In Darkest Belarus


by Victor Martinovich
St. Petersburg: Astrel SPB 346 pp., 166 rubles

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 café 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 à 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.

The pillow fight was, in effect, a flash mob organized by students, using electronic means that the authorities have not quite mastered. In general, though, the Internet and the university, the new and the traditional bastions of youthful rebellion, are far from safe. Internet cafés, scarce in any case, have to report their clients to the police. Only about 8 percent of the Belarusian population has access to the Internet, and only the government is allowed to maintain Internet domains.

The universities, like public life generally, are penetrated by GONGOs: government-organized nongovernmental organizations. High school students are told that they must join Lukashenko’s Youth Union if they wish to enter university. Their professors must attend weekly ideological orientation sessions. All universities and schools, including private institutions, are under the direct control of the minister of education. The Academy of Sciences is under the personal authority of the president.

Martinovich’s protagonist Anatoly sees the regime’s goal as “stability.” Aside from the domination of the public sphere and the isolation of citizens, Lukashenko’s regime also pursues a third strategy, which might be called vegetation. Probably the closest historical analogue to Lukashenko’s ideology is that of Marshal Pétain’s Vichy France: an idealization of hearth and home, an unequal and cloying alliance with a powerful eastern neighbor, and a constant condemnation of outsiders. Lukashenko’s ideal Belarus is an agrarian country. As he himself puts it, “I’m not like other presidents. There’s a cow in me.”5 Lukashenko rules a country where agriculture is still collectivized; he himself is a former collective farm director.

This means that peasants are state employees who do not own the land, and have very little prospect of leaving it. The poverty of the Belarusian countryside, perhaps the crucial inheritance from the Soviet system, is presented as idyllic. The unofficial national motto is “Flower Belarus!”—but flowering is not really something that people do, it is something that plants do. Lukashenko’s propaganda presents his own people, the Belarusians, as something less than a mature political nation. They are rather an ethnic group, dressed in Soviet-era folk costumes, somewhere amidst the livestock and the crops, mindful chiefly of food and shelter.

Lukashenko’s denationalization campaign, far from being the primitivism of a country hack, has functioned for years as a clever strategy of foreign relations. Rather than emphasize the individual character of the Belarusian people, Lukashenko has treated his citizens as a kind of ideological raw material. He has, so to speak, exported the national pride of his people to Russia, where Russian leaders nostalgic for empire were eager to believe that the two nations might one day reunite. In exchange for indulging Russian ideas of Belarusian nationlessness and attempting to spread them among Belarusians themselves, Lukashenko received very cheap supplies of Russian natural gas. He has flattered Russian leaders from Yeltsin through Medvedev with rhetoric of inferiority: Russia, says Lukashenko, is Belarus’s “mommy.” He has also regularly agreed to various forms of economic union with Russia, and promised political integration as well. He has made sure that none of these bilateral agreements was ever fully realized; as a result, Russian energy subsidies simply allowed Lukashenko to satisfy much of Belarusian society with a measure of economic security.6 His strategy of rule, very successful until quite recently, has depended upon warming Russian hearts with pan-Slavic rhetoric and warming Belarusian homes with cheap natural gas.

For the past fifteen years, Belarusians have been told a story that is meant to justify this curious arrangement. Whereas most newly independent states celebrate national history, in post-Soviet Belarus the Lukashenko regime denies that there is much Belarusian history at all. Lukashenko first used Soviet-era books in Belarusian schools, then recruited his own former history teacher, Yakov Treshchenok, to write a new textbook. In this account, Belarusian political history is essentially coterminous with Soviet political history. Belarusians became politically conscious thanks to the Bolshevik Revolution, and prospered under the fraternal guidance of Moscow. Belarusians and Russians stood together during the German invasion. Happily, Soviet rule was restored after the war and even extended to the west, thus bringing the entire Belarusian folk under Soviet rule.

This version of events exploits Belarus’s very special historical position. Belarusians are alone with their recent history, since almost no one outside the country acknowledges the catastrophe of the German occupation. In the absence of other accounts, Belarusians are drawn by this very suffering to the old Soviet narrative of redemption through liberation by the Red Army.7

About a fifth of the population of Soviet Belarus was killed during the German occupation. More than 300,000 Belarusians were shot during German anti-partisan actions, and hundreds of thousands more died of starvation in prisoner-of-war camps. The wartime cataclysm was exploited as Soviet counterpropaganda. In 1940, the Soviet NKVD murdered Polish officers at the west Russian forest of Katyn. To confuse the issue, Soviet authorities chose a Belarusian village with a similar name, Khatyn, for a memorial site recalling settlements destroyed by the Germans.8

This April, when Russian leaders decided to publicly commemorate the victims of Katyn together with Poles, Lukashenko’s Belarus passed through a paroxysm of jealousy over martyrdom. When the Polish president and ninety-five other people died in a plane crash on the way to Katyn, Lukashenko was the only leader of a neighboring country not to declare a day of mourning. Shortly after the accident, a Belarusian newspaper published an article suggesting that Poland was somehow to blame for the mass murder Stalin ordered at Katyn.9

Similarly, the history of Belarusians as victims and victors cannot accommodate the Holocaust. Just as Soviet historians used to reckon murdered Jews as Soviet citizens, Belarusian historians now reckon them as Belarusian citizens. Lukashenko’s court historian, Treshchenok, rejects classification of victims by ethnicity. This overlooks the particularly murderous character of the German occupation for Jews. Belarusians as a people suffered during the war more than any other group in Europe—except for the Jews. Meanwhile, old Jewish quarters and synagogues are demolished. Last year a sewer line was dug through a Jewish cemetery, uncovering human remains. Lukashenko calls himself an “Orthodox atheist,” and his ideologists present Belarus as belonging to Eastern Christian civilization. Textbooks have little to say about Catholics and less about Jews. Belarusian historians working in Belarus cannot revise these essentially Soviet positions. One dissertation on everyday life in Soviet Belarus between 1944 and 1953 was rejected last year (again, by Treshchenok) because it did not present Russia as Belarus’s “birth mother.”10

In fact, Belarusian history is ancient and fascinating. The country was for centuries home to Eastern and Western Christians, to Jews, and to Muslims. Adam Mickiewicz, the Polish national poet, was born in what is today Belarus, which he called Lithuania, in a town populated by Jews, not far from a mosque. The lands of today’s Belarus lay at the center of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, one of the largest states of medieval Europe. Local boyars took part in the parliament of the Polish- Lithuanian Commonwealth, which the Grand Duchy established with Poland in the sixteenth century. The state language of the Grand Duchy was a Slavic language similar to Belarusian. Until the modern period, Belarusian history was quite distinct from Russian. In a textbook for tenth-graders, written in Russian by Treshchenok, the institutions of half a millennium are treated as alien, while union with Russia is presented as destiny. This comes across clearly in the treatment of an uprising of 1863–1864, in which some nobles and peasants fought against the Russian Empire. Rather than celebrating the Belarusian insurgents, the textbook praises the Russian official who had them hanged.11

In Paranoia, Martinovich generally prefers nods to contemporary Western culture over references to Belarusian history; he invokes, for example, The Matrix. But his novel makes its most direct thrust at the Lukashenko regime by an implicit reference to the uprising and executions of 1863–1864. The name of the Russian imperial official who ordered the hangings was Mikhail Nikolaeivich Muraviev. The name of the Belarusian minister of state security in Paranoia is Nikolai Mikhailovich Muraviev. To invoke the Russian figure was a direct challenge, even if clear only to Belarusians and Russians, to the ideology of the Lukashenko regime. In Eastern Europe, the historical Muraviev is remembered as “the hangman.” In the history textbook read by Belarusian tenth-graders, Muraviev was “not only a ‘hangman.’ He was also a very talented administrator and organizer.”12 Martinovich’s novel gives a sense of just how unpleasant that particular combination would be.

Paranoia captures the hollowness of Belarusian state socialism, abetted by the debt-financed atmospherics of Western-style consumerism. You can eat a Big Mac on Friedrich Engels Street. You can drink the local Bela Cola from red and white bottles with familiar lettering, but also listen to audio commercials for Coca-Cola in subway cars. During the cold war, the United States offered debt relief to creaky Communist regimes in exchange for the release of political prisoners or promises of reform. Today’s Belarus owes money, however, not only to Western countries and international institutions but to Russia and China. The regime in Belarus will likely change when Russian leaders decide that the time has come to cut off the supply of cheap natural gas.

That might be soon. In July, a major Russian television channel aired a documentary about Lukashenko entitled The Godfather. Its principal (and plausible) thesis was that a Belarusian government death squad was behind the disappearance of five Belarusian citizens seen as opponents of Lukashenko. It also raised the delicate issue of Lukashenko’s illegitimate son Kolya. The television channel is NTV, which is owned by the natural gas concern Gazprom, in which the Russian government has a controlling interest.

On December 19 Lukashenko faces presidential elections, for the fourth time. He can run for as many terms as he likes; as he admits himself, his regime fakes the results. He has intimated that he wishes to stay in power until Kolya is ready to succeed him—and Kolya is six years old. Moscow seems to have other ideas, although it is not clear who other than Lukashenko can be backed. At a moment when Medvedev and Obama both seem ready to make compromises for the sake of US–Russian relations, it is thinkable—just—that Russia might agree with the US and the European Union to take the chance of endorsing free elections in Belarus in 2011. If outsiders wish for elections in Belarus to be free and fair, they will have to insist on taking part in the vote-counting themselves. Otherwise, Lukashenko will simply respond to the demand for independent verification by inventing GONGOs and having them participate in the falsification.

This is not to say that there is no opposition to Lukashenko; rather, in today’s Belarus it is simply impossible for citizens to take part freely in an activity such as counting votes. After the last presidential elections, in January 2006, tens of thousands of Belarusians protested the fraud in the cold on Independence Square, before riot police dispersed the diehards. Lukashenko has so dominated the life of the country that he could win presidential elections even if they were free and fair, and even without Russia’s cheap natural gas. But if invasive international monitoring created a theoretical chance of a Lukashenko defeat, he would at least have to run a campaign. This might generate discussion about what sort of society Belarus should be in the twenty-first century.

Lukashenko’s Belarus recalls nothing so much as the 1970s, when the dictator came of age in Soviet Belarus, on the collective farm, learning Soviet history. This is perhaps why Martinovich’s novel renews the emphasis that anti-Communist dissidents then placed upon individuality. As important as democratic procedures might be, opponents of communism in Eastern Europe spoke more often of human rights. Without human rights, democracy can be, as they say in Eastern Europe, managed. And above all, to be free means to find that cool place under the bridge, and remain there despite the current. Anatoly wants to look into the eyes of another person and see not fear but recognition. “I know, I know,” he says, “I’m asking too much.” But he’s asking for the right thing.

—September 29, 2010

  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.

  5. 5

    Komsomol’skaia Pravda v Belorussii, May 21, 2010.

  6. 6

    See Adam Eberhardt, Gra Pozorów: Stosunki rosyjsko-białoruskie 1991–2008 (Warsaw: Polski Instytut Spraw Miedzynarodowych, 2009).

  7. 7

    The German occupation of Belarus is a subject of my Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (Basic Books, 2010). On commemoration see the articles by Alexandra Goujon and David Marples in the February 2010 issue of East European Politics and Societies.

  8. 8

    The best account of the murderousness of German occupation is Christian Gerlach, Kalkulierte Morde: Die deutsche Wirtschafts- und Vernichtungspolitik in Weißrußland 1941 bis 1944 (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 1999).

  9. 9

    Vadim Elfimov, “O dvukh storonakh medaly,” 7 Dnei, May 29, 2010.

  10. 10

    See Hienadz´ Sahanowicz, “Losy białoruskiej historiografii: od sowietyzacja do zachodniorusizmu nowego typu,” Studia Białorutenistyczne, November 3, 2009. One valuable dissertation on the extension of Soviet Belarus to the west was recently published abroad: Jan Szumski, Sowietyzacja zachodniej Białorusi, 1944–1953 (Cracow: Arcana, 2010).

  11. 11

    The predicaments of modern Belarusian national identity are a major subject of my Reconstruction of Nations (Yale University Press, 2002).

  12. 12

    Elia. I. Treshchenok, A.A. Vorob’ëv, V.V. Volzhenkov, Istoriia Belarusi s drevneishykh vremen do oktiabra 1917 goda (Minsk: Adukatsiia i Vykhavanne, 2008), p. 191.