February 4, 2015

How to help save a Belarusian publisher and fight authoritarianism at the same time


President Lukashenko, pictured with a buddy. Image via Wikipedia.

President Lukashenko, pictured with a buddy. Image via Wikipedia.

The Lovinhau Publishing House has a special place in the Belarusian literary scene. Since Ihar Lohvinau founded the press 2000 it has been a powerful voice for liberty, publishing works of literature, art, history and criticism, often by authors repressed by the state, in a country that has long been under the thumb of its notoriously authoritarian government. In 2009, it opened a bookstore in Minsk, hoping to provide a brick-and-mortar site where the the city’s besieged literary community could congregate. But now, after 15 years, the award-winning house is in grave danger of disappearing.

In the fall of 2012, the Belarusian government, headed by Alexander Lukashenko, Europe’s longest tenured dictator democratically elected leader, confiscated a shipment of 41 photo-albums at the Lithuania-Belarus border. The album in question was a collection of photographs from Belarus’ premier “open and independent press photography contest,” dedicated to the “support and promotion of professional press photography in Belarus.” It was published by Lovinhau, and was also, apparently, samizdat, at least according to the Belarusian government. During a 2013 trial on the matter, so called “experts” declared that the book “contains deliberately distorted and false insinuations about life in the Republic of Belarus in the political, economic, social and other spheres that insult the national honour and dignity of the citizens of the Republic of Belarus.” They threatened to destroy the books and revoked Lovinhaus’ commercial license. You can see some of the photos here.

The pictures are largely anodyne, with the notable exception of one photo documenting police brutality in the wake of 2010 antigovernment protests, which is embarassing for obvious reasons, and another documenting a hat-shopping-session, which is embarassing for other, equally obvious reasons (seriously, what the fuck is going on with his pants? Does he really think a posh hat is his number one sartorial priority right now?). Oddly, during the trial, the government seemed more concerned with the latter, opining that it was “insulting,” and that “Belarusian people may be recognized in them.”

After a year-long, kafkaesque trial and appeal, Lovinhau now faces an absurd fine of 976 billion Belarusian roubles, or $62,150, for selling books without state registration. The amount of the fine is about what the bookstore would net in a calendar year. If they fail to pay, the government will revoke their booksellers-license for good, and they will be forced to close their doors, perhaps forever. But we, as a community of booklovers, don’t have to stand for that kind of Bush League bullshit. (For more context, check out this earlier MobyLives report.)

As reported yesterday by Maeve Shearlaw at The Guardian, Lovinhau has turned to the internet, that bright-burning bastion of enlightenment values. Through their website, you can now make a personal donation to the crowdfunded campaign to save Lovinhau Bookstore. You can also promote the cause by using the #SaveLovinhau on your favorite social media platform.

You can help. We can help. Really, we can. And this is sort of amazing. We can actually strike back against a dictatorial, post-communist despot who is actively and despicably destroying one of his own country’s most precious cultural resources. Without dropping a bomb or deploying a drone or destroying an entire economy, we can stand up for the values and rights that we take for granted every time we step into our favorite bookstore to grab a latte and browse the non-fiction. We can remember that books are dangerous, political objects, and that the right to publish and procure them without impingement is and should be a foundational right in any allegedly free society.

Finally, and without going on too much of a tangent, its pretty cool to see the utopian collectivism of the internet get tapped into for something more interesting and important than, say, potato-salad. Or a pacemaker for a chihuahua. For all the bad press the internet is getting these days, this is a pleasant reminder that the whole weird thing can in fact be a fairly effective tool, and not just for the CIA.

So again, visit the website. Read their story. Stand up for a Belarusian bookstore.


Simon Reichley is the Director of Operations and Rights Manager at Melville House.