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Belarus: Prominent Writer Sees Little Potential For Change

Svyatlana Aleksiyevich (ITAR-TASS) Svyatlana Aleksiyevich was born to a Belarusian father and Ukrainian mother in 1948 in Ivano-Frankivsk (Ukraine), where her father served as a Soviet Army officer. After her father was released from military service, the family moved to Belarus. Aleksiyevich graduated from the journalism faculty of Belarusian State University in Minsk in 1972. She is the author of five books written in Russian: "The War's Unwomanly Face" (1985), "Last Witnesses" (1985), "Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices From The Afghanistan War" (1989), "Enchanted By Death" (1993), "Chornobyl Prayer: Chronicle Of The Future" (1997), and "The Wondrous Deer Of The Eternal Hunt" (2001). Aleksiyevich is among the best-known Belarusian authors abroad. Her books have been published in more than 20 countries. RFE/RL's Belarus Service held an online news conference on March 8, with people from all across Belarus asking Svyatlana Aleksiyevich questions. The full transcript of the conference in Belarusian can be read here. --> Below are translated excerpts.

Question: Speaking frankly, I have never belonged to the admirers of your writings. Perhaps it is because you and your books emit negative energy toward all things Belarusian, toward Belarus. Anyway, what are your reasons for considering yourself a Belarusian writer?

Svyatlana Aleksiyevich: I have often heard such an opinion, particularly from young people. I think [this opinion] stems from a feeling of weakness, from the unwillingness to understand in what world we are currently living.

Why do I write in Russian? Because I am creating a chronicle of utopia. [This] utopia spoke Russian. All this huge country, all this horrible experiment, all this big lie -- its language was Russia. Therefore it would not be close to the historical truth if I wrote my chronicle in Belarusian.

Why do I consider myself a Belarusian writer? You know, I consider myself a writer in general. I do not deny that I am a Belarusian writer. I do not deny that I am a citizen of the world. I do not deny that I have been brought up mostly on Russian culture, Russian ideas. For example, I could not have written my Chornobyl book without [Nikolai] Fedorov, [Fyodor] Dostoevsky, [Konstantin] Tsiolkovsky.

The formulation of the question is rather strange for the present day, I would even say -- outdated. I have lived for 2 1/2 years in Paris. It's sufficient to live there for just one month in order to see that 40 percent of children going to kindergartens are either black or [of Asian origin]. And 60 percent of children going to schools are either black or [of Asian origin]. There has already been such a term in use in Germany as "constitutional patriotism." That is, we see that in the future Europe will become a place where perhaps half or one-third of Berlin's population will consist of people of totally different cultures -- there will be Arab and Chinese quarters. This is already a fact of life, a fact of the future.

We are a belated nation. We are still resolving problems of the past. And we put forward the language problem as the most important. It is an important problem for us, indeed, but I want to repeat: The pattern of the past is becoming less and less suitable for projecting the pattern of our future life. The future is absolutely unpredictable. I have talked with German and French intellectuals. They did not suspect until the last riots in France that there is no French France any longer. The country is different. And the future is sort of different, too.

Question: What is your prognosis regarding the upcoming election? Does Belarus have a chance to get a new president this spring?

Aleksiyevich: I'd like our life to change. [I'd like] our country and people to get some other symbol, some other figure, to open other horizons for us in order to enter, as they say nowadays, the civilized world. But I'm afraid that we lack the kind of inner strength to beat this situation, primarily because the authorities are strong -- and also brazen, let's put it like that.

[Former Ukrainian President Leonid] Kuchma did not shoot on his own people. But [Uzbek President Islam] Karimov did. So let's think -- what kind of government do we have? For example, as far as I understood, at a recent big gathering [the All-Belarusian People's Assembly in Minsk on March 2-3] they spoke about defending the current government with submachine guns. In fact, to defend a single person...

Of course, I'd like to hope [for the better], but I don't see grounds for optimism today, because there is one powerful argument at work. One needs to do justice to [Belarusian President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka.

I realize that dictators are in principle uneducated. And [they are] in principle uncultured. Otherwise, they would not be dictators. But thanks to his intuition, he [Lukashenka] has put a powerful social factor into action.

A large percentage of people in this society agree with what is taking place in the country. It means that they can earn a living somewhere, village children can be schooled somewhere, there is some quota for them in institutions of higher learning, there is still some education and health care free of charge. That is, he has brought the resources of socialism into operation. This is exactly what has been lost in neighboring countries -- in them people were hurled directly from war-style socialism into a wild [free] market, and they have felt themselves lonely and confused. Lukashenka has intuitively mixed up some things. It cannot be denied that he has brought into operation many factors that are important during a transition from socialism to capitalism. I think that today he is a [prominent] figure for the majority of people. [But] everybody realizes that he is a transitory figure. Everybody has already realized this [on the threshold of his] third term. But I think that he has time yet -- psychological time in the minds of a part of the population in our country. And I'm afraid that there will be no changes for the time being.

Question: What are the main problems of today's Belarusian literature?

Aleksiyevich: The problem of Belarusian literature is that there is no Belarusian literature. Today, we have a confused, depressed society and confused readers. Some young writers are still trying to say something but this is more like playing literary games or illustrating national ideas. The writers of older generations have fallen silent for good. The tools that were used during the previous confrontation, in the Soviet era, do not work today, because today the confrontation has shifted toward its existential aspect. Our historical time has been stopped. One can say that Belarus is a museum. In Ukraine you can see completely different processes. There is movement there. Our time has been stopped by the authorities.

Question: In your opinion, why does Lukashenka hate so much the Belarusian language and culture?

Aleksiyevich: I have already said that dictators are in principle uncultured people, this is their footing.... Lukashenka is a man from the Soviet times, molded solidly by the Soviet era, a man with a strong desire for power, who of course wants to remain in history. But he has already used up his potential. He has nothing to move forward with.

As for adopting something new, embracing the Belarusian [national] idea, surrounding himself with some intellectuals or people with ideas about the future -- he has no proper antennas any longer. I think he has already begun to move in a circle, and he has begun to lead the nation in a circular fashion. It is understandable why. He does not have any other possibilities any longer. Because he is confined to his time and, I would say, his loneliness.

(translated by Jan Maksymiuk)

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