Meet the 73-year-old granny who became an icon of the protests against Lukashenka

Nina Baginskaya, a Minsk pensioner, leading the women's march against Alyaksandr Lukashenka on 29 August 2020 in Minsk. Photo: nn.by 

International

Edited by: David Kirichenko

Editor’s Note

In Belarus, where protests against rigged elections are into their second month, an unlikely figure has become an icon of change. Nina Baginskaya, a 73-year old grandmother, has been brandishing the banned white-red-white national flag since 1988, earning tens of thousands of dollars in fines — and the love of the nationwide protest movement demanding the resignation of dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Nina Baginskaya, a 73-year-old Belarusian pensioner and civil activist, has taken part in protests since 1988 – first against Communism, then against dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka. She became widely known in 2006 after the publication of a photo where she stands in front of the police with a large white-red-white flag on Freedom Day.

This holiday on 25 March celebrates Belarus’ short-lived independence between the dissolution of the Russian Empire and emergence of the USSR in 1922. Today, it is a rallying point of the Belarusian opposition to Lukashenka’s regime, just like the white-red-white flag. Different to the state flag, it is the historical national symbol of Belarus – the official flag of the Belarusian People’s Republic (1918-1919) and the state flag of the Republic of Belarus in the first five years of its independence.

However, after a referendum in 1995 —initiated by President Alyaksander Lukashenka — the use of this flag was banned in the country. Driven by nostalgia for the USSR, 75% of voters supported the reinstatement of a tweaked flag of the Belarusian SSR as the official state flag. Also, 83% supported giving Russian language equal status to Belarusian. Subsequently, white-red-white became a symbol of protest against the politics of Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Historical photo of Nina Baginskaya with the flag on 2006 Freedom Day by Evgeniy Otsetskyi.

After that, Nina Baginskaya sewed a ten-meter-long white-red-white flag, which Lukashenka outlawed in 1995, for the Belarusians celebrating Freedom Day. Since then they unfold it every year on this holiday.

“From ‘90 to ‘94, Belarus was an independent parliamentary republic,” explains Baginskaya. “We had a Seim, a parliament, and there was no president. And when the discussion about getting a president began… Pozniak [an exiled opposition leader] said that in a post-Soviet country broken by the communists, a president will turn into a tzar, into something totalitarian. But the majority opinion, based on Soviet ideology, won. I still think that the power in Belarus needs to be changed and a parliament needs to be created.”

The authorities have long been antagonists to the white-red-white colors, but recently economic motives came into the equation. They started penalizing people for the flags, but they do not always confiscate them.

“Our bureaucrats are pro-Russian. They don’t like the white-red-white flag, so since Lukashenka came into power, since the mid-90s, they are punishing us for this flag. First, they just warned us, then they started fining us and taking the flags away,” Baginskaya told the Belarusian outlet KYKY in an interview that was translated by the volunteer initiative Pray for Belarus.

Nina Baginskaya protests on October Square in Minsk, wearing a traditional Belarusian costume, 14 May 2016. Photo: svaboda.org/RFE/RL

Baginskaya herself was already fined dozens of times. She stopped counting the total sum of fines after it reached US$16,000. Authorities expropriated two of her country houses and started regularly taking 50% from her pension to pay fines. Baginskaya never stopped protesting.

In Soviet times, she refused to participate in Komsomol – a compulsory “GONGO” for the communist indoctrination of youth. Baginskaya says that the USSR started collapsing in 1965 already but this process hasn’t finished yet:

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“We have been through this all when we lived in the USSR. Like the Komsomol — I didn’t want to be in Komsomol and told my teachers about it. I tore my Komsomol ID and said that I don’t want to visit the gatherings at school. And some teachers responded negatively, but there were those who were fine with it — just like today. And my parents told me stories that up until ‘53 there were black vans driving around Minsk, arresting people and sending them to unknown places. The same thing is happening today. History repeats itself, and it’s sad. But look, the people don’t live in fear anymore, despite the police trucks, they go out to the streets day after day.”

Baginskaya participated in her first street protest in 1988. On 30 October 1988, on the Belarusian Day of Remembrance of the Ancestors called Dziady, Belarusian activists planned to hold a requiem meeting in memory of the victims who perished due to Stalin’s repressions. However, the authorities did not give permission to gather, and the assembled people were brutally dispersed.

“I was horrified by this Soviet lie: ‘everything is for the people’ — and because people want to mark their national holiday ‘Dziady,’ they brought these troops and began to disperse us, Baginskaya recalls in an interview with Current Time. Where I was born, this my land. My language and my culture should reign here. That is how I became a ‘nationalist.’”

Since 1988, she regularly visits important protests with her flag and follows the old Belarusian dress-code, and also maintains solitary protests. She has been detained dozens of times and spent many nights in jails over the years.

Nina Baginskaya and a police officer. Photo: svaboda.org/RFE/RL

In 2014, Baginskaya was detained for burning the Soviet flag near the KGB building – it was a protest against Russia’s offensive on the territory of Ukraine. In 2015, she was detained for action in memory of Mikhail Zhiznevsky – a Belarusian who died among the Heavenly Hundred during the Euromaidan in Ukraine.

In 2017, 35 people were detained in Belarus in a criminal case called the “case of patriots.” Baginskaya came to the KGB building to stand in solidarity and protest but was detained shortly after.

Detention of Nina Baginskaya during the fourth day of her solitary protest near KGB building, 2017. Source: svaboda.org/RFE/RL

Baginskaya’s favorite hero was Spartacus, the gladiator slave who led an uprising of slaves in Anvient Rome, from the eponymous book by Raffaello Giovagnoli. A teenage girl was attracted by his craving for freedom.

“I thought this was a very right position. And my environment, the example of my parents, also supported this.”

Nina Baginskaya in her house in front of her parent’s photos. Source: svaboda.org/RFE/RL

Baginskaya has already become a symbol of the Belarusian protests. She is often depicted on posters. Her simple expression “I’m just walking” that she innocently and ironically said to a police officer became a powerful motto.

“I’m walking,” says Nina Baginskaya to a policeman.

“They are afraid to hit the old people – they might die, and then the cop will be fined,” says Nina Baginskaya.

However, she has been hit many times by the police and even fell down on various occasions. The police often tried to take away her flags, but she would often come back the next day with a new flag.

Nina Baginskaya gets detained by Belarusian riot police. Photo: svaboda.org/RFE/RL

Thus, one can understand the elation of the crowd when Nina Baginskaya came out to leading the first Women’s March against Lukashenka on 29 August:

The initial version of this article erroneously stated that Ms. Baginskaya’s age is 75. In fact, she is 73.

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Edited by: David Kirichenko

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