Prisoners of Authoritarianism: Alexievich and her Critics

Observers named Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich among favorites for the Nobel Prize again this year. Alexievich's books come out in 35 languages. Her trophies include German, American, Polish, Swedish, Austrian and international awards, but not a single distinction from Belarus.

Instead of cheering for their acclaimed compatriot, the Belarusian blogosphere bristled with indignation upon hearing the Nobel nomination news. But far from lacking national pride, Alexievich’s critics denounce Alexievich for writing in Russian and covering Soviet rather than Belarusian history. More than 60% of participants in an online poll by the Belarusian Writers Union believe Alexievich will not get the award.

This surprising lack of patriotism for Alexievich’s work results from the two decades of authoritarianism and suppression of Belarusian culture in independent Belarus. Alexievich's critics are driven by political reasons, rather than for the quality of her writing. In an unfree country, every decision becomes political. The politicization of Belarusian literature risks undermining the quality of the national literary heritage for decades to come. 

What is wrong with Alexievich 

Most condemn Alexievich for writing in Russian. For example, Gleb Labadzenka's writes for Naviny.by, "What can be simpler? If it's written in Belarusian - it is Belarusian literature. If the work is in Russian - it is Russian literature." Similar views are expressed by civic campaign Budzma and Belarusian Solidarity Platform.The livejournal by_mova even conducted a poll on whether Alexievich is a Belarusian writer.

Many critics reference Alexievich's interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung from this past summer, in which she calls Belarusian "rural and literarily unripe”.​ Although Alexievich later denied this statement, the uproar continues to reverberate in Belarusian independent media, with the Belarusian independent newspaper Narodnaya Volya even referring to the existence of an online petition against Alexievich's candidacy.

The same detractors fault Alexievich for focusing on the Soviet past of Belarus rather than addressing Belarus’ independent history. Indeed, Alexievich’s work has focused on issues such as the Chernobyl tragedy (“Chernobyl prayer”), the war in Afghanistan (“Zinky boys”), women soldiers in WWII (“War’s Unwomanly Face”), or the syndrome of homo sovieticus ( “Time Second Hand”).

The critics have a different view of these historical narratives and blame Alexievich for uncovering the ugly side of Belarusian history instead of glorifying Belarus as a nation. Sevyaryn Kviatkouski writes on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty blog, "Alexievich is not only physically absent from Belarus.... [but] to this day mentally lives in the USSR". Perhaps the strongest denouncement of Alexievich came from Zianon Pazniak, leader of the Christian Conservative party. Already in 2009, Pazniak called Alexievich a liar and a belarusophobe in a blogpost evocatively titled "About moral depravity". 

The Belarusian regime also disapproves of Alexievich, which may actually be a plus – at least in the eyes of the foreign observers. Her books do not come out in Belarus or appear in school curricula. 

What is wrong with Belarus

​​Language choice and the interpretation of history grow increasingly politicized in Belarus. Just as the Belarusian opposition failed to unite in the presence of a common opponent, so the Belarusian cultural elite does not rally around a common goal of advancing Belarusian culture. Arguably, the West helps feed this conflict by rewarding political martyrdom. The very existence of numerous Western freedom and courage awards fosters a competition for victimhood and mutual accusations in Belarus.

Most nominations are contested in Belarus as they pit opposition and civil society leaders against one another. Oppression by the Lukashenka regime has become a sort of the rite of passage, and many celebrated works see Belarus through the eyes of the West, often exaggerating its problems. The recent film "Viva Belarus", celebrated in the international media, exemplifies catering to Western tastes by exaggerating the dark side of Belarusian realities

The Belarusian government benefits from the status quo, and even encourages internal discord among the cultural elite by supporting, for example, a second, ideologically “correct” Writers’ Union. In short, living under authoritarianism and competing for Western attention forces many promising artists to dabble into politics and breeds unhealthy competition and envy. 

Learning from history

The tragic history of Belarus – centuries of wars and imperial domination – partly explains propensity for mixing politics and art. The first known "language wars" among the Belarusian cultural elite date back to the 19th century. Back then, in order to prove the language’s viability, playwright and poet Dunin-Marcinkiewicz had his peasant characters speak Belarusian - an important innovation at the time.

The next generation of writers, while sharing the same goal of promoting the Belarusian language, criticized Marcinkieicz's decision as depicting Belarusian language as rural and immature. 

Uneasy compromises lie at the very foundation of Belarusian independent state. For example, during World War II, one group of Belarusians sought to establish an independent Belarus under German tutelage. They succeeded in founding Belarusian People's Republic (BNR) in 1918 Vilnius, but were later confronted by another group on the Soviet side of the border as German collaborators. 

The fine line between art and propaganda

Fast-forwarding to contemporary Belarus, Lukashenka himself tries playing the nationalism card by emphasizing that he stands up to Russia. For better or for worse, neither ethnic nationalism of the political forces such as the Belarusian National Front nor Lukashenka’s populist variety seem to find much support among the Belarusian masses. According to the poll by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS) in January 2013, over 40% of respondents support neither Lukashenka nor the opposition. 

In an interview with Russian magazine Ogoniok last month, Alexievich explained the “red man”, homo sovieticus, as follows: “You cannot listen, when you are in an argument you are ready to destroy the opponent. You have a very flat view of the world. Your world is black and white.” 

This is a good description of Belarus’s contentious and dogmatic cultural atmosphere, in which both the regime's opponents and supporters alike practice the denunciation of writers who do not follow the political script. At the end of the day, both Alexievich and her critics remain prisoners to Belarus’ Soviet past and authoritarian present, and would achieve better outcomes by realizing their common goals. 

With Lukashenka having won the IgNoble prize this year for “making public applause illegal and having arrested a one-armed man for the offence” Belarus badly needs positive publicity. The two nominations of Belarusians for the Nobel prizes - political activist Ales Bialacki, affiliated with Viasna Human Rights center, and Sviatlana Alexievich -  should have evoked more solidarity from fellow Belarusians.

Volha Charnysh is an analyst with the Ostrogorski Centre, the Executive Editor of Belarus Digest and a PhD Candidate in Government at Harvard University.

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