The Lost Generation
May 1, 2024

The Lost Generation

This blog is a reflection by a Belarusian youth, based on a conversation with her teacher who is also from Belarus, but is now in exile in Italy.

Choice. The possibility of choice makes a human a person. You take a step – and your life changes. Whether the resulting changes are good or bad, is entirely up to you. The possibility of choice, at least the belief in the possibility of choice, is almost a vital necessity for any intelligent person. Everyone should have the right to decide their own path and the path of their society. But for many people around the world, this is an unattainable privilege.

I was eight when I learned what elections were. More precisely, when I learned what elections in my country were. Every hour on TV, ‘breaking news’ was shown, where people in uniform – not the kind that police officers wore on the streets – detained criminals who were trying to break the windows of some very important building in the capital city. ‘What is going on?’ I asked, ‘These are elections’ they told me. ‘Are these criminals?’ – ‘No. These are people.’

When I was 13, there was no such news. I woke up in the morning and asked my parents who won. ‘Dear, we thought you were a smart girl. Well, who do you think won?’ At that time, I had already started to take part in volunteer civic initiatives in my city, and to develop a sense of social responsibility. And at the very moment, when I was told that a ‘smart’ girl should know the results of the elections in advance, my inner voice asked the logical question: ‘Why?’ I looked at the adults around me and did not understand how it was possible to treat the world around us in such a simplified way. I was a child, I could not take part in elections, or protest, or demand justice. And still I was trying to find a way to do something useful for society. ‘But you, adults,’ I reasoned, ‘You have the whole world in your hands, you don’t want to take advantage of this opportunity? What is wrong with you? Why?’

I decided that I must find out exactly how and why people – intelligent, educated adults – came to such a state of mind. We could talk for hours about very complex subjects, political theory, or history, but when we got to questions about real activism, I received sad smiles and phrases like ‘But you understand everything anyway.’ This phrase has over time become a household expression in my country, a confession of powerlessness, of the absence of even the very possibility of fighting for one’s own voice. ‘You understand’ – there is no chance, ‘you understand’ – this is not discussed, ‘you understand’ – take care of yourself and don’t get involved in politics, everything was decided a long time ago, and we can’t do anything.

No, I don’t understand. It seemed that I would never understand. I was 18, surrounded by a lot of young, talented, confident people who, like me, had faith and hope. We did not stay silent when it was necessary to answer loudly, we did not sit at home while others showed the world that we had a voice. We were together and everything seemed possible. The same adults were with us then as well, but the mysterious smile and familiar ‘you understand everything’ in their eyes, did not disappear even in the most beautiful and powerful moments. It irritated me, even angered me. I quarrelled with my relatives, with teachers. ‘You are young, you do not know life,’ we heard them say. No, they didn’t stop us, they didn’t just leave us alone with the master thief’s army. They worried about us, tried to protect us as best they could, as they knew how. And we, in turn, obsessed over the ideals of democracy, which we read about in books and we watched movies, and believed in the inevitable victory of good over evil.

I am 22 now. I left my country, and I’m sometimes asked why, and at these moments I realise with horror that the same phrase, full of disappointment and pain ‘Well, you understand everything yourself’ is coming out of my mouth.

I can’t say that I lost hope. My friends helped me, I discovered the wonderful network of the Young European Ambassadors. I am lucky. But I keep thinking about those who stayed. The one who clears his mobile phone every day in case his browser history is found to contain unacceptable search queries. The one who checks whether his Instagram followers have appeared on the list of extremist material, or who reviews his picture gallery for the thousandth time, just in case, God forbid, he leaves incriminating pictures of people dressed in white with flowers in their hands. For those who watch TV series filmed in a wonderful southern country, where they once went in the summer, and where their relatives live, at home with the sound low. Those who use VPNs to download books by authors who write about us in their native language, from somewhere in that wonderful world of democracy, which our teachers told us about quietly and quickly, in social studies lessons and always with the caveat, ‘but you understand everything’.

Any moment can become decisive. We got our independence in Belarus more than 30 years ago. It seemed then that everything was possible. Our own national language, national symbols. Parliament. A real parliament. Elected parliament. And presidential elections. The first and only real elections in the history of my country. My teacher moved to Italy when Russia launched a full-scale invasion in Ukraine. I remember one day talking to her about my own upcoming move. At a certain point in the conversation she paused, then looked directly at me and said with a slightly trembling voice: ‘Forgive us. You, young people, forgive us. I’m sorry that we couldn’t give you a country that you won’t have to run from.’

She was also young then. She also read a lot and was highly educated. She and her friends also had a lot of discussions on eternal topics, and had intellectual conversations about politics, economics and history. But they decided not to take responsibility for what was happening. It seemed to them that they did not need to ask certain very down-to-earth questions. And that’s why, when, in 1994 my people made a fateful choice in favour of a populist, an ignorant person with ambitions on a global scale, the generation of my beloved teacher looked on. They believed that somehow it would end by itself, because in theory it could surely not exist for long, this clinging to simplistic ideas and empty speeches. But they did not take into account – just as we didn’t four years ago – that evil has no boundaries. It’s very difficult to win when you play by the rules yourself, and your opponent doesn’t care about them at all. That’s how they lost hope, that’s how we risk losing it. So, they lost the country.

Make a choice, take responsibility. We never know exactly what moment in history will be decisive. Even if it seems that one person cannot change anything. On the contrary: one person can change everything. One decision can change everything. So take advantage of the chance to choose, because it turned out to be a privilege. Take this step so you don’t have to apologise later.

Author: Belarussian YEA N.

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