Deep in the Belarusian countryside, burly men with sun-burnt cheeks stood outside their quarry with home-made posters reading “We stand for free and fair elections” mounted on top of the machinery.
They were on strike for the first time in their lives in what could be the most significant week in the nation’s post-Soviet history - and another turning point in relations between Europe and Russia.
Small-town, working-class Belarus, once loyal to Alexander Lukashenko, the president of 26 years, has turned its back on Europe’s last dictator following widespread election fraud in Sunday's vote, savagery by riot police and horrifying stories of torture in Belarusian jails.
With the opposition ranks swelling in the capital Minsk, it is the heavy industrialised towns like Hrodna that could spell the end of the continent's longest-serving leader in the coming days.
To handyman Roman Vydra, in his mid-40s, a chubby man with a broad face, official results that gave Mr Lukashenko an 80 per cent win at the polls were a personal insult.
“No one thought the vote-rigging would be so brazen,” he told The Telegraph, standing in his tracksuit and oversized blue t-shirt near one of the loaders under the afternoon sunshine.
“I don’t know a single person who voted for the current president.”
While middle-class activists and intelligentsia marching in Minsk may not trouble Mr Lukashenko and his inner circle as he hangs on to power, factory floors cleared of workers rising up in the name of democracy leaves the strongman facing an uncomfortable reality.
Employees at tractor works, quarries, bus depots and oil refineries in Belarus have all downed their tools. Workers at dozens of state-owned factories across the country have either walked out or threatened industrial action unless authorities meet their demands: hold a new, fair election, stop police violence and release thousands of people detained at anti-government demonstrations earlier this week.
With state-paid workers turning against him, Mr Lukashenko is losing his main electoral base as well as billions of pounds in revenue that he has used to maintain Belarus’ mighty security apparatus and secret services.
The working-class revolt in Belarus has more than echoes of anti-Communist protests in eastern Europe in 1989 when workers tipped the scales to help bring down the Soviet Union.
Belarusian protesters are on the cusp of breaking a decades-old status quo in the region with Belarus serving as essentially the buffer zone between Russia and European democracies.
In the medieval town of Hrodna, just nine miles away from Poland where electoral fraud of the scale seen in Belarus would be unimaginable, workers spoke of monthly salaries under £300 and the way that outright lies on state TV, which portrays Belarus as a workers’ idyll, clash with the reality of declining living standards near the EU border.
At a quarry, several dozen men in tracksuit trousers and overalls stood by the side of the road, smoking cigarettes and waving white balloons at the passing cars.
“We’ve been cheated for such a long time, and now enough is enough,” said Mr Vydra, the handyman, who conceded that he and his friends did not care about elections in the past until they saw last Sunday’s vote-rigging and the ensuing crackdown.
This week's unrest began when protesters against Sunday's election result were met with a staggeringly vicious police response.
Riot police and special forces in full gear would throw stun grenades at unarmed people and fire rubber bullets into crowds, killing three. Belarusians with blood streaming down their faces fled the scene.
Days later, protesters were released from detention, with bruises covering their bodies like full-body tattoos in a chilling testament of beatings and torture at the hands of law enforcement.
Nearly 7,000 people across the country have been detained, and hundreds have been injured and beaten up while in custody. A 16-year-old man detained at a Minsk protest was taken to hospital from jail on Saturday after he fell into a coma from beatings.
The scenes of police violence have stunned the nation of nine million people, drawing comparisons to the country’s history as a major battlefield in the Second World War.
Hrodna, a quiet town of 370,000 people, with baroque cathedrals, was plunged into urban warfare for several nights in a row as riot police in full gear chased away anti-Lukashenko demonstrators.
Less than a mile away from Hrodna’s picturesque bridge overlooking two medieval fortresses, middle-aged men came out of the Neman cigarette factory to discuss an upcoming walkout during their lunch break. Standing in the air smelling of tobacco, the several dozen men spoke about a car accident provoked by riot police that shook residents to the core.
Rule of law in action! Policeman is punishing the drivers for illegal honking. No need for bureaucracy. pic.twitter.com/0fR1dnKNod— Franak Viačorka (@franakviacorka) August 13, 2020
On Tuesday night, riot police officers threw themselves onto a car of a local family and started thrashing it with truncheons as punishment for honking in support of the protests. An armoured vehicle rammed into the car from the back, injuring a five-year-old girl who was in the back seat, local media reported.
“What we saw on our streets was open warfare. How can you forget it and move on?” said Rashid Latykov, who came out of the factory building to buy a pack of Minsk cigarettes from a nearby kiosk. “Our country has been seized by a gang.”
Earlier that afternoon the cigarette factory workers held a union meeting. It started with a call to stand up to show if they voted for opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who fled the country after reported threats. The entire room of people in Neman’s blue uniforms got up and clapped.
But nothing, perhaps, cuts deeper for Mr Lukashenko than unrest at the iconic Minsk Tractor Works, which accounts for 10 per cent of global tractor production.
There is a saying in Belarus that outsiders know the country for two things: potatoes and tractors. Asked about the dangers of coronavirus earlier this year, the president said: "Tractors will heal everything."
Workers from the plant marched across the city centre on Friday after the prime minister refused to speak to them publicly during a visit.
On Thursday, several-hundred angry workers confronted the local mayor outside the gate of the BelAz heavy machinery plant in a Minsk suburb.
The country’s eight largest enterprises that have staged walkouts this week brought in a combined £9.5 billion in revenues last year, according to the Russian news website The Bell.
Once scared of losing their jobs, workers in Hrodna say they have passed the point of no return.
“That violence has changed anything - I can’t stay silent,” Larisa Rybak, a petite woman in blue-and-black overalls of the Hrodna Azot fertiliser plant, told The Telegraph as she walked out of the plant’s gate at the end of her shift to join a march into the city centre.
At 54, Mrs Rybak, who makes about £400 a month, is nearing state pension age in an economy with dim prospects, but she feels compelled to be part of the movement on the cusp of toppling President Lukashenko. “We have finally woken up, and we won’t leave till he goes.”
As the clock struck 5.30pm, she and several-hundred men and women in Hrodna Azot overalls set off from the factory to join a 30,000-strong rally in the centre, chanting “Long live Belarus!” and flashing peace signs.