Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa, the author of “The Memory Police”, which was published in her homeland in 1994 and translated into English in 2019, considers memories as a determining factor in people’s personality. “Being stripped of your memories is an act of violence that is perhaps akin to having your very life taken”, she concludes in a recent interview. The action of the dystopian novel takes place on an unnamed island, whose inhabitants, in conditions of a harsh dictatorship, from time to time are made to forget both certain objects and the words denoting them – their memories get erased. Simply put, when waking up early in the morning, people suddenly realize that ribbons, roses or birds have disappeared from their mental and linguistic picture of the world. Control over the enforced disappearance of anything that could remind of a censored object and concept behind it is exercised by the so-called “memory police”. Breaking into houses and conducting checks and searches, they confiscate photographs, books, drawings, and diaries – should a new forbidden word be found there.
An accidental encounter with Ogawa’s book, intuitively purchased from an airport bookstore, reminded me of the current situation in Belarus where I come from – the Japanese writer’s storyline turned out to have much in common with repressions, arrests, and trials of people whose possessions began to be considered as prohibited. At first, dresses, scarves, bracelets, and curtains were claimed to be of the “wrong” color (the official authorities have recently begun to link a combination of red and white with extremism, despite their indisputable historical significance and presence in the official state symbols of the Republic of Belarus during the period from 1918-1919 and 1991-1995) and thus people who owned them were imprisoned or fined. Moreover, soon penalties were imposed on thoughts and intentions – as in the episode of the activist Ulyana Nevzorova’s poster that read, “This poster may be a reason for my detention”. The girl held it for a few minutes in the subway car indirectly dropping hints about the lawlessness of the judicial system. There have also been cases of people being sentenced to more than 10 days of imprisonment for “expressing tacit consent” with peaceful protesters.
In the winter of 2021, the absurdity apparently reached its peak when 15-year-old teenagers were detained in the city center during the day, and elderly women doing fitness were kidnapped from a park on the outskirts. On February 5, 2021, 29-year-old Alexander Nurdinov was given 3 years of a penal colony for “picking vegetation from flower beds and throwing it at police officers” (official verdict he received). The young artist Roman Bondarenko was beaten to death in November 2020 by people in balaclavas in his own courtyard – the unknown men arrived there to cut red and white ribbons of “extremist” colors. Despite the numerous documented cases of violence, bullying, and tortures of the abducted, since August 2020 none of the representatives of the “law enforcement” bodies have either been taken to court or convicted.
On social networks, many Belarussians admit to be leaving their apartments with warm clothes, toilet paper, a toothbrush, and other hygiene products in their backpacks “just in case” – those released from prisons after several weeks mention inhumane unsanitary conditions and overcrowded cells, where COVID patients are often deliberately placed in to infect others. However, COVID-19 is also actively used by prison officials as an excuse to refuse relatives to bring parcels with basic necessity items and medication to their detained husbands, wives, children, and friends.
In the country with a speaking name “the last dictatorship of Europe”, people are repressed because of their “intentions”, “condemning silence” and “mental solidarity”. And all these episodes are not scenes from a dystopian novel but the reality with 10 million civilians trapped in the nightmare which “logic” cannot be explained in terms of critical thinking and human vocabulary.
But let us return to the memory repression thesis.
Large-scale peaceful protests calling for the revision of the results of the openly rigged elections began with the announcement of another triumphant victory for the dictator Lukashenko (who has already been in power for 26 years) and the arrests of key opposition figures. Among the participants of street protests, the very first of which spontaneously broke out right on the election day – August 9, 2020, there were obviously journalists and photographers, whose professional activities involve documentation and public presentation of the current events in the press, including the episodes of aggressive actions of policemen people in uniform towards civilians. The news about Belarussian events quickly spread all over the planet causing responses and steps from world leaders.
The Belarusian authorities, in their turn, were also fast to realize that photo- and video documentation is, if not strong evidence (judges, demonstrating their totally unethical conduct, often simply refused to consider CCTV recording or photo reports as proof of innocence), then incriminating manifestation of “excessive zeal”, and so they began a hunt for “memory keepers”. For example, on August 27, 2020, the police simultaneously detained about 50 media workers. It was symbolic that many were forced to delete photographs. Four correspondents who refused to do so, were accused of participating in an unauthorized rally. During a Skype trial, photojournalist Alexander Vasyukovich reminded that he had identification signs indicating that he was at the rally as a media representative, which means he was not actually “protesting” but doing his job – taking pictures. So, what was the actual reason for his arrest then? The fact that the riot policemen ignored it, only confirms that they were deliberately obstructing the journalist’s activities – the prevention of documentation. Preventing the formation of memories?
Ogawa describes recollections as a reliable compass that helps to “wander through the sparse forest of memory” – the Belarusian authorities, judging by their actions, are actively trying to isolate “modern history keepers” and stop the very fact of formation of evidence. To lay the only, asphalted, road through the forest, tamping into the cold silent concrete everyone who was able and was ready to share what they saw and experienced. For Ogawa, books are “repositories of human memories”, but I suggest adding to this list of comparisons any media able to store the memory of a person, a family, and a nation: photographs, art, oral stories, even posts on social networks – the fastest and simplest way of recording one’s own experience nowadays…
By detaining journalists (for example, the journalist of TUT.BY non-governmental media Katerina Borisevich has been kept in jail without trial for 79 days so far*), arresting editors, confiscating photo- and video equipment, the repression machine is trying to deprive the Belarusians of their memory compasses. Books, as we know from Orwell’s dystopia, burn well. But I am sure that as long as we have a pencil and a sheet of paper, a stick and the cold ground, we are going to leave traces. We will remember and we will speak.
In 1941, near the village of Drozdy near Minsk, the Nazis built their first concentration camp in Belarus and kept Soviet war prisoners and civilians aged 5 to 50 there; right there, nearby, was the place of their execution. According to approximate figures: more than 10,000 people. Until now, the place of memory has not been properly immortalized by a memorial, and the mass grave looks like an abandoned wasteland with a lonely tractor delivering fertilizers across the disturbed ground. It was there where in 2017 two Belarusian artists Vasilisa Polyanina and Lesya Pchelka held a symbolic memorial event “Fertile Soil”, “planting” wooden crosses in freshly plowed land.
…as long as we have a stick and the cold ground we will remember.
*This text was written on 7.02.2021