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In Darkest Belarus


by Victor Martinovich
St. Petersburg: Astrel SPB 346 pp., 166 rubles
Alina Krushinskaya
Victor Martinovich at the News Café in Minsk, where the beginning of Paranoia is set, 2009

In the summertime, in the Belarusian capital of Minsk, young couples rent boats. They float, seemingly aimlessly, with the current of the Svisloch River, until they find themselves under a bridge. Then they row against the current for as long as they can, hoping to find shelter from the sun and from prying eyes. The premise of Belarusian writer Victor Martinovich’s Russian-language novel Paranoia is that this is impossible. As a police state such as today’s Belarusian dictatorship approaches perfect control, someone is always watching. The young lovers are watching each other, whether they understand this or not. The only way to be safe in such a society is to abandon love, but true solitude courts paranoia.

As the novel opens, the young writer Anatoly finds himself alone, his lover Lisa having disappeared from her apartment on Karl Marx Street. He pushes notes for her under the door, where they are duly intercepted, copied, and interpreted by the KGB.1 These police documents open the novel, inviting the reader to see the young man from the perspective of the authorities. Anatoly then recalls a relationship that at first seems startling in its purity (his last name, Nevinskii, sounds like “innocent”). In a cafĂŠ a young man greets a young woman by asking “Have you been waiting long?” and gets the reply “All my life.” A love affair proceeds with such passion that the lovers don’t even learn each other’s names until they fight. The source of tension is Lisa’s other man: Muraviev, the minister of state security, who controls the (obviously Belarusian) state, holds all the important offices, and can make people disappear.

Muraviev, not just a dictator but also a pianist, is not so much a Big Brother as a Big Lover; in Paranoia the conventions of menage Ă  trois are artfully overlain with those of dystopia. Lisa seems to be with child. Who is the father? She seems to suggest to each man in turn that it is he. Lisa seems to have been murdered. Who did it? Muraviev claims not to know, but this seems unlikely, and of course he would hardly admit to such a thing. At first, Anatoly seeks Lisa and confronts Muraviev, but under interrogation he admits to the murder. Does his confession bear any resemblance to what actually happened? Or, in confessing to the deed, is Anatoly helping the regime cover up its latest killing? Are he and Muraviev, in some sense, in it together?

Martinovich, born in 1977, matured under the dictatorship that Aleksandr Lukashenko has consolidated in post-Soviet Belarus since 1994. In the novel, he renews some of the major themes of the classic Eastern European dissident literature. The system is not simply the rulers, it is also the ruled.2 Self-policing is more important than policing; lovers betray each other wittingly or unwittingly; we all betray ourselves in the end. In Anatoly, Martinovich portrays a writer who, while criticizing the aesthetics of totalitarianism, is drawn toward its power. Anatoly seems to want what Muraviev has. He describes at length the latte macchiato that Lisa drinks, an artifact of a lifestyle that is really only available within the system. He is disgusted but intrigued by her black automobile and its KGB plates. Anatoly encounters the state in the attractive medium of a young woman’s body, or on the dignified platform of high culture. In the end, Anatoly challenges Muraviev after the minister of state security has performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24.

The Belarus of the novel strongly resembles the dictatorship of Lukashenko. Belarus is a midsized Eastern European state, bordered by Poland to the west, Russia to the east, Lithuania and Latvia to the north, and Ukraine to the south. A heartland for half a millennium of the medieval Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the early modern Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, it became a borderland of the Russian Empire in the late eighteenth century. Because all of what is now Belarus was under the rule of the tsars in the nineteenth century, it was difficult for a national movement to emerge. The major local religion had been the Uniate Church, Eastern in rite but subordinate to the Vatican. It was merged with Russian Orthodoxy. The local language, Belarusian, was close enough to both Russian and Polish that local elites seeking social advancement tended to choose one or the other. The Belarusian movement began to gain supporters in the early twentieth century, but a short-lived Belarusian National Republic was absorbed by Bolshevik Russia. The Soviet leadership at first encouraged Belarusian culture, until Stalin had almost all of the significant Belarusian writers murdered during the Great Terror of 1937–1938.

During World War II, Soviet partisans murdered Belarusian schoolteachers as German collaborators. Jews in Belarus tended to speak Belarusian, and indeed one of the first major Belarusian activists was Jewish. The mass shootings of Belarusian Jews by the Germans during the war all but removed this group from what is today Belarus; in the years after the war, only one synagogue was open in what had once been a major center of Jewish life.

After the Soviet victory, Soviet Belarus was extended to the west at the expense of Poland, and tens of thousands of Poles and Jews were expelled from the new territories into Poland. In the postwar decades, Minsk was recreated as a Soviet metropolis, the Russian language was firmly established, and Red Army bases were set up all along what was then the Soviet western frontier.

Belarus became an independent state with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Three years later, Lukashenko won free elections, and has since established, step by step, a political dictatorship. Martinovich’s historical references, though rare and obscure, leave little doubt about the setting. The novel itself takes place in a city that resembles, in detail after detail, the Minsk of today. Martinovich’s challenge to Lukashenko’s regime was obvious enough. His novel was pulled from the shelves after two days.

To travel to or from Belarus is to become acquainted with the KGB. At the European airport from which you depart for Minsk, a functionary, likely female and seemingly harmless, patrols the gate area. At a certain point she asks each passenger for his or her passport, although on what authority is a bit unclear. At the Minsk airport, as you depart Belarus, an obvious KGB functionary checks your documents one last time before you board the plane. Then he boards the plane with you. The KGB officer is probably accompanying a Belarusian official on a journey abroad, since Belarusians of any significance cannot travel without a political chaperone. But perhaps he is also watching you. As soon as you have that thought, you’ve entered the world of paranoia that is Martinovich’s subject.

It is only in settings such as airports that you would notice the KGB at all, so of course you might also begin to wonder who is and who is not a secret policeman. For Belarusians, recognition almost always comes too late, when an arrest is being made. As in the opening scene of Martinovich’s novel, in which letters are seized and read, the KGB has the right to enter any building at any time. Belarus’s other and very numerous police forces, by contrast, are meant to be highly visible. The purpose of camouflage uniforms is to permit soldiers to fight unseen; when worn by shock troops in Minsk they only emphasize threat. On street corners and subway platforms interior ministry troops stand in dress uniforms, with batons or sidearms. This is all in addition to the ubiquitous uniformed city police. All of these security forces are controlled by Lukashenko; the interior ministry and the KGB are under the purview of his son Viktar.3

Minsk is also full of soldiers and military officers. The officers wear outsized caps and ill-fitting uniforms and carry briefcases. The conscripts wear red stars on their armbands, recalling a Soviet era they are all too young to remember. They speak to one another in Russian, the dominant language of the country and the language of command of the Belarusian military. About one Belarusian citizen in forty-three is serving today in the military, a ratio that far exceeds that of any of Belarus’s neighbors, and is among the highest in the world. The draft and the long term of service is a form of social control. Young people who seem as if they might pose a challenge to Lukashenko’s regime are drafted early and sent to bases far from home.

The public space of Minsk, designed by Soviet authorities after the Germans destroyed the city during World War II, permits little solitude. Martinovich has Anatoly describe a city made to order for the KGB, with long broad avenues and achingly open public spaces. Independence Square, an enormous plaza in the middle of the city, has no place to sit. Minsk is so clean that it makes Vienna look a bit dingy. Its streets are swept incessantly by uniformed sanitation men. Martinovich has his fictional Minsk decorated with sexy billboards portraying KGB officers who resemble Batman. There are in fact rotating signs alternatively commemorating the triumph of the Soviet Union in World War II and displaying women in bikinis. Almost everyone in Minsk walks rather than drives, and so Belarusians have plenty of time to contemplate the propaganda. Many of the cars on the streets of Minsk are (judging from the plates) used by state functionaries. There seems to be no fleet of official cars, rather a collection of mismatched automobiles of German make, repainted black after they were seized from the people who stole them the first time.

They went home,” writes Martinovich of his lovers at a certain point, “where else could they go?” In the center of Minsk, city blocks extend for miles without a single bench. The message is unmistakable: when you have concluded your day’s business, go back to your apartment. But home itself, as in the Soviet system of which Lukashenko’s regime is in many respects a continuation, is not really a private sphere in the Western sense. Although private property is recognized by law, ownership can be challenged on technicalities at any time. About four fifths of workers are employed by the state, so almost no one has the independent capacity to pay rent or a mortgage. Most state employees work on one-year contracts. If they show any sign of disobedience to the regime, they can be denied a means of existence by the discreet measure of nonrenewal. There are no independent trade unions or chambers of commerce to protect the rights of workers or businessmen.

Despite the solemn promises of rights in the Belarusian constitution, all that is not expressly permitted is forbidden. In order to do anything of a public nature, citizens must first announce what they are doing, and name the organization within which the action will take place. The action and the organization must be explicitly approved and registered by the state. When authorities wish for an organization to disappear, they threaten the owner of the building where it has its legal address until it is expelled, then prosecute its members for illegally participating in a group without a legal address. The bugbear of “registration” amounts to an attempt at total social control. Last holiday season fifteen Belarusian citizens, dressed in red and white and wearing false beards, announced that they planned to spread Christmas cheer “as an unregistered association of Santa Clauses.”4 They were informed that if they did so they would be prosecuted. This May, riot police dispersed a small group marching for gay rights. In July, several hundred young people commemorated a military anniversary with a public pillow fight. Riot police made several dozen arrests.

  1. 1

    In the novel the institution appears as the “Ministry of State Security.” For simplicity’s sake I use here the familiar term KGB, the Russian abbreviation for “Committee for State Security,” which is how the institution is still known in today’s Belarus.

  2. 2

    Here the classic text is Václav Havel’s “The Power of the Powerless” (1978).

  3. 3

    For good analyses see Kamil Kłysinski and Agata Wierzbowska-Miazga, “Changes in the Political Elite, Economy, and Society of Belarus,” OSW Studies, No. 30 (2009); and Elena Korosteleva, “Was There a Quiet Revolution? Belarus After the 2006 Presidential Election,” Journal of Communist and Transition Politics, Vol. 25, No. 2 (2009).

  4. 4

    For this and other incidents see US Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Country Report on Human Rights Practices: Belarus, March 2010.

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