When Victor Martinovich published his debut novel, Paranoia, in 2013, it sat in Belarusian bookshops for less than 48 hours before being pulled by censors. “The banning was like a medal, a sign of quality,” the 44-year-old tells The Calvert Journal from Minsk. “At the same time, though, it was pretty scary because I didn’t know if my arrest would follow.”
After Paranoia was intercepted by the Ministry of Information, the book’s Belarusian publisher was arrested and interrogated. The same happened with Martinovich’s 2020 political thriller, Revolution, last winter. “I was sleeping with my emergency bag near my bed,” the writer recalls. His rucksack was filled with warm clothes and socks: a necessity for prison in the colder months.
Ironically, Paranoia makes no direct reference to Minsk or Belarus. But between a hyper-constructivist cityscape, Soviet obelisks, and the now uniquely-Belarusian KGB, the topography of Minsk loved by tourists is all too easy to parse from the prose. Not just for the reader, evidently — but also for the apparatchiks of Lukashenko’s Ministry of Information.
In contrast to Paranoia, “Revolution isn’t a book about Belarus at all,” Martinovich says. Its banning had less to do with the content of the work than the timing of its release. Launched in October 2020, the novel was published as the pro-democracy protests were unfolding, following the August Belarusian elections which saw Alexander Lukashenko win a sixth term in office, in a result widely condemned as rigged.
Set amidst the krushchevki of Moscow’s outskirts, Revolution revolves around an immigrant lecturer from Belarus who, in the early 2000s, takes a drink with a former Politburo member and thereafter, finds himself whisked, much to his reluctance, into the midst of a Russian secret organisation. The nameless protagonist, selected as the body’s heir-to-be, is subjected to trials which push his mental fragility and force him to spearhead an internal revolution. A gripping, well-written exposition of Russian oligarchy, the book was no slight on Lukashenko, who found time amidst the turmoil to have 600 copies of the book scrapped.
“The main thrust of the book,” Martinovich tells me, “is that true revolution is impossible. People are weak and tend to exchange personal freedom readily for the trappings of obedience.” Martinovich says he believes this holds true across the former Soviet Union — and that parallels from the text rang true in his home country during the protests.
“I never looked for exile — I’ve been abroad long enough to understand that I need this country to continue writing”
“Many scenes from the book — for example, when the protagonist gives a false statement in a law court — seemed to mirror what was actually playing out in the [Belarusian] courts in autumn,” he explains. Lots of protestors were sentenced on counts of perjury, mostly from police on trumped-up charges.
Revolution is still banned in Belarus today – but has seen success in Germany, where it has clinched a string of indie awards in the face of a somewhat unwieldy translation. Martinovich’s prose, laden with idiomatic expressions, adapts rather reluctantly to German, which might explain why, to date, there is no English translation.
Like much of Martinovich’s earlier work, Revolution is semi-autobiographical — with an emphasis on the prefix. He too lectures (for the moment via Zoom) at the European Humanities University, which is currently based in Vilnius, after being expelled from Belarus in 2004. Armed with a PhD in Art Criticism, Martinovich teaches art history, hermeneutics, and language; all subjects which, he says, inform his work as a writer.
Of those, language is perhaps the theme most central to Martinovich’s work. An earlier work, the political dystopian novel Mova, published in 2014, considers a world in which characters slip scrawls of poetry to one another. Notes written in Belarusian act like a hallucinogenic drug — and, in a fractured Europe, the Polish capital is the epicentre of the trafficking world.
Despite his love of the Belarusian language, at the time Martinovich wrote his first novel he admits he could “hardly say a word in Belarusian”. Born in 1977 in Ashmyany, near the Lithuanian border, he studied journalism at the Belarusian State University (BSU); at the time, all correspondence was in Russian. Since then, much has changed.
“I wanted to leave a trace inside this language,” he says, “so I did my best to learn it to a level where I’m able to comfortably use it to compose fiction books. Now half of my novels are in Russian, half in Belarusian.”
No matter the language, Martinovich’s work straddles the boundary of legality. When Belarusian authorities diverted a Ryanair flight to arrest dissident journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend, Martinovich wasn’t far off boarding a flight home from Vilnius – but the news didn’t deter him. “I decided to come back because I never looked for exile — I’ve been abroad long enough to understand that I need this country to continue writing.”