Belarusian Community in London: Before and After Summer 2020



What is a country but a life sentence?
Ocean Vuong, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous”

Leaving something after us

We open the door of the Francis Skaryna Belarusian Library and Museum in North Finchley, chatting and laughing. 5 May 2022, summer is in the air, I breathe it in gentle waves. I’ve just launched my poetry collection about Belarusians who had to leave the country because of political repressions, but this today feels more like a birthday than my actual birthday. Better than any of the birthdays I had as a child. 

I’m trying to balance my backpack, the tote bag with the remaining copies of my book, the orchid, two packs of chocolates, a pineapple, a square box with a gorgeous bouquet and two smaller ones, lilies, roses, chrysanthemums inside it… Our laughter is filled with their odour. I’m wearing a vintage dress and vintage shoes and it all resembles a scene from a film from the 60s or 70s.  It could be the night of the opening of the Belarusian Library in London in 1971…

After the presentation we were drinking wine and talked, sharing what we know about the history of Belarusian immigration, diaspora and the building which had been hosting us. Cut off from home, we’re in need of the solid ground beneath our feet, and knowing the history, knowing who those people before us were that created this space, provides this grounding.

“What can we leave after us? We came here with everything ready for us, but what will we leave after us?” a question is asked into the air of the street lit up from the windows of the houses by the road. I’m going to leave at least these ten thousand words of history after me.   

Some people become activists because their parents have been. I know whole families who’ve always been in opposition to the Belarusian dictator Alaksandr Łukašenka [Alexander Lukashenko] and his government. Others, like me, do it despite the domineering political passivity of their families. And probably they, like me, also look for or create a family of like-minded people. 

I’d been a rebel long before my first human solidarity chain in Minsk in June 2020. The need to be around people ready to fight for their freedom and for justice led me there, and it kept bringing me to dozens more rallies and marches, big and small. 

When I got detained on 8 September 2020 during a peaceful demonstration in Minsk and arrested for nine days, my father said, “She got what she deserved.” After I was released I kept attending the protests, and my mum kept asking me not to go. But over the months of the protest, first open and glorious, then hidden, and clandestine, I met people who showed me how to fight for my values, inspired me and… became my extended family. It’s an incredible feeling — to have this kind of family where you aren’t loved simply because blood is thicker than water, but where you are appreciated for your personality and views. When I left Belarus to take an MA in London in September 2021, I left that family behind. But among Belarusians in London, I found another family. 

Belarusian culture, like other cultures of post-Soviet countries, is one of silence. Families often don’t talk about the past because there was too much suffering, and the suffering wants to be forgotten. But when forgotten, it eventually repeats itself. In my family, the connections with the past are very loose, faded and almost lost. I know very little about their histories, so at times I feel unrooted. An unrooted tree falling down in an open field. No support to lean on. But if I can choose a family, then I can also learn their history, and be rooted. So here I am.

But if I can choose a family, then I can also learn their history, and be rooted. So here I am. 

Part 1

Immigration of Belarusians to Great Britain

We don’t know much about the history of Belarusians in the United Kingdom, for various reasons. One is that it hasn’t been studied much, neither inside nor outside Belarus, another is that there are not many sources of information available that can add more to what is already known. For centuries, such a thing as “Belarusians” have been like matches, burnt one after another, and those time gaps between one burnt out and another one set on fire are lost to the unknown, so we’ll never find out what happened in those episodes of history. 

The first known Belarusian from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the state which present-day Belarus was a founding part of, set his foot on the shore of England in 1480. Jan Lettou (his name was registered in the English records), was a printer and lived in the City, his printing house lwas ocated near All Hallows the Great Church. Lawyers used to work in that area, and his printing house specialised in law literature. After three years, Jan Lettou and his business disappeared from the records and we don’t know about his fate. [1] 

There have been several largest waves of Belarusian immigration to Great Britain over the last two centuries, but political immigration was rare up until the 19th century. In 1830-1870 immigration from Belarus obtained a purely political character, although it can’t be estimated in numbers, because it mostly consisted of representatives of the “šlachta” who identified themselves as Polish and instead, took part in forming the Polish diaspora. [2]

The uprising of 1830-1831, known as the November Insurrection, [3] took place on the territories of present-day Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Lithuania and Russia. It was a failed attempt to overthrow the Russian rule over the territory of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which was partitioned in 1772, 1793 and 1795 between Prussia, Austria and the Russian Empire. This event brought a large wave of immigration from the Polish Republic. Although there lived a lot of Belarusians, unfortunately, we can’t tell how many of them came to Great Britain, because traditionally they were referred to as “Polish”. According to a Russian researcher Valentiana Degtyarevskaya, initially, the British general public had a quite favourable attitude to those immigrants, providing them with substantial regular allowance. However, by the 1850s most people in Britain lost interest in the various immigrants coming from all over Europe. In 1852, the Parliament was spending £4,300 on the needs of “Polish” immigrants, and in 1862 — only £3,000 per year. [4]

The following big wave of immigration from Belarusian lands took place after the  1863-1864 uprising, known to Belarusians as Kastuś Kalinoŭski Uprising, or January Uprising. Its aim was to free the territories of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from Russian dominance, and its failure was followed by a long period of reaction and repression. [5]

And again, it was hard to estimate how many Belarusians immigrated to Great Britain, but this time, unlike in the previous wave, 35-45% of the migrants were peasants and workers who in their native country supported their living by physical labour. [6]

Over the last quarter of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, immigration to Great Britain had an economic character. One of the reasons for migration was the lack of jobs in the rural areas of the Russian Empire, and between 1891-1910 around 80,000 citizens are estimated to have left the Russian Empire, mostly from the Belarusian and Ukrainian territories [7]; a large proportion of them was Jewish. 

Guy Picarda, a French lawyer who was exploring Anglo-Belarusian relations [8], talked about the appearance of a so-called “Belarusian colony in London” at the end of the 19th-beginning of the 20th century. In his manuscript Belarusians in England, which has been preserved in the Skaryna Library in London, he wrote that most of those Belarusians housed in East London (Stepney, Mail End, Hackney, Tower Bridge) were poor and employed at low-status jobs. [9] They weren’t characterised as having a sense of national identity and active civil position, and the only places one could find them in groups were usually churches (most of them were Catholics, coming from Western regions of Belarus). Interrupted by WWI, immigration from Belarus revived in 1917 in connection with the events of the Bolshevik Revolution, but it wasn’t mass, and the reasons were mostly economic. [10]

In 1930 Dźmitry Kasmovič, a Belarusian student who studied in Liège (Belgium), stayed in East London with some Belarusian workers and he noted that he didn’t find any inclinations for political or social activities among them. Back then Belarusians in Britain didn’t create any national organisations, unlike Polish, Lithuanian or Ukrainian immigration. [11]

After the Second World War, the Belarusian community in the West consisted mainly of refugees, i.e. people who left because of persecution by the Communist regime and hoped to be able to return home soon. It was becoming clear with the passage of time that the chances for that were scarce, but they were still determined to preserve their national identity and links with their native country.”[12]

It’s worth mentioning though that during WWII there were some Belarusians serving in the Polish Corps who identified themselves as Belarusians and tried finding information about any organised Belarusian communities in London, but there was none. [13] They could join the organisations created in the post-war period. 

Great Britain after WWII was in need of physical labour, and the local population were largely unwilling to do heavy and low-paid work in coal mining, textile production, etc. Thus Clement Attlee’s Labour Government encouraged the immigration of labour into the UK. It attracted migrants from the Commonwealth, mostly from the Caribbean, India and Pakistan. Yet, white Europeans dominated the immigration: the Irish, Germans and Italians, and large numbers of people coming from communist countries in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. 130,000 Poles are estimated to have arrived in Great Britain during the first post-war years. [14] Among those “newcomers” were Belarusians, and it was them who laid the foundation for the Belarusian diaspora in Great Britain. [15] There were three categories of them: former soldiers of the Polish Corps, their families and formerly displaced persons [16] from the camps in Germany and Austria.   

Most of the Belarusians who would form the Belarusian diaspora in London [17] were part of the Anders’ Corps, or the Polish II Corps, which was fighting under the British command in Italy in 1943-45 [18] and which in June 1946 became the Polish Resettlement Corps. [19]

At the beginning of 1947, the Labour Government realised that there was still a lack of workers in certain fields, mostly unqualified and badly-paid. And so the Labour Minister George Isaacs suggested that settlers of the DP (displaced person camps) from the British zone of Germany and Austria would be used to fill those gaps. [20] In 1951, as a result of long discussions both inside the UK and at the United Nations Organisation level, the European Volunteer Workers were allowed to change their initial workplace, and so some of them moved closer to Belarusian communities, including London, but others moved to different locations and left the UK. In the following few years, the core of the Belarusian national community in Britain was formed. [21]

What helped to shape that circle of Belarusians in Anders’ Corps who later started a national movement and diaspora? Firstly, the management of the corps opened schools (gymnasiums) to help the soldiers integrate into civilian post-war life, allowing, unintentionally, educated Belarusians who had shared a national consciousness to meet regularly. Besides, such groups in various locations were all connected through Rome which provided religious guardians for them. Among these, some were Belarusians (Leŭ Haroška, Piotra Tatarynovič and Ceslaus Sipovich) who united Belarusians around their national identity and culture. [22] The first and the longest-lasting secular organisation of Belarusians abroad was the Association of Belarusians in Great Britain. 

Association of Belarusians in Great Britain and Belarusian House

The definition of “diaspora” has transformed over time. In the International Organisation for Migration (IMO) glossary, it is defined as “Migrants or descendants of migrants whose identity and sense of belonging, either real or symbolic, have been shaped by their migration experience and background. They maintain links with their homelands, and to each other, based on a shared sense of history, identity, or mutual experiences in the destination country.” [23] To me, this sense of belonging is synonymous with the ancestral home in the collective memory.

In the 1940s and 1950s Belarusians created a number of organisations, such as United Christian Belarusian Workers in Great Britain, United Christian Whiteruthenian Workers in Great Britain, Association of Belarusian Combatants, but of all of them, few survived. The Association of Belarusians in Great Britain, established on 22 September 1946 in London, has played the most influential role for the Belarusian community in London and in the UK overall, and it’s believed to have laid the foundation for the diaspora. [24]

There is an interesting and fascinating story about how the Association recruited its first members in the times when there was no Internet to spread the word. The first congress of the organisation was held on 18-19 January 1947, which coincided with the Vodokhreshche (Epiphany), a traditional celebration in the Orthodox Church. On that day Orthodox soldiers serving in the Polish Corps would come to London. The founders of the ABGB would stand at the train station and ask the soldiers if they came for Vodokhreshche; those who replied yes were asked where they came from, thus finding Belarusians and inviting them to the congress. 

Yet, a lot of Belarusians didn’t want to join the association for fear of pressure on the side of the Polish Corps, and they even refused to confirm their Belarusian origin. Before 2020, a lot of Belarusians living abroad hadn’t been particularly proud of being Belarusians, they neither felt nor looked for connections with Belarusian communities abroad. They didn’t want to be associated with those who were living under a dictatorship, obediently and quietly, putting up with it. Once they left Belarus and came to a country where there was respect for an individual and human rights, where there was freedom of choosing who you want to be and what you want to do, they realised what a giant prison Belarus was. They couldn’t have respect for the people who chose to be victims. They didn’t want to have anything to do with the nation of victims. 

From its very establishment, the ABGB didn’t position itself as a political organisation. Its statute aims were mutual moral and financial support as well as cultural and educational work among its members. [25] There was no need to set any political goals or agenda because the members of the organisation were of anti-Soviet views a priori. So anti-Soviet activities that we call political now for the members of the ABGB were simply representation of Belarusians in Great Britain. 

At the same time, its members believed that culture was key to preserving the national identity. Unable to return to Belarus, they created Belarus wherever they lived. In the 1950s the London department of the organisation hosted a series of events for both Belarusians and non-Belarusians, attracting up to 500 people for singing Belarusian folk songs, dancing, as well as having a buffet. These events, or parties, engaged some more youth in the work of the organisation and also represented Belarusians in multicultural London, helping to network and run joint events together with other diasporas in the future. [26] 

In the 1960s the ABGB arranged literary readings and publications of Belarusian translations in British literary magazines. The literary readings drew the attention of British intellectuals and academics, at the same time helping Belarusian migrants feel heard and understood. One of those magazines was Manifold — run by a big friend of Belarus Vera Rich, who herself translated a lot of Belarusian poetry. [27] Vera Rich was a poet, translator and human rights activist, committed to freedom of expression in the countries behind the “Iron Curtain”. Vera was fluent in Russian, Belarusian, Ukrainian and Polish and translated from them. She felt particular compassion for Belarus because freed from the oppression of the Soviet Union, Belarus got under the oppression of a dictator and kept the struggle for freedom of expression, the right to its own language, culture and historical memory. [28]

Alison Cameron, a writer, translator, activist and also a big friend of Belarusians introduced to the community by Vera Rich at the end of the 90s, once told me as we were sitting under the portrait of Emmeline Pankhurst in a cafe at West Brompton Cemetery, how it was Vera Rich and the Belarusian diaspora who helped her a lot when she was ill from traumatic events connected with Belarus. “They never judged me, they were just there. And really, in the time when I was basically in the twilight zone, it was the Belarusians who were there. They just accepted me the way I am. Belarusians are very accepting.” Perhaps that’s what Vera loved Belarusians for, too.

Association of Belarusians in Great Britain

There are activities that have been traditionally organised by the ABGB since the very beginning, such as lectures on history, philosophy, culture, language, etc. as well as the annual events on the days of the proclamation of the Belarusian Democratic Republic on 25 March (Belarusian state was declared for the first time in 1918, and although it existed only for several months, it laid the foundation for the sovereignty of Belarus in 1991) and the Sluck Uprising (a failed armed attempt to establish independent Belarus in late 1920) at the end of November. 

My first encounter of the Belarusian House, the headquarters of the association, was an event commemorating the Sluck Uprising. How do you recognise a house where Belarusians are gathering? By the white-red-white flag hanging above the door. Little time had passed since I left Belarus, where I had to hide my flag and all my white and red clothes in a safe place outside the flat I was living in, in case police would come with a search and would use those as evidence of my “crime”. I dream of seeing the streets of Belarusian cities, towns and villages with our flags in every window, on every door, on every car and wherever else free Belarusians would want to have the symbol of their struggle and victory, the symbol of their history and spirit. 

The white-red-white flag was adopted by the Belarusian Democratic Republic in 1918 and continued being used as a symbol by the Belarusian Democratic Republic in exile when its leaders had to flee Minsk as the Red Army entered the city in 1919. The flag kept being used by the anti-Soviet Belarusian underground movement in the 1940-50s and later in the 80s. After the proclamation of independence of Belarus in 1991, it became our official flag, but in 1995 Łukašenka returned to Soviet symbols and introduced a new flag. The white-red-white flag became the symbol of the opposition and remains such. [29]

The house in 52 Penn Road was constructed in 1866 not to last long, as many houses in poorer areas back then. It’s hard to believe that this fashionable street in North London, where the property in the last 12 months has been sold for an average of £2,950,000, was once a rather poor area. In fact, it was a pretty leftist part of London. Around the corner, a Caledonian Park Clock Tower built in the centre of the live meat cattle market in 1855 was a hub of the Communist Party. Highgate Cemetery — the burial place of Karl Marx, is only a forty-minute walk. A statue of Lenin rests in the Islington Museum. Why did the Belarusians who were in fact anti-communists and who had been persecuted by the communist regime in the Soviet Union choose this area to buy the property and establish a Belarusian House?

Mikoła Pačkajeŭ, head of the Association of Belarusians in Great Britain, believes that it was a combination of value for the money. “In this area in the best street they could afford a house because rich people didn’t want to live next to those who voted for the Communist party,” he  tells me, showing me around the neighbourhood. 

Belarusians had bought this house for the community in 1949 before they even owned their own houses. The idea was to use it as public space as well as to rent out flats to the members of the association at lower prices as well as to rent out to businesses to pay off the loan. This scheme has been functioning since then, even though the space went through several stages of change, with the public space on the ground floor turned into flats and then back into the public space. 

Up the road, there stands St Luke’s West Holloway Church, also once linked with the life of the Belarusian community in London. Belarusians who lived in Penn Road were all Orthodox and couldn’t attend the services in the Uniate church in Finchley. So they would rent space in this church. Up Hillmarton Rd there used to be a pub where Belarusian would gather. 

52 Penn Road

Mikoła Pačkajeŭ recalls, “The memories of the time are blurred and dreamlike. Some people lived there, we would drink tea with them… On my first visit, we walked all the way down from Archway, passing by the barracks. Since then, the trees have grown bigger and cars have changed, otherwise, it still looks pretty much the same…”

At the event commemorating the Sluck Uprising, I came late, in the middle of Mikoła’s long speech. Although it eventually gets a bit tiring, afterwards we have some food and drinks and I get to meet more Belarusians. There are about thirty people at this event, and they joke that it’s about ten times more than there would have been a year ago. Although it’s cold, there’s a barbecue in the garden. The garden, which used to be the dump site for the construction debris, is the largest in the neighbourhood. Rose bushes planted by the founders and active members of the Association, a Russian peony which cannot hold its own weight when blooming, and a little flower pot saved from summer of 2020. The community would bring flowers to the Belarusian Embassy in London every day, to commemorate the victims of the regime, and the Embassy employees would destroy the flowers every night. These flowers are also a witness of the history — festivals and celebrations, readings and congresses, flourishing and wilting, ups and downs of the Belarusian community. In 1964 a Belarusian Charitable Trust was created, and the Association of Belarusian in Great Britain passed the ownership of the garden onto it.

One of the people who selected the house which became the Belarusian House in London, was Alexander Nadson, the legendary person who became first the librarian and then in 1981, after the death of Fr Sipovich, the director of the Belarusian Library and Museum in London as well as the head of the Belarusian Catholic mission in Great Britain. 

Marian House

When Bishop Ceslaus Sipovich arrived in London in 1947, there was no place where regular services for the Belarusian community in the Belarusian language could be held, and he had to travel between Lithuanian Saint Casimir church in Hackney, Ukrainian House at Linden Gardens and Brompton Oratory to find Belarusians and invite them for the Liturgies on Sundays. 

In 1947 a small chapel named after Holy Apostles Peter and Paul was established in the house named “Belvedere” in Holden Avenue, back then owned by the Lithuanian community of Marian Fathers, a Catholic congregation. It was renamed Marian House in honour of Mary, the Mother of God. 

Marian House

The nice thing about the Chapel was that after the Service, parishioners could stay for a cup of tea, sit in the garden in summer, rest and have a conversation with the others or watch those who had more energy play volleyball. I remember in my childhood we would often play volleyball in summer camps and in school gyms. The older generation who grew up in the Soviet Union also recalls that. Volleyball indeed was a very popular sport, developed in the Soviet Union after the October Revolution. Perhaps that’s why the immigration of that time played it, following something they had known well. 

Some Belarusians of the later immigration say they miss this feeling of the community, which they didn’t get to experience but which they’ve heard a lot about. It has gone with the death of father Nadson in 2015. 

Marian House from across the road

After the Association of Belarusians in Great Britain bought their own house on Penn Road, Marian House remained a religious and cultural centre of the life of the Belarusian community, in London specifically and more broadly in England.

In 1952, Father Sipovich decided that Marian House needed to be purchased and owned by the Belarusian Mission. [30] He wanted it to become “a spiritual centre for all Belarusians in England and in the whole of  Europe”. [31] The fundraising campaign started in 1954 and involved a lot of effort and often sacrifice. Most “new” emigrés who moved to Great Britain after World War II were young, worked hard to make a modest living and faced a lot of hardships. Yet, they understood the value of having their own religious centre for preserving their national and cultural identity, and so did a lot of Belarusians abroad. Thanks to donations from all over the world, the total sum of £8,200 were paid off in 1966.  

Sadly, the Marian House doesn’t belong to the Belarusian Community and is owned by the Catholic Church. It’s a long story, told in much detail in the work Bishop Ceslaus Sipovich: The first Belarusian Catholic Bishop in the 20th Century (1914–1981) written by Alexander Nadson. [32]

 Alexander Nadson

I didn’t have a chance to meet Fr Nadson in person, because he died in 2015. But I’ve heard of him so much that I feel admiring and grateful to him for everything he had done for the Belarusian community in Great Britain in general and in London in particular. 

Skaryna portrait

Fr Nadson was the one who’d travel to all kinds of places and participate in the auctions to obtain the most valuable and rare books for the Belarusian Library, such as the 1588 Statute of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania I mentioned above, a Tatar kitab (text in the Belarusian language written in the Arabic script), and several books of the Bible printed by Francis Skaryna, a Belarusian scholar and publisher of the first translation of the Bible into Belarusian, after whom the Library and Museum are named.

Karalina Mackievič, a member of the Library’s board of trustees, who now mainly looks after the library and museum, took me to St Pancras and Islington Cemetery in East Finchley on 3 May. It’s a special day for Belarusians, called Radaŭnica, a day when we visit and look after the graves of our ancestors. [33] I want to pay tribute to the people who we can thank for having places to come to as a community. But first, we need to buy flowers. We enter a small funeral shop by the cemetery, selling flowers and kitsch porcelain hearts and stars with inscriptions — I’ll see them later at the part of the cemetery where newborns are buried. The tiny wooden crosses and tombstones. “We’re sad we never got to know you” and “Born sleeping.” We buy a small bouquet of carnations — white, red and pale pink — because of the white and red flowers. 

Up North Road, onto Joint Road and left to Roman Road, to the graves of the “founding fathers” of Belarusian diaspora in London. The rustling of our steps as a background to conversations about the past. The birds keep twittering, not interested in the repetitiveness of our history over the centuries. Father Alexander Nadson, Karalina tells me, once said that when WWII was over, he didn’t have a choice between going back to Belarus and staying in the UK, the choice was between staying in the UK and being sent to Solovki Prison Camp. He decided that he could be “a bit more useful” in the UK. In 2022 this is still an argument for thousands of us. And for me personally. 

When we come to the graves — they are concentrated in one square of the cemetery — we change the water in the vase on Fr Nadson’s grave and sink three flowers into it. We leave a flower on each grave, then open a pack of biscuits, take one for each of us and leave the rest on the graves. It’s a traditional thing to do on Radaŭnica, “As a way of acknowledging that those people are living, and to sweeten their living in Heaven,” Karalina explains to me. 

“When Fr Nadson died,” she continues, “we felt like we had to preserve everything that was left after him, every little thing, like relics.” 

Once in June, I asked Karalina if I could wander around the Library and Museum on my own. When I come to such a place not simply as a visitor but as a writer, I become more attentive and sensitive to the details and contemplate things that wouldn’t come to my attention otherwise. 

The study where Fr Nadson used to work still keeps some of the things that belonged to him, it’s a little museum in itself. A tiny old computer in the corner, a large heavy wooden desk covered with books, bookshelves behind the glass reflecting trees, and navy velvet curtains; from the window — the view over Marian House and the church behind it. 

“London is safer for the books”: Belarusian Library and Museum in London

An article titled “Belarus’ Hidden Library” published in the January 2022 issue of Barnet Post [34] opens with a description of the event held by the Francis Skaryna Belarusian Library and Museum in the Belarusian Church to commemorate poets who were executed on the night of the 29th to the 30th of October 1937 by the NKVD, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, or simply the secret police. This was the first time when I saw the Belarusian community and they saw me. A week passed between my going to the library and museum as a visitor and my participation in the event as a poet. I knew about the library and that it held the largest collection of Belarusian books outside Belarus. What I didn’t know was what a “soft-power tool”, as Ihar Ivanoŭ calls it, [35] had been for the development of the Belarusian community in London and preserving Belarusian culture abroad.  

Although the official date of the opening of the library is 15 May 1971, its history started earlier. Founding the library was an idea of Father Ceslaus Sipovich, a bishop of the Belarusian Greek Catholic — Uniate — Church, who arrived in London in April 1947 to establish the Belarusian parish, and who had been the core of the community life since then until his death on 4 October 1981. 

The house at 37 Holden Road, where the Library and Museum now stand, was offered for sale in 1969 by a middle-aged couple for whom it became too big as their children had moved out. The lucky coincidence was that 37 Holden Road was next to the other two houses on Holden Road that were already owned by the Mission, which made it a perfect space for a library. The challenge was for Bishop Sipovich to find £12000 — which was a reasonable price for that time but still big enough a sum. The funds were raised thanks to the donations of Belarusians worldwide and the contributions from the priests’ stipends; a loan was taken to finalise the purchase.  

The Library has been a Charitable Trust, governed by a board of trustees, in order to ensure its independence. One of its purposes is to preserve printed material and manuscripts related to Belarus as well as make them accessible to scholars interested in studying Belarusian culture. [36]

Doll and carved wooden box from the museum

The building of the Library has been renovated over the last year, and there was no access to the collection. Yet, there is access to the museum. Cool air blows from two sides as I enter the room holding the collection — new conditioners have been installed recently, helping to preserve the exhibits in better conditions. Traditional clothes — embroidered flax linen shirts and long skirts — andaraks, hand-sewn dolls, documents, coins, books, manuscripts… 

I’m on my own here, I can read these artefacts or listen to them. Some of them I know about from history lessons, but I had never seen them in real life. I find the 1588 Statute of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. It is a set of feudal laws, a Constitution in a way, a unique document which regulated public relations and the most advanced one in Western Europe at the time. [37] One of the thirty copies which survived has been kept in London.  

Before moving to the separate building, the private collections of Bishop Sipovich and Father Haroška, which served as the base for the library’s collection, lived at Marian House.

Church of St Cyril of Turau and All the Patron Saints of the Belarusian People

Belarusian Church in London at night - lit light coming through the walls
Photo Credit: Hélène Binet

The Belarusian Memorial Chapel, or Church of St Cyril of Turau and All the Patron Saints of the Belarusian People, was opened in 2016, and it’s been the first wooden church in London since the Great Fire of 1666. It’s also the first Uniate church built outside Belarus and the first memorial to the victims of Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 to open in Western Europe. [38]

I remember that night on the 29th of October when Memorial Chapel was the northernmost point for Belarusians in London and we read poetry written by the executed poets and by the current political prisoners. The wood and glass building of the church feels like a lantern resting in the leaves, before being picked up by a wandering soul to find the path to peace through the darkness of the woods. Leaves, like moths, drawn to the light, touch the roof with a rustling sound, before landing on the ground. People inside the Chapel are fireflies, saturated with some luminescent substance connecting them to each other and those who are invisible to the eye but present through their poems. I am on stage, undisturbed on the surface, but inside trembling like a candle’s flame in the wind. “If it was 1937 / they would execute me, / just like you…”

In winter 2022 we opened a temporary memorial to those who had lost their lives for the freedom of Belarus to the protest which began in summer 2020. On the porch by Marian House, a white-red-white flag is tied to the handrail by white and red ribbons, trembling in the wind. Several portraits in black wooden frames are pinned to the wooden planks, and vases with flowers and flowers in pots are predominantly white and red too. Electric candles don’t get put out by the wind, and the light is there when we aren’t.

Memorial by the Belarusian church in London

It was hard for people to be here, in London, while those in Belarus were risking their lives, and lost their lives. This memorial is a way to say, “We’re sorry for not being there, for not protecting you…” 

Part 2

The first pre-election demonstration

There are several Facebook groups for Belarusians in Great Britain, they are open for anyone to join but the main rule is “no politics”. People in them discuss practical things, such as visas and documents, medical care and other services, vaccination, jobs… In the description of the group, they stress that the atmosphere in it should be friendly and all the participants should feel safe, which concerns not only political views but also religion, sexuality or other forms of identity. The goal is to help people solve very practical issues rather than influence their views. 

On 18 June 2020, in Minsk Viktar Babaryka, the main rival of Łukašenka in the presidential election, was detained. In the afternoon, people in Minsk came to the signature collection venue in the city centre to give their signatures for the alternative candidates. [39] The pouring rain didn’t stop them from forming a queue which kept growing, and growing, and growing into several kilometres long human chain. I remember that afternoon. I was at home, working, and as I finished and opened the news, I knew I couldn’t stay in, I needed to be there. By the time I reached what I expected to be the end of the human chain, [40] it had already grown much longer. I walked to find its tail, meeting people I hadn’t seen for years — my former classmate who was holding two little daughters by their hands, my former student who I had taught English in High School… We couldn’t and didn’t want to keep silent anymore. The same was true not only to those inside Belarus. 

“The dissatisfaction with the government had been growing due to the way they were handling Covid. The final trigger was when they detained Viktar Babaryka. I opened Facebook and found that group, Belarusians in Great Britain, and just a few minutes before some girl had left a message like, “Let’s do something, let’s also organise a demonstration.” I set up an open telegram chat Nadzeya and posted the link in that group, inviting everyone to join. People started joining, it was some crazy euphoria, we felt that we could really change something. In those days, every Belarusian who was outside their homeland was following social media, trying to figure out how they could contribute. That’s how Belarusian communities around the world formed. On the 25th we already held our first demonstration in London.”

Member of Nadzeya

The chat was truly bubbling with discussions: exchanging news from Belarus and other diasporas, deciding on the date and the location of a demonstration, on placards and flags, legal nuances in the time of Covid… There were those who were coming from other towns and cities in the UK and those who offered a lift, those based in London and those who offered a place to stay overnight because the demonstration was scheduled for the evening. 

In a Euronews article, Alaksandra Łamačenka, a Belarusian activist, wrote, “The fear of being vocal when everyone else is silent. The fear of discussing politics or even mentioning the president’s name over the phone. The fear that has always haunted us, wherever we are. With solidarity, we can overcome that fear as a nation. <…> The hope is that as hundreds of thousands of Belarusian people unite to express support for change, the fear dissipates not only for protesters but also for the Belarusian police, the only pillar left of support for Łukašenka’s regime.” [41]

On the sunny Thursday of 25 June 2020, by the Belarusian Embassy in London at 6 Kensington Ct, 220 Belarusians came to show solidarity with their country people and draw the attention of the international community to the political repressions in Belarus. [42]

“We knew there were thousands of Belarusians in Great Britain, but who they were and how they lived, no one tried to find out. And in 2020 a group of young women appeared, who became very active around the election. We, members of the Association of Belarusians in Great Britain, of course, didn’t believe in the free and fair election in Belarus, but we supported the newly formed initiative.”

Member of the Association of Belarusians in Great Britain

The next big protest was organised on 11 July 2020 in Trafalgar Square, with a solidarity chain stretching over one kilometre all the way up to Buckingham Palace. [43] Very symbolically, the water in the fountains in Trafalgar Square was turned red by the Animal rights group, [44] speaking eloquently not only about the cruelty towards farm animals but also as anticipation of the approaching brutal nights of August… 

Election day

According to the World Association of Belarusians Baćkaŭščyna and the Embassy of Belarus in the United Kingdom, [45] around 3.5 million Belarusians lived outside Belarus by the beginning of the 21st century, that is one-third of the total population in Belarus in 2019. [46] According to the data from Belarusian independent media, [47] over 600,000 Belarusian citizens left the country as a result of the social and political crisis in 2020 alone, with migration continuing through 2022. Will we ever find out how many people have really left Belarus since the election campaign 2020? Unlikely. But I believe that we can record history without precise numbers. 

As preparations for the election day were unfolding in Belarus, with independent observers campaigning and advocating for the single candidate from the opposition Sviatłana Cichanoŭskaja [Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya], Belarusians abroad were also preparing for the election day by obtaining and spreading information on how one could vote from abroad and gathering volunteers for exit-polls. Big protest actions were also planned for 9 August 2020, the election day. Belarusians living in Great Britain could vote at the Belarusian Embassy in London.

“The election day: I came early, by 8am I was already standing in the queue to the Embassy, among 30 more people, to vote.”

Member of Nadzeya

“10:30, a queue of about 60 people by the Embassy.”

From Nadezeya chat

“11:00, about 75-80 people in the queue.”

From Nadezeya chat

“On the election day, when I saw them all turning out on a baking hot day — this is where Belarusian quiet kind of tolerance was in the right place. The queue went round, down the road and around the corner. They knew they were not going to be able to get in. The Embassy took ages to process.”

Alison Cameron, Vice-Chair of the Anglo-Belarusian society

Long queues formed at the polling stations in Belarus on 9 August 2020. [48] The unprecedentedly high number of people willing to vote was met with deliberate delays in the process by the authorities. Hundreds of Belarusians turned up to vote in London. 

“We were standing, with wide eyes, euphoric from the feeling of the community, shocked to have found out that there lived so many Belarusians in Great Britain, anticipating that this time something would definitely change. 

Member of Nadzeya

“I can hear the chanting of the crowd in Hyde Park. Is it from our Embassy? 🙂”

From Nadezeya chat

I watch the videos that I could find in the chat. In one of them, a crowd is chanting in Russian, “Посол, выходи! Посол, выходи!” [Ambassador, go out! Ambassador, go out!] Then a woman, a voter, appears in the doorstep from inside the Embassy, met with loud cheering and applause. Someone shouts “Bravo!” to her, and she stretches her arms up like a sportsperson who crossed the finish line. A man rushes to her, hugs her and gives her a kiss. It feels like a true celebration.

“We really, truly, strongly believed. It was such a sincere feeling, almost childlike.”

Member of Nadzeya

All kinds of people came to the Embassy on that day. Someone from the immigration of the 90s told me that there were provocateurs who would play a Russian song “Murka” known as a criminal song, and police had to be called to deal with that person. 

Of about 300 Belarusians only one-third managed to vote on election day, and it was like that at many polling stations both inside Belarus and around the world. At 8 pm sharp the polling station at the Belarusian Embassy in London closed, and the Ambassador didn’t come out to talk to people or to apologise for the slow work, nor did he hang the protocol with the results for the voters to see. A lot of people spent hours in the heat, and they felt justified anger towards the employees of that institution. Yet, when the Embassy closed for voting, people didn’t disperse. They took out their passports and started chanting, “У нас есть голос, у нас есть голос!” [We have a voice, we have a voice!]

Gathering in front of the Belarusian Embassy

The independent exit poll’s results were announced in the white and red megaphone to those who stayed by the Embassy. “First I want to say that you’re fantastic. And I’ll announce the numbers from the bottom to the top:

Dźmitryjeŭ — 0

Spoilt ballots — 0

Čeračań — 1

Kanapackaja — 2

Against all — 3

Abstained — 11

Cichanoŭskaja —  326”

“What about Łukašenka?” Someone from the crowd shouts out, and the others laugh. “I forgot,” the woman announcing the numbers says, smiling. “Łukašenka — 6,” she adds, greeted with cheering sounds. 

“I didn’t get to vote, but I received loads of positive emotions and hope for a better future. Thank you, Belarusians!✌️❤️✊”

From Nadezeya chat

“HUGE thanks to the volunteers. When I feel low, I recall that there are such people like you in the world, and it helps me feel better. And of course, my gratitude to all those who came to vote, I’m glad that we saw each other and said that we were the majority.”

From Nadezeya chat

“Dear volunteers, thank you for everything — for the water, the muffins and the ice cream. The atmosphere at the Embassy was amazing. During 8,5 hours in the queue, I made a lot of friends. I can’t feel my legs, but I feel positive. It’s only the beginning.”

From Nadezeya chat

“It’s been a hard day, we did great. There was a spirit of unity and change around the Embassy. Now we all need to rest, tomorrow there will be a new day and we will need to think about what to do next. Thank you everyone once again! Now try to rest and recharge. Take care! ❤️”

From Nadezeya chat

Post-Election activities

As the protest continued and scaled up in Belarus, so the support was growing among Belarusian diasporas. In London Belarusian community held marches, pickets and demonstrations, organised support for the repressed and those on strikes, recorded songs and arranged exhibitions. Just like we in Belarus were building our lives around the protest, so did Belarusians in London.

“For the year since the first action in June 2020, my whole social and political life was evolving around the Belarusian community. I think it was like that for everyone. I couldn’t really shift my thoughts to anything else, and it was kind of therapeutic — meeting with the other Belarusians, talking with them. Some immigrants and political refugees started coming from Belarus, they told us what it was like from the inside, and that helped as well. We could see it all, but we could do so little…”

Member of Belarusian community in London

H: Can you think of any activity or day that you remember in particular?

S: I’ve been to so many events over these two years, that they have all kind of merged into one. But maybe when we stood by the Parliament on the anniversary, 9 August 2021. It started to rain, quite heavily, it poured, and we got soaked to the bone but kept standing. And then when the rain stopped, we moved on to the bridge, and we were dried by the wind…

Belarusian demonstration in London
Photo Credit: Olya Krayeva

The politicisation of the diaspora: People’s Embassy and PUBB

The political and social crisis politicised a lot of those who used to stay away from politics. Organisations of Belarusian ex-pats abroad — in the USA, Poland, and In Great Britain too got strengthened, but also new ones were formed. [49]

Life of the Belarusian community in London before August 2020 had mostly revolved around the church, the library and museum, and the Belarusian house, generally speaking, around religion, culture and history. Members of The Association of Belarusians in Great Britain and members of the community not belonging to any formal organisations did participate in political activities, of course, for decades. One of the missions of the ABGB in London and affiliations in the 1950-80s was keeping the public and institutions aware of Belarusians and defending their national interests. They also informed British politicians about the real state of affairs in back the Belarusian Soviet Republic, hoping that the politicians would take it into account in their foreign policy and its relations with the USSR. Yet, back then, they knew how little actual influence Belarusians abroad could have on the affairs inside Belarus. [50]

When Belarus became independent after the dissolution of the USSR, in the 1990-2000s Belarusians in London held dozens of events with the participation of Belarusian writers, musicians, theatres, public figures and politicians. [51]

In 1993 a Belarusian consulate opened in London, which later became Belarusian Embassy, and its representatives would take an active part in the events organised by the Association of Belarusians in Great Britain. However, it changed in 1995, due to the internal politics by the authoritarian president Łukašenka inside Belarus. Thus Belarusian diaspora broke official contact with the Belarusian Embassy in London. 

In June 1995, Belarusian youth in London organised one of the first pickets by the Embassy at 6, Kensington Road, when then the Ambassador Uładzimir Ščasny handed in the diplomatic credentials to the Queen. Picketing against the politics of Belarusian authorities became one of the primary activities of the Association of Belarusians in Great Britain.  [52]

After the presidential elections of 2006 and 2010, there were some pro-democracy demonstrations in front of the Belarusian Embassy in London, but they were not numerous and didn’t last long.  

Never before 2020 had the political agenda united so many Belarusians around it for so long. It’s been two years. 

Alan Gamlen, a social scientist from the Australian National University, specialising in research on human migration, defines diaspora institutions as “formal state offices dedicated to emigrants and their descendants” [53]. Belarusian diaspora’s political institution has not been a state office. Moreover, it was formed and has been developing as a counterforce to Belarusian state bodies, including Belarusian Embassy in the UK. 

Expressing solidarity and supporting Belarusians inside the country, fundraising and campaigning to help those inside Belarus who were facing repressions, and appealing to stop the violence — Belarusian diasporas around the world have gradually become the voices of Belarus abroad. [54]


PUBB stands for Professional Union of Belarusians in Britain. It started in 2009 when a bunch of Belarusians got together in a pub after watching a football game live at Wembley, and they continued meeting regularly in different pubs around London. 

On a warm evening in May, after wandering around St Pancras, I finally find the White Horse pub where a meeting takes place this time. Its goal is to catch up with Belarusians from various professional fields, as well as fundraise for some equipment and humanitarian aid for Belarusians in Ukraine. The atmosphere is casual and friendly, and this is the point — gathering for a drink and discussing business with fellow Belarusians. For those who are not religious or who find it inconvenient to travel all the way through London to North Finchley, this organisation is an opportunity to stay in touch with other Belarusians, maintain professional contacts, help newcomers find their way in the local life, speak Belarusian, and do something for Belarus. 

A member of PUBB tells me that during the Covid lockdown, when they couldn’t have live meetings, members of the organisation started using their professional skills to put pressure on British politicians to do something about what was happening in Belarus. One of the work streams has been trying to enforce ethical standards of the various companies that buy stuff from the enterprises where workers’ rights are violated. They sent hundreds of letters on behalf of PUBB and with their modest resources were quite successful, because about a dozen companies did something, and most of them stopped working with the dictator. [55]

Some members have become cautious about the organisation becoming too political: in July 2022 the regime accused PUBB of “extremist activities”, which formally puts its members at risk of being targeted by the KGB. So PUBB is planning, along with their campaigning, to retrieve the traditional format of the meet-ups.

People’s Embassy

At the World Congress of Belarusians on 31 October — 1  November 2020, a resolution on the creation of People’s Embassies was announced, and in December 2020, in coordination with the main pro-democracy Belarusian political forces such as the Coordination Council, the office of Sviatłana Cichanoŭskaja and the National Anti-Crisis Management, People’s Embassies opened in 17 countries, the United Kingdom among them. [56] The goals they set were:

  • Raising awareness about the situation in Belarus;
  • Campaigning for and supporting those undergoing political repressions;
  • Establishing and maintaining contacts with governmental bodies, professional unions, businesses, academia, and other institutions abroad which democratic Belarus could benefit from. [57]

A big part in those processes has been played by the immigration of the 90s and 2000s, and it can be characterised as a change of generations. There were some students who after graduation stayed in the UK, along with those who left Belarus on economic and political grounds. [58] We don’t have exact numbers but this comes across from conversations with the members of the community.

I learnt from a member of the Belarusian People’s Embassy in Great Britain how the idea was born. When on the election day exit poll results were being collected, a lot of people expressed negativity towards the official Belarusian Embassy in London, whose employees, like many others, tried to falsify the voting results. So Belarusians in Great Britain jokingly suggested that they needed an alternative Embassy which would serve the interests of the Belarusian people. Soon, the idea was brought into reality. 

The People’s Embassies did a lot of work with mass media and informed the public about the situation in Belarus. Everyone could suggest something for the agenda, and there was a lot of work, almost full-time. Belarusian People’s Embassy created several working groups, each focusing on a particular field of work: refugees, mass media and PR, lobbying and campaigning. For example, their campaign of sending letters and appeals to the organisers and members of the European Broadcasting Union, played a big part in Belarus being disqualified from Eurovision in 2021 (the pro-regime band Galasy ZMesta was going with an anti-protest song). [59]

It continues its work, organising demonstrations around important dates and trying to influence other decisions essential for the Belarusian pro-democracy movement. 

Continuing my Protest

I found the Belarusian community in London because I was looking for like-minded people to continue my protest. On 2 October 2021, I approached the Norwegian Embassy in London at 25 Belgrave Square. It was my first Belarusian picket in London. Approaching, I saw four people, none of whom I knew in person. They were waving white-red-white flags and it gave me confidence. “Жыве Беларусь!” I called out (Belarusian for “Long live Belarus”) and heard “Жыве вечна!” (Long live!) in response. They introduced themselves and gave me a white-red-white flag, because I didn’t have one, I couldn’t bring it from Belarus for fear of being searched and detained at the airport. I took the flag gently and pressed it to my heart — an emotional moment, I almost stopped breathing. Then I wrapped it around my shoulders and closed my eyes for a few seconds. It was hard to believe that no masked men would jump out of a black mini-bus to grab me and put me in jail. I felt safe in London.

Belarus is known for two things: Chernobyl and dictatorship. I wish neither of them defined us but, sadly, they both do. Yet, while one didn’t choose to be born in the country that took in 70% of the radioactive fallout after the explosion of the nuclear reactor, we all have choice which side to take on the political spectrum.

On 9 August 2020, the 6th presidential election in the history of independent Belarus took place, but the entire election campaign took an unprecedented turn when first hundreds of thousands of Belarusians openly showed their willingness for political change and then millions stood up against the stolen election [60] and state violence [61]. I was there, from the very first day, and those events have changed me. The scale of violence and terror is hard to imagine for anyone living in a democracy, but what really matters for me is the scale of the solidarity among people. 

We saw each other for the first time in the queues at the pickets collecting signatures for alternative candidates, [62] and then at the polling stations, then at the big rallies [63] and in the courtyards of our neighbourhoods… [64] Even those who immigrated decades ago and had lost hope for the change by 2020, were inspired and joined forces in the fight for Belarus freedom [65]. 

The war for Belarus is far from being over, and as they say, “One soldier doesn’t make a battle”, so becoming part of the community for me was vital. It was my survival outside home. 

Community events

Although for many Belarusians in London politics have become the initial uniting force, a mirror in which Belarusians who cared about Belarus could see each other, over time a lot of people have dropped out of the political activities. However, some still keep attending cultural events, traditional festivals and memorial dates. 


In Belarusian culture, there is a tradition of tałaka. An etymologically close word exists in the Lithuanian language — “talka”, in Polish — “tłoka” and in Ukrainian — “toloka”. 

Sharing is the key to “tałaka”. For centuries, it has been a way of supporting each other with labour or sharing one’s labour resource, in other words. When a family couldn’t manage some hard work on their own, such as removing manure or working flax, the community would come to help. If you had your house burnt down, the community would help you build a new one. The community would also join their efforts for it to benefit as a whole — set up fishing gear or build a dyke over the river together. [66] It is always a sincere way to work together and support each other. 

On a Saturday in June, just as the warm sunny morning turned into a cold autumn-like day, we are having tałaka at the Belarusian library and museum at 37 Holden Road in London. When the taxi drops me off at the Library, it’s already past lunchtime. About ten people at the front of the house are busy doing the yard work, the atmosphere is cheerful, and it puts me in a cheerful mood too. I’m eager to do some useful work, contribute, and share my resources. But everything that needed to be done has been done, and now we’re laying the table in the back garden to eat all together after the good work. 

Kupalle 2022
Photo Credit: Yury Liashenka

Alena, our best cook, has brought pastries with cabbage and cottage cheese, golden and fluffy, like those from my childhood that mum would make. The smell of cucumbers draws everyone’s attention, and we’re surprised they taste like real cucumber, not just like water, and we want to know where to get these wonderful cucumbers, so different from those tasteless ones you get at Sainsbury’s or Lidl. Cherries melt in our mouths, leaving the bowl empty pretty quickly, and talking about these cherries, these cucumbers and pastries, feel like the most natural thing to do. 

Juraś manages to get a few minutes in the lively chatter to say that it’s not only tałaka, but also a Belarusian language speaking club today, and everyone tries their best at speaking in Belarusian, dropping Russian or English words, like cherry stones into the bowl with the berries. Yet, there’s no sign of judging or criticising, only encouragement and support. 

We’re asking two young men from Russia, who joined us for the tałaka and at the table if they understand Belarusian. 

“After eating such a pastry you’ll definitely understand it!” I joke.

“And after a dranik we’ll even start speaking it!” they reply.

I stand near Karalina. 

“Isn’t it wonderful”, she says, looking over the liveliness around the table. 

“It is! I always look for a family and I always find it”, I say, emotionally.

“And I’ve always looked for Belarus. So I’ve found it”, Karalina adds, treasuring every bit of the happening. 


I’m grateful for the lack of sounds and people on the train from Woodside Green to Tufnell Park. It helps me preserve the music, the singing,

Не дзеўка агонь клала,

Сам бог агонь раскладаў,

Усіх святых да сабе зваў

Kupalinka 2022

I was Kupalinka today. Crowned with a lush flower wreath, wearing a traditional Belarusian embroidered shirt and a skirt, I stood inside the circle of women and they danced a karahod (a circle dance) around me, singing Kupalinka, a song which literally every Belarusian knows. A young woman Kupalinka, in the dark night, “weeds the rose” and “wounds her white hands”, she “picks the flowers” and “weaves crowns and sheds tears”. Then the circle opened and I led the other women, also crowned with flowers, some also wearing traditional Belarusian embroidered clothes, through the garden, around people, breaking their conversations, drawing their attention, wrapping around them with our protective energy. Then I lit the bonfire, and people continued dancing around it and singing… Until the fire got low and slow enough to jump over it. 

My hair smells of smoke for hours afterwards. I want to keep the smell, I want to remember it, to be able to revive it any moment. I press my hair to my nostrils and breathe in. This smell creates an intimate space, a bubble around me when I go out onto the street at Tufnell Park, where people speak English again, not Belarusian. Where they don’t wear embroidered clothes and crowns of flowers. And they don’t know about this little island of Belarus amidst the ocean of London.

Kupalle, also known as Kupała Night or Ivan Kupała Night, is a traditional festival among slavs, having its roots in pagan tradition — it coincides with the summer solstice, if celebrated according to the “old” Julian calendar — on the night from the 23d to the 24th of June. According to the Gregorian calendar, it’s celebrated on the night of the 6th to the 7th of July, and over time it has been Christianised, so the date is considered to be the birth date of John the Baptist, Ivan standing for John in Slavic tradition. 

For us, the name is also connected to that of the classic of Belarusian literature, a poet Janka Kupała (Janka is the Belarusian for Ivan). His real name was Ivan Daminikavič Łucevič, but he took up the pen name Kupała, as he was born on 7 July. And he was truly a people’s poet, that’s why traditionally, the festival is opened with a reading of his work. This year it’s also to mark the 140th anniversary of the birth of the classic, and we’re reading his poem Kurhan (The Gravemound). The story is simple: a local lord invites a musician, a bard (husliar) to play the harp (husli) at the wedding of his daughter, and promises to pay well if the musician pleases the guests with his song. Husliar in his song tells the truth about the hard lives of the people, their poverty and exploitation by the lord. The lord, furious, commands to bury husliar alive. The legend has it that over the gravemound of husliar one can hear his song, and those who understand it will never be unhappy again, but for that, they need to listen with their hearts. 

And they say, should a man ever fathom that song, 
He will never know sorrow nor weeping… 
Maybe this is true — hark with your soul, hearken long. . . 
Gravemounds will tell much in their speaking.

I’m reading it out and I can sense what we are all thinking: how the poem written in 1910 is still relevant for us 112 years later. We think and want the same when in the evening we burn a witch doll to whose skirt we have tied the stripes of clothes with the words written on them — the words for what we want to stop. “Dictatorship”. “Hatred”. “Lukashenka”. “Putin”… 

Kupalle has always been popular among Belarusians, and in London, it has always gathered people. I saw a lot of happy faces that night. Jana, a girl from Belarus celebrated Kupalle for the first time in her life, even though she had lived in Belarus before that, and it hadn’t been banned. Andrew, a young Englishman recently found out that his grandfather was Belarusian but had to hide it even from his own wife. Andrew feels very emotional, almost overwhelmed by this festival with deep cultural and spiritual roots. “I feel at home!” I say to Kacia, who moved to London in 2021 from Minsk, and she replies to me that at home she’d never had such an experience. I’ve jumped over the bonfire for the first time. It’s not as scary as I thought it would be. 

“The one chosen to be Kupalinka will have a special year”, Karalina says to me, and two little bonfires of hope flash in my eyes. “I hope it will”, I whisper in response and press the little silver Belarus-shaped pendant to my chest.  

What has changed for you after summer 2020?

S: I had an active political life in Belarus before I moved to London to live with my husband. Moving to Britain froze me, I didn’t know where I could be helpful. I couldn’t find a community of Belarusians that we could do something together. But I’d always been active, and in 2020, when I found the others who were in a similar situation, I found the outlet for my energy. Now I’ve got some good friends. Yet, the whole thing has been affecting my family life… When I’m not working, I do something for the protest, reading, writing or networking. My husband practically can’t reach me most of the time… 

A: A common goal unites us. Such things as protest activities, picnics or looking after the memorial, talaka and other events — all unite Belarusians. I personally gain some short periods of peace for my soul from it.

T: You’re on the same wavelength with random people. I remember about a year ago, late in May, we were delivering humanitarian aid to Belarusians who fled to Ukraine. I was camping in Kent and it was easier for me to drop my stuff at a lady who was living in that area. I came to her place and we started talking and within 15 minutes I ended up crying in her kitchen. And it was the first time I met this person. We had so much in common. This sense of fraternity is the most precious stuff. 

V: I used to think that there were one and a half Belarusians in London, including me. The very first Belarusian demo that I attended in July 2020 changed my opinion. I met a lot of new people there, including those who worked for the same IT company as me. We found some things in common and we’ve kept in touch, going to the theatre or travelling together, that kind of thing. It’s great.

T: I used to be ashamed of being Belarusian. I appreciated the few drops of Polish and German blood in me more than my Belarusian ancestry. That’s why I wasn’t looking for Belarusians in London. In 2020, the energy which flooded drew me in. Yet, now I’m going through the phase of disillusionment in Belarusians again. 

S: My life is always in progress. I wouldn’t say it changed after the summer 2020, but I found myself. I figured out what is meaningful for me and what I want from life. Over the last couple of years, I’ve lost many people dear to me, and I found myself helping others. This motivates me to live and find joy. I still cry sometimes when I read news from Belarus, from feeling helpless, and not knowing what to do. But then I put myself together and continue doing what I can to help others. 

Compared to my life in London before that, now I know there are so many Belarusians in London that I can call someone at any time, and I can find a shoulder to support me. And if we need to support someone else, we also know who to ask. It’s a great power, I treasure it. 

I also heard opinions that nothing changed on a deep level and that there isn’t a true Belarusian community in London. What I’ve realised for myself over these two years of the dissent — a community is a collective of individuals, and it’s up to each of us to contribute to preserving and developing the national community far from home. 

Instead of the afterword

Now those who actively participated in the protest movement of Belarusians abroad can’t travel home, as it is unsafe. Some haven’t been there for two years. 

It’s not the first time Belarusian people are going through dark times. Generation after generation have fought for freedom, have been persecuted, fled and lived hoping to return, at the same time creating Belarus for themselves wherever they have been. Reading the immigrants’ memoirs in the past, I couldn’t imagine myself becoming an émigré one day, and the realisation that I am hurts. So I’m creating Belarus where I am, with what I have, the way I can. 

we didn’t win
we will . . .

i wish i had taken with me 
a handful of my country’s soil


[1] Hardzienka, N., & Zhurtavanne belarusaŭ svetu “Batsʹkaŭshchyna”. (2010). Belarusy ŭ Vi︠a︡likabrytanii. Biblii︠a︡tėka Batsʹkaŭshchyny 18. Minsk: Medysont. P. 15. 

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