What do we see here?
All the photos above were taken at a protest rally in Minsk, Belarus on August 30, 2020. At the end of the previous protest rally on August 23, 2020 when the protesters were already dispersing, Lukashenko arrived at his residence by helicopter. After the videos of him riding in the helicopter were published online, the episode became a target of numerous jokes.
Photo 1 (personal collection) depicts a poster saying “A magician will suddenly come by in a blue helicopter, and will show the movies for free”. These are the lines from a popular children’s song. The speech bubble that comes out of the helicopter reads “Lower, lower”. These were the words that Lukashenko was saying to the pilot while riding the helicopter.
The poster in photo 2 reads “There’s no sadder story than an old man in a bulletproof vest”. This also rhymes, and the first line is a Russian translation of a famous Shakespearian line from “Romeo and Juliet”: “For never was a story of more woe than [this of Juliet and her Romeo]”. Lukashenko is often referred to as “ded” (meaning “old man”, “granddad”) by the protesters. The mention of a bulletproof vest is another allusion to Lukashenko’s helicopter flight as he was wearing a bulletproof vest during the flight.
In photo 3 the person holding the poster is dressed as a rat, which is also a reference to one of Lukashenko’s phrases during his helicopter ride: he said that the protesters “ran away like rats”. The poster reads “Sasha, we have nowhere to run! I/We are at home”.
What public issue is addressed here?
The presidential elections that took place on August 9, 2020 in Belarus resulted in massive falsifications and the police brutality that was especially striking during the first days of post-election protests. From August 16 until early December 2020 Belarusians organised mass-scale peaceful protest rallies every Sunday, demanding that Alexander Lukashenko (Belarusian former president who was announced the winner of the elections and illegitimately remained as head of state) resign, political prisoners be released and that new democratic elections be held.
What does humour do?
The creativity and the frequent use of humour became the defining features of Belarusian peaceful protests in 2020. By replying to Lukashenko’s and his government’s deadly serious rhetoric with jokes, humorous puns and funny costumes the protesters underscored the contrast between the old patriarchal and authoritarian system that they want to get rid of and themselves – creative, flexible and ready to turn any slip of the government to their (moral) advantage. Humour has become dominant in the public sphere; protesters’ humorous slogans were not only circulating in oral and online communication, but were picked up by the major national media outlets. Belarusian protests have shown that humour can be an important aspect of self-identification and a marker of belonging to a large social group that extends beyond demographic, professional or class boundaries.