Belarus: love and paranoia

A Belarusian novel encourages citizens to question their own role in perpetuating the regime that governs them. The authorities’ response suggests it has touched a nerve, says Natalia Leshchenko.
Natalia Leshchenko
15 January 2010

A book on paranoia suddenly disappears. Two days after it hits Minsk bookshops and Belarus’s internet retailers, it is suddenly “unavailable”. Neither inquiring readers nor embarrassed sales staff are given any explanation. It is as if the book never existed. But it does, and free electronic versions of the elusive novel are now spawning on the net. 

Paranoia is a novel about love in time of dictatorship. The love between a man and a woman is described with freshness, subtlety, depth and joy. In the background is the dark, sinister world of authoritarian rule, with its frozen emotions, unspoken truths, and bizarre understanding of reality - so well entrenched in people’s heads that they are unsure which thoughts and fears are their own and which are implanted into their minds by overbearing power.  

The book (which was published in Moscow) never mentions Belarus. The dictator is not the president but the secret-service minister, and his character is deliberately crafted to differ from the current Belarusian leader. The author opens the novel with the pointed statement: “all characters are fictional”. Yet Minsk’s landmarks are tangible in his social dystopia. 

The Belarusian authorities’ nervousness is understandable on two counts. First, the regime depicted in the novel is more melodramatic in its behaviour than the current reality (for example, the secret services kill dissenting young people rather than incarcerating them or expelling them from universities). Thus the novel runs against the message of “changing Belarus” the government is keen to present to Europe and the world beyond, to win their confidence and investments. Second, the country portrayed has the atmosphere of a poignant, worried and lonely individual, far from the happy collectivist atmosphere the Belarusian authorities seek to project.

It is not the book but the ban that does the authorities a real disservice. This is a regime that became possible and has sustained itself on the basis of the deft crafting of a populist national ideology. Here, the silent and unexplained prohibition of Paranoia erodes the image of trust that the government is painstakingly and at a great expense trying to disseminate.

The message conveyed by the act of suppression is at glaring odds with the official narrative. It suggests that the real things in Belarus happen in silence, unpredictably and without explanation. The government’s lack of communication in areas of international concern confirms and strengthens this adverse view. 

The fear that lies behind this elusive decision is also rooted in the borderless reality enabled by the internet and globalisation. True, Belarusian officials have banned books before. But Paranoia is a novel, and the first one that stands a chance of acquiring a large-scale international readership. The awkward and clumsy treatment of a work of literature will, for a would-be populist regime, carry a greater cost even than its mishandling of the economy.  

A double gift

Paranoia’s strongest point is the truthful, melancholy portrait of the ambiguous realities and confused attitudes of people forced to live under a watchful paternalistic state. Under communism, dissidents could pay lip-service to the regime while preserving in seclusion their own understanding of reality. Under dictatorship-induced paranoia, individual and social truths become so mingled that people begin to lose faith in their own judgment; their personal phobias are multiplied by the fears created by the secret services, so that they do not know where true reality begins and ends.

The novel articulates in a convincing and gripping way an argument rarely seen even in “political-regime” literature – that dictatorships are sustained not just by secret police and oppressive state apparatuses, but by people themselves. It demonstrates how real and perceived fears mix in ways that undermine individual autonomy and stifle liberty. It implies that regime-change begins not at the ballot-box but within a person’s own mind. This is a rare insight that Belarusians, based on their own experience, can contribute to the world.       

The country’s cultural products are the reflection and consequence of its social and political life. It is only logical that a Belarusian writer has published a book on life under dictatorship. The author is Victor Martinovich, a soft-spoken, intelligent writer who now teaches in Vilnius: a man previously able to maintain the improbable position of a journalist employing a critical irony that offered no comfort but also no weapon to the authorities.

For the first time ever, the country has on offer a dynamic cultural product that could reach a worldwide audience. The Belarusian authorities, instead of banning the novel, missed a trick. They could have jumped on its bandwagon and celebrated the book.  Instead, the censorship of Victor Martinovich’s compelling prose will only fuel Paranoia’s international reputation. The authorities have transformed a piece of good literature into a political cause. Belarusians are now living with that double gift.

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