Maria Kalesnikava

Maria Kalesnikava[a] (Marya Alyaksandrauna Kalesnikava,[b] Belarusian: Марыя Аляксандраўна Калеснікава, IPA: [maˈrɨja alʲakˈsandrawna kaˈlʲɛsʲnʲikava]; Maria Aleksandrovna Kolesnikova, Russian: Мария Александровна Колесникова, IPA: [mɐˈrʲijə ɐlʲɪkˈsandrəvnə kɐˈlʲesʲnʲɪkəvə]; born 24 April 1982) is a professional flutist and Belarusian political activist. In 2020, she headed Viktor Babariko’s electoral campaign during presidential elections of 2020 in Belarus.[1] Kalesnikava represented the united campaign of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, then she became a member of the presidium of the Coordination Council formed during the 2020 Belarusian protests in opposition to the regime of Alexander Lukashenko.[2] she is also the founder of the ‘Razam’ political party.

Maria Kalesnikava
Марыя Калеснікава
Мария Колесникова
Maria Kalesnikava 2020-08.png
Kalesnikava in 2020
Born (1982-04-24) 24 April 1982 (age 39)
Alma materBelarusian State Academy of Music
State University of Music and Performing Arts Stuttgart
OccupationFlutist, political activist, conductor, music teacher

Kolesnikova was kidnapped by the unidentified law enforcement officers on September 7, 2020. Early in the morning of September 8, 2020, she was by force taken to the Ukraine country border. Kolesnikova was intimidated and pressured to leave the country, but while being on the neutral grounds she got off the car from the rear window, tore her local passport to pieces and went back on foot. On the Belarusian territory she was arrested immediately. On the next day, Maxim Znak, Kolesnikova’s attorney, was also detained.

On 11 September 2020, Amnesty International recognized Kalesnikava as a prisoner of conscience.[3] She was awarded an International Women of Courage Award in 2021.[4]

On 6 September 2021, Kalesnikava was sentenced to 11 years in a penal colony for her political activity.[5][6]

Early life and musical careerEdit

Kalesnikava was born on 24 April 1982 in Minsk to a family of engineers. She has one sibling, a sister named Tatsiana.[7] According to Tatiana, their parents were deeply fond of music, they helped daughters to develop interest to it and in a certain way influenced Maria’s choice of profession.[8][9] Maria studied in a music school, then graduated from the Belarusian State Academy of Music as a flutist and conductor.[10][11]

At the age of 17, Kalesnikava started teaching the flute at a private gymnasium school in Minsk. She also played the flute at the National Academic Concert Orchestra of the Republic of Belarus under the direction of Mikhail Finberg.[7][12] She played on tours across Italy, Poland, and Lithuania.[11]

At the age of 25, she moved to Germany and enrolled to the State University of Music and Performing Arts in Stuttgart. She got two master's degrees, one in Early Music, and another in Neue Musik in 2012.[13][14][11]

In the 2010s, Kalesnikava performed at concerts and was actively involved in organizing international cultural projects in Belarus and Germany,[15][16] for instance, she was one of the creators of ‘Eclat’ music festival.[17] Her other projects included ‘Music and the Holocaust’, school programm ‘Orchestra of Robots’, and a series of lectures under the title "Music Lessons for Adults".[18][19]

In 2017, Maria participated in one of the first TEDxNiamiha conferences in Belarus.[8] She took part in creation of the ‘Artemp’ art community that hosted contemporary art events.[20] In the same year, she became the art director of the ‘OK16’ culture centre in Minsk.[11][8]

Political activityEdit

Kalesnikava campaigning for Tsikhanouskaya in Babruysk on 25 July 2020

In May 2020, Kalesnikava became the head of Viktar Babaryka's presidential campaign, who was Alexander Lukashenko’s greatest independent competitor at the 2020 Belarusian presidential election. When Babaryka was refused registration and detained,[21][22][23] on July 16, 2020, Kalesnikova and representatives of two other independent candidates’ campaigns — Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (wife of Sergei Tikhanovsky) and Veronika Tsepkalo (wife of Valery Tsepkalo) — announced creation of triple alliance.[24][25][26] Tsikhanouskaya became their mutual candidate, she gained wide support across the country.[27] When Lukashenko declared himself a winner with 80,1% of votes,[28] the opposition refused to acknowledge the results and accused Lukashenko of massive falsifications.[29][30] USA, Great Britain, Canada and 8 EU countries refused to acknowledge the election’s results as legitimate.[31] The street protests and meetings emerged across the country, demanding re-election and Lukashenko’s dismissal.[32], brutally put down by law enforcement[33][34][35]

Kalesnikava in her interviews always emphasized that she wasn’t any kind of ‘protest leader’ and never took part in the meetings' organization. In that time Belarusian opposition pursued the idea that all citizens were protest leaders and everyone was responsible for his country’s future.[36][37] She visited protest meetings as a private person, via mass media she asked both citizens and law enforcement to preserve peace.[38][39][40]

On August 18, 2020, Kalesnikava joined the 7-member presidium of Coordination Council.[41][42] On August 19, she was selected as one of the main board members.[43][44][45]

By mid-August Tikhanovskaya and Tsepkalo were forced by authorities to leave the country.[46][47] Meanwhile, Kolesnikova stated to the media that she by no means would leave Belarus because she felt it was deeply personal not to flee while her colleagues and friends were jailed under unlawful charges.[8][48]

On August 31, 2020, Kalesnikova announced the start of a new political party ‘Razam’ that she intended to make a democratic tool to protect human rights in the country.[49][50]

Arrest and RepressionsEdit

On September 7, 2020, Belarusian media published the news that Kalesnikava was kidnapped in the centre of Minsk. Her friends and colleagues couldn’t reach her by phone. Later, witnesses stated that a woman was forcibly put into a black minivan by some unknown men in civilian clothes with covered faces.[51] In the morning of September 8, 2020, the news was published that the authorities tried to deport Maria against her will, she was taken to the Alexandrovka border crossing with Ukraine. Later, Anton Gerashenko, Ukraine’s Deputy Home Minister, explained that ‘it was a deportation by force, against her will’.[52] The State Border Committee of the Republic of Belarus reported that at 4 a.m. she left Belarus together with Eugene Kravtsov [ru] and Anton Rodnenkov [ru] passed the border control and headed towards Ukraine.[53] State-controlled TV-channels put around the story that Kalesnikava was detained at the border cross when trying to leave the country and move to her sister in Ukraine.[54] In fact, as confirmed by the witnesses Rodnenkov and Kravtsov, in the neutral zone Kalesnikava managed to escape through the rear window of the car where she was kept, tore her passport to pieces, then headed back to Belarusian border.[55][56][57][58] There she was immediately arrested.[52] Following these news, Bundestag vice-chairman Klaudia Roth promised to patronage Kalesnikava and help her via Libereco organization.[59]

On September 9, 2020, Kalesnikava’s colleague in Coordination Council, lawyer Maxim Znak was also arrested.[60] On the same day, Kalesnikava's father, Aliaksandar Kalesnikau, was notified by the police that she had been jailed at a detention centre in Minsk.[61][62][63][64] Through her lawyers, Maria appealed to the State Investigative Committee with the complaint that KGB and GUBOP officers threatened to kill her, they put a sack on her head and promised ‘to deport her whether in one piece or in many pieces’.[65][66] Deputy Head of Department of Home Affairs Gennadiy Kazakevich personally told Kalesnikava that she ‘will work in prison for 25 years without teeth’ if she further refuses to be deported.[67]

On August 20, Alexander Konyuk, the Prosecutor General of Belarus, initiated criminal proceedings against the members of the Coordination Council under Article 361 of the Belarusian Criminal Code, on the grounds of attempting to seize state power and harming national security.[68][69]

On September 12, Kalesnikava was transferred from Minsk to a temporary detention facility in Zhodino.[70] On 16 September, the Investigative Committee of Belarus charged Kalesnikava with "actions aimed at undermining Belarusian national security" using the media and the Internet.[71]

On 10 October 2020, Kalesnikava's attorney Aliaksandar Pylchanka announced that Lukashenko requested a meeting with her to discuss changes to the Constitution, to which she refused in an expression of solidarity with other imprisoned dissidents.[72] On 8 November 2020, the press office of the Babaryka campaign announced that investigators had extended Kalesnikava's detention until 8 January 2021.[73]

On 6 January 2021, the Coordination Council announced that investigators had extended Kalesnikava's pre-trial detention until 8 March.[74][75] She was transferred back to Minsk.[76] In the end of the month, on January 27, the Investigative Committee refused to open a criminal case against law enforcement officers who threatened to kill her.[66]

On 12 February, Kalesnikava and Maxim Znak were charged with "conspiracy to seize state power in an unconstitutional manner" and "establishing and leading an extremist organization".[77] Her attorney Liudmila Kazak was stripped of her license to practice law on 19 February by the Belarus Ministry of Justice.[78] On March 9, 2021, Viktar Babaryko's social media reported that Kalesnikava's pre-trial detention had been extended through 8 May.[79] Her attorney Ilya Salei is under house arrest through 16 April.[80] Final charges in May 2021 included three articles of the State Criminal Code.[81][82][83] The defence refused all accusations and demanded to drop all charges due to absence of the event of a crime.[84] The investigation and the trial were held behind closed doors, the accused were prohibited to study the case files.[85][86]

For a year, in detention, Kalesnikava were denied visitors and couldn’t meet her father.[87] According to Tatiana Kalesnikava, Maria wrote more than 150 letters per month while jailed, no more than 20 were received by the addressees. The correspondence sent to her was heavily censored, Kalesnikava received no more than 5 % of letters, written to her. She also was prohibited from getting a flute, a year without practice could forever ruin her mastery as a musiain.[86]


Starting 4 August 2021, after almost 11 months in custody, Kalesnikava and Maxim Znak stood trial behind closed doors in the Minsk Regional Court. They faced up to 12 years in prison. Maria pleaded non guilty and called any charges against her and Znak 'absurd'. Throughout the investigation and trial, the details of the charges were not publicly disclosed. The attorneys of Kalesnikava and Znak were under a nondisclosure agreement.[88][89][90] Though the authorities promised to make the proceedings public, in fact the courtroom was filled with some strangers, foreign ambassadors who wanted to support Kalesnikava and Znak weren’t allowed inside.[91]

On 6 September 2021, Kalesnikava was sentenced to 11 years in prison.[92] Both she and Znak refused to request for pardon because they believed they were innocent. They planned to appeal to a higher court.[93]

In a written interview, Kalesnikava told the media that in jail she was offered many times to make a movie ‘Protasevich-like’ with confessions and to admit guilt for her actions.[94] In her first interview after the sentence, given by phone to BBC journalist Sara Rainsford, Kolesnikova complained that in prison ‘everyone smokes everywhere’, and the prolonged passive smoking will forever ruin her chances to come back as a professional flutist. However, she says she regrets nothing and believes that the protests of 2020 were the beginning of a new era in the country.[95][96] According to Kalesnikava, triumph of democracy in Belarus is only a matter of time.[97]

Reactions to Kalesnikava arrestEdit

Human rights activists and international community condemn Kalesnikava’s sentence, the case is unanimously considered to be fabricated.[98][99] The sentence is repressive and made as Lukashenko’s political revenge.[100][101]



  1. ^ This is the name she chose to be identified with. Note that the first name (Maria) is Russian, and the surname (Kalesnikava) is Belarusian. It is unknown whether she prefers the Russian patronymic (Aleksandrovna) or one of the two Belarusian patronymics (Alyaksandrauna and Alaksandraŭna).
  2. ^ Also Maryja Alaksandraŭna Kalesnikava in the Belarusian Latin alphabet.


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