Belarusian Academics Sacked for Writing Books and Fairy Tales

In Belarus, being an academic means that you work in an institution controlled by the state. Sometimes you cannot be a true scholar because you have to produce the "official truth". Otherwise you risk being repressed for disloyalty.

A good illustration of that is last month’s case of Hrodna University in western Belarus, where a number of prominent university teachers were put under pressure for fulfilling their professional as well as civil activity. A number of solidarity initiatives emerged to support repressed academics. Such campaigns may indicate the emergence of genuine civil society in Belarus.

Ban on Profession in Belarus

Under Lukashenka hundreds of scholars have been fired from universities for being in open opposition to the regime or just unwilling to follow its ideological line. These days such cases are rare because people who remain at universities try to avoid ideological confrontations and to be politically careful in their teaching and research, let alone any political or civil engagement.

While in Minsk, where most Belarusian universities are concentrated, the situation seems a little better, the regional institutions have been almost fully purged of the “unreliable element”. This situation has received the name “ban on profession”. Since all universities, including the few private ones, are controlled by the authorities, dismissed academics have no possibility to carry out their professional activity. In such circumstances, people either have to continue their work abroad or change occupation to make their living.

“Hrodna Studies” textbook causes a wave of repressions

"Hrodna Studies” is a comprehensive guide to the 1,000-year old history of one of Belarus’ culturally and historically richest cities. A number of famous researchers of Hrodna history authored the book. After some effort, they even managed to publish the book with Hrodna University Press in 2009.

Moreover, the book was officially recommended for teaching at schools and universities. However, the first edition was of bad quality, so the authors decided to publish a new edition, supplemented with pictures and a coloured cover.

All of a sudden, the authors of the book were summoned to the rector’s office where they faced representatives of the university administration and the KGB. They asked the academics to explain why the book was published in Poland, why Pahonia and the national flag were depicted on the cover, and why the narrative finished in 1991 and no description of present times was given.

Apparently, the authors decided simply not to touch the period of independence, as it needs much more time to be evaluated by historians. Concerning Pahonia and the flag, they were the first symbols of independent Belarus and due to this fact only have the right to be respected and depicted in historical literature. The authorities, however, regarded unwillingness to describe the glorious rule of Alexander Lukashenka as a sign of disloyalty, which was supported by the use of the "wrong" national symbols

Most of the university-employed authors subsequently did not give any comments on the situation as they feared losing their positions at the university. Soon, two of them were restricted in their teaching. The only one who dared to openly speak on the issue and defend his position was Andrei Charniakevich.

Andrei Charniakevich: Academic Fired for Civil Activity

Andrei Charniakevich, a docent from Hrodna University, had worked there for 11 years. He had a reputation as a distinguished researcher and teacher as well as active citizen, who had never committed any offences at work. On 14 September the university administration fired him for being late for by a few minutes, then returned him to his position but fired him once again for another minor and clearly false accusation.

Andrei himself believes that the real reasons behind the dismissal are his authorship of the “Hrodna Studies” book as well as his long-standing civil activity. Andrei was one of the active participants in the campaigns which tried to defend Hrodna’s architectural and natural heritage from the unprofessional and indifferent approach of the urban policy implemented by local authorities. Andrei had also commented on historical issues on Belsat, the opposition TV channel which broadcasts from Poland.

The Limits of the Absurd: Fairy Tales Threaten the Regime

Then another famous figure from Hrodna University fell under threat of dismissal. Ihar Kuzminich was a Deputy Head of Law Department and director of the Innovation Centre for Legal Education. He was also famous for his civic activity and popularisation of the Belarusian language. According to information from anonymous university workers which appeared on 8 October, the administration pressed Ihar to resign.

The reason seems totally absurd: they accused him of publishing fairy tales about Pahonia and the white-red-white flag in his online blog. Ihar creates fairy tales in the Belarusian language for kids and short video clips based on them, and publishes them online. Notably, a story about Ihar’s tales was showed on the official TV-channel ANT in winter 2012. Now, the tales seem to pose a real threat to the Belarusian authorities.

Civil Society Resists the Pressure: Solidarity Campaigns Launched

In response to these repressions, a big group of Belarusian and foreign historians and intellectuals published an open letter to the Minister of Education and Rector of Hrodna University. Since 5 October, a large number of people signed the letter via the Nasha Niva newspaper website.

The letter says that the dismissal of Charniakevich is based on false reasons and should be regarded as persecution for academic impartiality. It also condemns the widespread practice of dismissals of academics on the grounds of professional duties and urges the authorities to reinstate Andrei in his university position.

Another form of the initiative emerged at the local level. A group of Hrodna intellectuals established the Juzaf Jadkouski Award. It will be awarded to academics and intellectuals who have made a considerable contribution to the study of the past of Hrodna and to the development of historical urban studies.

Importantly, the problem received thorough attention at the Second Congress of Belarusian Studies, the main academic event of the year in social sciences and humanities, which was held on 28-30 September in Lithuania. Organisers and participants expressed their protest against the “ban on profession” and the exclusion of teachers with an active civil position from Belarusian universities.

They suggested that the Congress can become one of the platforms to support repressed academics by providing infrastructure, possibilities to carry out their professional activities abroad and provide other possible assistance.

The case of Hrodna University shows that emerging solidarity campaigns can provide a real way out for the repressed academics and, potentially, other active citizens. Such initiatives lay the foundations for more autonomy of society from the state and a reduction in its control over citizens.

Vadzim Smok

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