The English Teacher vs. Europe’s Last Dictator
You are a stay-at-home mother. You are under 40 years old. You have two children, one of whom has special needs. You love teaching but gave up your career to care for your family. Your spouse works as a writer, and often critiques the oppressive government you live under.
Then, one day, security services from said government ransack your home, claim to find $900,000 in cash, accuse your spouse of being a foreign agent, and arrest him. You are left to care for your 10-year-old son and five-year-old daughter alone. You receive death threats and flee to a neighbouring country. Your spouse is still imprisoned.
Meanwhile, a fire boils is within you – a fire for justice, equality, and a future of freedom for your people. In your spouse’s absence, and in the face of great danger and uncertainty, you choose to do what no one thinks you could ever do: you run for president, with no political experience, and with no funding, against Europe’s Last Dictator.
This is not a Netflix series or a snippet from a 20th-century dystopian novel. It’s not even from a history book. This is Svetlana Tikhanovsky’s true life story – and it’s happening to her right now.
Segei Tikhanovsky and the “Slipper Uprising”
If you’re not familiar with Belarus’ history, read this first.
Leading up to Belarus’ recent elections, Svetlana’s blogger husband Sergei made the “Slipper Uprising” an unforgettable landmark in Belarusian history. Longtime critic of Lukashenko, Sergei often wrote about him as “a cockroach”, and even drove around with a giant slipper tied to the top of his car to illustrate his point. Demonstrators now commonly carry their slippers at protests in a symbol of squashing oppression.
Sergei wanted to run for president against Lukashenko, but after the electoral commission denied his registration, Svetlana registered in his place.
In Belarus, a person needs 100,000 signatures to be qualified to stand for election. She garnered over 730,000 in less than a month.
Sergei was detained at a rally in Svetlana’s support on May 26 and has yet to be released.
Svetlana Tikhanovsky, Teacher and Translator-turned-Politician
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who moved from her hometown to rural Ireland following the Chernobyl disaster, was known as a star student with a big heart. She excelled in English and translated for children affected by the Chernobyl disaster. After her son was born almost completely deaf, she thought stubbornly and tenaciously for the best possible care for him. Despite having no political experience, she is a known fighter and powerful advocate – if not simply a figurehead – for justice and change.
Fairing for her children’s safety, Tikhanovskaya fled with her family to Lithuania in early August, just after the elections. From there she sent a video saying, “I did not want to be a politician. But fate decreed that I’d find myself on the frontline of a confrontation against arbitrary rule and injustice. I am ready to take responsibility and act as a national leader during this period.”
In fact, Tikhanovskaya is one of three women challenging Lukashenko at the polls this year. Veronika Tsepkalo (married to the former ambassador to Washington) and Maria Kolesnikova (who managed the campaigns of opposition candidate Viktor Babariko, who has also been arrested) now also hold rallies with tens of thousands of supporters, pleading with citizens to use their vote to remove Lukashenko from power.
On Friday, Tikhanovskaya spoke at a virtual informal session of the UN Security Council, and urged the United Nations to send a monitoring mission to Belarus.
Technically speaking, no concrete change has come from the protests – yet. The government has yet to respond with any major policy change, despite total internal unrest and mounting pressure from the international community.
But from our perspective, this is not a gut-churning story of one man’s all-consuming quest for power, but a story of human resilience. This is a story about people who, regardless of what the world says “right” or “qualified”, speak up simply because they see something is wrong and want what’s best for their country, their futures, and their children.
This is a story about questioning what truly qualifies someone to lead a nation.
We see all over the world that petty things like power, influence, money, legacy, are of no deep value when it comes to moving human hearts, protecting human rights and justice.
Who better to understand the plight of the Belarusian people – the problems of parenthood, poverty, nuclear disasters, senseless violence, than this one person, this mother? Who better to understand the voice of a silenced people than one of their own?
NPN will stay on this story.