Belarusian dissident artist Ales Pushkin, the country’s authoritarian leader Alexander G. Lukashenko died in prison while serving a five-year sentence, often targeting him by throwing a pile of manure outside the presidential offices in Minsk. He is 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” at a prison in Grodno, western Belarus.
Belarusian authorities did not immediately comment on his death. Citing an unnamed source, opposition Belarusian news site Most, based in Bialystok, Poland, some news outlets reported that Mr. Pushkin had a perforated ulcer and was taken to a prison hospital without treatment.
In 2021 he was arrested for a painting depicting an anti-Soviet resistance fighter, which the government said aimed to “rehabilitate and justify Nazism”.
Mr Pushkin “died as a political prisoner of the regime and the responsibility lies with his jailer, Lukashenko and his cronies,” the exiled Belarusian opposition leader said. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya wrote on Twitter.
“Dictators fear artists,” he said. “Why? Because they have the power to express thoughts and ideas that question the lies of the regime.
The artist has long been a thorn in Mr Lukashenko’s side.
The president was first elected in 1994, an ally of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin in his war against Ukraine. Since his re-election in hotly contested elections three years ago, he has enacted a brutal crackdown on dissent, speaking out against opposition figures, journalists, lawyers, social media critics and participants in the Luko Dialogue.
Thousands of political prisoners have been detained, according to the human rights group Vyasna, including Ales Bilyatsky, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in October.
Mr. Pushkin was arrested several times for acts of protest against the authorities, through performance art pieces, which cheekily combined the legal process. “The police and the judges who administer the fines become part of the show,” he once said.
In 1996, he created a national scandal with a giant mural painted on the walls of an Orthodox church in his native village of Babr. It depicts the day of judgment, with the righteous on Christ’s right and the sinners on his left condemned to hell. Among those affected were figures resembling Mr. Lukashenko and other government figures. The objectionable parts of the painting were soon painted over.
Mr. Pushkin escaped a brief stint behind bars in July 1999 with his howitzer-sensitive performance piece “A Gift for the President.” In an ironic tribute to Mr. Lukashenko’s service as an agricultural officer during the Soviet era, Mr. Pushkin, dressed in traditional peasant garb, stood outside the president’s office with a red bear on top. ing Soviet symbols, and toy handcuffs, the dung is covered with a portrait of Mr. Lukashenko crucified on a pitchfork.
Mr. Pushkin got off with a two-year suspended sentence.
“Playing the holy fool,” he said in a 2011 interview with journalist Max Seddon on the Open Democracy website, “is the highest form of freedom that has ever existed in our country.”
Alexander Mikhailovich Pushkin was born on August 6, 1965 in Bab, 80 miles northeast of Minsk in central Belarus.
He came of age when his country was still part of the Soviet Union, and after graduating from a boarding school for fine arts in 1983, he served in the Soviet military for two years in Afghanistan during Moscow’s invasion of the country.
“I was the only artist in my battalion,” he told Mr. Seddon. “Then I stopped being afraid of the government, the KGB, the police. And only after 20 years I realized that I would paint icons for Orthodox and Catholic churches, repenting for my cruelty – even if it was in a distant country.
After his military service, Mr. Pushkin returned to his studies at the Belarusian State Theater and Art Institute in Minsk, where he focused on monolithic decorative painting, the typical Soviet style of heroic murals, and also performance art. After completing his signature work as a student – a vast mural in the foyer of his old boarding school, celebrating its history – he was appointed a state-funded artist in Vitebsk, a position once held by Chagall, who was born there.
By then, Mr. Pushkin had begun exhibiting a series of works. A fierce Belarusian nationalist at the end of the Soviet era, he was arrested in 1988 and 1989 for participating in anti-government protests.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, he found himself 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 about Mr. Pushkin’s survivors, other than his wife, was not immediately available.
Mr. Pushkin’s final arrest occurred on March 30, 2021, when he was accused of “rehabilitating Nazism”. 2012 painting Yevgeny Zhikhar, an anti-Soviet resistance fighter, showed off a machine gun during and after World War II.
He was sentenced to five years in prison in March 2022. According to Vyasna, when the verdict was read, Mr. Pushkin removed his shirt to show a self-inflicted cut in the shape of a cross on his stomach.
Through it all, Mr. Pushkin was, in a sense, just doing his job.
“There are two types of Belarusian artists,” he said in a 2011 interview with Mr. For Seddon, “the official and the unofficial. But it’s not a question of ‘this art is good, this art is bad’. It’s a question of complexity and conformity.