ILL LUKAŠENKA ARRANGE A ‘BABI YAR’FOR THE LITERARY COMMUNITY OF BELARUS?
There was a Belarusian writer who reacted to the destruction of the cultural organisations in Belarus with a joke in the style of the anecdotes that were popular back in the time of the USSR:
Radio Armenia was asked: Why were the Belarusian Association of Journalists and Belarusian PEN the first organisations chosen for liquidation?
Radio Armenia answered: Because the ‘Society for the Belarusian Language’ and the ‘United Organisation of Belarusians of the World’ come later in the alphabet.
‘Spot on!’ was the sad response made by all those who commented on the writer’s joke. By the end of August 2021 – the time when this virtual dialogue took place – the closure of not-for-profit organisations had become routine, and the ‘alphabetical’ logic of the repression of civil society was totally obvious. Belarusian PEN, founded in 1989, was liquidated by Supreme Court judge Anna Sakaloŭskaja on 9 August, and on 1 October judge Ihar Miĺto ordered the closure of the Union of Belarusian Writers – the oldest literary organisation in the country, founded in 1932. Between 13 July 2021, when Lukašenka reported to Putin that his ‘witch hunt’ had started, and November, when I am writing these lines, some 270 not-for-profit organisations in Belarus were shut down.
This, as would have been said back in the USSR, was a significant overfulfilment of the plan. After all, on 30 July 2021 Lukašenka announced: ‘As a result of measures that have been taken, 185 destructive organisations have been identified that pose a potential threat to national security.’
These ‘measures’ were sudden, unannounced checks initiated by the Ministry of Justice in the offices of civil organisations, as well as searches, seizures and arrests carried out by the Chief Directorate for Combatting Organised Crime and Corruption of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Belarus; this branch of the law enforcement agencies is known as ‘Lukašenka’s oprichniks’. These special police wear black face masks and forcibly break their way into premises, frightening people half to death, wreaking the kind of havoc that causes severe damage to apartments and offices.
The staff of Belarusian PEN had to undergo detailed checks by state officialdom in June, a little earlier than their colleagues in the Union of Writers. On the other hand, the police raided both organisations at the same time, together with a couple of dozen other civil organisations, on 14 July. True, there was an odd incident connected with the search of Belarusian PEN. Taćciana Niadbaj, the organisation’s Vice-President, told the press: ‘Because of the pandemic, the staff of Belarusian PEN have been working from home and consequently there was no one actually in our legally registered office at the time. As a result, the police raided another organisation that shares the same address and seized their hardware – the staff of this organisation were witnesses.’
The search was ‘demonstrative’ in the literal sense of the word. It was shown on state TV channels, and transmitted on pro-Lukašenka internet sites. The propagandist Liudmila Hladkaja saw shots of a risograph being carried out of the office of PEN’s neighbours. This is a piece of apparatus capable of printing in red on a white background. “Look,” she exclaimed joyfully, “this is what she’s been up to, you know, Śviatlana Alieksijevič, that woman who sold herself to the West.”
It is precisely the printing of proclamations and stickers bearing the national white-red-white flag on which State propaganda and the law enforcement agencies focus most attention – as though the internet has not yet reached Belarus. This is quite possible: the target audience at which the damning material they produce is aimed (an audience that can in fact be reduced to one single man – guess who) was brought up on films of the Second World War, where the chief means of communication between the troops on both sides and the population of occupied territories were leaflets dropped dramatically from aeroplanes over villages. Although, if you want to defame your enemy by talking about something printed on a risograph (even if it is the most ultra-modern model) belonging to PEN, you can really do so only if PEN is an organisation that still lives in the 20th century. “So,” said a writer on her Facebook page, “they didn’t confiscate Frańcišak Skaryna’s printing press from the PEN office, then?” After all, it was Skaryna, who in 1517 put out the first printed book in Old Belarusian, and so started this whole business of book publishing, cultural renaissance, freedom of expression…
In her absence Śviatlana Alieksijevič turned out to be a key figure in the court proceedings that led to the liquidation of PEN in Belarus. The organisation was formally closed down because it ‘received funding from abroad’. The court regarded this funding as aid to the organisation from the Nobel Prize laureate, even though she is a citizen of Belarus and a tax-paying resident there. The internationally famous writer was forced to leave for Germany after the forces of law and order attempted to break into her apartment in September 2020. On that occasion diplomats from Lithuania, Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Sweden and the Czech Republic gathered in her apartment (photo for illustration here) to prevent her being taken into custody.
The summer attack on not-for-profit organisations and the independent media also left its mark on the cultural community. Voĺha Rakovič, bookkeeper for PEN and other cultural organisations, spent several days in prison alongside many others. Some of those arrested at the time have now been released, while others – for example, Andrej Skurko and Jahor Marcinovič, both editors of the holding company ‘Naša Niva’; Alieś Bialiacki, political writer and head of the Human Rights Centre ‘Viasna’ – are still behind bars. According to the monitoring of cultural rights violations conducted by Belarusian PEN, the current year (2021) has seen the arrest and imprisonment of more than sixty People of the Word (a poetic term coined by human rights defenders who also happen to be writers).
* * *
Show me Babi Yar in Belarus,
Where the dead lie strewn, just show me.
We’ll take a knife to gouge them out,
Those bastards that you fund.
This was the contradictory tirade with which Lukašenka reacted on 20 November to the remark made by the BBC journalist Steve Rosenberg about the forced closure of 270 not-for-profit organisations. I have here deliberately set out the words like a folksy poem. The only way from outside Belarus to understand what is happening inside the country right now is to get into the head of the dictator. In fact, it is virtually impossible for anyone who thinks logically. Adepts of surrealism are probably the only ones who have any chance of success.
The rhetoric of violence is frequently present in whatever Lukašenka says; his obsession with blood and war is also evident. In the years preceding the protests, Lukašenka often spoke disparagingly of the Belarusians; apparently the reason for doing this was precisely the nation’s peaceful nature. The events of autumn 2020 quite clearly show us that the dictator wanted people to shoot at him or throw stones, so that he could then have the pleasure of shooting or throwing something back at them. At least, this is how he painted the picture of the protests after the elections of 9 August 2020 in the interview with Rosenberg. His vision of what happened has nothing in common with reality. Belarusians came out onto the streets to make a non-violent protest, with music and songs, with concerts, performances and simple tea drinking arranged in the open spaces between their apartment blocks. It was for this that they had to be ‘gouged out’. It was for this that the rock group Irdorath was sentenced to imprisonment on criminal charges – for using bagpipe and drums to set the rhythm for demonstrators. All the members of the rock group RSP did fifteen days inside for holding a concert for the residents of a group of apartment blocks. They have all had to emigrate. And finally: more than one hundred people in Biareściehave now received sentences for participating in an old folkloric ritual – a massive ring-dance with singing.
In this connection cultural analysts are discussing two possible scenarios for the Belarusian literary community in conditions where terror prevails.
One of those scenarios may provisionally be called ‘optimistic’. Belarusian writers are not going to be ‘ out’ deliberately, because literature is of no significance in Lukašenka’s value system. In itself this is paradoxical: the Belarusian dictator is without doubt a ruler of the Nero type, and would be perfectly capable of setting fire to a Rome of his own simply for the sake of poetic inspiration. (This is precisely why many Belarusians fear for the fate of the Astraviec nuclear power plant, commissioned in 2020 in the north of Belarus and located in the immediate proximity of the border with the European Union.)
Judging by the reactions of our repulsive politician, writers in themselves are of no benefit to his authority, but they are not especially harmful either. Literature in book form has now ceded its place in the foreground to the technologies of the modern era, the mass media and entertainment. This is why we find among those especially targeted for repression in Belarus today so many representatives of the IT sector, as well as celebrities – TV presenters, supermodels, and well-known sportsmen, all of whom supported the protests: people who these days it has become customary to call ‘opinion formers’. The regime does not at the moment include poets and prose writers among their number. The majority of literary figures who were imprisoned in the summer and autumn of 2020 found themselves inside because they had participated in mass actions; in other words, they had displayed their civic engagement. They include the poets Hanna Komar and Uladzislaŭ Liankievič on the staff of Belarusian PEN, and a couple of members of both PEN and the Union of Belarusian Writers, the poet and publisher Dźmitry Strocaŭ and Alieś Žlutka, a professor of Latin, and many others besides.
There are, however, those among the People of the Word whom the Belarusian dictator regards or once regarded as personal enemies. First there was Vasiĺ Bykaŭ, a great writer who portrayed the Second World War in Europe in his fiction; he was outspoken in his condemnation of Lukašenka’s policies in the 1990s, and in later years was subjected to constant attack in the official media and compelled to emigrate. His role has now been taken by Śviatlana Alieksijevič; she was always openly opposed to the Lukašenka regime, and now – as a Nobel Prize laureate – her international renown is a major source of irritation to the dictator. After all, this is something for which he has always blatantly striven. We may add the novelist and poet Uladzimir Niakliajeŭ; eleven years ago he issued a challenge to Lukašenka in the presidential election campaign. On election day, 19 December 2010, he was beaten up and thrown in jail. Today he is living abroad; his latest novel, The Valley of the Son of Hinnom on the death of Janka Kupala, has had to be published in Poland.
The literary critic Aliaksandr Fiaduta was accused of plotting a coup and is now incarcerated in the KGB pre-trial detention facility. He was a member of Lukašenka’s team prior to the presidential election of 1994, and so had a detailed knowledge of how he came to power. He soon became one of the main critics of the first Belarusian president.
The writer and cultural studies specialist Julija Čarniaŭskaja may be regarded as an involuntary hostage of Lukašenka’s hatred. She is the widow of Jury Zisser, patron of the arts and owner of the largest media portal in Belarus, tut.by. Zisser died in May 2020 after a long struggle with a serious illness. In the final years of his life he devoted a huge amount of energy to preventing tut.by from being swallowed by the state. In general he succeeded by using the kind of fighting talk that Lukašenka loves so much: the portal ‘died, but never surrendered’. The portal’s servers were publicly destroyed by the authorities on the anniversary of its founder’s death, 18 May 2021. Their content, amassed over twenty years of work (and essentially an objective reflection of twenty years of the life of Belarus) was destroyed with it. The staff of the portal’s editorial office were imprisoned, and Julija Čarniaŭskaja herself has now been under house arrest for six months.
It is in general not typical of writers to want power; we may assume that the regime prefers not to fight the independent literary world in Belarus direct, but rather to marginalise it and/or drive it out of the country. Most of us have already lost the status of ‘cultural workers’ because of the closure of the cultural unions, and so are now ranked among the ‘parasites’; in Belarus, just as in the last years of the USSR, this is an economically oppressed category of citizens.
There is another, even less joyful prognosis. The total destruction of the cultural sphere has been postponed for the time being, while Lukašenka is busy playing the ‘migrant crisis’ game.
Civil society is being ‘gouged out’ sector by sector, and it may well be that the authorities have not yet got around to dealing with the literary world. Unfortunately, the Belarusian regime ‘has enormous potential for internal repression’, as the media expert Maryja Sadoŭskaja-Komlač has stated. One version of events has it that the law enforcement agencies are trying to piece together a puzzle from the stories of the 270 liquidated organisations to make a picture of some kind of horrifying plot emanating from the humanities. Within this plot writers and translators form only part of the overall picture, together with defenders of birds and lovers of curling (their societies in Belarus have also been closed down).
There will be only one observer at this gigantic court case, if it ever happens. Guess who.
The managements of the Union of Belarusian Writers and Belarusian PEN both reacted in the same way to the liquidation of their organisations as juridical persons: any association formed by people who have joined together and regard themselves as an association cannot simply be liquidated. As Yuval Noah Harari has said, any ‘juridical person’ at first takes shape in the minds of individuals, and only subsequently has its existence confirmed on paper. What we have in Belarus is a failure of the law, and in such circumstances it is not important if the association is registered, provided that all participants have a clear understanding of the association’s purpose.
However, the two main literary organisations in Belarus have adopted different strategies. The independent Union of Writers remains in Belarus. The organisation’s office on Kuźma Čorny Street has been sealed, and its hardware seized. For reasons of security nothing can be said here about what is going to happen.
Belarusian PEN has relocated its decision-making centre to a safe, neighbouring country. The Belarusian branch of International PEN will acquire a new juridical status in an environment more favourable to the existence of not-for-profit organisations, but will essentially be the same organisation that it was in Belarus; continuity will be preserved. Throughout 2021 the primary literary awards administered by PEN have been presented online. The first two of these were the Nataĺlia Arsieńnieva poetry award and the Carlos Sherman award for translators. The Jerzy Gedroyc Literary award for the best prose work written in Belarusian was announced on 26 November. Such is the nature of the situation in Belarus at the moment that the Frańcišak Aliachnovič award for works of literature created in prison – sponsored jointly by PEN and the Belarusian service of Radio Liberty – has been shared by seven writers: Andrej Aliaksandraŭ, media expert and poet, for his Vieršy z-za krataŭ [Poems from behind Bars]; Voĺha Kalackaja, translator, for her Turemny dziońnik [Prison Diary]; Śviatlana Kuprejeva, poet, for her Cykl turemnych vieršaŭ [Cycle of Prison Poems]; Mikola Papieka, poet, for his Cykl turemnych vieršaŭ [Cycle of Prison Poems]; Andrej Skurko, editor of Duda, a journal for children, for the tales and poems written for his son; Aliaksandr Vasilievič, patron of the arts, for the book of tales Papa i Pinhvin [Papa and the Penguin], written for his daughter; Maksim Znak, lawyer, poet and prose writer, for his Cykl turemnych vieršaŭ [Cycle of Prison Poems].
Representatives of Belarusian PEN have responded to the enforced closure of not-for-profit organisations in Belarus with a Manifesto, the English text of which can be found here.
The websites of Belarusian PEN and the Union of Belarusian writers have been blocked by the Ministry of Justice and are accessible only outside Belarus. News of the organisations can be followed on social media, eg Facebook and Telegram:
The People of the Word of Belarus now find themselves in a very difficult situation; financial support can be offered via the Go Fund Me platform:
 Babi Yar is a ravine in Kyiv; it was the scene of mass killings of Jews during the Nazi occupation of the Second World War.
 ‘Armenian Radio’ jokes, based on a question-and-answer structure, were popular in the USSR in the second half of the twentieth century.
 An ‘oprichnik’ was a member of the ‘oprichnina’, a special organisation set up by Tsar Ivan the Terrible in sixteenth-century Muscovy to rape, pillage and murder at will.
 The initials of the Belarusian words for the group’s full name: The Lad’s Broken Heart.
 The standard period of ‘administrative arrest’ for doing something, however innocuous, that irritates the regime. The period of arrest is usually spent in the horrendous prison on Akreścina Street in Miensk.
 The Belarusian name for the city the Russians call ‘Brest’, on the border with Poland.