When a Song Symbolizes a People's Struggle for Freedom and Justice
"Three Turtles" once again becomes a protest anthem in Belarus, sung in town squares, in cafes and in streets filled with protesters nearly every day
In 1969 the songs “Ohio” and “Find the Cost of Freedom” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young galvanized the anti-war movement in the USA. Millions made their voices heard, and eventually ended the Vietnam War. “Three Turtles” is the most well-known protest anthem in modern Belarus, and it is sung in town squares, in cafes and in the streets at every protest march. If admittedly biased eye-witness reports can be believed it is even sung together by prison guards and their political prisoners in jails all over Minsk.
Pit Pawlaw, an original member of the Belarus band NRM, sings "Three Turtles" during a protest march in Minsk, October 2020
Tens of thousands of citizens, including: doctors, teachers, factory workers and office employees – have been arrested and jailed, some for months, during the national elections of 2020. Victims routinely publish stories about abuse, even torture at the hands of government secret police on social media.
Images and stories of abuse at the hands of police in Belarus are everywhere on social media, especially on Telegram - a sort of unofficial news agency while the government cracks down on traditional media.
Pitor Paulau (Pit Pawlaw - his stage name) is spectacularly on the front lines of the current civic unrest in Belarus. Pit first performed “Three Turtles” as a song of dissent in 1990 as an original member of N.R.M., the band that wrote the song and made it famous throughout the country and region. Today Pit sings the song to riot police - with tactical vehicles arrayed against him – as if to ask them to join in the singing. Pit’s performance reveals his belief that music is the bridge that will bring his country together.
Tens of thousands march in the streets of Minsk to protest while Pit Pawlaw sings their anthem of dissent.
In an interview Pit describes the song’s lyrics as high irony – skewering the government’s insistence on promoting absurd propaganda. “We all know that the world is a sphere,” he says, “but on TV, on radio, we must say the world is flat.” The song mocks an odd propaganda ‘origin story’ created decades ago as the Belarus state pulled away from the USSR. The story is an odd mix of homespun rural tradition and fake mythology that likely originated in a government propaganda office decades ago, dreamed up to pacify an anxious nation following independence.
Pit Pawlaw explains the message of dissent behind "Three Turtles.
Today “Three Turtles” tells listeners that immovable elephants are steering the ship of state. “Don’t wait,” to take civic action the song says, because waiting will not bring a surprise end to current repression by the government.
Don’t wait, there’ll be no surprises.
Nobody waits, so don’t wait either!”
In August 2020 Alexander Lukashenko was reelected President of Belarus for a new five year term - Belarus has had only one president for 26 years. The European Union Foreign Minister labeled Belarus' 2020 election “neither free nor fair,” a damning indictment and said further that, “The people of Belarus deserve better.” The EU has steadily increased economic sanctions against Lukashenko and those who support him, in an effort to bring about reforms. Mass demonstrations have continued in Belarus unabated in the weeks and months since the election.
Lukashenko was first elected in 1994 and he immediately began exerting systematic government control of the press and cracking down on any form of dissent in music, art and public performance. According to international media watchdog group Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists, “Authorities in Belarus exercise almost absolute control over the media; and the few independent journalists and bloggers face harassment and detentions.”
Pit Pawlaw and members of NRM sing “Three Turtles” in 1990
Today in Belarus expressing dissent or just singing in public can result in jail, a beating or worse by government enforcers. Artists, writers, poets, actors and performers of all kinds are risking their lives to make the voice of a free society heard. “Three Turtles” shares the perspective of the Belarus creative class and supports their struggle to rid to world of yet another dictator-in-waiting in a free and democratic society.
Consequences for violating strict censorship rules are so severe that huge portions of Belarus’ popular culture, including a once thriving contemporary music scene moved underground starting in the 90’s. Thirty years later “Three Turtles” once again symbolizes a people’s resistance against an unjust and illegitimate government.
Today, the Belarus creative class once again struggles to rid the world of yet another dictator-in-waiting in a free and democratic society. 30 years after it was first used to protest against oppression “Three Turtles” once again symbolizes resistance against the government in Belarus.
A coalition of photographers, filmmakers, artists and musicians are trying to make a film about music as protest today in Belarus. Please consider visiting the GoFundMe page to support the project, "Three Turtles In Belarus."
Original art: Pit Pawlaw, c. 2020