Few things can better describe the spirit of Liverpool fans better than the words etched in gold above the Shankly gates.
When Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein sat down to write the musical Carousel and its anthem, You’ll Never Walk Alone, they did not envisage it becoming a hymn for the masses, cascading down the creaking terrace of the Kop for decades after they penned its stirring lyrics.
It has provided hope in times of sorrow and ecstasy in times of glory at Anfield. Now it is giving comfort to a Belarusian journalist wrongly locked in a jail cell.
Journalist and Liverpool fan Andrei Aliaksandrau previously worked in the UK at the charity Index on Censorship – where I now work on placement from Liverpool John Moores University – for a number of years before returning to his native Belarus. The organisation, set up 50 years ago this year, aims to help those wrongly imprisoned and persecuted for daring to express their views or for telling the truth about what is happening in countries with oppressive regimes. Little did Andrei know; he would one day require our help.
Andrei was detained – along with his girlfriend Irina – in January this year and faces up to 15 years in prison in his home country due to a charge of high treason. His ‘crime’ was helping friends and colleagues pay off the oppressive fines given to them by the Belarusian authorities for their peaceful protests or covering demonstrations as journalists in the unrest following elections last August.
It is an act of generosity that Liverpool fans can recognise as the sort of community spirit and care for your fellow citizen that served them so well after the Hillsborough Disaster and through other projects such as Fans Supporting Foodbanks. Bill Shankly, who was known for welcoming many a supporter to his home, would surely have approved.
The situation in Belarus is dire. The president, Alexander Lukashenko (known often as “Europe’s last dictator”), has been in power since 1994, after the break-up of the Soviet Union of which the country was previously a part. Lukashenko declared himself winner of the 2020 elections with 80% of the vote. Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya disputed the result and was forced to flee to Lithuania. Following the election, the UK and many other governments said they would not accept the outcome, yet Lukashenko acts with impunity because of ongoing support from Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
Outrage over the result erupted in countrywide protests, demanding Lukashenko step down. But these demonstrations were met with a mass crackdown. Journalists, activists, lawyers and other regular citizens have been arrested and detained by the thousands. Over 1,000 were arrested in a single day in November alone.
As of 6 July, the number of those arrested stands at more than 35,000. According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), 29 reporters, including Andrei, remain in captivity and 87 have been arrested since January 2021. They have been arrested because Lukashenko does not like what they are writing.
The conditions in Belarusian jails are appalling and a number of those detained have been tortured.
And yet, our former colleague Andrei has seemingly remained upbeat and has not cowed in the face of a regime that wants him silenced. Indeed, it seems that the famous words of Rodgers and Hammerstein have steeled another in times of adversity.
The connection, aside from the fact the song is indeed the club’s official anthem, is obvious. People in Liverpool have faced years of adversity and strife, be it through the bombing of the docks in the Second World War, the strikes of the 1970s and 1980s, or the dreadful injustice of the Hillsborough Disaster in 1989, their ability to draw resilience from a few lines of a musical written in 1945 has always been remarkable.
So, when a Liverpool fan watches, thousands of miles away, as his home country is torn apart by greed and corruption, it is little wonder that his own resolve derives from the very same words.
In a letter to Andrei Bastunets in April, chairperson of the BAJ, the jailed Aliaksandrau offered words of comfort to his close friend, quipping “It turned out so funny. As I went to jail, Liverpool stopped playing properly!”
Even though it was Aliaksandrau behind bars, it was Bastunets receiving reassurance. Aliaksandrau wrote: “In general, there were many reasons to repeat the club’s anthem to myself – You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
“Words of support from letters (sometimes – with the results of the matches) made me sing [and] play it in my head. One day it got to the point where I caught myself mumbling the club’s anthem in Belarusian. It seemed a bit pompous – but it is a hymn.”
“But it seemed to me that it was somehow in tune with the moment, [with my] feelings or mood. So, I decided to share it with you. As an Arsenal fan (sorry for this) you will understand me. At least [you know] what they sing about in Liverpool. And – you will never be alone!”
Andrei’s words remained upbeat despite the Belarusian regime making it even more difficult for Aliaksandrau since his arrest.
Those detained in the country must be released after six months unless they are charged and Andrei was expecting to be released around now, perhaps with a fine as others have been. But the authorities have now slapped the treason charges on him and he faces an uncertain future.
It was also announced in mid-July that Andrei’s lawyer Anton Gashinsky had his license revoked by the authorities. The prominent human rights lawyer also counts among his clients Sofia Sapega, the girlfriend of Roman Protasevich, the journalist who was recently arrested after his Ryanair flight was forcibly redirected by the Belarusian authorities when flying over Belarusian airspace after a faked bomb scare.
Dzmitry Navazhylau, Andrei’s friend and former colleague at Belapan news agency, where Aliaksandrau worked as deputy director, spoke of his friend’s sheer joy that could be found from watching his team.
“Liverpool FC, without exaggeration, is Andrei’s love,” said Navazhylau. “He is one of few Belarusians to have LFC Official Membership. He watched all Liverpool games on the internet with English commentary.”
Andrei used his time in the UK to good effect, he says.
“While working in London, he was lucky enough to see the Reds play live. At one point, there was no way to get a ticket to Anfield. Therefore, Andrei bought a season ticket for Fulham’s home games. He bought a season ticket for another club’s matches to attend one game of his favourite team! But it was worth it!”
Navazhylau recalls: “The most memorable match we watched together was the 2019 UEFA Champions League Final – Liverpool against Tottenham Hotspur. We were dressed in Liverpool kits, chanting, and singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. When Salah and Origi scored their goals, and especially after the final whistle, Andrei was as happy as a child.”
It is unknown exactly when his fascination with the Reds began, but it is clear that his upbringing was in a household that was football mad. According to his friend and fellow journalist Kanstantin Lashkevich, Andrei’s father is “probably the only amateur statistician who tracks Belarusian lower-level leagues results”.
Like many fans, Andrei has spent a great deal of time, effort and money has been spent following his team over the years and it is a love for football and club that many on Merseyside can relate heavily to, as is his particular admiration for manager Jürgen Klopp and midfielder James Milner. He also travelled to Munich in 2019, as a journalist, to cover Liverpool’s quarter final Champions League tie with Bayern Munich.
And yet the reality is that, immortal as the words of You’ll Never Walk Alone are, they should not be used to sustain the sanity and goodwill of a man who has given much of his career to the protection of others.
Andrei’s situation is a reminder of how the day-to-day lives of people in a supposed democracy can deteriorate and why protests and free speech are so vital to protecting our individual rights and liberties.
When around 10,000 Liverpool fans marched out of a home game against Sunderland in 2016, protesting the rise of ticket prices, nobody was arrested.
When any person in the UK has to face the courts, for whatever reason, they do not have their legal representation forcibly removed from them.
But both of these things did happen to Andrei Aliaksandrau, whose only crime, many would argue, was embodying the spirit of what it is to be a Liverpool fan.
So how can Liverpool fans help Andrei realise he is not ‘walking alone’? You can sign the petition calling for the release of Andrei and his girlfriend – https://freeandreiandirina.org/ – and write to your local MP calling on the UK government to do more than just condemning the actions of ‘Europe’s last dictator’.
This article was originally printed in issue #276 of Liverpool FC fanzine Red All Over The Land. It has been published online with the kind permission of John Pearman. You can buy a copy outside Anfield on matchdays, or online here.