Refugee University: the Belarusian University exiled in Lithuania

 

Calling Belarus the last dictatorship of Europe has become such a cliché it’s almost tacky. Yet, one cannot deny the obvious — the authoritarian regime of president Lukashenko, who has been in power for more than 20 years, has been left reeling in the aftermath of the conflict in Ukrainian, but not ruined. In fact, his authority may be the strongest it has ever been with the “so long as there is no war, it’s good” policy of enduring Belarusians.

I was born and spent 17 out of 24 years of my life in Belarus, a country where innocent people are being sentenced to death by firing squad; where you get arrested for clapping, and the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature is not officially recognized in her homeland and, moreover, is being criticized by the president for “throwing mud at the country”. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

In a recent conversation, a friend of mine told me I might be “the first normal by-product of a post-Soviet education system”. We laughed it off, but the weight of responsibility put on my shoulders still haunts me in my sleep.

Earlier this year Belarus — to my own very big surprise — after years of unsuccessful attempts, was accepted into the Bologna Process, yet students in its universities still study ‘The Belarus Ideology’ and get expelled and sent to prison for their political views. So maybe I truly am a rare kind, who managed to escape this fate and fled to “the island of academic freedom” — the Belarusian university exiled in neighbouring Lithuania.

The European Humanities University was established in Minsk in 1992, two years before the fatal elections when the former farmer Lukashenko came to power. Building a completely new academic environment free from the Soviet ideology had been a risky business all along, but surprisingly enough, it was not until early 2000s when the EHU’s rector Anatoly Mikhailov was asked to quietly leave his post to subsequently be replaced with a more suitable for the government candidate. When he refused to do so, the university was shut down for, reportedly, technical issues which were the lack of suitable for educational purposes buildings. It was year 2004.

Students and professors were motivated to fight for the idea of a liberal arts university in a country where there was no place for anything liberal- to escape the ghosts of Soviet education and official national ideology- so they took to the streets. Their efforts and protest slogans were meritorious, but not enough; just like the rest of the protests and attempts to bring about change in Belarus. Lukashenko took responsibility for shutting down the university, because apparently it was too pro-Western, creating an elite that would lead the country towards the West.

Eventually Lithuania, with the help of Western donors, gave the European Humanities University asylum, and it reopened its doors in Vilnius in 2005, sharing a building with one of the local university departments. Most professors commute to Lithuania to give seminars for a week or two and then return to Belarus, where they have other jobs, not necessarily in academia. Rumour has it, the first students of the Lithuanian EHU had to study on Sundays, because there were not enough free classes, and they were never sure if the university would be open the following day. Nevertheless, it’s been 10 years since the Belarusian university in exile started selling the feeling of exclusivity and eliteness to Belarusians.

Yes, Lukashenko was absolutely right when he feared that EHU taught young Belarusians to think. As well as to question everything starting with the country’s status quo. Indeed, EHU is a place where students are challenged rather then taught, where they share the canteen tables with professors, argue during seminars and then head bar hopping together, but what does this proclaimed freedom really cost them?

There were times when I envied my mates who studied in Belarusian universities where they where told what to do, what to think and how to copy/paste about it, whilst I was having mental breakdowns over my essays and theses. On the bright side, I had my good times in EHU too. It was not the time of my life, as people like to call the university years, but in hindsight, those sleepless nights at a library seem way more romantic to me than some of my sleepless nights with guys.

If you turn to Google or go to the official website of the university, you will find young boys and girls smiling back at you from the picturesque photos in and outside of the campus, followed by successful stories and promises of a better life and the benefits of a European education. What you would not read though is how KGB keeps the track of probably every other student here. Or at least they did back in my days. I, unlike lots of my uni mates, was not approached by KGB people myself, but my mom had been stalked by one, who kept calling her and coming into her work for weeks and weeks asking, quote, “is your daughter ok? Does anyone hurt her there?” Maybe it was just him hitting on my mom — I don’t want to know.

When some of my school teachers found out that I was planning to go to EHU, they turned down their normal tone to a whisper, as if it was dangerous to even speak about it out loud, claiming that I would never get a job with “that diploma”. Obviously, they hadn’t learned over those 11 school years that I had always been a bad ass with the look of an angel, so threats like these only excited rather than scared me off. [pullquote type=”right”]..it was like we were in a Bond movie series, the secret spies the Belarusian government wanted us to be.[/pullquote]

And yet, being a part of the EHU community felt really special and unique. When we had to hide or even delete some educational materials or any harmless but potentially undesirable files from our laptops before crossing the border, it was like we were in a Bond movie series, the secret spies the Belarusian government wanted us to be. To them, EHU is the hotspot of the opposition, where students do drugs, bang and learn how to make bombs. If the first two might be true, because, come on, it’s university life, I didn’t have a single lecture on bomb-making or a line in the university bathroom. Maybe I had chosen the wrong department. Anyway — and I bet my university mates will hate me for telling this, but I’m doing it solely to illustrate how far and ridiculous the Belarusian government can go — when I was a freshman, the national Belarusian TV made a “revealing” story with the footage of a student gathering in a dorm room, where a couple of students were discussing that pigs have orgasms that can last for 30 minutes. The punchline of the story (journalist, not pig orgasm) was somewhat like “see, what these junkies are taught in that famous university in exile”. I mean, to me that story was more educational than embarrassing, because I was never more respectful and jealous of a pig.

The war between the Belarusian government and EHU reached its peak when the expelled student showed up in yet another “honest” story about the university. It turned out that it’s not even a real university, because EHU diplomas are just a piece of paper rather then a Soviet-style hardcover booklet, students do what they want, and classes are not 8am to 2pm, six days a week. That student was a classmate of mine, and I’m pretty sure she wanted to drag me into this too. She still sometimes messages me on Facebook. As far as I know, she had got her booklet diploma at Belarusian State University and even worked as a journalist before getting knocked up by some Italian and moving to Italy. It’s all fun and games to recall this, and I definitely have something to tell my potential kids, but aren’t students just pawns in this political game?

[pullquote type=”left”]..you will definitely hear Belarusian spoken more within the walls of EHU than in any university or public place in Minsk.[/pullquote]While the Belarusian government accuses EHU of anti-Belarusness (if it’s not a real word, it should be), the university in exile is way more Belarusian than Belarus itself. Leaving behind the fact that fewer people now come to study at EHU for political reasons or in search of academic freedom, and more because of the EU residence permit, you will definitely hear more of the Belarusian language being spoken within the walls of EHU than in any university or public place in Minsk.

On a wide scale, the idea of a university that teaches the skills of critical thinking to young individuals from a country that has been struggling with the national idea and values for years, is more than appealing. A lot of graduates work for opposition political parties, independent media and for private businesses. Even those who stayed abroad are often involved into research projects or international organizations that focus on Belarus. EHU indeed prepares the new Belarusian elite, whatever this means, and such a university might be exactly what Belarus needs- now more than ever. However, the question I keep asking myself is, is EHU just a Belarusian ghetto in exile?

The sad reality is that if you ask a regular Lithuanian about the university in exile here in Vilnius, chances are they would pop their eyes and then frown in confusion. If you ask a regular EHU student where they hang out in the city, they would name the places so fancied by other generations of EHU students, that those who want to break away from this community usually avoid them.

Of course, there are those who break this circle, assimilate and live a happy life as locals (not to brag, but I’ve been told a bunch of times that I am already more Lithuanian than lots of native Lithuanians are). Cheers to them, but let’s be real. The problem is that the majority of EHU students don’t really strive to integrate into Lithuanian society. EHU may technically be a Lithuanian university, but all the classes there are either in Russian/Belarusian or English, which leaves the students with no knowledge of Lithuanian, even on a primitive level. It’s not the university’s fault, it’s that the students themselves don’t want to learn it whatsoever. They are young and reckless, they come here full of ambition, adamant that “it’s just temporary”.

As a result, they often limit themselves to the EHU community, where everything and everyone is familiar, “homey”. They close themselves up in this group of Belarusians in Vilnius, and afterwards return to the homeland completely disappointed in Lithuania (because no one welcomed them here the way they expected) and the university itself, because it’s not only fun here. Eventually, after four years they are still foreigners who know very little about the city and its inner life, and blame it on the Lithuanians being cold.

Be that as it may, EHU is still a project with no clear future. And the further it changes, the blurrier that future is. The only obvious thing is that it is not returning to Belarus; not because of the authoritarian regime, but because Belarus is not ready for it- included or excluded from the Bologna Process. Neither are the administration and students of the university. To the former, a university in exile is a cool project to attract the donors, to the latter, it is nothing but a “window to Europe”.

 

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