Ales Pushkin, dissident artist in Belarus, died in prison at 57

Ales Pushkin, a Belarusian dissident artist whose incendiary work often targeted the country’s authoritarian leader, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, in a case with a pile of dung thrown outside presidential offices in Minsk, died in prison while serving a five-year sentence. He was 57 years old.

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

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

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

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

“Dictators are afraid of artists,” she added. “Why? Because they have the power to express thoughts and ideas that challenge the lies of the regime.

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

The president, an ally of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin in the war on Ukraine, was first elected in 1994. Since winning re-election in a closely contested election three years ago, he has orchestrated a brutal crackdown on dissent, bringing together opposition figures, journalists, lawyers, social media critics and even people who may have insulted Mr. Lukashenko in private conversations that have been overheard and reported.

Thousands of political prisoners have been detained, according to the human rights group Viasna, whose Ales Bialiatskiwho received the Nobel Peace Prize in October.

Mr Pushkin has been arrested several times over the years for acts of protest against the authorities, including through performative works of art, which brazenly incorporated legal proceedings. “The police and the judge administering the fine are 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 depicts the Day of Judgment, with Christ flanked on the right by the righteous and on the left by sinners condemned to hell. Among the damned were figures who resembled Mr Lukashenko and other government figures. The offending parts of the painting were quickly repainted.

Mr Pushkin narrowly escaped time behind bars with his subtle howitzer performance ‘A Gift to the President’ in July 1999. In a sarcastic tribute to Mr Lukashenko’s service as a Soviet-era agricultural official, Mr Pushkin, dressed in traditional peasant attire, stood outside the President’s desk and knocked down a red wheelbarrow filled with horse manure, Belarusian currency bearing Soviet symbols and toy handcuffs, covering the manure with a portrait of Mr Lukashenko impaled on a pitchfork.

Mr. Pushkin got away with a two-year suspended sentence.

“Play holy foolhe said in a 2011 interview with journalist Max Seddon on the openDemocracy website, “is the highest form of freedom that has ever existed in our country.”

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

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

“I was the only one in my battalion to become an artist,” he told Mr Seddon. “That’s where I stopped being afraid of the government, the KGB, the police. And it wasn’t until 20 years later that I realized that I paint icons for Orthodox and Catholic churches as a form of repentance for my cruelty – even if it was in a faraway land.

After his military service, Mr. Pushkin resumed his studies at the State Theater and Art Institute of Belarus in Minsk, where he turned to monolithic decorative painting, a distinctly Soviet style of heroic murals, and also dabbled in performance art. After completing his signature work as a student – ​​an extensive mural in the hall of his former boarding school, celebrating his history – he was hired as a state-funded artist in Vitebsk, a position once held by Chagallwho was born there.

At this point, Mr. Pushkin began to display a militant streak. A fierce Belarusian nationalist in the late Soviet era, he was arrested for taking part in anti-government protests in 1988 and 1989.

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

Information on survivors apart from Mr Pushkin’s wife was not immediately available.

At Mr. Pushkin’s final arrest came on March 30, 2021, when he was charged with “rehabilitation from Nazism” for a 2012 painting which portrays Yevgeny Zhikhar, a anti-soviet resistance fighter during and after World War II, carrying a machine gun.

He was sentenced to five years in prison in March 2022. Upon reading the verdict, according to Viasna, Mr Pushkin removed his shirt to show the cuts he had inflicted on his stomach in the shape of a cross.

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

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

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