On Monday, the Nobel Committee will present its prize for literature to Svetlana Alexievich, a writer from Belarus, which is frequently called “Europe’s last dictatorship.” Unlike most authors who have received this prize, Alexievich doesn’t write fiction or poetry. Her books are based on interviews with ordinary people who speak for themselves about the traumas of Belarus’s modern history, including the Chernobyl disaster, the war in Afghanistan, and the experience of being “preserved in a time warp” under the dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko. These “voices of utopia,” as she calls them, document “Homo Sovieticus,” the mindset of people who live in what she calls a “second-hand time…of the old, old prejudices.”
Alexievich’s central message is that post-communist countries like Belarus—and here she includes Russia and Ukraine as well—will not become free and democratic if the people of these societies cannot free themselves from the destructive Soviet legacy that affects even young people who never lived under communism. It is one thing to remove the external trappings of communism, she has said, “but cutting it from one’s soul is something different.”
She is not without hope, since the people whose painful experiences she has recorded in her books show “the strength of the human spirit.” But she also knows that, as long as the collective memory of denunciations, gulags, forced collectivizations, and Orwellian inverted truths is not questioned, discussed, and dealt with, the post-Soviet life will be nothing more than “a mixture of prison and kindergarten.”
Lukashenko, who is the archetypal “Soviet man,” makes such a truthful reckoning very difficult. He was elected two decades ago by evoking nostalgia for Soviet times, and he uses state control of all broadcast media and educational institutions in Belarus to promote the Soviet narrative, especially regarding the Great Patriotic War, which is how “the Russian World” refers to World War II.
According to historian Timothy Snyder, no country suffered more bloodletting and dislocation in the war than Belarus, “the center of the confrontation between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.” One-fifth of the country’s population of ten million was killed, and another third was deported as forced labor or fled. Yet as Snyder has written, the regime has made this devastating struggle an object of nostalgia, spinning “the straw of wartime suffering…into the gold of political meaning.” It is used not just to exalt the heroism of Soviet soldiers but also to erase from memory the crimes of Stalinism, which were responsible for up to 1.6 million deaths in Belarus during the Great Purges of 1937-41.
The Lukashenko regime is unchallenged because repression in Belarus has bred fear and apathy, and as Alexievich has documented, the society remains atomized and deeply scarred. Yet she also believes that “new people are appearing with civic courage.” A potential constituency for change is reflected in polls showing that half the population feels the country is going in the wrong direction and 84 percent want reform; and in civic movements that organize annual remembrance events in Kurapaty, where there is a mass grave of victims of the purges.
But the small democratic community in Belarus is relatively isolated from the general public. There is a fragmented political opposition that has a stable electoral base of 25-30 percent, but it is not viewed as a plausible alternative to Lukashenko. It needs to come together, expand its following by reaching out to the general public, and offer a credible vision for the country’s future. Alexievich has also called upon Belarusian intellectuals to speak out and to start a dialogue with young people to help them “begin to master the difficult experience of freedom.”
The United States and the European Union can also help by pressing for real political and economic changes in Belarus and by establishing clear benchmarks to measure progress. The current Western policy of “small steps” means that there are not any tough demands or large expectations. This is the result of Lukashenko’s cleverly balancing relations with Russia and Europe and offering to host the ceasefire talks on Ukraine in Minsk. But Belarus’s economic troubles and its own concerns about Putin’s revanchism mean that the West has leverage with Lukashenko that it should use.
The Nobel Committee’s recognition of Alexievich is an opportunity to take a fresh look at Belarus. The Belarusian playwright Andrey Kureychyk says that she is “a new national leader” who has “more authority now than any politician.” Alexievich is not a politician, but she has brought honor to her long-suffering country, and the attention her message will now receive could spark an awakening in Belarus that will help it find its place in the modern world.