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  • A Fair King

    The first release of this interview by Tattsiana Melnichuk with Aliaksei Karol was published on our website in May 2015. We already knew about Mr Karol’s cancer at that time, but nobody expected that he would leave this world so soon...

    I was very per­sis­tent in try­ing to obtain this inter­view because every­one whom I probed about the “hid­den birth­marks” of edi­tor Karol1  first and fore­most stat­ed: “The King is fair!”

    Mel­nichuk: It is known that jour­nal­ists are talk­a­tive and quick wit­ted, and when it comes to gos­sip­ing about chief edi­tor boss­es they would rarely hold back. But jour­nal­ists of your news­pa­per are eas­i­ly and nat­u­ral­ly giv­ing you unforced com­pli­ments, with­out quo­ta­tion marks. I don’t want to pro­voke you into a self com­pli­ment, but what are you doing to them to earn such a favourable feed­back?

    Karol: I doubt I can answer this with any clar­i­ty because I nev­er thought about this… Some time ago, in the ear­ly 1990’s, we had a goal – to form a news­pa­per. Every­thing else was done and worked out on the job, with the flow. It was a nor­mal thing: a con­cept is born, dis­cussed, adopt­ed, and into this con­cept authors write mate­ri­als.

    If the con­cept proves bad, one needs to change it, dis­cuss it again. If this is done open­ly and col­lec­tive­ly, there is no ground for argu­ments and offense.

    The sec­ond prin­ci­ple that I am con­scious­ly adher­ing to I would define this way: a per­son does those things best, and writes on those sub­jects best, to which he or she is nat­u­ral­ly attract­ed. So the author choos­es, and I choose what the author does best, and so the prin­ci­ple of our part­ner­ship is formed.

    In addi­tion – and every­one in our team under­stands this – the pay depends on the input into the com­mon work. And when the chief edi­tor and oth­er edi­tors are no rich­er than staff writ­ers that is also val­ued and pos­i­tive­ly impacts the cli­mate in the team. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, in our inde­pen­dent papers one can­not count on high prof­its, but it is a duty of the edi­tor to pro­vide for at least a “non-hun­gry” lev­el of pay to authors and also to pro­vide trans­paren­cy on the newspaper’s bud­get.

    Ali­ak­sei, over­all, are you con­trol­ling your writ­ers?

    Karol:  I don’t par­tic­u­lar­ly need to: we agree who does what, and it gets done. Some things of course I mon­i­tor, some things we dis­cuss, some things I argue with, but that is nor­mal.

    I wouldn’t call myself a par­tic­u­lar­ly demo­c­ra­t­ic man­ag­er, but I am also not an author­i­tar­i­an one, to such an extent as to force a change in posi­tion or opin­ion of the writer. We have a nor­mal atmos­phere in the paper, and I am sur­round­ed by clever peo­ple.

    Thank you for relat­ing to me the feeed­back on myself from our “smok­ing room”- in our team we are not used to water­falls of com­pli­ments. Jokes, mutu­al teas­ing are our nor­mal behav­iour. Even when we con­grat­u­late one anoth­er, we do so with­out much pathet­ic, more like with friend­ly teas­es.

    How to Reach Concord in New Times

    You men­tioned cre­at­ing a news­pa­per in the ear­ly 1990’s. Did you mean Zgo­da2?

    Karol: Yes. The for­ma­tion of the Novy Chas3 was a forced act, because Zgo­da was shut down by a court deci­sion in 2006, on the eve of the pres­i­den­tial elec­tions. At that time, one of the can­di­dates to the post of the pres­i­dent was Alexan­der Kazulin. In his speech to the All Belaru­sian Con­gress, Lukashen­ka threat­ened that “the lit­tle paper” that sup­ports Kazulin would be shut down and its jour­nal­ists, if they would be found guilty, would be put in prison.

    The shut­down of Zgo­da was per­haps the first instance of clos­ing down of a news­pa­per by a court order in his­to­ry of Belaru­sian jour­nal­ism, but at least, thank God, the jour­nal­ists were not impris­oned. One year lat­er (also like­ly a unique instance) we man­aged to cre­ate anoth­er news­pa­per. That was very dif­fi­cult.

    With the help of BAJ we care­ful­ly stud­ied laws and reg­u­la­tions and found some dis­con­nects and gaps. We also care­ful­ly avoid­ed men­tion­ing my name in that attempt. It first appeared only in the sec­ond issue of the Novy Chas.

    For the Novy Chas, I owe the debt of grat­i­tude to the Belaru­sian Lan­guage Soci­ety, Aliona Anisim and Aleh Trusau. They are the ones who start­ed the news­pa­per and passed on to us the nam­ing rights and reg­is­tra­tion. Until we start­ed our coop­er­a­tion, the Novy Chas pub­lished 48 issues, but it was com­ing out irreg­u­lar­ly. By now, the Novy Chas has run close to 450 issues.

    So the Novy Chas is a glar­ing exam­ple of what can be accom­plished through coop­er­a­tion of pro-demo­c­ra­t­ic groups, orga­ni­za­tions and indi­vid­u­als. We will always remem­ber the Belaru­sian Lan­guage Society’s deed, hon­our and respect be on them.

    At the end of 2007, already the Novy Chas, we were again under threat of shut­down. But we man­aged to defend the paper, in large part thanks to the sol­i­dar­i­ty and sup­port of all inde­pen­dent media in Belarus that start­ed a mas­sive cam­paign in our defence. Inter­na­tion­al reac­tion, espe­cial­ly that of the high lev­el EU lead­er­ship, also helped.



    To the Novy Chas you brought with you the Zgo­da team?

    Karol: The core of the team was pre­served. That is first of all Aksana Kolb, deputy chief edi­tor, and Svi­at­lana Piarouskaya, style edi­tor. Both clever and beau­ti­ful ladies, orga­niz­ers, jour­nal­ists. The abil­i­ty to do every­thing is anoth­er chal­lenge in fight­ing for democ­ra­cy in the severe con­di­tions of author­i­tar­i­an half-under­ground. The moment we under­stood that we might have a chance to renew under a new name, every­one gath­ered togeth­er, and Aleh Novikau (also known under his pen name Lyolik Ushkin) even returned from Ukraine. Then new peo­ple came too, and they merged into the team and they rec­og­nized the Novy Chas as part of their iden­ti­ty. This is a team, not a bunch or mer­ce­nar­ies, or dai­ly labour­ers. Maybe that’s why we man­age to work on the prin­ci­ples of fair­ness and sol­i­dar­i­ty.

    The Novy Chas (the New Times) – is it just a name or tru­ly new times for a group of like mind­ed col­leagues that came over with you? When I am recall­ing Zgo­da, as it was then, the first thing that comes to mind is that it was a par­ty news­pa­per.

    Yes, Zgo­da was cre­at­ed as par­ty news­pa­per, by the Par­ty of People’s Con­cord, which sub­se­quent­ly became the Belaru­sian Social Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty (Hra­ma­da).  Zgo­da was formed on the basis of the mag­a­zine Polit­i­cal Inter­locu­tor (for­mer­ly, an offi­cial mag­a­zine of the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee of the Com­mu­nist Par­ty of the Belaru­sian Sovi­et Social­ist Repub­lic). The mag­a­zine by then lost all via­bil­i­ty and could not com­pete – that was the time of the free­dom of press and democ­ra­cy, the ear­ly 1990s! Henadz Karpen­ka, the head of the Par­ty of People’s Con­cord, was offered to buy out the mag­a­zine, pay its debts, and then take over every­thing. I lat­er regret­ted that we did not do this, did not pre­serve the mag­a­zine, even under the old name, but chang­ing its con­tent.

    But we made a news­pa­per instead, hav­ing decid­ed that we need­ed a more oper­a­tional­ly mobile medi­um than a mag­a­zine. By the way at that time Zgo­da count­ed 47,000 sub­scribers – a con­se­quence of the ele­vat­ed read­er engage­ment amid the thirst for infor­ma­tion of those times.

    As for the par­ti­san­ship, in Zgo­da, even in those days, in my opin­ion there was not a lot of it. But the myth of Zgo­da as a par­ty paper, the cliché, got stuck. It took us many years to wash them off. We even ordered an inde­pen­dent expert review, and it con­firmed that we devot­ed less space to the social demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty and its lead­ers than news­pa­pers unaf­fil­i­at­ed with polit­i­cal par­ties.

    And Zgo­da was a tru­ly “par­ty media organ” in the prop­er sense for maybe three months max­i­mum. I real­ized soon enough that the par­ty paper route was a dead end, the world was free of par­ti­san media, and we had to rid our­selves of the par­ty affil­i­a­tion. We dis­cussed this with the par­ty fel­lows, with Chair­man Karpen­ka and decid­ed: let us not repeat the Sovi­et era mis­takes with its par­ty cen­sor­ship of press. A par­ty can have leaflets, newslet­ters, and so on, but a mass news­pa­per can­not be a par­ty organ. And so we became inde­pen­dent.

    But  I remem­bered that whole sto­ry very well, and there­fore when we cre­at­ed the Novy Chas we decid­ed clear­ly: no par­ty affil­i­a­tions, no depen­den­cy on any par­ty.

    The choice of lan­guage played an impor­tant part in our con­cept of the Novy Chas. In Zgo­da we ran cov­er­age in both Russ­ian and Belaru­sian. And it always so hap­pened that the Russ­ian lan­guage exceed­ed its quo­tas: some­times a writer found it eas­i­er to write in Russ­ian, or we did not have the time to trans­late, or some­thing else – and, ok, fine, let it go!

    Aleh Trusau, the founder the Novy Chas who was pass­ing it to us, had a prin­ci­pled posi­tion:  you want the title, only in Belaru­sian! And I agreed: the Belaru­sian lan­guage for Belarus is indeed a mat­ter of prin­ci­ple!

    And the lan­guage in essence already begins to dri­ve the con­cept. The Belaru­sian idea, formed back in the begin­ning of the 19th cen­tu­ry, was based on the val­ue of the lan­guage, the cul­ture, as foun­da­tion­al for build­ing the state­hood and inde­pen­dence.

    And those became the main pil­lars of our con­cept. Plus we added three full pages to for­eign cov­er­age – not just reprint from oth­er sources, but whol­ly orig­i­nal con­tent, an attempt to cre­ate con­text for mak­ing sense of our own, Belaru­sian, sit­u­a­tion against the back­drop of glob­al devel­op­ments.

    Our anoth­er impor­tant prin­ci­ple – to write about seri­ous things, but with­out the arti­fi­cial intel­lec­tu­al­ism.

    Ali­ak­sey, as the chief edi­tor, do you pre­fer to work with younger jour­nal­ists, or more mature ones? Or per­haps the “aces” that came with you from Zgo­da are like “sacred cows” in the Novy Chas, while the young ones are work­ing their butts off to make a name for them­selves?

    We have nev­er had the prob­lem of “aces” and the young ones. Like all inde­pen­dent news­pa­pers, we do not have the resources to keep a large team. The paper is made by nine full time per­sons;  over twen­ty more write for us free lance. And even the so called “aces” are only around forty now. We do not dif­fer­en­ti­ate by age or past achieve­ments: if a 20 year old writer pro­duced a wor­thy arti­cle, both myself and the edi­to­r­i­al team will pay him prop­er dues just as they would to an old­er vet­er­an.

    A year ago Vika Chap­l­e­va, a sec­ond year uni­ver­si­ty stu­dent, came to us with a good sto­ry. Now two more stu­dent jour­nal­ists came, and their mate­ri­als run in both print and online.

    I am remem­ber­ing your own team, Belaruskaya Mal­adzezh­naya. Siarhei Pul­sha, who worked there, now works with us. Before he came to us he worked at BelA­PAN, was pro­duc­ing short infor­ma­tion­al pieces. When he came to us and we were dis­cussing top­ics for him I said: “Write the way you feel.” And he opened up, he is won­der­ful in ana­lyt­ics – polit­i­cal analy­sis, por­traits, rec­og­niz­able by his sub­tle irony, own style, with­out exag­ger­a­tions, fac­tu­al­ly cor­rect.

    The task of a media leader is to help the writer to find and demon­strate his tal­ents.

    And those who start­ed the paper, they used to be young, and now they are mature… Our team’s aver­age age is around 40. But this aver­age num­ber is so high only thanks to me, my 70 years.

    On the Harm of the Revolutionary Romanticism

    Ali­ak­sey, where does your last name, Karol (Belaru­sian: King) come from? Do you real­ly have roy­al roots? Or is it from the West­ern Belaru­sian word karol that means a soft furred  domes­tic rab­bit?

    In Belarus, by the way, there are many peo­ple with the fam­i­ly name Karol. I got curi­ous about it – there are plen­ty of Karols in Uzda and Byarez­i­na dis­tricts. My father came from Byarez­i­na. The researchers I talked with about this believe that in Belarus that name comes not from roy­al palaces but from excel­lence at work: a king of his craft, so to speak. And so here and there tal­ent­ed crafts­men became “kings.”

    You come from the coun­try side?

    More like from small town, a dis­trict cen­tre. On my mother’s side, great grand­moth­er was an inden­tured peas­ant. So I am not from nobil­i­ty (and am under­ly­ing it to those who are now active­ly look­ing for blue blood in their veins), I am a peas­ant, I don’t have the noble pride. But my grand­fa­ther was a forester, it was a fair­ly high local posi­tion at that time.

    My father was an orphan. When his father kicked him out of the house at the age of twelve, he was home­less for a while, and when he was caught, he became an appren­tice at a smith shop, then a fac­to­ry work­er, and final­ly went to voca­tion­al school. The World War II found him as a local youth affairs offi­cial in Bia­lystok, at the very West of Belarus then. He did not even man­age to enlist prop­er­ly – joined a spon­ta­neous mil­i­tary for­ma­tion and retreat­ed with it, amid con­stant com­bats, to Moscow, broke away from encir­clement. He fought the entire war, with infantry, at the front, made it to Konigs­berg, East­ern Prus­sia. My father’s penul­ti­mate job was the Dis­trict Exec­u­tive in Smarhon. As a con­se­quence of the war wounds he had his leg ampu­tat­ed, and after that was trans­ferred to Mal­adzech­na, where he head­ed the beer fac­to­ry for a while, then retired.

    So Smarhon and Mal­adzech­na are my native towns. Until the sev­enth grade I stud­ied in Smarhon; fin­ished sec­ondary school in Mal­adzech­na, from there entered the Min­sk Ped­a­gog­i­cal Insti­tute, his­to­ry depart­ment, hav­ing worked a year first – the first attempt to enter col­lege was unsuc­cess­ful. Then served in the army, came back, fin­ished the his­to­ry depart­ment, with dis­tinc­tion.  Then I was direct­ed to work to the Acad­e­my of Sci­ence, Insti­tute of His­to­ry.

    I know you have a PhD in his­to­ry. What was your dis­ser­ta­tion top­ic?

    Post war Ger­many, 1945–47. The Sovi­et occu­pa­tion­al admin­is­tra­tion in East Ger­many. Poli­cies of the allies in Ger­many after 1945.

    Wow! A high risk top­ic even now!

    As well as very inter­est­ing. I chose it myself, I was for­tu­nate that my advi­sor in the Insti­tute was Dr Illar­i­on Ihnat­sen­ka. He had a prin­ci­ple, which I took up for my own work with peo­ple: free search, work on what appeals to you.

    I was assigned to the depart­ment of his­to­ry of social­ist coun­tries, head­ed by Alexan­der Matsko. He too did not stran­gle free thought in his depart­ment.

    I would not say that my PhD the­sis was writ­ten then as I would write it now. But it is from that top­ic, I think, where came my crit­i­cal assess­ment of every­thing that was hap­pen­ing in the Sovi­et Union. Because I had that top­ic, I gained access to secret archives in Moscow, archives that required spe­cial autho­riza­tion. In the archive, I had to hand copy what I need­ed from the doc­u­ments into my own note­books, which were num­bered, col­lat­ed and stamped by the librar­i­ans. The note­books were sent to the First Depart­ment of the USSR Acad­e­my of Sci­ences, there, I had to again hand copy from them. I was allowed to use the find­ings in my research but not make ref­er­ences to the source. I man­aged to obtain allowance to mark “Archives of the Sovi­et Mil­i­tary Admin­is­tra­tion” as the source. Noth­ing more spe­cif­ic than that.

    In the archives I came across spe­cial briefs by TASS (Tele­graph Agency of the Sovi­et Union – the offi­cial news agency of the USSR). They were marked NFP – not for print­ing. Among them were trans­la­tions of for­eign com­par­a­tive his­tor­i­cal research of the Stal­in and Hitler regimes. Those were mas­sive type writ­ten vol­umes, made in one copy only, for the high offi­cials. For­get­ting my own research, I was con­sumed by read­ing them.

    So it actu­al­ly makes sense that total­i­tar­i­an regimes lim­it access to archives – his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments pro­voke the mind, awak­en doubts, crit­i­cal think­ing, and in the secret closed off archives free thought is born.

    The first move­ment in my mind was under­stand­ing of the need to cleanse the social­ist idea of Stal­in­ist stains, return to the orig­i­nal – moral – brand of social­ist “with human face.” After that came the under­stand­ing of the very con­cept of social­ism and bol­she­vism in their true real­i­ty. And the shock of real­iza­tion that it was from that very con­cept that the total­i­tar­i­an regime began.

    It so hap­pened that when the free­dom of speech start­ed to emerge I was the first to tell about the Belaru­siza­tion pol­i­cy of the 1920’s (a pol­i­cy with­in the Sovi­et Union that allowed, and even encour­aged, for­ma­tion of the nation­al cul­ture and insti­tu­tions in Belarus as part of the USRR). I even wrote two arti­cles, and they were pub­lished by the Sovet­skaya Belorus­siya, still an organ of the Com­mu­nist Par­ty. The jour­nal­ists who worked there lat­er told me that when my arti­cle arrived, marked “urgent” to boot, every­one was sure that the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee sent anoth­er pro­pa­gan­da piece. When they opened it and start­ed to read their hair stood up – under the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee stamp, a total­ly sub­ver­sive arti­cle arrived!

    The per­e­stroi­ka opened the flood­gate. At the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee order I pre­pared volu­mi­nous reports, case for reha­bil­i­ta­tion of Use­val­ad Ihna­tous­ki and Zmitser Zhy­lunovich (Belaru­sian nation­al activists, gov­ern­ment offi­cials and authors exe­cut­ed by the Stal­in regime in the 1930’s) and all oth­er repressed Belaru­sians. Lat­er they did not even have to be reha­bil­i­tat­ed, life itself reha­bil­i­tat­ed them. I wrote a book about Ihna­tous­ki – the archi­tect of the Belaru­siza­tion of the 1920s.

    Today I would re-write my works from the ear­ly times – the study of the 1905 rev­o­lu­tion in Belarus, and sev­er­al arti­cles. Back then I did not have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to receive unbi­ased infor­ma­tion. I real­ize it now how hard it is to be an objec­tive researcher when you are sub­merged under an avalanche of ide­o­log­i­cal brain­storm­ing, pre­fab­ri­cat­ed infor­ma­tion, when not just sin­gle bricks – entire walls – are tak­en out from the his­tor­i­cal truth, lit­er­a­ture is fil­tered, and you just can­not break through all that. You feel that some­thing is not right, but you lack the proof, and the tiles refuse to make a mosa­ic!

    The total­i­tar­i­an regime always counts itself above the moral norms, but makes every­one else sub­ject to a moral stan­dard, and forces down on every­body a brand of rev­o­lu­tion­ary roman­ti­cism. Through that roman­ti­cism we per­ceived Bol­she­vism and the Sovi­et rule as some­thing just.


    Unfinished Business

    Ali­ak­sei, do you have many friends?

    Nor­mal­ly not too many friends. The clos­est, Lyavon Loy­ka, sad­ly passed away. He was six­ty years old. He was a friend in life and in cause, he and I were imple­ment­ing the par­ty project togeth­er, our first news­pa­per. I miss him very much.

    I have friends in the paper, in the par­ty, but I feel Lyavon’s absence.

    And have you been lucky with women?

    Yes, I have: from child­hood I was sur­round­ed by clever and beau­ti­ful girls and women. In my life there is one woman, the moth­er of my chil­dren. When we mar­ried, I was just a third year stu­dent, and a youth orga­ni­za­tion leader. The joy of my life, and my best prod­uct are my chil­dren. They are, by the way, my friends too. We have com­plete mutu­al under­stand­ing, respect. They chose their des­tinies them­selves, and quite suc­cess­ful­ly. That is pleas­ing.


    Do you retain per­son­al con­nec­tions with the “par­ty dias­po­ra?”

    I am not a par­ty per­son any more. It is health­i­er for a jour­nal­ist, espe­cial­ly in our sit­u­a­tion, under an author­i­tar­i­an dom­i­nance.

    I left the Social-Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty after the upper hand in it was gained by the group of mem­bers who vot­ed in favour of remov­ing Kazulin from the post of the Chair­man while he was in prison. Lyaukovich became the Chair­man at that time. This kind of deci­sion tak­en against Kazulin, who was behind bars, I con­sid­ered amoral. Of course elect­ing a new par­ty leader is a nor­mal thing, but not when that leader is in prison and on top of that is hold­ing a hunger strike.

    These inter­nal squab­bles only play to the hand of the author­i­tar­i­an regime. Such regimes always use per­son­al ambi­tions and weak insti­tu­tions in order to speed up mar­gin­al­iz­ing their oppo­nents. This is also nor­mal under repres­sions. The Belaru­sian Social-Democ­rats may have been the first ones to trav­el that road but today we are see­ing some­thing along the same lines in oth­er oppo­si­tion­al insti­tu­tions – their activ­i­ties are lim­it­ed and con­tro­ver­sial and the lev­el of author­i­ty in the soci­ety is quite low.

    It seems that in the com­mu­ni­ty of inde­pen­dent media things alto­geth­er look a lot more coor­di­nat­ed, there is more sol­i­dar­i­ty, even though there too var­i­ous things can hap­pen. How do you, a man with a well known polit­i­cal biog­ra­phy, feel in the shoes of a news­pa­per man? Do the old par­ty con­flicts get in the way of inter­view­ing men of pol­i­tics? And did the media broth­er­hood accept you as one of their own?

    My rela­tion­ship with men of pol­i­tics is nor­mal. One reporter’s prin­ci­ple is not to quar­rel with those you are going to inter­view. That’s one thing.

    Sec­ond, in my own past polit­i­cal life I man­aged to not cross the line between a prin­ci­pled debate and a per­son­al hatred. For exam­ple, with­in the Social-Demo­c­ra­t­ic move­ment I had a fair­ly com­pli­cat­ed rela­tion­ship with Miko­la Statke­vich. But, short­ly before those elec­tions after which he was thrown behind bars, we had a won­der­ful meet­ing and talk. We not­ed – both he and I – that with all our past argu­ments we nev­er made pub­lic neg­a­tive state­ments about one anoth­er. And so there were no obsta­cles for us to meet lat­er and for me to inter­view him about his activ­i­ties and his par­ty.

    At the Novy Chas we host­ed a series of round tables with polit­i­cal fig­ures of var­i­ous direc­tions. Even those who are in argu­ment with each oth­er we brought togeth­er and pre­sent­ed all views in our reports. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, nei­ther our­selves nor oth­er jour­nal­ists were able to influ­ence our opposition’s abil­i­ty to reach these past pres­i­den­tial elec­tions with a sin­gle can­di­date. The uni­ty has evad­ed us.

    As for the jour­nal­ist com­mu­ni­ty, yes, I agree that this real­ly is a com­mu­ni­ty with high­er sol­i­dar­i­ty. I see two rea­sons for this. First, we under­stood that when there is pres­sure we can hold up a bridge­head of free speech only by mutu­al­ly sup­port­ing each oth­er. Our own exam­ples – of Zho­da and Novy Chas – sup­port this asser­tion.

    Sec­ond, every medi­um is fair­ly autonomous. We are not com­peti­tors to each oth­er, we do not have to elect a sin­gle can­di­date. We have sol­i­dar­i­ty in our acts and our words but we do not have to agree on each pro­fes­sion­al move, as this is nec­es­sary in a polit­i­cal par­ty. Every news­pa­per walks its own way, but in the com­mon direc­tion, based on objec­tiv­i­ty, democ­ra­cy and free­dom of speech.

    Yes, we must have each other’s back and not allow them to suf­fo­cate us. This is pos­si­ble. A total­i­tar­i­an ide­al is a state of no inde­pen­dent media, no free out­let. So far the author­i­ties have not man­aged to reach this “ide­al” – in the media space, the oppo­si­tion man­aged to keep that bridge­head of free­dom. This is our com­mon cred­it.

    Do you regret leav­ing behind the polit­i­cal life?

    In my 70 years, look­ing back at the life I lived, I only regret that we did not man­age to estab­lish and real­ize vic­to­ri­ous­ly the idea of a demo­c­ra­t­ic Belarus. That idea was fair­ly wide­ly spread out in the soci­ety after Belarus gained sov­er­eign­ty.  The debate as to why that idea did not come to fruition con­tin­ues to this day: why we didn’t man­age, or was there a real chance?

    I think that there was a real chance but we lost it. We did not under­stand how to mobi­lize all the resources that alter­na­tive had. By the way, all this time to this day, all these twen­ty years after the fail­ure, this sit­u­a­tion has not been prop­er­ly analysed. Nei­ther by the polit­i­cal oppo­si­tion nor by ana­lysts.

    And what we did not man­age to do, we left to our chil­dren – they will have to fin­ish it. And for this, I feel a sense of guilt. My daugh­ter is com­fort­ing me though: “Your gen­er­a­tion did all it could, with all the faults, you cre­at­ed a foun­da­tion for a new, and this time vic­to­ri­ous, attempt for a demo­c­ra­t­ic reform.”


    What Awards are Given For

    I am very impressed by your report­ed, Zmitser Halko, who wan­dered around Ukraine and wrote a series of excel­lent mate­ri­als. Were you wor­ried about him?

    I was wor­ried, and we con­tin­ue to be wor­ried. That was his choice, his deci­sion – I have no right to send a reporter to a front­line of a war, take that kind of risk. We helped him as much as we could. First it was Maid­an. And after that, the hot path­ways of war. His reports and fea­ture sto­ries are very tal­ent­ed and sin­cere. I would com­pare them with the war reports by Hem­ing­way or Saint-Exu­pery. It is that lev­el of mak­ing sense, that same anti-war inten­si­ty – not a the­atri­cal pathos, but lived through, shown through the suf­fer­ing of the sto­ries’ pro­tag­o­nists.

    That is our luck that we have such a reporter. But I would pre­fer that there were few­er such oppor­tu­ni­ties to dis­cov­er tal­ents.

    You gave Zmitser a very high mark, and so did the read­ers. Did he suc­cumb to a star dis­ease? Was the team shak­en that one of its mem­bers reach so much high­er than oth­ers?

    No, nei­ther star dis­ease nor jeal­ousy were observed. He returned, and went back to Ukraine, today he is at Mar­i­upol. I admit that it is not easy for a chief edi­tor to man­age a reporter like that: the paper may have one need, and the reporter — anoth­er. You have to adjust. You can­not stop such impuls­es, he will do it any­way, as he thinks of it, so it is bet­ter to find a com­pro­mise.

    Our team has many var­i­ous types but all cor­rect­ly under­stand Zmitser’s “spe­cial sched­ule.” He chose the sub­ject of Ukraine, oth­ers chose oth­er sub­jects, and in their themes they are not any less tal­ent­ed.

    You speak so high­ly of every mem­ber of your team – every­one is tal­ent­ed, and every­one is wor­thy of respect. In your life, did you expe­ri­ence much praise?

    I can­not recall that I have been rep­ri­mand­ed for much. Praise, I sup­pose yes, I got. At school I got praise for his­to­ry and lit­er­a­ture, but not for maths. Mil­i­tary ser­vice I took as a neces­si­ty. Offi­cers were per­suad­ing me to join a pro­fes­sion­al mil­i­tary school but I knew firm­ly that orders and me in uni­form – that could not go togeth­er.

    You fin­ished the army ser­vice in the rank of sergeant?

    Actu­al­ly, lieu­tenant.  I served in the Sovi­et con­tin­gent in East­ern Ger­many , from 1964 till 1967, three years. There was that tra­di­tion in that con­tin­gent that men with 10 years of school­ing dur­ing their third year of ser­vice received two months of spe­cial train­ing and were dis­charged with a lieu­tenant rank.

    I served in the tank corps, on the then very advanced T‑62 tanks. After Ger­many was reunit­ed, I watched on TV how those tanks were being trans­port­ed back to USSR, for scrap met­al – such enor­mous quan­ti­ty of them was there in the for­mer social­ist block.

    I do admit, I am guilty of being a “storm troop­er” when it comes to dead­lines. I fin­ished my PhD the­sis at the last moment, and always, at the last moment before the dead­line, I fin­ish my arti­cles. I often got blamed for that, but the prod­uct seems to have always turned out well enough.

    Do you have jour­nal­is­tic awards?

    Yes. In 2008 I received the Knight Inter­na­tion­al award, named after an Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist by that name. This is a per­son­al award. And our news­pa­per received the Zeit Award in 2009. Such is the unique­ness of the Belaru­sian inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism – we receive inter­na­tion­al awards for resis­tance to author­i­tar­i­an­ism, to repres­sions, so to speak, for jour­nal­ism under harsh con­di­tions. I would wish that the sit­u­a­tion changed and we had a com­pe­ti­tion of tal­ents and received awards for qual­i­ty jour­nal­ism in nor­mal con­di­tions.

    The most amaz­ing, the bright­est thing that hap­pened in my life is this free­dom of self real­iza­tion and an attempt to a polit­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion of Belarus. I con­sid­er that a great hap­pi­ness that his­to­ry threw me that chance to break away from a total­i­tar­i­an regime. This  sweet feel­ing of stretch­ing your wings, speak and write what you think. Until 1994 it was in gen­er­al free, and after the total­i­tar­i­an regime was rein­stalled in Belarus, free­dom remained in resis­tance to it, in the inde­pen­dent media, in the Novy Chas. That sweet feel­ing of free word! I feel it at a phys­i­cal lev­el.


    We end­ed our con­ver­sa­tion on this emo­tion­al civic note – as befits peo­ple who have been tire­less­ly build­ing their long human and pro­fes­sion­al way.

    But before say­ing good bye, Ali­ak­sei sud­den­ly smiled:

    You know, I was being talked out of becom­ing a jour­nal­ist, and in fact did get talked out, and still, I am here!

    It turned out that he start­ed writ­ing to a dis­trict news­pa­per when he was still a school­boy, and after grad­u­at­ing from high school was not sure – his­to­ry or jour­nal­ism? And so an  expe­ri­enced writer of the dis­trict paper sin­cere­ly advised: “Stop this jour­nal­ism non­sense. Go and get a nor­mal pro­fes­sion, and if it real­ly gets to you, you can always find a job at a news­pa­per with any edu­ca­tion. But if you get a jour­nal­ism major, you will not get any oth­er job!”

    Such is our pro­fes­sion­al secret.


    1. Sur­name Karol trans­lates from Belaru­sian as King. Among the Belaru­sian jour­nal­ists, Mr Karol’s sur­name also became his affec­tion­ate nick­name, for the qual­i­ties lat­er described in this inter­view.

    2. Zgo­da was a news­pa­per cre­at­ed by Mr Karol in 1992. Its name trans­lates from Belaru­sian as Con­cord

    3. Novy Chas is the sec­ond news­pa­per cre­at­ed by Mr Karol and the one he head­ed at the time of this inter­view and till his death in Sep­tem­ber 2015. Novy Chas trans­lates from Belaru­sian and The New Times

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