The Belarusian author couple Alhierd Bacharevič and Julia Cimafiejeva have been living as writers in exile for a year and a half at the foot of the historic clock tower of the Schlossberg in Graz. Since 1997, the Cultural Office of the City of Graz has granted grants to writers who, due to political circumstances, can no longer stay in their country.
Alhierd Bacharevič picked me up at the clock tower. Together we descend a wide stone staircase until a black portal appears on the left. Behind, other steps lead to a green courtyard surrounded by a low house with a covered terrace. The couple live here.
Julia and Alhierd protested against the Lukashenko government in the summer of 2020, then decided in November of the same year to leave the country – the regime was now acting too brutally against its own people. The danger of something being done to them was too great.
“My younger brother and his wife are political prisoners in Belarus. They got a year and a half for playing music at one of the protests we were at together,” Julia Cimafiejeva tells me when we’re in her apartment. We are sitting on a sofa in a bright and spacious room that is both a living room and a bedroom. Julia’s desk is diagonally opposite. Alhierd Bacharevič has set up his workstation in the large kitchen.
Politics became the main topic
“Two years ago – in April 2020 – we weren’t so political. Of course, we watched the news and everything, but it didn’t play a big role in our literature, our lyrics. But it is completely different now and politics has become one of the main issues for us.
On the other hand, they were already politically active: together with other opposition members of the Belarusian cultural scene, in the years leading up to the protests, the two contributed to the creation of an independent literary enterprise: “We thought that in this way we could at least do something meaningful for our culture”, says Julia. “If you fight all the time, it takes a lot of energy, and in the end you develop nothing at all, you just lose strength.”
And Alhierd added: “We had independent bookstores, festivals, we had places for discussion, for reading. Now everything is destroyed. Where there were two cultures, there is now only one. And the other, the independent, is practically forbidden.
More independent media
In the Austrian exile, however, the reality of their work is different: they give many interviews and are invited to readings, festivals and debates all over Europe. “We have a lot of publications abroad, and I think it’s good for authors in Belarus, because our literature was not very well known and there were not many translations from our language, from Belarusian . Our language is small,” says Alhierd.
There are no more independent media in Belarus and many independent authors have gone into exile. Those who are still there are mostly silent. Some of them are still active on the web, like most writers living in exile. Julia and Alhierd too. “Many Belarusian authors post poems or essays on their Facebook profile and thus have direct contact with their readers,” the two explain. “We haven’t really used and still use Facebook as a social media, but as an independent media.”
Using freedom in exile
Julia Cimafiejeva and Alhierd Bacharevič regularly publish critical texts on Russia and Belarus as well as declarations of solidarity with Ukraine, but also advice on how to support Belarusian prisoners.
They use the freedom that exile gives them for their political struggle and they are in close contact with other Belarusian authors who live in exile like them, says Alhierd. “We meet in Warsaw, in Berlin, in different cities, and our mission today, in my opinion, is to keep the idea of another Belarus, to keep this independent culture here abroad in the migration , to keep it. We are now gathering our strength in migration, and when the situation improves, one day we will have something.
It is currently uncertain whether they will ever be able to return to Belarus. At the moment, Alexander Lukashenko is still in power – a return would be too dangerous for her. “Our future is not clear now what will happen to us next. Of course, it has a strong influence on our consciousness, our projects, our self-awareness and our writing as well.
They will stay in Graz until the end of the year, when their residency grant ends and they will need a new one. But don’t worry about it just yet.