Putin has unleashed a new anti-colonial struggle. This time, Moscow is the target | Nick Cohen

Hstory teeters on one edge. No one knows which direction this will go. Perhaps the Russian Empire, the last and most terrible of European empires, will fall. Or maybe it will absorb the blow and survive as it has survived and thrived since the 17th century. You’d be crazy to bet against. Eurasia’s graveyards are full of those who did.

And yet, the breathtaking heroism of the Ukrainian resistance and the mindless self-deception of the Putinist regime allow opponents of Russia, from Syria to Central Asia, and from Georgia to Moldova, to pose the most revolutionary question: “What if?

What if the empire fell? What if structures that have endured and enslaved for centuries could be torn down like the creaking trucks of a Russian munitions convoy?

Speaking to the men and women engaged in what is – if only the global left could see it – the great anti-colonial struggle of our time, you hear them go through the stages of revolutionary engagement. From peaceful protest to prison sentences to the realization that civil disobedience will never be enough.

Lives are changed as the stakes rise. Timur Mitskievich’s story echoes the anti-colonial protests of the 20th century. In 2020, he was a teenager in Minsk when the Belarusian dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, rigged the presidential election after he had crushed all protests against his regime since coming to power in 1994. The supporters of the candidate of the opposition Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya took to the streets in the biggest popular demonstrations in the history of Belarus.

The paradox of civil disobedience is that nonviolent tactics only work against regimes that, however oppressive the protesters think they are, are not so oppressive that they cannot be persuaded to change. Despite all their crimes and prejudices, the British imperial authorities in India in the 1940s and the American government in the 1960s had to listen to Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Lukashenko did not listen to his opponents. He terrorized them. He didn’t have to worry about bad publicity when he controlled the media. Nor does he need to worry about the reaction of the “international community” after Vladimir Putin declared that he maintain the dictator in power if he renounced what little remained of the independence of Belarus. His country once again became a Russian colony, which it had been almost continuously since the Russian Empire took control of it in 1795.

Mitskyevich, 17 years old joined the protests. The police beat him so badly that the doctors put him in an artificial coma. While he was away, his mother died, leaving nine children orphans.

Peaceful disobedience only works against regimes capable of feeling shame and the Belarusian and Russian regimes have no shame.

Belarus, like Ukraine before 2014, is a country Westerners hardly thought of. If its name fits today, it is as Russia’s base for its failed assault on kyiv. In the 1990s, the triumph of liberal democracy was assumed to be so inevitable that we called Belarus “Europe’s last dictatorship”. Look at his quirkiness, we said. He still clung to Soviet-style rule, a mistake that history would surely correct as the ideals of free markets and free societies advanced.

Rather than being an anachronism, Belarus was a model for the future. As it has become a Russian client state, Russia has become an oversized Belarus, as Putin stripped the limited freedoms he granted Russian citizens in the 2000s and aped Lukashenko’s dictatorship.

For the Belarusian opposition in exile, Ukraine’s war is their war and a Ukrainian victory would open the prospect of radical change in the territories intimidated and controlled by Russia. The Ukrainian war has shown clearly, if need be, how Russian nationalists regard the Eastern Slavs with the impertinence to reject them. Russian official media Explain that Ukrainians (and by extension) Belarusians were actually Russians. If they rejected Russian identity and said they had their own cultures and histories that existed before the Russian Empire, they were only proving that they were “Nazis”. No form of human life could be inferior. The Russian state had a duty to kill them or send them to labor camps; take away their children 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 a clandestine war rather than that of a politician trying to broker a settlement. Lukashenko’s regime was the “collaborationist state”. The militants who sabotaged the Belarusian railway lines, to prevent Russian troops and armor from reaching Ukraine, were “resistance cells”.

Even in Soviet times, Moscow “recognizes the existence of Belarusian and Ukrainian nations,” Viačorka said. Putin brought a “new form of fascism” that denied their very being. The Belarusian opposition was fighting it with secret actions. He was trying to drive the army out of its submission to Lukashenko and Putin. In Belarus, as in so many other countries, hope rested on a Ukrainian victory offering “the chance to get out of the Russian sphere of influence”.

Well, we’ve learned better than to be optimistic in the years since the silly turn-of-the-century season. We expect raw power to prevail now. The Russian armed forces are undoubtedly corrupt and incompetent. But you can see the empire winning, as it always has, by throwing recruits into battle without a care for their lives and terrorizing civilians. For their part, Western intelligence services do not predict a quick Ukrainian victory, but a hard and bitter war whose outcome is uncertain.

However, there is in the air, if not optimism, then a plausible question. What if the partial collapse of the Russian empire in the 1990s was followed by a decisive defeat in the 2020s? What if the whole rotten structure fell?

Doctors released Mitskievich from the hospital. He now fights 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 took part in the battles around Irpin. One day, its members will return to Belarus with highly transferable military skills. They will have their own questions.

Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist

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