Seventy-eight original award-winning titles, used as textbooks in universities, confiscated at the border, available at the Library of Congress and online, adapted for the theater in London, portrayed in exhibitions in Prague and recorded as rock songs in Belarus, presented at central venues in Minsk, and distributed one-to-one on snowy streets; by authors that include Nobel laureates and 9-year olds; with contributions of former presidents, dissidents, and world-known philosophers; and including amateur ballads, hilarious satire, and cartoons.
Belarus Service Director Alexander Lukashuk remembers: Once I received a letter from a 13-year-old girl from a small town in the north of Belarus: “Dear Radio Liberty, can you please send me your new book, How? The ABCs Of Ethical Life Under Authoritarianism, by Siarhej Dubavec. My grandparents support Lukashenka and don’t listen to my parents. But when I read the book to them, they will listen and trust me.”
Trust of the audience is the Service’s goal and most precious capital. Radio short-waves always prompted creativity among our devoted listeners: they came up with make-shift antennas, took their radios to the forest, away from jamming stations and urban interference, and recorded programs and transcribed copies on typewriters. Belarus is the only European country where RFE/RL operated and yet never had local rebroadcasting. So, putting our programs in printed form was an obvious option. But books are not just printed matter – they have a different quality.
Before joining RFERL in 1993, I was editor-in-chief of the biggest publishing house in Belarus, and so I wanted to make our printed products right: they should be mission-oriented, professional, and unique. In 2001, a magazine in Belarus asked us for permission to publish our year-long program, Words Of The Century, as a single edition. It became the magazine’s most popular issue, and the publisher had to print additional copies. That year we launched another program, Poem On Liberty, which, every morning, aired verses submitted by listeners – from ages 9 to 90 --about the meaning of freedom. The International Pen Club joined our efforts, and we soon received poems from more than 30 countries, including from two former Nobel laureates. It was impossible not to publish these 365 takes on the meaning of freedom as a single volume – and so Liberty Library was born.
Just to give you a taste of the library’s variety: Road to Kurapaty contains the 256-day report about a Stalin-era mass grave and its defense; One Day Of A Political Prisoner presents the portraits of dozens of people put behind bars; Don’t Make My Pronouns Laugh is a Belarus-language primer; Names of Freedom is an encyclopedia of freedom fighters; Oswald in Minsk is a study of the KGB archives; Fairy Tales by Telephone is a tongue-in-cheek satire; and Svetlana Alexievich’s 100 Quotes on Radio Liberty was published in four languages. You can also hear the voices of Vaclav Havel, George Bush, Elena Bonner, Francis Fukuyama, Carl Gershman, and other notable figures reading the names of people who were imprisoned in Belarus after the 2010 presidential elections.
Liberty Library would have been impossible without support from RFE/RL, the National Endowment for Democracy, our partners in numerous NGOs, and, first and foremost, the interest and support of our audiences.
We sent the book that the 13-year-old girl requested to her grandparents. They are among Liberty Library’s thousands of readers.