Pen vs. Sword

Iryna Vidanava, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins, runs a youth-oriented magazine in her native Belarus that has drawn the government's ire.
Iryna Vidanava, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins, runs a youth-oriented magazine in her native Belarus that has drawn the government's ire. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 28, 2005

After more than a year in the United States, Iryna Vidanava says she doesn't feel like an idiot when she smiles on the street. In her homeland of Belarus, spontaneous good humor toward strangers just isn't done in public places. In the grimly efficient, Soviet-era subway and on the rattletrap buses that ply the drab streets of Minsk, almost every face is studiously expressionless. Even most young people put up a shell and stay nervously within it.

Changing that, in some ways, has become her life's work. And it may land her in prison.

Vidanava, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, holds down three jobs -- putting in long days including a commute between Washington, where she lives, and Baltimore, where she studies. She has two gigs with the university, where she works as a research assistant and a teaching assistant.

And then there's what she calls "my night job" -- as editor of Student Thought, perhaps the most edgy and professional publication left in Belarus, where the government has been ruthlessly shutting down all independent media. Although Minsk is almost 5,000 miles away, she still works -- with cell phone and e-mail -- to keep alive the magazine she has edited since 1998. But as Belarus, a landlocked country sandwiched between Poland and Russia, prepares for an election in March, things have never been more difficult.

Last month, the government seized all but a handful of copies of the magazine. And now Vidanava is under investigation for financial crimes and infractions against the country's draconian press laws.

If charged, the 27-year-old editor could face a huge fine and up to six years in prison. But it's hard to know exactly what's happening with her case in Belarus. One investigator is on vacation; another has given no word on where things stand..

As Vidanava faces the possibility of a long, shadowy journey through the sphinxlike world of justice in Belarus, her father, Aliksei Karol, has just emerged from the same nightmare. Like his daughter, he is an editor; he heads one of the country's last independent newspapers. And like his daughter, he has faced down the authorities. In October, the government fined him $1,200 for insulting the president, a charge based on some satirical cartoons found in his newspaper's office when government agents raided it last spring. In a country where $250 a month is a good salary, the fine is staggering; but at least it's not prison, which was a distinct possibility. "He paid it just to keep the newspaper alive," Vidanava says, with both affection and admiration.

As the country heads into elections, opponents of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko are struggling to keep some measure of a democratic movement going. They don't expect to win outright. In a country where there's no opposition access to radio or television, no easy legal means of taking a simple poll, and where the KGB still monitors anyone not firmly loyal to the government, opponents of Lukashenko don't know how much support they have. But there's a mantra, among publishers and journalists, leaders of independent groups and clubs, and the beleaguered political opposition -- just stay alive through the election.

Vidanava, a short, energetic woman with a ready laugh, seems to have inherited a pretty evenhanded genetic mix of her parents' attributes. Her mother is irrepressibly good-natured and has supported her husband through three attempts at winning a seat in the country's parliament. "She's always in the front row at protests," Vidanava says.

Her father is more given to the soft chuckle than her mother's great gales of laughter. He is quiet, and often serious, and has played a large role in his country's intellectual life as Belarus emerged as an independent country after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Iryna has both her mother's sparkling nature and her father's seriousness. Her magazine was, in some ways, a fusion of these attributes. When she took over editing it in 1998, it was a small, serious publication aimed at members of the Belarusian Students Association. Within a few years, she had transformed it into a broader, more appealing, more youth-oriented magazine, aimed at Belarusian kids who looked longingly to the West for music, fashion and a feeling of freedom they lacked at home. It had an edge, and though it was apolitical, it had a larger cultural agenda: to spark some life in what Belarusians call "the gray mass."

"We don't know why this issue became a target," Vidanava says, holding one of the few remaining copies of the magazine's most recent publication. The government claimed it was printed with "dangerous ink," she says, with a sardonic laugh. The cover story is about shoplifting and shows an attractive young woman with various purloined goods stuffed into the top of a pair of long, sexy stockings. It's a typical cover, and fairly racy for Belarus, where state media manage to be both dull and paranoid, and rarely deal with serious social issues. Vidanava assumes that the crackdown is election-related.

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