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.
Minsk Proposes A New World Order, Dazhynki Festival – Belarus State TV Digest
A visit by Lukashenka to Kazakhstan and economic integration within the Eurasian Union dominated the state television news last week. Belarusians could watch the head of state discussing the modernisation of Belarus and its plans for further optimisitic co-operation with Astana.
Uladzimir Makei, Belarusian Minister for Foreign Affairs, called to remove sanctions against Belarus at the recent UN General Assembly in New York. The statesman also argued for a new world order, where countries with medium-sized economies would have a say.
The state media did not miss the release of Vaclav Klaus' latest book. The former president of the Czech Republic contested the European Union and called for the Czech Republic to leave the organisation.
Lukashenka softens on the exit fee at the Dazhynki harvest festival. Belarusians shopping abroad concerned Lukashenka and he was upset by the nearly $2bn which the country's budget lost over the past year due to Belarusians shopping abroad.
However, at the Dazhynki press conference he spoke in a more soothing tone and explained the grounds for a system of taxation of the Belarusian shoppers who make purchases abroad. Lukashenka believed that if Belarusians would purchase more Belarusian goods rather than those in Poland and Lithuania, the economic situation would be far different today. Thus the authorities will introduce some measures, but only on a temporary basis.
Lukashenka could not understand why Belarusians wanted to support the economy of the European Union by buying their clothes and other goods. "You have strong connections with German clothes… They are neither Polish nor Lithuanian clothes. but the whole European Union trades with us through them,” he pointed out.
Belarusian economy is in the hands of Belarusians. The head of state discussed the possibility of the future devaluation of the Belarusian ruble, stating that it would depend upon the market’s demand and supply mechanisms. Lukashenka explained: “the instruments [to avoid devaluation] are in your hands. If you will run out in the morning to various currency exchange kiosks and buy foreign currency, it will weaken our economy.”
Belarus-Kazakhstan: do they want to change the geopolitical map of the world?. Belarusian state television widely covered the "very warm meeting" of Lukashenka with the head of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev. According to journalists a more open or congenial partnership is inconceivable as both sides are very close to one another.
Maintaining positive relations with Astana are not an accident, as Kazakhstan remains an attractive partner as "one of the most powerfully developing economies" in the region. Belarusian state TV evaluated the current joint projects of both countries and drew attention to the exceptionally positive trade turnover with Astana. Both countries are seriously considering selling their goods on the Asian and EU markets. Lukashenka even pointed out a readiness to build logistic centres on the border with the EU.
New electoral code to the local elections. The state TV noted that the next local elections will be held already in accordance with the amended electoral law. Journalists noted that the parliament had already approved them. The new law states that all candidates will need to disclose any criminal record that they may have and declare their source(s) of income. Journalists also pointed out the changes in the regulations on campaign funding. Now candidates will need to use private sources and will not receive state support.
Lukashenka on economic integration: it is necessary today. During his visit to Astana, Lukashenka gave an official interview to the Kazakh state television KZ24.
The head of the state discussed at length Belarus' remarkably good relations with Astana. Neither of them are competing with each other and this co-operation has its advantages. Lukashenka underscored the importance of integration in general and integration within the Eurasian Union in particular. In his words, economic integration based on the free movement of people, goods, services and capital can help to avoid future potential economic problems that can occur worldwide.
However, the head of state disapproved of introducing a common currency at that stage. In his words, the member-states have not yet established any supra-national structures. “We should remain independent and sovereign states”, he emphasized.
What is wrong with the EU. State TV journalists also reported on a book by former president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus, which will come out soon. They noted that the Czech politician was calling for his country to leave the European Union as Brussels interferes too much in the politics of their member-states and thus it undermined the principles of freedom and sovereignty of each nation. Journalists also noted that during his tenure as a prime minister, Klaus argued that the entry of the Czech Republic into the EU was like a marriage of convenience.
Minsk is calling for a new world order and removal of sanctions. In his speech at the UN General Assembly, Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makei, called for the establishment of a new world order. In his diagnosis, humankind has not kept pace with civilisation, and thus new mechanisms were needed.
He also lobbied for the removal of the sanctions from countries such as Belarus and Cuba, who “strive to form strong nations”. At the same time, the international forum should consider more seriously countries with medium sized economies. These countries de facto guarantee a multi-polar world order which may bring about stability and justice.
Makei argued that today states should focus more on issues such as migration, energy and employment, all carried out through global partnerships. Journalists noted that Belarus had already initiated a successful project against slavery and human trafficking.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials available on the web site of Belarusian State Television 1 (BT1). Freedom of the press in Belarus remains restricted and state media convey primarily the point of view of the Belarusian authorities. This review attempts to give the English-speaking audience a better understanding of how Belarusian state media shape public opinion in the country.