by Karen Minto
Romanchuk: I grew up in the Soviet Union and the only kinds of ideas available at that time were Communist ideas. But I was brought up in a Catholic family, which is why there was kind of a hybrid ideology, with some ideas of Communism and Catholicism. That is why even in childhood I was somehow confronted with a choice, either official propaganda or family values. When I was studying in the university, I discovered some other things that made me doubtful about both philosophies and ideologies that I was brought up on.
Q: What did your father do?
Romanchuk: My father is an ordinary electrician, so he did very many odd jobs and my mother worked in a milk factory, so they are quite ordinary people living in a countryside five kilometers from Poland. The town used to be a Polish settlement but after the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact (1938), it was grabbed by Stalin and since that time it remained part of the Soviet Union. I do not see it being given back to Poland ever again. So I was brought up in a very normal ordinary family. Nobody had higher education. So now I am the only one who has.
Q: So, what made you start questioning ideas and how did that lead to an interest in Ayn Rand?
Romanchuk: I was lucky because I got very good teachers both in high school and at the university, and I wanted to be different from and to challenge the Communist environment. As a child I expressed myself through not drinking or smoking, or listening to hard rock music or having long hair, and not doing sports. There was very little information around. It was kind of a mosaic—the pieces didn’t match. You look for something, for some explanation for things going on. I also listened to "enemy voices" ("Radio Liberty," "Voice of America"). They described a very different situation about the world and about the "wild capitalism" and the inhumane treatment of the black people in America and poor people in Western Europe. I started asking questions and I asked them basically wherever it was possible. At the Belarussian Linguistic University, I studied English and American literature, so my first degree was in linguistics. It’s a pity that not a single professor in Belarus ever mentioned Ayn Rand’s name! The first people who did were Suzanna and Charles Tomlinson. They happened to come to Belarus on a tour in 1992. I am very grateful for my Randfather and Randmother for having introduced me to the great philosophy—Objectivism. They talked about rather controversial things from "their stump." I was thirsty for knowledge and wanted to learn more about the outside world and its rules. Charles and Suzanna sent me Atlas Shrugged. I love to read. You know Russian authors write big books. So I was not startled by the volume of the book. While reading, I was beginning to regret that it was only 1,000-something pages long.
Q: What was Belarus before the Soviet Union fell, spiritually, economically and politically?
Romanchuk: When Belarus was a part of the Soviet Union, it was the most developed industrial republic. GDP per capita was about US$6000. People who lived in other republics of the Soviet Union envied Belarussians because they were quite well off compared to Azerbaydzhanese or Armenians or Russians. It was an orderly clean Republic closest to the West. It’s like a syndrome of East Germany. To create an illusion of prosperity and success of the socialist system and central planning the Kremlin pumped money into Belarus. That is why Belarus did fairly good due to Soviet standards of course.
In fact we did not have basic consumer goods like toilet paper, sausage, toothpaste, good shoes and clothes—you name it. At the same time, top communist officials had everything. The concept of "an economic good" (scarcity of something) was unknown to them. Belarus produced a lot of tractors, bearings, trucks, steel, fertilizers. Centralized decision-making and lack of economic calculation and lead to huge disproportions in the structure of capital formation.
Ideologically, there was monopoly of communism and its close derivatives. Deviations were banned. The malcontents were sent to Siberia or to "cuckoo’s nests." Marxism and Leninism in their crudest forms ruled supreme. Belarussian people were deprived of their security system—the intellectual elite. First communists killed and sent to Siberia thousand of professors, doctors, land owners, merchants, etc. Then during the WWII, every fourth Belarussian was killed in combat and later in Stalin’s concentration camps. The totalitarian regime turned the people into a humble crowd armed in totalitarian ideology. So opposition was virtually impossible. Those who were different either emigrated or were sent to the Gulag. Secret police were everywhere. Big Brother was careful enough not to permit any ideological controversies. That was the atmosphere of the 1970s and 80s before the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Q: What happened when the Soviet Union was breaking up? What were the conditions then? Was there hope? Confusion?
Romanchuk: There was a great chance to establish a democratic state of law based on the principles of the free market economy. Thankfully, there was no war, as Belarus is a peaceful republic. There are no grounds for racial, religious or ethnic conflicts. Separation with Russia was quite smooth, though its shadow is still over Belarus.
There was one bad thing about my country. Intellectually, it was not ready to take on all the responsibilities of independence and taking over from the communists. Belarussian ex-communists were frightened and had to pretend that they were in favor of reforms. Opposition does not appear overnight. That is why all major positions in state bodies were still occupied by hard and soft liners. They did not call themselves communists, but in fact they were. The opposition did not have access to capital and mass media so it was being born very slowly. Belarus did not have any dissident movements, and could not rely on the intellectual support of its Diaspora (Belarussians living abroad). Another thing that made the ex-communists last was that the ideological opposition did not have a popular leader. Zenon Pazdnyak, leader of the Belarussian Popular Front, managed to alienate the Russian and Belarussian populations. Communists used to shout "Yankee go home." He said, "Russians go home." In a Republic where 95% of the population speak Russian as their first language, that was political suicide. Nationalists prevented democratic forces from unification and launching a decisive battle with communist.
So Belarus’ transition was quite slow. Gradually, it began to lose its advantages and capital. Instead of radical shock therapy—price liberalization, privatization, and institutional changes, Belarus decided to put all that on hold as it were and just see what was happening around it. It lost one of the most precious and rare opportunities in the forms of capital, time and trust of the people. Its leaders and nationalist radicals prepared the grounds for the comeback of a neo-communist dictator.
Q: What has happened since the fall of the Union? Have there been any intellectuals speaking out? Is there more freedom?
Romanchuk: In 1994, due to lack of reforms and coherent opposition, Alexander Lukashenko was elected first President. A new era of Slavic Chauvinism and neo-planned-economy dawned on Belarus. After four years in power, Lukashenko became a real danger—not only to the people of his own country, but became a major threat to Belarus’ neighbors. During two years in power, the President violated 19 laws (according to decisions of the Constitutional Court) and did not care about such "trifles" as the division of power, the rule of law, human rights, freedom of expression, private property. In November 1996, he fudged a referendum and dissolved the legally elected parliament. He monopolized all public and business structures and set controls over all major capital flows in and out of the country. Under his rule, Belarus is heading full speed to a centralized planned economy. It is the only country in Central and Eastern Europe that chose "old bottles and old wine." Belarus is ruled like one big collective farm by the whim of its director.
But every cloud has a silver lining. Under severe pressure, opposition managed to unite. It is easier with a common enemy. People are getting more knowledge and information about market economies, inalienable human rights and other basic concepts of Western democracies. I began to contribute to the public process of educating people and opening their eyes on the world in 1993 by writing articles in national newspapers and magazines. I read Atlas, The Fountainhead, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, and wanted to share my joy of the great philosophy with other people. After having worked for three years in business, I decided to take an intellectual career to be able to create an educated political and economic elite. I felt that I should do my best to prevent totalitarianism from spreading again.
Q: How did you hear about The Institute for Objectivist Studies?
Romanchuk: Having read Atlas, I wanted to learn more. So I wrote a letter to The Ayn Rand Institute. I thought that all organizations that promote Rand are like brothers, you know. There is a common enemy to fight against—the state. During the ISIL conference in Rome, I met Linda Abrams and Bob Bidinotto. We exchanged just a few words and I exclaimed, "What a small world!" I told them about the Tomlinsons and they said that they knew them. It was great! Linda and Bob told me that IOS was an institution open to reason, common sense and thorough analysis of Objectivism and reality. IOS seemed to have a strategy to make Objectivism not a dogma or pure philosophy for academicians, but an ideology and guidelines for an ordinary person be it in economics, social life, public activities, election campaigns—anywhere. So I was happy and lucky to meet "the two great couples" that had changed my world and life completely.
During the first days of my encounter with Atlas, I was working as the Director of a foreign company. It was a great opportunity to learn microeconomics first hand. In 1995, I decided to choose an intellectual career. I took the job at the Research Center "East-West," a Belarussian independent think tank. The Center provided analysis of various aspects of economic, social and foreign policy of the Belarussian and foreign governments. Later in 1997, Lukashenko closed the Center as a part of the campaign to take control over the third sector (non-government organizations) of the society. Of course, the president could not tolerate a free-market think tank while tightening an iron grip over the rest of the country.
Two years ago, I started working on my dissertation in economics, which is heavily based on the Austrian school and the morality of Objectivism. The thesis has been completed and I will have a chance to defend it at the sitting of the Scientific Board of the Belarussian University in December or early next year. It will be difficult, as all members of the Board are either communists or left-Keynesians.
I am a columnist of the independent weekly "Belarusskaya Gazeta" and I cover various issues of economic policy and legislation every week. I am also an Advisor to the Shadow Cabinet of Ministers and Chairman of the political party that stands for the free market, the rule of law and private property.
Q: What is the Shadow Cabinet of Ministers?
Romanchuk: It is probably a European invention. The politicians that were illegally ousted from the parliament and the government decided to form a body to analyze and criticize the president’s economic policies. All of its members are in the president’s black book. It means they can not be employed by anybody, neither the state nor in private businesses. Every company that dares give them a job is immediately audited and closed on any pretext. They are deprived of their right to live. Shadow ministers are quite influential people in the Republic. Among them there are ex-Chairman of the National Bank, ex-Ministers of Finance, Interior, Foreign Affairs, etc. They have wide contacts with international organizations. Influencing those people, I have a chance to have an impact on their policies and views and shape the future of Belarus in a way.
Q: I’m not clear. Is Belarus a Communist country or just a dictatorship with Communist overtones?
Romanchuk: Lukashenko is definitely a Communist by background, but he has acquired a different ideology now. He acquired the ideology of Slavic Chauvinism. So he would say "Slavs of all countries must unite but form another Soviet Union." He drafts his claims towards Communists and Chauvinists in Russia and the Ukraine. He wants to run for presidency in Russia. He’s got a plan and it’s a pity Russian democrats and policy makers underestimate his potential and ability to lie and buy votes. He is in close touch with Russian "red" regional governors. They want to avenge Yeltsin and the democrats for the breakup of the Soviet Union and the defeat of communism.
Q: How receptive do you think the people in Belarus and the former satellite republics would be to Ayn Rand’s ideas and what sort of plans do you have for spreading them?
Romanchuk: The people are receptive. I lecture a lot, so I worked out my course on economic policy at the European Humanities University and traveled around the country and with the same course. The audience was very different, varying from pensioners and students to ex-Communists. When presented in a non-aggressive, logical and consistent way, Objectivism is a very powerful tool and a very consistent ideology and philosophy for common people to acquire. People in post-socialist countries were used to having certain guidelines. Russian Orthodox and Catholic churches are trying to substitute the moral code of "a builder of communism" with The Ten Commandments. They are filling the ideological hole. However, many people are disillusioned, as the church does not answer many questions posed by the people of a country in transition. People look for answers to questions like what to do with economy, what is the balance between personal and social responsibilities, whether to rely on oneself and the family or on the state, and claim perks and subsidies from it.
There are some advantages to advertising Objectivism in transitional economies or emerging markets. I firmly believe that Objectivism is the right philosophy in every aspect. I think if properly advertised, it has tremendous potential to become a leading mainstream philosophy in that region. There is a strong sense of a deep crisis, a moral crisis, an ideological crisis, and an economic crisis.
So I’ve got a plan that I’ve been implementing for a couple of years already. First of all, I have to get professional status—so I’m getting a Ph.D. I will then have the right to talk to more people, because people still trust titles, not individuals. I have almost finished writing a book of my own on transitional economies. It’s based on Objectivism, and its contains a lot of facts and figures on transitional economies and some of them are good examples of successful reforms in say, Chile, New Zealand and Hong Kong. I discuss how Hong Kong managed to become one of the freest colonies in the world. So I am working in different directions.
The first level is the economic level. Strategically, I’d like to form an Austrian School of Economics in Belarus. It will take at least ten years to lay foundations for it. The next important group to work with is university staff and students. So I teach economic policy for students and for teachers of high school and university. It is necessary to work on the public level as well as with the political elite level, so I work with leaders of political parties and those who shape the policies. Cooperation with different foundations and non-government organizations is essential. The so-called third sector did not exist at all under socialism, but is now developing and is quite active. At present, it unites the most active people in the republic and the more guys you know, the better. The purpose of all these activities is to create a network to spread the ideas around.
Q: What kind of successes have you been having in Belarus and what sort of activities have you engaged in to spread Objectivism?
Romanchuk: Well, as I already mentioned, I lecture a lot, so I lecture in different institutions for different audiences and age groups and that’s very useful. I’m acquiring experience and I’m actually learning the background of people, so it’s very useful to me to create marketing devices to present Objectivism in the best possible way. Now I can say that there are at least 30 persons who are consistent Objectivists within the country and the number is growing. I write a lot of articles covering various political and social issues, and issues of economic policy. I write about two articles a week and publish them in major private newspapers in Belarus. I managed to get access to TV and made eight TV programs analyzing various economic issues. The President personally banned my access to TV. So I’m on the black list. Such an honor!
Q: How could it be good that he banned you?
Romanchuk: If Lukashenko banned somebody, it means the fellow is a good person.
Q: Is it a status symbol?
Romanchuk: Something like that. He feels it is a danger to his regime. By banning me, he just makes an advertisement for me, so I’m a public figure now. Being an Objectivist is a good thing, right? So the more I am criticized by the present state authorities, the better it is to advertise Objectivism. Besides, I made reports on welfare states in Europe, privatization of the pension system, the meaning of economic security in information age, morality of capitalism, at various international conferences. I had to defend capitalism in a capitalist environment from the people who called themselves capitalists. The ISIL conference was different of course, because they are all libertarians and Objectivists. The worst thing is that I had to fight Western experts who come to Belarus to preach and to call themselves defenders of capitalism, but in fact they are not. They are welfarists, or statists or inflationists—whatever—you name any kind of state intervention. So I am a radical expressing my viewpoint on the West, and at the same time, I provide facts about the state of the economy and public life in both America and Europe. You’d be surprised, but very few academicians in Europe consider America a welfare state. A lot of people are sure that America is laissez-faire capitalism, and that the state is very limited and that it is a perfect society to copy. One of the worst things in Belarus is that Germany and France and Italy are imposing their own models of economic structure and social security systems. And the model that failed in their countries is likely to fail sooner or later in transitional countries.
Q: What can "fellow traveler Objectivists" here in the United States do to help you spread Objectivism and perhaps make the world a safer place?
Romanchuk: I very much appreciate the help of Objectivists at IOS. It’s a great opportunity to deal with liked-minded people here in Boulder at the summer seminar. I have one plan for Objectivists in America to help not only Belarussian Objectivists but Objectivists at the international level. It involves primarily sending out Ayn Rand books and books of prominent Objectivists on various issues to my address (see the end of this interview).
Another thing is writing to Belarussian mass media. I have a column that is called "Austrian View," and while I cover various topics, it would be useful if some prominent American economists wrote to Belarussian newspapers, and I promise that all of these materials will be published. That would be important intellectual support. Those articles should cover major international issues and major issues of domestic policy in the States, such as the Social Security system, health care, etc.—because Belarus is sure to pass similar legislation. The intellectual influence of Objectivists is a must in this situation.
Another form of support would be to come and take part in various conferences and seminars in Belarus. It would be an honor and pleasure to have David Kelley or someone from Cato or Reason Foundation to come to our seminars.
Also, we could not afford sponsoring or finding money for that, because the money we have is from grants supplied by intellectual organizations that usually work with the government. And I tried to get Bob Bidinotto and Linda Abrams invited to conferences, but they told me that they did not have any options for them. At the same time, they sent some socialists who just talked nonsense about the importance of Jack London stuff that was outdated fifty years ago! Another possible form of support would be to invite some experts from Belarus to come to where interesting events happen, like this Summer Seminar, or any other event where serious issues are discussed.
I know that some of Ayn Rand’s books have been translated and published in Russian, but copies are so limited that they are not on sale in Belarus. We should work out a marketing strategy on how to promote her books in former Soviet countries.
Q: When you first came to America, what was your impression of the country, the people, the stores? Do you have any stories to tell?
Romanchuk: I first came to America a year ago. It was on the U.S.-European security tour and I was in a group of seventeen socialists from Europe. So it was a challenge to be there and not get lost. Anyway, it was a great experience thanks to the support of the U.S. government. I’ve been interested in American culture and history and I love English. That’s why coming here is a great event. I was happy to see Washington and New York, San Francisco, and meet friendly people and I’m sure that America is full of great people like Charles and Suzanna and Bob and Linda. It is better to see it once than listen to it many times on the radio or T.V. I’ve got the impression that America has potential. But you know, as Rand wrote, that intellectuals failed to do their job correctly and so you should somehow expand your marketing strategy on intellectual products. Americans are great in marketing software products, burgers, and military equipment, but you failed to market Objectivism, so you failed to protect capitalism and the ideas of your Founding Fathers.
I met some guy from the IMF and World Bank, and they were surprised when I showed them Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal and The Adventures of Jonathan Gullible by Ken Schooland. These are the best things we’ve ever read about capitalism! So go translate them into Russian and make one million copies, this would be the best intellectual help for transitional economies. The World Trade Organization does not do a good job in supporting new democracies in that part of the world because they pursue the policy of mercantilism and protectionism, so they do let their goods out, they do not let their people be employed in their countries so I predict a collapse of Western Europe soon. And that would make Objectivism a very useful and valuable intellectual product. The right thing at the right place at the right time! Mises and Austrian Economists were among the few who predicted the great depression in America. Nobody believed them, but it happened. The same thing will happen in Western Europe if it does not pursue the basic policies of the free market.
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