When, on August 26, Svetlana Alexievich was summoned to the Belarusian Investigative Committee for an interrogation, the grim visit turned unexpectedly celebratory. As the winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature walked into the K.G.B. building, supporters chanted “Love” and gave her white flowers—a symbol of the colossal protests unleashed by Alexander Lukashenko’s rigged re-election in August.
Alexievich—Belarus’s most well-known writer—was summoned for questioning as a member of the opposition group, the Coordination Council, formed after the elections, and immediately accused by agents of the Belarusian strongman of “inflicting damage to national security.”
In post-election demonstrations against Lukashenko’s quarter-century rule, women have become the unifying figures, and have given this movement its exultant tone. Lukashenko’s brute muscle, with police and the military detaining and beating up protesters, has been met with transformative female power.
When the sitting president arrested all his significant male opponents in the months before the vote, he thought he was safe. Then the opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya stepped into the place of her jailed husband, Sergei. Along with two other women representing Lukashenko’s challengers, she formed a powerful alternative voice. The clueless president—a former director of a Communist collective farm who never denounced the Soviet Union—dismissed these women as “unfortunate little girls.” Three weeks after the election, it is Lukashenko who is running scared, posing with an AK-47 and bringing tanks to the streets to threaten the women protesters armed with white flowers, who form a daily “chain of solidarity.”
Alexievich’s life’s work has been about deep-seated female forces. Author of The Unwomanly Face of War (1985), Voices from Chernobyl (1997), Secondhand Time (2013), and other books, she believes the female face of Belarus’s revolution is what has made it so special: “It is not just some Internet meme that people follow: it is our amazing national character, our national creativity [on display].”
The clueless president dismissed these women as “unfortunate little girls.”
Nina Khrushcheva: What happened when you went before the Investigative Committee?
Svetlana AlexIEvich: I refused, citing the constitutional right against self-incrimination. We didn’t do anything wrong, but this is an old gulag trick. You mention someone’s name, and then this person gets called, and then they accuse us of being a criminal group.… First rule is to name no names. They wanted to bring me quietly on Tuesday, but I said I’d come on Wednesday, and by then people knew that I was called in.
Lukashenko opened so many national-security cases that they had to bring officers in from other divisions. My investigator was moved from homicide; he was embarrassed that he had to talk to me, and he didn’t even ask me to sign any papers at the end. Hope he doesn’t get in trouble.
I just want to live in a free country. I already left once because of Lukashenko. I lived in Italy, Germany, and so on, but came back in 2011—a writer needs to be close to the place she writes about. For almost a decade, Lukashenko has simply ignored me. I hope this will continue. We are witnessing something remarkable now: a nation is being created in front of our eyes.
N.K.: What do you think is special about the Belarusian protests?
S.A.: Europe has been supportive, and we appreciate it. But the Belarusian protest is not geographically oriented towards Europe. Lukashenko keeps saying the revolution was orchestrated from the West, and in the West we are often expected to be anti-Russian, but we are not in a geopolitical struggle. We are in a political struggle for the soul of Belarus—for the free and fair elections that allow us to honestly choose a leader.
“I just want to live in a free country. I already left once because of Lukashenko.”
All have seen women in white with flowers holding hands against police brutality. This is a special Belarusian trait, a response to Lukashenko’s patriarchal remarks about “little girls who don’t know what they are doing.” In fact, it is the women who made the quest for freedom in Belarus so unique. Women are pragmatic; they create the fabric of life. And Svetlana [Tikhanovskaya] couldn’t have said it better: “This is not a pro-Russian or anti-Russian revolution. This is not an anti-European or a pro-European revolution.” Our fabric is for our own freedom, not someone else’s politics.
Women are practical, and that’s why I am admitting—not a very popular point of view—that the Coordination Council may not be able to cope with the situation on its own. Our society is growing, but it is not strong enough yet. We need help from the world, but not to be torn up by their own agendas. Perhaps Russia can be helpful since Putin is the only one whom Lukashenko talks to. Putin explained that, at Lukashenko’s request, he had created a reserve of law-enforcement officers to use only if the situation gets out of control. Isn’t Lukashenko already out of control?
N.K.: Is there an artistic expression of discontent?
S.A.: Ours is an unusual revolution. Pavel Latushko, a member of our council, now an ex-director of the oldest national theater, Yanka Kupala, supported the opposition from the start. When he was fired for it, most of his troupe resigned—and every day they gather in front of the theater to perform and read poetry.
“We are witnessing something remarkable now: a nation is being created in front of our eyes.”
I was moved to tears at the market. People have been singing national folk songs in the past weeks. Especially “Pahonia” (a chase), a song about Belarus’s freedom, which became an unofficial anthem of the struggle. A burly butcher sang “Pahonia” while chopping meat. Then the whole market began to sing.
Women have begun to knit in public, in white and red yarn. It is symbolic. The country is tied up, strangled by Lukashenko, and so they untie themselves by knitting their own path. This kind of national behavior cannot be organized from abroad, no matter what the president claims.
And if you walk the streets in the morning, there is no damage: everything is clean, nothing is broken, no windows are smashed. People leave no garbage behind. Where else can you see this?
N.K.: Aren’t these people afraid?
S.A.: Fear is what Lukashenko is counting on by closing theaters and factories, arresting activists, and expelling journalists—many of them Russians, by the way, which should not make Putin happy. And yet, no one is fearful even if they are afraid. Lukashenko is pushing for civil war; he really is at war with his own nation, running around with a gun to scare the people, but he is the one afraid of the majority. He says he is not going to negotiate with the street. But what about the greatest revolution of all, the French Revolution? The street spoke then. Every day, the president brings columns of tanks into town to intimidate the demonstrators. They roll along our beautiful avenues, and they retreat at night, only to come back in the morning.
The crowds are so many—hundreds of thousands—that they don’t have enough special troops to suppress them.
N.K.: What happens next?
S.A.: There is a lot of talk about Putin bringing troops. But Lukashenko is too politically damaged. If/when things calm down, I think the Kremlin will offer Lukashenko some sort of exit and allow another, less illegitimate candidate to take the reins. Perhaps Viktor Babariko, the main opposition contender, whom Lukashenko arrested in June, accusing him of fraud and of being Russia’s hand, no less. Babariko, a millionaire, headed Belgazprombank, which is affiliated with the Russian national corporate giant Gazprom. He surely has liberal views—he even funded publications of my books in Belarusian when others didn’t. But he also understands Belarus’s special position: Not only is the country close to Russia; most people want to keep it that way.
Svetlana Alexievich is the 2015 Nobel laureate in literature; the HBO series Chernobyl was partially based on her book Voices from Chernobyl
Nina Khrushcheva is a professor at the New School and, most recently, the co-author of In Putin’s Footsteps: Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia’s Eleven Time Zone