In the summer and autumn of 2020, “The Square of Changes” was perhaps the most famous place in the rebellious Minsk geography. At first glance, it is by no means a remarkable patch of land with a modest playground and a gray transformer booth, which suddenly became the epicenter of a series of dramatic events: from spontaneous acts of solidarity and unconditional support, to tragedies that led to the death of a young activist and ruined the lives of anyone who stood against the regime.
Photographer Yauhen Attsetski has a direct connection to the people’s “square” that was named after one of the informal hymns of the protest 2020 – a Viktor Tsoi’s1 song “Changes!”. Living in one of the high-rises nearby, he was fast to realize its historical potential for the annals of the last presidential elections and started his photo project. In his case, however, the neighbor’s perspective gradually transformed into that of an observer with a camera, and later – into an archivist of the history that Lukashenko’s regime would try hard to erase from collective memory. Two years later, Yauhen’s images would be seen by 3 million readers ofThe New York Times, and it would take his team only a fortnight to raise more than 12,000 USD for the publication of the photobook about neighborhood protests demanding change.
In a special interview for the Status Platform, Yauhen Attsetski speaks about a difficult journey from the Tsentralny District Police Department of Minsk, where he ended up after being arrested at a rally, to the Ukrainian town of Lviv, where he is now based with his family in exile. After a search conducted by the KGB, he packed his entire life in several suitcases and in the midst of war, the photographer nevertheless continues doing his job: resisting Lukashenko’s regime to destroy the collective memory of Belarusians and finding reasons to be proud of his people and their struggle for a better future.
Belarusian photographer, citizen journalist. Works mainly in documentary photography. Collaborated with the UNDP, UNICEF, Red Cross. His photos and photo series were published in The New York Times, Sapiens, TIMER, Kultprosvet, etc. ‘He has participated in numerous exhibitions in Belarus and abroad. In 2021, facing political repressions, he moved to Kyiv, and with the outbreak of war – to Lviv, where he is still based.
– I got involved in the political life of Belarus back in 2006 and 2010 when the presidential elections were held, both times ending in a violent suppression of street rallies. Since then, my hope for the country’s different future has been fluctuating: fading with the outbreak of the war in Ukraine in 2015, and strengthening with the “parasites” marches in 20172, but never could I think where and with what thoughts I would enter 2021.
Initially, I was fairly neutral about the 2020 election campaign, but the queues for collecting signatures for alternative candidates at the polling stations quickly brought me back to my senses. It became clear that something very interesting was about to start. So, in May I grabbed my camera and went out to the city – and it was on the streets, documenting the unfolding events, where I remained for almost a year.
Often it is not you who bumps into a story, but a story that bumps into you. After the events of August 9, 20203, Belarus was in a state of shock. It became obvious: the elections had been rigged, and police clubs beat the desired result into people’s heads. However, too many civilians found themselves under the pressure of violence and faced repression, and the strategies of consequence-free aggression successfully tested in the previous elections this time did not work.
On August 11, I heard some noises coming from the backyard and saw my neighbors shining flashlights from their windows and chanting political slogans – actions for an ordinary Minsk neighborhood rather unusual, if not to say “out of the ordinary”. I remember shooting my first video that evening – a reel that later would become part of my project. Further events unfolded very rapidly: the appearance of a mural featuring the opposition DJs on “the Square of Changes”, its endless destruction and restoration, the death of Roman Bondarenko murdered by plainclothes police, Stepan Latypov’s4 arrest. As a documentary photographer, I recorded everything, realizing the extreme importance of not leaving any moment out of my sight.
After the start of the election campaign in Belarus, I always carried my camera around. Almost every day I shot political campaigns and actions held in the city or in my backyard. Finding a common language with my neighbors took some time – initially, they treated me with caution, as they usually do when spotting a man with a camera. Switching between two impulses (the roles of a neighbor and a photojournalist) was not easy, I should admit. The internal conflict was resolved when I realized that the government began to openly break the law. It was then when I made a decision, and my involvement in shooting ceased to be a hindrance, as I began to define my work as citizen journalism. I keep an eye on the documentary element, but at the same time I do not hide my political views and attitudes to what happens in the country.
While shooting, I constantly ran into policemen and tikhars5, and these encounters often ended in verbal disputes. It was difficult to hold back, seeing my neighbors under attack or symbols and objects important for our community destroyed. During the debates, I tried to address policemen not as functions and performers, but as citizens of the Republic of Belarus. I requested them to explain their behavior and asked them if they really wanted to live in such a country and whether they considered what was happening to be normal? These conversations were based on my assumption that doubt could provoke change – and to make tikhars question the adequacy of their actions was what I really wanted to achieve.
In November, after being detained on a Sunday march, I ended up at the Tsentralny District Police Department, where I unexpectedly saw patrolmen and tikhars from our yard. Despite the fact that all of them were either in balaclavas or masked, we recognized one another. I felt a bit uncomfortable finding myself on their “territory” this time. Also, among those working there that evening, there was one man who did not hide his face. Taking me aside, he said, “If I see you in that backyard again, you will pay all your neighbors’ fines!” His face is what I still remember well.
November 15, 2020 – the day of the attack on the “Square of Changes” – became the culmination of my backyard’s story, which made me seriously reconsider the form of my future project. I sent a proposal to create a photobook with a Swiss designer to Pro Helvetia and was selected. The work was carried out in a team: Melina Wilson helped us with the design, and the editor Alesya Pesenka – with the texts. In addition to photojournalistic storytelling, we decided to focus on eyewitnesses’ accounts and already then (in early 2021) I began collecting materials and shooting the portraits of the protagonists.
Since I immediately saw the project as a composite, consisting of exhibitions, a website and a photobook, I also approached shooting portraits in a complex manner. At first, I was planning to photograph all the participants with their faces in the open and hidden, thinking I could use the open variants, in color, in the book, and the closed ones, black and white, on the site. However, observing the repressions only growing in scale, I soon realized that the time to reveal my protagonists’ identities had not yet come.
But the materials I was collecting included not only photojournalistic documentation and interviews – to get a wider picture I also addressed my neighbors asking them to share mobile snapshots and videos of the main events that had occurred on “the Square of Changes”. This archive made it possible for me to almost completely restore the timeline of the mural’s creation and destruction. It turned out that the image of “the DJs of Changes” appeared on the wall more than 20 times.
I am very glad to have managed to collect my neighbors’ stories at the beginning of 2021, when the residents of “the Square of Changes” were still full of hope and shared their experiences very sincerely. Now, after almost two years of terror, people are extremely careful about being vocal and are very much prone to self-censorship. Fear seems to have consumed the whole country and its people. Today, making such emotional interviews would be impossible.
The goal of our project is not to let history be rewritten. In one of his speeches, Lukashenko said that he did not mind “turning over a new leaf”, which implied that he wanted to forget the events of 2020 and continue living “as before”. However, turning the page with one hand, the authorities use the other one to impose the regime of political terror, closing all the NGOs, all educational and cultural initiatives, liquidating independent media and giving unthinkably harsh prison sentences for any manifestation of dissent. My team and I, like many other Belarusians, consider it unacceptable to turn a blind eye to what is happening, and the project represents our attempt to remember and document the events of 2020-2021.
I see a photobook as an ideal form of such documentation because the book itself is a physical object that one cannot so easily cancel from the material world. In our case, the texts will be in two languages – in English and Belarusian, which we believe to be important. In 2022, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it became clear that confronting the eastern neighbor, with its imperial ambitions and a pronounced resentment, is a central goal of the entire region, and here language becomes one of the tools to distance ourselves.
In addition to the release of the photobook, we are planning to launch a site in four languages: in Belarusian, English, Russian and Polish. We have held more than 10 exhibitions across Europe. The most expressive, by the way, was the exhibition in Riga, where the festival’s organizers built a full-scale mock-up of the booth from “the Square of Changes” with a flag, a mural with “the DJs” and my photographs.
When working on the project, for the first time in my life, I also played an art manager’s role. As a manager, I had to deal with correspondence and meetings, fundraising, and accounting (searching for ways to finance my team’s salaries). Many of the team members (most of them are Belarusians, but there are also guys from Switzerland and Ukraine) were ready to work at reduced rates, some – for free. However, I believe that paying decent salaries to culture workers is extremely important, so I did my best to find ways to reward them for their input, which was not always easy… We addressed various organizations, called up embassies’ representatives, but many of our applications were never answered… I clearly felt the art world’s bureaucracy. Understanding that I did not want to change my project to fit every grant, I suggested organizing a crowdfunding campaign and reaching out to the community.
We managed to collect the requested amount in about a fortnight. We received a lot of orders from Poland and the USA – countries with strong Belarusian diasporas. Of course, I would really like the book to end up in the homes of Belarusians in our homeland, but so far, unfortunately, it is too dangerous. Ordering books from Belarus is possible, but delivery there is still questionable.
So far, we have received orders from 33 countries, and we also would like to send copies out to libraries. In April 2022, the issue of The New York Times came out with my photo on the cover – more than 3 million readers got acquainted with a story of our yard. I am very glad that so many people learnt about the events taking place in an ordinary Minsk backyard. This prevents Lukashenko’s regime from just turning over a new leaf. My neighbors were arrested and beaten, searches were carried out in their apartments, some are still in prison, many were forced to leave the country. How can you turn a blind eye to this and pretend that nothing happened? The Belarusians have demanded and are continuing to demand justice.
In July 2021, the KGB came to my wife with a search warrant (fortunately, she was not at home). This episode forced us to pack up and leave Belarus, and Kyiv became our new home – but not for long. On February 24, Yulia woke me up showing a video of Russian tanks entering Ukraine through the Belarusian border. This pushed us on the road again, and a few days later we arrived in Lviv. Of course, the war greatly unsettled me, but I managed to pull myself together and continued working on the project. The final variant of the photobook was sent to the printing house from Ukraine – the most important place in our region at this historical moment.
One day, on a bus I met a woman from Kharkiv. The trip was long, and we had enough time to discuss a lot of different topics: from politics and her life in Kharkiv to the former Khirkov governor Dobkin and “Ahnenerbe” research society, founded in 1935 by Himmler in order to search for artifacts of the ancient power of the German race. Like many Ukrainians who I had a chance to communicate with here, the woman was fascinated by Lukashenko’s animal-like resourcefulness, in which I often saw a reflection of a certain internal conflict. On the one hand, people in Ukraine hate Lukashenko for letting Russian tanks into the country, and on the other hand, they cannot but recognize his vitality and cunning.
To help my travel companion better imagine what many Belarusians had gone through in 2020, I showed her a still unfinished site about “the Square of Changes”, where one of the videos clearly showed hundreds of people gathered to honor the memory of the murdered artist Roman Bondarenko. After watching the fragment, she exclaimed, “And did it really happen in Minsk??”
I have been living in Ukraine for a year, having numerous contacts with the locals and I understand that many people have a very vague idea of the events in Belarus in 2020-2021. Most often, they admit to having actively followed the very start of the protests, then their interest faded, and later they only saw the headlines of individual tragedies, such as a plane landing with Roman Protasevich. And such a reaction seems natural to me: the Belarusians showed the same level of interest in the Maidan in 2013-2014. Unfortunately, the Belarusians and Ukrainians still know each other very poorly and do not always understand the peculiarities of the contexts. If I manage to stay in Ukraine (the Belarusians are now facing a lot of difficulties with legalization), I would like to do joint projects with local cultural figures. I am sure that something interesting might be born out of the dialogue between these two cultures, and we will begin to better understand our peoples.
Viktor Tsoi was a Soviet singer and songwriter of Korean-Russian origin who co-founded “Kino” – one of the most popular and musically influential bands in the history of Russian-language rock music.↩
A series of peaceful rallies held in 2017 in Minsk and a number of reginal centers in Belarus as people’s spontaneous reaction to a tax levied against the unemployed (or “parasites”, as Lukashenko would define them).↩
Belarus security forces viciously beat and detained protesters over the country’s presidential election outcome on August 9 and 10, 2020. The security forces used stun grenades, rubber bullets and slugs, blanks from Kalashnikov-type rifles, and tear gas against demostrators who gathered in Minsk and a few other Belarusian cities to protest the official election results, which were largely recognized as rigged. See, for example, here https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/08/11/belarus-violence-abuse-response-election-protests↩
One of the most famous “Square of Change” residents, an arborist who was attacked and heavily beated by plainclothes police force members in his own yard and later sentenced to 8.5 years of prison for giving flowers to female protestors in Augist 2020 in Minsk. During the trail Stepan tried to commit suicide with his last words being “”GUBOP [the most infamous police unit in Belarus] promised that if I don’t plead guilty, there will be criminal cases against my relatives and neighbours”.↩
Antiwarcoalition.art is an open online platform that collects statements against war and dehumanization created by artists from all over the world. Driven by the Russian aggression and war against Ukraine, this platform presents an opportunity to protest against war, massacres, and inhuman punishment of civilians, dictatorship, and patriarchal power structures. Antiwarcoalition.art shares artists’ and culture workers’ voices to public spaces and art institutions all over the world through a sequence of public presentations. The carefully programmed platform enables viewing and sharing art statements online.
It is an opportunity to express solidarity with those in Ukraine who are affected by military aggression, colonial, patriarchal, imperialistic, and political repression and those resisting terror.
The aim of antiwarcoalition.art is not only to present the artworks online but also to distribute them offline, by means of different events and presentations to bring the voices of artists to public spaces all over the world.
We stand for a global, open, and engaged network of solidarity that is not subjected to territorial, national, and any other borders. We are appealing to cultural workers worldwide to publish their anti-war, anti-dictatorial statements and artworks such as posters, videos, audio etc. on our platform.
What are we looking for?
Antiwarcoalition.art mission is to organize networks of solidarity in the fight against Russian aggression, support Ukrainians, and also show that the war that is taking place in Ukraine today is part of the global colonial, imperialist processes that take place politically, economically, culturally. We are looking for artists from all around the world who are willing to join the International Coalition of Cultural Workers Against the War in Ukraine, show support for Ukraine, and, most importantly, connect their anti-colonial actionsand experiences with the war that Russia unleashed.
How does the platform work?
We are appealing to art institutions, curators, cultural workers, and any democratic institutions worldwide to use the contents of the platform for practices of resilience.
We know that many institutions would like to join or are already actively joining in supporting Ukraine and condemning the war. Institutions are always looking for new ways to participate and new content to draw attention to the issue. Antiwarcoalition.art platform invites the art institutions to connect to the platform and host quality, moderated content representing the reaction of artists around the world.
How can I join?
You can upload your artwork (it can be audio, video or images) directly on antiwarcoalition.art platform and give your permission to spread and show your works online as well as in cultural institutions and other possible ways of distribution of the platform.
We want our voices to get united and to ring out loud and clear!
This platform was initiated by Ambasada Kultury and a group of Belarusian artists and cultural workers: Anna Chistoserdova, Oxana Gourinovitch, Valentina Kiselyova, Aleksander Komarov, Lena Prents, Antonina Stebur, Maxim Tyminko, who left the country between 1994 and 2021 due to dissent with the political regime. Later two Ukrainian curators Natasha Chychasova and Tatiana Kochubinska joined the team.
Ambasada Kultury is the initiative of Belarusian culture workers and activists with a goal of supporting and developing connections within and outside Belarusian cultural community, promoting cooperation and collaboration of artists and activists from different fields of culture. Based in Vilnius (LT), Berlin (DE)
Antiwarcoalition.art is a part of The European Pavilion, an international programme of the European Cultural Foundation that brings together art and culture initiatives that encourage critical thinking and radical imagination, and fuel bold perspectives on Europe and our common future.
The European Pavilion is developed in collaboration with, and with the support of, Camargo Foundation, Kultura Nova Foundation, and Fondazione CRT. The participating organizations includes: Ambasada Kultury (Lithuania/Belarus), ARNA (Sweden), Brunnenpassage (Austria), INIVA (London), OGR Torino (Italy), State of Concept (Greece), Studio Rizoma (Italy), and L’Internationale (Ljubljana, Belgium, Netherlands, Spain, and Poland).
Platform is also supported by The Danish Cultural Institute in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Nasta Zakharevich is a Belarusian freelance journalist who specializes in the topics of feminism, ecology, urbanism and social inequality. She collaborates with Belarusian environmental online media Zeleny Portal (Green Portal), blogs on Radio Svoboda, and writes for mediakritika.by. She covered the protests in Belarus for the EFE news agency, cooperated with the portal tut.by, city magazine Citydog.by, wrote for a news portal delfi.lv, a non-profit newsroom outride.rs and the international journalistic network ijnet.org. Zakharevich is a refugee.
CAMPAIGN TO SUPPORT FELLOW ARTISTS AND CULTURAL ACTORS IN UKRAINE
In times of peace or conflict, culture is an essential part of everyday life and human relations. And in times of war and oppression, the importance of the free voice expands. Artists and cultural actors play an increasingly important role in communicating stories, raising awareness of present social situations, and standing up against injustices. They have been continuously inventing spaces for dialogue between communities and networks, those who stay and those who choose exile. Culture not only keeps people connected but also insists on the humane form of these connections, and we need to stand up for this.
For five years, Konstepidemin has been running STATUS – The Role Of Artists In Changing Society – an exchange project involving independent artists and non-governmental cultural centers from Belarus. Since 2020, the oppression of artists in Belarus pushed many to leave the country. Often, the first place of refuge was Ukraine – a country that opened up and helped the artists, both on personal and institutional levels. Now is the time to support Ukraine, Ukrainian artists, and cultural organizations.
Konstepidemin, together with the STATUS Project, has initiated a project to raise funds to support fellow artists and cultural actors in Ukraine. Belarusian artists and their Swedish colleagues, with whom we have been recently working within the residency program, will present a limited edition of artworks for sale. These artworks will be available for purchase online: at Konstepidemin and artworks.se, and will be on view offline from 23rd of April through the end of May.
All proceedings from this campaign will go to Ukrainian Emergency Art Fund for cultural workers and organizations in Ukraine. The fund is established by (MOCA) Museum of Contemporary Art NGO, in partnership with Zaborona, The Naked Room, and Mystetskyi Arsenal – all of which are independent cultural actors.
Olga Bubich, Axel Karlsson Rixon, Ulyana Nevzorova, Patricia Vane, Johan Wingborg, Yauhen Attsetski, Natalia Katsuba, Ekaterina Lukoshkova, Bazinato, Ilona Huss Walin, Ilona Dergach, Dorna Aslanzadeh and guest appearence from Annika von Hausswolff.
I’ve been re-reading your text for a while, and what I concluded is that the adverb “not,” at the beginning of your statement, doesn’t hold at all: “We do not [author’s emphasis] agree with colleagues that everything we’ve done in art for the last 8, 14, 20, or for some more than 30 years, has been to decorate bombs.” If you remove ‘not’, it would read more plausibly. It’s not the silence or the Aesopian language in the early days of the war from the majority of Russian intellectuals that struck me. The most striking thing was the public posts about this being the end of their career, “I should have left earlier”, “it’s infuriating that scholarships are being rescinded” (for example, Ilya Matveev’s post with many comments). And, now, it is clear to me how culture functioned in Russia. You had huge opportunities and resources in comparison to Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, or Kyrgyzstan. When you write about the courage it takes to be engaged in contemporary culture in Russia (an insensitive/problematic statement against the backdrop of the bombing going on in), it sounds pretty funny, because it’s clear that you don’t know anything about the courage it takes to be engaged in contemporary culture in Ukraine and Belarus, Kazakhstan, or pretend that you don’t know about it. What kind of courage are we talking about if you have always worked “regardless” of the borders,having a certain historical “farsightedness”, although everything was happening before your eyes? How many collaborations have you had recently with artists from Ukraine, Belarus, or Georgia?
The readiness with which the contemporary Russian culture is willing to commit suicide is amazing, and yet it becomes clear that the connection of art with capital and embellishment was so strong that without it Russians do not know how to survive. The way cultural workers live in Belarus (the entire cultural infrastructure was financed with their own funds or NGO money, and there was no state funding in principle) and in Ukraine (conditions were slightly better) is incomparable with the amount of money and resources poured into Russian culture.You urge people not to retire because it’s still possible to do something but how can it be done if at the beginning of your statement you claim that it didn’t work out? This is a delay of at least twenty years.
I have always wondered why after 2014, Russian artists don’t put the war with Ukraine i.e. the annexation of Crimea on their agenda? Why are there no projects about Georgia, the war in 2008, and after all, about Chechnya? One of the few artists working with these issues is Aslan Goisum. What else could be more colonial than this silence? Of course, there are other examples — for example, the works of Anastasia Vepreva and others, but they are extremely rare. I remember that the map of the Garage Triennial included the Crimean peninsula, and this obviously caused a critical response from Ukrainian artists. There were no critical comments from Russian artists and only responses that Crimea is not the most important topic and there are more significant things. Sasha Obukhova, on the instructions of The Garage Museum, went to Crimea to explore Russian contemporary art and was surprised to admit that there were no contemporary artistic practices there — and Ukrainians responded to her that all art was expelledduring the annexation in 2014.
About anti-war Russian cosmism. We have always been annoyed by labeling cosmism as Russian. We cannot understand for what reason it is necessary to insist on its ethnicity. Why do with it what was done with the avant-garde, namely tightly gluing the adjective “Russian” to it and suppressing the universal internationalism of the avant-garde? Russian cosmism, with all due respect to your work, when viewed from the perspective of the former Soviet republics, has always looked like an imperial and chauvinistic concept, where “Russian” referred to self-exotisation and souvenirs. Nikita Kadan wrote about the realism of the pit — and this is where Ukrainian cosmism is now, while Russian cosmism shines out from the black hole of mobile crematoriums that the Russian army brought with them to burn the bodies of slain soldiers. We think that in the past twenty years, Russian art has been working not “against history”, but in the fog of history.
From the outside, work “against history” looks completely different. Here is an excerpt from the recent interview by the artist Vitaly Bespalov with Sergey Guskov (02/21/2022):
SG: Since you’ve mentioned the “inclination towards the right,” explain what your interest is here?
VB: As a rule, the extreme left believe that any engagement with totalitarian aesthetics by default makes you a supporter of certain ideologies. Although, in my opinion, this part of the political spectrum is not sufficiently studied in terms of imagery and aesthetic form. This engagement doesn’t mean that I am flirting with such aesthetics in some way. In general, I’m curious why it causes such a flurry of emotions in people. It is obvious that such ideologies are unlikely to seriously influence anything ever again, and their supporters are unlikely to gain power.
As a non-citizen of the Russian Federation, I am deeply frightened by the blindness of such statements. “The fog of history” has settled in so tightly — now you can understand why Putin decided on military aggression since statements of this kind come from the contemporary art scene. I’m not even talking about the hypocritical position of the authors of the TZVETNIK who made a dumb publication only on the 4th day of the war, but on the 11th day, they removed the blue-yellow mark from their Instagram profile and deleted their posts dedicated to Ukraine.
Imperial tropes become even more visible in an interview with the artist Daria Kuznetsova made by Anna Karpenko. The whole interview is indicative of what I mean; I copy a few quotes here:
Q: Is Russia’s aggressive policy towards the so-called indigenous small-numbered peoplesand the appropriation of neighboring lands accompanied by the destruction of local culture, language, traditions, part of the history of Russia at the “center of world history” for you?
A: I look at it a little bit differently.From my perspective, which is grounded in the historical and fiction literature that I’ve read,the policy of the Russian Empire was not aimed at oppressing the small peoples who inhabited it (their cultures, traditions, and religions), while the communist government even invested a lot in their development. The small people who lived on the territory of the Russian Empire and were part of it were not oppressed, their culture and religion were not destroyed. In particular, mosques, Buddhist pagodas, Catholic and Greek Catholic churches, synagogues, and Orthodox churches existed and were preserved — all this coexisted in all its diversity. Of course, there were more Orthodox churches, because there was a larger Orthodox population. Of course, the Soviet government didn’t support religion, not only small peoples’ one but also Orthodox — none at all. Which in my opinion, of course, was a mistake. <…>
Q: Aren’t you getting confused with the dark side of the great project of “friendship of peoples”? In Belarus, for example, in one night, October 29–30, 1937, the entire cultural, scientific, and civil intelligentsia (more than 100 people) were shot. In the period from 1937 to 1938, Stalin’s repressions against Belarusians reached its peak: more than 100,000 people were arrested, repressed, exiled to camps, and thrown into prisons. The Belarusian language was actually supplanted and replaced by Russian at the state level.
A: I don’t know the specific situation in Belarus, as far as I remember, Belarusian was taught at school along with Russian, the same was true for the Ukrainian language. National literature was published in these languages and translated into Russian. Stalin’s repressions, like any other repressions, are terrible.
Statements of this kind were the norm: they weren’t openly criticized or condemned. I know that this is not a representation of the entire art scene but in a certain sense it is mainstream, and the apolitical nature of TZVETNIK and Serkova’s theoretical texts were set up precisely to bypass critical thinking, and at the same time to represent “the newest art” as something completely new, where the old political schemes don’t work and clearly defined political positions shouldn’t be heard. I think all this was a fair representation of how things were in Russian culture before February 24, 2022. Responsibility turned out to be dispersed in the form of “peace doves” on avatars or vague “no war” statements (what war? — there are many of them). The avoidance of a clear designation of the aggressor, the vagueness, and instrumentalization of the concepts of reaction, fascism, and nationalism hung in this fog. The fact that Russian institutions have done almost no anti-colonial work over the past years is obvious: rare and small attempts to do it have not become part of the broader discussions. Now your resentment of exclusion through voiced boycotts is striking, like Katya Degot’s under Nikita Kadan’s post. Kadan published an image with the caption that the Russians are bombingBabyn Yar. Degot wrote: “not Russians, but Putin.” This is the diagnosis that you need to work with, and take responsibility for both personally and collectively.
Yes, I think it is necessary to boycott all Russian state and oligarchic institutions, as well as all those who are not working against the war now, and remain silent. Only then will the “great Russian culture” feel how cultural workers have lived and are living in Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.
The day after Uladzimir Hramovich’s essay was published, Arseniy Zhilyaev sent us a written response to it. We post this text here in full and translated from Russian.
OPEN LETTER TO ULADZIMIR HRAMOVICH
Let us start by pointing out that we can understand and agree with the majority of statements that Hramovich brought up in his text. Nevertheless, some things require additional commentary and clarification. We want to emphasize that we see this mere exchange of opinions as very valuable nowadays. Not the least as a dialogue between the two artists united by their mutual status as being from aggressor countries (although the Russian and Belarusian roles in this conflict are disparate). We will try to briefly react to the criticism and, to some extent, dispel “the fog of history”.
Unfortunately, we fully share the surprise associated with the first reactions to the war coming from Russia. Letters, written at the end of February, despite including demands to halt hostilities and sometimes especially harsh criticism of the authorities, contained language that read as imperialistic or inappropriately petty. Even in those letters that had the best of intentions, the shock to what was happening activated deep set patterns that had been cultivated in specific local space and time. Thinking about self-preservation, survival; hoping, perhaps in secret, for authorities and/or the greatness within a culture to reconcile everything and everyone, is a very understandable mode of life in Russia. Here we do not exclude ourselves in any way: we are not an exception, and we fully share the accountability with our colleagues.
It is particularly complicated to assess this situation from the inside. There are no ready-made answers here. Without underestimating the collective accountability and the amount of work to be done, we should note that Russia has been a country where people have not been free for a long time. While accepting varying kinds of criticism to compromises we have made, we note that today within the informal dialogues there is a widespread opinion that the relationship between people and Russian authorities resembles the dynamic between a victim and a rapist. “Like it, don’t like it, be patient my beauty”1 is a principle that has long become the norm both in Russia and in Belarus. The discourse of guilt, the popularity of which is understandable from a psychological standpoint, is applied to people who already have a long and complicated history of traumatic relationships with an abuser. This should not be forgotten.
By inertia, The Russian discourse mostly continues to maintain the idea of its superiority in relation to the former USSR countries. Although, in fact, considering the depth of integration with and its value for the international context, its profoundness and self-righteousness, art from Russia was most often seen as inferior to art from neighboring regions well before February 24. At the same time, it does not seem to us that the measure of anti-colonial work should be based solely on the number of joint projects or direct critical appeals to the political undertakings of the authorities. It seems that artists from Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine – countries that have faced military aggression from Russia, have recently had more significant things to do than work on joint projects or increase visibility in Moscow. And money, which is cited as an aggravating circumstance for the absence of that decolonial work that was not carried out, cannot unequivocally correlate with the reflexivity, complexity, and development of artistic production.
Yes, it is tough for many to come to terms with the loss of the “beautiful Russia of the future”2 with its bike lanes, cafes, contemporary art centers, and liberal values, but here and now, it hardly matters. There will be no more contemporary art in Russia, or, at least, it will be incredibly far from what we have seen here for the past 20 years. During the war, it makes no sense to talk about it. After that, those who remain at large or will not be broken by the situation will have a chance to start from scratch with a clear understanding of their priorities and values, without anesthesia, without untenable hopes.
The philosophy of the “Common Cause” by Nikolai Fedorov views the war as one of the main enemies. War is the conductor of death and suffering. It is possible to perceive terminology, rhetorical devices, religiosity, utopianism, and other often contradictory aspects of Russian cosmism in various ways. But the obvious cannot be denied. If there is anything significant in cosmism for the current moment, it is its fundamental pacifism and opposition to any form of discord and violence. As for internationalism and Russianness in cosmism, no one has ever, except for the ideologists of imperialism like Prokhanov, emphasized its ethnic specificity. It has always been about internationalism and openness. “Russian” in the phrase “Russian cosmism” indicated a particular cultural specificity, which arose due to the peculiarities of the Russian and Soviet contexts. Simply denying it would not remove these features; and if one were to assume that it did, it would hardly have been a liberating gesture.
There should be many cosmisms, as well as futurisms. There is a corpus of texts and artistic works which can be characterized as “Ukrainian cosmism”. And here, in addition to the references brought up by Vladimir in his text, we refer to the latest issue [of “Cosmic Bulletin”] containing bright voices from the Ukrainian context. Over the past decades, a constellation of new futurisms has emerged, and each of them articulates the future in its own way, based on the local views and peculiarities. There is Ethnofuturism, which came from Tartu and is associated with Finno-Ugric culture; there is Gulf futurism, Sinofuturism, and other futurisms. All of them, thanks to deliberate work with their own cultural specificity, can be perceived as critical, anti-colonial projects that oppose any colonial and imperial violence. We see Russian cosmism, like all other cosmisms, as part of precisely this liberation movement. At times of war, it is particularly tough for the parties of a conflict to engage in any dialogue. The dialogue of cultures, the dialogue of art, is no exception here. Any association with the aggressor country induces a negative reaction. These emotions are understandable and certainly justified at the moment. We hope that the cooperative work for the sake of peace will make the conversation about different versions of cosmism, different versions of futurism, and, in principle, radical artistic projects of the future more appropriate.
The call to boycott Russian institutions and artistic initiatives that do not openly declare their anti-war position does not sound harsh. This demand looks like a more balanced reaction that differs from the voices of the radicals who call for the complete isolation of everything and everyone associated with the Russian and Belarusian contexts – regardless of whether a person in question is arrested and subjected to violence for participating in an anti-war rally or calling for the destruction of the whole world to restore the Russian Empire. Calls for complete isolation, ethnic destruction, and alike also exist, but we will not comment on them. Just let us point out that now, the list of boycotted art institutions in Russia includes those who openly and unequivocally demanded an end to hostilities in Ukraine. It is clear that people have something to do besides tracking the social media of Moscow museums and centers of contemporary art. Just let us remind you once again that the overwhelming majority of cultural and art workers in Russia spoke out against the war. It applies to both employees of institutions and people who have nothing to do with them. Yes, the directness of their position varies. Everyone now assesses the risks for themselves and their loved ones. In the conditions of this new reality, people who express their opinion about what is happening, face up to 5, 15, or 20 years in prison, depending on the inventiveness of the authorities. However, despite everything, the slogan “No to war!” endures.
This phrase, popular in mainstream culture and traces back to either an obscene anecdote or a song, was used by Putin during talks with French President Macron on February 7, 2022 [ed.]↩
Initially, the expression “beautiful Russia of the future” was used by Russian politician Alexei Navalny when he spoke about the potential transformations he would carry out if he came to power [Ed.]↩
…On behalf of the Brest theatre Kryly Khalopa, we declare that we condemn the military actions of Russia on the territory of Ukraine and we want peace!
In 2003, our theatre staged an anti-war performance for 3 weeks as a sign of protest against the war in Iraq. In 2017, we created a performance audio documentary guide about the extermination of the Jewish community in Brest in 1941-1942. In any country in the world, anyone can download the Brest Stories Guide application to their phone and hear eyewitness’ accounts of how much horror and death war brings.
For 20 years we have been trying with our art to respond quickly to the political situation and social injustice. This is our way of changing the world and expressing our position. Today we cannot give a quick theatrical response to what is happening in Ukraine: all theatre participants are scattered around the world. But we are looking for ways, and we also protest against the war and support our Ukrainian friends in all available ways.
We grieve and are appalled that the land under our windows in Brest has become a training ground for military operations. War is destruction, death, violence, misfortune for people, loss of a home. All generations of Belarusians after World War II repeated as a mantra “if only there was no war.” We were taught to fear and condemn war. It is hard to believe that we are inside a new war. Today, thousands of people are becoming refugees, fleeing their cities, spending nights on the subway, seeking asylum, losing their homes. For women who never choose war, war also carries the threat of rape, as history shows.
Belarusians, who lost every third inhabitant during World War II, cannot want war.
Today, Belarusians are actually deprived of the opportunity to take to the streets of their cities and protest. Jail may await them, like many of our brave people who are in prison today. But today we see that people from our community condemn military actions in Ukraine, help Ukrainian refugees, collect aid, and are ashamed that the Belarusian land has become a testing ground for aggression.
We want to say “NO!” to militarism and war! We want peace in Ukraine and in our home! We want men not to kill other men and also women and children! We demand an end to hostilities! We demand Peace!
On the cover: Maria Prymachenko. May That Nuclear War Be Cursed! (1978)
– “What do I do?” – asked a young man from Petersburg, impatiently.
– What do you mean what should you do? If it’s summer – wash berries and make jam out of them; if it’s winter – drink tea with that jam.
National plans established for the next six months are usually quite predictable. Before 2020, autumn in Belarus was the time of dodging neighbor’s spare apples and zucchini, making fun of the government’s discours on crop yields, and constantly speculating about the upcoming winter. That was our everyday life – a simple and relatively happy life.
Everything changed when criminal trials, isolation wards, detention centers, and refugee crises became part of everyday life and entered mass consciousness. Both unjust imprisonment and fleeing to a foreign country first and foremost translates to the loss of a home. The evil strange will is overtaking our habitual spaces and the natural order of things and forcing us into the unknown where everything is unwanted and even hateful.
For myself and thousands of other Belarusians, the possibility of being at home has turned into a privilege, disrupting the very idea of how the world operates. Both politically motivated arrests and involuntary migration are rather traumatic experiences that can wreck one’s outlook on the world. It’s painful and destructive for the human psyche to be dehumanized when being checked into the isolation ward by having to take off every clothing article. And it’s not even the fact that you have to squat down while being naked in front of strangers; it’s the fact that with every squat you lose a bit of faith in a better world. As painful as it is to pack your bags hastily, not knowing if you’re going to see your apartment ever again. It’s painful to lose your relatively happy life.
How can we continue living without faith in humanity, with a shattered illusion of us being a highly developed civilization that values human rights? Return to the Old Testament’s “tit for tat”? Slim pickings. But the real terror prevails when behind your pain and a sense of despair you suddenly realize that for millions of people in other countries, this utter horror of living in an unfair world and unlimitely a dictatorship is their everyday life.
Guantanamo Bay, “the Boogieman” to an Arab boy
Recently I’ve started reading “Guantánamo Diary” by Mohamedou Ould Salahi. No state has ever had evidence that Mohamedou was involved in the attacks and the Millennium plot but this has not prevented him from being tortured and imprisoned for 14 years.
When I decided to share my impressions of the book with my friend in a refugee camp, I began by asking if he had ever heard of Guantanamo Bay. He laughed out loud and said that if you are born a boy in the Arab world, adults scare you with this prison from early childhood. The prospect of just being in a torture chamber for years is a “bonus” that is given to Arab Muslims at birth.
What do adults in post-Soviet countries scare their children with? Becoming a janitor if you’re not good at studying, falling in with the wrong crowd? Well, sounds like a fairy tale by comparison. Arab boys are being scared by their parents with flights in a cold compartment with a bag on their heads, regular beatings, night interrogations, months of isolation in solitary confinement without sunlight, torture by cold, hunger, and sleep deprivation.
Depending on where we are born – in which country, in which family, and in which religion – we are surrounded by a very different reality, but sometimes our very different realities intersect. While in theory this should make us develop a sense of empathy, help us understand each other, and globally make the world at least a little bit safer, in practice we see how things have developed with the migration crisis on the Belarus–Lithuania border. Spoiler: there are some serious problems with empathy.
The “good” and “bad” refugees
I ended up in a refugee camp in January 2021 after serving two administrative arrests due to my work as a protest journalist and receiving “special” attention from the Investigative Committee. When I settled in the camp, I was naively expecting to see some especially cordial relationships between Belarusians there and was a little cautious of potential misunderstandings because of cultural differences that I could have with men from Asia, African countries, and the Middle East. But things weren’t quite as I expected. My idea that Belarusians who fled the country would unconditionally support each other and show solidarity in every possible way was confronted by a reality in which there was a lot of aggression, gossip, and petty squabble.
Myths and legends about Great Belarusian Tolerance have been quickly dispelled by the locker room chatter. At first glance, it could seem that everyone in a refugee camp is on a nearly equal footing – far from home, with an uncertain future and a difficult background – and that based on this, everyone would understand and empathize with each other. In reality, though, the refugee camp looks more like an American high school from a coming-of-age movie: there are leaders and outcasts, popular castes and losers.
It’s not common to talk about the fact that in this brave new world Belarusians do not look like saints at all. That is because we care to maintain a certain image of Belarusians abroad and to not feed the propaganda media to besmirch Belarusians who flee the country. The culture of silence too can be found here – in the refugee communities and diasporas. Because of the image of an “ideal refugee”, which is so carefully imposed on the most ordinary and very different people from Belarus, and the simultaneous demonization of refugees from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, racism and xenophobia are only gaining momentum.
And we are not talking about some unique Belarusian complex perception of the surrounding reality here. As the current migration crisis in Lithuania shows, the so-called European values and ideas about the equality of all human beings turn out to exist as a very thin layer of culture that instantly disappears when the “white European person” feels threatened by “these foreigners”.
On closer examination, however, it turns out that the very existence of refugees is already perceived by some people as a threat, and they spread this outlook in everyday conversations within their close circle but also in the media. “We need to find physically strong guys who will be in direct contact and able to respond in case of a critical situation. Everyone understands what I mean, there is no need to clarify,” says1 the Lithuanian who is against the
housing of people who illegally crossed the border in the district he lives in. Another resident adds that she is afraid for her children.
It’s important to note that most of the people, who crossed the Belarus–Lithuania border illegally and who trigger fear and rejection among locals, are Iraqi immigrants. But it is worth remembering that over the past year, Belarusians have also fled to Lithuania from the Lukashenko regime, and they were not called illegal immigrants and were not considered a catalyst for the migration crisis. And even more so, there was no material in the media where people escaping from Belarus would be spoken of as a source of danger for Lithuanian residents. Moreover, there were no regular status updates on how many Belarusians illegally crossed the border during the reporting period. And I don’t remember a single case when photos of Belarusians making their way to Lithuania outside the checkpoint were replicated in the media.
Are the Lithuanians afraid of people fleeing Belarus? Doesn’t seem like it. Does this say something about the refugees themselves? Also no. It’s just that the media and EU politicians initially classified Belarusians as “their own”, and therefore any information about the actions committed by Belarusian refugees automatically goes into the neutral category “what is happening in Lithuania,” and not into the criminal section “what refugees and migrants are doing in Lithuania.”
Tens of thousands of people have left Belarus over the past year due to political repression. The absolute majority does not seek political asylum anywhere, and officially these people cannot be classified as refugees, although, in fact, they are.
In a situation like this one, it would be logical for Belarusians to massively support refugees from other countries. And I’m not talking about hands-on help or material support, but simply about the rejection of hate speech and xenophobia. However, numerous discussions on social networks and the reaction of people to news from the Lithuanian border show that everything is not so simple, and for many people, human rights and solidarity remain such “template” concepts. And this “template” concept manifests itself in the following: when our rights are violated in our homeland, we have the right to get international support and to save ourselves by any means, but Iraqis in a similar situation must silently endure all hardships and under no circumstances violate the rules of crossing state borders.
Why has such an unethical system developed in the mass consciousness where people are divided into “worthy” and “unworthy” according to ethnicity? It seems likely that it has to do with a distinctive remembrance culture. It’s common for us to idealize the past, the unresolved traumas of the 20th century, and even slavery during the times of serfdom, which many of our ancestors had experienced. And now, in new crises, we often do not show solidarity with Others but take revenge on them in an attempt to finally get such a desired experience of ruling and dominating.
This is a national-level hazing, caused by Nietzschean resentment – a feeling of anger, despair, and powerlessness directed at those whom one blames for one’s doom. It is mindless envy of the fictitious benefits that Middle Eastern refugees and migrants ostensibly receive. Interestingly enough, people with anti-migrant sentiments remain hostages of the same stereotypes and myths as the refugees themselves, who pay tens of thousands of dollars to the guides who pledge their help to move them to Germany. Both the Middle Eastern men crossing the border between Lithuania and Belarus outside the checkpoint, and those who hate these people, believe in the same thing – that refugees will find paradise in Germany.
And since we do not have access to this fictional paradise and cannot get real power over the people who flee from Iraq to the EU countries, we enjoy power on the level of verbal abuse. After all, running away from our native country, we often find ourselves at quite a low level in our new social hierarchy, and aggression and intolerance against refugees from other countries allow us to climb a little higher on the ladder. And therefore we are no longer at the bottom and not the main object of public mistrust, and the taxpayers’ money does not seem to be spent on us. On second thought, the money is spent though, but these expenses are mere trifles compared to how much money is allegedly spent on the maintenance of other refugees (in this case, Iraqis).
We explain our hostility, even hatred through noble motives: care for taxpayers and the economic well-being of the EU countries, a burden to objective justice, and other noble reasons – but these are only beautiful words to cover xenophobia.
Except xenophobia is not some kind of objective reality or predominant human trait. This is a way of seeing the world, and this way has its reasons and its internal logic. And when it comes to dividing refugees into “worthy” and “unworthy”, it is based on an existential dread of a huge, unfair world. It is as if we are trying to monopolize the right to pain and suffering, not ready to accept the fact that other people have it just as bad as we do, or even worse. Particularly, we are not ready to analyze whether we play any role in this universal injustice or whether we are responsible for the fact that Others are even worse off than ourselves.
People who don’t feel pain
“Close the door tighter to not let in the wind. Don’t open it too often. And don’t go outside. Don’t go farther than your stairway – there’s evil there. Anything farther from your house is evil because there’s indifference.”
When choosing a side in a conflict, we choose who we are more alike to. Whom do we have more in common with – white Europeans or refugees from poor dictatorial countries?
As the public reaction to the migration crisis in Lithuania shows, for the most part, we are not ready to move away from the biological approach and still put innate endowments higher in the hierarchy than acquired ones. We’d much rather identify with a white person from a European country than with Iraqis, even if we share with the latter the same kitchen in the refugee camp, and with the first, we are united only by the color of skin.
I say “we”/”us”/”our” all the time to not seem as if I’ve taken the moral high ground, and as if I am not part of this Belarusian discourse about “good and bad” refugees. I guess I don’t want to sound arrogant and build a distance between myself and other people who grew up with similar cultural attitudes. Perhaps, this is my way of trying to break the dichotomy of “us” and “them.” One way or another, I deliberately say “we”, bringing together myself, other refugees, and you – the people reading this text. Making us one group.
We all have common traits – both acquired and innate. And, most importantly, none of us have some kind of innate ability not to experience humiliation or the obligation to be content with little. But why do we, people from the Western world, evaluate the same actions of people from Belarus and from Iraq so differently? Why is a Belarusian who makes their way to Lithuania through fields and forests a hero and a successor of the partisans, who should be sympathized with and helped as actively as possible, and an Iraqi who has done the same is a threat to the European Union, a criminal and practically a horseman of the Apocalypse?
Firstly, a major role in these assessments is played by the propaganda machine, which in the case of Belarus has for many years cherished a monocultural society and literally prayed for its (this society) closed nature. Secondly, xenophobia is a legacy of the Soviet era, where, for example, with all the professed universal equality, in reality, certain educational opportunities were closed for the Jews, and everyday anti-Semitism was something completely ordinary. Thirdly, the unwillingness to understand and accept the Other may be due to the regular lack of resources and their struggle for them. In such conditions, anyone who is labeled as Others or Outsiders is considered a potential threat in the struggle for resources.
Based only on the fact that another person was born in a poor country, we deny them the right to have ambitions and dreams. After all, having dreams is even more of a privilege than having a home and hot dinners. Dreaming is possible only for “self-made men” who at the same time ignore the abyss of their existing privileges.
In most cases, anti-migrant movements and xenophobic sentiments, in general, are based on the division of people into those who deserve the best and have the right to move up the social ladder, and those who were born in a country “with such traditions”. According to some people, traditions are a basis for the requirement of what a person can and cannot feel, what one can and cannot dream about, and what one can and cannot aspire to.
I came across a map of the world online, where the regions are highlighted in different colors depending on how the media in Western countries react to the catastrophes taking place there. The hardest we, people from the Western world, take the death of people from rich and successful countries like the United States, Canada, and Western Europe, whilst the tragic news from India, Yemen, or Sudan, cause quite an insignificant reaction (if any).
The same reaction follows human rights violations. Western media do not particularly pay attention to torture in Jordan, by default attributing everything to “their customs,” while photographs of men beaten at Akrestsina have spread around the world media in a matter of days. Living in the paradigm that there is a “civilized” Us and there is Them – “uncivilized” and “barbarians” – we justify violence against those who were not fortunate enough to be born into poor families of Iraq or Pakistan.
We say that prohibiting women and girls from going out alone is “just tradition”, and attempts to outlaw female genital mutilation are cultural expansion and the eradication of foreign customs. It’s as if there are women somewhere who are not hurt by the circumcision of the clitoris, and who are not harmed by total dependence on men. As if there are nations somewhere that are happy with living in a dictatorship. As if some in our world want respect and independence, and some are just fine with torture and war.
From this notion, which is based on an unwillingness to see and understand the Other, the idea arises that people from Belarus are the “good refugees” who have the right to save their own lives, while people fleeing Iraq are no refugees at all, but particularly dangerous elements who should be content with that they have, and live according to the principle “bloom where you’re planted”.
Such an idea, per se, is the result of long-time colonial policies, which doesn’t seem to apply to Belarus, although Belarusians strangely identify in their worldview with inhabitants of colonial countries. The mechanism of overcompensation is also instrumental in this case: in the political public discourse, media, and mass culture, Belarus is constantly presented as a small country and a kind of “not successful enough” version of Russia. For people who care about national self-identification, such comparisons can be offensive, and to overcome being in a position of humiliation, they try to find a space in which they can dominate. In the case of the current migration crisis, Iraqis fleeing their native country are a very convenient means for Belarusians’ self–aggrandizement.
In his “Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals”, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote that rational human beings should be treated as an end in themselves and not as a means to something else. But seeing Iraqis stuck on the border only as a way to boost self-esteem and feel proud of our nation, opposing a foreign one, we only support our own insecurities and, once again, take the position of the humiliated and offended. Choosing condemnation over compassion, we reproduce this destructive pattern over and over again and continue suffering from it, long and hard. This is a spiral of violence, that is extremely difficult to get out of, and almost impossible if unaided. As such aid for the so-called laymen could serve journalistic materials and works of art, whose authors refuse to reproduce offensive stereotypes and demonize the Other.
It could be argued that for a deep understanding of the current situation with refugees, we don’t have enough historical distance and that we are too personally involved in this situation. However, precisely these alleged gaps can become an advantage for those who decide to reject the traditional discriminatory lens of looking at refugees and want to show the Other in their entirety, not reducing their complexity to one tragic fact of biography.
Below are a few comments on the news about the unrest in the refugee camp in Lithuania. According to the protesters, the reason for the unrest was the rain-soaked tents, poor food, and untimely medical assistance. There is a lot of dehumanization and hatred in these comments, and reading them can leave you feeling intense anger and disgust, as well as potentially being re-traumatized if you have had the experience of being a refugee. However, I think it’s very important that those with enough moral resources can read the real statements of real people, and not be limited here to just my interpretation.
“They should be urgently provided two-bedroom houses with an ocean view, red cars, and a Lithuanian woman. They didn’t come here to live in tents.”
“Send them to the falling villages. They must slave away!! Came for an easy life, huh.”
“Were they not given tiramisu? Then yeah, really terrible conditions.”
“They should be beaten, hard, these parasites will be ruining our lives for a long time to come,…they can only understand hard power,… they must also be forcibly vaccinated,… if these parasites infiltrated this place they must be eradicated by any means necessary…”
“Soon they will demand to build a mosque, like at home, in Baghdad, Damascus, or Kabul with huge loudspeakers so that the call to pray at five in the morning can be heard throughout the whole neighborhood. Can you imagine that?”
“Let a couple of pigs into the camp, then we’ll have a laugh.”
However, vesti.ru, which published the comment about “tough guys”, is a biased source that contributes to spreading the stereotypes instead of reflecting on them. We can assume that the publication does this by accident or due to the lack of education of journalists working on the topic of refugees and migration, but the more plausible version seems to be that vesti.ru pursues its own agenda. They demonstrate the position of official Moscow, which is to support Lukashenka, in particular informationally.
2020 was a year that would go down in history for Belarus, widely known as “the last dictatorship of Europe.” The rallies against the rigged elections in Belarus were record breaking not only because of their scale in which the protestors were determined to overthrow the regime, but also the creative strategies employed to express dissent. However, after the crackdown and harsh repressions resulting in 967 political prisoners, the protesters were forced to adopt new formats. These moments of dissent had to become invisible in order to not be detected. For Belarusian partisans, however, such strategies are far from being new.
Irony was one of the invisible strategies that became a distinctive feature of the protests of 2020. They began as a response to Lukashenko’s disregard for the pandemic, electoral fraud, and police violence against the civilians. Festively dressed citizens took to the streets – many equipped with posters, singing songs, playing music and holding the pre-Soviet national white-red-white flags – a historical symbol that Lukashenko reverted back to the Soviet flag in the 1990s. Some carried handmade installations – a cardboard coffin meant for the dictator and the dictator himself who was rendered as a huge cockroach, a reference to Lukashenko’s nickname he had earned for his inconsistent decisions and ignorant remarks. Almost from the beginning, the protests were peaceful and resembled a big carnival rather than a tempestuous mob.
Another prominent strategy used in the women’s marches was the practice of holding flowers and forming human “solidarity chains.” Some women wore wedding dresses, national shirts with embroidered elements (”vyshavanka”) or other holiday clothes that had white-red-white color combinations.
The phenomenon quickly attracted the attention of global media outlets that used it to “brand” the Belarusian revolution. On August 1, 2020 an image of “a flower girl” appeared on the cover of The Guardian with the heading, “Flower power: the women driving Belarus’s movement for change”. A similar message was later launched by “The New York Times” that published an article “In Belarus, Women Led the Protests and Shattered Stereotypes”.
Nevertheless, the festive mood had to change as the police’s aggression surged. They used stun grenades, rubber bullets, and water cannons and initiated massive waves of repressions – the arrestees were given sentences for actions that could hardly be categorized as civil dissent. The color combination of white-red-white began to be regarded as an extremist symbol and everyone who in any way bore this trio was detained.
Among some most absurd incidents, one can recall the episode involving a 75-years-old retiree arrested and fined for eating a white-red-white marshmallow, or a criminal case launched against five Belarusians for writing “We will not forget!” on the road near the place where a protestor, Alexander Tarainovskyi, was killed by police on August 10, 2020.
Realizing that massive marches were no longer safe and could lead to detention, the Belarusians had to change the way they expressed dissent. The first step concerned the protests’ scale – instead of taking to wide avenues, people started gathering locally and holding backyard tea parties and concerts to show each other solidarity and support. However, in late 2020 autumn, even these harmless events had to be rethought. On November 15, 2020, after a brutal police raid, around 450 people were arrested – many at the so-called “Square of Changes” where the artist Roman Bondarenko had been beaten to death by plainclothes policemen a few days before. It became obvious – no city location could be a safe place for any kind of public activity, whatever its goal was. Forms of resistance had to be reconsidered again.
Nevertheless, remaining active in the difficult conditions of the dictatorial regime was not something totally new for the Belarusian nation, whose Soviet past in the period of WWII is widely known for being connected with the forest partisan movement.
Conceptualizing the heroic figure of the Soviet Belarusian partisan and its application to the broader political, metaphysical, and historical context was proposed in 1997 by the artist Igor Tishin. In his project “Light Partisan Movement,” Igor showed a different side of the partisan – as someone who “gave up open resistance to arbitrary official cultural policy”. 23 years later the metaphor was reconsidered by the philosopher and critic Maxim Zhbankov, who saw it as well-fitting to not only the consequences of the 2020 protests but also the very strategy of the nation’s existence in the times of lawlessness. Thanks to the ability to “escape from the controlling eye and avoid repressive mechanisms that the Belarusian nation managed to exist rather autonomously for decades,” in Zhbankov’s opinion. “Effective counter-moves were found – not soft collaboration, but rather cultural diplomacy. Here I mean the art of evasion, mimicry, apparent conformism and demonstrative apoliticality, which created the space for the emergence of a new culture of consumption, living standards and another type of everydayness,” Maxim Zhbankov explains in one of his recent interviews.
Despite the ban on free speech, protests are still ongoing, also inside the country, but as a kind of “partisan sortie” and gestures of care and mutual support, states Antonina Stebur, a Minsk and Moscow-based curator and researcher:
“All this time, protests intensity, forms, and issues they raise have been constantly changing. Since November 2020, they are no longer defined as massive gatherings or collective marches. But it does not mean that the fight is over. New processes, new values, new infrastructures and relations are being formed in the Belarusian society, turning the country into a specific place on the map – a network of solidarity and mutual relations. It’s true, we no longer see art in the street, but creative individuals continue analyzing the situation and sharing their reactions.”
According to Antonina Stebur, starting from November 2020, strategies that do not require quick responses but are rather related to long-term work with communities have been used. Illustrating this point, one can recall the recent project “Letter to Mother” by Nadya Sayapina, a Belarusian artist in exile. At the heart of her statement are the topics of forced immigration, loss of home, uncertainty, and guilt articulated in the stories of 30 Belarusian immigrants. By working with the individual traumas of the project’s participants, the artist contributes to the community formation and strengthens solidarity.
However, it does not mean that those living in Belarus have given up. Despite obvious risks people keep producing and sharing critical statements in art and journalism as a form of their reflection on the social and political events, the artist Nadya Sayapina confirms. “But it is certainly not done publicly and directly and sometimes can be accessed only by narrow circles.”
Henadz Korshunau, sociologist, program director of the educational initiative “Belarusian Academy” believes that numerous actions important in the long-term perspective are evolving right now – immeasurable, invisible but still protest by nature:
“A lot is still ongoing – we just do not know about it. Due to the repressions and people’s obvious desire to stay safe, a huge layer of actions simply remain hidden. Moreover, many horizontal processes that solidify the society are launched – at times unconsciously. When people help one another out of the sense of solidarity and a desire to support, their actions are also a counteraction to the regressive state system. Protests are rooted in a social, mental and even national revolution that occurred when a huge number of people recognized themselves as subjects and began to act, made their own decisions and accepted personal responsibility for them.”
Those who took to the streets were just a tip of the iceberg. After all, there were also people who stayed home, but provided financial help, opened the entrances letting in people chased by riot police, brought water and first-aid kits, gave protesters a lift in their private cars, and so on. All these acts of solidarity are nothing but protests. And many are likely to remain invisible – both in 2020 and now.
The protests of 2020 have clearly shown – one cannot confront violence with peaceful appeals for justice and attempts to remain rational and diplomatic. Street rallies, despite their massive character, did not put an end to dictatorship, but they did bear fruit. Revolution actually occurred, claims Maxim Zhbankov.
We are witnessing revolution as a process, as a movement, as a chain of permanent transformations of the existing order. This underlies the idea of a viral intervention or, if you will, a viral transformation. It is about a gradual change under the influence of internal resources – not always visible.
And this gradual change can really take many forms. For example, self-organized initiatives related to providing care and support to fragile social groups, as was the case of “BYCOVID-19”. This spontaneously formed group of volunteers raised money and delivered masks and medical supplies to hospitals around the country when Lukashenko denied the virus’ existence and set up Victory parades. Another example is Probono.by, an online resource aimed at helping the regime’s victims find legal and psychological support. Or – minor in scale but not in mission – groups of socially conscious Belarussians who invite activists, volunteers and former prisoners for weekend retreats in the forest. Igor Tishin’s partisan of the late 1990s who leisurely waited for changes to come has been transformed into another type of the partisan. A partisan who cares.
For years, the Lukashenka regime has been suppressing credible statistics on public opinion and independent sociological reports. As a result, the data on Belarus obtained by local grassroot initiatives, independent researchers, and established institutions both within and outside the country are severely distorted. The essay outlines how sociological work is hindered on many levels in Belarus. It then describes how various groups in the society try to compensate for the deficiency by deducing sociological knowledge from available sources or conducting surveys on the grassroots level. Attention is drawn to shortcomings of both locally produced data and external interpretations of “professional” data (i.e. from surveys conducted by acclaimed research institutes). Also, I point at how specific left-wing platforms express concerns about non-empirical claims on protests within the country. This results in a marginalization of both leftist voices from abroad within Belarus and Belarusian left who are present in the international public debate on the subject. Finally, the text presents arguments for more flexible and sensitive ways to approach empirical data given the major challenges that sociological work faces in the country.
CONTEXT: DESTROYED INFRASTRUCTURE OF SOCIOLOGY
In 2013, sociologist Aksana Shelest suggested that public opinion does not exist in Belarus. In the absence of public politics and a shrinking space for intellectual discussions, she argued: there is no “real public demand for surveying and measuring public opinion – as well as actual space for implementing their results.” Indeed, infrastructure for gathering, processing and disseminating credible sociological data in Belarus is dysfunctional. With further confrontation, or detachment of the state and society, the country’s scientific field faces ideologization and erosion. This affects working conditions of academic sociologists and civic activists. The Institute of Sociology, a division of National Academy of Science, can hardly be called a trustworthy source of data; moreover, it generally tends to omit politically sensitive issues in its surveys, although interior political news still occupies top positions in the media. The Institute‘s director Gennadiy Korshunov was fired shortly after he revealed, in July 2020, that support for Lukashenka was around 24% in Minsk while only 11% trusted the central election committee – figures that the regime could not tolerate. The last remaining independent sociological institution, NISEPI, was forcibly closed in 2016. Since August 2020, dozens of social scientists have had to look for positions abroad or even leave the country. Besides, the only way public surveys could be conducted “on topics related to socio-political issues” was to apply for a license, which in most cases was always rejected, making surveys all but illegal, even for individuals posting on their social network pages. And such activity is fined according to Administrative Code (with fines reaching 5400 BYN, or ca 1700 EUR).
Altogether, independent sociological knowledge is recognized by Lukashenka’s regime as potentially dangerous and is removed from the state-controlled mass media. This might be one of the reasons why only the leader gets attention within the media and not the Belarusian population. For instance, during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, international media gave more attention to Lukashenka who denied the pandemic than to the massive grassroots mobilization and distancing precautions by Belarusians, although ethnographic accounts and data generated by surveys were available (consider research by SATIO).
With the beginning of the presidential election campaign in 2020, the regime rushed to ban online-surveys in mass media. For all stakeholders – the regime, the protesters, loyalists, academic scholars and activists etc. – this resulted in biased ideas about public opinions. Today, the absence of credible sociological data hinders attempts to capture, analyse, and present the ideological complexity of the waves of protests in Belarus and their effects on society. The only unconditional demand of the protests was to end violence, and protesters pursue very different opinions on questions of economic reforms, language policy, external political relations, etc.
YEARNING FOR DATA
As independent polling is suppressed, the Belarusian public – when interested in politics – commonly relies on quantitative data that is not geared towards producing statistics. Most often, these are digital traces of other activities – such as petition writing or commenting on political news on most read news outlets. For context, already in 2017 more than 60% of Belarus’s population obtained news from the Internet, while the Internet access rate was 84% (according to the International Telecommunications Union). Thus, for instance, during the last years that Tut.by existed, the most read news outlet at the time (blocked on 18 May 2021), publications received hundreds of comments that could be liked and disliked. The first comments under the most popular publications received on average 300 and 500 reactions, consistently showing 80 – 90 % “likes” in favour of change. In local talks, likes and dislikes, as well as the number of followers politicians had on their personal pages, were used to claim that supporters of the regime constitute a minority.
The state approved platform Petitions.by received a record number of signatures on petitions against the regime, indicating mass demand for change in the country. Before the 2020 elections, the most popular Belarusian media Nasha Niva, Tut.by, Onliner.by, Telegraf.by and other news outlets asked their readers whom they would vote for. Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s rating in all of such polls turned out to be very low (less than 10%) – which produced ambiguous effects. In the summer 2020, it created an effective political meme “Sasha 3 %”. The figure reassured protesters that they constituted a quantitative majority and pre-conditioned the reaction on official election results. However, it did not indicate the level of Lukashenka’s support across the entire population. Pro-regime discourse generally abstained from referring to statistics whatsoever.
Obviously, Lukashenka’s regime is trying to eliminate quantitative data about people who support change by any means, even beyond surveys. As of March 2021, Platform Golos (“Vote” ) initiated a voting for negotiations with the regime. The Ministry of Information blocked the platform’s website. However, the voting continued and resulted in more than 750,000 votes within one week. The regime reacted by placing alternative sociological data on utility bills; these data suggested that 66.5% trusted the president of Belarus. On one hand, these figures, with questionable origin, contradict any data available from grassroot polling; on the other, it indirectly admits the importance of the sociological data (interestingly, the only point where both the protesters’ and the regime’s data reach the same consensus is about the sovereignty of Belarus as the core value for Belarusians). The deficiency in stats obscures the protest’s class profile. Remarkably, in August 2020 left wing critics labelled Belarusian protests as both nationalist and pro-capitalist, despite the predominantly Russophone and pronouncedly neutral attitude on geopolitical topics, and Lukashenka’s regime havingconducted neoliberal reforms since the 90s. The workers, their demands, and concerns remain virtually unstudied – especially on a quantitatively representative sample.
GRASSROOTS DATA COLLECTION AND ITS FLAWS
In Belarus, because of the lack of institutionalized sociology, multiple, horizontal initiatives have emerged that use social media to gather and publish statistics on public opinion around pressing issues. Grassroots sociology is the term I propose to contain the vast array of surveying, voting, mapping, and journalistic activities undertaken by activists, NGO workers, and civic initiatives in order to document the social transformation among Belarusians. The term had earlier denoted an idea to “build community in the discipline by breaking down the lines of stratification separating the organizational levels of the sociological enterprise and the different needs of our academic and applied endeavors.” In the Belarusian context, production of sociological data becomes a form of civic activism, with horizontality and decentralization being a condition for its survival. The anonymity of these projects means we have little to no information about their teams; however, we can clearly see they represent different methodologies and interests while aiming to clarify the otherwise silenced mass concerns and experiences.
Already before the elections held on August 9th, initiatives such as Zubr and Platforma Golos designed online platforms to aggregate all available voting protocols (in many instances, protocols were not shown to independent observers; some protocols were burned immediately after voting). Independent observers calculated the percentage of people who came to polling places with white bracelets on their hand indicating that they would vote for Tsikhanouskaya (at my polling place in Minsk, according to an observer, they constituted about 75% of voters). This was a rare moment when many Belarusians expressed their anti-Lukashenka position openly, hoping for rapid structural change. After the elections, no exit-polls could be conducted for multiple reasons: the regime had apparently no interest in disclosing real figures in support of Lukashenka; independent sociology is banned as “unlicensed polling”; to add that, in fact, there were mass gatherings at nearly all of the polling stations on 9th August when the ballots were being counted and when the result was declared. Protocols of voting committees collected by Zubr and Platforma Golos were put on the map and are available on initiatives’ websites. They present a complex, documentary account of what the election process in Belarus 2020 looked like.
Some of the grassroots data gathering projects in Belarus follow a strictly qualitative approach and do not even position themselves as a study. However, the logic of documentation, in-depth interviewing, and archiving of narratives resembles practices of qualitative research. For instance, project August 2020 collected “more than 200 stories told by the people who experienced violent treatment… Further hundreds of stories are being processed”. In a similar vein, Project 23.34 documented 5527 cases of violence, as well as compiled sociodemographic portraits of protesters and judges. In the context where thousands of victims of police violence were denied legal defence, the data from these collections widely circulate in the media and international reports – and present a data set for future in-depth research.
Narodny Opros (People’s Survey) is the most prominent and large-scale polling initiative as of March 2021. The initiative polls from two to four thousand people weekly and traces the “mood of the protest,” among the “supporters of change,” a group that is far from being homogeneous. Following polls by Narodny Opros, blogger Anton Motolko published a larger research that investigated the public mood, major concerns among Belarusians, their recognition of political figures, opinion on positions of other states‘ reactions on Belarusian protest.
Thematically, grassroots sociology’s interest is not limited to the ongoing mass repressions, especially when it comes to smaller communities. One of the most prominent social phenomena in Belarus are the Telegram “neighborhood” chats that emerged all around the country in summer 2020 en masse. In these chats, neighbors communicate on different topics and support each other (Elena Lebedeva and Aksana Shelest studied them in detail). In these chats, the in-build survey function is frequently used to gather opinions among residents of a neighbourhood on communal problems and changes in their district. Such a solution has several advantages compared to offline, door-to-door canvassing. Not only can such polling be done distantly and asynchronously so that participants fill in forms when convenient for them; it also provides better inclusion of those groups that would usually not contact a pollster (it’s usually adult men who open the door to answer questions). In practice, surveys in hood chats simply have more chances to occur – since they require less resources. For communities, this new participation in surveys becomes an exercise in direct democracy – which they otherwise do not have access to.
For initiatives and organizations working with specific topics and spheres, analysing the life of Belarusians becomes increasingly difficult. Engaging in research through interviewing participants poses a security risk for both interviewees and interviewers, while surveys are promoted in social networks with advised caution – also when they focus on seemingly neutral topics such as eco-friendly lifestyles, urban mobility, education etc. Polling on the street receives almost criminal connotations, since there are cases of detainments at any kind of gathering – including instances when people collected signatures under letter to local deputies or even simply had a birthday party in their backyard. What is worse, the very practice of organizing and participation in surveys becomes political: the Belarusian regime is at war not only with dissent and plurality, but also with knowledge.
Data produced by activists can and should be approached critically. Since questionnaires are disseminated mainly through Telegram chats and among neighbours, samples under-represent some regime supporters – especially, the elderly who do not use the Internet. In some cases, bloggers and activists in Telegram integrate surveys into their communication with an audience that has some predefined agenda. Conversations surrounding the protests held in messaging apps or the language within leaders’ speeches might often prioritize quotes, narratives, and thick descriptions of mass repressions and violence over figures; emphasizing values and emotions over plans and programs. The state media does not often appeal to sociology research at all. Sociology in Belarus is mostly interesting for supporters of change. The more marginalized the sociological effort in Belarus is – the poorer the quality of data on the country, whether they are collected from within or outside.
PROBLEMS WITH DATA HIERARCHIES
While domestic grassroots and activist data on Belarus is flawed, the way that “established” academic data forms its analysis on Belarus must be problematized as well. Here, many interpretations of the data on a few (interconnected) issues imply a hierarchy of data.
The first issue can be called ethical – but cannot be omitted. Academic discussion about Belarus is clearly dominated by data collected from abroad, analyzed and interpreted by foreign researchers. More cited are Western European analysts who generally underline the scale of protest and deep split inside Belarusian society. Some of them had minimal previous contact with the field, had not spent a day in the country during 2020-2021 or, probably, have never been to Belarus. In some cases, it takes a Belarusian researcher to relocate from Minsk and take on the position of a “British sociologist” to make their finding respected (I am referring here to the case of Ryhor Astapenia who became an expert of Chatham House).
In comments on Belarus, the absence of a background on the topic is too noticeable and reveals itself in vocabulary used. Speaking about Belarus on behalf of the Russian left, writer Katya Kazbek and activist Alexey Sakhnin use distinct language in regularly co-authored and cited texts. For instance, in their text called “The Uprising That Failed” Sakhnin says the absolute majority of Belarusians called Lukashenka bats’ka (father) which was not the case among Belarusians, regardless of their attitude towards the regime, till late 2020, when the word was allegedly imported into Belarusian state television by Russia Today journalists (journalist of Novaya Gazeta Iryna Khalip wrote about this import in detail). Another case is opposition, not used by Belarusians to refer to leaders of the protest or alternative candidates until now. Within the country, leaders of the protest movement in 2020 are clearly distinguished from and opposed to institutionalized parties and political movements active from the 1990s – that is, to those whom Belarusians themselves call the opposition (both with negative and positive connotations). Sakhnin even uses Byelorussia in his Russophone publications, a name from the Soviet period, not figuring in official documents in today’s Belarus, absent in Russian and Belarusian speech in Belarus, but used in Russia (a hint on why in 2019 the Russian left were notoriously silent about Belarusian protests against “deeper integration” with Russia – a set of “roadmaps” envisioning unification of legislation between two states, in Belarus widely associated with absorption of a smaller state by a powerful neighbor).
Apart from ideologically loaded vocabulary, texts by Sakhnin and Kazbek suffer from multiple factual errors: stating that Lukashenka ”stopped delivering his presidential speeches in Russian,” although his every speech since 2015 was delivered in this language. With a considerably large number of publications on Belarus in leftist media, the range of authors presented is astonishingly narrow; ironically, criticism of this range then inevitably becomes personal.
Publications by many researchers that conduct archival, ethnographic and journalistic work in the country (also in Russian and English, let alone those written in Belarusian) remain less cited. And many of them are not going to be written – given that many academicians (including my best students) give vast amount of time to civic initiatives or applied research and are demotivated by the reality of publishing: Slavoj Žižek’s text on Belarusian protest gets published by The Independent; but there is no answer to the statement, signed by 45 academics in Belarus, explaining why Žižek’s statement is empirically wrong. Most expert interviews on Belarus are conducted with external observers; Belarusians are not really present among co-authors of texts on the subject. Less attention is given to remaining archives of oral history of police violence. Interviews, narratives, small-scale focused surveys from 23.34, Golos, Narodny Opros, etc. get ignored – in short, data produced in Belarus by its residents.
The result is that “foreign” publications on Belarus arouse pushback and disavowal on the Belarusian segment of the Internet – and this does not resonate externally. Local researchers, those physically spending time in Belarus, have little to oppose the good-looking survey layouts – except dozens of their personal evidence indicating, among other things, that their particular interpretations should be questioned.
With all that said, this is not just an ethical question of indigenous knowledge being eclipsed by respected “international” scrutiny. There are at least a few serious gaps that are missing in external interpretations and undermine their verifiability.
One gap is related to the specific distortions to survey data obtained in Belarus, domestically or from abroad. In Belarus today, any polling is perceived with suspicion even online. By the end of autumn 2020, any polling result in Belarus would be severely flawed even if, for some reason, the regime would not directly obstruct it. Chatham House experts noted that their respondents were likely to give answers they considered expected from them, or, otherwise, to abstain from any critic of the regime – simply because of fear. Such fear might be much more present in smaller settlements, where open dissent can also bring higher risks such as losing one’s work position without any adequate substitute.
Next, an assumption that Lukashenka’s support is higher in rural Belarus than in cities and towns in 2020-2021 might be questioned by numbers of protesters in August – in some small settlements including villages, a higher percentage of the population took to the streets in comparison to Minsk; on the Internet it is still easy to find video footage, protocols, and stories of locals that confirm it, but this is neglected by interpreters.
Related is the assumption that factory workers did not support the protest. Data from 23-34 show that factory workers made up about 10% of detainees, while another 10 % were from sales and ceded only to IT specialists (20%). Meanwhile, factory workers faced higher risks when participating in protests because of a special policy where employees record their colleagues’ participation in protests (usually absent in the private sector). Also, there is evidence of factory workers in Hrodna being physically forced to take shifts, beaten and threatened by weapons.
To sum up, it is risky to deduce, without triangulation, that “across Belarus ‘rebels’ and loyalists are of more or less equal numbers” from survey data showing 53.4% criticism of the regime and 30.6% support (ZOiS), “18 percent reported having voted for Lukashenka and 53 percent for the opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya,” or from survey by Chatham House showing 50.4% voted on 9th of August for Tsikhanouskaya vs. 21.2% for Lukashenka.
Another problem is the left’s disregard of the violence that occured in the peaceful protests in their interpretations. For instance, Alexander Kolesnikov in his article “Why workers did not support the colorful revolution in Belarus” wrote that “Marches of many thousands had “melted away” (растаяли, Italics are mine) by mid-October,” He then continued his text with deliberations on why “petit bourgeoisie” failed to “conquer the hearts of the working class” and concluded the text with the paragraph “What can the Belarusian left do?” Shootings, beatings, mass detentions, and tortures do not appear in this text at all – and in the majority of left-wing texts the same happens. Inside Belarus the topic of violence occupies a key position in protest discourse till today and circulates widely in media but also in daily discussions (on public transport, in supermarkets, at hairdresser’s, on dating apps etc., if my ethnographic listening in Minsk 2021 counts). Actually that the protest does not have an economic agenda is something pro-Lukashenka commentators and protesters would agree about; while for the former, the reliance on emotions and absence of economic agenda is the target of criticism, the former accentuate the questions of violence and legitimacy as prior issues that must be resolved first.
Moreover, tolerance towards violence is the central reprimand articulated today by protesters towards those who did not support them, with the working class mentioned first (probably for no good reason). For many protesters, the revolution failed not when it missed workers’ demands – but where the workers (more than students, small scale private businesses, and IT enterprises) resumed going to the factory daily while hundreds of political prisoners were detained and systematically tortured. The state media admits that the protests stopped due to police brutality. The media frames it as professionality and not as a crime. This framing indicates how the split in Belarusian society is shaped by different attitudes towards police violence – much more than by the economic model sought for, or by a preferred politician. In this context, to reduce the scope of analysis to the class interests of workers and to leave out the rest of their motivations means to objectify and dehumanize them.
Violence is not only largely ignored in the leftist analysis, but in some cases is called inevitable. Sakhnin and Kazbek go as far to say the following: “the main lesson that we can draw from the Belarusian experience” is that “an escalation of violence is advantageous for both sides of the conflict”. For Belarusian protesters, whose main slogan throughout months was “Stop violence” this sounds like twisted logic, at the very best. Tellingly, Hleb Koran, one of a few left commenting on the situation from inside Belarus, notes that those who regard workers’ protests only meaningful if politically organized ”tend to underestimate the scale of state violence in the country,” “because for them protesters do not have class consciousness yet, [hence] there’s no pity for them”.
What cannot be forgotten is the wide circulation of explanations for the protests’ failure – “protesters did not suggest anything to attract workers” (by left-wing criticism) and “workers are indifferent to the atrocities of Lukashenka’s regime” (among some Belarusian protesters). These deductions omit the fact that every protester has a set of privileges and vulnerabilities which affect whether or not they can participate in the street protests. These privileges and vulnerabilities cannot always be described through a class lens (to mention a few – think about ethnicity, sexuality, marital status, family care duties, health issues in the context of pandemics, legal status etc). Attitudes towards and participation in protests cannot be equated; and an attitude expressed in the survey might add a third element to the equation.
Authors also argue it was “The collapse of his [Lukashenka] statist model of capitalism that fed mass discontent with his rule”, however it is unclear on which grounds such a conclusion was made. Mentions of neoliberal reforms and “capitalist values” were absent at streams and rallies just as working class interests. All alternative candidates, including Tsikhanouskaya, promised a state of law and fair elections, and the protest discourse (including its “popular” layer, available for study) was focused exclusively on legal, not economic, issues. Supporters of change virtually unanimously answer “ending the violence” when asked about the main goal of the protest. More than that, in Belarus, both among supporters and opponents of the regime, in any domain of public discourse, be that mass media (both state and non-state ones), NGO sector, cultural sphere, small talk on a bus, and even in schools, the questions of physical violence, the legal grounds of the regime, and geopolitical safety occupy most of the space. Questions of bare survival prevail over economic and social topics. In this situation, texts that omit the questions of bare survival and conduct analysis exclusively via a class lens fail to attract the attention of any considerable audience in Belarus, since the latter would not relate their own concerns to the concerns of external analysts.
IMPLICATIONS OF THE REGIME’S WAR AT KNOWLEDGE FOR QUESTION-POSING ON BELARUS
Leaving aside the discussion about what was the revolution’s failure and for whom, if we assume it did, fail, would carry significant implications in Belarus. One might ask, what should now be analyzed (by the left)? Whom in Belarus should the left address? And what should the left tell the world about Belarus?
Sakhnin and Kazbek have argued that the protests could not change the regime – which is false: the changes are mostly the opposite to the protest’s intentions, but they are there and affect Belarusian society at large. Even formally, Belarus became a significantly less free country (with 11 points of 100 in 2021 against 19 in early 2020 in ranking by Freedom House), less safe (Minsk dropped from 16th to 114th position in Numbeo rating of destinations), and more impoverished. The number of people detained exceeded 35,000; the number of criminal cases against them is now over 3,000. As of early May, more than 360 people are listed as political prisoners by local human rights groups. In-custody inhumane treatment has become widespread. The Belarusian parliament “keeps stamping new laws limiting freedom of media, protest, association, expanding police powers to use firearms, enhancing criminal liability for various speech crimes like ‘discreditation of the Republic of Belarus’.”
For Belarusians themselves, what is left unanswered is the question about how we live after we “failed”. This should be addressed if the analysts want to preserve empirical and ecological validity of their research. What are the examples of effective resistance in comparably repressive regimes? Which data do we interpret for a just sociological representation of Belarusian case? How do we take into account, in left critique, factors of mass repressions and officials’ threats to suppress the strikers with weapons and violence? What do we do with the explicit verbal denial of the state of law by the regime (consider Lukashenka’s saying that “sometimes there is no time for law”)? And how can the international left produce visions that do make sense, and seem convincing, to any segment of Belarusian society, including workers?
This is where the function of the analysis of Belarusian NGOs should be contextualized as reviews of an early version of this text guessed that it was written from the position of an NGO activist, perhaps unusual in Western Europe when writing a scholarly text. However, given the circumstances, it is natural that in Belarus a university lecturer with a Ph.D. degree from German university would quite likely choose to combine academic research and participation in a local initiative: my case is not exceptional and even not rare. At the same time, in Belarus, a German Ph.D. degree and/or “working” at an NGO does not make one less vulnerable than a grassroots activist, as I discussed elsewhere: my students, my university colleagues, my activist peers, and my partner got detained during the last year, while my status as an activist reduces the merit of my statement. However, in the local landscape, scholars are often activists and educators, and activists are experts – since other actors are even less familiar with the context. International sociology’s interest in Belarus is very limited since only digital tools can be used to generate knowledge, while in many thematic areas – mobility, ecological behavior, everyday life, education and circulation of information etc – there’s no alternative to data from grassroots initiatives and NGOs.
To automatically label native ethnographic and practitioners’ (interviewer’s) knowledge as “biased” creates another obstacle for understanding people’s experiences and social processes on the ground. This results in external statements that do not have an understanding for people “out there” in Belarus but invoke in them the feelings of detachment, misunderstanding, and being unimportant for the commentators (left-wing ones, in the case discussed). So far, texts on Belarus published, predominantly in English, on respected international left platforms are hardly ever cited by popular Belarusian mass media and are discussed on Belarusian social media with disappointment – including by local left, with students among them; I am more often a reader of such criticism rather than its author. And the place is there to be taken by another pool of commentators ready to comment on the “re-birth of a nation,” “moral victory,” “adulting” of Belarusians, and further delves into psychologized identitarian discourse. If there’s a will to provide a left alternative to that discourse, collaboration between local and international actors of knowledge production should be prioritized – instead of downplaying the meaning of non-academic empirical materials. In 2021, access to information and, thus, the ability to conduct scientific research continues to deteriorate. A law was passed that would punish media outlets who did not receive official accreditation, essentially banning them from publishing any survey result that would give insight into the socio-political situation in the country or the republican referendums and election. Even just publishing hyperlinks was banned. ”Ecoinitiatives, volunteering initiatives, urbanist initiatives, private education“ are listed by pro-regime newspaper Belarus Segodnya among social phenomena that threaten to ”destroy Belarus”. Bloggers Anton Motolko and Stsiapan Putsila (Nexta) are declared “extremists” and put on a wanted list. The personal data of Petitions.by users is leaked. The human rights organization Viasna that systematically collects data on detainments and political prisoners is continuously attacked (with Marfa Rabkova, the coordinator of Viasna’s volunteer service imprisoned since September 2020).
So far, relatively free and ubiquitous Internet access (84%) makes Belarus quite different from most comparably repressive regimes, which have low digitalization rates or separate their populaces from WWW by Firewall. Lack of information from those countries is bemoaned today but also taken for granted. What happens in Belarus is that it is still open for analysis to a great extent, at least via digital channels; and availability of that information is taken for granted too. It does not mean though, that this availability will remain there for long. As can be seen with what happened to TUT.BY on 18 May 2021 when the website was blocked, the office attacked, and employees were detained. The loss of this news organization is detrimental to the quality of information that one can get about Belarus (TUT.BY had 2 – 3 mln unique local visitors daily in a country of 9.4 mln). While international interest towards Belarus has grown considerably since summer 2020, the availability and reliability of empirical data about Belarusian life has drastically decreased. If fake data – or its absence – becomes the regime’s tool of gaslighting the population, then resistance could mean that everyone has to become a sociologist; interviewing and surveying. Deduction skills might be a basic expertise needed by local communities amidst epistemological blockade.
(analysing the works of Ho Yan Pun Nicole and A Karlsson Rixon)
Having initially set the goal to research the representation of LGBT+ people in photography, very soon I realised that a conversation with such a focus would be problematic: the material turned out to be pretty limited, and most of it covered narrow cases of the analysis of certain cultures and societies, which meant I could take it into account, but needed to be careful with generalisations.
However, one argument was clearly articulated everywhere, whether the subject-matter was lesbians in South Africa or queer communities in Sweden. It was related to (in)visibility. It appeared that, as is the case with any photography produced by non-cis makers, its actors were still waging a long, tedious struggle for space, presence, lexical and symbolic codes – for the right to be seen in a shot as a person, and not a victim or a freak. Charlotte Jansen, a journalist, an editor of Elephant magazine and author of a collection with the self-explanatory title Girl on Girl – that is, featuring photographs taken by “women about women” – states that “in the past, photographs of women were made by men for a capitalist economy to favour the male gaze and feed female competitiveness.” Abandoning such a view needs time, especially in conservative societies (or those currently moving towards conservatism) with an imposed discourse of so-called “traditional values”. As for LGBT people, they were simply ousted from the world of photography and art – literally, out of sight – defined as someone who had to be pitied, cured, or punished.
Large-scale projects such as, for example, Zanele Muholi’s photobook Faces and Phases featuring several hundred portraits of LGBT people, who plainly and freely pose in front of the camera and seem to be claiming absolutely nothing but straight and fair “you see me, thus I exist”, are a rare find. And in Belarus, a state with no photography museums, no higher education in the field of photography, and no photobook stores, a state where an artist is asked to cover the expenses of the production of a mural in the country’s main museum by looking for sponsors via Facebook, the number of similar publications is zero. Does it mean there are no LGBT people? In response, we can recall a quote of LGBT researcher and writer Annamarie Jagose, who wrote, a “lesbian presence can be seen, of course, but often … only by those who know how (and where) to look.” While this comment relates to the situation and visibility of lesbians in Europe in the early 20th century, it appears to be an appropriate description of the current state of affairs in Belarus.
One of the reasons for this paucity of visual representation can be traced via online discussions that spontaneously arose in relation to an image taken by Nadezhda Buzhan, a World Press Photo finalist. The image features two kissing women under a flag against the background of a riot police cordon during peaceful protests in Minsk in August 2020 that called for a transparent election campaign. Once shared on the Internet, the shot immediately prompted conflicting opinions, among which was the indignant “Don’t you think it’s not a good time to speak about LGBT people?” Naturally, such a reaction could not but look strange: street rallies with posters and slogans about “freedom” and “democracy” nevertheless triggered a decades-old patriarchal division into “friends/foes”, “good time/bad time”. Whose freedom was it about then? Why was it presented as appropriated by the heterosexual part of the population? How can freedom in general be seen as something one is allowed or banned from manifesting?
I will continue considering the thesis about the polarity of (in)visibility and (un)timeliness using the example of talks about sexual practices – invariably the first thing that a queer woman faces when coming out in a circle of heterosexual acquaintances. “Wow, how do you do it? Do you use sex toys? And which of you plays a man’s role?” Questions like that, I am sure, many women have heard when first revealing her date is “not a boyfriend”. It is difficult to imagine such rude interventions into the private life of a heteronormative person. In such cases, questions would traditionally be about his job, common future, and financial state – not about tools and sex positions. Nevertheless, tactlessness and an unnatural interest in the sexual life of LGBT+ people rarely leave the realm of “fun” kitchen talks, and seldom get reflected upon in art statements. In Hong Kong, I came across a project whose rethinking and analysis took place at an adequate critical level: the seriesIn & Out by Ho Yan Pun Nicole. The author interviewed more than 40 Hong Kong lesbians between the ages of 20 and 60, and asked them to fold their arms in a position in which they would normally have sex with their partner.
The artist notes that under British colonial rule, Hong Kong imported an ordinance prohibiting anal sex. Penis insertion was the determining factor of criminal sexual intercourse, but there was no equivalent restriction on lesbian sex. Nowadays, male homosexual activity has been decriminalised in Hong Kong and China, yet lesbian visibility is still taboo. Nicole began to trace these histories, questioning how two females have sex, through the unfolding In & Out project.
Nicole explained that the reason for turning to the topic of the intimate was her desire to go beyond the perception of sex solely as associated with penis insertion, and thus give visibility to the nature of lesbian sexuality – a goal achieved by moving from the private to the public domain. The aforementioned invasive questions are finally answered, but the form these answers take is completely subject to the artist’s rules. On the one hand, the project makes the invisible visible, on the other (with the necessary degree of delicacy and respect), it preserves the anonymity of the participants in order to protect those who did not come out.
In & Out seriously challenged the phallocentrism of sex and the aestheticisation of female hands, demonstrating they are not only objects of labour, care, and male admiration, but instruments of sexual pleasure. “Most people tend to feel like touching and finger insertion is like foreplay. Penis insertion is like the real deal that gives intense pleasure to women”, Nicole explains. “For me, hands [are] like a machine that we all use from our everyday activities, like writing, washing clothes, cooking… We are so used to grabbing things with our hands. It has a public side. As a lesbian, I feel like there is a private side of hands. Say for playing, gentle touching, sex… It has an important and intimate purpose there for lesbians”.
An additional aim, according to the photographer, is connected with her contributing to the formation of community – individual gestures can thus amplify many voices and gain collective power.
Swedish photographer A Karlsson Rixon works differently with the theme of overcoming (in)visibility in their photobook, At the Time of the Third Reading, shot in the forest at an LGBT women’s camp on a remote island between Moscow and St. Petersburg. In 2013 when the photographer visited the site, the camp had already been organised ten consecutive times. The series owes its name to a coincidence: as A Karlsson Rixon says in their preface, on their way to the women’s camp together with main organiser Elena Botsman and some other fellow travellers, they heard news on the radio about the third reading of a bill that led to the adoption of the Russian federal law against the “propaganda of non-traditional sexuality among minors” – a step that, in fact, gave a state level green light to stigmatise LGBT people and make them even more vulnerable.
“The ‘anti-propaganda law’, one in a series of laws targeting people who lived a life that was considered non-normative, had led to greater media attention for LGBTQIAs. It actually had, on occasion, led to a more nuanced media image than before the introduction of homophobic laws, but it also meant that the awareness of non-heterosexual living had grown in society in general. Threats and violence had increasingly gotten worse”, A Karlsson Rixon describes in the preface.
Elena Botsman’s forest camp presented as an amazing island of timelessness and tranquility in a state that legally deprives some of its citizens of basic human rights, and imposes a one-sided concept of the “norm”. Observing approximately 60 women and their kids — all doing simple household chores among the tents and pines—Karlsson Rixon took a series of photographs, which, along with a number of critical texts, were later included in At the Time of the Third Reading.
Despite their broadly different aesthetics, both Ho Yan Pun Nicole’s and A Karlsson Rixson’s series solve very similar problems and critically use the concept of “distance” to articulate the problem of (in) visibility. In & Out, as if in response to the tactless interest of heterosexual people, allows us to “see” the intimate from the closest possible distance – to learn and, possibly, stop the stigma.
In turn, At the Time of the Third Reading offers a look at the life of LGBT families from a fairly large distance (primarily due to risks and the issue of the participants’ safety), adopting a more generalised stance. The daily routine of any family reveals very few differences, regardless of the members’ sexual or gender orientation. With the distance of a formally detached observer, both the photographer and we the audience see people sitting by the fire, preparing food, talking, or hugging each other, and thus “decode” what fully corresponds to the universal, human definition of the “norm”. Why, then, are LGBT people still presented as ones who evoke fear, someone to be ridiculed, someone unnatural? Why is the right to be entitled to be “visible” substituted with sordid propaganda?
The reason is one’s convenience of not seeing. This is the strategy patriarchal authorities stick to in relation to both LGBT+ people and any sort of “others”. Anything presented as “alien”, or “other” — as history shows — makes you doubt and question, broadening your horizons, and thus leading to change. The “norm” cements the comfort of life in the bubble, legalising only one “correct” perspective – the distance you need to maintain when looking at LGBT people. This distance means you neither get too close, nor too far away to notice how much you actually have in common. The projects of Ho Yan Pun Nicole and A Karlsson Rixon are examples of creative expression that challenges the one-sidedness of “comfortable” distance and the “norm” of the way people talk about these communities. It is art statements like these that I would like to see more in the public space of Belarusian museums, galleries, and art media, without the need to react to opinions that “it’s not a good time to talk about LGBT people”.
Criticising attitudes towards LGBT+ people in the opening text of her photo book, Only Half of the Picture, visual activist and photographer Zanele Muholi notes:
“Inhabiting a world that is obsessed with and overdetermined by categories, labels and borders, we are seen as transgressors who are placed in isolation in order to be controlled. Named unnatural, inhumane, immoral and ‘other’, our agency and mobility are restricted. […] I am hoping to break down those notions around what is to be seen and what is not. I want to encourage young artists to think of photography as a possibility, as work – to think of art for consciousness, and in turn, museums as spaces where we can carve a new dialogue that favours us”.