Tag Archives: Belarus

Waiting for the Dawn: Minsk Rises by Eric Almeida

A Soviet-Era dictatorship still exists, as the people of Belarus understand too well. The oppressive regime of President Lukashenko is truly a hold-out from the days of the old USSR, with a KGB that takes care of dissent and a ruling government that brooks no opposition to its economic directives or political direction. Under President Lukashenko, who has been continuously “re-elected” since 1994, politically-motivated arrests, surveillance programs, physical intimidation, and even the disappearances of key opposition figures keep the dictatorship strong and prevent the movement for a true democracy in Belarus from growing any muscle or power. Political relations between Belarus and western countries are tense, with both the United States and the European Union having issued sanctions against Lukashenko and his government, while to the east, Lukashenko leverages his control over oil pipelines to ensure his relationship with Russia.

The people of Belarus suffer under the despotic regime of Lukashenko not only for how it silences their political voice and kills their political will, but because the state-run economy can no longer provide many basic goods or products. In addition, any kind of cultural life is controlled through the government and interaction with the west is highly regulated. Computers are confiscated, websites shut down, and email services blocked to ensure total governmental control of information, and to keep the Belarusian people insulated and cut-off from the rest of the world.

How can a westerner begin to understand what life is like in such a country? By reading Eric Almeida’s gripping political thriller, Minsk Rises. Minsk Rises is set in modern-day Belarus and utilizes the realities of police surveillance, governmental hypocrisy, and the resourcefulness of regular people living under oppressive conditions to create an absorbing, enlightening, and highly-satisfying read. The novel revolves around what happens when a western businessman sees something that he shouldn’t, a high-ranking U.S. politician does things that he shouldn’t, a CIA operative in Minsk uses extreme sports training to keep himself from doing what he shouldn’t, and a smart woman who finds herself smack in the middle of it all does exactly what she should: trust herself, and herself only.

I couldn’t put my Kindle down while reading Minsk Rises, and alas, there is the rub: Minsk Rises is only available as an e-book. There is irony in the fact that a book about how easily electronic information can be monitored by a despotic government is itself only available electronically. In theory, a government can erase any book it doesn’t like from the computers and e-readers that come under its control. In 2009, Amazon remotely removed a certain version of George Orwell’s 1984 (more irony) from all Kindles when it was discovered that copyright was not effectively for that version. If a company can unilaterally remove entire texts from e-readers for reasons of copyright, a controlling government would have few qualms in doing the same for reasons of political and social control. I wonder if Doctor Zhivago, smuggled out of the USSR oh so many years ago as a fugitive manuscript, could have escaped successively to the west as an e-book, or if the black market copies of so many western greats that were smuggled from west to east could have made the journey electronically. If I were living right now in Minsk, could I download Minsk Rises to my Kindle?

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I thank my lucky stars that I don’t have to find out. I live here, and the download was easy, allowing me the thrills and pleasure of reading Minsk Rises. I will continue to hope for the day when Minsk rises under a new dawn, when the country of Belarus throws off the the shackles of Lukashenko, and when Belarus becomes a country where all books can be read without danger, all conversations held without fear, and all dreams worked for without obstruction.

Against Totalitarianism, With Wit and Verve

Michael Frayn’s The Russian Interpreter is a novel set in Moscow in the early 1960s.  Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago has been successfully smuggled out to the West and published to great acclaim.  But back in Moscow, it’s totalitarianism as usual, complete with thought-police, black market shenanigans, Eastern endurance, and Western bumbling.  At turns horrifying and hysterical (as in very, very funny),  Frayn manages to capture both the Russian temperament of wry survival and the English one of unflappability; an unflappability suddenly sent flapping by a turn of events no Englishman could anticipate (but every Muscovite understands).

Paul Manning is an unassuming English researcher working away on his boring thesis at Moscow University.  Collared by Gordon Proctor-Gould, an old schoolmate (whom he cannot remember from Adam), he is asked to serve as an interpreter for Proctor-Gould’s enterprising goal of fostering communication between east and west (the irony will only become more manifest as the novel continues). Manning quickly becomes an interpreter for a more (amore) amorous goal of wooing a Russian blond with no English skills to speak of but whose skills at surviving — and thriving — have been finely honed under the Soviet regime.  Further peopled by a cast of characters out of an early Mel Brooks movie, the game of life as played under the Soviets is captured with both wit and accuracy, making this book a profoundly moving — and yet still very funny — portrait of the reality of totalitarianism.  Whereas the visitors to such a regime may come out relatively unscathed, those who cannot leave bear the brunt of the repression — and when they hold a spirit of resistance against all the odds out to grind them down, they are heroes, of their world and ours.

Fifty years later, the Berlin Wall is long gone, and yet such totalitarianism still exists, most evident in the country of Belarus where a regime in the Soviet tradition flourishes.  Lukashenko rules with an iron fist, using his police force, still called the KGB, and the tactics of silencing opposition, driving out dissent, and killing off  political challengers to run the country as he sees fit. But there are heroes fighting the old-style Soviet tactics of mind and body control in Belarus, as recently demonstrated by the players of the Belarus Free Theater who escaped the manacles of Lukashenko to travel west and perform their stunning production of Being Harold Pinter at the Under The Radar festival sponsored by New York City’s Public Theater and at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. Being Harold Pinter is a disturbing mix of Pinter’s plays and the actual words of political prisoners held and tortured in Belarus.  For more information on the situation in Belarus, the role of the Belarus Free Theater in working against repression, and what you can do, visit http://zoneofsilence.org/