As events unfold in Belarus after the presidential elections, the results of which are contested by the opposition and a large part of the population, Belarusian artists speak out to denounce state violence and express solidarity with the protesters. Valzhyna Mort, an acclaimed Belarusian poet who lives in the United States and writes in Belarusian and English, spoke to Global Voices about her reaction, her impressions and what she is doing to report on the issue.
Valzhyna Mort is the author of two collections of poems, Factory of Tears and “Collected Body”(Serene body). She received the Lannan Foundation Research Fellowship, the Amy Clampitt Residency Program Fellowship, and was awarded the Bess Hokins Award for Poetry Maganize. In addition, he teaches at Cornell University. His second book written in Belarusian “Эпідэмія Ружаў” (The Rose Epidemic), was published in 2017. His next book, “Music for the Dead and Resurrected”(Music for the Dead and Risen), will go on sale this year.
This interview was edited for brevity and style.
Filip Noubel (FN): After occupying power for 26 years without major opposition, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko now faces the greatest challenge of his regime, among which we can mention the demonstrations and strikes. Because right now?
Valzhyna Mort (VM): This was supposed to be a peaceful change in power in my country. This moment has taken so long because people didn’t want violence. We, Belarusians, who have endured many wars, would say to ourselves: “Let's endure for a bit longer. No revolution is worth a human life. “
This year, when presidential candidates were imprisoned and declared criminals overnight, people have been moved by the clarity of just how weak and pathetic our government really is. Belarusians do not have to do anything in order to ensure their government fears them, it’s enough to just exist. Violence is being committed against defenseless people by riot police and Interior Ministry troops. It began with people being beaten and arrested for making a victory sign on their way to work. Right now, riot police are dragging people out of grocery stores and their cars at random, beating and arresting them.
When the election fraud started with the formation of polling committees and the non-accreditation of independent observers, it seemed obvious that it needed to be opposed by following the most basic legal steps. Even if the state-controlled court didn’t agree, just the fact of a hearing on the issue made the corruption visible. A strong sense of grassroots solidarity that had already formed during the COVID-19 pandemic when the government failed to offer systematic support, developed into well-informed civil engagement. When fraud started at the polling stations, I, despite being on the other side of the ocean, felt that I could see through walls and to read the sheepish minds of officials.
At the same time, the government didn’t know what to expect from its people. Perhaps it expected violence? Is that why the riot police and troops keep behaving as though somebody is attacking them? Just now, I saw a picture of a 15-year-old boy motionless on the ground with three policemen beating him. Perhaps the greatest weakness made visible in these past months has been how little the state knows its own people.
Valzhyna Mort (VM): This was supposed to be a peaceful power shift in my country. This took too long to manifest because the people did not want violence. We Belarusians, who have endured many wars, said to ourselves: “Let's put up with it a little longer. No revolution deserves to end a human life ”.
This year, when presidential candidates were locked up and declared criminals overnight, people took action by seeing clearly how weak and pathetic our government really is. Belarusians don't have to do anything to make sure their government fears them, just existing is more than enough. The riot police and the troops of the Ministry of the Interior inflict violence on defenseless people. It began with beatings of people and arrests for performing a victory sign on the way to work. Right now, riot police forcefully remove people from grocery stores and their vehicles at random to shoot them down and arrest them.
When electoral fraud originated with the creation of voting committees and unauthorized independent observers, it seemed obvious that it was necessary to combat it by following the most basic legal means. Although the state-controlled court disagreed, the simple fact that it held a hearing on the matter made the corruption visible. A strong sense of common solidarity that formed during the COVID-19 pandemic when the government was unable to offer systematic support morphed into well-informed civil collaboration. When the fraud started at the polls, I felt like I could see through the walls and read the shameful mentality of the officials, despite being on the other side of the ocean.
At the same time, the government did not know what to expect from its population. Maybe he foresaw the violence? Is that the reason why the riot police and troops behave as if someone is assaulting them? Just now, I saw a photograph of a 15-year-old boy who remained motionless on the ground while three policemen beat him. Perhaps the greatest weakness that came to light in recent months was how little the State knows its citizens.
FN: They often describe Belarusians as politically irrelevant. We have observed that they went out to demonstrate for four nights and endure police violence, arrests and threats. What's different about this occasion?
VM: What’s happening in Belarus is unique. We don’t want to sacrifice a single life: in Belarus, there’s nothing but the blood of our people under our feet. This blood is nameless, boneless, voiceless. To be born in Belarus means to inherit fear and fearlessness, shame and shamelessness, voice and voicelessness. But one thing is certain: to be born in Belarus means to inherit a great invisibility and self-reliance. Planting vegetable gardens, making preserves for the winter, sowing, fixing things, reading, showing up to educational and cultural events: these are all political activities of self-reliant people who feed themselves, clothe themselves, and educate themselves. This is why what we are witnessing in the past three days and nights is unlike protests we've seen elsewhere. This is a partisan movement of a partisan nation that has been surviving on self-reliance for centuries.
The internet in Belarus is shut down, and yet, I have just watched a brief interview with a janitor at a subway station who shows a mobile phone recording of the blood she had to clean up. With the help of Belarusian Telegram channels I’ve watched more Belarusian TV than during my years in Belarus. All these are videos of police violence recorded by private individuals onto their personal mobile phones and then shared with the world. This, along with the self-organized, non-centralized street partisan protest, is a version of polyphony, the favorite literary device of our writers Ales Adamovich and Svetlana Alexievich. This is our tradition.
VM: What is happening in Belarus is unique. We do not want to sacrifice any life: in Belarus, there is nothing but the blood of our people under our feet. This blood has no name, no bones, and no voice. Being born in this country means inheriting fear and courage, shame and daring, voice and caution. But there is one thing that is undeniable: being born in Belarus means inheriting great invisibility and autonomy. Cultivating vegetable gardens, winterizing canning, sowing, fixing things, reading, participating in educational and cultural activities – these are all political activities of autonomous people who feed, dress and educate on their own. That is why what we witness in the second week of August is different from the protests elsewhere. This is a partial movement of a partial nation that has survived autonomously for centuries.
The internet was suspended in Belarus, and despite this, I saw a short interview with a concierge at a subway station showing a video recorded on a mobile phone of the blood that she had to clean. With the help of Belarusian Telegram channels, I have watched more Belarusian television than during the years I lived in the country. These are all videos of police violence recorded by private individuals with their mobile phones, which they later released to the world. This, together with the self-organized and autonomous partial protest, is a version of polyphony, the favorite literary device of our writers Ales Adamovich and Svetlana Alexievich. This is our tradition
FN: Many Belarusians like you have made the decision to live outside their country for political and economic reasons. Does the Belarusian emigrant community play a role in this today? Can or should you get involved?
VM: This is a moment of a worldwide Belarusian solidarity. We are all people with little knowledge of our roots, with family trees hanging on a single chance survivor, all we have is each other. We are too alone and invisible in the world not to be united. And yes, the diaspora is doing everything to draw international attention to the Belarusian struggle for dignity. There are protests with concrete demands, petitions, and fundraising. There is keeping in touch, as simple as getting through the phone disruptions in order to check on family and friends and let them know that they are not alone.
In Belarus, people are trapped without any means of communicating with the outer world, without a clear understanding of what is seen, what is understood about their situation. Foreign journalists have been deported. Many journalists have been shot at and beaten by police. Some reporters, especially in Russia, have so little knowledge of Belarusian situation that they might be doing more damage than help with their baseless parallels with Ukraine and / or unapologetically colonial frames.
So, it is the duty of all of us outside the country to make Belarus both visible and supported. Again, this is not something that had to be declared. Rather, it was immediately felt, it went without saying. It is my belief that most people in the diaspora didn’t leave for good. We have ties to home, we return regularly, we educate our children about where they come from, we provide a support system for our people back in Belarus and for Belarusians everywhere.
VM: This is a moment of international Belarusian solidarity. We all have little knowledge of our roots, with family trees depending on a single survivor, all we have is each other. We are too lonely and invisible in the world not to be united. And yes, the Belarusian emigrant community is doing everything to attract international attention to the fight for Belarusian dignity. Demonstrations with concrete demands and requests and fundraisers are being organized. Communication is also being established, as simple as getting over the phone interruptions to see how family and friends are doing and letting them know that they are not alone.
In Belarus, people are trapped and have no means of communicating with the outside world, they are ignorant of what others perceive or understand about their situation. They have deported foreign journalists. Police have shot and killed many journalists. Some reporters, particularly in Russia, have so little knowledge of the Belarusian situation that they could be doing more harm than helping with its unfounded parallels with Ukraine or unreserved colonial frameworks.
Therefore, it is the duty of all of us abroad to make Belarus visible and supported. Again, this is not something to be declared. Instead, it was something that was felt immediately, there was no need to say. I think most of the people who left the country did not do so permanently. We have ties at home, we return regularly, we educate our children about where they come from, we provide a support system for our people in Belarus and for compatriots wherever they are.
FN: You are a poet who writes in Belarusian and English. How does Belarus manifest itself in your writings? Do current events in Belarus influence what you write or what you could write?
VM: My new book of poetry “Music for the Dead and Resurrected” is a deeply Belarusian work. I will publish it in Belarusian in Belarus when it becomes possible.
In these past few days I’ve been living entirely online, in a virtual Belarus. My body’s clock has shifted, I cannot tell what work I actually had to do during these few days. I might have a light version of PTSD – seeing people discuss American politics or going about their day as if nothing were happening in Belarus seems absurd and, more so, it enrages me. In my many years of living abroad, I've felt out of place many times, but this is a new level of that feeling. I do not want a single person who isn’t watching Belarus right now anywhere near me. Of course, this is all raw emotion. Americans didn’t go on strike when children died in cages on their own southern border. But I can say this: I'm tired of ignorant curiosity. I want to see international empathy.
Today, I’ve written a statement in solidarity with Belarusians and sent it out to a couple of editors. I wanted to publish it immediately so that everybody drops everything and sees what's going on in my home. When I hit the “send” button and the text slipped out of my hands, a great fear overcame me. I wondered whether I had actually dreamed what I described in my statement. I imagined somebody reading it – somebody having lunch and saying “oh wow, she is too much, so angry, so emotional,” and I got scared that everything was just a trick of my own insane mind.
Then my phone buzzed. My dear friend was writing to me via Telegram from Minsk: “We hear gunshots and explosions. Does anybody outside see us? “
VM: My new collection of poems “Music for the Dead and Resurrected” is a completely Belarusian work. I will post it in Belarusian in Belarus when possible.
These last few days I have lived totally online, in a virtual Belarus. My internal clock changed, I cannot say what work I really had to do during these days. I may have a mild version of PTSD, watching people talk about American politics, or living their day as if nothing is happening in Belarus seems absurd, it even infuriates me. In the many years that I have lived abroad, on many occasions I have felt out of place, but I am experiencing that feeling on a new level. I don't want anyone to come near me who isn't paying attention to BBelarús right now. Of course, this is all emotion in its purest form. The Americans did not go on strike when children died in cages on the border with Mexico. But if I can say this: I am tired of ignorant curiosity. I want to see international empathy.
I wrote a statement in solidarity with the Belarusians and sent it to some editors. I wanted to post it immediately so that everyone would stop their activities to see what is happening in my home. When I clicked “send” and the text escaped my hands, a great fear overwhelmed me. I wondered if he had actually dreamed what I described in my statement. I imagined someone reading, someone having lunch and saying “wow, she's the best, she's enraged and emotional,” and I was afraid it was all a trick of my own delusional mind.
Then my phone rang. My dear friend wrote to me via Telegram from Minsk: “We heard gunshots and explosions. Does anyone on the outside see us?