An Essay by Nina George, EWC President
Imagine you’re an author. You attend a protest with your colleagues from the voluntary sector and Office of the Union. A VW van pulls up next to you, a dozen hooded people jump out of the side doors, and their uniform is neither from the police nor the military. They drag you along with them, your friend films it, her mobile phone is knocked out of her hand, and shortly thereafter you, and some of your colleagues, are en route to what they call “the house of torture”. There, someone will probably cut a hole in your trousers, at the height of your rectum, and threaten to thrust a grenade through the hole into your anus if you so much as dare to sit down in the tight cell for twenty people, but which is actually jam-packed with 60 people. You’ll get nothing to drink. Perhaps you’ll remain in the house of torture for months on end, perhaps you’ll be condemned the very next day, for inciting riots.
Imagine you’re an author. You’re a member of the same independent association as the Nobel Literature Prize laureate Svetlana Alexievich. Being a member of this association, as opposed to the state association, means publishers will no longer print your work. No bookshop will sell your writing, no critic from the major, state-owned newspapers which define the literary scene will communicate with you, you will never do a reading in a cultural institution, library, or school. Never. This means you can write what you want. But you’ll never earn a cent for your work. Your human right to participate in culture and to have access to a diverse culture has been suspended.
Imagine you’re an author. Your country at the centre of Europe is under the yoke of a dictatorship. Every day, one hundred people disappear from the streets of your city, every day, they disappear in VW vans with nameless drivers, some return, others merely come back dead. You’ve been at the top of the blacklist for some time now, since 1993, and you have the Noble Prize in Literature. You’re 72, and are about to be charged with an “attempted coup” and summoned for interrogation for advocating freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and because you uttered one sentence, perhaps it was “Lukashenka get on a plane and leave the country”, or perhaps “This government has declared war against its own people”. You refuse to testify against yourself. Because freedom of speech, while embraced and taken for granted in other parts of the world, can be a weapon against you.
Two weeks later, you hear a pounding on the door by the same hooded people wearing uniforms that are not police or military. While they pound away, while your phone rings off the hook, they are always withheld numbers and the caller always hangs up, while the head of state appears before the world with a machine gun and calls protesters “rats”, while on the streets women in white and red dresses act as human shields protecting young men from police batons, while teachers and actors refuse to continue serving a government that opposes democracy, while intellectuals and artists willing to talk are dragged from the streets and expelled from the country one by one, while more than 70 news sites have been blocked and foreign journalists stripped of their accreditation so that nobody sees what is going on there, while an increasing number of election assistants confess to having signed falsified protocols under duress, here, you write a letter to the world in great haste, it is both a love letter to your people and a cry for help to the world. Diplomats approach you from Sweden, Austria, they will remain at your home, they’re now your protective shield. Your neighbour hangs bras on the window, white, red, white; the colours of the democracy movement’s flag, which has recently been forbidden. Yet, who can prohibit someone from colour-coordinating their laundry when hanging it out to dry?
If you can imagine all of that, then you’re in Belarus. All Belarusian authors and translators are subject to state censure. If the name of a writer or the title of their work appears on a state-sanctioned blacklist (complete restriction) or grey list (under observation), it will not be published by publishing houses. And that is regardless of whether it is political or not: Works by some members of the “Union of Belarusian Writers” have been censored in school textbooks after the state classified the authors’ political views as “inappropriate”. Although private printing is possible, the books will not be sold or even listed in the bookshops, which are all subject to state control. My Belarusian colleagues cannot hold any readings in cultural institutions owned or subsidised by the state. Even Svetlana Alexievich’s books have not been published by Belarusian state publishers since 1993. Authors’ rights exist only on paper, they do not exist in practice.
In Belarus, freedom of expression comes at a price: sometimes you even pay with your life.
Since the elections, which were highly suspected of being rigged, an ever-growing wave of repression is quashing culture and the protesting population in Belarus. And it gets more violent as the weeks go by, further curtailing freedom of information and freedom of speech. Since early September, police have been specifically arresting journalists and bloggers to incriminate them for “organising mass rebellions” such as the press representatives from the largest Belarusian mass media TUT.by, KP-Belarus and BelaPAN. Foreign correspondents are not allowed to enter the country or are deported, which means they are prohibited from entering the country for five years. At the same time, authorities have blocked 70 news websites and forbidden the distribution of four major independent newspapers in a bid to deprive the population of information.
“It is important for us to make Europe aware of what kind of monster we’re fighting, and what kind of an aggressor it has on its doorstep”, said Barys Piatrovich, Chairman of the dissident writers’ association (Union of Belarusian Writers), when I asked him to speak to 38 delegates from 21 countries at the General Assembly of the European Writers’ Council on 7 September. “The Belarusian people have come together and clearly expressed their wish to belong to this free Europe. But they also need to feel as though Europe is on their side”. A fear that remains unsaid: Otherwise we will fail.
Does Belarus feel supported by Europe? I can only speak for those who I have dealings with, I give them daily updates with reports of solidarity from authors, the book world and artists from Germany, Norway, England, Spain, Iceland, Greece, Hungary, Denmark. Each report, each sign of support, gives my friends and colleagues the courage to take to the streets again the next day. Carefully removing their shoes before climbing onto park benches to sing to the soldiers instead of screaming, which they would have every reason to do. I also attempted to smuggle reports in our direction, and all the while the world was almost falling apart, Moira, Corona, Trump, Erdogan, Hungary, Poland, George Floyd, fires, Hong Kong, it is as if we had long been teetering on the brink, and then there was Belarus, too, sometimes it is hard to post and tweet against all this, just how can we arouse empathy?
“It is difficult to live when citizens’ rights no longer exist”, wrote my friend A. to me from Minsk yesterday evening. She works at an independent human rights organisation and as my contact with the Belarusian writers’ association on my board. The accounts of these organisations have been frozen. Since mid-August, we have only been able to communicate via the news service of a telephone network; documents, photos, videos, the internet are all disabled. This happens whenever people take to the streets. A second message arrives. “That’s if they ever existed for us at all.”
No. We shouldn’t do Lukashenka’s government the favour of ignoring him. Solidarity for colleagues in the cultural or literature scene transcends national and linguistic borders.
#freewordsbelarus: Could this be another sign, when we write and speak publicly about Belarus, a country that peacefully seeks something that is under threat across the world: democracy.
Nina George is a writer and President of the European Writers’ Council, which represents 160,000 authors from 46 organisations in 30 countries.
Translation: Philippa Carr.
#freewordsbelarus: 36 Presidents, Chairs and Boardmembers from 33 Organisations and 22 countries stand up for the democracy movement in Belarus.
About the Union of Belarusian Writers
We are a professional creative community of Belarusian writers. Our Union is based on the principles of freedom of speech and self-expression. We strive to protect authors’ rights and to develop, popularize, and promote Belarusian literature as an integral value for society that is essential to the existence of the Belarusian nation. Founded in 1933-34, the Union of Belarusian Writers is the oldest creative organization in Belarus. Its members include, among others, the Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich and the well-known writers Uladzimir Niakliaeu, Raisa Baravikova, Uladzimir Arlou, Anatol Viarcinskі and Ales Razanau.
For further information, please visit the webpage at lit-bel.org or contact the UBW directly at firstname.lastname@example.org