The Faculty of Humanities’ (FH) Department of Media Studies at Notre Dame University-Louaize (NDU) invited Dr. Victor Martinovich, Belarusian author, political scientist, and Associate Professor at the European Humanities University, Lithuania (EHU), to give a workshop surrounding power, creativity, and censorship titled, “Paranoia or Revolution: The Romance of Power and Survival in a Globalized World.” The topic of the session derived from Martinovich’s novel, Paranoia, published in 2009 and later banned in Belarus following its surge in popularity. Held in the Pierre Abou Khater Auditorium, key attendees included the Interim Dean of the FH, Dr. Maria Bou Zeid, Chairperson of the Department of Media Studies, Dr. Joseph Houssni, Director of International Relations, Dr. Jessica El Khoury, various faculty, staff, and students.
The author began by recounting his experience in the literary world, citing the contemporary writer, Neil Gaiman, a leading figure in speculative and science fiction, as one of his influences. “Gaiman’s work received the attention of the Chinese government, who lauded his ability to create imaginative fiction, which was becoming increasingly rare in China,” explained Martinovich. The importance of this point stems from China’s rapid development as a world power and its understanding of imagination as an imperative aspect of furthering cultures and societies. Martinovich said that this was a prime example of recognizing the overlap between ideology and literature, particularly the latter’s influence on the former in terms of societal progress.
Expanding upon this matter, Martinovich brought attention to an aspect lacking in education curricula, especially the American model: historical emphases. He argued that the neglect of history in education has contributed to a decline in imagination and creativity in the present day. “I understand why,” stated Martinovich. “Younger generations are more likely—and seem to prefer—to spend what free time they have watching films rather than engaging with a written text.”
Audio-visual media is convenient in that it is highly accessible and less time-consuming than reading. Martinovich neither disputes nor vilifies this, but instead aims to reintroduce the significance of written text in our contemporary culture by highlighting its long-standing historical tradition as the building block of both the individual and the collective. An example he provided: “St. John, Apostle and Evangelist, not only begins his Gospel with the Word, but you find it reiterated throughout his account.” Martinovich stated that writing and reading are creative acts that allow a person to exercise their imagination and form authentic views of the world and connections with others. “Imagination is indispensable,” he reaffirmed. “Our reliance on visual media stunts our imagination because it does the work for us. Those who consistently read books will always stay ahead in this respect.”
Prior to becoming a novelist, Martinovich worked as an editor of a fashion magazine. He said of the experience that though the job provided him with a privileged lifestyle, he realized that his audience was one of similar and higher socioeconomic standing. “The president of Belarus has been in power for 29 years as of this year, and that indicates the type of hierarchy we live in and the class of people that society privileges,” he offered. “I came to understand that I was addressing only a certain class, and I ultimately was not interested in doing so.” He turned to authoring his own work, Paranoia gaining notoriety for its critique of government surveillance and the corruption of the upper class.
Martinovich revealed the background of the publishing process, stating, “I didn’t even try publishing the book in Belarus, so I published it in Russia instead.” Paranoia’s publication was the result of an oversight of the book’s context, the themes of surveillance undermined by the love story that constitutes the plot, despite its allegorical function. “Paranoia eventually became a best-seller and was widely advertised in Belarus. I had a feeling that the book would change my life but I had no idea what the trajectory after the release would be.” Banning the book increased its popularity and was eventually scanned and uploaded online. Commenting on this, Martinovich asserted, “A book cannot be banned, because the soul of a book is the text, which—especially in the age of the internet—cannot be erased.” The novel quickly reached almost 200,000 downloads before it went to print in the US.
Martinovich faced potential imprisonment, and decided not to publish his works in Belarus, writing his second novel in Russian instead in 2011. Fast-forward to 2020, political tensions were rising, resulting in protests in Minsk, where many people were posing for pictures with Martinovich’s latest novel, Revolution, the author describing the performative posturing as a “bitter thing for me, because again, the meaning was lost on them.” The novel later reached Germany before the rights were sold to Penguin Random House to be published in the West. Martinovich admitted that his success as a novelist was not a source of joy for him, but a resentful reality where his work has been misunderstood and misapplied. “With the Minsk protests, I realized effective structural change was not possible because there was no sincerity in it.” Censorship in Belarus remains prevalent.
Closing with a Q&A session, Martinovich nevertheless encouraged the fight against censorship, which he believes begins with resistance to one’s own corruption. He referenced faith as a key element in this vigilance. “A lot of corruption is produced by a lack of faith.” In terms of free speech and censorship, he offered that the youth and future generations could begin by recognizing that society and culture as they exist today do not care for questions or creativity, again referencing a lack of historical knowledge that is imperative in contextualizing contemporary issues. Martinovich referenced the potential of Lebanon specifically, reiterating that creativity involves being rooted in tradition. “As Lebanese youth, rest assured that you have much to offer, because you have a rich, enviable history.”