In photos and text, documenting 'the last dictatorship'

A different view of the 2006 Belarus elections

By Curtis M. Wong

The new exhibition also features the work of Belarusian photojournalists Andrei Liankevich and Yuliya Darashkevich along with Jakub Dospiva, a Czech Press Agency photographer. In addition, viewers can see segments of Miroslaw Dembinski's film A Lesson of Belarusian, about a group of young Minsk activists, which is showing in a continuous loop.

Organized by Charles University students, the exhibition grew out of conversations following last year's elections. According to organizer Rostislav Valvoda, several university students - including some with Belarusian backgrounds - expressed concern regarding the lack of accurate media coverage of the election controversy.

"It's a horrible experience to see how twisted the truth can become," says Valvoda, a Charles University student. "The situation was much different than what had been reported. We all felt that something should be done about this."

Often referred to as "the last dictatorship in Europe," Belarus is depicted in the photos, writings and film segments as a totalitarian state where human rights violations are commonplace. Democratically elected in 1994, President Alexander Lukashenko has since been accused of stifling opposition to maintain control. The March 2006 elections were widely considered rigged, with the results manipulated in Lukashenko's favor.

Displayed in chronological order along a narrow corridor, the 22 photographs in the exhibit were shot over the course of a week, ending with the announcement of the election results on March 24. Kostenko's passages provide a running commentary on each of the photos.

Shots of Minsk citizens preparing for the elections start the exhibition, continuing with photos of large-scale street rallies both supporting and opposing Lukashenko. The most stirring scenes show armed militia taking brutal action against the protesters. Appropriately, the final photo shows the mountain of trash remaining in Minsk's October Square at the conclusion of the rallies.

A firsthand witness to the events, Liankevich was impressed by the scope of the Minsk protests despite strong obstruction by state authorities, which he feels his photos accurately depict. "People knew that they would face imprisonment [if they demonstrated against the regime], and they did not care," says Liankevich, whose work has also appeared in The New York Times and Le Figaro. "It was the first and most important step toward political change, and now it's been done."

Prague is an appropriate location for the exhibition's debut, Valvoda says, noting the similarity of the March 2006 events to those that preceded the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989. "The current situation in Minsk is comparable to the situation in Prague 20 years ago," Valvoda says. "I hope it might provoke some feelings of solidarity."

The exhibition has already provoked strong reactions from visitors, particularly those of Belarusian heritage.

"When I saw policemen throwing grenades and hitting children and elderly citizens, I cried," says Darya Kozyr, a Minsk native. "It was a brother-to-brother situation." As for a resolution, she adds, "The problem is silence - if we don't make a change, things will only get worse."

Although the exhibit should interest visitors of all ages, organizers hope that fellow students will find it especially relevant.

"Students are often the people most responsible for bringing information to the masses," Valvoda says. "It'll be really interesting for university students in Prague to witness their counterparts in a country without freedom."

"We want to reorient students with Belarus," organizer Anna Cmejrkova adds. "Any movement to political freedom is helped by young people."