“I want to tell you an unbelievable story. Not even a story but a biography of fear. I want to tell you how horror can suddenly take hold of a person and then change their entire life.”
When the protagonist of Red Crosses (in Italian, Croci Rosse, ed. e/o, 160 pages, €16, translation by Claudia Zonghetti) meets his new neighbor Tatyana Alekseyevna for the first time, he doesn’t yet know that what the old woman will tell him is going to change his life forever. While working at the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs during World War II, Tatyana had learned a secret that Moscow wanted to hide at all costs: the Soviet government’s ruthless decision to refuse the help offered by the Red Cross to Soviet prisoners of war, whom Stalin considered potential traitors. Trying to prevent those prisoners from being abandoned and left on their own was what cost the woman a lifetime of persecution and threats.
Drawing on materials preserved in the Red Cross archives in Geneva, the Belarusian writer Sasha Filipenko, 38 years old, from Minsk, former collaborator of the Russian TV Channel One, one of the most significant voices of the new Russian-speaking literature and personally involved in the movements for democracy and freedom opposing Lukashenko’s regime, has not only reconstructed a tragic and forgotten event, but delivered a powerful novel able to challenge the nationalist rhetoric being trotted out once again in Moscow to justify a war.
Are you still in Minsk, and how are you experiencing what is happening in Ukraine?
I was forced to leave Belarus last year because I was warned of my imminent arrest. In the meantime, the official press of my country didn’t stop denigrating me; certain articles of the penal code were mentioned, according to which I could risk up to 12 years in prison. In the meantime, the Pen Center has taken a stand and recognized that I am a victim of censorship in Belarus. Therefore, my publishing house in Zurich, Diogenes Verlag, and my agent, Galina Dursthoff, helped me to obtain literary residencies first with Fondation Jan Michalski and then with Atelier Mondial Basel, also in Switzerland. I am watching what is happening in the Ukraine with horror, and I want to do everything I can to stop the war: many people still call it a “crisis,” when what is actually going on is a full-scale war.
How would you characterize the way the Belarusians are being told about the war, and what space is there now for independent voices in Minsk?
Unfortunately, there is no way to spread the word inside Belarus. You can do it on Facebook or other social media, but they are banned. In the country, information circulates like in Soviet times, by word of mouth. But in Belarus no one has the opportunity to speak openly about what is happening.
The invasion of Ukraine is taking place from Belarus as well, and in Minsk, at the beginning of the war, people protested with the slogan: “We do not want to be accomplices.” Today, is there any way to know what Belarusians think? And what do you think about the protests taking place in Russia?
Unfortunately, I can only look at the protests in Russia. And I must say that in light of the fact that the repressive machinery of that country is not as violent and cruel as the Belarusian one, and the police could even appear to be peaceful when compared to that in Minsk, I note with sadness and disappointment that in Moscow, a city of 20 million inhabitants, we haven’t seen large masses of people demonstrating against the war. The members of Russian society do not seem to care enough that their country is waging war. In 2010, in Belarus, even though we were aware of the risks and of the fact that we were a small minority, we still found the strength to protest.
In your country, a vast movement in defense of freedom has sprouted up in the last two years, fighting Lukashenko’s regime, but which has had to suffer fierce repression, with thousands of arrests, rapes, tortures and trials of opponents that are still ongoing. How is the situation now, and could the war in which Minsk is also involved lead to a resumption of the struggle for democracy?
It is difficult to say how long Lukashenko will remain in power. But how long this agony will last depends on us, and it could continue for years more. We will succeed through our tenacity, as Belarusians, and through the firmness of European society towards the brutalities that continue to happen in my country. We must do everything in our power to accelerate the fall of Lukashenko so that the humanitarian catastrophe that is going on in Belarus can come to an end. The movement for democracy is alive. Belarusians continue to protest: we just try to do it in the different ways we have available. For two years, we have been asking for help from Europe, which has been watching us fight for our lives. We tried to explain how difficult it is to do it against two tyrants at the same time: Lukashenko and Putin. And Europe expressed serious concern, and did nothing more. We also said that Putin would attack Ukraine and Lukashenko would help him do it, but nobody listened to us. It is difficult to fight under these conditions, but our resistance is not dead, and it remains strong.
Last year, during the visit to Russia of the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, you called on this organization to intervene to stop the use of torture in Belarus. Do you feel that your country’s opposition hasn’t enjoyed enough international support?
Maurer said that he did not want to discuss the matter with a writer, whose works he said he appreciated. He said that my call for the Red Cross to visit Belarusian prisons was pure fancy, as the organization doesn’t have a specific mandate; he added that the Red Cross can only help prisoners in case of war. This is evidence of the organization’s inability to adapt to today’s challenges. The Belarusian Red Cross is not helpful when asked to visit prisons, while it is quite useful when its members oversee fraudulent elections, such as those that took place last August in my country, during which hundreds of cases of fraud were recorded. That’s why we would need a reaction from the International Red Cross: are they aware of these facts, do they intend to make their voice heard?
We must never forget the lessons of the past: the concentration camp of Mauthausen was built in Austria by a private company that also benefited from funding that came from the German Red Cross [the Nazi Oswald Pohl, treasurer of the SS and future general, was president of the organization in Germany from 1938]. Today, when Belarusians make donations to the Red Cross – it should be noted that some factories and schools are forced to contribute – that money might pay for electoral fraud, just like in 1930s Germany it could be used to build a concentration camp.
Red Crosses helps dismantle some of those patriotic and nationalist myths that Putin has conjured up to try to justify his war of invasion. Are there many people, in your country as well as in Russia, who are still receptive to this kind of narrative? And what kind of echo has a story like the one you tell in the novel found among readers?
In these countries, there are still many people who believe in the nonsense on state TV, they are in some ways “programmed” to think this way, and thus I’m afraid that no book can help them change their minds. I believe that both Lukashenko and Putin can be called heirs of Stalin: they think like him and have adopted his methods. Putin calls the collapse of the Soviet Union the main geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century. Moscow has closed the Memorial NGO [founded by Nobel Peace Laureate Sakharov] which fought for the defense of human rights, to preserve historical memory and remind Russians of the crimes of the Soviet regime. Putin dreams of restoring the Soviet Union, and right now, before our eyes, he has unleashed a bloody war against the people in Ukraine who want to get rid of that past for good.