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26 Nov

Ewa Zwierzyńska (Poland)
Czasopis, 5.5.2014

Lista szesnastu/The list of sixteen

The faculty of history and sociology at Yanka Kupala State University of Grodna was a light point on the map of national and patriotic moods in Belarusian society. On the faculty, beside the plates in Russian there hung the plates in Belarusian and some of the lecturers conducted their lectures only in Belarusian. They were also engaged in civil projects concerning Grodna and its historical heritage. Last autumn, a new dean of the faculty of history, Aliaksandr Niachukhryn, asked the lecturers to stop conducting lectures in Belarusian and started giving them in Russian. He also demanded that didactic materials should be translated into Russian. There were rumors that new plates would be prepared for the faculty, but only in the Russian language. The lecturers speaking Belarusian were outraged. Some articles about the ongoing Russification of the faculty appeared in the media. Dr Gennadz Semianchuk, an employee of this department claims that this is not only a linguistic problem and he sees it in a broader context.

“The essence of the matter is not in the Belarusian language but in Belarusian patriotism that includes values and opinions that are in contrast with the ideology of the country. If you have a different opinion, if you are independent to some extent, it doesn’t matter whether you are a Belarusian-speaking patriot or a Russian-speaking entrepreneur – you are an enemy of the system. Who is considered to be an enemy and what criteria are used? It’s analytical work of KGB that uses its own methodology. Maybe some time in future, after opening the archives, it will be revealed but today no one really knows why certain people are considered dangerous. There may be different reasons – one becomes an enemy for political reasons, another for ideological reasons, and the rest of them for scientific reasons. An enemy may be a person who is trying to fight for his or her civil rights, a worker of a kolkhoz who tells on his superior who steals public money, a cultural worker who has his or her own ideas for activity. In our academic society, an enemy is a person who doesn’t stick to the canons of interpretation of Belarusian history. Do we teach students an alternative version of Belarusian history? We claim that this history exists. Most of them are not aware of the fact. What they do with this knowledge depends on the person. Some of them are really interested in the major they study, some of them don’t care. Students, like most of society, have become passive, they don’t show any initiative, they are not looking for anything that goes beyond the curriculum. Their aim is to dash off the studies and receive a diploma. Very few students are interested in history. We are trying to work with them, we organize special interest groups. When someone is passionate about history and is interested in something more than the official interpretation, we always try to help them. This is an individual matter and it depends on the student. If he or she asks for it, we answer. Among the students, as in every social group, there are people working for the authorities. In each group of students, there are two or three persons of this kind. The system of informing the authorities about the university is perfectly developed. We are aware of the fact that some of the people showing interest in history are working for KGB. Everything we do or say during lectures is being monitored.

 

Gennadz Semianchuk is one of the people who are monitored. He comes to work in his white-red-white scarf — these are historical national colors of Belarus. It is a sign of the attachment to the symbols that are not accepted by the regime, to patriotism that is not in line with the official politics of the country. He doesn’t conceal his views because he thinks that it doesn’t matter if his activity is open or hidden in a situation where every aspect of life is thoroughly watched. When we speak in the cafeteria, we are watched by curious co-workers. Gennadz, who has been a lecturer and academic staff member for many years, describes the situation in the university in detail. He interprets the recent dismissals in the context of the situation in which Belarus has found itself, tied by the tentacles of the all-embracing system that suppresses even the smallest manifestation of independent thinking.

 

The creator and implementer of this system is President Aliaksandr Lukashenka. Despite his many disadvantages, he has one undeniable advantage — he is the president of Belarus, an independent country, he is the son of Belarusian nation. The independence of Belarus, even under the strong influence of Russia, is the sense of his life. He himself and his circles are Belarusian but this Belarusian heritage is a modified form of Homo Sovieticus — Gennadz calls them Homo Sovieticus Albarutheinicus because they are Belarusians Russified when it comes to culture, language and mentality. The system created by Lukashenko brings the citizens up to be devoid of their own initiative, for whom the main value is unity and complying. These are also the characteristics of all representatives on each level of power, from the highest one to entire groups of local civil servants. There are demoralized units among them, but most of them serve the system honestly and they support Lukashenko’s ideology because they believe in it. For them, seeing Belarus as an independent country is great progress because since World War II they have not seen Belarus as something separate. Today they support Belarus as a separate country but not as a nation. Not many Belarusians are “pro-nation”. Most of them are associated with official policies of the country. Among them, there are very good specialists, perfect managers and supervisors but the lower levels of national administration are filled with amorphous civil officers who fulfill their duties for very low salaries. The effectiveness of this system is based on such people. Headmasters and directors of companies and various institutions depend on them. The heads of submissive people bend but the heads of the rebellious ones are cut off.

Problems with the Grodna authorities started eight years ago, when the program of complete reconstruction and modernization of the city was implemented. Decisions of some office workers concerning the demolition of some historic buildings only accelerated the process. A civic initiative was launched at that time to protest against planned demolitions. It was supported by the substantial part of the Grodna intellectuals. The authorities were entirely surprised by it. KGB analysts came to the conclusion that Grodna is the strongest center of resistance against authority in the country. Ideologists from the municipal authorities decided to prevent well-known historians from taking part in conferences, among them were Ales Krautsevich and Ales Smalenchuk. Some of the scientists decided to boycott the conference and since that time, Grodna historians lost credibility. In this active municipal environment, some civil initiatives were born, e.g. “Grodzieńska biblioteka” (Grodna’s library). An encyclopedic work entitled Grodnaznaustva. Historia europejskiego miasta was published. It was to be published for the teachers who wanted to conduct additional classes on local history. The book appeared on the market but it was abbreviated. It was a source of concern for the authorities and its contents and the drawings of the historic symbols of Belarus — Pagonia coat of arms and the white-red-white flag – were not accepted. Officials were also irritated by the fact that the book didn’t mention the times of Alexander Lukashenko, as the history of the city ended in 1991. The preface written by Ales Smalenchuk was deleted. This was too much. The first dismissed person was the young historian who was working on Grodnaznaustva – assistant professor Andrey Cherniakevich. It happened in the autumn of 2012. The official reason for his dismissal was his being late twice for his classes. As a protest against prosecution of the employees of the university, the lecturer from the faculty of statehood and law Ihar Kuźmicz resigned. Siamion Shapira, the head of the district executive committee, initiated repression. During a meeting with employees of the university, he admitted that he was the one who gave order to dismiss Cherniakevich and he announced that every morning, he analyzed reports from KGB that imply that there are 16 people working at the university who act against the current authority. Igar Kuźminicz wrote an open letter to Siamion Shapira in which he mentioned the pressure put on the lecturers and gave reasons for his resignation: “Please treat my resignation from the post at Yanka Kupala State University of Grodna as a form of protest against the unlawful prosecution of lecturers for their civic views.”

 

 Shapira’s information about “the list of sixteen” suggested that new dismissals were only a matter of time. It didn’t take long. The same month, professor Viktar Shved was dismissed unexpectedly, which was a great surprise not only because of his position and scientific achievements, but also because of the fact that this was the first dismissal that wasn’t disciplinary — he was removed as a result of competition for the respective position. A year before, he was decorated for “his service for Yanka Kupala State University of Grodna”. He had been working at the university for 30 years and was an author of numerous historic publications. Professor Shved is of the opinion that he was dismissed for political reasons — this was revenge for the editing and working on Grodnaznaustva: “I want to justify my standpoint on this matter and you should know that my works are based solely on historical facts. That is why I was perceived a reliable historian among my historian colleagues,” professor Shved said seeking to exonerate himself.

 

No one knew who would come next but it was certain that there were going to be more victims. Soon, the university didn’t allow Ina Sorkina, a doctor of history, to go to Lithuania for research — it was a sign that she was the next one to be dismissed. The authorities of the university made progress when it comes to reorganization, and they were planning to merge the faculty of history and sociology with the faculty of tourism. It meant competition for new posts, including the posts of lectures, so it was certain that there would be more victims. The authorities of the university announced that they wanted to talk to the head of the department of history, Siargey Pivavarchyk. They asked many questions about Sorkina and Semianchuk, but they were interested mainly in Sorkina: why she brings the white-red-white flag for her lectures? why she doesn’t print articles in official newspapers? why she is the only one from the faculty that applies for and works using grants? The competition was conducted with a visible violation of procedures (not all candidates were present). Ina lost the competition and was fired. She wasn’t officially informed about the reasons. For the dismissals, Gennadz Semianchuk blames the dean Andrey Karol, the first vice-president Svyatlana Agievets, and the dean of the faculty of history, communication and tourism Aliaksandr Nechukhryn. Pivavarchyk also contributed to this – “he knew that Ina’s dismissal was planned and he never warned her.” Who will be next?

Gennadz is unable to fully understand the processes that are taking place here, what exactly and what kind of logic is used by the authorities of the university, but one thing seems certain — the decisions that are made are the effect of the national ideological policy, in which there is no place for people who think differently, especially in public places, such as the university. This is the way the system works. The events that took place at the university in Grodna could also happen at other universities. Grodna became popular because the repression targeted well-known people, prominent figures of social and scientific life, but it could also happen at a primary school or a cultural institution. People who want to work for the good of the Belarusian identity are treated as enemies of the system and they are cut off at each level. It seems that the greatest enemy of Belarus is… the Belarusian identity itself. What is in it? What potential does this national idea have that it is being eradicated? We would have to look a couple of years back, at the times of deep communism and the Soviet Union, to the Homo Sovieticus mentality, for which the greatest value was the commune, cosmopolitan commune, equality between people and emphasis of the Slavic roots — “we all are Slavic brothers”. The national idea was somewhere at the end and it wasn’t considered to be essential. But suddenly, when the Soviet Union collapsed, nationalism revived and it counterbalanced the previous system, started competing with it and confused the world that had been simple up to that point. Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan gained independence. But the Belarusian identity is only one side of the coin, the other one comprising everything that was brought by the world of Western values: liberalism, free market, democracy and everything that comes with it, putting necessary reforms in place. Then conflicts, anxiety and opposition emerged, democratic changes of the system were made and it wasn’t always easy for the citizens. Belarus got scared that if it allowed national ideas to flourish, they would have to go the same way and that their faith would be the same and that they would have to say goodbye to their current, well-known and safe world for some insecure tomorrow. Aliaksandr Lukashenka promised them “the return to the past”. Belarus became the only test ground in Eastern and Central Europe, where without much effort KGB was able to do everything that had been planned. The merits of the president’s personality were also significant in that situation. His rhetoric was ideal for Belarusian souls and it used their longing for the Soviet time and peaceful life without major upheavals, anxiety, and unnecessary dilemmas.

During the long reign of Aliaksandr Lukashenka, all national institutions changed into homogeneous, closed structures that were controlled by KGB and by the president’s administration that totally controls everyone who is subordinate to it. Today, it doesn’t matter if you speak Belarusian — being a loyal servant of the system is the only thing that matters. The most serious sin is to act against the system or to think independently. The most visible example is public figures or people working in public offices who are threatened with criminal cases. The authorities do not mind court trials or charges. As long as you are loyal, you don’t have to be afraid, you can peacefully go to work and earn 3-5 million rubles (about 1000 – 1500 zł) and then you can even speak Belarusian.

“Unfortunately, the current system has completely devaluated the meaning of education on every single stage, summarizes Gennadz Semianchuk, but it is most visible in universities. It is caused not only by the fact that people who think differently are being fought against, but also by the economic situation of lecturers. Against the backdrop of the difficult economic situation and low wages, no one wants to lose their job, especially because the “wolf ticket” that you receive with your dismissal effectively prevents you from finding an attractive job. The system that is currently in force in Belarus is based on maintaining a relative demographic and economic crisis, as it is a perfect tool for manipulating people. For this reason, it is not possible for a district polling station based in a university to hand over a report, in which a person representing the opposition wins. This is the way the results are achieved. It is done by passive and submissive people — the perfect servants of the system.

 

“There has already been a rumor that Semianchuk secretly speaks with Polish people, laughs Gennadz as he holds out his hand to bid me farewell. I apologize for the trouble, I don’t want my visit to cause any problems for him. Gennadz waves his hand. “It is impossible to live your life without problems, one person has this problem, another has to face another one. Everyone lives in fear here. Problems are a part of human life and it doesn’t matter if you are honest or not. I’ve chosen a life in harmony with myself.”

Originally published: http://iissuu.com/magdalenapietruk/docs/cz5_2014/3?e=0/10314957