Always Wanted Your Bravery Tested? Here’s The Ultimate Test

The dictatorship in Belarus is collapsing. It’s done by heroic acts of people for whom bravery wasn’t even a choice.

Freedom Way, Lithuania — Belarus (photos taken in Vilnius)

What’s a life of a dictatorship?

It often has its golden years, the years of what appears as total control, its “good old days”, something to be romanticised by its supporters later on. Until things stagnate, until it’s losing its grip, and — it’s never a good time for this! — people take it to the streets. The regime is in danger; the regime resists. It might as well just give it one last kick, show its military might, try to regain that precious, now seemingly fragile, control. “The military, the media, the workers: are you still with us?” the dictatorship seems to ask. Maybe it’s not the end? Maybe it’s a new beginning?

In real life, that last kick of a dictatorship — unsurprisingly — are protesters shot at with live bullets. Screams heard coming out of police vans. Torture in detention centres.

After 26 years of Lukashenko’s rule, this is how a dictatorship is going down in Belarus. We have mass protests, strikes, people burning their military uniforms, and other expressions of resistance that all come under the same umbrella: the bravery of people who were never asked to be brave.

To lock yourself at home or to join the protests, knowing you might get arrested, experience physical pain, or see your loved ones experience it. If you don’t go out, there will be no risk of inhaling tear gas or losing an eye to a rubber bullet. And this is not a hypothetical situation to test your values, a thought experiment to see how strong your morals [you claim] are.

This is the incredible bravery of everyday politics that makes the politics of every bravery.

Freedom Way, Vilnius (August 23, 2020)

Having been too young to actively participate in the movement that broke down the Soviet Union, I would find the protagonist of Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum extremely relatable. To be more specific, it’s his struggle with the feeling of cowardice. Not having lived through times where he would have had an opportunity to join the resistance movement, he contemplates on the topic and the opportunities to be brave:

“<…> Granted, I was either too early or too late for all the great Opportunities, but that was the fault of my birth date. I would have liked to be in that field of bullets, shooting, even at the price of hitting Granny. But I was absent because of age, not because of cowardice. <…> Does it make sense to choose the wrong Opportunity just to convince yourself that you would have chosen the right one — had you had the Opportunity? I wonder how many of those who opt for fighting today do it for that reason. But a contrived Opportunity is not the right Opportunity.”

He adds, “You have to seize Opportunity instinctively, without knowing at the time that it is the Opportunity. Is it possible that I really did seize it once, without knowing? How can you feel like a coward because you were born in the wrong decade? The answer: You feel like a coward because once you were a coward.”

I do feel like a coward often and honestly don’t know if, when presented with the Opportunity, I would prove my courage to myself. Would I have joined the underground resistance movement, the Lithuanian guerrillas, who were fighting the Soviet Union in the 1940s and 1950s? I don’t know. Would I have marched with other women to get our suffrage a hundred years ago, knowing I could be arrested? Can’t say. If I had been a slave being shipped to the Americas, would I have participated in a mutiny? I wish I could say ‘of course’.

“You feel like a coward because once you were a coward.”

The people of Belarus didn’t ask for this Opportunity to be Brave, but here they have it. They have joined an amazing company of other people who have fought colonial regimes, racist power structures, and other types of oppression. When I look at them, I feel like I, too, might have that bravery in me.

There is another quote by Umberto Eco: “The real hero is always a hero by mistake; he dreams of being an honest coward like everybody else.”

What’s a death of a dictatorship?

I hope it’s what we’re seeing in Belarus now.

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