Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s ‘million small acts of courage’

Even in a city noted for places freighted with the darker chapters of history, Plötzensee Prison is a distinctively grim spot on the Berlin map. The red and yellow brick mid-19th century facility, tucked away in the city’s western reaches near the now abandoned Tegel airport, gained infamy under the Nazis as one of the regime’s principal execution sites. Close to 3,000 people — mostly opponents of the Third Reich — were put to death there.

Perhaps surprisingly, Plötzensee still operates as a prison — albeit for juvenile offenders. Just outside one of its walls stand the remains of the former “execution block”, now part of a memorial for the victims of Nazism.

A few weeks ago this chilling history acquired a sombre current significance through Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who brought to life the everyday acts that underpin the reality of resistance. The Belarusian opposition leader came to Plötzensee as the guest of honor for the annual official commemoration of the resistance to Nazism, held on July 20, the date of the failed bomb plot to assassinate Hitler.

Standing meters from the execution chamber, Tsikhanouskaya was quick to describe a link from one prison yard to another, from Plötzensee to Belarus. “Walking through the prison today, I felt so small. My heart began to beat faster. I thought that my husband, Sergei, must have felt something similar when he first entered the courtyard of Zhodino prison.”

Activist and opposition leader Sergei had wanted to run for president against Alexander Lukashenko — Europe’s “last dictator” (although that title may now be contested). Instead he was imprisoned, prompting Sviatlana to run in his place in elections in August 2020 (the anniversary is on Tuesday) that saw Lukashenko emerge triumphant but which were widely judged to be fraudulent. Tsikhanouskaya was forced into exile to Lithuania with her children. And so the 39-year-old language teacher who had been planning a return to work after years of raising children became an international symbol of opposition living under the threat of retaliation.

In Plötzensee she spoke calmly of life in Belarus — the fear, the brutality, the empowering successes and crushing defeats. “We hoped to get Belarusians out of prisons,” she said. “But instead our whole country became a prison” from which compatriots attempt to “flee through forests and swamps.” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought added oppression: the 20-year-old student sentenced to six-and-a-half years for posting a message condemning the war; a 60-year-old woman detained for organizing a party for Ukrainian refugee children.

Her presence and words certainly brought a different tone to the annual commemoration. The treatment, at home and abroad, of the German resistance has often been complicated. At times it was largely ignored; at others, the subject of questions as to how extensive, coherent and effective the resistance really was and whether, in the case of the bomb plot, it was a case of too little, too late undertaken by members of the aristocratic, military and bureaucratic elites, some of whom had previously supported the Nazi regime.

More recently, however, the emphasis has also been placed on the less buccaneering, more civilian acts of resistance — often carried out at immense personal cost by ordinary citizens with little access to the levers of power or weaponry.

While Tsikhanouskaya was also careful to refer to the “smaller, quieter acts of bravery” against oppression, then and now, her presence in Berlin offered both a complement and a counterpoint to the bigger discussions now raging in the German capital. Russia’s war on Ukraine has upended Germany’s security, foreign and energy policy. Politicians dither and bicker about the delivery of weapons systems or the legalistic formalities of extending the operation of nuclear power stations, self-regarding intellectuals and cultural types write anguished open letters calling for peace — and all the while there is a daily discussion about gas supplies and what to do when winter draws in and ordinary citizens start to feel the effects of war.

Tsikhanouskaya brought a reminder of what it is like to already live with those effects. Ukraine and Belarus are part of a wider phenomenon that western Europe has been all too happy to ignore. Dictatorships thrive when democracies don’t pay attention; dictators can’t be appeased or re-educated.

Changing that is a long haul, the product of “millions of small acts of courage”. This, as she pointedly told her audience in Berlin, can take many forms, from the chancellery to the living room — including paying higher gas bills.

Frederick Studemann is the FT’s literary editor

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