On the Local and the Universal: Belarusian Human Rights Activist Ales Bialiatski in Conversation with Olga V. Solovieva

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Note on Belarus

Wlad Godzich

Belarus has not figured prominently, if at all, on most anglophone readers’ attention horizon. Things are beginning to change, and Belarus will prove to be interesting geopolitically and even epistemologically.

Belarus is a landlocked country in Eastern Europe, bordered by Russia to the East, Poland to the West, Ukraine to the South, and Lithuania and Latvia to the North. It is roughly the size of Spain but has only nine and a half million inhabitants. Forty percent of the land is covered with forests, including the last primeval forest in Europe, shared with Poland. It owes its name to medieval chroniclers who divided the land invaded by Vaerengians (Eastern Vikings), called Rus’, into Black Rus’, White Rus’ and Red Rus’ (Ruthenia in Latin.) The boundaries of these color-coded lands were not clearly established, nor do we know why these three colors were used. Belarus is the contemporary version of White Rus’.

No country existed under that name in the middle ages, when some of it was ruled by a local dynasty. It was absorbed into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and then into the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania when the two countries merged. It became an object of contestation between the Grand Duchy of Muscovy and the Commonwealth, with many of the battles between the two fought on its territory. It was eventually absorbed into Muscovy, which took on the name of Russia, with the decline of the Commonwealth. When the Russian Revolution broke out, a Byelorussian Soviet Republic was proclaimed, and this Republic joined the Russian Soviet Federation and the Ukrainian Socialist Republic in the foundation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1921. Much of the war between newly independent Poland and the USSR was fought on Byelorussian territory, and large part of the west of it was awarded to the victorious Poles by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

World War II devastated Byelorussia. Under Hitler’s master plan, all of its land was to be cleared of its inhabitants and then accommodate German settlers in need of Lebensraum. All the cities were levelled to the ground and one third of the population was killed by summary execution, including almost all of the Jews. To this day, mass graves are discovered in the Belarusian forests. Belarus rebuilt its cities during the Cold War and, as a result, has some of the most modern cities in Europe. The capital, Minsk, is particularly well-designed with large avenues, parklands, and an excellent subway system. Belarus became an important industrial producer during this period, with raw materials imported from the rest of the USSR and then resold within it. It became one of the world’s largest manufacturer of heavy agricultural equipment and the foremost producer of tractors.

The Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic retained a largely Stalinist structure and ethos up to the end of the Soviet Union. The breakup of the Soviet Union was legally effected by the signing of the foundational charter of the Commonwealth of Independent States (C.I.S.) with headquarters in Minsk and a Byelorussian as its head. Belarus, as it now called itself, was ruled by Aleksandr Lukashenko who described himself as an “authoritarian.” He rejected all attempts and calls to liberalize his country. He entered into a prolonged negotiation with President Yeltsin of Russia to define the relations between the two countries. In 1997, with Yeltsin very diminished by alcoholism and illness, a treaty was signed. It stipulated that the two countries would form a “Union State,” have a single joint parliament, one defense and foreign affairs policy, free circulation of citizens, and a single currency. A rather long and sloppy document, it cribbed the European Union treaties, with some echoes of the treaty that created the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania several centuries earlier. Lukashenko did not hide his ambition to eventually become the President of the Union State, expecting the transition to this position to occur upon Yeltsin’s death. He was taken by surprise by Vladimir Putin’s rise to power. He even went as far as to propose that Putin be Prime Minister of the Union State that he would head. In later years, he claimed it was a joke. What was not a joke was his distrust of Putin.

Putin began to assert his dominance by tightening the screws on Belarus’ economy, raising the price of oil and gas, among other things. During the Soviet period, Byelorussia refined a great deal of Russian oil that it imported as low cost and then resold to Russia at a handsome profit. Putin viewed this arrangement as a subsidy to Belarus and he kept raising the price of the unrefined oil, and thus breaking Belarus’ growth.

Putin’s interest is twofold. The extension of NATO deep into Eastern Europe and the Baltics made him fear what he perceived as a policy of encirclement. It was the prospect of NATO and EU membership for Georgia and Ukraine that led him to wage open war on the former, and semi-covert war on the latter (including the annexation of Crimea). Belarus had to return to its historical role of buffer and glacis between Russia and a hostile West. The largest ever anti-NATO maneuvers were staged on Belarusian territory, and over a hundred thousand Russian troops have stayed in Belarus. Putin has asked Lukashenko openly to give Russia a military base, something that Lukashenko has refused.

Putin’s second interest is personal. By 2024 he will have exhausted his right to stay on as President of Russia legally. For some time now, he has been looking for an escape and he recently proposed amending the Russian Constitution. On the surface, the proposal is surprising: the President would be limited to two terms, whether consecutive or not; his powers would be greatly diminished, with many of them being transferred to a Prime Minister answerable to a greatly reinforced Duma (Parliament). In speeches presenting these proposals, Putin evoked what he called the sad spectacle of the Soviet Union in the eighties when, lacking an orderly mechanism for the transfer of power, it had to go through increasingly ill old leaders waiting for their death. In effect, Putin has coopted the arguments of his opponents. At the same time, he has been holding long and pressing discussions with Lukashenko about the Union State that he now claims must be properly set up. In his view, the Union State, as a new entity, would have to create a new position of Chairman of the Council. In effect, he proposes the return of the Politburo with himself as Chairman for life. Belarusians, including Lukashenko, see this as a step toward the annexation of Belarus within Russia, and his citizens have staged large demonstrations against this prospect. Political demonstrations have been severely repressed by Lukashenko in the past, but these were tolerated, and even surreptitiously encouraged by him. Talks between Putin and Lukashenko have broken down and, by December 31, 2019, Putin cut off oil and gas supplies to Belarus. Their flow has been restored recently when Lukashenko negotiated a makeshift arrangement with Norway (a NATO member.)

Lukashenko understands his predicament well. He may have a hope of staying in power if he is able to establish quickly good relations with the European Union, an organization that has criticized his constant violation of human and civil rights, the rigging of elections, and his maintenance of the death penalty (the last European country to do so), earning him the description of “the last dictator in Europe.” His immediate goal is to show his own population, as well as the European Union, that he has a plan for a viable Belarus independent of Russia. The central element of this plan is drawn from the history of the Varangians, who sailed from the Baltic to the Black Sea (and the Caspian Sea) to trade with, and occasionally raid and sack,

Constantinople and its possessions, and the Arab merchants of what is today Azerbaijan. Lukashenko proposes to enlarge an existing canal in Poland, dredging rivers between

Belarus and central Ukraine and building port facilities on the Black Sea. Belarus has been trading agricultural equipment to Turkey and other nations of the Eastern Mediterranean. It has also developed tourism with the Gulf States, offering mild temperatures and safe surroundings for families during the high-temperature months of the Gulf area. Lukashenko has discussed these plans with the Poles, who seem interested: they are building a Liquid Natural Gas port on the Baltic to bring in American and Norwegian gas, and thus freeing themselves from Russian dependency. He has also held talks with the Ukrainians who are more lukewarm to the idea. Much of the dredging would have to be done in the north of Ukraine in the area of Chernobyl, and the Ukrainian do not see themselves as beneficiaries of the waterway. Lukashenko, with the help of Sweden, has calculated that the canal and river work would cost around six billion Euros, and he has started negotiations with the European Union for this sum. He is aware of the fact that the EU will want action on all the conditions and practices it has condemned. He has not indicated whether he intends to comply with EU demands, stressing instead that he alone can prevent Russian annexation.

The second part of his strategy is to secure the support of his population, a rather daunting task, given his history of repression and his boasts of being an authoritarian. He has released some prisoners as a gesture of good will. His principal tool is to reinvent himself as a Belarusian nationalist and as the leader of a populist movement. On this score, he is falling back on an established historical force in Central and Eastern European history of nation-building: the defense and illustration of the national language.

This is where the epistemological dimension of what may be called, by historical analogy, The Belarus Question emerges on the horizon of attention. Language-grounded arguments for national identity and independence were the products of the German-style national philology that emerged in the eighteenth century and became dominant in the nineteenth. The object of this philology was to identify, describe and purify the “true” language that expressed the “real spirit” of a “people.” These ideas were central to the project of German unification and they animated the Romantic view of language. National philology brought together the resources of historical linguistics and literary studies and fostered nationalism. We may want to recall how French philologists, forced to acknowledge the importance of Germanic tribes such as the Franks in the formation of a country named after this tribe, nonetheless argued that only barbaric elements were inherited from this source and they were offset by the rational and harmonious contribution of Gallo-Romans, apparently evident in the Latin derivation of the language.

Invoking national philology to help create a Belarusian national-populism [no hyphen?] runs quickly into a series of problems: whatever Ruthenian (the preferred designation of philologists) may have been like, its speakers were subjected to forceful acculturation first by the Poles and then by the Russians. The philologists at the universities of Vitebsk and Minsk were trained in German methodology and worked in Russian and saw other “Ruthenian” languages as adjuncts of Russian. We ought to bear in mind that the word ‘ukrainets’ (Ukrainian) designated a nationalist rather than a status. In any case, only one third of the inhabitants of Belarus speak Belarusian at home; the rest speak Russian, with small minorities of Polish, Ukrainian and Lithuanian. Asserting the primacy of Belarusian would require a major effort and many years to succeed.

The major reason that national philology has been retreating is that its foundations have crumbled. These foundations were ontological: there is a language X, there is a spirit X’, there is a people X”, and therefore there is a nation XXX. All of these claims are fictions: their objects have no ontological status. They are constructs of ideologically driven disciplines. It is not surprising that the Poles, who believe they survived the partitions of Poland thanks to their faith in their language and their religion, have supported Belarusian nationalists living in exile in Poland and broadcasting in Belarusian. The revival/invention of Belarusian is not going to save Lukashenko.

What could unite the inhabitants of Belarus is a reflection on the exterminating policies of the Nazis in World War II. Unlike the genocides carried out against Jews and Roma, and the killings of homosexuals, political opponents, and disabled—all of which targeted people because of who they were, that is, on the basis of their ontology— the mass massacres of Belarus were carried out on the basis of where people were. The first, “ontological massacres” were entrusted to the SS; the latter “place-based” genocide to the Sonderkomandos (special units) of the Wehrmacht.

Belarusian, as a language, needs to be described not through an ideal type grammar, but through actual practices and competencies of its speakers. Many areas of the world, from the Middle East to China, would benefit from such an approach. Such areas are inhabited by people who have various levels of competence in the registers and speech genres of more than one ‘language.’ They achieve varying degrees of comprehension and mutual understanding over an area that would best be described through the resources of fuzzy logic rather than clearly delineated maps. Such an approach would bring out the fact that cities are overlaid with many communicational competencies and may well differ from their surroundings.

The subjective dimension of whereness, i.e. hereness, could well be the starting point for building a sense of community and belonging. This starting point already exists: many people in the lands of Rus’ and beyond describe themselves as “tuteyshe,” a word that means “from here.” They do not invoke borders, boundaries, nation states, languages or religions, but the facticity of location, a location defined by a deictic and therefore portable. Deictics do not have coordinates but they do have horizons.

On the Local and the Universal: Belarusian Human Rights Activist Ales Bialiatski in Conversation with Olga V. Solovieva

This interview took place during the workshop “Cultures of Protest in Contemporary Ukraine, Belarus and Russia” at the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society at the University of Chicago, 03/01/2019.

Translated by Oliver Okun.
Olga V. Solovieva

Ales Bialiatksi was born September 25th, 1962, in Vyartsilya, Sartovalskiy District, Karelia, in the Russian Federation. He is a Belarusian human rights activist, a specialist in literature, and an essayist. In 1965 the Bialiatski family returned to the Svietlagorsk District of the Gomel Region of Belarus. Starting in 1982 Ales Bialiatski began taking part in an illegal national-democratic youth movement. In 1984, he completed his studies as a specialist in teaching Belorussian and Russian language literature at Gomelsk University. In that same year he entered the Institute of Literature at AN BSSR in Minsk as a graduate student. In 1985 through 1986 Bialiatski served in the Russian army and simultaneously continued his graduate studies. He became one of the founders of the informal partnerships of young literary specialists, «Тутэйшыя», and actively participated in communal democratic processes during Perestroika. He was one of the organizers of the large-scale civil act known as «Дзяды», in 1988 in Minsk. He was also one of the founders of the first mass protest by the Belorussian People’s Front. In 1989 Bialiatski was elected as the director of the museum of literature Maksim Bogdanovich, and worked there until 1998. In 1990 he became a deputy of the Minsk city council. Bialiatski managed the Human Rights Center «Вeсна», which was engaged in aiding the victims of political repression. In 1998 Bialiatski began working full-time at «Вeсна». He was arrested in 2011 and held in prison until 2014 for his human rights activities. While in prison he received the first human rights award from the European Union Václav Havel. He was nominated several times for a Nobel Peace Prize, and he is the author of eight books.

Olga Solovieva: Ales, to begin with could you please say a few words about Belarus’s identity as a state? Even though it is a large country in the very center of Europe many of our readers don’t know about its existence. It is the classic proverbial elephant in the room. What’s going on here?

Ales Bialiatksi: Not long ago a huge area in the east that stretched from Brest to Kamchatka was considered one country, and there lived the Soviet people. But, for various reasons, the Soviet Union collapsed and the citizens of Europe realized, much to their surprise, that to the east there were not only Russians, but also countries like Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova in Eastern Europe, each with its own people, culture, and history. This was the discovery of the Eastern European Atlantis. Throughout the last two-thousand years Belarusians, either independently or in partnership with neighboring peoples made an effort to preserve, establish, and find themselves. They were heavily influenced by their neighbors, who by the way were also influenced by us, but the Belarusians never lost their own identity. Belarus’s development was not simple, and in some historical processes we developed slowly, but we are definitely not outsiders on the map of Europe. While president Lukashenko says that Belarus is the geographical center of Europe, in reality we live along the eastern outskirts of Europe. But Europe itself is made up of such outskirts. Oslo, Lisbon, Istanbul are all on Europe’s outskirts, just as Minsk is.
The problem is that thanks to the post-Soviet politics of the contemporary Belarusian authorities Belarus has long been a closed country, a reserve or a fragment of the Soviet regime, and a terra incognita for the whole world. It was only in 2018 that the visa system was changed, allowing citizens of the EU and the USA to come to Belarus for one month. That is the beginning of the gradual opening of the country.

Olga Solovieva: The whole world knows you as a human rights advocate, but you were not educated as a sociologist, a political scientist, or a lawyer, but as a philologist, and a specialist in Belarusian literature. How did you go from literature to human rights advocacy? What is the link between literature and human rights?

Ales Bialiatksi: It’s natural. Many journalists, and intellectuals with background in humanities end up working in human rights. I’m no exception. Many of my colleagues involved in human rights were also educated in the humanities. Actually the main reason behind human rights activism can be expressed by the rather banal saying, “let’s make life a little better for the people around us.” That desire lies at the foundation of all human rights endeavors. Therein lies the motivation for my work. I haven’t taken part in any group actions in a while, not since I was a student. Back then, during the Soviet Union, we had groups that tried to stop the processes aimed at denationalizing and russifying Belarus in the 70’s and 80’s. I took part in such groups. They were national-democratic groups. The various values that we searched for and tried to develop were not just nationalist, but also democratic. This connection had always existed. Not long ago I was looking over the documents that we published in the early 80’s. They express an entire series of democratic demands, including freedom of speech, freedom of information, and equal rights. In the Western world these values were so widely accepted, that they are considered incontestable. At the time these values, along with the vision of an independent and democratic Belarus sounded to us like revolutionary ideas. That became clear to all of us.

OS: In Belarus as in many other formerly Tsarist and then Soviet regions, democracy was understood as the right to national self-determination. In what sense did you feel guaranteed that the national-democratic balance would not turn to nationalism? Consider what happened with the post-Soviet revival in Russia and Poland, where national identity became nationalism, chauvinism, and racism. Tatars, Jews, Roma, Russians, and Poles all live in Belarus. Where is there place in the national-democratic model?

AS: Vasil Bykov, the famous Belarusian writer, a contemporary of ours, who was very concerned about the future of the Belarusian people said, “a large nation’s nationalism inevitably leads to chauvinism, while a small nation’s nationalism is firstly directed towards its own survival among other nations.” The government has a huge responsibility to preserve the rights of minorities. But in Belarus paradoxical things are happening. Mentally, Belarus remains a post-colonial country. Belarusian language and culture continue to die out, just as they did in the Soviet Union. The government does not develop the national identity of Belarusians, as if we were further constructing the common “Soviet People.” But as I advocate for the development of Belarusian culture, I am not advocating for nationalism to come to power in Belarusian politics. In prison, during my sentence, one of the central rules sounded something like this, “live and let live.” I consider this to be the golden rule of uttermost importance to us as citizens of Belarus, and really to anyone in any situation.

OS: Was your decision to study the Belarusian language and Belarusian literature in the context of the russification of Belarus a political decision?

AS: In the beginning, no. I simply had the desire to study philology and, first of all, Belarusian literature, while we future students still had not come up against and still had not come to better understand the fact that the government’s political agenda was directed towards the containment, and in reality, on the destruction of Belarusian culture and language. The government’s position of course impacted schools and the press (which were generally in Russian), and Belarusian history and culture. The official doctrine was that all peoples would integrate. They taught us that every people would merge into one mythical, large nation, epitomized by “the Soviet citizen”.

OS: And this mythical Soviet race was essentially created on the foundation of the Russian language, and not on some language like Esperanto. In reality, that type of international language was outlawed by the
Soviet Union. But Russian, of course, was served up to the people in the form of the Soviet ideological cult of personality. Do you remember what Mayakovsky said, “I would learn Russian for that alone that Lenin spoke it…”?

AS: As students of Belarusian philology we did not like this disregard for national culture. We fought back because we understood that with the implementation of this doctrine there would be no place for national cultures, including our own. This destruction took place right before our eyes and called up feelings of protest within us. So we organized around our love for Belarusian culture and Belarusian literature, which the government did not support. Our protest was aimed at that cultural politic that was carried out in Soviet Belarus during the 70’s and 80’s.

OS: And which language did you grow up speaking?

AS: Russian. My parents lived in Russia for a long time. My father lived there for twenty-five years and my mother for fifteen years. And when they returned to Belarus they came back to an industrialized city, Svetlogorsk, where they could find work in the 60’s. Kindergarten through high school were all conducted in Russian. I heard Belarusian being spoken by the older generations, by those who lived in Belarus and by grandmothers. My grandmothers only spoke Belarusian. One of them lived in Russia for twenty-five years, and as she says in Belarusian, she never stopped speaking her own language. My other grandmother didn’t know Russian at all. She lived in Polesie her whole life. When I first visited her when I was five and I had just begun chattering in Russian, they would laugh. Older women of my grandmother’s generation would sit me down in a chair and ask, “little Sasha, say something in Russian,” and they would laugh because they so rarely heard Russian. So I always had this ancestral connection to the Belarusian language. It was hurtful when I started to learn that all of that was being lost. My parents spoke Russian. My mother started speaking Belarusian when I started speaking Belarusian.

OS: What is the difference between Belarusian and Russian? What are the particularities of the Belarusian language? At Moscow State University they taught us that until 1944 Belarusian was considered a Russian dialect, and only earned its status as a unique and separate language in 1944.

AS: That’s complete nonsense. I’ve read about how the great “scholars” of the 19th century also wrote about Polish as a Russian dialect. In the medieval government of Belarusians, Lithuanians, and western Ukrainians known as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Belarusian was the language of the government, and they conducted all state affairs in Belarusian. Belarusian was the first East-Slavic language that the bible was translated into. And where did the folklorists hide the tens of thousands of folk songs, fairy tales, sayings, legends all originally and magnificently written in Belarusian? Were they all put in an archive and forgotten?

The particularities of all Slavic languages lie in the fact that we all came from rather similar closely related accents and dialects, but that was so long ago! Many common words were preserved, but often these words have entirely different meanings in our languages. For example, the word, благо (good) is добро (good) in Russian.[1] Полночь (midnight) in Russian, as in the middle of the night, is поўнач in Belarusian, which means “north.” Листопад in Russian entails the process of leafs falling, while in Belarusian лістапад means “November.” [2] “Dog,” “medal,” and “steppe” are all masculine in Belarusian, (even though those same words are feminine in Russian). In Belarusian there is no soft “r” or “shch” sound, but there are “dz” and “dzh” sounds in Belarusian etc. As far as lexicon is concerned Belarusian is much closer to Ukrainian. We understand each other without the need for translation. Perhaps in Belarusian there aren’t as many sonorous sounds as there are in Romantic languages, but it is rather soft, kind of like a whistle. As for pronunciation, Belarusian is somewhere between Russian and Polish. In Belarusian there are very few Old Church Slavonicisms, but there are many ancient Slavic words that were long forgotten in other Slavic languages. I really love the Belarusian language.

OS: It is interesting that you identify with the Belarusian language of your grandmothers’ and not with Russian, the language in which you thought and spoke.

AB: It was a particular process, but it was the catalyst that lead me to all this. After second grade, during my travels around Belarus, including historical memorials, I met artists who spoke Belarusian. It was the first time I saw people who weren’t getting paid to speak Belarusian. Cultured people, artists, who painted and spoke Belarusian. I stood there with my mouth agape. One of the artists turned to me and asked in Belarusian, “what’s your name?” I said, “Sasha.” He replied, “No, you aren’t Sasha, you are Ales.” And from then on I was Ales.

When I was nineteen I started speaking Belarusian. At the time it was my calling. By speaking Belarusian my friends and I propagated Belarusian culture. Some of the professors would glare at us. Even though Belarusian philology was our official specialization, some professors considered us nationalists. I remember how one professor’s resentment boiled over and she tried to convince me the future lies in Russian. “What even is Belarusian?” she asked, “a return to the past?” That was the kind of relationship many people had to Belarusian. After that powerful meeting with those artists I started speaking Russian alone, and then my friends quickly joined me. We formed a kind of group. In the beginning there were five or six of us. By the time we finished our studies at the university there were about forty people speaking Belarusian.

OS: And how did you learn Belarusian? Did you just attend Belarusian courses at the university?

AS: I studied Belarusian philology in order to learn Belarusian. At the time it was the only realistic way to learn. In the beginning all of my piers laughed at me, because they knew me as a Russian speaker. In classes about Belarusian we spoke Belarusian, but everyone would instantly switch to Russian. Even my good friend, the poet Anatol Sys, said, “Just give it up! You won’t get it.” All of these guys who studied Belarusian philology, like Sys, were from villages and Belarusian was their mother tongue. They always spoke Belarusian. They studied in Belarusian schools. When they went to university they switched to Russian to be like everyone else, or they spoke in Trasianka, a mix of Belarusian and Russian. But just two months in everyone was surprised when I had to speak Russian for one reason or another. And my friends then switched to Belarusian.

OS: Belarusian is connected with the idea of challenging the Soviet regime and protest. What is Russian associated with? After all you grew up speaking Russian.

AB: Russian is first of all a huge stratum of culture – it represents an understanding of things connected with good and evil, with right and wrong, and all that’s connected with classic Russian literature, as a part of European literature. I happen to not have read many of the Russian classics. At the time there was an understanding that Belarusian literature existed, and that it was developed to the point where there was enough material to build one’s character and enough for someone to grasp universal human concepts. One could grow up reading it and become a good person. The rather rich literature written in Belarusian was and still is one of the arguments for the Belarusian language. There is medieval literature and contemporary Belarusian literature written by such authors as Vasil Bykov, Vladimir Karatkevich, Yanka Bryl, Vyacheslav Adamchik, Ivan Shamiakin among tens of hundreds of others. Literature is what gives a language the right to eternity, or if not, at least the right to a long life. For me, the switch to a Belarusian world view was a societal-cultural-humanitarian-political decision – everything was connected. At one point after university I forbade myself from reading Russian literature. In order to better immerse myself in Belarusian culture, for a better understanding of what Belarusian writers were writing and living I needed to limit myself. It was a professional decision.

OS: In the long run the choice to study Belarusian philology became an act of a political dissidence. But was Russia and the Russian language, besides the cannon of culture and classics, associated with Soviet ideology?

AB: It was and still is. Russian was an instrument of Soviet ideology, and that is why it is important to Lukashenko. It is an ideological symbol, like a flag or an emblem. It’s a large selection of symbols that underline the continuity of the Soviet Union through to today’s Belarusian regime.

OS: That connection brings to mind an analogy. The poet and film director Pierre Paolo Pasolini, as a young man during the Second World War, started studying and eventually writing poetry in the Fliulian dialect because he considered the literary Italian language to be compromised by the official structures of the government during fascism. It seems to me that your turning to a different language was done in the same spirit.
AB: That’s not entirely the case, in the sense that I never considered Russian to be “my” language. Belarusian was not an alternative, but a return to my own culture. I quickly came to understand that opposing this governmental system alone is impossible, and so we started broadening our connections and create a network of likeminded individuals. The artists introduced me to a larger group of students in Minsk who were more focused and active. Our group of students at the university in Gomel joined them. We consciously gathered people who spoke the same language, and thought about the same goal. We tried to dig things up from our forbidden Belarusian history and share it with each other through underground publications. The first youth organizations in Minsk were formed in 1978 and 1979. The understanding that we were not alone was very important, and these connections have endured to this day.

OS: How did the authorities react to this?

AB: The KGB quickly became interested in our activities, because speaking Belarusian at that time was considered suspicious. In the 1930’s there were shootings, and there were merciless fights with underground Belarusian youth organizations in the 1950’s. Everything related to the Belarusian language was labeled nationalist or “bourgeois-nationalist.” There was even a special terminology for us. There was however a corpus of Soviet Belarusian writers who were permitted to write in Belarusian. Perhaps some of them were not Soviet, but they didn’t demonstrate their sentiments of opposition. The state also permitted one official part of Belarusian culture, which were kind of Belarusian ghettos.

OS: And you traveled throughout Belarus in order to study that part of the culture, not sponsored by the state?

AB: Yes, so I could see the historical monuments. For me it was a blind study of Belarus. At the time there were no guides. It was all considered unneeded and destroyed. From various small articles I gathered information about where certain monuments and historical sites might be, and I created a route for myself. For a month I traveled around Belarus, sometimes by foot and other times I hitchhiked. Most importantly I met these artists who introduced me to others around my age who were more organized than I was. After creating these contacts I learned of the existence of a political and conspiratorial group with its own structure and rules, who wanted an independent Belarus. It was not a purely cultural goal, and it was not a purely cultural program either. They called themselves a political party, but in reality they were just about fifteen people. But they were very motivated. I joined them. We paid a member’s fee, bought type writers, and started circulating samizdat. We often printed the negatives of re-photographed banned books. A part of Belarusian literature was banned for one reason or another, and was forgotten in special storage facilities. Those who had access to them photographed them, and then brought the negatives to Gomel, where the negatives were developed by red light in a bathroom the old fashioned way. They then glued the pages into the covers of permitted Belarusian books and people read them, like underground literature. That was 1982 to 1984. In 1984 I graduated from the university.

OS: And was the liberation of Belarus understood as being liberated from the Soviet Union, or being liberated from Russia?

AB: We considered liberation to be the creation of an independent and democratic state. In the 80’s dreams of an independent Belarus were completely fantastical, and moreover, very dangerous. If the KGB caught wind of information about us, the whole thing would have ended very badly. We were lucky; in our group there was not a single informant.

OS: That’s rare.

AB: Yes indeed, but the KGB was all around us, because one of the goals that we set for ourselves was the formation of “informal” groups. Perestroika began in 1985. I served in the army for a year and a half from 1985 to 1986. When I returned in the autumn of 1986 the situation had completely changed. It wasn’t clear what direction we were headed, but there were already various informal groups and discussion clubs. Rather quickly a network of informally unified groups covered all of Belarus. in 1987, with just one year of development, there were already over one hundred organizations involved in preserving monuments, folklore, historical research, restoration, ecology, and culture. For example, a group of students from the technical institute gathered and started publishing a magazine, “Student Think.”[3] And two young writers and I who were part of our underground group called “Liberation,” created an organization of young Belarusian writers that created quite the stir. The group was rather scandalous and quite successful. At first there were seven of us, but after three months we were eighty strong. We practically gathered everybody in our generation who wanted change.

OS: And what did you do?

AB: It was an explosion of freedom. What didn’t we do? We traveled around Belarus, listened to lectures, helped with excavations and restorations, took part in ecological protests, and, most importantly, we gathered and discussed our texts, and organized group readings. We called ourselves the Comradeship of Young Literary Specialists, “Tuteyshie” (Тутэйшые), which in translation means, “the Natives” (in Russian the translation is “тутошние”). When they told us that we were Belarusians, we would say, “what do you mean we’re Belarusian? The language is dying out, the culture is in shambles. We are “natives” (tuteyshie), not Belarusians. We’re not old enough to be Belarusian.” At the time that name was also a challenge to others.

OS: Natives, like aboriginals…

AB: Yes, aboriginals, yes. We still felt unworthy of a more normal name. One of our goals was to strike the bell and to awaken a sense of national self-consciousness among Belarusians. We met practically every week and discussed what we could accomplish together, what kind of burning questions we had, the questions that we needed to turn our attention to. That was really important because we didn’t have sufficient education in a political sense, and we didn’t have enough new ideas. Only the unification of the youth gave us the opportunity to discuss, create, and promulgate. First of all we openly proclaimed that we had our own coat of arms, our own non-Soviet flag, and that we had our own rather rich history, that they did not want to show us.

OS: In light of the fact that your “Belarusian platform” was not exclusively interested in language, but was also about a worldview, and about the position of the citizen, I wanted to ask you personally about the themes that are important to you.

AB: As a specialist in literature, I published a few articles in which I tried to uncover banned poetry, several dozen poems by the Belarusian classic Yanka Kupala. First I analyzed the works of Belarusian writers and community actors who’s names had been struck from the history of the cultural and political history of Belarus.

OS: Why did they ban Yanka Kupala’s poetry?

AB: Because it was anti-Soviet. In 1918 he wanted an independent Belarus. He was very wary of the arrival of the Bolsheviks. When the Bolsheviks were not there he wrote the marching hymns for the Belarusian army. Yanka Kupala wrote other banned poems that touched on this national problematic.

OS: I would like to ask you about the Perestroika period. What did Perestroika mean for Belarus. How was all this political activity connected with Perestroika? Did Perestroika make all that possible?

AB: Yes. All of our activity became possible within the framework of Perestroika, but it seemed to me that we made the first step forward. The generation before us, born after the war, were also rather active. But the children born after the war, who in reality were fifteen to twenty years older than us, fell to repression. It was disclosed that there were so-called nationalist groups in the 70’s. They got some of them fired from work, others were removed from their studies, and they even revoked some scholar’s PhDs. It also affected artists and historians. Some were permitted to print and put on exhibitions, and they prevented others from doing the same. That is why there were significantly fewer people interested in their national identity, and psychologically they were much more connected to each other through their previous negative experiences. In the 1960’s and the 1970’s they quietly defended their position and were under intense surveillance. When Perestroika began in the 1980’s they were very wary, and they did not believe it was truly happening. Based on their life experience it was not clear to them where this was all going. As for us, well we weren’t afraid and flew forward, and we tried as best we could to accomplish and seize … Although it wasn’t clear to us either how it would all end. Would they arrest us? Would they stop us, or not? In 1987 and 1988 the government was still very uncertain. For example, they expelled me from my graduate studies. Scholars gathered at the institute, the scholar and writer Ivan Naumenko figuratively said, “I can’t understand how one graduate student could screw everything up for two academics, and ten doctors of science!”

OS: Why?

AB: Because we organized a demonstration in support of the memory of our ancestors in 1988. The demonstration was called “Dzyady,” (Дзяды), and because of the role I played in that organization they detained me, brought me before a judge, and fined me.

OS: What kind of demonstration was it? Can you explain what “Dzyady” is, and where you got the idea?

AB: It was one of the ways we used to first of all show the terrifying results of Stalin’s repression. We first organized a demonstration in 1987. It was fifty years after the mass repression of 1937, and we demonstrated without state permission. We did however apply for authorization beforehand, but the authorities didn’t even respond. Unexpectedly two hundred people showed up. It was one of the first of those kinds of actions that started to happen in Minsk after a long period of time where nothing happened.

OS: How did you get the word out?

AB: Well, between informal organizations, writers, artists, and among those who were hooked by the idea, a lot of people who heard about it joined in.

OS: Was it done purely through word of mouth? There were no official advertisements?

AB: No, what advertisements? At that time there was nothing of the sort.

OS: And how did the authorities react to your activities?

AB: The authorities did not know how to react. We gathered in the center of Minsk by the monument to Yanka Kupala, and we read the names of the poets who were shot on October 30th, 1937, some writers spoke, one of our older friends sang a song. Our guys from “the Natives” read poetry. It all turned out quite beautifully. The next year in 1988 when we started organizing “Dzyady”, the authorities did not permit our demonstration. We had a month long fight with the authorities where they tried to somehow prohibit and smear our actions. They formed a security detachment in charge of protecting the monuments in order to control us, and it didn’t work, but in the end they managed to prohibit us. I was one of the organizers along with the poet Anatoly Sys, who also applied for permission for the demonstration. They summoned us to the prosecutor’s office, and officially warned us that we would be held responsible for the possible mass disorder to come. It really felt like they could just imprison us at any moment, provoke some kind of disorder, and that would be it. But the authorities made the mistake of announcing on the radio that our demonstration was prohibited, and it became well known from then on. We first put up advertisements all around the city. We secretly printed twelve thousand little invitations somewhere in the institute of physics, where they printed drafts. We had friends there.

OS: What does “Dzyady” mean?

AB: It signifies a day for the commemoration of our ancestors. It’s a sort of holiday that we have – a memorial day for the dearly departed in our region, in Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Belarus. In the 19th century Adam Mickiewicz from Novogrudok wrote an entire poem called “Dzyady”.

OS: So you protested Stalin era repression by using a traditional holiday?

AB: Yes. It was, of course, unexpected. The authorities had to outlaw the holiday, even though we didn’t officially celebrate it, it still wasn’t explicitly outlawed in the Soviet times. They ended up in a very uncomfortable position. But, much to our surprise, in 1988 thousands of people came to celebrate “Dzyady”. The year before, in 1987, only two-hundred people came, but in 1988 ten to twelve thousand people showed up.

OS: That was after they opened Kurapaty? [4]

AB: Yes, that happened soon after. Information about Kurapaty was made public in the summer of 1988. The information was already gathered and prepared a year before. It was just that Zenon Poznyak, the man investigating this issue, did not reveal the truth about Kurapaty earlier because he was afraid that all the evidence would be destroyed. He gathered testimony from eye-witnesses from neighboring villages. He gathered material evidence and went on digs with “shadow” diggers, who were probably looking for gold. The bones along with the rotting clothes of the executed were strewn about. But most importantly, his article on Kurapaty had a big impact on the memories of the people who were young at the time, or even young children, who saw all this with their own eyes. The area was surrounded by tall fences, but still children passed by it, hunting for berries or mushrooms. They would see the executions, but didn’t speak of it their entire lives. People who lived there would here the gunfire from the executions, and some of them even had family in the NKVD who took part in the killings. Poznyak gathered dozens of pieces of living evidence and held on to it in absolute secrecy, and once the opportunity arose and the newspaper “Literature and Art” started publishing braver things during Perestroika, such as banned poetry and information about the repression of literature specialists, he agreed with the editor to publish his materials… When they published his article it was, of course, an explosion.

OS: It was one of the very first revelations about the execution locations, right?

AB: At the same time there were findings in Ukraine, and Katyn. And then it was verified. But for us it was, of course, of utmost significance because the scale of it was enormous. Tens of thousands of people were executed there.

OS: Did you learn about this in the newspaper?

AB: Yes, and that newspaper was published twenty or thirty thousand times, which is pretty large for Belarus. They read it to pieces. It was a bestseller, and that information of course significantly changed society. The truth about these mass executions resonated with people in a powerful way. In the summer of 1988 there were demonstrations of several hundreds of people, and when people went to Kurapaty and organized funerary processions, they recognized the place practically immediately after the article. The main theme of “Dzyady” of 1988 was of course connected Stalin era repression, but we did not go to Kurapaty. We gathered together to lead the demonstration in honor of the dead in the Moscow Cemetery, where famous Belarusian poets and artists were buried, but the demonstration was not approved by the state. The authorities dispersed the crowd with batons and tear gas. They detained dozens of people, me included. It felt like a catastrophe to me, because that was it, we didn’t even get to hold our rally. In reality people organized themselves and divided themselves up; one group went to Kurapaty, another group of a few thousand people went to an open field on a hill and held the rally there. There were tons of people, and so the police didn’t know what to do with them all. However, they did have a special operation prepared for us. After there was a crackdown on the documentation of the meeting. There were different military groups and detachments, they practically had snipers on the rooftops.

The community’s reaction was completely different from what the authorities expected. The dispersion of the rally caused intense indignation and anger, and from that moment a democratic movement began rapidly developing, quickly becoming a social and political movement that had as its goal the removal of the communists from power. By not admitting their crimes the authorities were in fact confirming that they were the spiritual successors of the Stalinist ideological foundation of the 1930’s. This was a punch in the government’s gut. Plus, at the time the economic situation was so bad that people had nothing to eat. That combined with the state’s desire to cover up the Chernobyl catastrophe, and our efforts to reveal the true picture of what happened there caused everything to evolve extremely quickly. This all lead to the signing of the 1991 Belovezha Accords. In 1990 the first elections were held, and a few democratic deputies entered the Supreme Soviet. It was a small group, but they were very active. They managed to force the Supreme Soviet to implement democratic reforms in 1990 and 1991. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 Belarus at last became an independent state.
This all happened right before our eyes. Even in 1987 we acted like an underground organization. Four years later the Soviet Union had already collapsed. In 1991 I became a deputy of the Minsk City Council, I was twenty-nine years old. We had real opportunities to influence the general situation of our country at various levels.

OS: And you gained notoriety in connection with Kurapaty and through the organization of these demonstrations?

AB: Well, in narrow circles I did.

OS: Clearly the circles weren’t that narrow if you were elected for city council…

AB: No, it wasn’t because of Kurapaty. At first they elected me as director of the Literary Museum of Maksim Bogdanovich – there was a company that existed all throughout the Soviet Union. Directors were elected at a different level, directors of factories, businesses, collective farms, etc., and so they happened to select me as the director of the museum.

OS: How did you run for the position? Did someone nominate you, or did they already know who you were?

AB: They knew me as the director of the museum, of course, because earlier I worked in the Museum of Belarusian Literary History, and then in the museum of Maksim Bogdanovich, who was a classic Belarusian writer, and a modernist.

OS: Did you have to stop your graduate studies then? Or did you complete them?

AB: In 1989 I completed my graduate studies and started working at the Museum of Belarusian Literary History, and just a few months later I became director.

OS: But you did not defend your dissertation?

AB: I wrote a dissertation, but I did not defend it, because I became the director of the museum, I was a deputy of the city council, and one of the organizers of the Belarusian People’s Front, which was a social movement for Perestroika, a proto-party. At the same time we cannot call it a party because it contained people with many different political views, but it was a large democratic movement. And I ran, of course, as part of the Belarusian People’s Front, and as the director of the museum. We actively advocated for our campaign, and people believed us and voted. I was, however, very young, but that’s what it was like back then.

OS: I am interested in your experience with official state institutions such as the university, academia, and the museum… On the one hand we have these governmental institutions and on the other hand we have your informal cultural-political activism. How did the two coincide? Did they allow you to do all that within these organizations?

AB: In the museum, yes. I got lucky. I looked at the museum as a playground for the realization of my efforts and ideas. Who didn’t go there? And what wasn’t done there? I was chased out of the university, but the minister of culture didn’t touch me at the museum. At the university they didn’t come around in time, and we had already jumped off to other things. The KGB did however show up right after our graduation in 1984, but they were too late, we had already graduated and they gave up. While I was studying, after they said in a general meeting, “that’s it, you’re out!” two weeks later I went to the director for the expulsion documents and he said to me, “just go work, Ales, go work.” They played at expelling me for the academic committee and for the KGB, but in reality they were protecting me.

OS: Was this because of “Dzyady”?

AB: Yes, it was because of “Dzyady,” and various other reasons – we held rather loud literary soirées. We took part in communal actions with other non-state-sanctioned organizations, we signed a letter in defense of the Belarusian language, and of course all this information got around. And it is clear that either the secret service, or communist leaders had the goal of getting rid of me, but the institute protected me, and the director and the institute had a healthy following at the time. They let me complete my graduate studies, and straight from there I went to work at the Museum of Belarusian Literary History, which let me get to Minsk, because I didn’t have the proper documents to legally travel to Minsk. Two months later I was elected as the director of the Literary Museum Maksim Bogdanovich in Minsk. That was really a wonderful playground. It was in the center of the city, it was a great placement, and everything happened there. Uniates gathered there, along with Christian democrats, democrats, youth organizations, the Belarusian People’s Front, and worker movements, and they even held various kinds of concerts there. In the early years the first independent democratic Belarusian newspapers, “Svoboda” (Freedom) and “Nasha Niva” (Our Niva), worked there. I allowed all the democratic groups and initiatives to use the museums address for legal purposes. Just eight meters away a few dozen non-sanctioned organizations were registered in a small room. The minister of culture did not bother us. For them what was most important was that we did our work in a professional manner. And we worked well, because I had a young collective that was prepared, educated, and motivated to work hard. We opened new branches of the museum, and installed new expositions and exhibitions. We worked really hard, and others took us as their model. We even did an exposition at the museum of Maksim Bogdanovich in Yaroslavl, where the Bogdanovich family lived at the beginning of the 20th century.

OS: How did you go from that type of activity to human rights? And why in 1996? At that time you created a human rights center, what was the reason for doing that?

AB: In 1988 I organized, “the Martyology of Belarus,” it was an organization dedicated to memorializing Stalin era repression. We collected information about the repression. Our organization had to address the question of how to memorialize Kurapaty, and so gathering information, memorializing the repression, and finding and helping people were all part of my work in 1988. Then when I became a city council deputy I joined the city commission for the rehabilitation of the victims of political repression. And we worked on the rehabilitation of the people who, for various reasons, were never helped.

OS: Did you have access to KGB documents?

AB: Yes, access to the documents were relevant to the victims based on the format of the work of our committee. If people received some kind of treatment then the KGB would give up the information about that person, and we would make the decision regarding their rehabilitation.

OS: And now that committee probably doesn’t exist?

AB: No, that committee disappeared as soon as Lukashenko took power. Everything was immediately dissolved.

OS: But the committee worked for several years?

AB: Yes, yes. And while I was a deputy, it was all just becoming so interesting and important to me, and I took part in it all, but…

OS: In 1996?

AB: Lukashenko rose to power in 1994…

OS: And you created a human rights center in 1996?

AB: Yes, he came to power in 1994, and the repression began. After the first crackdown on demonstrations in 1988, they practically ceased to combat the demonstrations. There were some clashes with the authorities, for example in 1990 there were anti-communist demonstrations. That demonstration did cause some criminal proceedings, but they still didn’t disperse the demonstrations. The first demonstration that they actually dispersed in 1996 was a street protest called the Chernobyl Way, dedicated to the problem in Chernobyl. They had been conducting these demonstrations every year since 1989. The Belarusian People’s Front raised the Chernobyl issue, and showed that still tens of thousands of people were living on contaminated land, where they should not be living. The government was hiding this information, and when these facts were made public it really angered people, and so in 1990-1991 the government was forced to relocate those living on radiated land. From that moment on, the Chernobyl Way demonstration became a tradition, and we held it every year to memorialize the catastrophe in Chernobyl. In 1996 the protest took on an anti-Lukashenko character. About forty-thousand people gathered, which is a pretty large crowd for Belarus, and they mercilessly dispersed it. And yet again we found ourselves in the same situation as we were in 1988. We organized a quick response team to gather information about the people they arrested because they would hide them, and no one knew where anybody was being held. Generally people spent time in prison for administrative charges, two organizers were imprisoned with criminal charges held against them.

OS: And what were these administrative charges?

AB: Mass disorder. “Mass Disorder” was the official penal provision. I attended a few of these legal proceedings as a witness.

OS: So peaceful demonstrations were understood as disorder?

AB: Yes. The police practically organized the provocations. They deliberately blocked off the road with their little Zhiguli-brand cars. Demonstrators turned two Zhiguli over and continued forward. When the police started beating people, they started to clash with each other. Hundreds of people were apprehended and we created a group of volunteers who gathered information about those taken by the police in order to help the families of the people being held for criminal charges, even though they had not been convicted. And that’s how it went, and it was all organized out of the museum. I was the director of the museum at the time, and my colleagues from the museum took part in these demonstrations.

OS: Not long ago the late director of the “the Memorial,” Arseny Roginsky spoke of the direct connection between the historical research and political activism, and about a connection between the collection of facts about the crimes the government committed against its citizens and the fight for a different democratic form of government that respects and defends human rights. It’s the same here; there is a direct connection between recognizing the rights of those killed in Kurapaty and your human rights work.
AB: In reality it all happened at the same time. Naturally I was prepared by all of my previous societal experience for human rights work. Our “Martyrologue” stalled somewhere in 1992 because other political paths opened up to us and we didn’t have the resources to do it all.

OS: And what was your experience like in this human rights organization in 1996? How long has it been around?

AB: Twenty-two years. We started to develop it as a public initiative with practically no money at all. We worked for two years as volunteers as we looked for money. I just grabbed a plastic bag and walked around rallies, and people would toss me “bunnies” (money) – that’s what we called Belarusian currency because beasts were printed on it. We would give out these bags of money to the families of the victims of political repression, because ever since 1996 there was essentially never a time where there were no
political prisoners. And that’s how the bitter opposition between democratic society and the government began, and it continues to this day.

OS: And the government didn’t object to the existence of this organization?

AB: It was an informal initiative. At first, in 1997, we registered as a city center. It was permitted at the time. I worked as the director then, and they detained me for my first time in 1997 for days. A few months after I was released they summoned me to the government ministry and said, “Choose; either you continue your social activities, or you be the director, because we’re being strangled by the higher-ups.”

OS: And for what reason did they detain you?

AB: Because we picketed and protested against them detaining activists. They detained me pretty often, or they fined me. There were literally dozens of people being detained. I was younger then, and I was raring to go. So much happened in 97, 98, 99 and 2000.

OS: Those were very liberal years in Russia.

AB: They were terrible years for us; we just lost one position after another, and it all centered around the tightening of laws. They created even harsher laws regarding public action, the dissemination of information, and public organizations, and the first re-registration process began in 1999. But still we continued developing our efforts, because there was a kind of public …

OS: … support …

AB: Need, we’ll say. We simply saw that our work was needed.

OS: And did you accomplish anything? Did you see any results? Did they release anyone?

AB: Yes, yes, we even had the opportunity to participate in the legal criminal proceedings as public defenders. And then they banned us. We participated in proceedings, we connected with advocates, and we searched for help for the victims of political repression. In 1998 I definitively left the museum and started to work professionally at the human rights center, “Viasna,” (Spring) and we constantly had problems with the authorities. They searched our offices, confiscated our first computers, and oppressed us in various other ways. But the group of people that had gathered around me were truly brave.

OS: And how did you financially support this organization? Through donations?

AB: We received our first grant in 1998. And from then on we searched for legal grant opportunities, whichever we could find. At first it was legal, but eventually the government closed everything and created laws making it impossible. No human rights organization has received a single legal grant since 2000. All of that help is called “humanitarian aid” and it passes through the Office of Presidential Affairs, and nobody ever gets anything. Neither the Helsinki Committee, nor journalist organizations, human rights organizations, nor us for that matter, have received any type of official support.

OS: Are there many human rights organizations in Belarus?

AB: There are quite a few because there is a need for such organizations. In spite of the fact that the government is constantly trying to limit us, there are people who take the risk and continue their work, thank God for them. I’m not just talking about people in our organization, there are others too. Generally, in the last few years young volunteers have become more and more numerous. For a long time the fact that young Belarusians simply didn’t show up was a problem. They would mostly get involved with
political youth organizations, but now they volunteer for various human rights organizations, and that is really good. Their activity is not necessarily political, but what they are doing is real and effective, and people see that.

OS: Is it true that you were the director of the human rights organization called “Viasna”?

AB: Yes, and I am still the president of that organization. We have a council and regional branches. We are active in sixteen cities all over Belarus. We are always looking for support not just in Minsk, but also in every region in Belarus. That fact is important to us because it gives us the opportunity to gather information about human rights violations, and to monitor elections all throughout the country. We work closely with other human rights organizations. The Belarusian Helsinski Committee has branches in various cities. Then PEN International and the Belarusian Association of Journalists defend the freedom of the press and free speech, along with directly defending journalists themselves. We also work in tandem with other human rights organizations who might not be as strong as we are, but nevertheless are quite active. All of this is important for the creation of an environment that is conducive to human rights. It is easier to kill one single organization, but ten to twelve different organizations sign on to statements regarding political prisoners. When many different human rights organizations all declare someone a political prisoner it is very difficult to refuse our declaration. Working together is crucial for us, and life simply forced us to stick together, and for the time being that is how we carry on.

OS: What lead to your arrest specifically, … if I may ask?

AB: Of course. In 2003-2004 the government purged the sector of nongovernment organizations, just as they did in Russia in 2012. In Russia they called them, “foreign agents,” here they withdrew various organizations’ registration and effectively liquidated them. They conducted a concentrated campaign. With the decision of the Supreme Court they eliminated the registration of about three-hundred nongovernmental organizations. And we were affected by this purge. They took away our registration in 2003. As a result we were yet again an informal organization. For me, psychologically, it was a catastrophe, because in the 80’s I experienced this same exact situation. Back then there was no registration and everything was done de facto.

OS: Under what pretext did they close your organization?

AB: They used a rather formal pretext. The government apparently considered us to be at fault for infringing upon legislation as we witnessed elections in 2001. Two years went by, and then they took away our registration. We turned to the United Nations Committee on Human Rights. The Committee found the court’s decision to be unjust. They requested that the Belarusian government renew our registration, but the government, of course, did nothing. They simply ignored the U.N. Committee’s decision and their request regarding our registration. In 2006 the Belarusian authorities criminalized activities organized by unregistered organizations, and things suddenly became really dangerous.
They started to investigate mainly young activists, those involved in informal youth organizations and groups. And they thought about harassing us, but for the time being they didn’t. In 2007-2008 a particularly strong wave of compromising propaganda came out against us. They wrote about us in all the government owned means of mass information, and they would show us on television; a camera would come buy and film our apartment building, and on television they would say that an unregistered organization is located in this building, practically implicating us as enemies of the people. But at that same time, in 2007, the government began flirting with the European Union, and Lukashenko was required to release all political prisoners, and so they left us alone as well.
That is how it went up until 2010 when we held presidential elections, which ended in a debacle with opposition parties, and many people were imprisoned. Dozens of criminal proceedings were held against political activists, and in the midsts of that mess they did not forget about human rights organizations and set their sights on our organization. The problem was that money from financial grants was transferred to our accounts in Poland and Lithuania, and we reported directly to these foreign grant giving foundations and organizations. The KGB gathered information gathered intelligence on the accounts that belonged to me and to the deputy director of our organization, Valentine Stefanovich, and the minister of taxes appealed to the governments of Poland and Lithuania – in Poland the General Procurator dealt with this issue, and in Lithuania the Minister of Justice was responsible for doing the same. The Department of Financial Investigation, responsible for conducting the formal review, ended up receiving this information because there was an agreement between governments regarding information about possible corruption. The KGB’s ears perked up as soon as they learned about all of this.

OS: I heard that the Polish government later apologized for this.

AB: As did the Lithuanian government. They didn’t think that their bureaucratic system under the auspices of the fight against corruption would give up financial information about human rights defenders and their organizations. It was a shock for them too, at least in a political sense. They made an official apology to my wife because I was already in prison. They imprisoned me when …

OS: And what were the accusations against you?

AB: Tax evasion, because the money that went to the organization passed through my personal account and through the account of my deputy, well, at least that is what they found. The sum found in my deputy, Valentin Stefanovich’s account was not large enough to constitute a criminal offense. They punished him through an administrative procedure, whereas the sum in my account was larger. They seized all of our grants and the total sum was large enough to incur a criminal offense for tax evasion. However, before the trial they gave me the opportunity to escape.

OS: Escape, as in emigrate?

AB: Yes, they just wanted me to leave. Then they would be able to say that this so-called human rights advocate is actually a vicious criminal, who doesn’t pay taxes, and that’s why he left his country. That is how they wanted to compromise my reputation and the reputation of the human rights organization “Vesna,” and the reputation of all human rights organizations. They waited for a month and a half but I didn’t go anywhere. I didn’t do anything on purpose, because I knew that there would be no way to defend my reputation abroad. No matter what you say, as soon as you run you’re guilty. I was happy with the court hearing because it came out that this was all a KGB operation. From the beginning the financial review was requested by the KGB. It was unknown where they obtained all the information and the zero copies that their argument was based on. We didn’t know that! And the KGB documents were all part of the trial. They showed the documents to me and throughout the case I read them. The documents demonstrated that the director of the KGB wrote to the state inspection agency and stated, “I am requesting permission to review the computers that were confiscated from the ‘Vesna’s’ offices. Perhaps we would find information about Bialiatksi and Stefanovich that would serve as the foundation for criminal charges against them.” There, concretely, we obtained these documents. Everyone there was in shock. The case made it clear that there was a meeting between two KGB officers and a prosecutor where they discussed tactics concerning the review of our accounts. All of this information came to light during the trial, as did the documents proving that money from the Dutch government and from our Swedish partners was given in support of “Vesna’s” actions. Still they considered the money to be part of my personal income, even though on the eve of the trial the Dutch government sent an official letter where they confirmed that they received complete records on how the funds were spent, and had no complaints against us. It also became clear during the trial that the majority of the grant was spent in Lithuania.
By sending me to prison the government and the KGB thought that they were sending a message to the entire human rights community in Belarus – look, the same will happen to you if you continue. In response we passionately continued our work because dozens of people were sitting in jail. We cried out at the top of our lungs, turning to international structures such as the OSCE, the European Council, (even though we are not members of the council), and the European Union. We told them all that they had to do something to get the government to release political prisoners.

OS: Did you go return to your literary activities in prison? You published your first book after your graduate studies, and a kind of break followed, or did you continue to write throughout that period?

AB: There was a while where I didn’t write at all. It felt obsolete to me, as if the printed word’s time had passed. Nevertheless in 2006 I published my little book called, “Jogging Along the Shore of Lake Geneva,” a collection of essays about human rights work, observations, and various travels, – so I was still writing. After ending up in prison I suddenly had the time that I didn’t have before … However, paradoxically, I actually didn’t have much time there at all.

OS: Putting intellectuals in prison is dangerous, because in prison they start to write …

AB: If you give them that kind of opportunity, or at least don’t bother them … I wrote and rewrote many letters but everything passed through a censoring process, and was sent out with a “reviewed” stamp, or it was sent back to me.

OS: So you would write letters?

AB: They were letters that I wrote to my colleagues. We were not allowed to write about Lukashenko, nor about our location, which at first was the pre-trial detention center and then a penal colony. But we were allowed to write about, for example, memories. I practically wrote an entire book-essay that was dedicated to the troubled period in 2010 before I was imprisoned, more precisely before August 2011. The book was called, “the Silver Mercury of Life”. There was not much there about Lukashenko. If I wrote about him I would mask it by either writing “he” or something similarly ambiguous. I depicted those troubled months, and each moment connected with their efforts to force me out of Belarus, and everything about the arrests, and the crackdowns on demonstrations during elections. I depicted it all in detail. The searches were endless. They searched our offices three times after the elections. They immediately ripped all of our computers right out of our offices the first night after the elections. A month later they raided our offices again. We were on the first floor, so my colleagues took their laptops and jumped out the windows into a neighboring kitchen. They evacuated. Valentine and I opened the doors together. Much to the chagrin of the KBG agents they found an empty building. Afterwards they summoned me to the Attorney General’s office and gave me a warning. Then they searched us again. I was in Vilnius when they searched us that time. I wildly screamed at them on the phone, “Don’t let them!” When the police grabbed the phone I yelled at them too, and they started to make excuses, “yes, well, they sent us here…” It was surprising.

OS: So being imprisoned gave you time to document all of that history.

AB: Yes, and the same for my colleagues…

OS: During your time in prison did your organization continue its work?

AB: Yes, and I found that to be the strongest moral support, because the government’s goal was to destroy our organization, and they failed to do that. The organization remained, and no one left it. Everyone continued to work even though they confiscated our building. The building was registered under my name as personal property, and so they took the apartment. That created a huge challenge for us and we did not know if the organization would survive or not. I tried my best to support them through my
letters. I would tell them that I was fine. “You guys keep doing your job, and I’ll keep doing mine – sitting in jail.” All that I wrote in prison can be separated into two parts; everything that I wanted to say about literature, because during that time my desire to write literature came back, and the other part is made up of memories and essays about what was going on in Belarus. They were memories about the 80’s and 90’s. There I recorded everything that I’m telling you now.

OS: Did you coin the phrase “Belarusian prison literature”?

AB: I don’t know if I created it or not, however I did write about our poets’, Vladimir Negliaev’s and Aleksandr Feduta’s, first books; they were arrested in December of 2010. They wrote their first books in jail, and when I was in jail they sent me their books. I received them and wrote a short essay about them, and recalled that in the past other Belarusian writers wrote from prison as far back as during the Tsarist times, not to mention those who wrote from prison under Stalin between the 30’s and the 50’s.

OS: So Lukashenko revitalized this literary genre …

AB: That was the essay where I first used the term “Belarusian prison literature,” and it just went from there. After that other political activists who had been imprisoned published their memories. We then started publishing an entire series of Belarusian prison literature. Six books came out, all written by former political prisoners. We started this literary process.

OS: It is interesting how the development of literature intersects with political ideas, and how in response to politics new genres appear, just as “the Martyrologue of Belarus” appeared after Kurapaty, and how this prison literature came to be…

AB: That’s nothing new. A rather large corpus of similar literature exists in Russia, not to mention the books written by Andrey Marchenko, Vladimir Bukovski, Pyotr Grigorenko, and the memoirs of Andrey Sakharov, along with other political prisoners such as Eduard Kuznetsov, and Yuri Orlov among others. They left behind very powerful books that became part of the canon. They aren’t just any ordinary memoirs. They have been a source of amazement for me for a while now. I feel like we should create something similar in order to record what is happening right now, because right now in Belarus this period of political persecution is not over – it continues. It is vital that this remains in the people’s cultural memory.

OS: You found a kindred spirit in the literature of Russian political dissidents.

AB: Yes, and not only in Russia. I was delighted by the collection of poetry called, “Goodbye Songs,” written by the former Turkmen minister of foreign affairs, Batyr Berdiev, who was imprisoned in 2002 by the Turkmen government; he then disappeared. Before disappearing he managed to prepare a small compilation that, by some miracle, made it out of the Turkmen prison and was released in Russia. It was made up of poems written from an artistic perspective, in Russian, even though Russian was not his first language. He wrote the best he could, and his work survived as a memorial to the hundreds, if not thousands, of political prisoners in Turkmenistan. Almost twenty years went by and still no one knows Batyr Berdiev’s fate; we do not know if he’s alive or dead, imprisoned or free. These things concern the entire post-Soviet community.
Let us not forget my Georgian friends. Levan Berdzenishvili, a politician and social activist, wrote his memoirs about the 1980’s. He managed to take depict that period and they sent him to prison for three years. Not long ago, while in prison, he wrote memories of the 1980’s in his book, “The Bright Abyss: the Final Days of the GULAG”. This tradition comes from the severe realities of our lives, starting in the Soviet Union, and then under post-Soviet regimes where a confrontation between citizens and the government continues to this day.

OS: It is ironic that your imprisonment not only gave you time to record all of this, but also drew international attention to human rights in Belarus, and to you personally, resulting in you becoming well known throughout the world in addition to receiving many international awards.

AB: Receiving these awards felt more like being marked for death by the Belarusian government. “You should do something! You should release political prisoners, and not just Bialiatski, but others too…” It was an act of solidarity that put pressure on the Belarusian authorities. I understood perfectly well that the prize wasn’t as much for me as it was a tool to draw attention to human rights issues in Belarus. The same thing is happening today with Oyub Titiev in Chechnya. In 2018 he received the Václav Havel Human Rights Prize from Europe, and I received the same award earlier in 2013. I was its first laureate. After me my good friend from Azerbaijan, Anar Mammadli, won the prize. He was involved in monitoring elections and he too spent time in prison. In 2017, before Oyub, the Turkish lawyer, Murat Arslan was awarded the prize, and he is in prison now. It is a sad prize to win… It turns out that they only give this award to former prisoners and to those who have seriously suffered….

OS: Like all of your friends…

AB: During my time in prison I wrote, and wrote, and wrote. Some of what I wrote was published while I was still in prison. Some of it is still coming out now, because my goal was to write at least one page a day. While in prison I worked in a garment factory as a packer, and that took up most of my time. Whether you liked it or not you had to work for eight hours in addition to inspections. We had one day off, Sunday, one day to pull yourself back together. On Sundays there was always something to fix, or clean, or what-have-you. There was almost no free time. I adapted, and had about one or two hours a day, sometimes three, where I responded to letters and managed to write my one page a day.

OS: Three-hundred and sixty-five pages a year.

AB: Yes, each year, and I spent almost three years there, so I wrote quite a few pages. That kind of thing doesn’t happen when you’re free.

OS: Your biography gives quite a strong impression of fearlessness from the beginning to the end. Where does this fearlessness come from in a society built on fear?

AB: Well, it is difficult to talk about fearlessness, because we are all products of the society in which we live. Still there are these some compromises that you make in life. They’re there and they’re not going anywhere. Uncompromising people don’t last long in Belarus, or in any authoritarian societies. There system either eats them up or tosses them out.

OS: But you knew and understood that you could be arrested at any moment during any of these demonstrations or actions…

AB: I was intensely motivated to change life for the better, and to do my best to at least do something, and that motivation remains to this day, I want to do something more with the time I have.

OS: Does that motivation come from your family, or just from your personal character?

AB: I don’t know. Maybe it comes from a little bit of everything, because I wouldn’t say that my family has a strong spirit of opposition. At that time my family had a harsh opinion of the Soviet Union. My mother just braved her way through Soviet life however she could, because she was a simple worker. My father however perceived Soviet life as something foreign. They were forced to leave Belarus by special
selection, and because practically everything was taken from them. They escaped Belarus because of the famine that occurred in Belarus at the end of the 30’s. My father suffered from serious trauma his whole life, because at one point they had a life, and then they had to fight for their survival. I remember how they dragged him into the party. He was also a worker. They would come and say, “Let’s go, Ustinovich, you’re such a great worker.” He would always refuse, and say, “no, I’m not worthy.” And then they would go and talk to my mother. My father would say, “they found an idiot,” and it bothered her that you had to contribute to the party from your worker’s salary.

OS: The Soviet authorities prohibited any kind of grassroots initiative, along with any kind of activism, and yet your whole life is based on activism and various kinds of initiatives and organizations; where does this come from?

AB: It happened gradually. All of my years studying at the university acted as a farewell to Soviet ideology, and customs, which had been hand fed to us since birth. Everything happened quickly, but unevenly. It was not as if I just woke up a different person one morning. I was in the communist youth party until 1988, for as long as it held together. It was my way of compromising with Soviet reality. If I was truly and honestly one-hundred percent anti-Soviet I would have left that party a lot sooner, but I didn’t. What really opened my eyes was stumbling upon the archives where I saw the last names of banned writers, like Ales Garun, a wonderful Belarusian poet who wrote at the beginning of the twentieth century. That really impacted me. Garun was banned because he was an essayist, and one of the members of the Belarusian Military Commission, which created the Belarusian People’s Army in 1918-1920 in order to reinforce the idea of Belarus as an independent country. They simply erased him from literature and history. Not to mention that he was forced to do hard labor for ten years under the Tsar. They imprisoned him when he was barely twenty years old for his work in an underground printing house in Minsk. And what does it matter that he became a classic in Belarusian literature and in the literature of the 1920’s? Before the Stalin era one could not study Belarusian literature without reading his work. And what does it matter that he was incredibly talented? From 1931 to 1988 they simply took this writer and erased him from our culture. He was only published abroad. And there are dozens of other names that met the same fate. Learning about this shocked me. It was clear that they were robbing us by taking away what should be a regular part of our culture. It incited protest.

OS: It is interesting how activism, the desire to change one’s situation, was at the foundation of Soviet ideology. Revolutionaries wanted to change the Tsarist regime, and free themselves…

AB: Yes, we also wanted to change Belarus, but then Lukashenko came and rained on our parade.

OS: Liberating revolutionary ideas ultimately transformed into this rigid, Soviet dictatorship. To a certain degree your opposition to Soviet oppression enact these liberating, revolutionary ideas into daily life.

AB: We still have not achieved our desired outcome. For the moment everything remains uncertain.

OS: Is there any hope?

AB: Well, yes, of course. Nevertheless the process progresses slowly. At the end of the 80’s and the beginning of the 90’s we thought we just needed to take one decisive step forward, then the democrats would take power, and all the changes would be final. We thought everything would go the same way it did in the Baltic countries and in Poland. We saw it happen. These were all demonstrable examples of positive change, that all took place in countries belonging to the so-called socialist camp. It seemed to us that we just needed a bit more time and then it would all change for us. But no. A significant portion of the population lived under different laws, about which Svetlana Aleksievich wrote in her latest book entitled, Second Hand Time, where she perceives the collapse of the Soviet Union as a catastrophe. For us it was a liberation; the prison of nations fell apart in the end. We couldn’t imagine that that would happen in our lifetime. 1994 was like being doused in ice water. It was only then that I understood that we had a long march ahead of us. It was a return to the past. Lukashenko did not plan on holding power for just a year or two, so we had to be patient, we had to do what we felt we had to do, and it would be what it would be. He was almost impeached in 1996. History could have drastically changed, but not much of what directs it depends on us. At the time everything depended on the deputy of the Supreme Soviet, and on those decision makers. Unfortunately, they were not able to actively prove themselves, and as a result Lukashenko staid in government and took more and more power. We then understood that this would be a long process, and that if you go head to head with him you would lose. Which meant that we needed a different method, based on profound societal changes. If we managed to change society, then Lukashenko of course would leave, but someone else would take his place. We see this all the time. When the first Orange Revolution took place in Ukraine president Viktor Yurchenko had all the power to make changes. What exactly kept him from enacting democratic reforms? The elites surrounding him were not ready. Society did not force him to make these changes, and they returned to Yanukovich, which practically lead Ukraine to catastrophe.

OS: For example, what happened in Russia…

AB: And in Syria? Revolutionary spirit passes quickly, and societal problems remain. That is why during the last few years our programs have been directed at supporting democratic activists, education, and at changing crucial laws such as the death penalty and laws regarding torture, which are not only integral parts of this regime. If changes occur in the people’s mentality, and in their system of values, then we win, but such changes won’t happen in one year’s time. We have to work, calmly and diligently, and still there will be more work to do for a very long time. Yet again, we see how quickly people return to reactionary positions in democratic societies in response to problems which have very little to do with you or even your country. One million refugees appear in Europe, and bam! Suddenly right parties rise to power. Who would have thought that in France of all places Le Pen’s team would come in second?

OS: Without conscious solidarity nothing will change.

AB: And that is precisely why we continue to do our work.

OS: Thank you.

 

Notes

[1] Both words exist in both Belarusian and Russian, but have different meanings.

[2] In both cases the two words are almost identical, but have different meanings in Belarusian and Russian. For instance in Russian the word “midnight” is almost the same as the Belarusian word for “north.”

[3] The magazine has the Belarusian title, “Студэнцкая думка.”

[4]A Stalin era execution site in the forest outside Minsk.

 

 

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