The prospects of democracy in Belarus and Russia may be bleak, but pessimism is no excuse for inaction or apathy, according to Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich.
Vladimir Putin is able to maintain his rule by mobilizing the “hysteria” and “fortress” mentality of Homo Sovieticus, she said, a legacy of decades of communism that is examined in her most recent book, Second-Hand Time.
Putin “pumped this energy back to this familiar area, namely: ‘We are great. They humiliate us. We are a besieged fortress surrounded by enemies,” she told an audience at the National Endowment for Democracy..
To some extent, the democrats of her own generation were responsible for failing to sustain democratic momentum following the collapse of communism, she said, in conversation with Leon Wieseltier, the Isaiah Berlin Senior Fellow in Culture and Policy at the Brookings Institution
“We had no [Adam] Michnik,” Alexievich said, referring to the absence of visionary democratic intellectuals.
Those in her generation who had hoped for a democratic future in the post-Soviet world “suffered a defeat” in the 1990s and failed to prevent the ascendance of strongman leaders with a Soviet mind-set, RFE/RL’s Carl Schreck adds:
“The degree of faith that people had in the 1990s, their eyes shining — I don’t think we’ll see that in our area of the world again soon,” she said. She did not see any reason to expect either Putin or Lukashenka to be unseated anytime soon, but “this is no reason to abandon our cause and do nothing.”
“I’m not a fan of revolutions, because we have the memory of revolution in our genes. What is revolution? In general it’s blood and death,” she said.
“People in the West who follow Belarus often associate it with the dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko, who has been the country’s most recognizable international figure,” said NED President Carl Gershman. “But now there is another Belarusian figure with greater international prominence and far more moral authority than any politician in Belarus.”
“Alexievich has captured the plain voices of real people who have experienced great anguish and sorrow because they have lived under a system that does not value human life and freedom,” he said.
“One of the large questions she raises is how people who have been shaped by an inhuman political and economic system can recover their humanity,” Gershman added, suggesting that Secondhand Time “raises fundamental questions about the prospect for democracy in post-totalitarian countries.”
“You can’t understand contemporary Russia or the rise of Putin without understanding Homo Sovieticus,” said Wieseltier.
Alexievich’s “humanist masterpiece” highlights the difference between human emancipation and political emancipation, reminding us that “freedom is not the same as democracy,” that liberation can also “breed anxiety and flight to the past or other certainties,” he added.