Belarus’ Crackdown on 19th Century Nationalist Poems Signals Growing Repression

Belarusian authorities have declared two 19th-century nationalist poems as “extremist”, highlighting an alarming expansion in the government’s crackdown on dissent. Vincent Dunin-Martsinkevich’s poems, which recount a nationalist uprising against the Russian Empire, have been banned as part of President Alexander Lukashenko’s efforts to tighten his grip on power after the widely contested 2020 elections. This move is seen as a transition towards totalitarianism, as many opposition members, particularly nationalists who oppose Lukashenko’s pro-Russian stance, have been targeted, resulting in their imprisonment or forced exile. The announcement from the prosecutor’s office in Minsk revealed that the poems, “The Winds are Floating” and “Conversation of an Elderly Man,” as well as a foreword to Dunin-Martsinkevich’s collected works, are now considered “extremist materials”. These poems were initially written during the Kastus Kalinowski rebellion of 1863 by Belarusians and Poles when the region was part of Poland and the Russian Empire. Dunin-Martsinkevich faced accusations of spreading “harmful” ideas against the authorities during this period, leading to his arrest, although his involvement in the uprising was never substantiated. While Dunin-Martsinkevich is still revered in Belarus, with his works included in the school curriculum and his plays regularly performed, the recent ban reflects the increasing suppression of dissent and cultural expression in the country. In addition to these banned poems, books by contemporary authors Larisa Geniyush, Vladimir Neklyayev, Lidiya Arobey, and Natalya Arseneva have also been prohibited. The isolation and persecution of opposition prisoners, along with the targeting of dissidents’ families, further underscores the government’s determined efforts to crush the spirit of the opposition. The ban on historical and contemporary literature, along with the escalating crackdown on dissent, raises concerns about the deteriorating state of freedom of expression and human rights in Belarus.