This story is part of a series, Moral Courage, exploring the dangers journalists face around the world. Learn more below.
Pause for a moment and reflect on the following situation which is playing out as you read these words. A 48-year-old single mother keeps a small suitcase packed and constantly at the ready. It contains a few basic toiletries and change of clothing. She will need it when the KGB agents knock on her door and she is taken off to prison. She has one child, a 15-year-old son. The boy has two grandparents. They are aware of their daughter’s precarious situation. They fear for her. When the time comes, they will do what they can for their grandson, but they are elderly.
This family trauma is a throwback to Stalinist times, but Stalin has been dead for 68 years and the Soviet empire he spawned crumbled 30 years back. The winds of change may have blown across the Ural Mountains up through the Baltics and swept the Russian steppes, but they have done so unevenly – and when it comes to Belarus, they have petered out. The woman with the packed valise is journalist Larysa Shchyrakova. This is how she lives under the dictatorship of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko.
The plight of Belarusian journalists was dramatically illustrated on May 23, when a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius travelling over Belarusian airspace was forced to land in the capital, Minsk, because of a bogus bomb scare. On board was Roman Protasevich, a 26-year-old Belarusian journalist living in exile in Lithuania, whose reportage critical of the Lukashenko regime had angered the dictator. Removed from the plane by Belarusian security forces, Mr. Protasevich soon appeared on state television offering a mea culpa. Seen alongside this flagrant act of air piracy and kidnapping, it’s understandable why Ms. Shchyrakova has her overnight bag packed.
Larysa Shchyrakova is not a journalist by training. She studied history at Francisk Skorina Gomel State University, focusing on Belarusian history between the two world wars. After graduating, she began working as a secondary-school teacher. She was in her mid-30s, divorced and raising her then three-year-old son, when a friend asked if she would like to join Belsat TV, the only independent Belarusian TV station.
With headquarters in Warsaw, the company’s mission statement is to give Belarusians access to independent news on the situation in their country. When Belsat was founded in 2007, Mr. Lukashenko was one year into his third term and his rule was becoming increasingly dictatorial. He reportedly referred to the new station as “stupid and uncongenial,” and his administration refused to register it as a foreign news agency.
Bored with her work as a teacher, Ms. Shchyrakova took up her friend’s offer and switched careers. Unlike her previous job, the new role had no fixed curriculum that she had to follow year after year. Now there were new stories every day, something different to engage her attention.
From the very beginning of her career, she saw journalism as a way of helping her fellow citizens by keeping them informed of events within their country. To do so, she was given a broad portfolio to cover that included politics, corruption, culture and social affairs. At the time, government repression in Belarus was not as extreme as it is today, but democracy was already under siege. Mr. Lukashenko would go on to claim victory in three more elections in 2010, 2015 and 2020 – the last of which was marred by widespread election fraud, the brutal suppression of mass protests and the forced exile to Lithuania of the country’s main opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
With civil liberties progressively eroding, it became clear to Ms. Shchyrakova that her fellow citizens were being left completely unprotected by the law. “Sometimes the only hope for them is an article in the paper or a reference to them on television,” she said. This realization continues to motivate her work, aligning her journalism with social justice.
As Louis Pasteur observed, fortune favours the prepared mind. Ms. Shchyrakova did not arrive at this juncture in her life through happenstance alone. To be sure, the repressive regime of Mr. Lukashenko created the societal pressures that led to citizens resisting his diktats, but Ms. Shchyrakova’s activism predates the coming of the Belarusian strongman. When perestroika began in the 1980s, she was a teenager. Suddenly, there was this “wave of information about the terrible Soviet past,” she recalled. She could now read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn openly. It was, as she put it, a “breath of freedom.” Despite the hardships induced by an economy that was being forced to change rapidly, resulting in empty supermarket shelves and people queueing in long lines for basic commodities, she remembers this period fondly: “These were fantastic times.”
When she was 20, Ms. Shchyrakova joined Talaka, a youth NGO that promoted the Belarusian language and culture. During the decades of Russian occupation, a nationalistic apartheid of sorts had taken root. Russian became the lingua franca, dominating the cultural and intellectual landscape in Belarus. Only “ignorant peasants from the countryside were thought to speak Belarusian,” she said. Talaka was formed to counteract this cultural imperialism. In an act of defiance, Ms. Shchyrakova made a point of speaking Belarusian everywhere, even though the authorities regarded those who did so with suspicion. A few weeks before I interviewed Ms. Shchyrakova, Talaka was “liquidated,” to use Ms. Shchyrakova’s term, joining over 45 NGOs accused of being a fifth column and shut down by the Lukashenko regime. The absurdity of an organization promoting Belarusian culture being viewed as a threat to the country itself underscores the Kafkaesque logic that underpins Mr. Lukashenko’s rule.
Ms. Shchyrakova struggled at first with aspects of her new career. Certain challenges, such as learning to use cameras, were quickly overcome – whereas others, such as adapting to continual government harassment, have remained perennially taxing.
Belsat has repeatedly been denied accreditation by the Lukashenko regime. Without it, the media group is not considered a legal entity – which leaves it, and Ms. Shchyrakova, open to prosecution. Since 2016, she has been in court more than 40 times, fined each time for working without accreditation. In 2017, she was threatened with having her son taken away from her because she was being detained so often.
The emotional blackmail did not end there. The State Security Committee, which is still known as the KGB in Belarus, created a website with the express purpose of exposing the private lives of journalists considered a threat to the state. Ms. Shchyrakova’s telephone calls have been monitored, her computer hacked and e-mails with details of her personal life sent to her parents and neighbours and also made public. Having her private life exposed in this way has inevitably affected her relationships. She has coped with this by learning to ignore the opinion of others. “If you cannot develop this immunity, you have to leave journalism.”
Some forms of persecution are, however, harder to ignore. Her home has been searched twice over the past year. The searches happened early in the morning, rousing her and her son from sleep. Since then, she finds herself waking up at the same time every morning anticipating another search, her internal alarm matching the time the KGB came calling. “I am like Pavlov’s dog,” she said, an insightful reference to her behavioural response conditioned by fear. “I am eternally waiting for arrest.”
Her son also has been affected by this harassment. He was 5 when he witnessed the first KGB search of his home, unknown men going through all their possessions. He was 14 when he saw his mother being arrested for the first time. Witnessing her being detained again earlier this year rekindled earlier anxieties, leaving him hypervigilant.
He now checks up on her whereabouts, needing to know where she is. From time to time, Ms. Shchyrakova sees him peering out of a window at home, looking for suspicious cars – a throwback to the “Black Marias,” evocative slang for the vehicles used by the secret police to cart off Soviet citizens to jail, or worse, during Stalin’s Great Terror.
The factors motivating Ms. Shchyrakova to continue her work, despite the harassment and toll it has taken on her and her family, are both principled and practical. At her age, the prospect of fleeing Belarus with her son, leaving behind her family and friends, and being forced to live with meagre financial resources in a cheap rental or refugee shelter, is anathema. “What would I do career-wise, then, if journalism was not possible?” she asks herself. “Cleaner? Sales person?”
Furthermore, she sees her work as a “moral obligation.” The independent media in Belarus has been blocked. Many journalists have fled the country, and according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 10 are currently behind bars. “I have to stay,” she insisted. “I have to withstand the pressure.”
This ethical imperative goes to the very heart of her moral courage. Rushworth Kidder, founder of the Institute for Global Ethics, which studies shared moral values and how institutions and individuals can put them into practice, identified three core components to moral courage: principles, endurance and danger. Ms. Shchyrakova ticks all three boxes.
From the moment she joined Belsat, she has worked tirelessly to uphold one of the key foundations of a democratic society – namely, a free press. She has pursued this moral imperative for 12 dangerous years, during which the state, wielding its vast powers, has tried to intimidate her into submission. To endure, she has tapped into this wellspring of moral courage by framing her struggle in terms of the values it represents.
“I am an honest person. Those who arrest me are the criminals. There are many respectable people in prison now, and I will be one of them,” she said. “I am working for a better future – to lead a normal life and not to be afraid of the police, of persecution; to live in a normal democracy and be protected by the law.”
It is a rationale she has used as well with her mother, who has tried repeatedly to dissuade her daughter from journalism, imploring her to return to her work as a teacher – a safer bet in a police state.
Maternal disapproval of her work is yet one more stressor Ms. Shchyrakova has to cope with. She loves her mother, but views her as timid – attributing this lifelong trait to the circumstances of her mother’s birth on Christmas Eve during the Second World War, in a house occupied by soldiers from Hitler’s Wehrmacht.
While impossible to prove or refute, her theory does call to mind James Baldwin’s observation that people are trapped in history and history is trapped in them – an axiom perhaps underscored by the fate of Ms. Shchyrakova’s maternal great-grandfather. Rygor Kavalchuk was 40 years old when he was arrested in the late 1930s and never seen again. She believes he likely criticized the folly of collective farms, an opinion that was enough to sign a person’s death warrant in those times. In 2019, Ms. Shchyrakova started a campaign called “Killed and Forgotten” to remember and honour the many Belarusians killed by Stalin’s regime.
The gulags may be gone now, but the Lukashenko regime has not entirely discarded Stalin’s playbook. Seventy years after Rygor Kavalchuk’s disappearance, his great-granddaughter awaits her knock on the door – history redux. Her son anxiously waits with her. To prepare him for the moment, she has told him that she has committed no crime – even though she knows truth offers them no protection. She has asked him not to become depressed by her anticipated arrest, to remain calm and send her daily letters of support when she is in prison. And she tries to reassure him that she will come back to him – in a year or less, she surmises – and everything will ultimately be okay.
Her boy responds with disbelief and bemusement – with the innocence of youth, he simply cannot comprehend how a good person can be jailed for doing nothing wrong.
Moral Courage: About the series
Journalists are key to civil society, keeping readers, viewers and listeners informed of events both local and international. At times, this work entails exposure to grave danger. The factors that motivate journalists to continue this work despite these threats are many and complex, but central to it all is moral courage. Simply put, to some journalists, doing nothing in response to the egregious behaviour of corrupt or genocidal politicians, human traffickers and drug cartels is worse than the repercussions that come from exposing such crimes. These journalists are driven by a moral imperative to risk their own safety and psychological well-being for the story – and the price paid for this steely determination is invariably steep.
Anthony Feinstein, a psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, is an authority on the psychological effects of conflict on journalists. Together with Dr. Feinstein, The Globe and Mail is running Moral Courage, a project that will feature frank and intimate interviews between Dr. Feinstein and a journalist working in hazardous situations around the globe. Each story showcases the work of these journalists, the factors that explain why they feel compelled to pursue such an all-encompassing mission, and the personal consequences their work entails.