Documents on Democracy

Issue Date April 2023
Volume 34
Issue 2
Page Numbers 169–77
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President Volodymyr Zelensky marked Ukrainians’ valiant defense of their country during the first year of the full-scale Russian invasion with a speech entitled, “February. The Year of Invincibility.” Excerpts follow:

A year ago, on this day, from this very place, at about seven in the morning, I addressed you with a short statement. It lasted only 67 seconds. It contained the two most important things, then and now. That Russia started a full-scale war against us. And that we are strong. We are ready for anything. We will defeat everyone. Because we are Ukraine!

That is how 24 February 2022 began. The longest day of our lives. The hardest day of our modern history. We woke up early and haven’t fallen asleep since. . . .

We did not raise the white flag, and began to defend the blue and yellow. We were not afraid, we did not break down, we did not surrender. . . .

Ukraine has surprised the world. Ukraine has inspired the world. Ukraine has united the world. . . .

The verdict is obvious. Nine years ago, the neighbor became an aggressor. A year ago, the aggressor became an executioner, looter, and terrorist. We have no doubt that they will be held accountable. We have no doubt that we will win. . . .

We have become one family. There are no more strangers among us. Ukrainians today are all fellows. Ukrainians have sheltered Ukrainians, opened their homes and hearts to those who were forced to flee the war.

We withstand all threats, shelling, cluster bombs, cruise missiles, kamikaze drones, blackouts, and cold. We are stronger than that.

It was a year of resilience. A year of care. A year of bravery. A year of pain. A year of hope. A year of endurance. A year of unity.

The year of invincibility. The furious year of invincibility.

Its main result is that we endured. We were not defeated. And we will do everything to gain victory this year!

In Merdian Czerowitz’s online anthology State of War, one-hundred Ukrainian essayists reflect on the Russian invasion of their country. Kate Tsurkan and Yulia Lyubka translated one of these essays, “Us–You–Them” by Haska Shyyan, for the online magazine Apofenie. Excerpts follow:

I’m not one to get nostalgic often, so it came as a surprise to me when I was overtaken by an intense and illogical longing to be in Ukraine during those early days of the full-scale invasion; the direness of the situation would likely have resulted in my fleeing to where I already am. I think this desire stemmed from my need to verify the truth of what was happening on my phone screen, which I carefully concealed from my child, pretending to be idly watching something while at work.

At one point, it felt like cures for cancer and AIDS were on the horizon, and we would soon be able to live to 120 years old, traveling the world with ease and utilizing every last bit of the human body’s resources. However, the start of the 2020s has been a nonstop shock to the system. These fanciful illusions were shattered first by the pandemic and then by the outbreak of war.

Ironically, the massive invasion has finally made Ukrainians visible and garnered increased attention toward us. . . . Following a surge of genuine sympathy and support accompanied by tears and embraces, a deluge of bewildering inquiries has been directed our way.

“Why should brotherhood be a problem? Being called ‘younger brother’ is even touching!” / “Why don’t you engage in a public discussion with your Russian colleagues about putting an end to the CRISIS?” / “Maybe you’ll have to accept that in order to resolve this CONFLICT you’ll need to give up some territories?” / “So, your President is a Russian-speaking Jew. What does that signify?” / “But you and the Russian liberals are opposing the same evil together!” / . . . “Isn’t it outrageous that the streets named after prominent Russian poets are being renamed in honor of Nazis?!” / “Perhaps it’s worth translating and publishing Ukrainian books in Russia? Russians would read them and it would bring about change, wouldn’t it?” / “How are you dealing with racism in Ukraine?” / “Do you also think that your President is a messenger from God? Because we do!” . . .

I make sure to be mindful of the language my interlocutors use. While the term “war” is not something I’m used to, I encourage others to use it instead of softer terms like “conflict” or “crisis.” Whenever possible, I emphasize that the full-scale invasion on February 24th is a continuation of the war that began in 2014. . . .

I become angry when I am approached on the street by Red Cross volunteers trying to sign me up for a regular contribution program, or when people invite me to participate in the “Language of Peace” event (yes, in quotes) with an absurd disclaimer:

  • Not to politicize the content of the materials produced (videos and texts);
  • Not to use the names or symbols of any country, region, person, or event;
  • To avoid showing or displaying any image, footage, item, map, flag, music, or wording, which may directly or indirectly point to a specific event, country, or person.

I wanted to ask them whether “specific event” and “special operation” were not, by strange coincidence, the same thing. . . .

I realize that many of the people around me have not had the same experiences. They lack personal or property ties to Ukraine, and still hold onto the belief that the most terrible, irrational, and senseless kind of evil exists only in cartoons and possesses a one-dimensional core. They believe that all this is about to come to an end. While I wish I could hold onto that belief as well, I know that I cannot. . . .

I realize that it’s impossible to know when we’ll be able to once again enjoy the luxury of simply existing without the fear of the world collapsing around us. . . .


On 10 December 2022, Ales Bialiatski, the head of human-rights organization Viasna, received the Nobel Peace Prize. He was arrested in July 2021 as a part of a brutal crackdown on dissent following the 2020 protests against longtime dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka. On 3 March 2023, he was sentenced to ten years in prison. His wife, Natallia Pinchuk, delivered his Nobel lecture in his stead. Excerpts follow:

It just so happens that people who value freedom the most are often deprived of it. I remember my friends—human rights activists from Cuba, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, I remember my spiritual sister Nasrin Sotoudeh from Iran. I admire Cardinal Joseph Zen from Hong Kong. Thousands of people are currently behind bars in Belarus for political reasons, and they are all my brothers and sisters. Nothing can stop people’s thirst for freedom.

In my homeland, the entirety of Belarus is in a prison. Journalists, political scientists, trade union leaders are in jail, there are many of my acquaintances and friends among them. . . . The courts work like a conveyor belt, convicts are transported to penal colonies, and new waves of political prisoners take their place. . . .

This award belongs to all my human rights defender friends, all civic activists, tens of thousands of Belarusians who have gone through beatings, torture, arrests, prison.

This award belongs to millions of Belarusian citizens who stood up and took action in the streets and online to defend their civil rights. It highlights the dramatic situation and struggle for human rights in the country.

I recently had a short dialogue.

“When will you be released?” they asked me.

“I am already free, in my soul,” was my reply.

My free soul hovers over the dungeon and over the maple leaf outlines of Belarus.

I look inside myself, and my ideals have not changed, have not lost their value, have not faded. They are always with me, and I guard them as best I can. They are like cast from gold, immune from rusting.

We want to build our society as more harmonious, fair, and responsive to the needs of its sons and daughters. To achieve an independent, democratic Belarus, free of foreign coercion. We dream that it will be a country full of warmth and advantageous to live in.

This is a noble idea, concordant with the global ideas of civility. We are not dreaming of something special or extraordinary, we just want “to be called human,” as our classic Yanka Kupala said. . . .

I began to be critical of Soviet reality early on. Among other things, I faced a sharp restriction on the use of the Belarusian language, with the policy of de-belarusianization, which was carried out then—and is still being executed today. The former colonial dependence of Belarus is an ever-present reality. And as a result, there is still a threat to the existence of Belarusians as a nation and people.

It is a dramatic mistake to separate human rights from the values of identity and independence. I have been involved in the independent underground movement since 1982, in fact since I was young man at 20 years of age. . . . There can be no Belarus without democracy and there can be no human rights without an independent Belarus. And civil society should have such a degree of independence that it guarantees the safety of a person from abuses of state power.

I believe because I know that the night ends and then the morning comes with light. I know that what pushes us forward tirelessly is hope and a dream.

Martin Luther King paid for his dream with his life, he was shot. My payment for my dream is less, but with harsh consequences I don’t regret a bit. After all, my dream is worthy of all the personal sacrifices. My ideals are in tune with the ideals of my older friends and spiritual mentors—Czech Václav Havel and Belarusian Vasil Bykau. Both of them went through great life’s trials, both advanced their nations and culture, both fought for democracy and human rights until the last minutes of their lives.

Presidential elections were held in Belarus on August 9, 2020. Mass falsifications made people take to the streets. Good and Evil came together in a duel. Evil is well-armed. And from the side of Good there only peaceful mass protests unheard of for the country, which gathered hundreds of thousands of people.

In response, the authorities have fully launched the repressive mechanism of torture and murder—Raman Bandarenka, Vitold Ashurak, and many others became its victims.

This is the highest . . . level of repression in its cruelty. People are subject to ghastly tortures and unimaginable suffering. . . .

Lukashenka’s statements confirm that his enforcers have been given carte blanche to stop people by instigating fear and mass intimidation.

But the citizens of Belarus demand justice. They demand that those who committed mass crimes be punished. They demand free elections. Belarus and the Belarusian society will never be the same again when they were completely tied hand and foot. People have woken up. . . .

I know exactly what kind of Ukraine would suit Russia and Putin—a dependent dictatorship. The same as today’s Belarus, where the voice of the oppressed people is ignored and disregarded.

Russian military bases, huge economic dependence, cultural and linguistic russification—that’s the answer, on whose side is Lukashenka. The Belarusian authorities are independent only to the extent that Putin allows them to be. Consequently, it is necessary to fight against “the international of dictatorships.”

I am a human rights activist and therefore a supporter of nonviolent resistance. I am not an aggressive person by nature, I always try to behave accordingly. However, I recognize that goodness and truth must be able to protect themselves.

As I can, I keep peace in my soul, I grow it like a delicate flower, I drive away anger. And I pray that reality does not force me to dig up a long-buried axe and defend the truth with an axe in my hands. Peace. May peace remain in my soul.

And on December 10, I want to repeat for everyone: “Do not be afraid!” These were the words that Pope John Paul II said in the 1980s when he came to communist Poland. He didn’t say anything else then, but it was enough. I believe because I know that spring always comes after winter. . . .


The Tibet Action Institute, a human-rights NGO, was founded in the wake of the 2008 protests in Tibet, which were spurred by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s persecution of Tibetans and its efforts to erase their culture. On February 10, the Institute’s director, Lhadon Tethong, testified before the Canadian Parliament’s international–human-rights subcommittee about another example of Beijing’s cruelty: the more than one-million Tibetan children who are forced to attend CCP-run boarding schools. Excerpts follow:

My father was born in a free and independent Tibet in 1934. My eldest brother was born in a Tibetan refugee camp in India. I was born . . . on Vancouver Island.

As a Tibetan and a Canadian, my two worlds sadly collided a couple of years ago when my organization, Tibet Action, began researching reports that Tibetan parents were being forced, coerced, to send their children, including those as young as four and five years old, away to boarding schools. . . . We found that China had been constructing a massive colonial boarding school system in Tibet, one that threatens the very survival of the Tibetan people and the nation because they so wholly and completely have targeted the future of Tibet—our children, and even the very youngest ones. . . .

. . . At least 800,000 Tibetan children across all of historical Tibet—not just the Tibet Autonomous Region, or what China calls Tibet—representing 78 percent of all Tibetan schoolchildren aged six to 18, are now separated from their families and are living in colonial boarding schools. This number does not include the four- and five-year-olds being made to live in boarding preschools in rural areas, because China is actively trying to hide the existence of that system.

These children are forbidden from practicing religion. They are cut off from authentic Tibetan culture—beyond, of course, what the Chinese Communist Party approves of and what you’ll see in the propaganda, which is people wearing Tibetan clothing and doing the Tibetan circle dance.

These kids are taught almost entirely in Chinese, with maybe one Tibetan language class, by mostly Chinese teachers, or increasingly more and more Chinese teachers, and from Chinese textbooks reflecting Chinese life, history, culture, and values while completely denying Tibet’s own rich ancient history and culture—our stories.

On top of this, they are subjected to intense political indoctrination. . . . Even the youngest children are getting intense political indoctrination like “Xi Jinping thought,” which says they must be loyal to the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese nation first and above all else.

Of course, Tibetan parents have no choice but to send their children to live in these schools, because the authorities have closed the local village schools along with most privately run Tibetan schools or monastery schools. That’s not to mention that Tibetans, having lived 70 years under Chinese occupation and facing intense violence from the state, know that you can’t resist these kinds of central government directives at the grassroots level without facing severe, severe consequences. Parents who resist or refuse are threatened with fines and other serious consequences. Of course, the children have no choice.

One person from Tibet described the situation like this: “I know of children aged four to five who don’t want to be separated from their mothers. They are forced to go to boarding schools. In some cases, the children cry for days, sticking to their mother’s laps. . . . Both the children and the parents are unwilling.” . . .

Just as Tibetan parents don’t want to have to send their children away, Chinese people don’t want to send their children away either. Actually, a backlash against school consolidation policies in China led the State Council to rule in 2012 that all levels of school should be, in principle, non-residential, especially for young children in grades 1 to 3. That very same State Council decreed in 2015 that, in so-called minority areas, officials must strengthen boarding school construction and achieve the goal that students of all ethnic minorities will study in a school, live in a school, and grow up in a school. . . .

. . . What’s happening in Tibet is a crisis that threatens our ancient civilization. It is, in a way, like a genocide 2.0, because it’s happening in real time, right now, but with very few pictures, no videos and no one really able to report what’s happening from the ground, unlike any other place on earth.

I would ask the Canadian government, all of you, to help us expose this system, because the Chinese government is trying to hide it, to pay extra attention to bringing Tibet up in every possible way with Beijing, and to continue to push the Chinese government for the human rights and freedoms of the Tibetan people, because they are working very hard to erase us, not just inside Tibet but in the world at large.


On International Women’s Day, March 8, Afghan women took to the streets of Kabul to protest their systemic discrimination and exclusion from public life by the country’s Taliban-led government. This is but one of the hundreds of women’s rights protests that have gripped the country since the Taliban returned to power. Activist Miriam Atahi testified to this swelling wave of dissent at a UN event on 6 March 2023. Excerpts from her statement, which has been edited for clarity, are below:

It’s a dark age for Afghanistan. The reemergence of the Taliban twenty years since its defeat has brought back a totalitarian regime. August 15, 2021 [marks] the end of the emancipation of women and the crumbling of their twenty years of achievements.

. . . However, immediately after the seizure of Kabul . . . . the Taliban received a proactive, nonviolent pushback from the women of Afghanistan. A very spontaneous . . . movement that was led, organized, by . . . women who had never [had any kind of] exposure in society or international platforms. Women [protested] despite the grave risk they face in doing so.

. . . The Taliban response was brutal from the beginning: [They were] beating the protesters, disrupting the protesters, detaining the protesters, and torturing them. The Taliban announced and placed many decrees to restrict women—indeed [to] arrest them—from the society, from the public sphere. But women were not silent. . . . Well, it was not easy [for them to] risk [their lives], and stand in front of a bullet or gun, chanting “freedom, work, education.” What motive could push them to go out on the streets and risk their lives? . . . Of course it was exclusions, deprivations, and discrimination.

. . . I want to also be clear that women’s fights and struggles didn’t [begin after] 9/11. We should admit that women’s fights and struggles trace back hundreds of years ago. . . . Women of Afghanistan have stood up in various political systems and voiced [demands for] their freedom, for the right to education, for the right to work.

. . . If they were not on the streets of Kabul and other provinces, if they did not criticize the Taliban and their policies, the Taliban would have already been recognized.

. . . We all know that many movements and protests are going around like Iran. . . . All women are fighting and chanting for our freedom. We want from the international community . . . the same support and the same attention for all the protests or movements for women around the world. . . .


The 16 September 2022 death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, who had been detained for wearing an “improper” hijab, has sent millions of people into the streets to demand greater personal and political freedom in Iran. (See “Is Iran on the Verge of Another Revolution?” by Asef Bayat.) On February 16, twenty Iranian student groups, trade unions, and feminist organizations issued a dozen “minimum demands” to the Islamist regime. A translated excerpt follows:

  1. Immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners, prohibition of criminalizing political, union, and civil activities, and public trials for those responsible for suppressing popular protests.
  2. Unconditional freedom of opinion, expression, thought, [political] parties, local and national trade unions, popular organizations, gatherings, strikes, marches, social networks, and the media.
  3. Immediate cancellation of the issuance and execution of any type of death penalty and retribution, and prohibition of any type of mental and physical torture.
  4. Immediate and full equality of rights between women and men in all political, economic, social, cultural, and family spheres, unconditional abolition of discriminatory laws against sexual and gender relations and tendencies, recognition of the rainbow society LGBTQIA+, . . . unconditional adherence to all women’s rights over their bodies and destiny, and preventing patriarchal control.
  5. Religion is a private matter of the individuals and should not interfere in the political, economic, social, and cultural destiny and laws of the country.
  6. Ensure work safety, job security, and an immediate increase in the salaries of workers, teachers, and employees, whether they are still active or retired, with the involvement and agreement of elected union representatives.
  7. Abolish laws and any behavior based on ethnic or religious discrimination and oppression. . . .
  8. Limit the influence of the government and grant people the right to interfere in local and national councils directly and permanently. Dismissing any government or non-government official by voters at any time should be among the voters’ fundamental rights.
  9. Confiscate the properties of the individuals and governmental, semi-governmental, and private institutions that have taken the property and social wealth of the Iranian people hostage through direct looting or government rent . . . .
  10. End environmental destruction, implement policies to revive the environmental infrastructure . . .
  11. Prohibit children’s work and provide their education, regardless of their families’ economic and social status. Establish public welfare through unemployment insurance and strong social security systems for all the people who are of the legal age to work or are unable to work. Additionally, provide free education and healthcare for all the people.


Copyright © 2023 National Endowment for Democracy and Johns Hopkins University Press