Olga V. Solovieva—Ales Bialiatski, Together: On the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize and East Slavic Solidarity

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Roundtable “Work of Contemporary Cultural Institutions as Protest,” March 1, 2019, Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society, from left to right: Olga Solovieva (UChicago), Ales Bialiatski (Viasna, Belarus), Serguei Parkhomenko (Last Address, Russia), Vasyl Cherepanyn (Visual Culture Research Center, Ukraine)
Roundtable “Work of Contemporary Cultural Institutions as Protest,” March 1, 2019, Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society, from left to right: Olga Solovieva (UChicago), Ales Bialiatski (Viasna, Belarus), Serguei Parkhomenko (Last Address, Russia), Vasyl Cherepanyn (Visual Culture Research Center, Ukraine)

by Olga V. Solovieva

The Peace Prize laureates represent civil society in their home countries. They have for many years promoted the right to criticize power and protect the fundamental rights of citizens. They have made an outstanding effort to document war crimes, human right abuses and the abuse of power. Together they demonstrate the significance of civil society for peace and democracy.”

(The Nobel Peace Prize 2022 Announcement, October 7, 2022)

In January 2020, boundary2 ran an interview with Ales Bialiatski, the Belarusian human rights activist. The interview was recorded during the 2019 University of Chicago’s Neubauer Collegium workshop “Cultures of Protest in Contemporary Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia.” Back then, the goal was to raise awareness of the democratic aspirations among Belarusian activists and their long history of grassroots organizing for human and civil rights, a struggle largely unknown beyond the country’s borders. At the Neubauer, with help from the Pozen Family Center for Human Rights, we strove to show that these aspirations were shared by citizens of the three East Slavic countries; were connected to the recovery and rethinking of the past; and pointed toward the future. Building upon these commonalities, we also wanted to highlight the differences in the trajectories and forms this struggle has taken throughout the region. We sought to forge collaborative relations among Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian pro-democratic intellectuals in expectation that all three groups would cooperate and learn from each other. Not a shared identity but a common history, filtered through divergent interpretations and experiences, framed the project’s comparative perspective.

Much changed in the following two years: In the spring and summer of 2020, Belarus saw unprecedented organizing and turnout in the presidential elections, expressing the will of the people to transition to a democratic form of government by peaceful means. The results, manipulated, reasserted the power of the generally despised dictator Alexander Lukashenko for the sixth time since 1994. And in February 2022, the war in Ukraine which Russia had led since March 2014, escalated and expanded to a full-scale invasion. Oppression within Russia and Belarus rose to unimaginable proportions. Ales is now once again a prisoner of conscience. After receiving the 2020 Right Livelihood Award from the Swedish government and the Sakharov Prize from the European Parliament, he is finally also the laureate of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, together…

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The solemn protocol of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony on December 10, 2022 was emotionally wracking for those who keep close watch on Eastern Europe. The prize came at too high a price, and this price hasn’t even been paid in full. Ales Bialiatski has been in prison since July 14, 2021 because his human rights organization Viasna provided legal aid to victims of police violence during the peaceful democratic protests that followed the fraudulent presidential elections on August 9, 2020. In his absence he was represented by his wife Natalia Pinchuk. She combined some quotations from his previous speeches and conveyed some thoughts he shared with her while in prison in an acceptance speech that struck an uncanny und uncharacteristically metaphysical tone: The references to “the duel of Good and Evil” and to his “soul,” hovering freely over his dungeon and the land of Belarus, exuded an eerily funerary aura. (The Nobel Lecture, Bialiatski, 5-6) For anyone aware of unendurable conditions and torture in Belarusian prisons, it was difficult to ward off a sinister sense of desperation where liberation can be imagined only via a metaphysical escape. But Bialiatski’s fragmented, mediated voice resounded in the speeches of his co-laureates.

Jan Rachinsky accepted the prize on behalf of the organization, Memorial. This organization documented Soviet and post-Soviet crimes against humanity for over thirty years. It was ordered to shut down by the Russian government as a “foreign agent” in December 2021, and liquidated the following April. Rachinsky was pressured to reject the prize. In a direct affront to the Russian government, he accepted it. The Russian ambassador to Norway was not present at the ceremony. Rachinsky’s speech was overwhelming in its honesty, intellectual integrity, and courage. His condemnation of the war and of its ideological underpinnings in the history of Soviet state-worship will be long remembered. Rachinsky voiced the conscience of Russian intellectuals at a time when they lack any other voice. In the City Hall of Oslo, this voice got an international hearing for the first time since February 2022. This was chilling and almost unbearable to observe, as Putin is known not to forgive those who criticize his wars. Rachinsky spoke as one for whom truth—historical truth in this case—is more valuable than life. The world was watching a man in an utterly unsentimental, matter-of-fact fashion offering his life for his country’s chance at moral survival. Ales’s career had begun in the same endeavor, organizing commemoration of the victims of Stalinist repression at the execution site in Kurapaty. It is from Kurapaty that Ales’ journey toward advocacy for human rights began.

The Center for Civil Rights, the third recipient of the prize, was represented by Oleksandra Matviichuk. This Center was born out of the new democratic sensibility of the Maidan demonstrations in winter 2013-14. Ever since, the Center has been recording human rights violations in Ukraine in order to safeguard the legal basis of Ukraine’s democratic aspirations. Today, the Center documents the crimes against humanity committed by the Russian and Russia-affiliated troops in Ukraine. Like other recipients of the prize, its members are mortally endangered, but by external threat: it operates right now under conditions of a devastating war, under bombs and gunfire, surrounded by destroyed infrastructure and lack of resources basic to survival. It continues its work demanding justice and accountability in international venues, seeking to prevent the erasure of Ukraine from the surface of the Earth. Matviichuk called the international community to account for its complicity with the invasion of Ukraine, for its failure to intervene in the annexation of Crimea and the destabilization of the Donbass region. The international community’s insouciance—and its interest in Russian gas—enabled Putin’s invasion in February, an escalation of a war that has gone on for over nine years without attracting significant attention from the West. Matviichuk’s call for help to Ukraine echoed the bravery and perseverance of the other two speeches pitted against the grim reality of existential doom. “It’s time to assume responsibility. We don’t know how much time we still have.” (The Nobel Prize Lecture, The Center for Civil Rights, 6) A determination born of despair is shared by all of the laureates in their refusal to give up.

What is a peace prize in time of war? A wishful projection? An unshakable belief in a common peaceful future against all odds? A lifebuoy thrown to a drowning world of East Slavic democracy couldn’t but be a requiem for a dream. In fact, the solemn, austere, restrained musical intermissions in the ceremony tactfully expressed the mourning at the heart of celebration. But the Norwegian Nobel Prize Committee recognized something that most outsiders to the tragedy in Eastern Europe do not recognize: the East Slavic togetherness in this political predicament. Without Maidan there would have been no Belarusian protests; without Belarusian protests there would have been no invasion of Ukraine; and without the Russian White Revolution, the massive anti-Putin protests of 2013, there would have been no Maidan. Since the Ukrainians successfully ousted their corrupt Putinist dictator Yanukovich and Ukraine de facto ceased to be a puppet state, Ukraine became the refuge of the Russian and Belarusian oppositions. Kiev meant a free place to emigrate to, second to London but preferable because of geographical and cultural proximity. Then the Belarusian and Russian authorities assassinated the exiled members of opposition one by one; but soon they had become too numerous to be targeted individually. The Norwegians understood: “Together they demonstrate…”—what? That the war on Ukraine is a war on civil society and democracy throughout the region, launched by a dictator on a pretense of popular consensus wrenched at gunpoint from his own population. The war against Ukraine is a war against democratic Europe and a consequence of the suppression of civil society in Russia and Belarus, that civil society which Memorial and Ales Bialiatski have been working to build. The most important aspect of the geo-political tragedy unfolding in the East Slavic region today is our divisions. The prize stands for, not peace that we won’t find for a long time, but our togetherness, the recognition that civil and human-rights activists in the region look forward to a common goal. This notion of solidarity permeated all the speeches.

Ales summoned us to fight “international dictatorship.” This call especially resonates in the United States today when a former American president is forwarded to the Justice Department to face criminal charges for leading an insurrection to reverse the outcome of a democratic election. Matviichuk pointed out, unsparingly, Western complicity with the invasion; the necessity of transnational solidarity among peoples; the need of pressure from below on governments; the urgency to reform the international order that has failed to stand up properly for Ukraine. Her call should be heard globally, as we talk about the relevance of the war in Ukraine for the future of other young democracies. Martin Luther King’s words that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” couldn’t be more concretely topical today. Among signs of the current turn away from democratic norms, one might mention the overturning of Roe vs. Wade—a typical totalitarian move asserting state control over human bodies and abolishing the democratic right to privacy. The past of the East European dictatorships and the future of the United States converge in this uncanny present.

Rachinsky’s talk connected the dots of history and its inversion. Speaking about the current war, he observed:

One of the first victims of this madness was the historical memory of Russia itself. Indeed, in order to pass off aggression against a neighbouring country as “fighting fascism,” it was necessary to twist the minds of Russian citizens by swapping the concepts of “fascism” and “anti-fascism.” Now, the Russian mass media refer to the unprovoked armed invasion of a neighbouring country, the annexation of territories, terror against civilians in the occupied areas, and war crimes as justified by the need to fight fascism.

Hatred is incited against Ukraine, its culture and language are publicly declared “inferior,” and the Ukrainian people are deemed not to have a separate identity from Russians. Resistance to Russia is called “fascism”. Such propaganda absolutely contradicts the historical experience of Russia and devalues and distorts the memory of the truly anti-fascist war of 1941-1945 and the Soviet soldiers who fought against Hitler. The words “Russian soldier” in the minds of many people will now be associated not with those who fought against Hitler, but with those who sow death and destruction on Ukrainian soil. (The Nobel Lecture, Memorial, 4-5)

This open confrontation with a monstrous regime and its system of oppression is a matter of colossal risk. “Don’t be afraid!” was Ales’s message. Rachinsky and Matviichuk definitely aren’t afraid. “Through their consistent efforts in favour of humanist values, anti-militarism and principles of law, this year’s laureates have revitalised and honoured Alfred Nobel’s vision of peace and fraternity between nations – a vision most needed in the world today,” according to the Nobel Peace Prize 2022 Announcement.

It is the first time that I see a Western institution demonstrate in a powerful way that they understand our solidarity, our common work, and our shared vision of a democratic future in the East Slavic region.

Back in 2019 in Chicago, when Ales, the members of Memorial, and Vasyl Cherepanyn’s Visual Culture Research Center came together to enunciate the commonalities among East Slavic cultures of protest, our goal was to create a productive dialogue among Ukrainian, Belarusian and Russian intellectuals and artists who share the values of democratic governance, human and civil rights, and freedom of artistic expression, as well as among scholars of the recent history and culture of these three countries. Establishing this dialogue remains crucial to a better understanding of the complex interconnection of culture and politics in the region. Such a dialogue should be especially fruitful because these three countries have much political and cultural history in common, but interpret this cultural heritage differently. The fight for democracy, human rights and independence coincides in Belarus and Ukraine with the cultivation of national language, literature, and culture. It started like this in Russia too. At what point and why does the liberation of national consciousness turn into a suffocating chauvinism? When does it promote democracy and the embrace of the community of nations, and when does it lead to oppression, persecution of others, and political isolation? How do forms of cultivation of national identity come to differ in these three countries? What features of their historical backgrounds are most relevant? Are there cultural and political safeguards against the dangers of nationalism? This year’s Nobel Peace Prize recipients answered these questions by appeal to the universal, transnational nature of human rights. The recognition of one’s right to one’s own language and one’s own national narrative for yourself, as for others, is part of it, as Rachinsky pointed out:

Every country and every society develop their own historical narratives, their own “national images of the past,” which often contradict those of their neighbours. The cause of disputes is usually not one fact or another, but different interpretations of the same events. Differences in the understanding and assessment of the same historical events by different peoples are inevitable, if only because their insights and assessments are born in the context of different national histories. We need to learn to recognize the reasons for these differences and to respect each people’s right to their own understanding of the past. (The Nobel Lecture, Memorial, 5)

The three East Slavic cultures are conjoined by history and tradition, with Ukraine and Belarus having been for long stretches of time parts of the Russian and then Soviet empires. They also show many differences, conditioned by these countries’ peculiar political experience and geographical locations. Both contemporary Belarus and Ukraine belonged to the Duchy of Lithuania between the 13th and 16th centuries. Then part of Belarus and right-bank Ukraine belonged to the Polish Commonwealth. In the 18th century, the Austro-Hungarian empire claimed the Galician part of Ukraine. After a short episode of independence in 1918, both Belarus and Ukraine were reabsorbed as republics within the Soviet Union until they gained legal sovereignty in 1991. While sharing the common denominator of the traumatic Soviet past and the sense of liberation and new beginning at the time of democratic reforms in 1991, the three countries have taken different paths ever since: Belarus’s government continued as a Soviet-type authoritarian dictatorship, choosing to remain a protectorate of the Russian patron; Russia and Ukraine attempted neoliberal and democratic reforms but were swamped in the chaos of corruption and the return of totalitarianism. Although both Russia and Ukraine experienced a new awakening of democratic resistance to authoritarian corruption in 2013-14, their paths have radically diverged since. Ukraine managed to consolidate popular resistance to its regime and acquire a new independence from the kleptocratic interest, whereas Russia failed in a similar endeavor and was pulled back under a now explicitly nationalistic dictatorship. The triangulation of the political relationships among the three countries and their cultural development is complex. Nonetheless, the most productive way to understand the problems of democratization in each of them—problems that have led to the current war—would be through their togetherness, as this year’s Nobel Peace Prize challenges us to do.

Interpretations and usages of historical memory are carried by cultural institutions and actors in various ways. The 2017 make-shift monument, raised by the people to the victims of Stalinist extralegal execution at Butovo—constituted an act of protest,an especially courageous act when one considers that sites formerly dedicated to the victims, like the former Gulag site Perm-36, have been refurbished to acknowledge the “patriotism” of their persecutors. Or in Ukraine, the holodomor, the famine resulting from the so-called collectivization of farmland, is often interpreted for local political purposes as a Russian genocide against Ukrainians in particular, rather than as a part of the Soviet regime’s sweeping extermination of its population across the whole country. The discovery of the major NKVD execution site in Kurapaty in 1988 gave momentum to the pro-democratic movement in Belarus and has ever since continued to inspire resistance against the continuation of Soviet-style dictatorship. While Belarus has never opened its KGB archives, they have been opened in Russia and Ukraine. Memorial and the Sakharov Center, founded as historical archives and research centers that collect documents and conduct research on the history of political persecutions in Soviet Russia, now find themselves at odds with a regime that glorifies and repeats Stalinist crimes against humanity. While the Belarusian government tried to deny and then refused to take a stance on the Soviet regime’s crimes against humanity at Kurapaty, the powerful popular movement resulted in thousands of memorial crosses erected by ordinary people. The recovery and preservation of collective memory was a humanist movement that fed into political activism and a culture of protest. Bringing together activists who participate in understanding the past, preserving the evidence, and demanding justice for the victims in the three countries, the Nobel Peace Prize brings out the complexity and the differences among various ideologies of memory, ranging from governmental suppression to various forms of preservation and different registers of memorialization, interpretation, and reinterpretation. These forms should not cancel each other out because, as Rachinsky observed, it is in their coexistence that they allow collective memory to persist.

In 2019, when we came together at the Neubauer Collegium to share our experiences with the East Slavic cultures of protest—Ales Bialiatski of the organization Viasna (Belarus), Seguei Parkhomenko of The Last Address (Russia), and Vasyl Cherepanyn of the Visual Culture Research Center (Ukraine)—that was our plan. Much has changed since, and not in the way we expected. Today, we can ask ourselves with Rachinsky: “But did our work prevent the catastrophe of 24 February?” His response connects us all in the current predicament:

The responsibility of a person for everything that happens to their country, and to the whole of humanity, is based, as Karl Jaspers also noted, on solidarity, civil and universal. The same applies to the sense of responsibility for the events of the past. It grows out of a person’s sense of his connection with previous generations, from the ability to realize himself as a link in the chain of these generations – that is, from the awareness of his belonging to a community that did not arise yesterday and, hopefully, will not disappear tomorrow. Readiness for responsibility is an exclusively personal quality: a person voluntarily assumes responsibility for what happened once or for something that is happening now, but in which he or she is not directly involved; no one else can put this burden on him. And most importantly, a sense of civic responsibility, unlike a sense of guilt, requires not “repentance,” but work. Its vector is directed not to the past, but to the future. (The Nobel Prize Lecture, Memorial, 5-6)

Ales has been in prison for over a year now; my Ukrainian colleagues are being bombed, my Russian friends are underground, whether at home or abroad. This prize won’t help them right now, but it is a much-needed expression of understanding that we are in this together, and Putin and his foreign enablers will not prevail in their efforts to separate us, turn us against each other, and make us hate each other. Though speaking in different languages, all three laureates spoke of one thing: transnational solidarity. To quote Ales’s unassuming, quiet, simple words in response to my question in 2019, “What to do?”— “We’ll continue working…” These words, pronounced back then, resonate today with the final words of Rachinsky’s speech, “We are not giving up and continue to work…” I can only add: “Together.”

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Olga V. Solovieva is Assistant Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Chicago. She is interested in comparative history of democratic thought and practice and intersection of culture and politics in East Slavic countries. She was a co-organizer of the 2019 workshop “Cultures of Protest in Contemporary Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia” at the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society at the University of Chicago.

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