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Drawing The Ire Of 'Europe’s Last Dictator'

She is known to her audience only by her pen name “De Lez,” – “DL” for short -- a play on the Belarusian word for “fate.” She hides her real identity because as a cartoonist who regularly pokes fun at the Belarusian government, she’s a target for retribution from the regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, whose repressive rule has earned him his own infamous moniker, that of “Europe’s Last Dictator.” For the last five years, DL has published her cartoons about politics and society on the website of RFE/RL’s Belarus Service, Radio Svaboda, and her witty visual commentaries capturing the details of Belarusian life have earned her a huge and enthusiastic following. We sat down with DL to find out where she draws her inspiration from.

RFE/RL: Do you recall your first cartoons?

DL: I started to draw cartoons in 1994, the year Lukashenka was elected President of Belarus--but this is just a coincidence, although my very first cartoon was not about politics at all. Since then, our careers have developed in different directions. Sometimes I feel that he has succeeded more than I have. But sometimes not.

RFE/RL: How do you decide which subjects are appropriate to treat in a cartoon?

DL: I try to choose something important, something that will get a reaction. Also, I go for subjects which are easier to visualize. There are some topics that are very hard to imagine in pictures, and my job is to convert some currencies from the political agenda into a form of funny symbols. There are many topics I'll never turn into cartoons, topics which are entirely unsuited for such treatment, such as the rights of minorities. The only problem is that in Belarus, every political topic tends to be too serious to laugh at. I have to get beyond this first reaction, and say to people, come on, notice the funny side of it, and let’s laugh together.

RFE/RL: What is your favorite topic for cartoons?

DL: Economics. The Belarusian economy is something quite funny in itself, so I don’t have to employ much of my own creativity here. We just need to say: “Belarusian banking system”--and it is an anecdote in itself. The subject can become unfunny, for example in 2011, when we had a 300 percent devaluation of the national currency.

RFE/RL: What’s it like see reactions to your cartoons when people don’t know you’re DL?

DL: The best feedback is to see my drawings in my Facebook friends’ re-posts, with some positive remarks like “Wow! This is really cool.” They don’t know that that particular cartoon was done by me, since I use a pen name for my work with Radio Svaboda. And they rave to me about my own picture.

You are an extremely prolific cartoonist, so much so that the Belarus Service plans to publish an album of 200 of your cartoons on their website. Do you keep count of the cartoons you have drawn?

DL: No, I don’t count them, because if I did, I would not have enough time to draw. I have been drawing a cartoon a day, more or less, over the past five years or so.

RFE/RL: Besides cartoons, you have also tried your hand as an illustrator. What would you single out the most compelling project you have done for Radio Svaboda?

DL: I illustrated “Bacharevič’s Calendar,” a collection of 366 essays about the people, places, and events in history that are good to know if one wants to feel a part of humanity, which first appeared on Svaboda's site in 2013. I’m quite satisfied with the technique I developed for this project. I decided to shift from cartoon style to pure illustration in this case, and each drawing had to be quite deep and philosophical. I plan to organize an art exhibition in Minsk of these illustrations, but my dream is to show them also to American viewers.

--Zydrone Krasauskiene