That Monday morning Alla Alekseevna woke up earlier to mix the dough for pirozhki [small pies]. She bakes a lot, but this time she decided to cook not for her colleagues or some home party. She decided to bring pirozhki to the March of Pensioners that took place in Minsk on 12 October. Soon after that, a photo of her carrying the treats went viral. “My daughter has lots of friends, she told me that she couldn’t sleep that night because they kept sending her that photo”.
“I want to have Sundays without any rumbling of military vehicles on the streets. I don’t want to see any water cannons, riot police with their police batons and razor wire. Belarus is a peaceful country where there shouldn’t be people in masks jumping out of buses without number plates to grab passers-by,” says Alla.
Before retirement, Alla Alekseevna worked as a typist, a lab technician, and an entrepreneur. She is still working and remains socially active. First time she took part in a protest was after the 2010 elections – she didn’t agree with the results. The same thing happened when the results of 2020 presidential elections were announced.
“I have never voted for Lukashenko, even in 1994 I voted for Kebich. We’ve been sleeping for 26 years. All the countries have been developing, and all we cared about was food and drinks. But finally, the Belarusians woke up. Our youth is wonderful. I want them to move forward,” Alla Alekseevna explains the reasons why senior citizens take part in rallies.
To make this happen, the woman takes to the streets too. She goes for a walk every Saturday and Sunday, and never misses the March of Pensioners.
“I have decided that since they detain people with flags, balloons and banners, then I’d rather march with pirozhki. If they detain a protester with bread – they hit the rock bottom. Besides, old babushkas [ ‘gradmothers’ in Russian] always bring memories of some treats.”
Early in the morning, Alla mixed the dough for pirozhki with sorrel filling, the woman describes her pastry as “sweet and flavourful”.
“I was carrying pirozhki from Independence Square, where the march started, to Yakub Kolas Square. During the march, some babushkas asked to try them, but I told them: ‘Sorry, girls, I don’t have enough for everyone”. So, I treated passing-by youngsters. In the photo, you can see that I was carrying pirozhki on a rushnik [a traditional Belarusian cloth for bread]. It was handmade by my mother.
She had always been a big supporter for Lukashenko, called him ‘batska’ [a father in Belarusian]. We joked that she wouldn’t defend her husband the way she defended Lukashenko. However, she’s not with us anymore, she passed away six years ago. I think that if she could see what had happened to the country, she would have changed her political views.”
The reaction of authorities to coronavirus was the first thing that angered Alla Alekseevna. “They didn’t close the borders for quarantine reasons, but why say that this virus is a psychosis?”. The woman is convinced that such attitude was a mistake.
“They could have said: ‘Guys, the situation is difficult, we need to pull through it. Please, wear masks and sanitise your hands.’ Instead, they didn’t care about us at all. Only when the ambulances started to drive around the cities and educational leaflets appeared in shops, we began to understand what to do. I had to search the information online on how to protect myself from the virus, how to clean foods, and press the buttons in an elevator.”
The second thing that bothered Alla Alekseevna was the “unfair elections”. “Why did state channels show only one candidate, while others were not given a chance? Why an independent observer was not allowed to a voting station for ballot counting? After that, I just couldn’t stay at home: on 9 August I went to the city center, went to the ONT building [a state-owned TV channel], I wanted to support the journalists, hoping they would start telling the truth. But nothing changed.”
Where do you get the news from?
“From the internet. My children don’t watch TV, but I occasionally turn it on. I try to understand what they show on TV, but I draw my own conclusions.”
We all have united, we support each other
Up until this October, there were no marches of pensioners. Alla Alekseevna makes it clear: many retirees use the internet and communicate via Viber and Telegram. She told TUT.BY that they have a chat room with more than 3,000 active members.
“The guys I have treated with the pirozhkis told me that the pastry was delicious. To be honest, I haven’t tried them, but I have left one for my husband,” smiles Alla Alekseevna.
“There have always been the retirees who didn’t approve the government, state TV just didn’t show them and they still don’t do that. Believe me, those who listened to The Beatles and Vysotsky on the sly are not a stupid generation. Many of us have higher education, we see what’s going on, and draw our own conclusions. Of course, some people are satisfied with the situation, they are satisfied with their pensions and they just want to sleep easy at night.”
Don’t you want to have a good night’s sleep?
“Of course, I do. I think there will be time for this a bit later. I just can’t see our people being beaten on the streets, can’t listen to explosions of flash grenades. On Monday, security forces sprayed tear gas during our March of Pensioners. Why did they do that?”
“Not to let Maidan [riots] happen in Belarus,” some seniors might say.
“What Maidan? People are not aggressive at all. Let’s recall the enormous march on 16 August in Minsk. There was no garbage left on the streets. Some volunteers handed out water, others picked up trash. During the first women’s march, nobody was aggressive, it passed quietly. However, during the second march, people in masks started to intimidate us.
But what harm can we possibly do by just walking around the city with flowers? Why are we detained because of that? I have also noticed that they are trying to divide us into the ‘red-and-whites’ and ‘red-and-greens’, which is wrong. It doesn’t matter what flag you carry. What matters is what kind of person you are. And we, the Belarusians, are peaceful people. Unfortunately, those who don’t use the internet and get all the news from TV, can not understand this. Sometimes you feel hostility from them, this is surprising.”
Do you have friends of your age who don’t share your position?
“No, I don’t, but there are such people in our country. Once during a Sunday march, someone threw an egg at me. Luckily, they missed. On Monday, when we gave a lift to one woman after the march, she told me that she stopped talking to her neighbours because they support the current president. But she is determined to protest till the very end.”
People have been protesting for two months, but it feels as if it doesn’t change anything.
“What are you talking about? We all have united, we support each other, and chip in on fines. People got acquainted with their neighbours. I think nobody knew about Belarus before these events. And now – just switch on Euronews – we are there. The whole world can see us and our phenomenon of peaceful protests. Everyone can see how they suppress us, but we continue to fight for peace. This was my first point. The second is that the authorities have lost our respect. What about Alexander Lukashenko going to a KGB prison to talk to the political prisoners? Could that ever happen if we didn’t protest?”
I want them to live in a free country
Alla Alekseevna is 63 years old and she experiences such important historical events for the second time in her life. The first time was in the 1990s when she was a lab technician in a research institute. According to the woman, the salary was about 70 roubles and she needed to find her ways to survive.
“I am good at knitting and I decided to use that as my advantage. There wasn’t enough raw material for knitting, so I bought some woolen socks and reused them. I knitted different cardigans and trousers, attached foreign labels, and sold them at a Dinamo [a market in Minsk]. My first sale brought me 350 roubles! There wasn’t much variety on the market, that’s why my clothes were so popular.
Sometime later, though, I received a huge fine for selling without a license, I wasn’t an entrepreneur back then. I still disagree with the verdict, because I wasn’t reselling anything – all clothes were knitted by me. Then I got a license and even bought a knitting machine. From Monday till Friday, I was a lab technician, while in the evening I was knitting pants, scarves, hats. On the weekends, I went to the market to sell.”
Aren’t you afraid that Belarus will return to the 1990s?
“We had some money back then, but we didn’t have anything to buy. Now the situation is different: we have a variety of food and products on the store shelves, but pensioners buy only the things on sale. I can’t say that I am poor, because I am not, but I see the struggle of other babushkas who live off pension.”
Are you protesting for a pension increase?
“We, the elderly people, are protesting for the future of our children and grandchildren. I want them to live in a free country, where nobody is afraid to express their opinion.”
By the way, how does your family react to you taking part in marches?
“My daughter gets very worried, and my husband tells me that he will pray for me. When my photo went viral, many people told me ‘You are our hero’, and I disagreed. Everyone who takes to the streets now is already a hero.”