Svetlana Alexievich remained silent for a long time. In late September, the author left Belarus to receive medical treatment in Berlin and she has received visits from members of the German government and the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament. But she didn’t give any interviews. When news broke last week, though, of the young man in Minsk who was beaten to death by security forces, she made the decision to speak out.
Since summer, thousands of demonstrators have been gathering regularly in the Belarusian capital for peaceful protests against the country’s autocratic president, Alexander Lukashenko. Ahead of the sham election in August, he locked up important opposition politicians, and afterward, the European Union and the United States accused the government in Minsk of perpetrating widespread election fraud and levied sanctions against the regime.
Alexievich, 72, is deeply worried about her country’s future. Every morning, she says, she receives emails that cause her to break down in tears. She shows a few to DER SPIEGEL. They include shocking images of crushed and mutilated hands and bodies covered in bloody open wounds. They are photos of tortured prisoners from the jails of Belarus.
DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Alexievich, seven weeks ago, you left your homeland of Belarus to receive medical treatment in Berlin. How are you doing?
Alexievich: I suffer from trigeminal neuralgia, a pain disorder in my face. But I can speak again now, the nerve has calmed down. I’m doing well.
DER SPIEGEL: For how long are you planning on staying in Berlin?
Alexievich: Until Alexander Lukashenko is gone. What he is doing is a catastrophe. Since the election fraud in August, 27,000 people have been incarcerated: scientists, professors, normal people, workers, students. People from all walks of life. Lukashenko is destroying the country.
DER SPIEGEL: Were you in danger as well?
Alexievich: I was a member of the Coordination Council of the opposition. In the beginning, there were seven of us, but one-by-one, all the others were arrested, or they had to flee the country. When I was the last one still in freedom, the concierge of the building where I live told me: Be careful, don’t go outside. There are people down there waiting for you. So I asked friends and journalists to come up to my apartment so that they wouldn’t dare come up. A few ambassadors from European Union countries also came.
DER SPIEGEL: That sounds rather dramatic.
Alexievich: Lukashenko doesn’t care about the functioning of society. So far, 50 doctors have been arrested, despite the dramatic coronavirus situation and overflowing hospitals. There is a renowned cardiologist in Minsk who refused to fire young doctors who had taken part in the demonstrations and was fired as a result. Yesterday, I received a message that his holiday home had been set on fire. The perpetrators left behind a threat letter and a voodoo doll of him that had been stabbed through. All of Minsk is full of masked special forces who indiscriminately stop people and detain them. It’s a hybrid civil war, with Lukashenko’s followers up against the other half of the population.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 48/2020 (November 21, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.
DER SPIEGEL: Who are his followers?
Alexievich: There are totally normal people in the population who support him, maybe because they are afraid of losing something. More than anything, though, he is propped up by leftovers of the Soviet system. I was surprised myself by how quickly everything returned, the secret service methods from the Stalin era. In World War II, we defeated fascism and developed an ingrained vaccine against it. But we don’t have any medicine to protect us from the Gulag and Stalin. The old attitudes can apparently be reactivated at any time.
DER SPIEGEL: This summer, you said that you had fallen in love again with the Belarusian people.
Alexievich: I can remember precisely how it started, long before the election. In order to be recognized as a candidate for the presidential election, you need to gather 100,000 signatures. One day, when I was out shopping at a market near my home, I couldn’t believe my eyes: There was this line that was at least five kilometers long. They were waiting to sign for Viktor Babariko, who wanted to run for president. People had traveled from far away to do so. Anybody but Lukashenko, they said. I no longer recognized my own people.
DER SPIEGEL: Not long later, Babariko was arrested and was never allowed to run for election.
Alexievich: Lukashenko had the most important men who were running in the election either arrested or pushed into exile. But the results weren’t what he had been hoping for, because their wives ran in their stead – and were carried along by a new wave of enthusiasm. Wherever these women went, thousands of people showed up to see them. The men were in jail and the women hit the campaign trail. That would have been unimaginable previously.
DER SPIEGEL: A women’s revolution.
Alexievich: Svetlana Tikhanovskaya ran in place of her husband; Veronika Tsepkalo ran for her husband Valery; Babariko’s wife is deceased, so his campaign manager Maria Kolesnikova ran on his behalf. Lukashenko doesn’t really know what to do with women and has frequently denigrated them. All that matters to him is who was in the army. He underestimated the women, until demonstrations in support of the women spread all the way into the villages.
DER SPIEGEL: Where does the strength of Belarusian women come from?
Alexievich: Women kept the country together following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Men at the time were often despondent and started drinking. Women took huge bags to neighboring countries and began selling things. The networks that resulted were primarily made up of women. For me, it was incredible to see all these women at the demonstrations. I didn’t know that there were so many beautiful women in Belarus.
DER SPIEGEL: It quickly became clear that the elections had been manipulated. How did you react?
Alexievich: The idea behind our Coordination Council was that of taking over power without violence and bloodshed. The demonstrations were supposed to be celebrations. That’s why we brought flowers along. We wanted to give them to the men in the black masks. We wanted them to realize that it was also their victory. In Belarus, we have always had the feeling of being left behind by history. Who wants to be the last Soviet republic in Europe? Suddenly, things were changing. The protests were like the birth of a new nation.
DER SPIEGEL: Lukashenko responded to the peaceful demonstrations with violence. Were you too optimistic?
Alexievich: He and his people had been preparing for this situation for a long time. Equipment had been stockpiled, people were ready and waiting. And the shift came quickly. Suddenly, the atrocities were everywhere, shots were fired, teargas canisters were flying. I live in a high rise, and from my window, I could see the clouds of teargas floating over the city. I heard the noises, the bangs of the cartridges, the sirens. I had to cry. And then we learned how people were being treated in the prisons, how they were being abused. That they were disappearing. Some of those detained still haven’t reappeared to this day. That was the second big shock.
DER SPIEGEL: Who are the people committing the atrocities?
Alexievich: They aren’t trained policemen. They are people who have been tasked with putting down the revolt. And have been given permission to commit whatever cruelties they want. Young men who the regime has equipped with weapons and power.
DER SPIEGEL: For a time, there were rumors that security personnel from Russia were also involved.
Alexievich: I thought so too. I couldn’t imagine that our people would attack their own population with such brutality. But that’s what happened. Lukashenko apparently asked his current defense minister if he was prepared to do whatever it took. There are also young men who were at the military university and say they were asked questions like: “Would you kill your own parents to defend the country?”
DER SPIEGEL: What will happen next?
Alexievich: The opposition’s Coordination Council doesn’t exist anymore. Its members are, or were, in prison, they’ve been expelled from the country or fled on their own. There is a new council, but the names of its members are being kept secret for their own safety. Communication takes place via social networks. But I have the feeling that people in the West don’t understand what is happening in Belarus. What we are experiencing is brutal violence against innocent people. Prisons that are overcrowded with people whose only crime is having participated in demonstrations. People are systematically being debased. There is frequently no water in the toilets and cells designed for five people are stuffed with 35. Prisoners have to sleep standing up for days, sometimes weeks. I only know such stories from the Stalin era. An attempt is being made to systematically break people. I have seen a lot of bad things in my country, but I am still horrified by what is happening in Belarus. A small, proud country is fighting against a crazy murderer, right in the middle of Europe! And the world is silent. What crimes have these people committed? They want new elections. They want the obviously falsified election results to be annulled. And what does Lukashenko say? No, I won’t give up my beloved.
DER SPIEGEL: Does he really say things like that?
Alexievich: Yes, that’s how he sees Belarus. Yet he has transformed the country into a concentration camp. And against that background, I have to say: The sanctions aren’t enough.
DER SPIEGEL: What can the European Union do?
Alexievich: The EU sanctions are good, but far from sufficient. The travel bans for important government functionaries don’t really affect them that much since their families can still travel. And Lukashenko has forbidden his top officials from leaving the country anyway. One thing that could be done is to shut Belarus out of the international banking system. The oil industry is important for the country, so sanctions could be applied there as well. That would hit the economy hard. Lukashenko would be powerless against the protests that would then erupt. We want a peaceful transfer of power, something that Lukashenko cannot imagine. He believes the office belongs to him.
DER SPIEGEL: He’s not the only one right now.
Alexievich: Yes, it appears to be contagious. But the U.S. is a large, important country with strong democratic institutions. Belarus isn’t. If things keep going as they are, Lukashenko will defeat us.
DER SPIEGEL: You spoke earlier about the birth of a new nation. What kind of nation is it? In the protest movement thus far, there have hardly been any voices calling for closer ties to the West, in contrast to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, for example.
Alexievich: That is true. We are looking to the West. But these protests are focused on getting rid of a dictator, not on where we would like to belong. The new Belarus seen last summer is a democratic country. The rest will come later.
DER SPIEGEL: At the moment, there seem to be two groups facing off. One is aggressive, while the other is the target of that aggression. In the best case, it’s a stalemate.
Alexievich: If there is an economic disaster and if the political prisoners are freed, we could end up at a point where something new could arise. It’s possible that Russia wouldn’t allow a reorientation toward Europe, but even that would be acceptable to me right now. Anything would be better than the current situation.
DER SPIEGEL: And if that’s not what happens?
Alexievich: Lukashenko is capable of anything. I can imagine the complete disintegration of the country, chaos, a civil war.
DER SPIEGEL: What exactly do you mean?
Alexievich: Belarus right now is a country at arms. All possible units have been mobilized to crush the opposition. On top of that is the coronavirus pandemic. The result could be an uncontrollable wildfire. These new special police forces are kept together by the blood they shed. They are afraid of a new government because of the retribution they could expect. The culpability that they have amassed in the last several months is a tight bond that binds these young men together.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you find it difficult to be here in Berlin at a time when your country’s future is being decided?
Alexievich: If I had been sent to prison, I wouldn’t be doing nearly as well with my illness. I can’t do anything more at the moment.
DER SPIEGEL: What about you? Would you be prepared to take on the role of transitional president?
Alexievich: I’ve heard that a lot, but never seriously thought about it. I am a writer, not a politician. For politics, you need a different set of skills that I don’t possess.
DER SPIEGEL: You aren’t the only important opposition figure from the Russian speaking world who is currently in Berlin. Are you in touch with Alexei Navalny?
DER SPIEGEL: What about to other members of the Russian opposition?
Alexievich: Over the summer, I sent around an appeal to the Russian intelligentsia. “A people is being destroyed before your eyes. Why are you silent?” Ten people responded, courageous democrats. But only 10.
DER SPIEGEL: How do you explain that?
Alexievich: The feeling that the surrounding countries actually belong to the Russian empire is deeply rooted in the Russian people.
DER SPIEGEL: There is unrest in many places on the Russian periphery: Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Armenia. Why now, three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union?
Alexievich: The empire has weakened and the communist elite is slowly dying out everywhere. Now, those who want power are fighting each other. It is a huge kettle inside of which everything is simmering: old communists, new capitalists.
DER SPIEGEL: At the beginning of our interview, you said would be staying in Berlin for as long as Lukashenko is in power. Do you think you will be able to return any time soon?
Alexievich: Somehow, I have the feeling that it won’t take much longer. I don’t think Lukashenko will be able to suppress the people’s energy forever. His time has run out. But it will only happen if the international community comes to our aid.
DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Alexievich, we thank you for this interview.