Ideas Ukraine invasion | Seen from Belarus

Alhierd Bacharevič: Dear Ukrainians, we have a common enemy – dictatorship. Let’s not be divided

In this open letter, Belarusian opposition writer and translator Alhierd Bacharevič explains his personal pain over and guilt for the war on Ukraine, but also that of his compatriots. While Belarusian authoritarian leader Aleksandr Lukashenka is supporting his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin’s invasion, Bacharevič opposes the accusation that his homeland should now basically be regarded as a "stain of shame".

Published on 4 March 2022 at 17:41

Dear Ukrainians! My heroes, my close friends.

People for whom we now feel pain.

I do not want this letter to look like vindication. It is already too late to try to vindicate myself to Ukraine; there’s no sense in doing it, the machinery of war has already been set in motion, death is advancing from all sides, including my homeland, and no amount of attempts at self-vindication will put a stop to it. I do not want this letter to be read as an act of repentance either. Let the people with blood on their hands do the repenting. You are at war, you are defending your country – and we’re not in church. We are all of us together in the courtroom of history, on different sides of a boundary between civilizations that we did not draw. 

These are terrible days, first and foremost for Ukraine, but also for the whole of Europe, caught as we are in the eternal trap of our striving for peace at any price. This is the Europe in which I still believe, and for which you are now the hope. I would very much like you to read this letter right through to the end. You can then hate us, hold us in contempt, curse us again and again, but at the same time you should start thinking about who it is who is against you, and whether it is my Belarus that is against you.

“We Belarusians, we’re a peaceful people…” So begins the national anthem of the Republic of Belarus. The music dates back to Soviet times, it’s only the words that have changed. Back then you could hear the slavish words “We Belarusians, with our brothers the Russians…” However, my Belarus, the real Belarus, recognised neither the anthem of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic nor the new one. It is as much a symbol of dictatorship as the red and green flag and the Soviet-style coat of arms. It’s just that the world is no longer very much interested in any of this.

“We Belarusians, we’re a peaceful people.” These were words that for a long time satisfied everyone. They were taken up readily by both state propaganda and those who stood against the regime. We’re a peaceful people. It was a declaration that both the powers-that-be and the opposition could sign up to. 

It’s now just a load of codswallop. The lovely old fairy tale of peaceful people and good neighbours has in a single moment been turned into a hypocritical, blood-soaked lie. Together with “our brothers the Russians” Belarus has been made a bridgehead for an attack on Ukraine; it has become a real aggressor and now stands alongside the most odious nations in history. The image of “peaceful people” now lies shattered – for ever. Equally broken beyond repair is the image of Belarusians as victims, who for centuries have been oppressed and almost driven to extinction, but have nevertheless managed to survive and are therefore worthy of respect. 

Lukashenka has at last driven Belarus and its people into the final dead end which all of us are going to have to scramble out from – even those Belarusians who all their lives have boasted that they are not “interested in politics”. None of us can now sit quiet with our mouths shut. None of us can now maintain “it has nothing to do with me”. None of us can now say “I’m just a little person, no one takes any notice of me”. But far more frightening than any of this is the shameful role that Belarus is now playing, a role for which future generations will have to pay the price. For many years to come the word ‘Belarus’ will conjure up in the minds of people all over the world pictures of war, a war where Belarus for the first time in history is neither defender nor victim, but the faithful servant of Putin’s fascism.

Not so very long ago we were proud of the fact that we had finally gained a beautiful, powerful image in the eyes of the world – the image of hundreds of thousands of unarmed men and women in 2020 going out on to the streets with no weapons in their hands. They went up against armed bandits who called themselves ‘police’ and ‘army’ with nothing but words of protest and a thirst for freedom. That particular image has now been erased, rubbed out, just as the revolutionary graffiti of 2020 are still being obliterated in my native Minsk and the rest of Belarus. 

I am prepared to take upon myself the shame and disgrace of Belarus for what is happening – in exactly the same way as German writers in the emigration did in the times of the Second World War

Except that now they are being smeared over with the blood of Ukrainians, and those actually doing the smearing consider themselves to be Belarusian, just like me. The essential difference is that those who dream of another Belarus, who for years have been trying to make that dream become a reality are conscious of an immeasurably greater, more powerful affinity with you than with all those generals and soldiers of ours who have now invaded your territory.

Therefore I, the Belarusian writer Bacharevič, am prepared to assume my part of the responsibility for what is happening. I am prepared to take upon myself the shame and disgrace of Belarus for what is happening – in exactly the same way as German writers in the emigration did in the times of the Second World War. This is one of the tasks of literature today. However, I cannot accept that the whole of my Belarus must now bear the stigma of disgrace and hatred before the world.

You Ukrainians are defending your country. Your regular army, your territorials, every Ukrainian man and woman are standing together to repel the invaders. Your war is one of defence and liberation. Your road to freedom has already made it abundantly clear that Putin’s Empire will never be able to claim you back in its prison. Ukraine has already changed for ever. In 2020 we Belarusians became aware that we have no army we can call our own. The military formations which were supposed to defend us waged war against unarmed people. 

Belarusians could see that those who had sworn loyalty to the people betrayed those people without hesitation. They actively participated in the repression of the citizens of their country. Nobody now regards the army of Belarus as Belarusian. There is no army in Belarus. There are Lukashenka’s generals who, like Putin’s, in their dreams behold themselves adorned with their master’s medals. Then there are the lesser ranks who carry out their criminal commands. At the bottom is the cannon fodder in a criminal war.

I am told again and again that these are just words, and Ukraine expects decisive action from the Belarusians. But words are all I have at my disposal. Words for which I bear responsibility. I believe in words, as the final weapon of resort that any human being has. I am writing to you from the emigration, from a Europe where peace still reigns. A somewhat shaky peace. A Europe which today manifests an unprecedented degree of solidarity, a Europe that stands up for you. And as for actions… Hundreds of thousands of Belarusians turned out in 2020 to demonstrate against the regime that is now attacking Ukraine. I was among them, so were my friends and colleagues. Tens of thousands were thrown in jail, where they were tortured and continue to be tortured to this day. Killed, tortured, raped. Tens of thousands have left the country. And thousands continue their resistance underground by staying in their country.

Everything has been destroyed in my homeland. Even the little that managed to grow in spite of the regime over the past couple of decades. There is not even that tiniest bit of freedom left that permitted us to think critically and create fruitfully. There are no independent, free media platforms left that could at least broadcast the truth about events in Ukraine and to help people see the war through Ukrainian and Belarusian eyes. They are deemed ‘extremist’ and blocked, their journalists are in prison or compelled to report from abroad. Belarus has been in the grip of pain and horror ever since 2020. 

Belarus is one huge, gaping wound. I do not know if there are any families left unscathed by the repressions. Belarus has not even had a chance to catch its breath after the smashing of the protests before being dragged into war. The situation really does look to me something like this: an injured man is picked up from the ground, and they start using his head as a battering ram to break down the door of his neighbour’s house. Who’s to blame? Why, the injured man, of course! After all, it’s his head that’s being used to break the door down.

Back then in 2020 the Ukrainians supported us strongly in our struggle. They mainly offered their support in words – very important words which we will not forget. No one then said to you “Ukrainians, that’s all just words”. Is it the fault of the Belarusians that we were unable to break down the wall? Or that we allowed Putin to occupy our country? Or that we allowed our country to be used for Russian fascism? In historical perspective – yes, possibly. But we are living in the here and now. Thousands of Belarusians have had first-hand experience of repression and are now doing time in prison. I can never accept that they deserve hatred and contempt. What they did was not in vain. Belarus was – very slowly – rousing itself from the sweet slumber imposed by Lukashenka. History is not made in a day. Those who were for freedom will maybe not live to see it. But does it mean that all their effort has been in vain?

Belarus is currently living through a situation which can only be described as a civil war under foreign occupation

Is it really the case that everything written in the Ukrainian media two years ago has been so quickly forgotten? Was it written so long before the war began? I cannot believe my eyes when I read what is being written today in the Ukrainian media about the so-called ‘referendum’  that was held in Belarus on Sunday 27 February this year. Yet another farce, organised by the dictator to establish total control over the country and hand it over to the Russians once and for all, is presented as some kind of anti-Ukrainian ‘free expression of the will’ of the Belarusians. I realise that there is an information war going on. Instilling hatred for the enemy is perfectly right and proper. However, in this instance there was no ‘free expression of the will’ of Belarusians. It was one of Lukashenka’s routine dramatic spectacles, another of his ‘elegant victories’.

Belarus is currently living through a situation which can only be described as a civil war under foreign occupation. Belarus is not Ukraine. There is no Belarusian government in Belarus, no Belarusian army, no Belarusian police, no Belarusian politics, no free Belarusian media. Belarus is badly disfigured, Belarus is split. Belarus does not know what to do with itself or how to survive, or how to stop itself disappearing from the map of the world or from the territory of human morality. My Belarus currently exists – both within the country and beyond its borders – as a series of islands of resistance. The task of these islands is to stay alive and somehow gather strength. I would not count on their being able today to join together, seize power and stop the war. I would however say that these islands of resistance are the basis for a future peaceful state, a free neighbour of a free Ukraine. In these days of war they join together in support of Ukraine and do everything they possibly can. Can their efforts be ignored, if they are being made for you and for the future Belarus as well?

Way back in 1968 seven Soviet dissidents came out on to Moscow’s Red Square to protest against the invasion of Czechoslovakia. The Czechs wrote this about them: these seven people give us at least seven reasons not to hate Russia. Last Sunday and Monday one thousand Belarusians were arrested for protesting against the war with Ukraine. I would like to hope that these people are also a thousand reasons not to regard Belarus with hatred.

I most certainly do not want you to see this letter as me weeping and wailing on my knees in front of you. When I, like other Belarusians, make over any honorary payments I receive to the Ukrainian army or for humanitarian support, I categorically do not want this to be seen as an attempt to somehow redeem myself. I am simply doing it as an equal among equals, as a human being and as a Belarusian who is unable to help Ukraine at this difficult time. Whenever my wife and I take part in demonstrations in support of Ukraine, we do so not because our conscience nags us, but because we want to have some kind of influence on western politicians who still listen to what people say to them. 

When I, as an emigrant with the barest of rights, write this letter in Belarusian from Graz in Austria to both Ukrainians and my fellow countrymen, I do so not to seek your forgiveness, but because I cannot and will not be silent. When I wrote my books and essays, when in my novel The Dogs of Europe I warned of the dangers of Putin’s Empire, most of my readers regarded it as no more than a dystopia or phantasmagoria. Well, now we’re living in it – you and us both. Did I do everything I could? That’s not a question for you. It’s a question for me, and I have to find the answer for myself. Just as all Belarusians do.

But I cannot calmly and with understanding look at what is being said in the social media: “OK, go ahead and kiss Putin’s backside!” This is written not to Putin’s fans but to Belarusians who have fought against Putin’s fascism in every way possible and not allowed Belarus to become the disgrace of Europe. I cannot without horror and anger read about how Belarusians get the windows of their cars broken when they try to help Ukrainian refugees, all because their cars have Belarusian plates. I find it impossible to read how Belarusian friends of Ukraine who have been through repressions have to hear people say to their faces “You scum, go and snog that Lukashenka of yours”. There are Belarusians who have been driven out of their homes in Ukraine, where they came to save themselves from Lukashism. 

What is such hatred going to do for you? If you are convinced it will help you defeat the occupiers, write and tell us. We’ll understand. We will go on supporting you in silence, keeping our mouths tightly shut to make it easier to bear the insult. Write to us and destroy the occupiers, wherever they come from – whether from Russia or Belarus, from Chechnya or anywhere else. We will be glad of any losses you cause your enemies. But this unthinking hatred of anything that calls itself Belarusian will not bring you any allies in the enemy camp. Anyway, most of us do not live in the enemy camp. We’re now somewhere in the void, between light and dark. We are ashamed and insulted, and afraid – but we are fighting on your side. Some of us with words, some morally, some with deeds, some with weapons – there are Belarusians who have taken up arms to fight for you. And there are some who simply follow the news, who cannot get to sleep because of a sense of helplessness and despair, who send their curses to those who unleashed this war.

We did not choose where we were born. Neither did you.

Part of Moscow’s infernal plan is to magnify hatred. Everywhere where it can. That’s their plan for the future and they began to carry it out a long time ago. It is particularly important for the Kremlin to instil hatred among its neighbours. To raise hatred to such a level that it becomes impossible to go back to normal relations.

Their plan is to create a classic situation of ‘divide and rule’.

My dear Ukrainians, we and you both have a common enemy. And he is delighted whenever a conflict arises between us, whenever he sees how hatred grows between people who yesterday were friends. Putin and Lukashenka smile in smug satisfaction. It means that things are going according to plan. Do we really want them to smile?

We have a common enemy. I say this to both Belarusians and Ukrainians. We have a common enemy. Let’s not forget it.

Although it may already be too late.

👉 Original article on Ukrajinsky Tyzhden

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