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Belarus - A Nation Being Reborn

“He blocked the sun.” This is what Uladzimir Njakljajeu said in 2012 when the then Swedish Ambassador Stefan Eriksson was forced to leave Belarus. The one blocked was of course the President. Yes, the Swede was an irritation to the regime: he openly gave moral support to those in opposition, he speaks both Russian and Belarusian, and he was engaged in many cultural projects. Altogether this eventually aroused suspicion in a country where control overshadows each endeavour both big and small.

The poet Uladzimir Njakljajeu was also a victim. He was intimately familiar with the metaphor of the blocked sun: in 2010 when he campaigned for president in the elections, he was severely brutalised and later imprisoned. In his poems from the prison, he likens his confinement to being in his mother’s womb, the walls of the cell to a faithful partner.

Who was in the streets of Minsk on December 19 in 2010? At the time when Lukasjenka once again announced himself the winner of an election, and where police in black stood ready to attack at any time? “Yes, who was the first person I saw when I managed to open my eyes,” says Uladzimir Njakljajeu suddenly laughing: “Stefan Eriksson!”

This is courage, beyond the commission, and an example of how the Swedish Foreign Service can really make a difference.

Maria Söderberg

Producer of Litteraturresan Sverige / Belarus, which was started in 2001

Credits Text: Stefan Eriksson Introduction: Maria Söderberg Translation: Christina Cullhed Photo: Jurģis Rikveilis January 13 2021

Several memories have returned this autumn while witnessing the people’s uprising in Belarus. Since the middle of the 90s the political suppression and the criminal breaches of human rights in the country have at times been acknowledged, but they have usually all too quickly been shoved into the margins. We must never succumb to a “Belarus fatigue” by becoming accustomed to the violence and oppression in a country so near to us. Even though it is the Belarusians who have the power to change things, how we react is still important. The events in Belarus concern us too: shattered hopes for the people in Belarus would be a great blow to democracy in Europe and in the world.

It is now more than eight years since I was forced to leave Belarus, having spent nearly seven years as a Swedish diplomat in the country. After a holiday in Sweden in the summer of 2012, I was denied to return since the Swedish Embassy on Revolution Street in Minsk had received a diplomatic note from the Foreign Ministry of Belarus with a brief text that my accreditation as a Swedish ambassador would not be renewed.

There is reason to reflect on the events this autumn and winter. No matter whether this people’s uprising—or revolution—in the short term leads to a dismantling of the authoritarian political system in Belarus or not, something has fundamentally changed the ways in which Belarusians regard themselves and their country. As I see it, in this autumn of 2020, we have witnessed the formation of a new European nation, or seen it being reborn, with a national identity that for the last hundreds of years has never been allowed to develop undisturbed. The process leading to this rebirth of a nation has notably taken place within a few months, but it has its roots way back in time, to times when the people’s ambitions to form an independent nation at an early stage again and again were thwarted.

It is possible to trace Belarusian history back to the Principality of Polatsk, a political formation in the 900s partly connected to the Scandinavian Vikings’ travels in the Eastern parts of Europe. Still today the archaeological findings at the St Sophia Cathedral on the river Dzvina’s (Düna’s/Daugava’s) shores show more than a thousand years of contacts around the Baltic Sea. Closer in time, for several centuries up until the 1700s, there existed a European state formation that for a period stretched from the Baltic Sea as far as the Black Sea: The Grand Duchy of Lithuania—a historic formation often overlooked in the Scandinavian countries. Lithuania of today was the most Northern province of this Duchy with statutes from 1588 written in an older version of Belarusian, regarded as an ambitious attempt to form a relatively democratic constitution. This multi-ethnic grand duchy was also characterised by religious tolerance—a big part of its citizens belonged to the Eastern Catholic Church (Uniates), the Jewish community was large too. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania, strategically placed between the East and the West, came to be dominated by Polish interests only to completely disappear from the map after the divisions of Poland at the end of the 1700s when it was usurped by Russia under the Tsar.

During the 1800s, Belarus in periods was subjected to a politics of Russification and at times it became a warzone for the stronger states that surrounded it. Belarusians often needed to flee into the wetlands—another description of the Belarusian’s survival strategies is noticeable in the saying: “go hide in the potato field.” The national awakening came rather late in Belarus compared to other Eastern European nations. It was only in the early 1900s that people started calling themselves Belarusians and that intellectuals seriously started claiming the right to their own language and culture. The national poet Janka Kupala’s classical work “Tutejsjyja” (“We who live here,” a label the Belarusians used about themselves) is a tragic drama comedy about how Belarusians during the chaotic end of the First World War try to adjust themselves to constantly new foreign rulers. On March 25 in 1918 the short-lived state formation BNR (The People’s Republic of Belarus) was established, but shortly afterwards Belarus became a republic of the Soviet Union.

During one decade under a relatively generous national policy the Belarusian culture and language was allowed to flourish. This policy, however, was soon dismantled and in the 1930s it was replaced by Stalin’s brutal oppression, which came to impact Belarus—especially the growing Belarusian intelligentsia—extremely severely. The intention was probably that Belarusians, with a language related to Russian, were to become the first Soviet citizens to be assimilated into the Russian language and into the Soviet nation under a communist flag. Tens of thousands of Belarusians were either shot or sent to concentration camps. In Kurapaty, just outside of Minsk, towards the end of the 1980s, an area was excavated where these killings had taken place. Just before the collapse of the Soviet Union this excavation became important to the Belarusian’s sense of national awareness. The place is still charged with strong emotional meaning: in 2020 on October 29, tens of thousands of people gathered to commemorate “The Night of Executed Poets,” the night in 1937 when a hundred writers, poets, and intellectuals were executed in Kurapaty’s mass graves. Although the government did not hinder this commemoration ceremony—possibly because of the diplomatic participation— on leaving the event many people were nevertheless arrested. The tragic twentieth century history of Belarus continued during WW2, when almost a third of the population were annihilated, among these the absolute majority were Belarusians with a Jewish heritage.

In the following decades the Soviet Republic of Belarus was rebuilt and over time a country with formerly a mainly agricultural economy became an advanced industrial economy. The Soviet plan economy worked rather well in this country characterized by a high level of education and staunch work ethics. The protest movements during the Perestrojka in the Baltic countries and in Ukraine in the 1980s initially did not have the same broad support in Belarus. However, the Tjernobyl catastrophe and the excavations at Karapaty intensified the issue of a national identity. The newly awakened call for freedom that led to the Declaration of Independence of Belarus in August 1991 turned into a disappointment when the economic troubles escalated; the Belarusian economy had been a completely integrated part of the Soviet plan economy, and as these connections largely collapsed the country was severely impacted. Against this background, in 1994 a charismatic and popular chairperson of a Kolchoz ran for the presidency in the election. Armed with Soviet nostalgic promises about a return to former ideals and standards of living, with entreaties to fight corruption, and with an infallible ability to formulate what disappointed voters wanted to hear, Aljaksandr Lukasjenka won the election with a convincing majority—the last fair election that has ever been arranged in Belarus.

After Independence the national emblems that had been introduced were soon substituted by Soviet-Belarusian symbols, and alongside the Belarusian language Russian was made an official language, which had detrimental consequences for the use of Belarusian. The majority of those who were against Lukasjenka also advocated the use of Belarusian, a fact that made Lukasjenka associate Belarusian with resistance. After a constitutional crisis democracy was jeopardized. At the point when the Chair of the Central Election Committee Viktar Hantjar was physically forced to leave his post a new era of controlled “elections” was introduced—a form of elections that always gave the wanted results. (Like several politicians whose fates are not known, Hantjar disappeared without trace—everything points to these politicians having been murdered by persons surrounding Lukasjenka). At times, people in opposition were allowed to participate in the elections, but the more popular candidates were not registered, or they were imprisoned. The intention was certainly to stage this year’s election according to the same formula. But something happened that changed everything.

Of course, only the Belarusians can give a trustworthy explanation as to what made the cup overflow—I can only draw conclusions from my own experience of living in the country and from narratives of friends and people I know that have flooded the news and social media this autumn. Time is most probably the most important reason—twenty-six years is a long time to be in power. Lukasjenka has gradually lost credence, and his handling of Covid-19 has reduced people’s confidence in him even more. Moreover, new groups in society have actively ventured into politics—business people, young people, pensioners, people from other cities than Minsk, and, not least, women. Before the elections, when three major leaders of the resistance were imprisoned or forced to flee, three women who were close to them stepped up. Together they cleverly united around a common message and managed to mobilize people who had never before taken part in any election rallies or demonstrations. With hindsight, from the point of view of the regime it was a mistake to register the wife of one of the imprisoned candidates, Svjatlana Tsichanouskaja. One had certainly not counted on a politically inexperienced woman teacher to become a rallying force.

I can see three more decisive factors behind the enormity of the protests. Firstly, the warm summer weather. Earlier elections have taken place during the winter and I know from experience that the motivation to be outdoors lessens when it is ten degrees below zero and a snowstorm, as was the case in the election 2006. Secondly, grass root initiatives at many polling stations managed to assess the real results of the election. Notably, almost every protocol made public from polling stations where the elections had been carefully monitored showed that the sitting President had lost the election, often with a convincing majority. When the official election results—randomly constructed figures—were presented displaying yet another “elegant victory” for Lukasjenka with more than 80 per cent of the votes, the reactions came immediately. The lie was all too obvious. It is interesting to play with the idea as to what would have happened had the result instead been presented as 55 per cent for Lukasjenka. Would the protests have been as large? Probably not. But it would have been impossible for Lukasjenka to admit that as many as 45 per cent had voted against him—that would not have aligned with the picture he has of himself as the nation’s only political leader of any worth. Thirdly, the brutality of the violence used by the regime against the protesters has certainly contributed. It became unbearable to hear about and to see pictures of innocent people who were brutalized and tortured by the police and in the arrests. And these were not only one or two odd cases but there were hundreds and later thousands of similar stories. Instead of scaring and silencing the demonstrators the protests spread to even wider groups in society.

At the start, the cultural and historical component of the protests was not very clearly marked, but soon musicians, writers, actors, and artists acquired a larger role. The historic white and red Belarusian flag from the beginning of the 90s, Belarus’ official flag until Lukasjenka after a rigged referendum changed it for a newly constructed flag similar to the one the Soviet Republic of Belarus once had, was never a dominating emblem at the election rallies before the election but it soon became the unifying symbol that could be seen profusely among the demonstrators. Enormous flags were carried along the streets or hung from buildings in Minsk and other cities. The well known Belarusian artist Uladsimir Tsesler designed a specific white and red flag for each section of the city of Minsk; and alongside the Sunday protests people gathered in neighbourhood yards between the city’s buildings to listen to cultural historical lectures, poetry readings, and music.

What role has international activity played for the awakening of the people of Belarus? Basically, it is the Belarusians themselves who have risen against the regime’s systematic oppression. Contrariwise, the well-established propaganda strategy used by the regime blames the people’s expressions of discontent on foreign interference. Sweden and other countries have for decades cooperated with Belarus, which may have indirectly been of some importance in the events this autumn. Sweden has contributed with education, the sharing of experiences, courses, and visits that have implicated many people such as civil servants, academics, students, cultural workers, NGOs, and workers’ unions. I certainly hope that this collaboration has had a positive impact on the sense of identity of the Belarusians when they now stand up against this brutal regime.

I will always cherish the memories of these meetings between Belarusian and Swedish culture, which once became a daily feature in my diplomatic work. Literary meetings arranged each year by enthusiastic cultural workers from Belarus and Sweden created human and literary networks that are still going strong. The keen interest in Swedish children’s books resulted in translations into Belarusian of Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking and Jujja and Tomas Wieslander’s Mother Mu and the Crow (“Mamma Mu och kråkan”), and perhaps the wild and independent main characters in these books have had a certain impact on a generation of Belarusian children. I only wish that the interest in Belarusian literature could become more widespread in Sweden; there are several Belarusian writers whose work should be translated in order to give us opportunities to better understand ourselves and our surrounding world. Perhaps this Belarusian autumn can lead to an exploration of the literary Belarus.

I want to return to Janka Kupala, the national poet. He happens to be the main character in a new Belarusian film Kupalathat has had its premier postponed several times, perhaps due to the possible emotional tension created at this specific time by a film about one of the most salient Belarusian national symbols. Judging from the trailer released long before the presidential election, the film describes the fight for freedom in Belarus and the search for a national identity at the beginning of the 1900s. In one scene police on horseback shoot at a peaceful demonstration in the streets of Minsk, in another scene Belarusian authors are arrested. Kupala himself miraculously survived the expurgation of the 30s—perhaps he was too well known even for the Soviet regime to dare to have him executed. He lived his final years in degradation, depressed over the fate of the people of Belarus, and under unknown circumstances he fell to his death from the tenth floor of a hotel in Moscow.

Another reason for this newly awakened interest in Kupala is that the Belarusian writer Uladsimir Njakljajeu, winner of the Tucholsky prize for 2011, has recently written a novel about Kupala, which during 2021 will be published in the magazine Dzejaslou. Njakljajeu campaigned in the presidential election in 2010 but on the day of the election he was brutalized and imprisoned. 2019 he became a refugee writer in Lund, Sweden. Below is my translation of Kupala’s poem “And Who Goes There?” written more than a hundred years ago—a poem that in an uncanny way reminds us of what we have seen in the streets of Belarus this autumn and winter. No matter what the developments will be in the short term, we need to show our solidarity with the Belarusian’s peaceful, innovative, and aesthetically informed protest that aims hopefully to lead to democracy.

And Who Goes There?

And who goes there; who goes there in this enormous
gathering of people?

And what are they carrying on their thin shoulders,
in their bloodied hands, on their feet shod in birch bark shoes?
—Their bitterness.

And where are they carrying all this bitterness,
to whom do they want to show it?
—To the world.

And what has taught them,
these millions,
to carry forward their bitterness; what has awoken
them from their sleep?
—Misery and Despair.

And what do they wish for,
these long despised, these blind and deaf?
—To be recognised as humans.

Janka Kupala (1905-07)

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