In 1995, there was the infamous referendum that changed the state symbols of Belarus: the white-red-white flag and the coat of arms Pahonia to the red-green flag and the Soviet coat of arms, both of which are very similar to the old ones of the BSSR. During the same referendum, it was decided to have a second state language – Russian, which led to the discrimination of the Belarusian language that at once began to be forced out to the periphery. All newspapers, schools, and official bodies returned to the Russian language. More than that, the Belarusian language became a political marker of one’s disloyalty to the regime because the main political opponent of the regime – the Belarusian People’s Front – spoke Belarusian and wanted Belarus to return its national culture and language.
The authorities needed culture only when it served the existing regime. When culture did not execute this function, when it was in Belarusian and popularized Belarus’ real history – instead of the one concocted by communists, when it addressed the questions of rights and freedoms, then it was marginalized, ousted, and persecuted by the authorities.
It also affected the readership and authorship policies to a large degree. Books written by Belarusian authors in Belarusian were published by state-run publishing houses only by permission of the Ministry of Information and in a narrow range of genres: folklore and ethnography, local lore studies and art, books for children and works by classics. Contemporary Belarusian literature was censored by special departments of ideology and the Ministry of Information.
Together with large state-run publishing houses, in Belarus, there were a number of private ones as well; some of them became large enough because they printed Russian-language literature that was sold in the big Russian market; they were not interested in Belarusian-language literature. Belarusian independent and Belarusian-language literature was basically printed by small private publishing houses. The circulations of their books were small: from 150 to 300 copies.
If you wanted a book published by an independent publishing house to be sold in a bookshop, you were to go through censorship of the state-run monopolist book distributor– the enterprise „Bielkniha“ [Belarusian Book]. And if in Minsk it was possible to come to terms with small private stores or with bouquinistes (second-hand booksellers), then in other regions it was almost impossible to disseminate such books at all.
Therefore, small Belarusian private publishing houses were not practically engaged in the distribution or sales of their published books and were not interested in buying publishing rights. The initiators of books to be published were writers themselves, who found money to print a small circulation and after that they themselves had to participate in the distribution of their books. Publishing houses acted simply as a printing places: they received money and gave circulations to authors. Authors brought their books to bookstores that agreed to take them in circumvention of the „Bielkniha“ system; authors also sold their books during presentations, which was not easy either. The state tried to control this sphere of relations between the author and the audience, too. In Belarus, there have always been „black“ and „gray“ lists of creators who were forbidden to have public meetings, whose access to the audience was limited; in particular, this list was followed by state-run establishments, including all schools, libraries, universities, houses of culture, and museums. It was also steadfastly watched by ideology departments. When such meetings were possible, they basically had a closed character and were not advertised much.
Despite these conditions in Belarus, until 2021, there worked the independent Union of Belarusian Writers (UBW). The organization was created back in 1934; it included outstanding Belarusian writers who supported the democratic transformations in the country after the débâcle of the Soviet Union and defended their democratic positions even after Lukashenko came to power – he never managed to clench a bargain with them. Therefore, in 1997, the authorities confiscated the property of the UBW – the Writers’ House – and tried to close the Union itself, but failed, and confiscated all periodicals of the Union, and in 2005 they created their own pro-state Union of Writers: all writers who at that time worked in the state-run structures – editions of newspapers, cultural establishments – had to join it; otherwise they had to be fired. Despite all these obstacles, the Union of Belarusian Writers survived as an independent literary organization, actively defended its members’ rights, defended the principles of freedom of speech and self-expression, founded its periodicals and a series of books, and actively worked with youth.
In 2020, members of the Union took active part in the mass protests in Belarus; the Union openly condemned the violence applied against peaceful protesters; therefore, in 2021, the organization was closed by the authorities; its office was searched; its equipment was confiscated, and the Union was accused of attempting to stage a coup.
In general, carriers and creators of Belarusian culture demonstrated thoroughness and firmness in their effort to advocate for democratic principles; therefore, the strong blow of repressions was directed against them. Nowadays, about 100 representatives of the cultural sphere are in prison and detention centers in Belarus; many writers were compelled to leave the country, but a lot of authors remained in Belarus: they are deprived of a possibility to publish their works, to meet with the audience, and even to express their points of view publicly. Today, in Belarus, a person can be detained for any critical post in social networks and even for a like under such a post.
In the spring of 2021, the repressions touched all the independent cultural platforms in Belarus; they were closed, and their owners were forced to leave the country or were detained. In the spring of 2022, those few Belarusian publishing houses that were still bold enough to publish Belarusian and Belarusian-language books were deprived of their publishing licenses. As a result, the Belarusian language, in spite of the short thaw in 2014-2019, again became a symbol of one’s disagreement with the authorities and a marker of one’s political disloyalty, and persons who speak the Belarusian language publicly are being repressed only because they are carriers of the language that is the Belarusians’ native tongue.
#Freeallwords Project Management
Alena Makouskaya, Project Manager, Member of the EWC Board (English, Belarusian, Russian, Swahili): firstname.lastname@example.org
Aliaksandra Dvaretskaya, project assistance, enquiries from authors and translators (English, Belarusian, Russian), email@example.com
Contact for media
Susanne Tenzler–Heusler, press and media officer, events, and book section, +49 173 378 6601, firstname.lastname@example.org