No revolutionary posters line the streets, “flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues,” as they did when George Orwell left Barcelona to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Nor can you hear loudspeakers “bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night,” as Orwell did in 1936. Instead, gathered in a basement on a quiet, tree-lined street, the Belarusians preparing to leave Warsaw to join the Ukrainian army look more like a bunch of computer programmers getting ready for a long car trip.
Maybe that’s because they are a bunch of computer programmers—or anyway, some of them are—gathered in a basement on a quiet, tree-lined street, getting ready for a long car trip. Canned food, dried sausage, and bags of nuts and raisins are neatly stacked on the floor beside a pile of backpacks. A couple of SUVs are parked just outside. The cars have been donated by Polish or Belarusian sympathizers, or else were left behind by others who have departed for the front. The group I am meeting will be leaving for the Ukrainian border in an hour, and they are speaking with me on the condition that I don’t take pictures and don’t ask for names. If they are identified, members of their families could be visited, harassed, even arrested by the Belarusian police. “Our relatives are hostages,” one of them told me. Already, mothers of Belarusian soldiers fighting in Ukraine have been forced to make public statements denouncing their children.
I can tell you that they are young, in their 20s and 30s, and that they are on their way to join the Kastus Kalinouski Regiment, a military unit founded in March as a part of the Ukrainian army but with a separate, Belarusian status. I can also tell you that, appearances to the contrary, they and their leaders are thoroughly grounded in the international history of armed rebellion. They know their 19th-century antecedents: Kastus Kalinouski fought in the failed 1863 uprising against the Russian occupation of what was then the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. They know their 20th-century antecedents too, among them not just Orwell in Spain but Józef Piłsudski, a Polish general who fought with the Austrian army in 1914 because he hoped, eventually, to liberate Poland. Although Kalinouski was executed and Orwell’s cause ultimately failed, Piłsudski marched his Polish Legions into Warsaw. By 1918, he was the leader of independent Poland. The men in the basement are going to Ukraine both because they are, like Orwell in Spain, sympathizers with another country’s democratic cause, and because they hope, like Piłsudski in Poland, to eventually liberate Belarus from the dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power for nearly three decades. [Continue reading…]