Maria Kalesnikava is a Belarusian musician and a political activist. She co-founded Artemp, an international creative association, and served as the art director of the OK16 culture club in Minsk. During the 2020 presidential campaign, she joined the team of candidate Viktar Babaryka. After his and his son’s arrest in June 2020 she became the leading figure of Babaryka’s campaign.


“She continued to speak up about violence, urging authorities to stop it.”

Tatsiana Khomich about her sister Maria Kalesnikava

In September 2020, Maria was first abducted, then they tried to expel her from the country forcibly, but she ripped up her passport to avoid expulsion. She is now in custody. Tatsiana, in your opinion, what role does Maria play for the Belarusian democratic movement today? I think Masha [a pen name of Maria – editor’s note] continues to play an essential role while being in the pre-trial detention center, even though no one has seen her for a long time, except for defence lawyers and investigators. She continues supporting and inspiring people so that they do not give up and do not stop. Despite the fact that Belarusian authorities prosecute anyone for any activity or attempt to express their opinion, her strong spirit, courage, and confidence continue to give us hope for change. Masha’s determination to stay in Belarus also demonstrates her resilience, unbroken spirit, and principled position. I think her actions and statements, which we hear from her and read in her letters, continue fuelling people’s confidence that change will come. We Belarusians should not give up, we are doing everything right, and we need to assert our rights peacefully and lawfully. While in detention Masha continues to defend the rights of other political prisoners and makes statements and demands on their behalf. She has become a synonym for a Belarusian who can make oneself heard.

Belarus 2020 by Anna Redko

Maria was into music and a musician herself, first in Belarus, then in Germany before she became a pro-democracy activist. Why did she decide to return to Belarus? About five years ago, Masha started bringing her cultural projects to Belarus. Titled "Music for Adults", one of the projects included a series of lectures. It was important for her to see that this was taking place in Belarus, as modern arts are more developed in Germany. She started coming to Belarus more regularly. Masha is very sociable and knows how to unite people and develop new projects. This organically evolved into a job offer as art director at OK16. She took office in August 2019, splitting her time between Germany and Belarus, after she had been working in Germany for several years. As the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, she decided to stay in Belarus.

The presidential election was scheduled for 2020, and she became Viktar Babaryka’s campaign coordinator that year. How did that come about? Masha met Viktar Babaryka in summer 2018 when she brought German musicians to Belarus as part of an OK16 project. After this meeting, they kept in touch from time to time. When it became clear that Viktar Babaryka would run for president, he immediately asked Maria to join the team. Masha has always held Viktar in high esteem and continues to respect his values and vision of Belarus’ cultural development. As far as I know, she made up her mind very quickly. This was also a large project involving plenty of people and communications. You needed to know who could be engaged and how to find resources. Despite living in Germany for a long time, Masha has successfully re-integrated into Belarusian society. Therefore, this transition was quite natural. Masha knew very well what was happening in Belarus. Probably, one of the reasons why she left was that she had not seen any prospects for development and self-fulfilment in Belarus. I think she joined Babaryka‘s team precisely because it was vital for her to make a change not only in arts, but also in Belarus in general. Clearly, Masha was aware of the risks. She knew what the results of previous elections were and what could happen. I think she believed that something could be changed and the time to make a change had come – and we supported her. After the election, Veronika Tsapkala and Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya were forced to leave the country. Most probably, Maria was aware of the threats as well, but she stayed. Why? When Viktar and Eduard Babaryka were detained, Masha said that she would stay. It was her principled position. In early August 2020, the persecution and detentions of members of Viktar Babaryka’s team continued. She could not leave. Masha said that she could not have a quiet life in Germany while her friends were held in prisons or pre-trial detention centers in Belarus. She realised that she, too, could be detained eventually, but she tried to do as much as she could. Yet, we all understood how it could turn out.

When Maria was widely engaged in protests after the presidential election, what were her beliefs? What did she hope for? As three election campaign teams joined hands in mid-July, we all saw great public support. For two and a half weeks, the three of them travelled across Belarus, visiting different cities and towns. It was evident that this campaign struck a chord with people, who were definitely ready for change. After the election, the Golos platform published results. We saw that some precincts had no rigging; we saw real voting results. This independent vote count indicated people’s sincere support. Then violence followed and the country faced a real political crisis, violence, and terror against totally peaceful protests simply because protesters expressed their opinion and took to the streets. Masha could not leave the country after that. I think she realized that Sviatlana, Veronika, and herself were the most outstanding figures at that time. Of them, only Masha stayed. Therefore, it was important for her to be involved in resolving this crisis. She joined the board of the Coordination Council. I think she was key to uniting people around it. Masha believed that it was important to negotiate and stop violence at that very moment, in those very brutal days after the election. She turned into a very bright leader, because she stayed, was not afraid to speak out, and openly took part in protests.

Which actions made Maria a human rights defender? Her call for fair elections, Masha asked people not to be afraid, to express their opinions, to vote for whoever you want, and gather for peaceful assemblies. In fact, she plunged into activism at that time. As events moved rapidly, we did not even have time to realize this. She did the same after the election when she stayed in Belarus She continued to speak up about violence, urging authorities to stop it. She made statements that people had the right to peaceful assemblies. This public advocacy started back then, although we did not yet understand it. On July 6th 2021, Viktar Babaryka was sentenced to 14 years in a high security penal colony. The Supreme Court of Belarus found him guilty of "receiving bribes on an especially large scale, organized by a group" (Article 430(3) of the Criminal Code) and "money laundering" (Article 2321(2). He was also fined the equivalent of 217000 US Dollars and ordered to pay more than 18 million US Dollars as compensation for the damage he allegedly caused.