On September 6, almost a year after the arrests, Maksim Znak and Maryia Kalesnikava, members of Viktar Babaryka’s staff and members of the Coordination Council, were sentenced to 11 and 10 years in prison, respectively. They were found guilty of conspiracy to seize state power in an unconstitutional way, creation of an extremist group and its management, as well as calls for action to cause damage to national security. Let us recall that we know about Maksim and Maryia, who came to politics from law and music.
Maksim Znak was born on September 4, 1981 in Minsk. He turned 40 two days before the verdict. Before Maksim’s birthday, Viktar Babaryka’s telegram channel published a video interview with the lawyer’s father, Alyaksandr Znak. The story contains many interesting details about Maksim’s childhood and youth.
Alyaksandr Znak said that when Maksim went to school, he already knew how to count, read, and write. So, he was bored in class, and while his classmates were just getting acquainted with the letters, Maksim read quite serious books under the desk. In the second grade he read Alexandre Dumas.
Then the parents decided to transfer their son to a stronger class, so Maksim got into the school Nr 24, specializing in English and German. There the situation turned out to be the opposite, says Alyaksandr: Maksim started to lag behind the other pupils. The situation changed after the year in the United States.
In high school, Maksim Znak won a competition, and in 10th grade went to study exchange at an American village school. There, in addition to studying, he worked, e.g. cleaned pools and trash cans.
“America completely changed Maksim,” says his father. “He was rather unfocused when he went there, and the person that returned was purposeful and knew exactly what to do. After that, he was always the best in his studies, he finished school with a silver medal.”
Znak could have stayed in the States, continuing his studies at the university, but he returned, and when asked why, he said he did not want to: he was not interested in living abroad.
He went to study at BSU on the state-financed ground. The choice of specialty came as a surprise to parents: there were no lawyers in the family. From the very beginning of his studies he worked part-time, wrote articles for various publications. When he was in his second year, he became an assistant lawyer at a law firm, then a lawyer. Later he graduated from graduate school.
After his studies, Maksim’s first term in prison took place. After protests against the results of the 2006 presidential election, he spent 14 days in Zhodzina.
In 2007, together with his wife, lawyer Nadzeya Znak, whom he met while studying, Maksim created his own law firm ‘Yurznak’.
“If you ask what Maksim’s greatest achievement is, I’ll say that it’s that he found such a wife,” says Maksim’s father.
In 2009, Znak became a candidate of law, then studied at the IPM Business School, taught business law at BSU. He received a master’s degree in business administration from the Kozminski Academy in Poland. He was the director of the Centre for Entrepreneurship Support and a member of the public advisory council of the Minsk City Executive Committee.
He writes letters from the pre-trial detention centre exclusively in Belarusian.
In addition to jurisprudence, Maksim Znak has been fond of music since childhood: he played the guitar and wrote songs. He bought a good electric guitar from the money he earned in the United States, Mr. Znak said in an interview.
Maksim also loves sports: he did judo, kayak slalom. He ran marathons. In winter he and his wife went skiing. According to his father, Maksim never smoked, almost did not drink alcohol.
In May 2020, Znak joined the headquarters of Viktar Babaryka, and in August became part of the Presidium of the Coordination Council. He was detained on September 9. As early as September 11, Amnesty International recognized Znak a prisoner of conscience.
According to Mr. Alyaksandr, his son writes a lot from the pre-trial detention centre; he has already written 255 letters home. Father and son correspond in Belarusian. Behind bars, Maksim also writes a book. In a collection called Zekameron there is already a hundred short stories.
Maryia Kalesnikava was born on April 24, 1982 in Minsk. She inherited a love of music from her parents. As Maryia’s father, Alyaksandr Kalesnikau, told Belsat in an interview, his daughter used to fall asleep in a pram while he played the guitar and sang.
Maryia’s interest in politics also has roots in her family. Her parents were engineers (Alyaksandr Kalesnikau was an officer-submariner who served in the elite troops on nuclear submarines); they subscribed to all the progressive periodicals of the perestroika and had a large library at home.
“Masha read it all,” Alyaksandr recalled, emphasizing: “We allowed our children to be free.”
After school, Maryia Kalesnikava decided to connect her professional life with music: she went to study at the Belarusian State Academy of Music. After graduating she worked as a flutist and a conductor. From the age of 17 she taught flute.
One day she left Minsk and moved to Stuttgart, Germany, to improve her skills at the Higher School of Music at the faculties of ancient and modern music. During her studies she worked part-time in a bakery. In the morning before classes and in the evening she helped to bake rolls and wash the dishes.
Maryia Kalesnikava lived in Germany for 12 years. She worked as a music teacher, organized Belarusian-German music festivals, prepared international cultural projects in Germany and Belarus, including a series of lectures ‘Music Lessons for Adults’. Maryia is convinced that music can be practiced at any age, that it is not a matter of talent, and that any ability can be developed, including an ear for music.
Kalesnikava finds inspiration for her music classes in difficult topics: social or political; Holocaust music; the theme of women in music.
In 2017, Kalesnikava became one of the founders of the Artemp creative association, which held contemporary art events.
Maryia returned to her homeland shortly before the 2020 presidential election, headed the OK16 cultural platform, and later Viktar Babaryka’s election headquarters.
Kalesnikava is the author of two slogans of the 2020 election campaign: she addressed Belarusians with the words ‘You are incredible’, and also called to ‘press, press and press on these authorities’.
Maryia Kalesnikava was first detained on the evening of August 8, 2020, but was released a few minutes later: she was allegedly confused with another person.
On August 18, Kalesnikava became a member of the Coordination Council for overcoming the political crisis, and on August 19 she was elected to its presidium.
On August 31, Kalesnikava announced the creation of a new political party, Razam.
On September 7, unknown individuals detained Maryia in downtown Minsk. Together with Maksim Znak, she was accused of calling for action against national security, conspiring to seize state power in an unconstitutional way, and creating an extremist group.
On September 11, 2020, Kalesnikava, like Maksim Znak, was recognized by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience.
Maryia does not lose optimism behind bars. Before the first court hearing on August 4 this year, Kalesnikava smiled and danced in the courtroom.
“Prison is not a place for tears and sorrow, and I laugh just as loudly and heartily. Ask the staff and investigators,” Maryia said in an interview.
Maryia deliberately chose prison instead of living in another country, tearing her passport at the border when they tried to take her out of Belarus.
In December 2020, Kalesnikava was awarded the Gergart and Renata Baum Foundation Human Rights Prize.
In March 2021, Maryia was among the winners of the annual International Women’s Award for Courage, presented by the US Secretary of State.
In April 2021, she was awarded the Lev Kopelev Prize for Peace and Human Rights.
In July 2021, she was awarded the Stuttgart Prize for ‘courageous struggle against the autocratic regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka and for human rights activities’.
Maryia is awaited by her father, grandmother and grandfather, and sister. Tamara Kalesnikava – Maryia’s mother – died suddenly in 2019. Alyaksandr Kalesnikau and his brother are now caring for their 90-year-old parents.
Maryia’s sister, Tatsyana Khomich, is a business analyst, but also a musician, like her sister.