Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and his son Nikolas "Kolya" Lukashenko

MINSK - At the age of nine he has already met a pope and a few presidents. He likes guns and carries around a gold-plated pistol he was given by former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

Wearing his mini-uniform, he attends military parades and takes part in high-level meetings. Meet Kolya, the youngest son of Belarusian President, Alexander Lukashenko.

The nine-year-old ranks 43rd on the list of Belarus’ top 100 most influential people, according to the local independent weekly magazine Nasza Niwa. He sits higher on the list than the head of the Orthodox Church, the vice-chief of president’s administration -- and all the opposition politicians.

President Lukashenko rarely goes anywhere without his son, so Kolya – the diminutive of Nikolas – has already attended an audience with Pope Benedict XVI and meetings with Hugo Chavez, Raul Castro, and the presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Armenia, among others.

A little prince

In April 2008, President Lukashenko appeared for the first time in public in the company of a young boy. They worked side-by-side on the construction of a huge sport hall, mixing and pouring concrete. The next day, a photo of them was on all the front pages, accompanied by the title “Who is the boy?” No one had the answer, and the presidential press office denied knowing anything.

The boy’s identity didn’t stay secret for long. A few days later, during a television documentary, the child was seen addressing the president as “dad.” That is how Belarus learned the existence of the Lukashenko’s third – and secret – son.

Kolya was born in 2004 to Iryna Abelskaja, Lukashenko’s former personal doctor. So why did Belarus only learn of the child in 2008? At that time, the president had just enlisted the services of Lord Timothy Bell, a famous British PR expert who was tasked with improving the perception of Belarus in the West.

Exposing the child to the public was one of Bell’s ideas to soften the image of Lukashenko – who has been called the “last European dictator.” Lukashenko has denied the speculations: “This is not a PR campaign. Am I the only president with children? Yes, Kolya belongs to politics. That is his destiny as a presidential child.”

Like father, like son

Since his first public appearance, Kolya has accompanied his father everywhere. Together they regularly visit workplaces, meet with World War II veterans and attend cultural events. During military parades, the child is saluted by soldiers and generals alike. “When he learns on the television that I have been somewhere without him, he makes a scene,” says Lukashenko.

Kolya’s strong personality manifested itself early. The president revealed that in kindergarten, his son would never want to take his mandatory afternoon nap. He would ask the director for authorization to play, which would be granted immediately. For the past two years he has been home-schooled – but it is unclear why. Kolya has his father’s difficult character, as the president himself once confessed.

The boy has never been seen with his mother. The Russian press speculates that Lukashenko doesn’t let her see her son, something that the president has never addressed publicly.

Special forces

President Lukashenko, 59, who has been in power since 1994, has declared that he considers Kolya as his successor – a statement he later recanted, saying the whole idea of a political dynasty had been invented by the opposition to scare Belarusians.

Meanwhile the Belarusian’s contempt for their long-ruling president has now partially shifted to Kolya. There has been a lot of criticism of the fact that the boy was born out of wedlock and various rumors on the Internet have said that he was the son of a stewardess, or that he bit and spat at a police officer. The general belief is that Kolya is allowed to do whatever he wants.

“Society reacts negatively toward Kolya because his presence during official meetings is obviously inappropriate,” says AleÅ› Ancipienka, a media expert. The country’s antipathy toward his son worries President Lukashenko. If he loses power, he has said he hopes that no one will “victimize my children, especially the youngest ones. I hope they will be able to live and work peacefully, without being stigmatized about their father."

Kolya’s future is difficult to predict. Lukashenko’s two other sons, who are older, are public officials. Wiktor is a presidential adviser for security and supervises all the related ministries. The second son, Dzmitryj, is the head of the presidential sport club.

In an interview with a Latvian TV station, Kolya said that he would like to join Spetnaz – military special forces – to defend his homeland.

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Ideas

Reading Rumi In Kabul: A Persian Poet's Lesson For Radical Islam

Born some eight centuries ago, the famed poet and philosopher Rumi offered ideas on religion that bear little resemblance to the brand of Islam being imposed right now in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime.

The work of 13th-century poet Rumi still resonsates today

Mihir Chitre

Among the various Afghan cities that the Taliban has invaded and apparently "reclaimed" in recent weeks is Balkh, a town near the country's north-western border. Interestingly, it was there, about 800 years ago, that a man called Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi, was born.

Some see the grotesque exhibitionism of the Taliban advance as a celebration of Islam or a "going back to the roots" campaign. As if followers of Islam were always like this, as if every willing Muslim always propagated austerity and oppressiveness. As if it was always meant to be this way and any shred of liberalism was a digression from the quest of the religion.

In fact, a look at the history of the religion — and of the region — tells a different story, which is why there's no better time than now to rediscover the wisdom of the poet Rumi, but without doing away with its religious context.


In a world where Islam is a popular villain and lots of terrible acts across the world in the name of the religion have fueled this notion among the West and among people from other religions, it's paramount that we understand the difference between religion as a personal or spiritual concept and religion as an institution, a cage, a set of laws created to control us.

Why do you stop praying?

To begin with, and largely due to the film Rockstar, the most famous Rumi quote known to Indians goes like this: "Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there's a field. I'll meet you there."

Rumi's original Persian verse, however, uses the words kufr (meaning infidelity) and Imaan (meaning religion), which was translated as "wrongdoing" and "rightdoing." To me, the original verse surpasses the translation with a vital, often missed, often deliberately forgotten, interpretation, which is to highlight the fact that there is humanity, love and compassion or a certain kind of mystical quality to life beyond the concept of religion and that is the ultimate place, the place where Rumi invites us to meet him.

It would be incorrect now to read this and think of Rumi as irreligious. In fact, he was quite the opposite. But his interpretation of religion was personal, spiritual and not institutional or communal or exhibitionist.

In one of his poems, translated by Coleman Banks as "Love Dogs" in English, a man who has stopped praying to God because he never got a response meets "Khidr," an angel messenger, in his dream:

Why did you stop praising (or praying)?

Because I've never heard anything back.

This longing you express is the return message.

To me, through this poem, it's clear that Rumi advocates for a personal relationship with God. In fact, he goes on to say that being true to God is to long for his validation or nod, that life is longing.

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevl\u00e2na Museum in Konya, Turkey

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevlâna Museum in Konya, Turkey — Photo: Georges Jansoone/Wikimedia

Don't sweep the history of Islam with the broom of radicalism

For those familiar with the European literature of the 20th century, I could say that this echoes the ideas of Samuel Beckett. But remember: Rumi lived 800 years ago, at the heart of what we call the "Muslim world." To equate Islam on the whole with repressiveness and hostility, as many of us do today, might just be a criminal contradiction then.

It's also interesting to note that after the Quran, Rumi's is probably the most widely read work in the Islamic world, which suggests that Rumi's ideas, which may sound too progressive for anyone remotely associated with Islam in today's world, have, in fact, been accepted and cherished by the Islamic world for centuries. Sweeping the whole history of the Islamic world with the broom of radicalism wouldn't then be the fairest assessment of either the religion or of radicalism.

This physical world has no two things alike.
Every comparison is awkwardly rough.
You can put a lion next to a man,
but the placing is hazardous to both.

(From the poem: "An Awkward Comparison")

It's tragic that the Taliban has ravaged the same place with their own power-hungry, totalitarian interpretation of the religion which once produced a mind that embraces it with wide arms of warmth and peace and refuses to be compared with other followers of the same.

How to cure bad habits?

It is vital for us to separate groupism or communalism, which often escalates to barbarism, from the thought it is based on. It is vital then to read and reread that what Rumi sees as religion is the private association with God. It is also vital to mark the emphasis on individuality in Rumi's thought.

All the Western ideas of liberalism are based on the idea of individuality, which in turn is based on post-renaissance European thought. Asian philosophy is contrasted with its Western counterpart in the fact that it is rooted in mysticism as opposed to individuality.

Islam itself has long had a tradition of mysticism that is known as Sufism. Sufism is a sort of an inward dimension of Islam, a practice that encourages a direct, personal connection with the divine, a spiritual proximity to the omniscient that transcends the physical world and temporarily subverts immediate reality.

Sufism is the quest for the truth of love and knowledge, without necessarily always distinguishing between the two. Rumi was known as the Mevlana (Maulana) and his poetic collection Masnavi meaning "the spiritual couplets" is known as the Persian Quran. He was no doubt a mystic, a Sufi, and one who strongly endorsed the personal, for the most intimately individual is the truly spiritual.

Rumi might remain unparalleled in not just the Islamic world but also in the world of philosophy and poetry across the globe. Another thing that he will remain is dead. The Taliban, on the other hand, at least for now, looks rampant and alive.

It is now up to us, the other people who are alive, and the ones who are going to be born — not just Muslims but everyone else as well — to choose which interpretation of Islam we uphold or react to, how we read history, and what we borrow from it.

How to cure bad water? Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits? Send me back to you.

(From the poem: "My Worst Habit")

I think what we, as a world, need now more than ever is to be sent back to Rumi.

https://thewire.in/culture/re-reading-rumi-in-the-time-of-the-taliban
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