Ideas Archipelago USSR | Belarus
Minsk, 1st May, 2017. At the Pioneer's initiation ceremony. | Photo: Peryn

Back in the USSR – again

At 44, Belarusian writer Viktar Martinovič has already ‘lived three lives’: a Pioneer shortly before the fall of the USSR, a successful Belarusian author after his country's independence, and currently a dissident. Since the unsuccessful protests against president Lukashenka in 2020, artists in Belarus are once again being repressed as they were in Soviet times. This is the first part of a series on the 30th anniversary of the breakup of USSR.

Published on 21 December 2021 at 09:33
Minsk, 1st May, 2017. At the Pioneer's initiation ceremony. | Photo: Peryn

Greetings, my name is Viktar Martinovič, and I am a man who, by the age of 44, has lived three lives.

Three lives at a time when most people have barely been able to handle one life.

And – to make myself clearer – by three lives I mean the whole range of sensations that have been open to me in all my years of life so far.

Three different lots of dreams.

Three different sets of values.

Three different selves.

Three different trajectories of delusions.

My deaths and rebirths I owe entirely to an event which took place exactly thirty years ago. The collapse of the USSR. The rise of a new country, the Republic of Belarus, and my successful emergence as a recognised writer in that country.

Archipelago USSR: the 30th anniversary of the breakup of Soviet Union

Ukraine: From USSR to Maidan, a corridor of memories
Belarus: Back in the USSR – again
Russia: the Soviet Union’s neverending disintegration
Moldova: ‘To be born in the USSR was to be born into a state of being’
In Soviet Georgia, escape came through football

Then came the re-establishment of the USSR and, what’s more, in the most rigid, cast-iron meaning of the word. Re-establishment first of all within the boundaries of one small republic, and then on the scale of that republic’s union with the Russian Giant.

I am a pioneer

"Joining the ranks of the All-Union Organisation of Pioneers…" And at this point I stumbled on the words, not because I didn’t know the oath by heart, but because of the butterflies in my tummy I didn’t have enough breath to continue. "Here in the presence of my comrades" (breathe in – out) "I solemnly swear" (pause, the butterflies are making everything go dark in front of my eyes, I realise that this is the most important day of my life, there will never be anything more important, never ever). "I swear. I swear" – here I felt the full force of this word. – "I swear to love my country (which I understood, of course, to mean the USSR) with all my heart; to live, learn and struggle as the great Lenin bade us, and to follow the Rules of the Pioneers of the USSR."

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It took several months to prepare for this ritual – we learned how to tie the neckerchief and how to iron it, we swotted over the oath and the Rules of the Pioneers. Any school student who had been given ‘unsatisfactory’ for behaviour was threatened: we won’t accept you into the Pioneers. And the school student would change for the better; not being admitted to the Pioneers at that time meant more or less the same thing as being deprived of your credit card for ever would mean now.

At the moment of tying his neckerchief my classmate Sasha fainted from the emotion of it all.

It was October 1987.

The 27th Party Congress had already happened.

Perestroika was already in full swing. In two years time it would crash into the Berlin Wall and sweep it away.

Adults on the streets were all wearing jeans, and there was a distinct smell of decay in the language and topics of the central newspapers.

There was Pepsi-Cola on the shelves of the food stores, and the music shops were doing good business selling Boris Grebenshchikov’s record Ravnodenstvie (Equinox), full of hymns to the new times. One of the tracks on it was the song ‘The Generation of Caretakers and Watchmen’ – about rock musicians and writers who had decided to live against the current and work as stokers, caretakers and watchmen (and were all nevertheless venerated by millions).

None of this existed in my reality.

My mind was firmly set on the Bright Future.

I believed that all my life I would ‘live, learn and struggle, as the great Lenin bade us’.

The two-part film ‘Gost’ya iz budushchego’ (Guest from the Future) was being shown on the television; it was about Soviet Moscow in 2084, where pioneers like me would take a trip on a regular rocket to the Moon or Uranus, a planet also ruled by the Bolsheviks. The way I saw my future fitted perfectly into the film’s scenes, all of them brightly lit by the July sun: here I am soaring on a ‘flip’ (a two-seater flying car) above my home city Minsk. Or here I am struggling against capitalist agents who have wormed their way into our territory from hostile planets in order to sabotage the factories of both large and medium-sized industries in the BSSR.

If anyone had said to me that it was all going to collapse, I would have been very upset.

After all, the USSR was not just a place where I live.

The USSR was me.

I am a Belarusian

Independence crept upon us Belarusians unnoticed. Without a fight. It arrived as a result of events that occurred in neighbouring republics. As a result of the activities of the Lithuanian Sąjūdis ("The Movement", the counterpart of Polish Solidarność) which led to the battle for the TV centre in Vilnius (1991).

As a result of the fall in oil prices and the looming deficit (buckwheat appeared on our family dining table so rarely that I am going to hold this humble food in high esteem for the rest of my life). As a result of queues for literally everything. As a result of the war in Afghanistan, which generously supplied the republic with ‘zinky boys’, as Śviatlana Alieksijevič put it – lads doing their national service in the army, killed fighting for God knows what and sent home in zinc coffins that had been welded shut. As a result of Chernobyl, and the clumsy reaction of the Party bosses who attempted to conceal the consequences of the disaster.

It was the ever-growing wave of errors and wrong actions that finally led to Viskuli (the place where the Belovezh Agreements were signed).

But if you were to ask me what I consider to be the main cause of the decline in power of a once terrifying state, I would put it this way: it wasn’t to do with oil, or Chernobyl, or Afghanistan. Or Russian rock music, and certainly not those wretched jeans. They were all, if you like, consequences.

There was one thing that made the Soviet planned economy dependent on oil, and the Soviet ideology vulnerable to Party mistakes which they had earlier got away with by suppressing all knowledge of them (let’s remember the mass shooting in Novocherkassk in 1962): the abolition of the slave-owning system.

There was a time when Belarus found itself in the USSR as a result of circumstances that had nothing to do with the people who lived there. And now we found ourselves independent, irrespective of what we actually wanted

Which in the USSR was embodied in the all-powerful GULAG. It was the army of prisoners recruited by Stalin that, free of charge, delivered coal, nickel and tin, built cities on the permafrost, and boosted the growth of a state that could do nothing apart from build nuclear rockets.

The source of the well-being of a country that occupied one-sixth of the Earth’s land surface disappeared when the GULAG was abolished in 1957.

But let’s get back to my country.

There was a time when Belarus found itself in the USSR as a result of circumstances that had nothing to do with the people who lived there. And now we found ourselves independent, irrespective of what we actually wanted.

The bright world of my Soviet future eroded away smoothly and imperceptibly. I was too young to appreciate the significance of Sąjūdis or Viskuli, or to read any newspapers other than Pionerskaya Zor’ka (The Pioneers’ Morning Star).

The new system of values reached me not from a geopolitical map of the world, but from the forest that was closest to where I lived.

Six months after I was received into the Pioneers, three boys from School 171 that was situated opposite the block of flats where I lived went off into the forest to make themselves a dugout and play partisans; they accidentally stumbled across a human skull. Next to it they dug up another one. The main literary newspaper of the BSSR, Litaratura i Mastactva (Literature and Art), wrote about their discoveries, adding that the skulls belonged to victims of Stalin’s repressions (and in NKVD documents the forest itself was called Kurapaty).

This was a newspaper my family did not subscribe to, so I learned about Kurapaty when a schoolmate of mine, Miciaj, himself found a skull in the forest and called me over to have a look at it. At the back of the skull was a not very neat hole. There was something rolling around inside it. We turned the skull over and fished out a flattened lead bullet.

My parents explained that the man whose skull it was had been shot, probably for no reason, in the 1930s.

He may have been a poet.

Or a novelist

One of the hundred or so writers who were shot in the night of 29 October 1937.

Or a kulak – a peasant who refused to join a collective farm at the time of collectivisation,

Or a priest.

Or an ordinary city dweller whose life was needed by Moloch to fulfil Moscow’s ‘social demand’ regarding the required number of people sentenced to the ‘supreme measure of punishment’.

It was then, in the Kurapaty forest, that I died as a pioneer, unable to grasp how the principle ‘to live, learn, and struggle as the great Lenin bade us’ could lead to a skull that had been shot through by a lead bullet. I was unable to imagine that it was not spies or enemies that did this. Not saboteurs or Nazi parachutists. Not fascists or ‘White Poles’ that our Soviet children’s literature had taught us to fear.

It was done by our people, every single one of them ours.

They did it because… Because what?

Because it was necessary?

Necessary to whom?

The state called upon schoolchildren to ‘be trustworthy comrades, show respect for the elderly, care for those younger than ourselves, and act in accordance with dignity and conscience’ (the Pioneers’ fifth Rule), so what could make it shoot its citizens in the back of the neck?

Where’s the dignity and conscience in all this?

The principles and values that had been instilled into my head with such care and concern by the Soviet school system were now turned on their head. Black turned out to be white. Granddad Lenin was the architect of the ‘red terror’.

Gradually I began to write prose.

At first in Russian.

Then in Belarusian; after Stalin’s purges there were very few writers left who could produce worthwhile books written in their native language. Throughout the twentieth century most of the ‘Soviet Belarusian writers’ had been scribbling away, producing the socialist realism that the state demanded. So it was that, when the Republic of Belarus appeared out of nowhere in 1991, it had to be invented anew, its culture had to be filled with content, and its forgotten history had to be rediscovered.

After a time I became a writer with a following, my works began to be translated into other languages, and hundreds of readers came to my signing sessions.

However, the USSR was close by all this time, and in the autumn of 2020 it took pleasure in clanging the prison door shut, locking up everything that had been maturing for 29 years.

I am a Soviet dissident

Belarus disappeared off the radar of the European media in about October 2020, when it became clear that the mass protests of people who came out on to the streets to dispute the declared presidential election result had led nowhere.

Those Europeans who have retained their interest in our country know that it was followed by a ‘reaction’: sporadic arrests, guilty verdicts in court. More than 30,000 arrested and processed through the court system for ‘mass disorder’, and 869 political prisoners given lengthy prison sentences on the basis of articles of the Criminal Code.

Belarusian-speaking musicians, and leading figures of the theatre and art world have been leaving the country en masse. What we have in return over the past year is a rebirth of the culture of the BSSR in all its glory

But what is most interesting occurred unnoticed. In culture. The culture of the Republic of Belarus – as represented by the National Theatre, national literature, and all national centres of the performing arts – has been completely excised from the life of the country. There have been searches in all the independent publishing houses. Belarusian-speaking musicians, and leading figures of the theatre and art world have been leaving the country en masse.

What we have in return over the past year is a rebirth of the culture of the BSSR in all its glory.

With blacklists.

With concert tour certificates that grant or do not grant the right to perform.

With the cancelling of concerts, including one to be given by the old rocker I mentioned earlier – Boris Grebenshchikov; in 2020 he spoke out in support of changes in Belarus.

I have stopped being a Belarusian writer with a following.

I have become a ‘stoker’, like the one from Grebenshchikov’s song about ‘the generation of caretakers and watchmen’.

I heat my stove.

I read a book.

I await spring.

I hope.

It must surely be the case that anyone who by the age of 44 has lived three lives is entitled to a fourth, mustn’t it? That, after becoming a dissident, you can live to see better times? Until perestroika mark 2?

When people remember you, remove you from blacklists, begin to stage your plays, make films of your books, and publish you again?

It must be the case, right?

Although maybe I’m asking for too much. After all, I have lived three whole lives. Three lives at a time when most people have barely been able to handle one life…

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