Ales Pushkin, dissident artist in Belarus, is dead in prison at 57

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Ales Pushkin, dissident artist in Belarus, is dead in prison at 57
A photo provided via Online Media Solidarity (Belarus) shows artist Ales Pushkin at his birthplace, the village of Bobr in Belarus, in May 2018. Pushkin, a dissident artist in Belarus whose incendiary work often took aim at the country’s authoritarian leader, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, in one instance with a pile of manure dumped outside the presidential offices in Minsk, has died in prison while serving a five-year sentence. He was 57. (via Online Media Solidarity (Belarus)) via The New York Times)

by Alex Williams

NEW YORK, NY.- Ales Pushkin, a dissident artist in Belarus whose incendiary work often took aim at the country’s authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, in one instance with a pile of manure dumped outside the presidential offices in Minsk, has died in prison while serving a five-year sentence. He was 57.

His wife, Janina Demuch, announced his death in a Facebook post the morning of July 11, writing, “Tonight Ales Pushkin died in intensive care under unknown circumstances” in a prison in Grodno, in western Belarus.

Belarusian authorities did not immediately comment on his death. Some news organizations reported that Pushkin had not been known to be ill, although the opposition Belarusian news site Most, based in Bialystok, Poland, cited an unnamed source saying that Pushkin had a perforated ulcer that had gone untreated and that he had been taken to the prison hospital unconscious.

He had been arrested in 2021 for painting he made in 2012, depicting an anti-Soviet resistance fighter, which the government said was aimed at the “rehabilitation and justification of Nazism.”

Pushkin “died as a political prisoner of the regime & the responsibility lies with his jailer, Lukashenko & his cronies,” the exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya wrote on Twitter.

“Dictators fear artists,” she added. “Why? Because they have the power to express thoughts & ideas that challenge the regime’s lies.”

The artist had long been a thorn in Lukashenko’s side.

The president, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the war against Ukraine, was first elected in 1994. Since he was reelected in a hotly disputed election three years ago, Lukashenko has orchestrated a brutal crackdown on dissent, rounding up opposition figures, journalists, lawyers, social media critics and even people who may have insulted him in private conversations that were overheard and reported.

Thousands of political prisoners have been detained, according to the human rights group Viasna, including Ales Bialiatski, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October.

Pushkin was arrested multiple times over the years for acts of protest against the authorities, including through performance art pieces, which cheekily incorporated the legal process. “The police and the judge who administers the fine become part of the performance,” he once said.

In 1996, he created a national scandal with a giant mural he painted on the walls of an Orthodox church in his native village, Bobr. It portrayed judgment day, with Christ flanked on the right by the righteous and on the left by sinners condemned to hell. Among the damned were figures that resembled Lukashenko and other government figures. Offending portions of the painting were soon painted over.

Pushkin narrowly escaped time behind bars with his howitzer-subtle performance piece “A Gift to the President” in July 1999. In a sarcastic tribute to Lukashenko’s service as a farm official during the Soviet era, Pushkin, dressed in traditional peasant attire, stood outside the president’s office and tipped over a red wheelbarrow filled with horse manure, Belarusian currency bearing Soviet symbols, and toy handcuffs, covering the dung with a portrait of Lukashenko impaled on a pitchfork.

Pushkin got off with a two-year suspended sentence.

“Playing the holy fool,” he said in a 2011 interview with journalist Max Seddon on the website openDemocracy, “is the highest form of freedom that’s ever existed at any time in our country.”

Alexander Mikhailovich Pushkin was born Aug. 6, 1965, in Bobr, about 80 miles northeast of Minsk, in central Belarus.

He came of age when his country was still part of the Soviet Union, and after graduating from a boarding school for fine arts in 1983, he served in the Soviet military in Afghanistan for two years during Russia’s occupation of the country.

“I was the only one in my battalion who became an artist,” he told Seddon. “That’s when I stopped being scared of the government, the KGB, the police. And it was only 20 years later that I came to realize I paint icons for Orthodox and Catholic churches by way of repentance for my cruelty — even if it was in a faraway land.”

After his military service, Pushkin returned to his studies at the Belarusian State Theater and Art Institute in Minsk, where he turned his attention to monolithic decorative painting, a distinctly Soviet style of heroic murals, and also took up performance art. After completing his signature work as a student — a vast mural in the lobby of his old boarding school, celebrating its history — he was hired as a state-funded artist in Vitebsk, a post once held by Marc Chagall, who was born there.

By that point, Pushkin had begun displaying an activist streak. A fierce Belarusian nationalist during the late Soviet era, he was arrested for participating in anti-government protests in 1988 and 1989.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, he made ends meet restoring church frescoes and running a contemporary art gallery out of his house. It closed when Lukashenko took power and ushered in a new climate of censorship and repression.

Information about survivors aside from Pushkin’s wife was not immediately available.

Pushkin’s final arrest came on March 30, 2021, when he was charged with the “rehabilitation of Nazism” for a 2012 painting that portrayed Yevgeny Zhikhar, an anti-Soviet resistance fighter during and after World War II, toting a machine gun.

He was sentenced to five years in prison in March 2022. When the verdict was read, according to Viasna, Pushkin removed his shirt to show self-inflicted cuts on his stomach in the shape of a cross.

Through all of it, Pushkin was, in a sense, just doing his job.

“There are two kinds of Belarusian artists,” he told Seddon in the 2011 interview, “official and unofficial. But it’s not a question of ‘this art is good, this art is bad.’ It’s a question of complicity and conformism.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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