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In Soviet-Style Self-Denunciations To KGB, Belarusians Revoke Opposition Views, Pledge Loyalty

A protester faces riot police during an anti-government demonstration in Minsk in September 2020.
A protester faces riot police during an anti-government demonstration in Minsk in September 2020.

In December 2021, as Belarus' state railway began firing employees who reportedly opposed the country's official 2020 presidential election results, an employee in Minsk took a preemptive step to keep his job: He disavowed his pro-opposition beliefs in writing to the country's powerful State Security Committee, the KGB.

"I think that it's possible to forgive a person who has acknowledged his mistakes and is ready to correct them," he urged the agency.

The Minsk man's plea is one of several self-denunciations in an online database of roughly 40,000 complaints, statements, appeals, and other messages sent to the Belarusian KGB between September 2014 and August 2023 and hacked by a Belarusian group, Cyberpartisans, that says it's determined to stop the government's repression of civil rights.

The self-denunciations, which date from 2021 to 2023, reflect a fear of job loss or other consequences that human rights monitors say typifies the state's brutal crackdown on the citizenry since 2020, when massive protests over evidence of widespread fraud in the presidential election that August led to the detentions of tens of thousands of Belarusians and the emigration of hundreds of thousands, according to a 2024 UN human rights report.

With most of the opposition now living abroad, government critics face the potential loss of not only their jobs but also their parental rights, professional licenses, and property, as well as expulsion from state-run educational institutions.

The self-denunciations, which are reminiscent of a Soviet-era practice that took root a century ago, make clear that the writers feared consequences for their views.

In his December 19, 2021, missive to the KGB, the Minsk resident -- who describes himself as an employee of Belintertrans, a state-run railway logistics group -- expresses concern that if he loses his job he will soon be deep in debt.

The man, whose name is being withheld to provide anonymity, asks the KGB to protect him from dismissal, stressing that he no longer believes in the Belarusian opposition because they have emigrated abroad and, in his words, they have called for "all these boycotts and sanctions" against the Belarusian state.

"I'm ready to change for the better and work for the good of our country," he concluded.

The database does not show any KGB response.

Another self-denunciation came from a woman who collected just 30 signatures in the northeastern city of Mahilau in an effort to get banker and philanthropist Viktar Babaryka on the 2020 ballot. Babaryka, who was seen as a viable challenger to strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka, was arrested in June 2020 and is serving a 14-year prison term on money laundering and bribery charges he and supporters say were retribution for challenging Lukashenka.

Writing to the KGB in June 2023, the woman claimed that the chairperson of the board of her residential building cooperative, Promzhilstroi-1, had reported her to the presidential administration as a Babaryka volunteer after she complained to the government about the board's alleged repeated violations of the law.

The chairperson, she claimed, had told her she'll "be out of a job."

"At the moment, I sincerely realize that I made a mistake collecting signatures for Babaryka," the woman wrote, stressing that she had voted for Lukashenka. She added that she had agreed to resign from the cooperative.

"I understand that the situation now is difficult and there're a lot of people wishing to shake up the country. The KGB should be tough toward such people," the Mahilau woman continued. "But I NEVER criticized [the government] and didn't take part in such matters. I ask you to help me and give me the opportunity to work until retirement age!"

That quest for self-preservation also marks an appeal from another man in Minsk. Nearly three years after the 2020 election-fraud protests, he wrote to the KGB in June 2023 to confess he had taken part in the demonstrations and donated to ByPol, a group of former Belarusian law enforcement officials who support opposition politicians and are critical of Belarusian police brutality.

Belarusian police manhandle a detainee in Minsk.
Belarusian police manhandle a detainee in Minsk.

The man wrote that, "[w]ith the passage of time," he had realized he had violated the law by protesting and asked the KGB to tell him what he can do "to make amends."

The man did not indicate why he chose to write to the KGB, but the Belarusian state has labeled ByPol as an extremist and terrorist organization -- labels applied roughly a year or two after the man's autumn 2020 donation.

Whether any of the Belarusians who submitted self-denunciations to the KGB escaped job loss or other feared repercussions for their opposition support is unknown.

Clinical psychologist Alena Hrybanava, who specializes in trauma and has counseled victims of police violence at the 2020 protests, attributed the self-denunciations, which she read, to "a sense of neurotic guilt."

When fear "reaches a high level," Hrybanava commented, "it can turn a person into a small, scared child who's looking for protection from an authoritative adult or, in this case, the state."

Self -denunciations, some issued under duress, are also a phenomenon in some other former Soviet republics, and notably in Russia's Chechnya region. The practice is traceable to the late 1920s under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

In Eastern Europe during the communist era, public expressions of self-criticism "constituted an official procedure of expressing one's loyalty to the ruling party" that could save a career, but also could lead to the gulag or a death sentence, Polish sociologist Magdalena Nowicka-Franczak wrote in 2015.

In a February 2023 decree , Lukashenka made public self-criticism a condition for granting amnesty or reduced sentences to Belarusians who had fled abroad to escape prosecution related to the 2020 protests.

But, as in Soviet times, agreeing to recant is no guarantee of security.

By the end of 2023, more than 200 Belarusians who opted to return to Belarus had been jailed, and the arrests have continued in 2024, the UN reported in March.

Written by Elizabeth Owen based on reporting by Anna Kryuchkova
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    Anna Kryuchkova

    Anna Kryuchkova is a Belarusian journalist and Current Time Digital contributor who reports on a broad variety of topics including human rights, politics in Belarus and in exile, social issues, and more.

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