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Belarus: Prominent Lukashenko-critical artist dies in jail

Tatsiana Harhalyk
July 13, 2023

Ales Pushkin died under "unexplained circumstances" while serving a jail sentence. The Belarusian artist was considered a political prisoner of the Lukashenko regime.

Black and white photo of Ales Pushkin wearing beret in front of snowy background
Belarusian artist and regime critic Ales Pushkin had been in prison since March 2021Image: privat

Ales Pushkin, an artist and political prisoner from Belarus, died in the intensive care unit under "unexplained circumstances," his wife Janina Demuch announced on Tuesday. Pushkin was serving a five-year sentence in prison No. 1 in the small city of Grodno in western Belarus.

Pushkin had an ulcer and did not receive timely medical treatment, independent Belarusian media reported, citing unnamed sources informed on the matter. He was arrested in March 2021 and, a year later, sentenced for desecrating state symbols and inciting hatred.

The reason? Pushkin had painted a portrait of Yevgeny Shikhar, the leader of the Belarusian anti-Soviet underground after World War II, and shown it at an exhibition.

A mural depicting a man wearing a hat
'Ales Pushkin was the embodiment of the indomitable spirit of the Belarusian people,' wrote exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya Image: Paulyuk Bykowski

Belarusian investigators considered this to be "rehabilitation of Nazism," even though he created the painting back in 2014 and it had previously been displayed in Belarus and Russia.

Prison conditions tightened in late 2022

The terms of Pushkin's incarceration were tightened in November 2022. Not long after, he was transferred from prison No. 22 in   Ivatsevichy in the Brest region to Grodno. Pushkin had a hard time from the beginning, said Aliaksandr Ivulin, a journalist and former political prisoner who was in the same jail as Pushkin.

He was "too friendly," Ivulin said, even to the prison guards, who took away his notes and drawings without giving him a reason.

A pencil drawing of the head of a man
Pushkin made many drawings in prison, including this self-portraitImage: Ales Puschkin

Once moved to prison No. 1, his exchange of letters with the Belarusian artist Lera Lasuk ended, DW has learned. After that, Pushkin was only allowed to write to his family. From the new prison, he sent drawings and described his daily life and his cellmates. He made sketches of larger works that he wanted to complete once he was released.

"We had some disagreements, but we were joined by our love of art and of Belarus. I value him for his bright, iconic pieces, for his courage and for standing up for his principles," said Lasuk.

A pile of manure for Lukashenko

Pushkin was a non-conformist painter, theatermaker, performer and curator. He staged one of his first performance pieces during Soviet rule in Belarus in 1989. And not on any day: He chose the 71st anniversary of the Belarusian People's Republic. The state's existence was proclaimed on March 25, 1918, under German protectorate, but ceased to exist shortly after when part of its territory was won by the Polish armed forces and the other part by the Soviet Red Army in the Polish-Soviet War of 1919 to 1921.

Pushkin began the anniversary with a march through Independence Avenue in Minsk, followed by about a hundred supporters carrying a paper stork and 71 white balloons. Pushkin and 35 other people were arrested, and the artist received a two-year suspended sentence.

Lukashenko sits in front of curtains and flags
Lukashenko has been in power in Belarus since 1994Image: ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images

Pushkin's most famous performance was "Dung for the President" in July 1999. On the fifth anniversary of Alexander Lukashenko's ascent to power, the artist transported a pile of manure to the presidential administration in Minsk, threw worthless ruble notes on top and added the country's constitution plus a portrait of the ruler for good measure. Then he stabbed everything with a pitchfork.

For this stunt, the artist was also given a two-year suspended sentence. Pushkin reenacted the performance at an exhibition in Kyiv on March 25, 2021. This appears to have prompted Belarusian authorities to charge him with "desecration of state symbols."

Pushkin 'dreamed of a free and democratic Belarus'

Pushkin also worked on the restoration of historical buildings and on church frescoes. His most important work, in his view, was the decoration of the new church of his home village Bobr, near Minsk.

In one of the frescoes, Pushkin depicted Lukashenko and the then-metropolitan (a leadership position in some Orthodox churches) of the unrecognized Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Filaret, among sinners, surrounded by forces of the Belarusian special police unit OMON. The fresco was later painted over.

Rights organizations in Belarus, like Viasna, the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights and Legal Initiative, considered Pushkin a political prisoner. The leader of the Belarusian democratic opposition movement, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who lives in exile in Lithuania, has blamed the artist's death on Lukashenko.

"Ales Pushkin was the embodiment of the indomitable spirit of the Belarusian people. He died as a political prisoner of the regime, and the responsibility lies with his jailor, Lukashenka & his cronies," she wrote on Twitter, using another spelling of the president's name.

"Ales used his art to fight for freedom and build a new Belarus without tyranny," she added. "He dreamed of a free and democratic Belarus. Now we must continue his work and make his dream come true."

This article was first published in German.

Tatsiana Harhalyk Author