Vladimir Matyushenko awoke each morning for the past three weeks hoping nothing terrible happened.
The people of Belarus have taken to the streets since Aug. 9 and participated in general strikes calling for the removal of the nation’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, following an election that was “not free or fair,” according to the American government and international observers. Lukashenko is the only president of the republic of Belarus since it gained independence from a dismantling Soviet Union in the early 1990s. The election was the sixth straight that Lukashenko stood victorious since 1994. Human rights groups consider Belarus an autocracy, and Lukashenko is labeled Europe’s last dictator.
In response to large numbers of Belarusian people refusing to accept dubious election results, Lukashenko has played the part of a strongman, unleashing his police to quell uprisings. This is a game as old as the land being contested over, and Matyushenko saw it coming the moment Lukashenko walked through the door.
“Put it this way, I never voted for him,” Matyushenko said. “I already left, and I was not really paying attention. I just wanted to get the hell out of there. I know whoever it would be would not be good. When s--- is on fire and you have to get out of the building, you don’t care who is going to put it down or not. I just wanted to get out of there.”
Today, the former Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight title challenger and International Fight League champion lives in Los Angeles after experiencing what he described as the American Dream. That journey began in New York around Halloween, 26 years ago, several months after Lukashenko won his first election.
For a dual meet between the Belarusian national wrestling team and the Dave Schultz-coached Americans, Matyushenko and his teammates flew over the Atlantic on a two-week tour that was also scheduled to bring them to Kansas City and Phoenix. It was Matyushenko’s third time in America. A young child and his then wife remained home, as did other family members, who toiled outside the big city and fended for themselves on their farms.
“They can live with this dictator, [Vladimir] Putin, [Adolf] Hitler or back to the Soviet Union,” Matyushenko said. “They just grow vegetables in the garden, with cows and chickens. I told my mom when she visited to get rid of those chickens and rabbits: ‘I’ll send you enough money to survive.’ Now I tell her, ‘Mom, hold onto those chickens.’ They become useful.”
Wrestling allowed Matyushenko to know a life beyond the basics, but it did not provide for him and his family like he thought it should. When Matyushenko and his teammates had enough of the team’s coaches and government minders pocketing their per diem money, they engineered their own strike. Matyushenko said they agreed not to wrestle the following day unless they were paid that night.
“Everyone put our hands up,” he said. “When we actually told our coaches and government officials that we weren’t going to wrestle, the team chose me as a spokesman, and when I told the government officials, they asked us, ‘Who wasn’t going to wrestle? Hands up.’ I looked back and only one person there among the 15 had their hand up. When me and my friend raised our hands, the whole team was looking down, looking at their fingernails, pretending they don’t hear what I said. They betrayed me.”
The government officials immediately removed the two dissidents from the team and threatened to send them home forever, never to leave the country again, with none of the privileges that usually come for wrestlers of their caliber.
“When that happened, I decided to stay in the U.S.,” Matyushenko said. “I refused to come back. If you want to say I defected, yeah. We came with a team. At that time, our coaches and officials from the government, too, they were trying to stop us from doing it. We were traitors in their eyes and in the eyes of some of our teammates, too. That was difficult, but I never regret it; it was the best thing I ever did in my life.”
That night, Matyushenko found himself in front of Royce Alger’s door. The University of Iowa hall of famer was supposed to compete against him the next day. Instead, they walked over to Schultz’s room, where the great American wrestler was already in bed.
“I knocked on his door,” Matyushenko said. “‘Dave. Me. Stay here. America. No go back.’ He’s looking at me. It’s 11 o’clock, and he’s sleeping. That night, he made some phone calls and rearranged our stay and helped us out. For that, I will be forever grateful to him and Royce Alger. Of course it was scary. We had like $100 in our pocket. We bought Greyhound Bus tickets from New York to California. That was the beginning of our journey.”
Schultz suggested student visas and college classes. He told Matyushenko to learn English and wrestle, which he did while earning a bachelor’s degree in physical education and health science from the University of Nevada.
Three years after coming to America, Matyusehnko found mixed martial arts, as well as the rest of his life. He retired from competition in 2014—a year before the start of Lukashenko’s fifth term—and remains active as a trainer. Matyushenko turns 50 this January and makes a living working with Antoni Hardonk, who owns a pair of gyms in Los Angeles that have produced exciting young fighters for MMA’s major promotions. Currently, they are preparing Jordan Wright for his next UFC bout in October.
As regular life continues in the U.S. for Matyushenko, his people are learning what it means to push back against an autocratic regime. News reports are filled with stories and images of everyday Belarusians being pulled off the streets by Lukashenko’s police forces. Lines of Belarusian women have advanced on them like waves crashing onto seawalls.
“From the Soviet Union, Belarus changed to something else,” he said, “but I didn’t see much difference at that time, and I was right. It’s just a matter of time before it turns into a dictatorship. In any dictatorship, in the beginning it can be good, but eventually, dictators just tend to get crazy because there’s no checks and balances.
“That kind of dictatorship in that particular country was working pretty well because there was a lot of crime gangs that were taken off the street,” Matyushenko added, “but again, with a lot of power and no justice, that was it. There were no courts. A lot of them, including some of my friends, were physically eliminated. They got shot. A special forces group would just go in and shoot people. No court.”
These experiences have colored Matyushenko’s thoughts each morning for almost a month, when, 10 hours behind the Belarusian capital of Minsk, he catches up on the latest news.
“I saw this situation coming five years ago, 10 years ago,” he said. “I just didn’t know when it would happen. It’s happening. I want to ask those people where the hell they were when I experienced that 25 years ago? That’s why I ran away in the first place. People in a way kind of deserve it because they were OK with it for so long. They should have stopped it earlier, when he was elected a second or third time. Now it’s like, ‘OK, 25 years later, oh.’ They have a right to get a better life, but do they have the ability? I don’t know.”
Matyushenko is quick to admit he is no politician and does not claim to have answers, but his instincts and experience instruct him to believe this situation cannot proceed without increased suffering on both sides. Lukashenko is in a literal fight for his life. The Belarusian president supports and is backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Even if Lukashenko is ousted, Matyushenko thinks “a criminal will jump out because that’s second in power. I don’t want to see criminals in power again.”
After becoming an American citizen, Matyushenko understands as well as anyone the true cost of freedom and the righteousness of a cause that will not come without sacrifice.
“I’m an American, too, and I want to remind people that those rights need to be preserved,” Matyushenko said. “It’s not just the right to have it. It’s a right that has to be preserved and cherished. It’s not that you have it and that’s it. You have to adjust and work. It’s like a garden. You have nice fruits and trees, but you have to take care of them. I think we’re doing it. I think the whole world is having a hard time. I’m more optimistic about the United States than I am Belarus.
“I still think the United States is the best country in the world as far as that [goes],” he added. “It has its own issues, but I think the Constitution is made to eliminate those. It’s self-healing, put it that way, compared to other countries that have much more issues. That’s my opinion.”
For his people to fully realize the freedoms that Matyushenko knows, “they have to work for it. Freedom isn’t free. Americans know more than anybody about that. You have to pay for that. A lot of people, including in Belarus, they think America is so easy and so happy, that they just give it to you. No, you still have to work. You have to get up in the morning. The same thing with freedom. You have to fight for it.”