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Articles

6 Dec

Solidarity with Belarus Information Office, (Poland)


489

David Marples: A great opportunity for Belarusian journalists to promote their work outside Belarus

You have published several articles and books on Belarus, a country which often goes unnoticed even in the academic world. How did you start writing about Belarus?

It began with my study of the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. After making three trips to Ukraine and writing two books on that accident, I met some Belarusians at a conference in Washington, DC in April 1991. One of them suggested to me that I study the impact of the tragedy in Belarus and start by attending a conference in Minsk in April 1992. That was my first visit to Belarus and I soon moved on to other areas of interest, particularly in the sphere of history and politics. Incidentally I was in Minsk during the presidential election campaign of 1994 and attended some of the rallies. It was a formative experience for me because of what followed: it was the last truly free election and its outcome was uncertain during the pre-election period.

What do you think an international audience finds most interesting about Belarus?

I think people are interested in its history and how it emerged as an independent state. Those who have visited it often develop a deep affection for the land and the people they meet. There is also a great sense of tragedy in the past, particular the Stalinist purges and repressions there, followed by the experience of occupation during the war, and more recently the impact of Chernobyl. Of course there is also interest in Lukashenka and how he has been able to stay in power for so long.

How do you think Belarus is portrayed in the international media?

I think the portrayal is quite negative and is usually centered on the theme of “last dictatorship in Europe” and infringements on human rights. Both themes invariably come up every time the country is featured. Belarus is also regarded as a nation-in-waiting as a Russian-speaking entity that has never enunciated strong principles of a national state based on a native language and culture. It creates the impression of a state that is behind the times—sometimes the phrase “Soviet theme park” is used. It’s misleading because contemporary Belarus is a product directly of the Stalinist years, the BSSR, and the deliberate undermining of the native language and culture in the Soviet period. Lukashenka, the international pariah, is actually a product of that past, a Soviet-made man in every respect, who came to power by chance in 1994 without the usual qualifications of early post-Soviet leaders of being a member of the party elite.

You are on the judging panel for the second edition of ‘Belarus in Focus’ – a competition for journalists writing about Belarus for an international audience. Why do you think this competition could be important?

It is an excellent opportunity to highlight some of the talented journalists in Belarus who all too frequently find their work censored or marginalized. Though there are some independent media in the republic today (Nasha Niva, Narodnaya Volya, Belorusskiy Partizan, etc), the vast majority of publications are those of the official media, which is closely harnessed to the views of the government. Journalists are regularly persecuted for expressing their opinions. As a result, it often seems that journalists adopt a sort of siege mentality that sometimes descends into petty squabbles over political strategy and positions. But in this case, the journalists can be free to express themselves without pressure. I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for them. I think also they can help highlight some facets of Belarus that rarely reach Westerners, about the past (especially pre-1917), culture, everyday life, and the outlook of Belarusians from the intellectual elite to those living in villages.

You have written a book that will come out next year. What is the central concept, and who is it for?

It is entitled “Our Glorious Past: Lukashenka’s Belarus and the Great Patriotic War” and the focus is on historical memory, particularly the government’s use and expansion of Soviet wartime myths for contemporary nation building. It is a topic that has intrigued me for years but one that I only developed into a book theme recently. I spent over three years conducting research with my main focus on historic sites, monuments and memorials, official commemorations, and media narratives in the period 2006-12.

How often have you been to Belarus? What were your main impressions?

I have been there many times—every year from 1992-2010—sometimes twice per year—but with an unfortunate gap for the past two years. I was refused a visa in 2012. I’ve visited many regions and cities (I think Homiel is the only exception, though I have intended, and still plan, to go there). My main impressions are very positive. Its forests and lakes remind me of my home province of Alberta, Canada. I like the way family members support each other, and communal gatherings around the dining table with lengthy discussions on various topics. Even the cities tend to feel like villages, such is the closeness of the community. I have made some lifelong friends in Belarus. I have noted also the determination of many young people not to accept their lot and be resigned to the status quo—something that seems to be the case among some people over 40. Residents of Belarus make up some of Europe’s brightest people and they contrast with Western media images of the KGB and militia that have been granted enhanced powers in recent years. There is a vibrant spirit among youth that is unique. In my own country we often take basic freedoms for granted; life is not a struggle. That has never been the case in Belarus but there is resilience among the population because of its experiences in Soviet times.

Describe Belarus in three words.

Quiet, peaceful, long-suffering (these might apply to the people as well as the land—it’s a difficult task)



Winners of Belarus in Focus 2011

Recent competition articles