By Charlotte Hartmann
At 74 years old, Nina Baginskaya is not your average great-grandparent.
Hailing from Belarus, Eastern Europe, Baginskaya has been protesting totalitarian regimes in her home country since 1988. Spanning decades, her activism has ranged from physically blocking the demolition of a memorial site for Soviet-era mass executions to daily marches outside Belarusian KGB buildings demanding freedom for arrested activists.
Lately, Baginskaya has become a cultural icon for her leadership in the heavily female fight against “Europe’s last dictator” - Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. In power since 1994, Lukashenko’s rigidly authoritarian leadership has isolated Belarus from greater Europe, not to mention his active suppression of opposition and erasure of Belarusian culture in favour of Russian. Most recently, a heavily contested election enabling Lukashenko to illegitimately extend his then 26-year rule has sent thousands of female protesters to the streets since August 2020 demanding his resignation.
Baginskaya has become the unofficial face of these protests, leading large groups - especially those of women and pensioners - with her banned red and white flag as a symbol of republican Belarus. Partaking in protests most days, she is known for her peacefully defiant phrase “I am just walking” when challenged or stopped by police. Crowds have been known to chant “Nina! Nina! Nina!” as she leads protests, and local bands have included her in protest music videos. Despite being arrested multiple times, Baginskaya has maintained that she’s “never been afraid”, and that her fight for democracy is “a goal of any normal person”.
President Lukashenko has himself joked - quite condescendingly - that Baginskaya must not be detained or else “there will be no opposition”, but as (essentially) dictators of nearly three decades often do, he is missing the social mark. Baginskaya’s image has not only unified the Belarusian movement against him as president, but the representation she is receiving despite her traditional social vulnerability as an elderly woman empowers a broad range of Belarusians - who typically felt activism was not an option - to join the fight. Most importantly, her appeal and headline-friendliness has facilitated the reporting of the struggle for Lukashenko’s resignation on mainstream media worldwide, bringing vital international attention and fuel to the fight for Belarusian democracy.