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Maria Kolesnikova: A heart for Belarus

Roman Goncharenko
September 27, 2021

Maria Kolesnikova smiled when she was sentenced to 11 years in prison — and formed a heart with her hands. The Belarusian opposition politician was hospitalized this week and is reportedly in intensive care.

Maria Kolesnikova, woman behind bars forms a heart with her hands.
Maria Kolesnikova smiles in court in September 2021Image: Ramil Nasibulin/BelTA pool photo/ AP/picture alliance

According to the press service of activist Viktor Babaryko, who is also in prison,Maria Kolesnikova is in a hospital in the Belarusian city of Gomel for unknown reasons.  The press statement says that the 40-year-old opposition politician, who was sentenced to 11 years in a penal colony last year, underwent surgery on Monday before being transferred to an intensive care unit.

Kolesnikova had originally chosen to stay in Belarus rather than go into exile in the wake of mass protests against President Alexander Lukashenko. Even behind bars, she has remained a leading figure of the opposition in Belarus.

On September 6, 2021, a court in Minsk sentenced her on charges including "extremism."  She remained defiant despite the harsh sentence, smiled into the cameras and contorted her handcuffed hands to form the shape of a heart, one of her trademark messages.

Some three weeks later, Kolesnikova was once again in the spotlight when the Council of Europe that she had been awarded that year's Vaclav Havel Prize for Human Rights. Her sister Tatiana Khomich accepted the €60,000 ($70,290) prize on her behalf at the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

Leading from the front

In the summer of 2020, Kolesnikova rose to become one of the most recognizable faces of the opposition movement that has accused President Alexander Lukashenko of rigging the August 9 election.

Maria Kolesnikova and Maksim Znak attend a hearing at the Minsk District Court, Belarus, with Kolesnikova making a heart symbol
Kolesnikova and her colleague, lawyer Maxim Znak (left) joined an opposition council after Lukashenko claimed victoryImage: Viktor Tolochko/SNA/imago images

She was always at the forefront of protests in the capital Minsk, always appeared to be in a good mood, laughing and smiling, almost as if her positivity would edge out the former Soviet republic's authoritarian ruler, who has been in power since 1994.

In an interview with DW before the election, Kolesnikova said it was always clear to her that she could be arrested at any time. "But, that doesn't stop me or scare me. That's because I know that changes that have begun in Belarusian society are inevitable."

One of the biggest challenges for Kolesnikova was her desire to mobilize citizens against Lukashenko without formally assuming a leadership position. She wanted to avoid arrest.

Unlike her fellow campaigners, including former presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouvskaya, Kolesnikova did not go into exile, although she too came under pressure to leave the country.  She was kidnapped by masked men, members of Belarusian security forces in September 2020 and taken to the border with Ukraine. But she tore up her passport and climbed out of the car, those with her when it happened later said. She wanted to stay in the country.

An indomitable spirit

Before the protests against Lukashenko began, only a few people knew the name of the professional flutist and cultural manager who had studied music in Minsk and in the German city of Stuttgart. She was involved in music projects and promoted artist exchanges between Belarus, Russia, Ukraine and Germany.

In an interview with DW, Martin Schüttler, a professor at the State University of Music and Performing Arts in Stuttgart, described Kolesnikova as an "incredibly strong personality." Schüttler was invited by Kolesnikova to a workshop with concerts in Minsk.

"She is unbelievably optimistic, hands-on, active and full of energy," he said. 

"She is almost unstoppable," Schüttler added, "no matter what she does."

Kolesnikova herself also enjoyed taking to the stage. She founded the lecture series "Music Lessons for Adults," and in 2017 spoke about Beethoven and Pussy Riot in an event she called "Music and Politics."

Kolesnikova's German colleague, Christine Fischer, director of the ECLAT festival, said she had always been a politician on the inside. Speaking to DW, Fischer recalled that the role of women was an issue that was especially important to Kolesnikova. "She organized women's performances in Minsk that served as the role model for society."

Kolesnikova, Fischer said, knew exactly what she wanted.

Backing an ex-banker against Lukashenko

Kolesnikova delved into politics when prominent banker Viktor Babariko made the shock announcement about his presidential candidacy in May 2020 — and asked his friend to join the campaign.

Babariko was the former top manager of Belgazprombank — the Belarusian branch of a bank belonging to Russian energy giant Gazprom — and a patron of the arts, whom Kolesnikova said she had met through her projects.

The unlikely candidate quickly gained support. But he was soon arrested for alleged economic crimes, along with his son who had managed his campaign. In July 2021, Babariko was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

She eventually joined forces with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who entered the race after her husband, a prominent video blogger, was also arrested and barred from running.

Together with others, Kolesnikova was involved in the Belarusian opposition's seven-member Coordination Council, which also included Nobel literature laureate Svetlana Alexievich.

After the disputed election, the committee was broken up, with most members being arrested or forced into exile. The entire committee was crushed — as was the opposition movement. These days, there are hardly any organized protests in the country.

This article was originally written in German. It was updated on November 30.