop as another one leaves. I stand behind a middle-aged man who is struggling to be patient with the older gentleman balancing a cane and two bags of groceries while climbing into his motor buggy. There is another queue outside of the butcher’s shop with people standing a discrete distance from each other. They are silent. There is no chatting for that would necessitate people leaning closer to each other.

It has been over a week since I was in the chemist’s shop. Another older man is standing outside the door, gathering himself as he slowly leans on his cane to walk home. Inside the chemist’s there is now a big wood framed plastic partition across the counter which it is clear will stay long after the virus leaves. I wonder about these solitary men, for now that the pubs are closed they have no place to belong, alone within the company of others. In London it is easy to half-close your eyes and see Hogarth’s England with all of humanities foibles etched on our faces. The experts say we are still two to three weeks from the peak of this virus. Tonight on the television and radios around the country the Queen will speak to the nation, gathering us all to a greater unity of purpose. And within the silence of the street maybe there is hope as we listen to the robin calling out for love once more.

This has been a Letter from A. Broad written and read for you by Muriel Murch. 

  • Huw Edwards surfaced again via Twitter on Monday. Thanking the National Health Staff for all of their care while he was ill with pneumonia.
  • And as of this posting Boris Johnson is stable with oxygen in St. Thomas’s Hospital, London.