History is teetering on an edge. No one knows which way it will go. Maybe the Russian empire, the last and most terrible of the European empires, will fall.
Or maybe it will absorb the hit and survive as it has survived and expanded since the 17th century. You’d be a fool to bet against it. The graveyards of Eurasia are full of those who did.
And yet the breathtaking heroism of the Ukrainian resistance and the insane self-delusion of the Putinist regime are allowing Russia’s opponents from Syria to Central Asia, and from Georgia to Moldova, to ask that most revolutionary of questions: “What if?”
What if the empire falls? What if structures that have endured and enslaved for centuries can be blown apart like the creaking trucks in a Russian munitions convoy?
Talking to the men and women engaged in what is – if only the global left could see it – the great anticolonial struggle of our times, you hear them moving through the stages of revolutionary commitment. From peaceful protest to jail sentences to the realisation that civil disobedience will never be enough.
Lives are transformed as the stakes are raised. The story of Timur Mitskievich echoes the anticolonial protests of the 20th century. In 2020, he was a teenager in Minsk when the Belarusian dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, rigged the presidential election as he had crushed every challenge to his rule since he came to power in 1994. Supporters of the opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya took to the streets in the largest popular demonstrations in Belarus’s history.
The paradox of civil disobedience is that non-violent tactics work only against regimes that, however oppressive the protesters think them, are not so oppressive they cannot be persuaded to change. For all their crimes and prejudices, the British imperial authorities in India in the 1940s and the US government of the 1960s had to listen to Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
Lukashenko did not listen to his opponents. He terrorised them. He didn’t have to worry about bad publicity when he controlled the media. Nor need he concern himself with the reaction of the “international community” after Vladimir Putin said he would maintain the dictator in power if he gave up what little remained of Belarusian independence. His country became a Russian colony again, which it had been almost continuously since the Russian empire seized control in 1795.
The 17-year old Mitskievich joined the protests. The police beat him so badly doctors put him into a medically induced coma. While he was out, his mother died, leaving nine orphaned children.
Peaceful disobedience works only against regimes with a capacity for feeling shame and the Belarusian and Russian regimes have no shame.
Belarus, like Ukraine before 2014, is a country parochial westerners barely thought about. If its name registers today, it is as Russia’s base for its failed assault on Kyiv. In the glib 1990s, liberal democracy’s triumph was assumed to be so inevitable we called Belarus “Europe’s last dictatorship”. Look at its weirdness, we said. It still clung on to Soviet-style rule, an error that history would surely correct as the ideals of free markets and free societies marched on.
Instead of being an anachronism, Belarus was a model for the future. While it became a Russian client state, Russia became a supersize Belarus, as Putin removed the limited freedoms he had allowed Russian citizens in the 2000s and aped Lukashenko’s dictatorship.
To Belarus’s exiled opposition, Ukraine’s war is their war and a Ukrainian victory would open up the prospect of radical change across territories Russia intimidates and controls. The Ukrainian war has made clear, if clarity were needed, how Russian nationalists view eastern Slavs with the impertinence to reject them.
Russian official media explained that Ukrainians (and by extension) Belarusians were really Russians. If they rejected Russian identity and said they had their own cultures and histories that existed before the Russian empire, they proved only that they were “Nazis”. No form of human life could be lower. The Russian state had a duty to kill them or send them to labour camps; to take their children from them and crush their country and their culture.
When I spoke last week to Tsikhanouskaya’s senior adviser Franak Viačorka, in exile in Poland, he said revolution was the only viable option now. He spoke the language of an officer in an underground war rather than a politician trying to negotiate a settlement. The Lukashenko regime was the “collaborationist state”. The activists who sabotaged Belarusian railway lines, to stop Russian troops and armour reaching Ukraine, were “resistance cells”.
Even in Soviet times Moscow “recognised the existence of Belarus and Ukrainian nations”, Viačorka said. Putin was bringing a “new form of fascism” that denied their very being. The Belarusian opposition was fighting it with covert action. It was attempting to drive the army away from its subservience to Lukashenko and Putin. In Belarus, as in so many other countries, hope depended on a Ukrainian victory offering the “chance to get out of Russian sphere of influence”.
Well, we’ve learned better than to be optimists in the years since the fin de siècle’s silly season. We expect brute power to prevail now. The Russian armed forces are undoubtedly corrupt and inept. But you can see the empire winning, as it has always won, by throwing recruits into battle without a thought for their lives and terrorising civilians. For its part, western intelligence is not predicting a swift Ukrainian victory but a hard, grinding war whose outcome is uncertain.
For all that, there is in the air, if not optimism, then a plausible question. What if the partial collapse of the Russian empire in the 1990s is followed by decisive defeat in the 2020s? What if the whole rotten structure falls?
The doctors released Mitskievich from hospital. He is now fighting in Ukraine in the Belarusian version of the International Brigades of the Spanish civil war. He is one of thousands of Belarusians who volunteered to join the Kastuś Kalinoŭski Battalion, named after the leader of an uprising against the Russian empire in 1863. The battalion has seen action in the battles around Irpin. One day, its members will return to Belarus with highly portable military skills. They will have questions of their own.
• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist