On Sunday morning, Nexta—the word means “somebody”—posted a red and white invitation to the march. “Ring the doorbells of your neighbors, call your friends and relatives, write to your colleagues,” the message instructed them: “We are going EXCLUSIVELY peacefully to the center of town to hold the authorities to account.” The invitation also contained a list of demands: the immediate freeing of political prisoners, the resignation of Lukasheno, the indictment of those responsible for a shocking series of political murders.
People went to the Minsk march, and to dozens of smaller marches across the country, because they saw that message. On subsequent days, many went on strike because they saw another message on that channel and on channels like it. Over the past 10 days, people all across Belarus have marched, protested, carried red and white flags and banners, and gathered at factories and outside prisons because they trust what they read on Nexta. They trust Nexta even though Sviatlou is only 22 years old, even though he is an amateur blogger, and even though he is outside the country.
Or to put it more accurately, they trust Nexta because Sviatlou is only 22, and because he is an amateur who lives outside the country. In Belarus, the government is a kind of presidential monarchy with no checks, no balances, and no rule of law. State media are grotesquely biased: Memo98, a media-monitoring group, reckons that Belarus state television devoted 97 percent of all political news programming to Lukashenko in May and June, with only 30 seconds devoted to opposition presidential candidates. Political leaders in Belarus are routinely repressed, and their voices are muffled: Tsikhanouskaya was running for president because her husband, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, was arrested before he could start his own presidential campaign. Other candidates and politicians were also arrested, along with their staff. Some are still in prison. Human-rights groups have evidence of torture.
They don’t trust the government, they can’t hear the opposition—but more than 2 million people subscribe to the Nexta Live channel, and hundreds of thousands more follow Sviatlou on YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter, as well as his other Telegram channels, because they trust him. And no wonder: He shows them pictures of people like themselves. He shows them videos of places they recognize. His public persona is optimistic, idealistic, and patriotic. In photographs, he is usually smiling. Plus, he is in Poland, a place where police can’t get the data on his telephone, so it is safe to read what he writes and to send him information.
Indeed, if Belarus is run by people who look like they belong in a movie about Cold War thugs, Sviatlou looks like your next-door neighbor, or rather your next-door neighbor’s clever son. I met him this week in Warsaw, and he was wearing sneakers, shorts, and a Nexta T-shirt. The graduate of an unusual, underground, countercultural school in Minsk—it was set up after the last Belarusian-language high school in the country was shut down—he is fluent in Polish as well as Russian. He was soft-spoken and a little nervous, partly, I am guessing, because he doesn’t do many interviews, partly because he really wanted to get back to work, and partly because on that particular day, the building where he does that work, the Białoruski Dom—the “Belarus House,” set up in Warsaw a decade ago, after a previous generation of political dissidents went into exile—had just received a series of bomb threats. While we were talking, Polish police were chatting in the hallway just outside.