A Rendezvous in Belarus

On November 8, the Nobel Prize for literature was bestowed on the Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich, aged 67. It was among the few instances in which the work of the laureate was focused outside the traditional areas of poetry, fiction, and drama.

The literary Nobel, which is awarded by the Swedish Academy, has, in recent decades, often been seen as a symbol of solidarity with dissidents. Most famously, the Prize was granted in 1958 to the Russian poet Boris Pasternak, for his novel Dr. Zhivago. But Pasternak was forbidden to go to Stockholm and was compelled to decline the honor.

Unlike Pasternak, whose work was translated and known in the West, Svetlana Alexievich was not previously a figure of wide, international reputation. Her books include Voices of Chernobyl, a collection of oral interviews with survivors of the 1986 nuclear disaster that defined the fate of the former Soviet Union. By accumulating the stories of ordinary people, Alexievich has embarked on a massive and worthy project: to explain the rise and fall of the tragic, compulsory social experiment represented by Soviet Communism. She has also written on the lives of Russian soldiers killed during the Russian intervention in Afghanistan, from 1978 to 1989.

But the Nobel gained by Alexievich has another and rather obvious nuance. The child of a Belarusian father and a Ukrainian mother, her selection by the Swedish Academy comes a year and a half after the Russian campaign to partition Ukraine began, including the annexation of Crimea. For the Swedes to choose her as an ideal for writers expresses a significant criticism of revived Russian expansionism.

The naming of Alexievich as a Nobel winner came close to the presidential election scheduled for Sunday, October 11 in Belarus. The country of 9.5 million people is the least democratized of the European former Soviet republics. It has been ruled since 1994 by Alexander Lukashenko, called typically "the last dictator in Europe." Many close observers of Belarus expected that Lukashenko's rule would be perpetuated by a rigged voting system. The London Financial Times of October 10/11 described Belarusian citizens as "uneasy" about Lukashenko's "unflinching suppression of democratic freedom." The same paper reported that opposition activists called for a boycott of the polls.

Svetlana Alexievich said that she would be among those refusing to participate in the Belarusian balloting.

Like Russia and Ukraine, Belarus is a religious mix, with an Orthodox Christian majority and Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and other minorities. Both Ukraine and Belarus, in the past, found themselves on the cultural and religious borders between the Ottoman empire, the Polish (and Lithuanian) dominions, and tsarist Russia. Unlike post-Soviet Russia, Belarus and Ukraine recognize the legal status of the Roman Catholic church. In Russia, the Catholic church has no legitimate standing.

Belarus is a member of an international body, the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), formed last year by Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, with Armenia and Kyrgyzstan invited to join. But according to the Financial Times, Lukashenko, notwithstanding his authoritarian habits, has taken small steps away from the shadow of Moscow. Belarus did not recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea and Lukashenko has opposed the establishment of a Russian air force base on Belarusian soil.

Belarus stands at a crossroads in European history, as the last bastion of unreformed, statist autocracy. Lukashenko will doubtless be slow to initiate a transition to the kind of full democracy visible in neighboring Poland and the Baltic states. He has, on one side, pressure from Putin, and on the other, the disappointing failure of the West to assist Ukraine adequately.

The Russian and Soviet heritage lies heavily on Belarus. According to the CIA World Factbook, 84 percent of its people are ethnic Belarusians, but only 23 percent speak that language. By contrast, 70 percent speak Russian while a mere eight percent are ethnic Russians. The Nobel Prize for Svetlana Alexievich is therefore a victory for a threatened culture as well as for suppressed historical truths.

Electoral results from Belarus were unsurprising. After the Sunday polling, Lukashenko claimed 84 percent of votes and a fifth term in office. Authorities said 87 percent of eligible voters had participated. But The Wall Street Journal reported that after he cast his vote, Lukashenko repeated his promise that Russia would not be allowed to build a new military base in Belarus.

Western media suggest that regardless of the suspiciously-large majority Lukashenko gained, the elections may be certified by foreign observers as democratic, to diminish the isolation of Belarus from the rest of Europe. But that would seem a grossly-cynical possibility.

Lukashenko and Alexievich represent two faces of a nation that has been ripped apart by powerful neighbors repeatedly through the centuries. Lukashenko represents a discredited past, while Alexievich points the way to civil society and a better future. One may only pray that its people find a way out of their difficult situation.