Belarusian Nobel laureate Sviatlana Alieksijevič hit by a smear campaign
On 19 June, the Russian information agency Regnum published a widely discussed interview with Sviatlana Alieksijevič, the 2015 Nobel Prize Winner from Belarus. Despite the fact that Alieksijevič forbade Regnum to publish the interview, the news outlet went ahead and released the article.
In a conversation with journalist Sergei Gurkin, Alieksijevič touched upon the issues of Russification in Belarus, the war in Ukraine, and the status of the Belarusian and Ukrainian languages. The interview led to widespread discussion of Alieksijevič in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.
The Russian media in particular was keen to discuss the interview, accusing Alieksievič of holding a 'Russophobic position'. Meanwhile, reactions in Belarus and Ukraine were more of a response to the scandal in Russia than to Alieksievič's own words.
Why did the interview go viral?
On 19 June, the Russian news service Regnum published a conversation between Belarusian Nobel Laureate Sviatlana Alieksijevič and Sergei Gurkin, a journalist for the media outlet Delovoy Peterburg. Although Alieksijevič explicitly stated during the conversation that it should remain off record, Gurkin insisted on seeking publication.
This decision would cost the journalist his job: Delovoy Peterburg refused to publish the interview for ethical reasons. Thus, Gurkin offered the interview to Regnum, which accepted the article. Delovoy Peterburg subsequently fired the journalist for violating journalistic ethics, but the published interview was already causing heated discussion in Russia.
Alieksijevič highlighted Russia's militant position and named Russia 'a country of wars and revolutions'. The war in Ukraine and Maidan were another focus of the interview. Opposing the opinion of Gurkin, Alieksijevič claimed that the regime change in Ukraine was the people's will and the country aims to move towards Europe.
Perhaps Alieksijevič's most notable statements related to the murder of pro-Russian writer Oles Buzina: the Nobel Laureate claimed that she understood the murderer's motives.
Alieksijevič also covered the issue of the status of the Belarusian and Ukrainian languages. Both Ukraine and Belarus endured a long period of Russification; the number of people who think in Russian is thus unsurprising. Alieksijevič then explained that restricting the usage of Russian language in Ukraine could help unite the nation.
A threat to Russian propaganda?
Alieksijevič’s interview immediately provoked a reaction in the Russian media and among politicians and political analysts. Russia's largest news portal, Lenta.ru, gave much attention to Alieksijevič's opinion on the murder of the pro-Russian writer Oles Buzina.
Lenta.ru interpreted Alieksijevič's statement that she understood the motive for the murder as a justification for it.
After the publication of the interview, Russian State Duma deputy Vitaly Milonov called on the Nobel Committee to consider retracting Alieksijevič's Nobel Prize for ‘the violation of moral principles’.
Immediately following the interview, two Russian bloggers contacted Alieksijevič and played a prank on her: one of them introduced himself as the Minister of Culture of Ukraine and spoke of his intention to award her the National prize ‘Order of the Heavenly Hundred Heroes’ and organise a meeting with President Poroshenko.
The other prankster introduced himself as a representative of the Russian Ministry of Culture. He offered her the national Russian award ‘Orden Druzhby’ and a meeting with Putin. After the prank publication, Alieksijevič told the Russian oppositional journal Novaya Gazeta that she would never accept such awards.
Dmitry Kiselev, a well-known Russian TV host, called Alieksijevič 'a wolf in sheep's clothing' on a Russian Channel 1 broadcast. Kiselev referred to Alieksijevič as Russophobic, racist, and intolerant of Russian culture, history, and language. Kiselev described Alieksijevič ’s opinion about Russians as ‘dull militarists incompatible with Europe’ who ‘do not have the right to compassion’, and who 'can and should be killed’.
Reactions in Belarus and Ukraine
This is not the first statement of Alieksijevič which has provoked debate in Belarus. Publicist and literature critic Aliaksandr Fiaduta believes that Alieksijevič's status allows her to ignore the pranksters and journalists attempting to abuse her, writes Radyjo Svaboda.
On Radyjo Svaboda, Belarusian journalists Jury Drakachrust and Zmicier Hurnievich discussed whether the pranks would influence the reputation of Alieksijevič. Drakachrust argued that Alieksijevič was just repeating statements she had made previously. However, she could have been less ambiguous when explaining her position.
On June 9, in an interview with the Russian TV channel Rain, Alieksijevič said: ‘the war that Russia started in Donbass is on Russia's conscience. Such a war could start in Belarus: let in tanks and guns and there will be Catholics killing Orthodox or anyone else’.
This statement provoked strong reactions from both the Catholic Church in Belarus (Archbishop Kandrusiewicz reacted to the statement in an open letter) and Belarusian politicians and public activists. This forced Alieksijevič to further explain that her metaphor had been misunderstood.
This time around, Alieksijevič's interview did not attracted much public attention in Ukraine. The Ukrainian media have largely focused Alieksijevič's opinions regarding language, identity, and the war in Eastern Ukraine.
Thus, two days after the interview's release, the newspaper Depo analysed Alieksijevič's position on why the Russian media reacted so heatedly to the interview. Hromadske TV also highlighted the development of discourse surrounding the interview in Russia. However, Alieksijevič's conversation with Gurkin was not so widely discussed in Ukraine.
Alieksijevič's puzzling personality
Sviatlana Alieksijevič has often received criticism for her ambiguous opinions related to her national identity, languages, and position on wars.
Her controversial interview with Regnum led to further discussions of her personality, especially in Russia, while the Ukrainian media focused mostly on Alieksijevič's previous statements on Ukrainian issues.
The Belarusian media and public figures also analysed the reaction to the interview in Russia. However, the harshest criticism came from the Russian media and activists, who upbraided Alieksijevič for her radical position towards the Russian language and the Ukrainian conflict.
The sharp reaction from Russian media outlets and politicians can be explained by the fact that many of her statements related to ‘sore points’ of Russian politics: the war in Ukraine and Russia's role in it, the promotion of the concept of the 'Russian World', and confrontation with the West.
Alieksijevič, who writes in Russian, has made statements that completely contradict official Russian propaganda. Many public figures in Russia perceive this as a threat or an attempt to change Russian public opinion on issues important to the Putin regime.
The Belarusian Nobel Prize Winner has not received much attention in Belarus for winning the Nobel Prize. Nevertheless, many of her subsequent interviews have caused heated debate.