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Today, June 7, Sergei Romanov turned 30 years old. The guy celebrates his birthday behind bars, and we tell ‘distracted horror stories from a parallel reality’: a story about honesty brought to life (and the consequences in the form of 20 years of strict regime), about a sharpened will, ways of creative, anarchist, and not only support, and who the real terrorists are (our regular column).

As a teenager, Sergei became interested in anarchism. The boy joined the movement in Gomel and participated in small anarchist groups. Sergei was critical of the Belarusian peaceful protest in 2020, so he decided to take a direct part in the Belarusian uprising. In October 2020, Sergei Romanov was detained at the border together with Igor Olinevich and the Black Flag group. The anarchist was included in the list of ‘terrorists’ and sentenced to 20 years in a strict regime colony. Behind the bars, the guy goes through the circles of hell, typical for Belarusian anarchists in captivity: punitive isolation ward, stealing parcels.

‘It is obvious that the state is the main terrorist. Propaganda in response will call black white, substituting all concepts within the framework of the order from the authorities. Goebbels has already demonstrated the workings of this mechanism – but it did not save him’.

Sergei Romanov’s last word at the court

Drawings by Sergei Romanov, source “The Right to Revolt”

‘For me, to be an anarchist is first and foremost to fight for rights and freedoms, for a society without oppression and cannibalistic policies built on the enrichment of the upper classes. To be an anarchist means to be indifferent to the dishonour going on around you’.

Sergei Romanov, source: ‘Right of Revolution’

The Herzland.schaft project dedicated to Belarusian political prisoners was held in Germany, Poland, and Italy. The exhibition displayed artefacts of political prisoners, including drawings by Sergei Romanov. Vladislav Bokhan talked about the project, ways to support Sergei, and whether there is a real political influence in the work.

Vladislav Bokhan

Artist, shareholder, and anarchist. Author of the idea for the art project Herzland.schaft.

Sergei Romanov’s work is close to mine. Mostly Belarusian content on the topic of revolution and dictatorship is some snot with kittens, blood, bruises, and angry policemen, bloody dictators vs. people-victims. To me, it’s all some pointless narcissism and PR on the ‘narrative’. Well, what is the practical meaning of all this?

Then I decided to do a project on authoritarianism, but to look at the problem from a different angle. My people are not the victims, but the source of authoritarianism, its integral and constitutive part. I am studying cause and effect, the psychological and the social, the individual and the collective, to explain how and why it happened and why it continues to work.

Eventually, a comrade and I put together a team and found exhibition spaces in Darmstadt and Wiesbaden. Given that our audience is not post-Soviet but European, we positioned the project not as a confession but as a warning of danger. Autocracy is a parasite, a cancerous tumour that arises not because of geography but depending on a set of conditions. Since the pandemic, the world has been in rapid motion, not towards progress but towards reaction. In addition, there were already dark pages in the history of Germany, the first country to show our project.

We realised that, for the local audience, our stories might seem like some abstract horror stories from a parallel universe. Then I thought: We should use what was made by the hands of political prisoners themselves to give our stories a face and create a situation of direct contact with this world, a world much closer than it seems on the other side of the curtain.

I am an anarchist and follow the ABC, the Right of Revolution initiative. That’s how I found out about Sergei’s work. His works are the little manifestos of an unbroken man. In my project, Sergei’s drawings worked as a guide to Belarusian reality for the European audience: ‘it is not abstract, it happens next to us’.

But in fact, most of the visitors were Belarusians and people from the post-Soviet space, and for them, Sergei Romanov’s works were as if a consequence of silence, patience, and the people’s desire to unite around a leader, to find a leader, to relieve themselves of responsibility, to protest peacefully in order to ‘do without victims’.

Drawings by Sergei Romanov, source “The Right to Revolt”

So Sergei Romanov is an example of a victim of peaceful protest, of actions not carried through to the end. When the state takes away 20 years of a guy’s life, isn’t it a victim? 

In the case of Belarusians, our goal is to inspire people to rethink the role of a person in an authoritarian system. The way of searching for a ‘good’ new leader is the same rake. One should not be afraid to rethink oneself and one’s role in society: freedom is everyone’s responsibility.

Visitors to the exhibition reacted with questions; they wanted to understand and to figure things out. And some, especially Europeans, were shocked. In Pisa, when I told them about the block of our exhibition with Sergei’s drawings and other artefacts of political prisoners, some visitors simply cried. In other words, the information is imprinted and comprehended, which means that the project works and brings results.

We do not cooperate with foundations, and we are not supported by organisations. All exhibitions are due to the contributions of our team and interested people. Sometimes venues help, but there are always single activists who are ready to support us. Sometimes we have to organise an exhibition alone; our team is scattered in different cities and countries.

Art is connected to social and political processes, both reflecting and influencing them. For me, art is the mouthpiece of political struggle. At the same time, I am convinced that in Belarus, the main protest should happen on the street. Sergei Romanov’s participation in our project is about a man’s confrontation with the repressive machine. The state hides him and isolates him, and we respond by telling the whole world about him.

There are always boxes at the exhibitions where visitors can make donations to the ABC. We constantly encourage audiences to help anarchist and anti-fascist prisoners. Sometimes getting to know political prisoners is something personal. For example, one artist was inspired by the works of Sergei Romanov, and six months after his visit, he donated 100 euros to help Sergei. Sergei’s relatives came to one of the exhibitions. I think they were pleased that his art is travelling around the world, despite the fact that Sergei himself is in prison.

We hope that the project will remain relevant, but we don’t have any concrete plans yet. If there is some platform ready to accept our project and help in its realisation, we will continue.

How do I support Sergei? Strategically, to look for ways to fight for the release of people like him and to bring things to an end. Tactically; to help, donate to collectives engaged in supporting political prisoners and their relatives. And most importantly, to remind the world about such people so that the latter do not feel that their sacrifice was in vain.

Sergei Romanov is an example of a man who was ready to sacrifice a lot for the idea of freedom. He could have been standing next to you at this exhibition, and the exhibition could have been held in a different context. But he is in jail because people did not have the courage to follow through. Viva anarchy!

‘And I would like to wish everyone who set off during the whirlwind to go through it fully, without looking at the difficulty and without going off halfway down a ditch, as is often the case. There is nothing to regret if done honestly and in the memory of all those who have died. And experience is valuable in that it will ensure the effectiveness of further actions’.

Sergei Romanov, source: ‘Right of Revolution’

Drawings by Sergei Romanov, source “The Right to Revolt”

‘The Right of Revolution’ is a friendly initiative of Black Flag. About Sergei Romanov, his path to anarchism, and anarcho-partisans, see the text below.

‘The Right of Revolution’ 

We decided to cover the case of the ‘Black Flag’ because they are our close friends and comrades. ‘The Right of Revolution’ is an initiative and work of very different, sometimes unfamiliar people. Someone knew about the plans of the anarcho-partisans, and there was an agreement that if something happened to them (up to death), we would become their voice. The story of the Black Flag group is not finished, and we hope that they themselves have yet to tell the whole story. But while they are in isolation, their voices must be heard, and their cause must continue. 

For the anarchist-revolutionary movement, the main support is the continuation of the struggle. The release of our friends from imprisonment must be the demand of the rebellious people. And it is also important that the prisoners receive letters, material support, and international attention.

Almost immediately after the detention of a group of anarcho-partisans, we wrote, translated into several languages, and sent out an open letter in support of our comrades. Some anarchist groups published it and signed it (here is a partial list). Even then, it was clear that the sentences would be draconian, although many people still believed in the waning protest. We are still popularising this high-profile case: we helped the Czech theatre Divadlo 3+KK come to Poland with a production based on Ihar Alinevich’s book, ‘On the Way to Magadan: Don’t Believe, Don’t Fear, and Don’t Ask’. Polish comrades launched a blog and put up posters and stickers. International publicity is also greatly helped by the courage of the anarcho-partisans’ relatives, who cover the case on social networks and in interviews.

Ihar Alinevich is a well-known and respected person in anarchist circles because of his experience of imprisonment and his important book, ‘On the Way to Magadan’. It can be read in 12 languages, and he is not even a Nobel Prize winner. Ihar was known to some Belarusian politicians, and they raised the issue of anarcho-partisans in the public sphere. Their action during the 2020 protests, was the first radical resistance to the authorities. The case is really resonant: anarchists, illegal border crossing, weapons possession, successful attacks on the property of the state and punishers, and fiery speeches in court.  And cosmic sentences: 78 years for four. Sergei Romanov and Ihar Alinevich got 20 years each, and only after a while Mikalay Autukhovich was awarded even more, 25 years (again for direct action and radical resistance to the dictatorship).

There is little information about Sergei Romanov on the Internet, but we know him as a talented painter and tattoo artist. By the way, in prison, he continues to draw, especially cats, a symbol of independence, freedom, and dignity. Sergei Romanov is a great comrade; he will always come to help and share his experience. At the same time, Sergei is not arrogant, can listen attentively, and is ready to learn. He is sincere, a great conversationalist, and a friend. He also loves nature and hiking. Issues of struggle for freedom and human dignity are extremely valuable to him. Sergei’s anarchy is not only a goal, but also a life philosophy and practice. We agree with Dmitry Rezanovich, who called Romanov a ‘titan of the spirit’.

Drawings by Sergei Romanov, source “The Right to Revolt”

Sergei is a supporter of insurrectional anarchism or insurgency, he does not consider ‘legal’ methods of struggle effective. Back in 2011, when anarchists in Gomel took responsibility for setting fire to a shield with police propaganda, Sergei was searched and summoned for interrogation. Before the 2014 local council elections, Romanov was detained and fined for defacing propaganda (according to the police version, Sergei pasted ‘Anarchist People’s Programme’ over posters). During detentions, he always refused to testify and did not dialogue with representatives of the ‘authorities’.

In July 2014, Romanov received his first sentence for transportation of explosives. The result was 6 years in prison (however, after complaints, the term was reduced to 5 years).

Romanov was released in July 2019, and by court order he was assigned restrictions on preventive supervision: a ban to leave the city, change place of residence, visit bars, restaurants, stores, and in general all places where alcohol is sold on draft; a ban to leave the place of residence in the period from 22:00 to 6:00 without a valid reason; and of course once a week to check in on the inspection. All this time, he was closely monitored, and the slightest violations were recorded. After three violations, Sergei was arrested again, but at that time the protests against the elections were gradually turning into a popular uprising, so he was eventually released. However, he didn’t stay free for long. 

Sergei has a symbolic godmother: the Swiss-German human rights organisation ‘Libereco: Partnership for Human Rights’. Its members came up with a campaign of solidarity with Belarusian political prisoners. #WeStandBYyou: Political prisoners are found as symbolic “godparents”, who take the prisoners under their guardianship and inform the public about their situation. These are all members of the parliaments of European countries and members of the European Parliament. For example, they can write a letter or send a parcel for their ‘godchild’; this is a great way to show solidarity and psychologically support political prisoners. They can also support the families of political prisoners, be active in the media, and conduct information campaigns. As for Jessie Thiel from Luxembourg, to be honest, we don’t know anything about her support, and we haven’t seen any special activity on her part in the media, unlike, for example, Alina Koushyk, who promotes Ihar Alinevich. It is clear that Alina is Belarusian and knows the context, but Jessie could also express her solidarity in some way. For example, she could post Sergei’s drawings on Instagram, record congratulations on holidays, or help his family financially. We tried to contact her through the Déi Gréng party (the Luxembourg Greens), and they replied that they had forwarded our letter to her. We never got a reply, though. We will write again.

Now Sergei Romanov’s case is the same as other guys’: interruptions with correspondence, constant pressure from the colony administration, bans on visits, and money transfers. Recently, he was released from the cell-type room (‘prison in prison’), where he spent six months. The most offensive and despicable thing is that the censors do not allow Sergei’s drawings to be released. And because he is a creative person, it is important for him to talk to the outside world not only through direct actions but also through art. As we can see, even small prison drawings are a threat to the ‘authorities’.

Despite all the efforts of the prison administration to isolate the guys from the outside world, it is still worth writing letters: no, no, and some postcards through the walls. Write and make copies of the letters. By the way, you can send them through us, through ABC Belarus, or through Dissidentby. We try to send them ‘there’. Even if not for Sergei, at least it is important for his parents to know that their son is not forgotten and is appreciated and waited for on the outside. It is also important to support them financially. (It would be good to make postcards with his drawings (like Volnyja Pashtouki, to take his works to exhibitions (like Vladislav Bokhan), and to design T-shirts, after all, as it was done by ABC Belarus and Latvian anarchists. Perhaps this material will be read by curators of exhibitions and art projects: pay attention to Sergei’s work!

The full-scale war in Ukraine and later the aggravation of the Israel-Palestine conflict pushed Belarus off the agenda. It is necessary to remind the world about us, to make films, stage plays, write texts, participate in public discussions, and hold actions: from solidarity to direct action and strikes at large enterprises. It is important to remind the world through acquaintances, journalists, and politicians that there are not even two, but three Belaruses: in exile, in the country, and Belarus, of political prisoners. The latter is a huge layer, which everyone can become a part of. A good way to struggle is to protest actions at official events (with Belarusian sportsmen, politicians, and entrepreneurs).

Drawings by Sergei Romanov, source “The Right to Revolt”

If we don’t stand up for ourselves, nobody will need us. Let’s be honest: although we hope for changes, the situation in Belarus is getting worse.

We wish the prisoners of the regime to keep their mental and physical health (as far as it is possible in the places of detention) and to remain themselves. Let them remember that they are very welcome at liberty. And we wish activists not to work too hard, not to lose faith, and not to play the battle of ambitions, generating unnecessary internal conflicts. On the outside, we must maintain a mental balance; it is very easy to burn out. Years of solidarity campaigns are very exhausting, but we just have to be as strong as our comrades in prison and keep fighting no matter what. 

‘I have stuck to my ideals. I stayed with my civic position, which is the reason for all the persecution, all these criminal cases, the violations, and the profiling’.

Sergei Romanov, source: ‘Right of Revolution’

Get acquainted with the case of Sergei Romanov and write him a letter

To support the work of the ABC and make a donation to support Sergei (specify Sergei Romanov in the note)

Read about the Anarchist Black Cross