Europe's last dictatorship

Belarus is described as Europe’s last dictatorship. The country has had the same president for twenty years and is the only one in Europe still employing capital punishment. The regime has also introduced a special license, which basically suffocates all independent publishers and magazines. How is literature and journalism in a country wedged between East and West affected? Belarusian poet Dmitrij Strotsev depicts the situation in his homeland. 

October 13 2015 Text: Dmitrij Strotsev Translation from Russian: Arch Tait

In Belarus the first constraint on free speech is, often unconscious, self-censorship. Belarusians are still Soviet, and have been schooled not to talk about “sensitive” matters. Authors, journalists and musicians who infringe that national discipline soon lose their celebrity and find themselves in society’s blind spot. The restrictions and penalties that follow are usually imposed surreptitiously. Thus, the Belarusian public is now blind to the existence of Svetlana Aleksievich, a living classic of Belarusian letters and recipient of numerous international literary awards. Her name is never mentioned on television, state-owned publishing houses ignore her, her books are unavailable through the usual distributors, and in school books her name is not among those of her contemporaries.

You need a license to publish books and magazines in Belarus. Your political reliability is checked with the KGB, and you must then be questioned and approved by the deputy minister of information personally. This oral examination is minuted without consulting you, and is a soft method for keeping out “undesirable” would-be publishers. Universities, libraries and cultural centres have state-appointed ideological monitors with power to permit or ban public gatherings and activities. There is a covert ban on meetings involving members of the Belarusian PEN Centre or the Union of Belarusian Writers. Uncensored, alternative culture in Belarus is ghettoized, its impact on the public severely curtailed, and it has to fall back on “samizdat” and private distribution channels. Authors, musicians and artists are forced to seek wider opportunities by emigrating because of their lack of prospects and, not infrequently, direct pressure from the state authorities. Although the internet is not banned, this is because it has little social impact at present in Belarus, but the state blocks it expertly when necessary.

If people are unable to express themselves freely, “free speech” is meaningless, and possibly damaging. Free speech is characterized by political and social freedoms like freedom of assembly and freedom of the press. Free expression, however, presupposes inner freedom. Belarusians, like others in post-Soviet territories, accept that coercion plays an important role in life, which they see not in terms of cultivating friendly relations with other people and the world around them, but of exerting influence on the world and other people in order to achieve desired results. For them the world is a utilitarian place, a keyboard; language is a tool for management and speech a system of commands. The only subtlety required in dealing with their world is rational decision-making about how much pressure to apply where, and how much force to apply when striking the requisite keys. In tandem with the principle of free speech, instrumental speech can do considerable damage. What is the difference between that and free expression? Free expression presupposes that interaction with people and the world will result, not in the unquestioning obeying of orders, not in performance of the expected, but in something qualitatively new, something that was not there before. Desiring the new, curiosity and being prepared to trust otherness, is a prerequisite for renewing the world.

In the years of Soviet stagnation under Brezhnev, people actually enjoyed increased personal, inner freedom. They learned not to listen, to close their ears to the babble of state propaganda. They expanded their personal space until it encompassed a global awareness and sensibility. They ignored orders and had no wish themselves to order others about. They sensed subtle stirrings and the Soviet world collapsed.

A cruel joke is perpetrated on today’s Belorusian, who has firmly internalized an unholy trinity of a glitzy American Dream, understood very naively, which inclines him to ruthless and even brutal business games; a sincere sense of having a place in a pyramid of power, a machine of state futurism ruled over by a firm hand; and susceptibility to a “new” church organized along Soviet bureaucratic lines. The individual’s inner freedom has shrivelled to the size of a walnut, and yet our young people are wonderful.

Not, of course, the Young Pioneers, and not the Orthodox Belarusian Republican Youth League laying their wreaths at Zair Azgur’s statue of Stalin. Belarusian-speaking and Russian-speaking windbags and zealous networkers, shiftless artists, poets and musicians frittering their young lives away in their native land, unable to let go of each other’s hands or to look each other in the eye, can only repeat the catchphrase of the eighteenth-century philosophical tramp, Grigoriy Skovoroda, “The world keeps trying to catch me, but hasn’t caught me yet.”

The world is becoming complicated. The machine of modern civilization demands pragmatic, surgically precise gestures from us, unconditional incorporation in the mechanism of cause and effect, predictable, approved characteristics. Those with inner freedom have nowhere to turn. Like Andrey Platonov’s Voshchev in The Foundation Pit, there is no place for them, with their intuitions of friendship and freedom, “in the present context of the general pace of labour”.

Free, artistic, poetic expression is being displaced, like political discourse, into that blind spot of public awareness. It is considered non-essential, ornamental, superfluous. Nothing serious is expected of artists or poets. Innovation itself is no longer perceived “poetically”, with the joy of recognition, but is seen as an unwanted new challenge, a threat to be analysed and confronted. This poet, asked to speak about real free speech, sees it as a derivative of free expression, of quietly testifying to a new life and a dawning world awaiting joyful discovery and thankful amazement. Not as something born of alarm, not a panic-stricken fear of threatening changes.