Who could find Belarus on a map, or even knows such a country exists? I live in Europe, the second country to the left and below Belarus and had to look it up to find out where it was. Ten million people. Who cares?
The thing about caring is, it’s necessarily done one by one. And counting ten million people, one by one, is more people trudging home from work in the thin early winter darkness, to light the gas under their tea, than you and I can comprehend in a single sentence.
But they are twinkly-eyed grandmothers, scowling, dispirited workers in mindless dead-end jobs and kids; kids with the bright-colored promise that kids everywhere bring to gray streets, gray apartments and gray snow.
We should all be kids, the world would be a better place.
Kids become young people and some of them, before the light goes out of their eyes, become the Iryna Vidanavas of gray places.
Iryna is Belarusian, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University. She’s been in America for just a year, a student, research assistant and teaching assistant. Oh, and in her spare time, she edits Student Thought, a young people’s magazine in Minsk, which is the capital of Belarus. Since 1998, when she took over as editor at Student Thought, Iryna has challenged other people’s right to shut her away in a caged country. People like Belarus’ President, Alexander Lukashenko, who has been dubbed Europe’s last dictator.
Now you know the cast of characters.
Belarus shouldn’t matter enough to anybody to make such a fuss over it. The bad old days of the Iron Curtain are fifteen years gone, at least for its neighbors, and it’s a fairly small, landlocked country without enough national economic output to fight over. But it borders Russia and Vladimir Putin is tired of losing satellites, angry at the shrinking of the once enormous land-mass Mother Russia controlled. Belarus has the misfortune to lie between Russia and Ukraine, a country of tremendous agricultural importance to Russia, a country trying to slip off quietly to the West.
The Iron Curtain never really fell around Belarus.
Student Thought is a sounding-board off which bounces the nervous, yet amplified exuberance of young Belarusians. Their love of and limited access to things Western make them a threat to a government with nothing to offer. "Young people don’t like Lukashenko," Iryna says. "They want to travel. They want to have normal lives. He understands that he needs to control them. Young people will go to the streets — they don’t have that much to lose."
Student Thought is a tree falling in the forest of Belarus and there will be no sound if no one is there to hear.
Last month’s issue of Student Thought was seized by the government on the laughable charge that it was printed with ‘dangerous ink’ that was a ‘health hazzard’ to Belarusians. One can only wonder if the irony is lost on them, that it is indeed dangerous ink, but certainly not because of its chemical content. The cover had a photo of a shoplifter, stolen goods tucked into the stocking of a long, sexy leg. There is no theft in communist countries, nor are there sexy legs.
Social comment . . . dangerous ink.
Student Thought may well land Iryna in prison. Those things still happen in countries that have secret police, countries where young editors simply disappear in the night and are not seen again. To hook this story to a perspective, to make it meaningful to an American audience is damned difficult, maybe impossible, perhaps not worth the doing, and yet . . . it comes down at last to the noise we make about freedom, particularly freedom of speech and of the press.
Iryna is under investigation. It seems financial crimes are possible, a favorite of communist dictators. If charges come from this, a fine is sure and possible prison as well, up to six years. But, also indicative of dictatorships, there is no one to call for information, no way to know when or even if an axe will fall.
It’s a quiet forest, this second country to the right and above me, where falling trees seldom make a sound.