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In Belarus, A New Kind Of Samizdat

A New Kind Of Samizdat
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Radio Svaboda director Alexander Lukashuk describes the impact of Svaboda's "Liberty Library" book publishing project.

In most places, an ordinary book party doesn’t attract the attention of the government.

Not so in Belarus, where the space for civil society is continually suppressed. Case in point: in mid-October, a small bookstore in Minsk came in for a storm of criticism from the head of Belarus’ state association of writers, who said in a widely publicized statement that the business ought to be shuttered. The denunciation came just a week after the store hosted a book release for RFE/RL’s Belarus Service, Radio Svaboda. Svaboda was issuing the latest in its 30-volume series, “Liberty Library.”

Ominous signals from Belarus’ government are nothing new. Venues that have hosted Radio Svaboda’s book releases in the past often find their electricity and water mysteriously shut off, or their roofs suddenly leaking, in the days leading up to an event. Interference of this kind is standard fare in Belarus, home to Europe’s last authoritarian state, and led by Soviet holdover Alexander Lukashenka.

The journalists of Radio Svaboda take it all in stride, always looking for novel ways to deliver critical information about Belarus and the world to their audience in a variety of formats. “Liberty Library” is a key example of that effort. The project has seen 30,000 hard copies of its volumes published and distributed by Radio Svaboda in the 10 years since “Liberty Library” launched. Alexander Lukashuk, Radio Svaboda’s director, says that the hard copies published by Svaboda “are usually gone within several weeks.”

But the volumes published directly by Radio Svaboda represent just a small fraction of the market for “Liberty Library,” and fans of the series have been taking matters into their own hands.

Samizdat For The Internet Age

The real impact of “Liberty Library” is viral. Lukashuk says that Internet users in Belarus -- a nation of just nine million -- have downloaded more than one million PDF copies of “Liberty Library” books, available on Radio Svaboda’s website.

Even that count underestimates the true reach of the books. Most Belarusians have limited Internet access, so in order to disseminate the books, Lukashuk notes, local activists have taken to printing out the PDFs, binding them at home, and sharing them with friends, family, and coworkers.

Lukashuk calls the phenomenon “samizdat for the Internet age.”

He notes that, unlike most news broadcasts, books can retain their relevance far after their publishing date. Few Radio Svoboda listeners are interested in keeping around old news stories -- “It’s yesterday’s news!” -- but they’re hungry for more permanent works of free expression. Lukashuk calls the “Liberty Library” volumes “a powerful, long-lasting weapon of information which we will continue to use.”

Samizdat is closely linked to the history of RFE/RL. During the Cold War, Radio Liberty created a samizdat unit to track and collect the works of dissidents persecuted in the Eastern Bloc. The unit systematically organized samizdat to preserve the testimony of dissidents for future reference, building up a unique archive of hundreds of works.

The picture that emerged from the samizdat collections was crucial in monitoring the human rights situation in the Soviet Union. “Indeed it was thanks to samizdat,” former head of RFE/RL’s Russian Service Mario Corti says, “that Radio Liberty’s broadcasts became a real ‘domestic’ service, broadcasting to the Soviet Union documents about and authored by people living inside the country.”

RFE/RL led the way in bringing the Soviet public’s attention to Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” and other works.

The Show Goes On

The success of “Liberty Library” thus far means that Lukashuk and his team at Radio Svaboda have no intention of stopping any time soon, even though their public book releases continue to face all kinds of state obstacles.

Public enthusiasm for the books seems only to grow. Although intimidation from the authorities has meant that Svaboda has to use progressively smaller venues for its book releases, it manages to make the most of what it has. The October release saw organizers cram 150 excited fans into a space meant to accommodate only 40. Those who showed up did so at considerable risk, but this too is remarkably common in Belarus. “There are many people in Belarus who do not agree with what is going on in the country,” Lukashuk says, “and who are willing to risk their business or even their personal freedom.”

Plans for the next book, which will focus on the stories of political prisoners detained since Belarus’ 2010 presidential election, are already in the works. Lukashuk hopes to release it by December 2011, the first anniversary of the election.

-- Kristyna Dzmuranova