In Belarus the authorities don’t just control the purse strings of the cultural world: they pull the strings of the entire cultural process, just as they did in the Soviet years. Ideologically sound creatives are supported and promoted, but any attempt to use the arts, whether in the form of literature or rock music, to express any critical perspective on the social order is regarded as a threat to the status quo, and is often met with proscriptive measures.
Before the presidential election of 2006, for example, and after the last election in 2010, unofficial lists were compiled of performers who should be kept out of public view. These were mostly rock musicians, but the lists also included writers, actors, and directors.
Being on a blacklist means you have no legal way of bringing your work to public attention, whether through a bookshop, a concert venue, newspapers, TV or radio. The government does not usually admit to any intervention, but anyone who comes under suspicion of criticising the regime is quickly made aware of the connection between their work and the systematic cancellation of their planned publications or performances.
The dangers of philosophy
This year, preventive measures have begun early, and the definition of suspicious intellectual activity has been extended to include philosophical treatises. In April, 20 copies of the philosopher Tatyana Shchitsova’s book Anthropology. Ethics. Politics and a compilation of articles from the scientific journal Topos were seized on the Belarus-Lithuanian border.
Popular Russian songwriter Eduard Uspensky as been blacklisted in Belarus. Photo CC: Dmitry RozhkovBoth these publications were brought out under the imprint of the European University for the Humanities (EGU), founded in Minsk in 1992, but closed down by the government in 2004 for political reasons. It reopened a year later in Vilnius, and is now known as ‘The University of Belarus in Exile’.
‘We were bringing Shchitsova’s book from Vilnius for a presentation in Minsk, and the Topos compilation for a celebration of the journal’s 15th birthday’, says Yevgeny Tikhonov of the Logvinov bookshop. ‘When the border guards saw them they started asking about them and leafing through them. They lit on the “Philosophy and Politics” section of the Topos book, which included an analysis of our last two presidential elections using the concepts of the Russian philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin.
‘We had to hang around at the border for several hours, and then they said the books might threaten Belarusian ‘security’ and would therefore be handed over to a special commission for an analysis of the content. They also confiscated copies of Topos and works by the Belarusian writers Ihar Bobkou and Svyatlana Alyeksiyevich – just in case. Interestingly, a Russian book we also had with us didn’t get a second glance.
‘Afterwards we were told that if the books weren’t classified as dangerous the case would be handed over to the Customs authorities, because importing more than 20 books counted as commercial activity and required special documentation. The regulation on how many books may be imported without special permission is, incidentally, nowhere to be found.’
The government has a special relationship with the Logvinov publishing house and bookshop. The company, which was founded in 2000, specialises in contemporary Belarusian and world literature. The publisher has a regular presence at international book fairs and the shop is effectively a cultural centre that hosts frequent gatherings of readers and other arts events, which presumably explains the government’s close interest in it.
As Yevgeny Tikhonov explains, ‘there was a period when our publishing arm was on some banned list, so we couldn’t sell our stuff in state-owned bookshops. The thing is that Logvinov focuses on contemporary authors whose political views and creative ideas may not chime with those of our local bureaucrats. A law passed in 2014 now regulates every stage of the publishing process, from the first mock-up to the sale of the finished book. And this law has made our activities illegal, as we have been refused the certificate of registration that would allow us to distribute books.
A law passed in 2014 now regulates every stage of the publishing process, from the first mock-up to the finished book.
‘The Ministry of Information turned down six applications for registration from our shop, claiming the forms had been filled in incorrectly. So we were fined and forced to repay our ‘illegally gotten gains’ to the state, to the tune of around $65,000, almost the equivalent of our annual sales revenue.
‘This should have bankrupted our bookshop and forced it to close, but we had support from the people of Minsk, who had come to see Logvinov’s as an indispensible part of the city’s cultural landscape – a collection organised through social media raised enough money to save us.’
Belarusian literary specialist, civil activist and ‘public intellectual’ Alyaksandr Fyaduta, best known as the author of Lukashenka: a Political Biography (published in Moscow in 2005), is well used to the attention of the authorities. ‘Formally, I’m persona non grata in Belarus’, he tells me, ‘and this leads to some strange situations. To take just one example: in a critical study of a 19th century Belarusian poet and social activist the author referred to something I had written. When the book came out the reference had disappeared, but my name remained in the index as a memorial to state censorship.’
After the 2010 election, Fyaduta, who had been part of presidential candidate, poet and writer Uladzimir Nyaklyayew’s campaign team, was arrested and imprisoned in a KDB (security police) pre-trial detention centre, while literary figures in Russia and other countries campaigned for his release. In 2011 he was given a two year suspended sentence followed by two years probation.
‘When I was working on my political biography of our permanent president Alyaksandr Lukashenka’, says Fyaduta, ‘I was thoroughly searched each time I crossed the border. They were obviously hoping I’d try to smuggle a manuscript out of the country – as though they’d never heard of the internet. It was even hinted to me that I might publish extracts from the book in advance, so that ‘you know who’ would know what to expect and calm down.’
Lukashenka was not available in Belarusian bookshops, despite being published legally in Moscow and topping the political biography charts for a month. Private book dealers in Minsk talked about an unofficial ban, but the 60,000 print run nonetheless sold out in less than a year. Fyaduta recalls Belarusians visiting Moscow, bringing back copies by the boxful for their friends and acquaintances.
Alyaksandr Fyaduta, author of a political biography of President Lukashenka, is now persona non grata in Belarus
‘I’m very proud of having written a banned book’, he says. ‘The status of banned author remains with me to this day. Last year I brought a collection of my historic-literary articles back from Vilnius, where they had been published by the EGU. On the border they searched me thoroughly, as usual. I told them the book contained no information about present-day Belarus, but they explained that anything published under my name required special examination’.
‘I’m very proud of having written a banned book.’
As for Uladzimir Nyaklyayew himself, he was arrested in 2010 on the very day of the election and accused of organising mass disturbances. In 2011 a court sentenced him to two years in prison with a two-year stay of sentence. He recently brought from Vilnius a few copies of another book published by the EGU, a collection of work by 30 poets, including himself, who have been political prisoners at one time or another.
‘They allowed Nyaklyayew’s complimentary author's copies through, but we haven’t managed to get any more into the country’, says Fyaduta. ‘Although I think trying to ban anything in our internet age is just ridiculous.’
The Belorusian government’s ‘unwritten’ import bans are nothing new to writer Viktar Martsinovich, whose first novel, Paranoia, published in 2009, was also unavailable to readers [the novel, originally in Russian, has been published in English under the Russian form of his name, Victor Martinovich]. The bureaucrats were obviously spooked by the fact that the action takes place in today’s Minsk, and that among the characters was a political leader anxious to remain in power.
‘At the time I was deputy editor of the fairly neutral Belgazeta weekly’, Martsinovich tells me. ‘I wasn’t ‘friends’ with the government, but I wasn’t particularly confrontational either. At first I was afraid they’d search my flat, then that I’d be arrested; I was terrified to come home. But after a while I realised that stuff was being banned all the time – and not just fiction; it was happening to history books as well. I know of dozens of cases.’
Last year, a ‘meet the author’ evening in the city of Hrodna, to promote Martsinovich’s new novel Mova [Belarusian ‘Language’ – and written in that language], was broken up by police, who burst into the church building where it was being held and called a halt to this ‘unsanctioned event’.
‘I’d be very flattered to think that there was a special KGB officer whose job was to keep tabs on my work’, he says, ‘but the reality is much more prosaic. Here in Belarus there is a bureaucratic culture of ‘playing safe’. What probably happened with Paranoia was that somebody noticed an extract published in a newspaper and decided to take it off the shelves, ‘just in case’. Rumour has it that an unofficial fine was imposed on booksellers stocking it.
This harassment has no great effect; in fact it just gives us free publicity.
‘But this kind of harassment has no great effect on people in the cultural world; in fact it just gives us free publicity. And the authorities’ ‘guerrilla control tactics’ – all these secret lists of banned works and problems with the electricity just before public events – can be explained by the fact that Belarus has no coherent political framework that can be directly challenged.
‘What could a rock musician or writer be accused of today? In the Soviet years there was a ready-made charge – ‘anti-social activity’. But now where do you draw the line on all these ‘antis’, given that our political course is in constant flux? One day we’re promoting Russo-Belarusian brotherhood, the next we’re distancing ourselves from it. One day we’re cosying up to the West, the next we’re off in a different direction. So the bureaucrats on the ground are experts in doublethink: they show their vigilance by banning something, but at the same time the bans are strictly unofficial, and they can deny everything if they need to.’
Life with a ban
It’s not just books that get banned in Belarus; the same happens to songs. The first blacklists of undesirable rockers (after the end of the USSR), appeared in 2004, when some bands played at opposition rallies. Their songs were removed from TV and radio playlists and it became impossible for them to organise gigs. Then in 2007 the musicians were invited to the Ministry of Information and informed that the ban would be lifted in return for a promise not to express any political opinions in front of an audience.
Russian rock band DDT have been banned in Belarus. Photo CC: Levg
After the last presidential elections in 2010 a so-called ‘second wave’ of bans came into force. In early 2011, a photocopy of a supposedly leaked document appeared on the internet. It listed cultural figures that the official media were ‘not recommended to mention’; among them, as well as a dozen or so top Belarusian rock bands, were British playwright Tom Stoppard, Russian popular songwriter Eduard Uspensky, the Russian rock band DDT and the Pet Shop Boys.
These bans were, again, not imposed officially, but anyone banned in this way discovers sooner or later that they are still real enough. For example, before you can hire a venue in Belarus you need an official permit from City Hall. The interesting thing here is that the officials usually give the permit, but again as rumour has it, unofficially recommend to the venue’s owners that they refuse to hire the hall out for the gig.
‘They keep copies of these mystical lists in all local cultural centres.’
The singer-songwriter Zmitser Vaitsyushkevich, a supporter of Uladzimir Nyaklyayew’s presidential candidature in 2010, is a veteran of music blacklists, having been on them for over a decade. ‘They keep copies of these mystical lists in all local cultural centres’, he tells me. ‘In one of them they actually said, “We’ve had a letter about you, so we can’t go ahead with your concert”. Club owners suddenly remember that they have another act booked for that evening or there are unexpected problems with the drains or the electrics. Sometimes I get asked to perform at companies’ staff parties, but then they get cold feet about being associated with me. Nobody wants to lose their job.’
Before all the bans, Vaitsyushkevich was one of Belarus’s most commercially successful musicians, but after 2004 everything changed: ‘I survive by giving clandestine performances in schools, or in cultural centres hundreds of kilometres away from Minsk. The authorities know about them, of course, but they turn a blind eye. I only make ends meet by working on radio and performing abroad, but I want to perform and earn money in my own country. I belong to the generation of optimists, people who believe that things can get better. I also have political opinions and it’s important to me to express them. I talk to my audience during gigs, but I don’t say anything very controversial – just the usual kitchen talk.
Vaitsyushkevich complains that the constant official intrusion into the cultural sphere is exhausting and divisive for people working in it. Private business has no interest in investing in, say, rock music: with all the bans imposed over the years it’s too much of a risk. The rest of the world is only interested in Belarus when a presidential election is due.
Although, says Vaitsyushkevich, occasionally you get a spontaneous show of solidarity. ‘I recently did a gig at a village school, and afterwards the teachers and older pupils wanted to be photographed with me. Then someone suddenly asked, “But where’s Petrov?” “He can’t be in a photo with Vaitsyushkevich,” said those in the know, “he’s applying to the military academy.” But then the head teacher stepped forward: “But I can! I’ve just a year to go to retirement!” Moments like this give me some hope for the future.’
Will the cultural blacklists go on growing? Only time and the presidential election at the end of the year will tell.
Standfirst image: CC Isaac Mao.