In a new article “Activism in Exile” the “Not Today, Not Yesterday, Not Tomorrow” team talked to the Belarusian Anarchist Black Cross (ABC) (an initiative helping Belarusian imprisoned anarchists, anti-fascists). About the history of the initiative, Belarusian political prisoners and what grassroots initiatives are and how to support them.
Hello, can you tell us about yourself? What do you do? How long has the initiative existed?
The Belarusian group of the Anarchist Black Cross has existed since 2009. At that time it looked like an attempt to collect monthly contributions from anarchists in case of repressions. We discussed the probability of upcoming repressions and the need to prepare for them and wanted to use the practices of anti-repressive work that already existed in the movement in other countries. In 2010 anarchists in Belarus faced criminal prosecution and mass interrogations and searches for the first time. It should be noted that human rights activists did not provide any support to the people who fought the regime by direct action: arson, destruction of property, attacks on remand centres and temporary detention centres. There was nowhere to wait for help, so a new collective of the “Anarchist Black Cross” was formed, which began not only to fundraise for lawyers and broadcasts, but also to develop a culture of safety in the movement, helping to ensure that people do not go to jail because of ignorance and stupid mistakes, or as a result of cunning games of the Main Department for Combating Organised Crime, forcing them to give the testimony they want. It is still important for us that the person we support is not a traitor – such people have no right to expect help from the movement. But after 2020 we had to reconsider this approach, and we allow deviations from it, given the torture and violence that have become part of the repressive reality.
Until 2020, we also helped financially with people who were coming out of prison or just out of jail – many of them had lost their jobs or simply not been paid during their arrest. We believe that the movement has a responsibility to take on this kind of support, rather than leaving people to fend for themselves.
Our main focus now is to support anarchists and anti-fascists who have been imprisoned since the events of 2020. Another important focus in recent years has been paying for psychotherapy for comrades traumatised by repression or prison.
Tell us about the history of the “ABC”, is it an international organisation?
The ABC is now more a network of autonomous collectives than an organisation. The prototype of the ABC originated in 1906 in the Russian Empire under the name of the “Political Red Cross”. This organisation was dedicated to helping all imprisoned revolutionaries regardless of their views, but soon came under the control of communists and socialists who stopped helping imprisoned anarchists. The anarchists then created a new structure, the “Anarchist Red Cross”, while continuing to help all prisoners without exception. During the Russian Civil War, the Red Cross began helping the wounded and war veterans, so the ARC was renamed the ABC (Black Cross) to avoid confusion. Repression forced anarchists to move frequently from country to country, and everywhere they organised ABC cells, helping not only Russians, but all anarchists who needed help, from prisoners and war veterans to political refugees.
Now there are not so many ABC cells in the world, most often people organise temporary solidarity structures for specific criminal cases, which are dissolved over time and for lack of need. The context of Belarus does not even allow us to think about the ABC ceasing to exist – there has not been a single year since 2010 when we did not have prisoners under custody.
Is the ABC a grassroots initiative? How is a grassroots initiative different from other initiatives?
A grassroots initiative means that we don’t work as a social organisation or solidarity fund, we don’t get paid for our activities, we don’t use grants to support prisoners, we don’t pay designers of T-shirts and postcards, etc. We do not work “for” anyone, and we are not a charitable structure that assumes that there are us and there are objects of help, victims of the regime to be pitied and protected. Each of us can go to jail at any moment and we take the support of our comrades as part of the struggle they continue in prison. We are parts of the same chain, not benefactors. We provide support not for humanitarian reasons, but because for us mutual aid is part of the political struggle and the basis of anarchism. If we are not able to support a comrade in need, there is no point in loud anarchist statements.
In our opinion, this is what makes us different from most existing organisations helping political prisoners. This is our strength, and of course the limitation in terms of our ability to raise funds.
How many prisoners do you help on a regular basis?
As of today, according to our information, there are 32 anarchists and anti-fascists in jail ( and one person under house arrest). We do not help all of them, as contact with them is limited by the position of their relatives and their readiness to co-operate with us. We cannot give an exact figure for security reasons, but it is about 80% of the people listed on our website.
What is the most important thing you need in prison?
In our opinion, the most necessary thing in prison is to be informed about events on the outside and movement news. Many comrades experience information and media hunger, not knowing whether anyone is promoting the ideas they fought for and were repressed for, whether anyone is helping their families, taking an interest in their situation, or passing on news. The punishers do everything possible to isolate political prisoners and make them believe that solidarity no longer exists. We, for our part, continue to do everything we can to show comrades the opposite in every possible way.
What is the attitude to political prisoners in Belarusian prisons?
Back when our comrades were imprisoned in 2010-2015, the administration of “correctional” institutions paid more attention to them: they deprived them of parcels and visits, prolonged their terms for spurious reasons, using Article 411 of the Criminal Code. Interestingly, the four anarchists and politician Statkevich were the last political prisoners pardoned by Lukashenka in 2015 – all the others had already been released by then. One can conclude that even then, well-known (in narrow circles) politicians and anarchists posed approximately the same threat to the regime. Now the same thing is happening, only in a hypertrophied form. Anarchists are no longer given 3-5 years on average, as before, but 5-20 years. Some of our comrades have already been transferred to high-security colonies or prisons as “persistent violators of the regime”. Several people have been on hunger strikes, trying to defend their most basic rights, such as receiving a transfer or filing a complaint with the prosecutor’s office. Some anarchists periodically spend from several months to six months in a punitive isolation centre. For sure, if some kind of bargaining with prisoners starts, anarchists will be the last on the list for release.
Can you tell us about your most difficult cases?
Perhaps we can mention the “Revolutionary Action” case, in which 10 people were convicted. The investigation lasted almost 2 years, and the trial and preparation for it lasted six months, with almost daily sessions. We had to fundraise about 7000 eur a month just for this case. We got into a lot of debt and had to stop much of our assistance to other prisoners for almost six months.
There were also two cases where individual defendants testified against other members of the group. As stated above, this is a red flag for us when making a decision about support. It took a lot of time and effort to find out all the circumstances, to get the opinion of other defendants and movement representatives about supporting such people. In the end we decided to make an exception and support all the guys. Ethically, these were very difficult decisions for us.
What books have been written by Belarusian prisoners so far?
So far only books by Igor Oliniewicz’s “On the Way to Magadan” and Mikola Dziadok “The Colours of the Parallel World” have been published. Both are written based on their first term in prison (2010-2015). Oliniewicz’s book once made a real sensation in our movement and beyond. As far as we know, Oliniewicz’s is the most translated contemporary Belarusian author after Svetlana Alexievich. “On the Way to Magadan” has been translated into 11 European languages. Right now the Ukrainian edition of the book is being prepared for printing. Dziadok’s book is available in Belarussian, Russian, English and German, and a Polish edition will be published soon.
Based on the book “On the Way to Magadan” by Igor Oliniewicz’s, a play was staged in the Czech Republic, do you know anything about it?
Yes, of course, the actors have been in touch with us and even sent money raised at the show to support Igor. There are rumours that they will soon come to Warsaw with a show.
Was the pressure on anti-fascists and anarchists in Belarus before 2020 random or purposeful?
Of course, pressure on the anarcho and antifa movement is always purposeful. Since 2010, the Main Department for Combating Organised Crime has perceived us as its personal enemy. There is no such thing as someone doing an action and they are “accidentally” detained by a patrol. The Main Department for Combating Organised Crime and the State Security Committee have been collecting information about anarchists for years, establishing where we live, with whom we communicate, how we are organised, and what our weaknesses are. This is why searches were often carried out on 20 people at a time. Because of the developed security culture in the movement, sometimes the cops had to get away with nothing, or look for weak links – those who would give in to provocation and report the right information, or were negligent in protecting computer information that could be used as evidence.
What is the current situation with pressure on anarchists and anti-fascists?
If you mean harassment of people who are still at liberty, most of the anarchists known to the police have left the country. Some still continue to receive threats or personal attention from the Main Department for Combating Organised Crime, their relatives in Belarus are searched and threatened with dismissal. For anarchists, the MDCOC has a separate channel in Telegram, where they post all kinds of nonsense, such as jokes about their appearance or videos of masturbation recorded by a hidden camera. There are also known cases of harassment for helping or corresponding with imprisoned anarchists.
In which other countries is there strong pressure on anti-fascist anarchists? Are there any examples of this?
Pressure is exerted wherever anarchists and antifascists come into direct conflict with local regimes, or their activities become inconvenient or too visible. The latest example: this summer in “democratic” Germany, the cops surrounded an anti-fascist demonstration of many thousands and for more than 12 hours let people out one by one, copying their data and confiscating their phones. In Italy and Greece, raids on squats in search of anarchists who are engaged in destroying the property of very rich people, threatening judges, or fighting against the construction of nuclear power plants or railroads are relentless. Or take the U.S.A., In Asheville, activists pitched tents in a local park to protest a ban on tents where homeless people sleep overnight. 16 people were arrested and charged with “criminal unsanitation” (a criminal offence), many searches were conducted, after which people lost their jobs or had their contracts cancelled by their place owners. A lot of equipment was confiscated from activists, and some comrades’ cars were fitted with movement sensors. In general, where anarchists become a pain in the ass of the authorities, they are not treated with ceremony.
What books by foreign imprisoned anarchists, anti-fascists do you recommend to read?
* Bang up and smash
* Angels with dirty faces
* Overcoming burnout (Nicole Rose)
* Against Torture (Sean Swain)
* README.txt (Chelsea Manning)
* A Normal Life: The Autobiography of Vassilis Palaiokostas.
What kind of help do you need?
We need help in popularising our work and our imprisoned comrades. At least you can make reposts of information from our social networks, as well as buy our merch, take photos and post them in your accounts, and talk about ABC wherever possible.
We are also looking for responsible designers who are ready to volunteer to design our flyers, new designs for t-shirts and other visual attributes.
And of course, we need money. If until 2020 we were able to cover almost 100% of the costs for each prisoner, now it is impossible, because spending per month is about 12-15 thousand euros. We have recently launched a campaign to find personal mates for our prisoners. The idea is to form small groups of people around individual prisoners who are ready to collect a certain amount of money for prison expenses every month. This would greatly relieve the pressure on our team and allow us to decentralise our assistance, making it more effective and meaningful.
Details of the campaign, news of fellow prisoners can be found on our website abc-belarus.org, and for any questions you can write to us at mail.