Januskevic Publishing House opened for business in Belarus in 2014 with the aim of publishing history books. The initial euphoria of launching a business passed very quickly.
At first, issues related to the publishing industry more broadly. It became clear that you can’t live in Belarus only publishing history books – diversification of production was required. So we diversified into e-books and then to the publication of fiction, translations from foreign languages and children’s books. We did have some good years. Between 2017 and 2022 we developed quickly. We even founded our own online bookshop. Our mission always was to make books that are interesting to the reader. We had a broad slogan: We make books that you want to read.
But after the re-election of long-time Belarus president Alyaksandr Lukashenka in 2020 and his subsequent violet crackdown on protests, and after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the troubles started. In literally three days we were kicked out of the office that had served us as a showroom and a pickup point for books. We were left without a home.
We soon managed to open a fully-fledged bookshop that would serve us as an office at the same time. Except the expulsion from our original office was not some spontaneous decision. It was a deliberate signal. On the day of the opening of the Knihauka bookshop on 16 May 2022, propagandists from state mass media outlets and officers from HUBAZiK (Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption) turned up. The HUBAZiK said that extremist literature was being sold in our bookshop and, with a prosecutor`s approval, they checked all the books in the shop and seized 15 items. Why these specific ones? I’m not entirely sure, although there was a certain theme through them. They were all by Belarusian authors, all history or nonfiction and some children’s books, like Iosif Brodsky’s book The Ballad of the Tugboat.
In an even worse twist bookshop employee Nasta Karnatskaya and I were arrested. I spent 28 days in jail – three terms for three court rulings – and Nasta spent 23 days in jail. This is the only case where somebody was apprehended and imprisoned for distributing books.
While it was challenging before, the radicalisation of the government’s actions against culture, and against the publishing business in particular, gained speed after Russia’s attack on Ukraine
After being released, I realised that the publishing house could no longer work as it had. There was the external pressure that manifested itself in these arrests, as well as other pressures: literally the day after the closing of the bookshop, for the first time in Belarus’ history, the celebrated fiction book The Dogs of Europe by Alhierd Bacharevič, which was published by us and turned into a play staged throughout the world, was deemed “extremist material”. This was a very bad sign. We were moving towards a point where the publishing house itself could be recognised as extremist. I knew then that it was dangerous to stay in Belarus. It was becoming too dangerous to make books. And so we left Belarus and opened up shop in Poland.
It was definitely the right decision. Our publishing license was revoked from us in early January 2023. This was carried out by a court for the first time in Belarus` history according to the provisions of the Law of the Republic of Belarus On Publishing, with the reason given that we had systematically published literature which later was included in the list of extremist materials. To date, four books by our publishing house have been recognised as extremist.
The treatment we received was part of a systemic attack against the independent publishing sector in Belarus. It was not only us who were targeted. Other Belarusian publishing houses were and are victims. Haliyafy, for example, was forced to initiate bankruptcy proceedings. Knihazbor, despite its attempt to remain on its feet and resume its activities, was also forced to close. Today it’s impossible to work freely and to define one’s own publishing policy in Belarus.
In January 2023, we were stripped of our publishing licence. Since then, we have been not allowed to publish books in Belarus.
Following this, on 20 January I set up a fully-fledged publishing house functioning as a Polish legal entity. Since then we have published more than 20 books in Belarusian and we mail books to Belarus. You could argue that our forced relocation from Belarus to Poland has been successful.
But while I still have a licence to distribute books in Belarus and I could sell those I published earlier, almost no one takes them for sale because I have a black mark. These are the consequences of total fear in a society.
Of those publishers who left Belarus, no others continue publishing. They’re now engaged in other businesses: some have switched to writing, for example.
New publishing houses have appeared in Belarus and are managed by new people. Those who remain in Belarus are not publishing books with any strong social implications. I see that when something appears it is “neutral” literature or aimed at children. Those who suffered repression have left their businesses because there are simply no opportunities for their activities in Belarus. Either you have to work in line with the government policy, or you just don’t work.
While it was challenging before, the radicalisation of the government’s actions against culture, and against the publishing business in particular, gained speed after Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Now all kinds of barriers have disappeared for Belarus authorities in the last year – they simply do what they want.
As for wholesale deliveries of foreign publishing houses to networks of booksellers in Belarus, there have been none at all from anywhere except Russia.
Indeed, since February 2022 Belarus has become part of the “Russian World”, a part of the cultural policy which turns Belarus into a Western province of Russia. The prospects for the development of Belarusian culture, the Belarusian language and the Belarusian book industry under Lukashenka are very grim. It will be an imitation, paint-by-numbers culture based on folklore and ethnography. Nothing more, I’m afraid.