Why Belarus, anyway? Perhaps that’s what the more than 120 students who logged on online on March 17 for our talk with our guest from Belarus had been wondering: Dr. Volha Hapeyeva, writer, poet, linguist and currently a writer-in-exile grantee of the German PEN Center in Munich. She is working here on a volume of poems for children, an anthology of unrhymed poems in cooperation with the International Youth Library in Munich. But why did she speak in front of International Business students?
Social and political developments in the world and even more so in Europe should not leave us cold, especially if they are answered with such violence as in Belarus. The mechanisms of a dictatorship and the social role of women – these were our central questions for the roundtable discussion that we had organized for all interested MBS students as part of the courses Current Topics and Culture and Society in the bachelor’s program International Business, as these questions concern everyone.
Volha Hapeyeva spoke about her book Camel Travel, which has just been published in German, in which she tells – autobiographically colored – about a childhood and growing up in the collapsing USSR. First freedom: Belarus becomes independent and the Belarusian language is revived under perestroika to the point of becoming the state language and experiences a blossoming, which, however, is short-lived. Then the authoritarian regime: President Lukashenka, in power since 1994, introduced Russian as a second official language, and since then the use of Belarusian has not only steadily declined, but is sometimes considered an expression of the protests that have not subsided since the presidential elections in August 2020. “Language is always political,” Volha Hapeyeva explains in response to our puzzled question about why a nation seems to be abandoning its own language for Russian.
Women are prominent players in the protest movement, presumably even a woman was elected president – has equality for women been realized in Belarus? Statistics suggest so: the highest female labor force participation rate in Europe, the highest percentage of women in parliament – even though the president declared before the 2020 elections, “Our constitution is not written for women, nor is our society mature enough to vote for a woman. I am sure that a man will become president again.” (Trubetskoy, 2020) According to Volha Hapeyeva, it is all nothing but theater: everything is controlled by Lukashenka, and members of parliament are merely puppets of the president. And about the protest movement: The women who stood for election as candidates instead of their husbands did so with the aim of vacating their seats for the men as soon as they were released from prison. So even if the protest movement won, the result would certainly not be an emancipated position for women in a realigned state.
How can it be that people are still protesting against the election fraud and for Lukashenka’s resignation when they are brutally beaten up by OMON, a special unit of the militia, and mistreated in custody? Yes, that is heroic, Volha Hapeyeva comments. Lukashenka’s time may be up in the foreseeable future, but there is no sign of an improvement in the situation any time soon, and the hopes of the protest movement will not be fulfilled any time soon, she says.
A theme that ran like a thread through the entire interview concluded when she was asked what advice she would give to MBS students: Stay true to yourself and act unperturbed by the trends of the time or the judgment of the majority. Volha is a prime example of this – because of her professional career, her publications, the questions she asks, and her passion for language. Not many can match her achievements.
“You often mention snow in your works, why?” was a question from a student. Shortly after she was born, it finally snowed at that time, Volha Hapeyeva said, which was a reason for joy. It was a great joy for us to welcome such an inspiring guest. Thank you very much for the interesting insights!
Trubetskoy, Denis (September 28, 2020): Die mutigen Frauen von Minsk. Ntv.de (Last retrieved on May 26, 2021)