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Carl Gershman’s Light
The Dalai Lama, Carl Gershman, and Svetlana Alexievich

Carl Gershman’s Light

A tribute to NED's legendary president

Alexander Lukashuk

On Christmas Eve, 2010, I was waiting in line at my local Prague supermarket, exhausted at the end of a long day, a longer week, and an endless year. I had just returned from the excruciating presidential election in Minsk, which ended, as elections usually end in Belarus, with huge crowds of protesters in the streets, thousands chased and beaten by the regime’s riot police, and some seven hundred arrested and imprisoned. At midnight I was broadcasting live from Minsk’s Independence Square for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and for CNN, which did not have its own crew in Belarus. I was alone except for two watching police colonels. The snow was still stained with blood.

The English I was speaking must have bewildered the colonels—who hesitated long enough for me to finish my report, then hustled me away. At RFE/RL we had spent the whole day looking for something cheerful to broadcast to our audience in Belarus—year-enders, maybe, or prognoses. But cheer was in short supply. The battle was lost, and lost battles are rarely inspiring.

Then, as I was daydreaming in that slow supermarket line, it occurred to me: To hell with special holiday programming. Let’s throw it away and instead read out, on the air, the names of the seven hundred people who were arrested on election night. Probably because I was tired, I also thought, why should RFE/RL read the names? Why not ask someone else to do it? Then, as if in a dream, I saw Carl Gershman’s face.

That was how the most mind-blowing program in the history of RFE/RL’s broadcasting to Belarus was born. I had no idea, of course, that over the next couple of days, Carl would make us work as we’d never worked before, his only excuse being that he worked even harder.

I met Carl for the first time at the  at the Prague Forum 2000—Václav Havel's beautiful lantern, which continues to generate his light long after his departure. On that day I got a call from the forum’s organizers saying that Havel, the former Czech president, wanted to give an interview and talk about Belarus. He sneaked out of the meeting, as he loved to do, and we sat side by side in a corner behind the marble columns of the Žofín Palace. When the interview was done, I stayed to listen to the discussion. Carl was speaking.

Although we had never met, I knew Carl had always been a friend of RFE/RL. He supported our mission; when he was in Prague, he got in touch. During one of his visits, RFE/RL’s then-president, Jeff Gedmin, asked me to take Carl to dinner. I called a friend at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) to ask for advice. Should the restaurant be kosher? Vegetarian? A fish place? He laughed. Carl is interested in good talk and people, he said, not wine or dessert (he was wrong about dessert).

When I recently learned that Carl was planning to retire, I scrolled through my email and tried to count the number of messages I had gotten from him after that dinner. When I passed a hundred, I stopped.

But one day stood out. On December 29, 2010, Carl sent me 16 separate mails.

When we planned for the reading of the seven hundred names, the procedure seemed straightforward. We would call a VIP and read him or her the names of ten prisoners. The guest reader would repeat them. Then the recording would be edited and prepped for air.

But how on earth do you get a U.S. Senator, a French philosopher, a Polish minister of foreign affairs, a Canadian ex-prime minister, and a Central European prince—all living in various time zones—on the line in the first place, during the holiday season? The answer to that problem turned out to be straightforward as well: you have Carl do it.

He called, emailed, texted, hypnotized, and used whatever magic NED’s statute allows. Ministers and dissidents, priests and musicians, trade union leaders and Congressmen responded. Condoleezza Rice, Yelena Bonner, Joe Lieberman, Sergej Kovalev, Francis Fukuyama … to name a few.

Carl’s first email to me that day was a yet-to-be published op-ed he had written for the Washington Post. He had tentatively titled it, “Repression for the Holiday Season,” a nod to the fact that dictators are particularly active when others are distracted. But Carl was not distracted. When the piece was published the next day, the Post’s editors called it, “No Holiday from Tyrants.” Similarly, tyrants weren’t going to get any holiday from Carl.

Throughout the day, Carl kept sending me suggestions. One of his emails included forty names—plus brief descriptions, plus email addresses for people from the prime minister of Malaysia to a Cuban dissident, a Congolese human rights leader, an Iranian Nobel laureate, Pope John Paul’s biographer, and the Dalai Lama. “Let it fly,” Carl advised, “and see what happens.”

The name of former President George W. Bush popped up in mid-afternoon: When Bush was in office, he had welcomed a group of Belarusian dissidents to the White House. I had mentioned the idea to Carl but didn’t really think it was possible; it was just wishful thinking. Carl, however, didn’t do wishful thinking. A couple of hours later, he sent me an email he’d just received from Condoleezza Rice, who had been Bush’s secretary of state: “President Bush has agreed to do this. His chief of staff Mike Meece will be in touch.” Carl added one word of his own: “Bingo.” I answered, brilliantly, “Jesus.” Puzzled, he emailed, “What does ‘Jesus’ mean?” I gave the only possible answer: “Someone who can make miracles.”

"Voices of Solidarity" was on air all New Year’s night, repeated again and again and again, shortwaves bouncing around the globe and hitting prisons and palaces, ears and hearts. It was heard by the prisoners themselves, some equipped with short-wave radios in their jail cells; their families, colleagues, and friends listening at home. The response among listeners in Belarus was enormous. The program gave that strangest of gifts that humans can share beyond time and distance—hope.

“The name Carl is a boy's name of German origin meaning ‘free man’”—thus spakespake Google. Carl once wrote to me that his mother’s family emigrated from Minsk in the 19th century via Wales, “though I’m hazy on the details.” But I believe the details of his origin are quite clear: He is a man of, by, and for freedom, a citizen of the most wonderful and fragile country humankind has ever dreamed. And the happiest.

When I was on vacation in Florence soon after the November 2016 U.S. election, I sent Carl a quote from Chapter 18 of The Prince, “How Far a Prince is Obliged by his Promise.” He replied, “Can easily be an op-ed in the WSJ or NYT. Niccolò wouldn't mind.”

But prison censors in Belarus did mind when we tried to send a book with a foreword by Gershman to the book’s hero, Ales Byalatsky, an internationally known human rights defender and Carl’s friend who was serving a five-year sentence. “The Byalatsky Case” was written and published as part of RFE/RL’s Liberty Library, a project supported by NED. So, we copied Carl’s foreword by hand and sent it to Byalatsky as a private letter. Carl had campaigned hard for Byalatsky’s Nobel Peace Prize candidacy and was “deeply touched” when we sent him a photo of “his” handwriting in Belarusian. It was difficult to decipher but that was deliberate, to get past the censors; Ales received and read it with delight.

Soon after Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 2015, she accepted an invitation from Carl to visit Washington and NED. Alexievich’s meeting with Gershman was consequential in several important ways. Soon afterward, NED supported the publication of several of her books in the Liberty Library, then helped launch her “Intellectual Club” in Minsk. In my opinion, Carl and NED also influenced Alexievich’s worldview and her appreciation of action on behalf of democratic values. Last year Alexievich joined the opposition governing council and has become a vocal supporter of the democracy movement, both financially and rhetorically. Finally, finding herself in forced exile, she continues to speak forcefully and unequivocally on behalf of democratic values.

Democracy needs to be defended.

A year after "Voices of Solidarity" was broadcast, I asked Havel to write New Year’s greetings to political prisoners in Belarus. His secretary forwarded the text to me, with his signature heart at the end, and apologized, explaining that Havel could not manage a recording for radio: His health was failing. He died in his sleep three days later; his message to me was his last missive.

A couple years ago, I met Carl at an international conference in Prague organized by the Czech Foreign Ministry and dedicated to foreign policy challenges. The date was December 18, the anniversary of Havel’s death. Speakers at the conference talked about new economic realities, immigration burdens, the need for multivectoral politics. When Carl spoke, toward the end, as the evening darkness descended behind the tall baroque windows, he was the first person at the conference to invoke Havel’s name. He was the only one who spoke about Havel’s vision.

Carl gave a charitable explanation for the conference participants’ neglect of Havel: The new team, he said, probably wanted to assert themselves and escape from Havel’s shadow.

But people like Havel don’t cast shadows: They cast light. As does Carl.

P.S. One early Saturday morning in May 2020, I woke up thinking of Carl and sent him a message that today makes me blush a bit. It read:

I wanted to send you a note for some time already, just to say at this difficult time how much I appreciate what you and NED have been doing and to thank you for your longtime support and friendship. Actually, in fact, I wanted to say that you are very much loved, and I always look to you as an example of higher purpose, commitment and optimism. Pandemics bring one’s sentimentality out, I guess.

The mail bar showed the Prague time: 7:22 AM. The return mail popped up: “Such a beautiful message. Thank you so very much. I hope you’re well. Carl.” The answer was also timed 7:22.

Does he ever sleep?

Alexander Lukashuk is director of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Belarus service, based in Prague. He is the author of books on U.S.-Belarus history, including Adventures of ARA in Belarus (2005) and Oswald in Minsk.

Image provided courtesy of NED and the author.

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