Not quite a ray of sunshine: interview with Belarusian writer Uladzimier Arlou

The presidential election in December is unlikely to usher in a new president, young people feel no link to their Soviet past, and the wolf Lukashenka isn’t about to turn vegetarian. European Poet of Freedom Uladzimier Arlou is a towering figure in Belarus; here he talks to Ingo Petz.

Ingo Petz: Uladzimier Arlou, you are one of Belarus’ most respected writers. The political situation …

Uladzimier Arlou: Let me say one thing before we start the interview. There is no politician or political scientist in Belarus today called Uladzimier Arlou. I am only a writer and cannot claim that any answers I give to political questions will be exhaustive. Of course, in the unfree country in which I live anything of concern to society gets turned into politics – and that includes questions of language, literature and history, precisely those areas that are of direct relevance to me. So I suppose any Belarusian writer is to a degree forced to become a bit of a politician…

IP: Over the last two years, there has been an opening up of sorts in the relationship between the Lukashenka regime and the EU. What is your view on this?

Arlou

UA: I view it with a measure of cautious optimism. Firstly because any policy of isolating Lukashenka would serve to push him even more towards the East. And with a neighbour like Russia today, you can never sleep easily.

It is absolutely clear that the very existence of an independent Belarus is regarded as an oddity by the broadest spectrum of Russian politicians, an oddity that needs to be rectified. Some say so openly, while others think it but keep their mouths shut. Putin is a good example of this. A few years ago in a moment of irritation he let slip something to the effect “OK, join the Russian Federation, and we’ll solve all your problems in an instant”. People in our part of the world well remember an old phrase that dates back to the times of Stalin: “no person, no problem”. We’re getting a yet more radical version: “no country, no problems’.

IP: The Belarusian opposition wants the EU to adopt a tougher attitude towards the regime, as indeed does the USA. Is such a confrontational approach really what’s needed?

UA: By nature I am not someone who seeks confrontation. I prefer dialogue to through ultimatums. But I still have a few questions with this approach.

For example, has our media gained any more freedom from this so-called “dialogue”? Probably only in their editors’ sweet dreams. The state mass media are still the mouthpiece for official propaganda. The independent mass media are still under pressure: they face endless warnings, trials and fines.

I have childhood memories of a radio transmitter hanging on a pole by my grandma’s cottage. These were the times of Khrushchev, when there were huge queues for bread outside. Queues for bread outside, yet you’d still be hearing on the radio that the country was just about to catch up with, and overtake, the US. I remember how my grandma would react to those promises: “Catch up, will we? Suppose running barefoot will make it easier”. Belarusians today have shoes on their feet and they don’t go hungry. But when I watch the state TV and hear about our tremendous successes, while neighbouring countries, both near and far, are struggling to cope with the global crisis, I can’t help but remember my wise old grandma.

Here’s another question for the authorities. They keep telling us that there aren’t any political prisoners in the country. Apparently those the opposition say are political prisoners are in fact criminals who represent a danger to society. But just what kind of danger did Mikalai Autukhovich, a businessman from Vaukavysk in western Belarus, represent? A few years ago he went to Germany and made a study of how they organise passenger transport there. He acquired a number of Mercedes vehicles and started up a business in his home town. He’s now well into his second year behind bars, waiting to go to trial. He stands accused of nothing less than terrorism. Many say the real reason for his imprisonment is political disloyalty.

And just how do the authorities justify their campaign to pack off the leaders of the democratic organisations – Franak Viachorka, Ivan Shyla and Ales Kalita – to do military service?  I remember when I was a student, the KGB major who “looked after” the history faculty of the Belarusian State University used to have “preventative chats” linked with my involvement in the production of underground, uncensored literary almanacs. This literary specialist in civilian clothes would threaten me, not with prison but with “flushing my brains”, with being sent off to do my military service in some far-off dump near Magadan in Siberia. Fortunately the threat was never carried out, but it was a real upset to the nervous system, and gave me real grief when I was doing exams! Twenty years later the state security people are still using the same methods.

IP: Do you expect any fundamental changes from the presidential elections on 19 December?

UA: I don’t. Anyone who knows anything at all about Belarusian reality can tell you exactly what the results of the presidential campaign are going to be. They understand the current state of our electoral legislation and the tight control the authorities exert not only on the media but also on the activities of the electoral commissions at all levels. What Belarusians are debating the percentage of the electorate that Lukashenka wants “fixed” as having “voted for him” – 60%, 79%, 89.9%?

Once the elections are over, there may be a few new signs of liberalisation in the economy. There has to be some measure of liberalisation because of the economic situation that Lukashenka’s integration games with Russia have brought us to. (It now looks very much as though Russia is fed up with his games). However, any changes in the direction of the democratisation of society will be purely cosmetic. We will go on seeing the same old familiar moustachioed figure on our TV screens, and he will go on telling us how much better we are all living. And he will continue to feed the West with his soothing promises while at the same time begging for new loans in exchange.

IP: There were protests in Minsk at the time of 2006 election. Can you see that happening again?

"Apathy is a very powerful force in modern Belarusian society. People don’t believe that democratic change will come soon."

Uladzimier Arlou

UA: I would very much like to be wrong, but I think that the best we can expect is that the scale of protest will be much as it was in 2006, which is simply not enough to defeat the regime.

Apathy is a very powerful force in modern Belarusian society. People don’t believe that democratic change will come soon. After all, a whole generation has grown up knowing nothing except a regime that has been in power for more than sixteen years. And we must not forget that many people are really afraid. Afraid that if you take part in protests you will lose your job and be deprived of the wages and pensions that do at least get paid regularly, never mind how far behind European norms they are. Afraid that you will be thrown out of university (exactly what happened to hundreds of the young protesters in 2006). Afraid of ending up behind bars…

Meanwhile, on the very eve of the election, Lukashenka signs decrees raising wages, pensions and grants (even if the rises will in many cases fail to lift people out of poverty).

In spite of all this I remain an optimist. When Lukashenka came to power, my younger son Bahdan was 11. He is now 28. He and his friends have grown up under this regime, although they have never thought of it as “theirs’. He, like many others, has been imprisoned for his beliefs, but the number of young people in Belarus like them who believe in European values is growing year by year. And generally - historically, culturally and mentally - we are Europeans. This is what guarantees that our future will be in Europe.

IP:  The Belarusian economy appears to have profited from a slight liberalisation and opening. Civil society, of course, has not benefited from the same development.

Niasvizh

A residential palace of Radziwill Polish-Lithuanian-Belarusian magnate family in Niasvizh, Belarus. Uladzimier Arlou: The Belarusians are historically a European nation.  

UA: The Belarusians are historically a European nation. Anyone who has seen Belarus close up and not just through the windows of a train will agree. That is why I believe that economic reforms will strengthen civil society. The authorities are well aware of this, hence their inconsistent approach to economic reforms and the nervousness demonstrated in Lukashenka’s decree to control the Internet.

IP: Is Lukashenka’s regime capable of reform and modernisation and becoming more democratic?

UA: There’s no way a wolf can become a vegetarian, even if it really wants to. Hostility towards democracy is an inherent trait of this regime.

IP: Many people in the West are amazed that there is still a dictatorship in Europe. Can you explain why the Lukashenka regime is so solid and stable?

UA: I’m afraid it’s impossible to explain in just a few words. People from Western Europe have often asked me “If you don’t like Lukashenka, why do you vote for him?” The people I am talking to have not been able to grasp that a system has been created in Belarus in which the most important figure is not the voter, but the person who counts the votes. And this person is totally controlled by the authorities, or – to put it more precisely – by the president. Changes to the Constitution permit Lukashenka to put himself forward as a candidate in presidential elections as many times as he wants. I do not exclude the possibility that this is exactly what he intends to do until his little son Kolya comes of age. The boy already accompanies daddy (we know nothing about the mother) to official meetings at state level. He was even present at an audience with the Pope.

I’m not trying to say that Belarusians don’t vote for Lukashenka. But elections take place in a situation where the electronic mass media are under the complete control of the authorities, where all the state’s administrative resources are put at the disposal of one candidate, where observers are not given the chance to work freely. We have no means of ever knowing exactly how many votes were actually cast, and how many were added in on orders from above so as to achieve yet another “elegant victory”. We can’t trust the exit polls either; people are afraid even there of saying something of which the authorities won’t approve.

In the 2006 election, the daughter of a friend of mine, a well-known poet, was just about to sign her name on the electoral register when she noticed, much to her surprise, her father’s signature next to hers. The piquancy of the situation lay in the fact that her father had died some six months before. When asked how the deceased had managed to fulfil his civic duty, the chairman of the electoral commission, without batting an eyelid, replied: “He came and voted. Look here, he signed for his ballot paper”.

"So perhaps we could say that though Soviet Union disappeared some time ago, the authorities are still afraid of people who are anti-Soviet."

Uładzimier Arlou

IP: Belarus is often described as “USSR-lite”. Is that a correct metaphor?

UA: This comparison needs some qualifying. The Soviet Union was a communist empire, whereas Belarus is a relatively small country in which power belongs to people who are definitely not communist. During the years of independence the economy has undergone a certain measure of evolution. Citizens of my country are free to travel abroad, even though they may have to cope with various problems and adventures in order to do so.

But there are some real grounds for a comparison with the USSR.

Lukashenka has indeed restored some features and traditions of the Soviet system. I have already mentioned the absolute predictability of our elections. The process of Russification is still going on in the sphere of education, just as in the USSR. There isn’t a single higher education institution in Belarus teaching in Belarusian. October Revolution Day has been restored to the calendar of state festivals. Once again there are pioneer-type organisations in the schools. As we like to say here, boys and girls are “forcibly driven”, but “on a voluntary basis’ into the Republican Union of Youth (something like the former Komsomol). In practically every Belarusian town, beginning with the capital Minsk, you”ll find a bronze or stone Lenin on the central square looking down with satisfaction at what’s going on around him. And since we’ve started talking about statues, I have to mention the two monuments that have appeared in Belarus during Lukashenka’s reign to “the leader of the peoples and the friend of all Soviet children”, Comrade Stalin. One of them was put up near Minsk on the so-called “Stalin Line”, a memorial site that has little basis in historical fact. We could say that the authorities are trying to build a “Stalin Line” in the minds of Belarusians as well.

At the beginning of the 1990s we were dreaming of the future, but now the past has come back to us.

IP: What is life like for a writer who supports the opposition?

UA: I was toughened up in the old Soviet school of hard knocks. There I was, a young writer with my first book out, just joined the Writers’ Union, with my journalist and poet wife Valyantsina, and the authorities decided to bring criminal charges against us. Behind it there were people with a real sense of fantasy. They didn’t try to charge us with ‘samizdat” – underground publishing – or with holding illegal meetings of freethinkers in our apartment. No, they wanted to charge us with using our flat – just imagine it! – to administer illegal abortions. True, it was already 1987, the fresh breezes of Gorbachev’s changes were already blowing, and the abortion charges simply dissolved of their own accord.

But we need to get back to Lukashenka’s times. When he settled into the presidential armchair – and here I adapt the old Soviet propaganda slogan – “life got better and more gay” for Belarusian writers, and in particular for Uladzimier Arlou. In 1997 I was sacked from my editorial job in the “Mastatskaya Litaratura” (Literature) publishing house. My notice of dismissal contained the unique phrase that I was “to be dismissed for publishing historical and other works of literature of a dubious nature”. So here I am, I have been free as a bird for thirteen years, I don’t have to go to work but I carry on writing historical and other books of a dubious nature.

For a long time my books have only been published in small independent publishing houses (fortunately such things exist in Belarus), as well as in Poland, Lithuania and Slovakia. They do, thank God, reach readers here in Belarus. But for me as an author it has become extremely difficult to meet these readers, whether in libraries or in student lecture halls. The problem is not just that state publishing houses have lists of undesirable authors. Cultural and educational establishments have them as well, and so do the ideological departments of state bodies at all levels, in the capital and the provinces. It is sometimes possible to get around this ban, but the guardians of ideology stand like Cerberus at the gates of Hell – they never sleep.

Arlou bookFor a long time Arlou’s books have only been published in small independent publishing houses, as well as in Poland, Lithuania and Slovakia. 

Not so long ago, a young Belarusian literature teacher called me. She told me that the meeting with Arlou in the school where she teaches in Minsk had once again been banned by the authorities. She couldn’t hold back her tears. And recently I had been invited to meet my readers in the Belarusian mining town of Salihorsk. The meeting had been arranged by local journalists who had rented a hall in the town’s House of Culture. They had already paid for the accommodation, but still had to have the agreement signed by the head of the ideological department of the town council. The lady in question did not simply refuse to sign the paper but burst into an angry tirade, letting the ill-informed journalists know that Arlou “is anti-Soviet, a nationalist and a threat to the state”.

This is the kind of frightening man you have decided to interview!       

So perhaps we could say that though Soviet Union disappeared some time ago, the authorities are still afraid of people who are anti-Soviet. It’s worth adding that Lukashenka set up his own “correct” Writers’ Union in opposition to the Union of Belarusian Writers, which had never been keen on praising the president. In actual fact the leaders of this pro-Lukashenka Union started it up by denouncing their colleagues – very much in the spirit of 1937.       

In January 2010 a letter addressed to all the ministries emerged from the depths of the presidential administration. Our Union was described as a “destructive organisation”, and its members were banned from working for the state in any capacity. Even before that the Union had been stripped of its property (including the House of Writers), but the authorities were unable to destroy the organisation. I am proud to belong to the Union of which Vasil Bykau was a member right up to the end of his life. The Union in which Svetlana Aleksievich, who is well known in Europe, has chosen to remain, as have many other outstanding writers. We have more than 500 members. These are the people upon whom the future of Belarusian literature and indeed of the severely threatened Belarusian language depends. 

"Even now my fellow countrymen often put their social status or profession ahead of their nationality. This is a cause of concern in Belarusian society, or at least in the independent part of it. As I said earlier, the process of nation building has still to be completed in Belarus. There have undoubtedly been significant changes since Soviet times."

Uładzimier Arlou

IP: Belarusians are a nation – but, then again, they are not. How would you explain this strange phenomenon?

UA: Belarus’ historical fate in the 20th century meant that the nation-building was never completed: the Belarusian Democratic Republic was crushed by the Bolsheviks. Then came the Stalinist terror and the stagnation of the Brezhnev era together with the creation of a new ethnic grouping, “the Soviet people”.

Russification went considerably further in Belarus than in the other puppet republics of the Soviet Empire. Moscow turned Belarus into a kind of testing ground for its social and political experiments.  At the beginning of the 1960s Khrushchev, while on a visit to Minsk, praised the Belarusians for – as he put it – “voluntarily rejecting Belarusian in favour of Russian”; they would be the first to enter the communist future, where everyone would speak Russian. At that time there were virtually no Belarusian-language schools in the towns of the Belarusian Soviet Republic. This was a function of Moscow’s refusal to permit Belarusian-language universities and secondary specialist schools and colleges. This is the reality behind the “voluntary” rejection of the native language.

There was a short period during the collapse of the USSR and the early years of independence when Belarusian national values and Belarusian-language schooling underwent a real renaissance. However, the clock was very quickly turned back when Lukashenka came to power. In effect the regime’s primary concern is to deprive Belarusians of all national self-awareness, at times in ways that are more cynical and vicious than in the old Soviet days. According to figures obtained by the Belarusian Language Association, only 2% of school students in Minsk receive their education through the medium of Belarusian (the corresponding figure for 1994 was over 50%).  This is also one of the ways in which tribute is paid to Moscow for preferential economic treatment.

IP: Since independence, the question of national identity has become a very controversial topic. How far has the quest for a Belarusian identity progressed?

UA: When I was doing my military service in the Soviet army in the 1980s, a journalist friend of mine arranged for a small-scale sociological survey in his unit. He put one question to his fellow soldiers: “Who are you?” An Estonian answered “I am an Estonian”, the Georgian – I am a Georgian, the Uzbek – I am an Uzbek. The Belarusian gave a different answer – I am a sergeant.

Even now my fellow countrymen often put their social status or profession ahead of their nationality. This is a cause of concern in Belarusian society, or at least in the independent part of it. As I said earlier, the process of nation building has still to be completed in Belarus. There have undoubtedly been significant changes since Soviet times. Last year the independent laboratory NovAk carried out a public opinion poll on identity. 70% of the respondents regarded themselves as Belarusian; 27% chose the option “Soviet person”. The results of this poll also showed that more than 70% of the respondents would like to improve their knowledge of Belarusian history, culture, language and national traditions. There is therefore a demonstrable trend towards self-preservation as a nation.

Incidentally, a nation-building campaign organised by NGOs — “Let’s be Belarusians” — is now well into its second year. The authorities are very wary of it but haven”t banned it yet, although the writers, musicians, historians and journalists who travel around the country to speak to audiences of every possible kind will very often encounter obstacles. The fire brigade might suddenly turn up to say that the building is danger of catching fire, or suddenly it seems that for some reason there is no electricity. On 3 March, International Writers’ Day, the heads of the history faculty of the Belarusian State University prevented students from meeting me on the grounds that I had already spoken at the faculty (from which I graduated some time ago) the previous year. On this occasion it was first year students who wanted to meet me. They were still in school the previous year.

IP: Lukashenka’s diffuse ideology plays both the neo-Soviet and the nationalistic card. Is this an attempt to attract younger Belarusians?

UA: Belarusian youth today is like a multi-layered cake. Alongside apolitical layers you will find sizeable socially active groups that look to democratic and national values. Taken as a whole, our young people – irrespective of the views they hold – see no connection between themselves and the Soviet past. They are citizens of the independent Republic of Belarus. This is something that Lukashenka completely fails to understand. These days the slogans used fifteen years ago by the Belarusian Popular Front have become part of his rhetoric. Billboards scream at you everywhere you go in the streets and squares “We are for an independent, sovereign, flourishing Belarus’. Yet at the same time the authorities are prepared to trade in our sovereignty with Russia.

IP: Yet Belarus needs to build its “own” national culture upon the socio-historical layers of the Russian-Soviet space and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, whose heritage is also claimed by Lithuania, Poland and the Ukraine. How can that be accomplished?

UA: This is indeed not an easy task. It is made even more difficult because the renewal of the Belarusians’ historical memory is being artificially delayed. You get the feeling sometimes that the regime wants to “cut” several centuries out of our history by making it begin with the events of 1941. The state ideology under Lukashenka continues the traditions of Soviet policy by reducing the Second World War to the “Great Fatherland War”, although for millions of Belarusians the war began not on 22 June 1941, but in September 1939, when Hitler and Stalin set about fulfilling the terms of their secret agreements.

The way in which the authorities exploit the theme of heroism in the struggle against the Nazis at times becomes little more than a joke. I well recall how foreign guests of mine were unable to resist an ironic grin when they saw in the shops tubs of sour cream bearing the words “60th anniversary of the Great Victory”. Personally I always feel like protesting whenever I see vodka on sale in containers made to look like machine guns or hand grenades. This rubbishy drink is given special names like “Partisan Vodka” or “Frontline Vodka”. Not exactly a suitable basis for building a sense of national identity.   

IP: You are regarded as the country’s history teacher, at least in the Belarusian-speaking part. Why is the preoccupation with history so important for Belarus?

Arlou portrait

UA: Thank you for the compliment, but I could certainly give you the names of other “history teachers” as well. Forgive the lofty words, but we all have a crucial mission. History is a powerful creative force that unites a nation. The people of Switzerland speak different languages, but a common historical memory makes them a nation.

Without historical awareness there can be no national idea. The present regime has no desire to formulate this idea clearly and to use it for the consolidation of the nation. It is much simpler for Lukashenka to deal with a population than with a nation. However, our history is European and that means our path leads to a future in Europe.

IP: To the outsider, Belarus is often perceived as a part of Russia. How do Belarusians today see the relationships with Russia and the EU?

UA: Sociological data reveal that a majority of Belarusians support an independent state of their own, and that the number of people who favour European values continues to grow. This refers primarily to the educated sector of society and the young. However, the authorities continue to play their games of integration with Russia, and this is reflected in official ideology and propaganda. This gives rise to the peculiar phenomenon observed in opinion polls: some respondents declare themselves to be supporters of both the sovereign state of Belarus and the so-called Union State of Belarus and Russia.    

IP: Perhaps the question of where Belarus belongs will not arise in the future?

UA: It’s not just that this might happen. I firmly believe that the time will come when Belarusian will be one of the languages spoken in the European Union.  

Uladzimier Arlou received this year the “European Poet of Freedom”Award. Translated from Belarusian by Jim Dingley. 

About the author

Ingo Petz is a German freelance journalist writing mainly on Ukraine and Belarus.  He has published two books and several essays.

Read On

Belarus map

History through the prism of literature – Uładzimier Arłoŭ and some of his contemporaries, by Arnold McMillin

Profile: Alexander Lukashenko, BBC

Belarus Digest (Monitoring Belarus In International Media), web site  

www.charter97.org web site

Civil Initiative “We Remember”, web site

Office for a Democratic Belarus, web site

www.Belarus.by  – official Belarus web site.

Nelly Bekus, Struggle over Identity: The Official and the Alternative "Belarusianness" (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2010)

David Marples, "Can the Belarusian opposition unite?"

For Free and Fair Media In Belarus, Report by the International Fact Finding Mission to the Republic of Belarus, 2009

Jan Zaprudnik, Belarus: At a Crossroads in History (Westview Press, 1993)

Nelly Bekus, Struggle over Identity: The Official and the Alternative "Belarusianness" (Central European University Press, 2010)

More On

Arlou portraitUładzimier Arlou was born in Novapołack on 25 August 1953; his father was a lawyer and his mother a historian. Graduating from the History Faculty of BDU in 1975, he taught history for a year in a local school before working on a trade newspaper, Khimik (The Chemist), becoming in time assistant editor. In 1988 he moved to Miensk and worked for the ‘Mastackaja litaratura’ publishing house before being sacked for ‘publishing doubtful historical and other literature’ together with V. Siomucha and Ryhor Baradulin (Skobła 2003, 658). He also worked in the enterprising literary organization, Krynica (The spring), and became Vice-President of the Belarusian Pen Club in 1989. He was awarded the Lenin Komsomol prize for his first book, and later awarded a Francis Skaryna medal for his writing as a whole. This year he received the “European Poet of Freedom”Award.

Arnold McMillin