One-on-One with Leviathan
A Belarusian writer on the three hundred years of unfreedom of speech
A pseudonym or cryptonym under an article by an author from Belarus is a common phenomenon of our day. It is very unsafe to write about the Republic of Belarus and live in it. Nevertheless, we invite well-known authors to speak in the first person and sometimes they give their consent. This time we asked one of them what it is like to think and write under the conditions of totalitarianism and brutal reaction.
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Has it ever been any different?
True Belarusian chic is to arrange a secret rendezvous on a bench in front of a local militia office or in a closely patrolled park. Although these days any offline meeting spot may well happen to be in front of a militia office, or on a patrol route, or under the attentive eye of a vigilant neighbour. However, we – the bits and pieces of civil society, the few who have not left the country – meet up physically even though we could talk, for example, on Zoom or Google Meet where we would seem to be safe. Despite all these alternatives we still talk on the streets and I think that in this way we still have the city to ourselves.
After every such encounter, I have the same feeling: no one will ever be able to describe these barely visible – and impossible in future heroic sagas – small stories of individual people who could only fight, by virtue of their very existence, the total entropy of triumphant evil around them simply by breathing, by purposelessly wandering about parks, by sitting on a bench in front of a militia office, by organising meager fundraisers to pay fines imposed on acquaintances, by their august ‘friends only’ dinner rounds. Future stern victors will ask us, “And what did you do to achieve our victory?” And we will have nothing to say. We will have no excuses for living in a twice-occupied country. We won’t mention the benches, will we?
Belarusian culture has not actually lived in other conditions. The first and only author who did not experience the totalitarian pressure of a mighty foreign state probably was Francysk Skaryna, the East Slavic first printer. In 1517, he printed The Psalter in Old Belarusian and taught printing to Ivan Fyodorov and Piotr Mscislavec who became our neighbours’ first printers. However, it was in Prague where Skaryna did all that.
This land between the East and the West through which swept all, without exception, large-scale European wars declared by our neighbours on each other over our heads, this land in the midst of which was halted the Roman Church’s messianic push eastwards and the Orthodox Church’s messianic push westwards, this land of ours has always been at the same time a theatre of war beyond our own interests, a shelter for those who we did not pursue, an asylum for those who ran not from us, a cemetery for those we did not kill. To this day, we can see living and praying in our mosques descendants of the Tartars who were once part of the steppe invaders and who then settled on the sidelines of the conquered territories. Hundreds of thousands of Jews that the Empire required to live in the Pale of Settlement found their homes in our country, and here found eternal piece hundreds of thousands Jews displaced from all over Europe into the Minsk Ghetto.
Belarus is the only country in the world where Yiddish was one of the state languages
Living within this kind of all-embracing tolerance is not easy: cultural expansion of more warlike and less tolerant peoples is doomed to success. Whichever empire came to our land always became bothered with our language and culture. Throughout the whole Modern Age the Belarusian language existed in totalitarian conditions: first in Tsarist Russia, then in the USSR, and now under the double pressure of the dying empire and our own empire supporters. If you want to talk to people with the longest experience of creating a national culture under pressure, welcome to Belarus.
Reflecting on the fates of our culture, we endlessly rummage through our family silver: the crushed student organisations of Philomaths and Philaretes at Vilnius University who were the first to begin systematical studies of Belarusian folklore, the hanged Kalinoŭski – the first Belarusian-language publicist of the Modern Age, the executed generation of interwar artists who over a few years created for Belarus all possible kinds of art in all its diversity, Bykaŭ, Adamovich and Baradulin caught in the grip of censorship, Nyaklyayew beaten up by OMON [riot police]. Our poet Larysa Hienijuš spent eight years in gulags and for the rest of her life lived in the village of Zelva without a passport because she refused to accept the Soviet citizenship. Whenever we write in Belarusian we do it in the teeth of the monster. Sometimes one of us is lucky enough to roll into the monster’s cheek and get some rest, sometimes the monster stops crunching our bones for a short while because the monster also needs to rest.
O how Belarusian culture flourishes at these moments! As if out of nowhere appear artists, musicians, poets, writers, all of them true ones. (But the big world does not have enough time to get to know about them because the monster’s sleep does not last long, and the big world does not have much interest in those who squeak somewhere in the corner.) Such periods of relative freedom in our culture are literally measured in years:
Therefore, if you ask me what it is like to write in a totalitarian state, then I, a child of my country, will ask in return, “Can it be any other way?” Whenever I am going to meet up with a soul mate in the occupied city I can only follow in the footsteps of my predecessors.
How to Live Here: The Four Strategies
Of course, the 21st century has its advantages. We have not yet become victims of mass executions; moreover, they might fire us, ban us from public activity, close the tiny publishing houses where our books are printed in 100 copies (or 500 copies in the case of the most distinguished authors who have big autograph sessions), yet even now they do not force us to write eulogies to the ‘great leader.’ No one tries to crush us the way it was under Stalin: you do not have to write anything if you do not want to, just keep your mouth shut and you will stay out of trouble. So we can talk, we can publish our work abroad, albeit under pseudonyms. Of course, like a hundred or two hundred years ago we cannot dream of publishing an epic because every morning we expect to be arrested which, as you can imagine, does not make life any easier... But a poem, a short story, a translation is what we can finish in one day seizing the time we have before they come for us. We do not starve, we do not wait for a bombardment, our children sleep in cozy beds, we lie awake at night staring at the ceiling but we do not lie on a bed of nails.
Each word comes hard, though. The chasm between what you want to write and what you actually write at times seems unbridgeable.
Reflecting upon what prevents me from truly being free in my thoughts and words, I do not persist in my accusations concerning the censors, the propagandists, the accursed government, and the hated enforcers of the regime. Honestly, it is not about them. I cannot write freely even though I know that no one, including them, is ever going to read what I wrote.
I presume the thing is that I am inside the evil that is eating me. I cannot assess the size, shape, and behaviour of Leviathan while I am inside it. I cannot even give in to Biblical wailing and praying like Jonah in the belly of the whale that God sent for him. God sends trials to his chosen ones but who sends us our Leviathans?
Culture is mankind's reflection: through cultural processes we analyse, think, ask questions, try to understand, allocate importance, create discourse, reflect the imaginary, dream of the
It is often asked why Belarusian literature is so grim.
When this sacramental question is asked publicly, it gives Leviathan the hiccups: it is grim Belarusian writers are laughing in its belly.
We have been heavily damaged by the empires that tried to destroy us. As children, we were told foreign fairy tales, in churches we were addressed in foreign languages, at school we were taught to love foreign literary classics. Our cultural inferiority complex was cultivated carefully and scrupulously: the national literature course did not include the best works by our writers. And even though one way or another we came to see our language as a language of creative expression, in birth pains or under torture we cry in a foreign tongue. And just as a rape victim feels the rapist’s baby inside herself, we are constantly torn between black hatred and painful love for the one who lives inside us without our permission.
Can totalitarian political power surprise us with anything after three centuries of total cultural violence? Not really. It simply puts a frame around everything.
The strategies of a creative person’s survival within the frame of this double totalitarianism have been around, unchanged, for three hundred years. There are only four of them. You can choose full servility, which in such circumstances always begets betrayal, baseness, and creative impotence. You can choose compromise, within which you can, flailing and wobbling, say something casual but at least noticeable against the backdrop of your servile colleagues’ statements. 3) You can choose partisanship and you might say whatever you think is necessary but, in the midst of a dark wood, you risk remaining unheard. And, finally, you can choose heroic struggle which will result in your short but bright life becoming more profound and exciting than whatever you manage to do in any art form.
Nevertheless, we are still here, even though we should have perished three hundred times.
Cultural Partisanship. The Means and the Ends
If we Belarusians put aside the endless disputes and quarrels about who did more for the Motherland, if we cast aside our grievances and the thirst for revenge for our broken lives, we will have to admit that each of us is doing something to make our conversations about ourselves more present in time and space. Servility maintains the language's right to exist, if only decoratively, if only to let the aboriginals sing the praises to their foreign power and their native chief. Compromises make it possible for words with vague references and hidden meanings to get through cracks and holes in the censorship barriers and into the public sphere. Products of both the former and the latter are studied, little by little, at schools so that our children can still find a path to the Belarusian woods; a path which however narrow, it does not grow over completely.
There, in the woods, there is of course partisanship, our preferred national sport. I could tell you a lot about the glorious partisan tribe but I shall not because every public word might result in someone’s being persecuted, punished, or even killed. Yet partisans have always been around, one of the secret children of the Belarusian woods every now and then advances to centre stage and joins the list of our fallen heroes who from the moment of their death, is known to everyone and loved by everyone intensely and sincerely.
Now from our own life experience (not from someone else’s historical experience!) we understand how this endless cultural imperial and political Belarusian totalitarianism impacts upon the creative person. I do not know and cannot say anything about the sufferings of official Belarusian cultural figures (and they suffer, for sure they do). But I know well what partisans go through.
Leviathan severely restricts thinking. Even if we have sufficient education, intellectual family traditions, internal reserve of dissent, and a broad range of ideas about the global culture, our internal experience from childhood to adulthood is the experience of someone who has been under the rule of the system. We are always inside and never outside. We can comprehend only so much, which is less than we can imagine. The struggle for freedom of expression is for us always (and primarily) a struggle with ourselves.
And one more thing: some ideas are beyond conceptualisation and formulation. When I was trying to describe in a fiction text my impressions of the last Belarusian revolution which were still fresh in my mind, I felt as if someone had been peeling, mercilessly, some kind of protective film off my liver, off my spleen, off all my internal organs and that this physical pain was impossible to overcome. The scale and duration of our common trauma, the absence of clear hope for an imminent – or at least visible within one’s own lifetime – victory, the helplessness in the face of evil, the inability to help all those you empathise with ... all of this cannot be released in words because words are powerless, they cannot help us stop the torture. The three hundred years long feeling of senselessness and pointlessness of verbal expression ties your tongue.
While in prison, everything seems unimportant except being in prison. Whatever you think your first thought is about the lack of freedom. Wherever you go you hit a brick wall. You are forced – day after day, on different occasions – to sing the same song because other songs are of no importance. This song was sung before your time, it will be sung after it. The wheel and the circle are popular metaphors among our poets.
At the same time, inflexibility and even obstinacy are also our traits. If we can give something to the world, this would be the deeply reflected experience of
Over the three hundred years of existence in the empire, we have accumulated a lot of creative tools that are of no use to the people of the free world: Aesopian language and primitive symbolism easy to read by a reader who is oppressed like us, existential humour that never goes beyond our garden patch, code names and quotes that can only be deciphered by a few; spaces between lines where the main subject is hidden; the special genre of dryndushka [short humorous folk song] written in an official style with an unofficial purpose, – we love, we are good at doing, and we do all of these. We keep floundering in the belly of our Leviathan, we simply keep sitting on benches in front of militia offices and we keep not disappearing from the streets of our cities. We have long known that evil is impossible to defeat and we do not hope for a shining victory of good. But every minute we are fighting the darkness, merely by existing.
We are criticised for writing only about ourselves, for locking ourselves up in a cultural ghetto, for working too timidly with global discourses and for sticking to traditional poetics. That is how it is: from inside Leviathan, it is difficult to imagine what the ocean, tropical islands, and white albatrosses looks like. It is even more difficult to write about these things.
But if in a while (possibly, not in our lifetime) you ask: “Why did that old monster die, that savage fish that had from time immemorial devoured countries and peoples?” If you then ask, “Who kept gnawing at it, unnoticed, until there was a deadly hole through which into the decrepit insides of the Leviathan poured the poisonous contents of its own stomach killing the monster from within?”
... Just know it was us.
Translated from Russian by Alexander Stoliarchuk