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Sasha Filipenko: "The Lukashenko regime simply took away my home and the opportunity to return"


Sasha Filipenko is one of the most popular Russian-speaking writers. He is the author of the novels "Return to Ostrog", "Red Cross", "Travelling", "Ex-Son" and many others. In 2020, following the protests against Alexander Lukashenko's regime, Filipenko became one of the most famous faces of the Belarusian resistance.

Media Loft's correspondent spoke to Sasha Filipenko about how not to lose yourself in emigration and love your nostalgia.

- At what point did you realise that there is an equal sign between the words 'move' and 'emigration'?

- I'm not a model emigrant. I left Belarus back in 2004, after which I lived in Russia for fifteen years. From time to time I returned to Minsk in order not to lose touch with my beloved city. But in 2020 I lost such an opportunity: the regime put me, as well as many Belarusians, under criminal investigation for political protests.

I had to move to the West, but I would not call it relocation in the conventional sense. I was simply deprived of my home and an opportunity to go back there.

- What is the hardest thing about emigration for a creative person?

- The hardest thing for me is not having friends. They, too, have dispersed all over the world. Now we are always looking for neutral territory to cross paths.

It's also frustrating not being able to fall asleep and wake up in a place where you truly feel at home. You can't go for a bike ride around Minsk. Can't go back to your flat when you want to... I'm deprived of something natural, a piece of myself.

- How do you fight nostalgia for home if emigration is forced?

- Does it have to be done? If you have nostalgia, that's fine. It's a truly wonderful feeling.

There are, of course, evenings when I close my eyes and imagine myself back in my room, in my hometown; it never goes away.

And it is unlikely to go away, because I have essentially lost two homes - in Minsk and in St. Petersburg. And I miss both of them. However, I could never fall in love with Petersburg as a city. But in Belarus, both the city and the street where I lived really captivated me.

- Do you have a recipe for depression and apathy, which emigrants suffer from?

- When I hear the question how not to get depressed, I smile and raise my hands - I'm already in it (laughs).

I guess you have to accept the new reality and try to adapt. Try different options, maybe something will click. I know people who join chats in various communities in the new place and try to establish relations with the diaspora of their compatriots. It didn't work for me, though, because I'm pretty closed in principle. I don't even communicate much with Belarusians, although I travel a lot and constantly perform in different cities.

So, I would like to tell you how to take it out, but I don't take it out myself.

- Should you learn the local language, or not, if you are a digital nomad?

- Of course I do. There's a lot of interest hidden in the language itself. It's also a respect for the host country.

Today, for instance, I'm mastering German - my fifth language in my life. Although I live in a city which does not need it - people speak English very well in Basel and I understand some French. I can kind of take it easy. All the more so, as life and profession do not require an obligatory knowledge of the language.

But I think it is important. And it broadens my horizons: for writers, for example, it helps to scold translators if they are sloppy with their texts.

- Have you, a Belarusian passport holder, come across the fact that you are looked upon abroad as an accomplice of a terrorist country?

- If only very tangentially. For example, one of the publishing houses I cooperate with has removed from its website the mention that I had won the "Russian literary prize" - as it was officially called. Absolute nonsense, to be honest, as the competition was held before the war began. Removing information about it from my profile page doesn't change the fact that I received it.

It doesn't hurt at all if a person suddenly wants to make a point about my nationality or political position.

First of all, it's silly to pick on nationality at all. You cannot judge people, their morals or beliefs based solely on their passport.

And secondly, those who want to present me with something can tell me what they themselves have done in their lives to oppose the regime, so that war does not happen. And we will compare... I think the conversation will be very short. Though fortunately such people and such situations do not stick to me, they bypass me.

- Three countries where are you most comfortable outside your home country?

Switzerland, where I currently live. Basel is the most liberal city in the country. Very open, people go out of their way to meet each other here. It's a very creative place with a lot of museums. I would also say Great Britain. I appreciate the humour and people who can take a huge amount of problems with irony and banter about themselves. I would also add: I lived in Amsterdam for two months and literally fell in love with it.

Frankly speaking, I could easily live in Lithuania, Poland or Italy. I have no problem adapting to a new environment.

But I settled in Switzerland because three of my publishers work here: it's easier for us to keep in touch and coordinate our activities. Besides, I travel a lot for work. Accordingly, one has to be in the centre of Europe, because one has to constantly leave and come back.

- Three practical tips from Sasha Filipenko for those preparing to move abroad?

There is no need to be afraid of anything. Especially talk about your needs and problems. No matter what country I have found myself in, people have always been helpful, open. It is important to explain what the difficulties are and not to set yourself up in advance for some kind of negative reaction. It is normal to admit difficulties and fears.

Don't think that everything you see around you is forever. You never know what tomorrow will bring, no matter how stable it seems.

Well, my main advice is never to listen to anyone's advice.

Interview by: Dmitry Gertschikov

Photo: Sasha Filipenko's Facebook


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