On June 15, 2022, the court sentenced Aksana to 2.5 years of freedom restriction with referral to an open-type correctional facility for her participation in one of the protests in August 2020. After the trial the Editor-in-chief of Novy Chas was released in the courtroom. She will remain on her own recognizance until she is sent to serve her sentence.
In August 2022, the media manager was forced to leave Belarus. On October 28, 2022, the Belarus Ministry of Internal Affairs included her in the list of persons involved in extremist activities.
This interview with Aksana Kolb was recorded at the end of 2021. It is about her 25 years in Belarusian independent journalism, about staying positive in the ‘dark’, the freedom of choice and happiness.
I became an independent journalist in 1996. And none of the years since then have been easy. Each year had its own difficulties, specifics, its own repressions. There have been questionings, several episodes of seizure of equipment… A newspaper was closed: after the 2006 election campaign, independent newspaper Zgoda was closed for alleged extremism and incitement of ethnic hatred. All these things happened back then, so 2021 was of no surprise for me. The only difference was the scale of repressions—it has never been such a massive phenomenon as it is now.
What was really hard for me in 2020 and 2021 was to support the team. People are the main thing I have. We faced a huge flow of events, had to work to the point of exhaustion. And it didn’t stop in a month or two. So when we realised we wouldn’t be able to have a break, it was a major psychological, moral challenge. One of my tasks is to support people. But how can I do this when I myself am exhausted? There were tense, emotional situations at the office which I had to resolve. First of all inside myself, to find a way to help others.
I try my best in talking to people. It seems logical and that’s how it should be. In order to survive all this, one has to decide what to do in different situations. I’ve learned that during my 25 years in the Belarusian independent journalism—25 years under constant stress. So I’ve come up with a formula: always have different options worked out.
In case they come to me with a search I’d do this and that. And if this happens, I’ll do this and that. This doesn’t mean I would act exactly like that eventually, but having a scenario prepared gives certainty, helps fight the uncertainty. For it is always the uncertainty that frightens and creates stress. And once you have even a bit of certainty, it feels better.
We have gathered with the whole team several times and discussed what to do: in the summer 2020 and after the repressions against the media spiked with another wave of searches and detainments. Each and every one made a decision for themselves about what to do in case of actual threat to safety through imprisonment or the need to flee. I tried to make this choice easier for everyone.
I have made a decision for myself that I will not leave even though I have such an opportunity. It’s not because I am some kind of a hero or a superwoman but because I can’t say I’d do better outside Belarus than if I stay here. Even if I get imprisoned.
Another thing important for me—and this might sound a bit idyllic—is our readers. The people who stay in the country. If I leave while they stay, it will feel like I’m betraying them. We have obtained a lot of readers who believed us. Many of them still come to our editorial office despite the paper version is no longer in print. They come to talk, to get things off their chests, they come for moral support. I can’t leave these people.
I remember my acquaintance and I discussing that we would be the last ones to leave Belarus and would turn the lights off at the airport. On the other hand, I keep thinking: if everyone leaves, who will stay here to keep Belarus a place to return to?
One can often hear, ‘I can do more if I’m free.’ I agree. Each person is unique, as is their contribution. Someone can do more here, someone there. But I recall this example: what would have happened to India, should all of its leaders have left instead of getting imprisoned?
I have no ego complex and I don’t think it would be some sign, if I got arrested, and something would change. I only think that I wouldn’t be able to do more from outside Belarus.
We have a great team that would do great even without me. I realised it several years ago and stopped interfering and controlling. Everyone at our editorial office thinks alike. And it has been that way forever. Those who couldn’t fit into our paradigm left. For us, it is rather a way of life than work, which is very valuable. And I’m very grateful to my team.
Our editorial office is practically our family. It becomes even more obvious at turning points when your circle gets expanded through the people you didn’t know before and shrinks at the same time through those you thought you knew for many years but it turned out differently.
This is what happened in 1996, at a similar turning point. Everyone seemed to be such democrats in the early 1990s, it seemed you had so many fellow thinkers, friends. And then the year 1996 came and put everything into place, showed who was who. The division between people we see now appeared back then.
Maybe this was the reason for our team to unite. We feel comfortable with each other. There was a moment, though, when everyone felt tense but now they try to support each other, talk to each other, do something to help.
Another source of support is meeting our readers, talking to them. These meetings were more common while the paper version was still in print but people still write to us, call us, come visit. These are people of different ages, professions and interests. Some ask how they can help us. Some want to talk. Some come to get contacts of the families of political prisoners. We have a whole cycle of articles about the families of political prisoners. Our readers come to our office to contact these families to help them in some way.
Meeting the relatives of the political prisoners is very helpful. Not all of them, but many. It is a great support for me, personally. And according to the relatives of the political prisoners, the feeling is mutual. It is a huge energy exchange!
When our paper was removed from Soyuzpechat kiosks and we started to file subscriptions through our office, it was a positive moment, too. We had a chance to meet our readers in person. It was certainly hard physically. We had to meet hundreds of people per month: on the phone, via messengers, email and post. But it was important both for us and for our subscribers. Each felt their importance, that they are doing something good and helpful, contributing to the common cause.
Our correspondence with the political prisoners was very valuable. When you discover they read the paper all together in the cell and expect each new issue… It’s indescribable.
I think it was for the first time in all these years that we felt how important our work is. It gives a good energy and a great impulse to carry on.
I often talk to my colleagues from other editions and I can see it is the most difficult for those who have no direct contact with their readers. When one reads only the news—which is mostly negative now—their environment shrinks down to this negativity. It is extremely hard to get out of it.
But when in addition to reading the news you also meet and talk to people you can see everything is not that ‘dark and scary’. Because here they are, real people who keep doing things, believing in something and understanding there are things they can affect. This changes your view of the world.
True, arrests didn’t stop. But talking to people I can see this pressure didn’t frighten them, but made them angry. I see a lot of such examples. Also true that there are those who got scared and don’t want to do anything at all. But the latter are the minority. I’m not talking only about our readers now, I see it in my district, in my city. Nothing is lost.
I’d like to recall the year 2010. Because it was actually a positive year despite the wave of repressions, a thousand political prisoners. It was a positive year because it showed people’s solidarity. The BPF office [Belarusian Popular Front, a social and political movement] could not contain all the things people brought for the political prisoners. Taxi services were prohibited from taking orders to go to the pre-trial detention centre in Akrestsina Street so the taxi drivers left their personal phone numbers and said, ‘Call us we will take people there free of charge.’ I saw a positive thing in that, people were starting to wake up.
Sooner or later all this resulted in the events of 2020 and the things we keep seeing now. What changed dramatically is how people treat each other, how they try to help. It applies both to those who stayed in the country and to those who fled. Belarusians abroad have never lived by Belarus’ agenda, have never been so united and supportive for each other.
Maybe it’s because I’m a historian that I see a trend, not small things. No doubt, nothing good is happening in the country on a global scale, but the trend is still positive. If they stopped arresting people for stickers, reposts and things like that, if they started to release people in hundreds, not individually, this would probably make me think about leaving. Because all that would mean the authorities came at peace understanding they prevailed, they are in power. Then it would be for long.
But while the things that happen in Belarus are happening I won’t leave because I know: I will outlive this regime.
In February 2021, we introduced a vacuum gym machine to our office. It has helped a lot in shaking off the stress: thirty minutes of exercise clears the head. It’s not accidental that all the psychologists recommend increasing physical activity when under stress. Our gym machine helped both the body and mind.
Men at our office tried to exercise with the machine but could not handle it (laughs). They had one attempt but then avoided to continue under various pretenses. By the way, that machine gives a nice psychological exercise: you have to complete a session. During the first ten minutes you’re thinking, ‘No, I can’t do it any more,’ then, ‘Alright, I’ll try another ten minutes’ and then, finally, ‘Well, I’ve held on for twenty minutes, I can hold on for the last ten.’
The key is to overcome yourself and then you won’t stop halfway through. It is probably my life motto, too, to carry on by overcoming. Any obstacles, any difficulties only make us better. Besides, I firmly believe that everything that happens in this life is for the best. Even if we can’t see it at first.
So no matter how badly I wanted everything to change in August 2020, everything is going as it should be. For both a person and the society need to earn the change. Only then would it be valuable. It’s not very pleasant and might even be bad from a certain point of view but the things many of us preferred not to see or hear during all these years should sooner or later result in these people facing it and not being able to avoid. This is what makes me believe in the better. And whatever anyone says, there are more good things in life than bad ones.
What has always saved me, kept me going on and gave me strength is that I’ve been doing the very thing I love the most throughout my whole professional life. I’ve been working and still work with the people I like in the way I like. I’ve never had to make a choice of no return. There has always been and still is the freedom of choice and it makes life easier.
I have the most valuable thing: people around me whom I like and who—I hope—like me as a person as well, with whom I feel very comfortable and I believe these people won’t betray me.
Maybe it’s a luxury to be able to do what you like, to communicate with people you like but this luxury compensates for some material comforts of lesser significance. It is difficult when you have no money. But having money won’t guarantee you happiness. So I can say I’m happy: I’ve never betrayed myself, I’m surrounded by beautiful people and I do what people need with the help from the people around me.
My personal solution for fighting the ‘darkness’ is to see something positive in everything. My husband and I have a straw house, it’s built of straw blocks. It has been my dream for a long time to build an eco-friendly house outside the city. We’ve been building it for several years, decorating. I hope we’ll be able to move in soon. Now we only go there for the weekends, which also helps a lot. A couple of days in the countryside, physical activity and work, a forest, picturesque nature—all these support, relieve stress and clear the head.
Another solution for a good mood is dogs. Cats are also wonderful but only dogs are able to support us in the way they do. They have so much unconditional love. They help and relax us so well! I have four dogs and they are always happy to see me. They meet me after work with such joy. Pet them, scratch behind their ears… such emotions! You feel better immediately (smiles).
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