Anna Engelhardt (b. 1994, Russia) is a media artist, researcher, and writer based in London. Her main interests are the (de)colonial politics of algorithmic and logistical infrastructures in post-Soviet space. Anna is currently conducting her PhD on the electromagnetic infrastructure of Russian cyber warfare at Queen Mary, UoL, under the supervision of Laleh Khalili and Elke Schwarz. She is a part of the Digital Democracies Institute, where she contributes to ‘Cyberwar Topologies: In Struggle for a post-American Internet’ project with her research on Russian cyber warfare. Anna’s recent projects include: Machinic Infrastructures of Truth (2020), an inquiry into the production of algorithmic surveillance, presented at Transmediale as a part of ‘Adversarial Hacking’ symposium; Adversarial Infrastructure (2019), an investigation of how the Russian Crimean Bridge functions according to principles of adversarial machine learning, presented at Ars Electronica Kepler’s Gardens and 67th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen. With Sasha Shestakova, Anna is a co-founder of the research unit Distributed Cognition Cooperative.
Where is the Post-Soviet in the “Post” of post-colonial?
Post-colonial theory and Russia have existed for a long time as two almost parallel universes. Even though there were researchers in the post-Soviet space who were tackling post-colonial problematics—Ihar Babkov, a post-colonial scholar from Belarus, and Oksana Zabuzhko, a Ukrainian feminist writer, to name a few—Russia was successfully rejecting the mere possibility of questioning the status quo. Marko Pavlyshyn, a rare example of the earliest attempts (1992) of a Ukrainian-Australian scholar to start the conversation, was “ignored or ridiculed by the overwhelming majority” of researchers both from Russia and the West, according to Ukrainian post-colonial scholar Vitaly Chernetsky. If post-colonial work originating in the post-Soviet space could be silenced easily, post-colonial theory coming from the West was too trendy to be totally disregarded. In his article “On Some Post-Soviet post-colonialisms” Chernetsky shows how in the 1990s Russian intellectuals conferred various euphemisms to central figures of post-colonial theory to disguise their connection to post-colonialism itself. One instance is how influential post-colonial thinkers such as Edward Said, whose book Orientalism became the foundational text for post-colonial theory, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, whose “Can the Subaltern Speak?” is the opening text for any post-colonial reader, were presented in Russia. In 1998 Ilya Ilyin described them as a “well-known literary scholar of a leftist-anarchist orientation” and a “socially engaged feminist deconstructionist,” respectively. Such “strategic appropriation of post-colonial discourse,” as Chernetsky put it in 2006, hasn’t been radically questioned since then.
It is important to note at the same time that to transpose post-colonial theory on post-Soviet space is not a solution of any kind. The conversation that was started by US scholar David Chioni Moore in 2001 with the key article “Is the Post- in Post-Colonial the Post- in Post-Soviet?” made very clear the impossibility of taking any shortcuts when it comes to the topic of decolonization in post-Soviet space. Moore, Spivak, Ram, Tlostanova, and Chernetsky formulate the continuity of the argument that warns against the direct substitution of “post” in “post-Soviet” by “post” in “post-colonial.” Post-colonial theory has almost nothing to say about the Second World—it was born in the struggle of the Second World against colonization by the First World—or in new-old terms, the Global South against the Global North. Its analytical tools cannot be used as universally applicable, as they were not meant to be universal in the first place. Post-colonial studies perpetuated the exclusion of the Second World, navigating through three main “post-” subjects. Madina Tlostanova, a notable decolonial scholar from the south of Russia, describes it like this in her 2011 article “The South of the Poor North”: The “post” in “post-modernism” signifies the First World, and the “post” in “post-colonialism” the Third World. Meanwhile, the Second World is left with the “post” in “post-communism.” What might be the place of post-communism in the colonial North-South divide?
Instead of viewing the North and the South as homogeneous spaces, Tlostanova proposes a new complexity in the division. She offers the notion of differences–colonial and imperial ones.
Colonial difference substitutes the conventional division between the North and the South—an example would be the British Empire and India, which has been thoroughly reviewed by post-colonial studies and its subaltern strand as one of the most influential divisions. The imperial difference sheds light on the distinction between the roles that different empires play in colonial relations.
The imperial difference can be internal—such as the division between the North and South of Europe—and external. The external imperial difference goes between the First World and Second World empires. Russia, being part of the Second World, has always been the outsider of the First World or the “rich North,” as Tlostanova puts it. “Russia has never been seen by Western Europe as its part, remaining a racialized empire, which feels itself a colony in the presence of the West and projects its own inferiority complexes onto its colonies, particularly Muslim ones, which today have become precisely the South of the poor North,” she writes.
Tlostanova provides a fundamentally different view on the way Russian colonialism functions. In The Darker Side of Modernity, Walter Mignolo—one of the core Latin American decolonial thinkers—speaks of coloniality as the dark side of Western modernity which is inseparable from the whole. Enriched by Tlostanova’s analysis that the South produced by the poor North has no direct connection to Western modernity—versus the South of the rich North that is connected even against its own will—this thesis leads to a conclusion that the space colonized by Russia is even darker than the darker side portrayed by Mignolo.
Being considerate of imperial and colonial differences one must learn with, not from, post-colonial theory. Instead of using post-colonial theory as the only valid reference point, post-colonialism is productive as part of the more substantial project of decolonization that mindfully points towards imperial similarities. Tlostanova points out these similarities: even though the Russian/Soviet empire aimed to position itself as an independent alternative to the West’s modernization through the Bolshevik experiment, the Soviet model was inseparable from it. Therefore, a post-colonial critique of Western imperialism must be treated as a tradition on which we can act to produce our heterogenous reflections. Post-colonialism is a struggle that doesn’t have ready answers, but which might inspire how we can search for them.
One of the points from post-colonial theory that I find resonates with post-Soviet space questions the limits of the “post-Soviet” or “post-communist” itself. Arjun Appadurai, a post-colonial scholar of globalization who is of Indian origin, outlines the West’s “endless preoccupation” with itself. Chernetsky adds to Appadurai’s statement: “whether positive or negative value judgments are attached,” meaning that Western scholars tend to either praise the West or criticize it, but never speak about other geographies and contexts—so the West will always remain the center of attention. Looking at Soviet modernization and its consequences, we see a similar preoccupation.
“Many memoirs and accounts have been produced since the dissolution of the Soviet bloc, and mine wants simply to ask the question ‘where are we now, after 23 years?’” Agata Pyzik, a cultural critic from Poland, states in her 2014 book Poor but Sexy: Culture Clashes in Europe East and West. “If the Soviet Union 23 years into its existence wasn’t called post-tsarist, why are we still defined as “post-communist,” and why is it relevant? Did history take a slower pace, or was it finished, as Fukuyama said, after 1989?”
The inadequacy of such preoccupation with Soviet past becomes evident, and a valid alternative is to be proposed. The complexity of such a task is illustrated in the article “Old West and New East” by decolonial Belarusian artists Olga Sosnovskaya and Aleksei Borisionok, where they use the aforementioned quote to question the “New East”—one of the possible alternatives to “post-communism” used by the Guardian and the Calvert Journal, in line with some scholars—as an exoticizing brand.
Post-colonial and/or decolonial?
Therefore, the problem with post-colonial theory in the post-Soviet space could be narrowed down to the impossibility of using both of these terms straightforwardly. An alternative, according to Tlostanova, is lying in the space of decolonial approach, as it is “different from both post-modernity and post-coloniality.”
The difference between post-colonial and decolonial approach, Tlostanova says, lies in the abolition of the division between the subject and the object of research. Decolonial perspective doubts the possibility of speaking from the outside, meaning taking the position of the objective researcher—what Walter Mignolo criticizes as zero-point epistemology. This doubt informed the writing of this text—I am grounding its narrative in a picture that contains a white Russian man showing his family a bright colonial future. Even though the white race might be perceived as existing in a less straightforward manner in the space of the Second World, rather than in the friction of the First World/Third World division, it is in fact present with the same strength. The Caucasus, one of many examples, presents a case of imposition of such symbolic blackness in opposition to the superior white race of Russian colonizers, as outlined by Tlostanova in detail. As a simple mental exercise, if you speak Russian you can think of various racial slurs that circulate autonomously or as part of jokes — races that are not white are the most explicit targets no matter how white the color of their skin is. Furthermore, this does not imply that “conventional” white/black power hierarchy is somehow non-existent with black people facing discrimination on a day-to-day basis.
In the space of the Second World, my race is white. This picture of a white man, showing the future of Russian colonialism, aims to remind the reader of this. I speak not because I have access to the objective truth as a scientist. I cannot show the reader any future, even a decolonial one. I speak because I have a lesser risk of being targeted for the expression of views that are already well-known for the oppressed. Therefore, a decolonial approach requires one to be aware of the implicit bias I carry, along with my privileges that let me speak.
Decolonial approach questions, therefore, the very core of the current system of knowledge, also targeting its implicit rule of the West having a monopoly on formulating high theory. This Western monopoly is reproduced in post-colonial theory as it tries to extend the borders of the Western canon–introducing Deleuze, Lacan, and others to the question of race, instead of questioning their sacred status.
Decolonial approach, as formulated by Walter Mignolo, uses “delinking”—the “decolonial epistemic shift leading to other-universality, that is, to pluri-versality as a universal project” to cut a deep break. Mignolo follows Egyptian economist Samir Amin’s notion of economic delinking, which aims to create a polycentric world. Decolonial epistemic delinking is building new epistemology that actively tries to overcome the need of Western verification of knowledge.
Delinking, taken by Tlostanova, makes her conceptualization of the South of the Poor North possible, as it cannot be extended from theories oriented towards the West. Nevertheless, delinking could be a hard path to take. It could be eased with carefully chosen works from post-colonial studies, but one should be cautious of using them as a means to an end. You could use the imperial difference to reveal the colonialism of one empire with the power of another—the power of Western knowledge against the conservatism of Russian academia. It is much easier to be heard if you reference academic figures well-known in the West and make arguments that parallel already established lines of thought associated with Western knowledge production. Ironically, we can think of this tactic as similar to Spivak’s strategic essentialism—temporary networks of solidarity that appeal to the seemingly universal nature of oppression.
At the same time, the distinction between post-colonial and decolonial literature is blurred in practice more than presented by decolonial thinkers themselves. Speaking from my experience, all decolonial courses, articles, and books simultaneously mix authors that would be classified by definition as post-colonial or decolonial. Even more, new fields of studies are countering colonial violence not fitting into an ascribed division. I find it rather hard to define if Deborah Cowen, a Canadian scholar of critical logistical studies who works against colonialism in Canada, is a post-colonial or decolonial thinker.
It is important to note that the decolonial approach doesn’t present an aspired solution either. Originating in Latin America, the decolonial approach presents an inspiring but limited framework that is limited for the same reason that post-colonial framework cannot be treated as universal. One cannot homogenize post-Soviet space, as Pyzik, Borisionok, and Sosnovskaya warn us, and it could be seen that for different countries and communities forced under the post-Soviet umbrella, different lines of thought will be relevant. Space that has suffered Russian colonialism knows a multitude of concepts of race and has endured a multitude of tactics to violently enforce it. Such complexity one must find impossible to address through the replacement of one school of thought for another, of post-colonial for decolonial. As my dearest colleague Aliaksei Babets pointed out to me, Belarus might find the Afrofuturist approach to deliberately destroy history more productive to work with than the decolonial experience of Latin America exclusively.
Unluckily, decolonial approach is not free from the dichotomies it aims to abolish. On the one hand, Madina Tlostanova reproduces the Western gaze by persistently referencing only artists who would be well established in the West and creating the dichotomy between art and activism, rationalizing the former as a more inventive mode for resistance while ignoring the latter. On the other, the notion of decolonial can be appropriated by Russian colonialism as easily as the notion of post-colonial. The year 2019 in Russia was marked by a heavy metaphorization, meaning appropriation of decolonizing discourse. Starting with the research school “Decolonizing Imagination,” various institutions were ready to decolonize everything–theaters, museums, etc.—without any decolonization of colonial relations themselves, as was explained by Russian cultural theorist Daria Iuriichuk. One of the only examples of grounded attempts of decolonization has been the independent online journal KRAPIVA which aimed to create new grounded decolonial reflections.
This process was anticipated by Sasha Alekseeva in her lecture “Decolonization is not a Metaphor,” in which she used as an entry point the article of the same name written by US non-white decolonial researchers Eve Tuck, who is Unangax (Aleut), and her frequent collaborator Wayne Yang. Tuck and Yang described the process of the easy adoption of decolonizing discourse which is extensively happening in the West. It manifests in numerous calls to decolonize everything without answering what colonialism is and how decolonization is different from other social justice projects. They demand that the question “what is colonization?” must be answered specifically, with attention to the colonial apparatus that is assembled to order the relationships between particular peoples, lands, the “natural world,” and “civilization.” One must be careful against making colonialism an empty signifier that could be fulfilled by any form of oppression, losing as a consequence the radical potential of decolonization.
Tuck and Yang outlined the list of “settler moves to innocence” that one could witness happening throughout 2019 in Russia. They define “settler moves to innocence” as attempts to lift guilt and responsibility without giving up power and privilege. It could be described as mental gymnastics that allow talking about decolonization in a way that would explain why white people are not to blame for the system of oppression that profits them. One of such moves to innocence is “colonial equivocation”—the homogenization “of various experiences of oppression as colonization.” In this way various groups are being described as “colonized” without any grounded description of their relation to colonialism. In this logic everyone is colonized, which is a way to say “none of us are settlers.” This move to innocence is apparent in various cultural events overviewed by Iuriichuk, in which it was never apparent who were the settlers and various colonial relations were mixed together to prove that everyone is colonized.
Such metaphorization of decolonization and moves to innocence resemble the processes that were already happening with post-colonial theory in Russia before decoloniality became so well-known. These processes are the exact ones I’ve mentioned earlier as strategic appropriation of post-colonial discourse. They constitute an important tendency in the Russian contemporary art scene when stated intentions are to critically analyze colonial past, but the realized project advocates for the opposite message. One of the examples of this trend comes from 2017, when Garage Museum of Contemporary Art made an exhibition Chukotka: Art of the Northern Colony, which accompanied a big show of Congolese art as a reflection on Russian post-colonial context. Instead of the creation of a place where epistemology could be decolonized (either through delinking, inclusion of the present, etc.), the exposition actively perpetuated a wide range of colonial practices. These practices included the objectification of natives, reduction of their culture to simple stereotypes, further othering, exotization, and advocating for coloniality. Visitors had no means to escape the position of the colonizer, and were left with only one choice—to see with a colonial gaze. That implicit coloniality created an absurd situation of the “second” colonization of Chukotka by Garage Museum.
Such strategic appropriation is not a phenomenon limited to the art world; it haunts academia as well. Russian academics might engage with post-colonial theory to perpetuate Russian colonialist ideology, as in the case of Russian post-colonial scholar Aleksander Etkind. He was criticized extensively for “historical Soviet nostalgia” by Ukrainian scholar Sergei Zhuk in 2014 and advocacy for Russian colonialism by Chernetsky in 2006 and 2007. Yet, Etkind still somehow holds the strategic position of an expert on post-colonial theory in Russia, following the exact pattern outlined by Chernetsky of staking a “disciplinary authority” by “strategic appropriation of post-colonialist discourse.” These examples make evident that post-colonial turn in Russia itself hasn’t happened yet, no matter how many exhibitions, public talks, and seminars were held.
It seems vital at this point to provide a grounded analysis of Russian colonialism, one that would avoid homogenization and equivocation. Russian colonialism could be characterized as settler colonialism, as it combines the features of external and internal colonization, erasing the spatial separation between metropole and colony. Russian colonialism features military colonialism — a sign of external colonialism — with “biopolitical and geopolitical management of people, land, flora and fauna within the ‘domestic’ borders of the imperial nation” of internal colonization (Tuck and Yang, 2012). This could be witnessed in the case of the Crimean annexation, which cannot be reduced to one event but is performed as the continuous discrimination of Сrimean indigenous people. Forcing out pro-Ukrainian groups and actively imprisoning Crimean Tatars, Russia at the same time is sending more police officers and Russian patriots in Crimea, showing direct governmental influence on the demographics of the Peninsula.
“Settler colonialism is a structure and not an event,” Tuck and Yang warn us. Investigation of the event, therefore, should treat annexation as a manifestation of the broader structure of Russian settler colonialism. Without this lens, it is impossible to think of the available means to bring this structure to an end and ways to intervene in the ongoing event of annexation. Investigation of the event itself can undoubtedly fuel the resistance but doesn’t help with the elaboration of means of resistance that are available for different groups inside and outside the peninsula. According to Australian philosopher Paul Patton, we need decoloniality “to ‘problematize’ existing solutions in order to arrive at new ones.” Speaking with the terms of Deleuze, annexation is an “empirical event” that is a part of a “problem event.” The empirical event (annexation) is the manifestation of the structure that the problem-event constitutes (colonialism). Therefore, a problem-event is never exhausted by an empirical event, which leads us to the conclusion that we must address the structure of colonialism in line with the particularities of its manifestation. In the case of the Crimean annexation, it might be the infrastructure that mirrors the logics of the problem-event rather than the empirical event of the Russian military appearing on the peninsula in 2014.
Analyzing colonialism, I propose therefore to aim for its infrastructure, both of domination and resistance to it, following Indian post-colonial feminist researcher Chandra Talpade Mohanty. This infrastructure of domination might be revealed through looking into logistical networks of the empires as they, according to Deborah Cowen, map the logic of contemporary imperialism in spatial materialization. As I show in my recent project “Adversarial Infrastructure”, analysis of spatial dimensions of colonial infrastructure reveals otherwise hidden colonial logics. Adversarial Infrastructure maps different dimensions of the Crimean Bridge to show how it enhances Russian colonial presence in the area and reveals the geography of the project that exceeds the material bridge. Such a material approach to colonialism outlines the counterintuitive collaboration between the Russian state and Western companies, as they were actively participating in the construction of the bridge. Such evident connection between the Western and Russian colonialisms breaks with colonial equivocation, outlined above. Instead of appealing to the formula “we are all colonized by the West” it shows how such Western colonial influence rather enhances one of Russia, showing how colonial violence against racialized subjects is being multiplied in its materiality.
This approach was taken further in another project that was launched with my colleague Sasha Shestakova—the web platform “Intermodal Terminal”. This platform creates a space of pluritopic hermeneutics to further the analysis of post-Soviet colonial logistics. According to Tlostanova, pluritopic hermeneutics creatively questions the way the object of the research is supposed to be studied “by various disciplines with the help of their respective instruments” in monotopic hermeneutics. Pluritopic hermeneutics is proposed to be a playground for various knowledges to interact with each other. Through such interaction the notion of knowledge as such and its necessity would be revisited “to make the world a better place for everyone” (Tlostanova, 2015). Such interaction implies a dialogue not only between post-colonial and decolonial, but also between scholars, activists, and artists. “Intermodal Terminal,” facilitating such dialogue, leaves open the question of how Sasha and I see our space in decolonial resistance. We, as white settlers, have access to epistemologies, meaning high theory, and places, meaning art-galleries and cultural institutions in Russian and Western metropolies. In these epistemologies and places non-white people are rarely given space to talk for themselves due to issues like islamophobia, problems with working visa, and overall high threshold in privilege status and weight of discrimination. Therefore, we try to use our privilege to create alternative infrastructures that facilitate the knowledge that is being actively silenced in such spaces, maintaining the inevitable friction of white guilt not to occupy the space ourselves.
Nevertheless, it is important to remember that alternative decolonial infrastructures already proliferate outside of spaces that engage with high theory, in on-the-ground grassroots activism. One of the most inspiring examples of the infrastructure of decolonial resistance is the civic initiative “Crimean Solidarity”. This organization, led by Crimean Tatars, aims to support people who have been discriminated against by the Russian state in Crimea. Crimean Solidarity constitutes the network of lawyers, journalists, and activists that provide help to those who face political charges and their families. Furthermore, they document and archive the new dark era in the history of Crimean Tatars, preserving the history of the oppression and resistance for upcoming generations. Crimean Solidarity and similar initiatives are actively creating decolonial futures and decolonial pasts that we must support and learn from.
These decolonial futures are already here, and they will not be pointed to by beneficiaries of colonialism.
The article was originally published in Strelka Mag and updated for the STATUS online platform.
Diverse Humanity is a series of photography books that tell about LGBTQ communities across the world with portraits of homo-, bi-, transsexual, and queer people portraits and reportages of their life, fragments of interviews with personal and broader stories in focus, as well as analytical articles by researchers with a wider focus on the societies they live in. Like many other incredible initiatives, the project was born out of informal conversations between philanthropist Jon Stryker and fine art photographer Jurek Wajdowicz who set themselves «аn ambitions goal to explore and illuminate the most intimate and personal dimensions of self, still too often treated as taboo: sexual orientation and gender identity and expression»1.
Since 2016, in collaboration with The New Press, 14 photobooks have been published analyzing the situation in the USA, Eastern Africa, Serbia, Latin America, Argentina, Poland, Japan, India, Russia, Mexico and Australia. In autumn 2020, a photobook about Belarus saw the light making its readers acquainted with a country where LGBTQ people have to «master the art of emotional camouflage”. The protagonists of Two Women in Their Time: The Belarus Free Theater and the Art of Resistance are a couple Svetlana Sugako and Nadezhda Brodskaya, actresses of the Belarus Free Theater which is banned in their country. Photographer Misha Friedman meets them in Minsk – “a city where nothing happens” and New York, where the young women have the opportunity to openly stage their performances, while journalist and writer Masha Gessen reflects on the nature, psychology and strategies of the (in)visible in the realities of the partisan culture in the capital of the country commonly described as “the last dictatorship of Europe”. The book reads like a full-fledged dialogue of two media – Masha’s text and Misha’s images.
The ability of (not) seeing is both a visual and a conceptual motive in “Two Women in Their Time”. The story appears to have been built according to this central principle and this is probably also the way the book should be read and viewed – by the way, as any other case of other “invisible” people living in Belarus, or anything else people got used to leaving unseen. Still this is a country of facades of impersonal clean streets and “wrong” backyards. Being invisible means being non-existent. Not even wrong (something one might fail to accept, understand, or start to question), but not physically perceived. Prefer not to see. Not interested to know. Not to be able to name. In the post-Soviet space, LGBTQ people are more than once defined in such ambiguous, self-censored ways as “well, how do you call them… well, you know!” By the way, the category of “otherness” of “these people” is quite broad – apart from LGBTQ, it includes, for example, people with special needs; in Belarus you might also come across men who consider a woman who has not given birth to be “non fully a human being”.
The category of (in)visibility is present in the book starting from its division into parts: the spreads with Misha Friedman’s photographs are accompanied by three subheadings featuring three sections/dimensions of the young women’s lives and all of them in their own way highlight the extent of their visibility: «What you see is nothing», «You see everything», «What do you see?»
In the first one, which refers to the “metaphysics of nothing” and evokes the memory “Myane nyama” [from the Belarussian “I Am Not”] by the renowned Belarusian philosopher Valentin Akudovich, documents the couple’s everyday life. If we omit the professional acting component (both in Masha’s text and Misha’s reportage, considerable attention is paid to the description of the theatrical performance with the participation of Sveta and Nadia take part in), it would be fair to say that virtually any LGBTQ couple in Belarus has a similar life style: constantly catching piercing gazes of tram passengers who accidentally notice an overly emotional hug of the girls or “more than a friendly” kiss, and feel free only when in their community bubble. Often secretly wanting to actually become invisible…
It would not be an exaggeration to assume that in a region that imposes an absurd wording of “traditional values”, every LGBTQ person has their own painful stories of reactions to their sexual orientation on the part of the significant others. For Sveta Sugako, it included first her mom’s tears and then a conciliatory borscht. For other LGBTQ people, the act of coming out of the closet may cost years of their parents’ offended silence and a categorical reluctance to “talk about it,” or a complete break with acquaintances who showed ostentatious concern about a potential answer to the child-rearing question. And how many more are still living in the closet, secretly envious of Elliot-Ellen Page’s or Jodie Foster’s courage…
In a country where, in the words of Masha Gessen, “on a street that’s not a street, in a building that’s not a building” there are “garage-theaters”, young women who rent an apartment together may well turn out to be a family with their own past and future. Minsk is a city with a palimpsest culture, as Tatiana Zamirovskaya subtly notes. A palimpsest-like chameleon.
“You see everything” is the second part of the photobook, which tells about the flipside of (not)visible Belarusians in the West. And again – with the Belarus Free Theatre performances during its overseas tour like a red thread of their life “scenery”, the backdrop against which we continue to observe the couple and their living of identity. “If making noise is the secret of survival in the West, lying low is the trick to staying alive in Minsk” Masha Gessen writes, and this phrase clearly reflects the contrast of the way these two realities are experienced by “these very” people inside and outside Belarus. The art of emotional camouflage ends triumphantly once you cross the border; Europe, North America, the world are about an opportunity to speak and act openly and on a completely different scale. In Masha’s text, in the description of this dimension of Sveta and Nadia’s professional life, the word “big” constantly pops up: premieres and theater productions mean bigger responsibilities, big efforts… big are also stages, audiences and theatrical companies themselves.
Greater visibility, however, as the photographs fully illustrate, does not bring greater stress. In a random shot made on a tourist boat filled with passengers, probably somewhere in Canada, we see the girls hugging each other with tenderness, Sveta’s hand rests on Nadia’s knee, while Nadia’s – on Sveta’s shoulder. Beyond the walls of the garage-country, it is not only the theater that feels more “free”…
And, finally, the third, final, section entitled “What do you see?” presents a sketch about attempts to overcome the opposition of (in)visibility, about steps towards a dialogue with Minskers through performances and street theater, which would not impose answers but ask questions instead. Attempts that are so far ending with the arrests of the actresses.
The last photo of the photobook shows a bend of an empty road, on both sides of which there is a twilight forest. If you continue moving forward along it, the forest might be left behind. A new day will come, with the sun illuminating what is still hiding in the shadows. And we’ll no longer need words to define one’s gender identity and sexual orientation. Not because there will be no LGBTQ people – I do want to believe there would simply be no people eager to put humans into the categories of “us” and “others”, “traditional” and “alternative”. After all, we have had a common denominator for a long time – we are all living beings.
All images are copyright of Misha Friedman from the book Two Women in Their Time: The Belarus Free Theatre and the Art of Resistance published by The New Press.
Friedman, M. & Gessen, M., 2020. In Two women in their time: the Belarus Free Theatre and the art of resistance. New York: The New Press. ↩
Photographer, photo critic, photobook reviewer, lecturer and translator. Has Master’s Degree in General Pedagogy, graduated from Minsk State Linguistic University, majoring in English and Italian; English, American and Italian literature.
Since the late 1990s, has been engaged in cultural journalism: collaborates with a number of Belarusian and foreign paper-based and online mass media outlets. Regularly writes about photography for “Bird in Flight” online magazine (Ukraine) and Photographer.ru site (Russia) since 2016 being in charge of “Tomorrow’s Photography with Olga Bubich” column and photobook reviews. In 2016-2017 had the experience of “Bleek Magazine” co-editing.
Since 2016 has been a member of the team of “The Month of Photography in Minsk” festival.
The author of “Conversations about the rules of the game” book with essays and photographs (2009, “Logvinau” Publishing House, Minsk) and “Bigger than I” photobook dedicated to the phenomenon of “Chernobyl kids” (2019). In January 2020, the photobook was presented at “Booked” Tai Kwun Festival in Hong Kong and became a part of the collections of photobook museums in Hong Kong and Gothenburg.
Studied photography at workshops of Claudine Dory, Xavier Fernando Fuentes, Alexey Nikishin, Andrey Polikanov and Tatiana Plotnikova. Is a participant of about 20 collective and solo exhibitions in Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, Armenia, Latvia, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands. Curated 3 exhibitions of young Belarusian photographers.
Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa, the author of “The Memory Police”, which was published in her homeland in 1994 and translated into English in 2019, considers memories as a determining factor in people’s personality. “Being stripped of your memories is an act of violence that is perhaps akin to having your very life taken”, she concludes in a recent interview. The action of the dystopian novel takes place on an unnamed island, whose inhabitants, in conditions of a harsh dictatorship, from time to time are made to forget both certain objects and the words denoting them – their memories get erased. Simply put, when waking up early in the morning, people suddenly realize that ribbons, roses or birds have disappeared from their mental and linguistic picture of the world. Control over the enforced disappearance of anything that could remind of a censored object and concept behind it is exercised by the so-called “memory police”. Breaking into houses and conducting checks and searches, they confiscate photographs, books, drawings, and diaries – should a new forbidden word be found there.
An accidental encounter with Ogawa’s book, intuitively purchased from an airport bookstore, reminded me of the current situation in Belarus where I come from – the Japanese writer’s storyline turned out to have much in common with repressions, arrests, and trials of people whose possessions began to be considered as prohibited. At first, dresses, scarves, bracelets, and curtains were claimed to be of the “wrong” color (the official authorities have recently begun to link a combination of red and white with extremism, despite their indisputable historical significance and presence in the official state symbols of the Republic of Belarus during the period from 1918-1919 and 1991-1995) and thus people who owned them were imprisoned or fined. Moreover, soon penalties were imposed on thoughts and intentions – as in the episode of the activist Ulyana Nevzorova’s poster that read, “This poster may be a reason for my detention”. The girl held it for a few minutes in the subway car indirectly dropping hints about the lawlessness of the judicial system. There have also been cases of people being sentenced to more than 10 days of imprisonment for “expressing tacit consent” with peaceful protesters.
In the winter of 2021, the absurdity apparently reached its peak when 15-year-old teenagers were detained in the city center during the day, and elderly women doing fitness were kidnapped from a park on the outskirts. On February 5, 2021, 29-year-old Alexander Nurdinov was given 3 years of a penal colony for “picking vegetation from flower beds and throwing it at police officers” (official verdict he received). The young artist Roman Bondarenko was beaten to death in November 2020 by people in balaclavas in his own courtyard – the unknown men arrived there to cut red and white ribbons of “extremist” colors. Despite the numerous documented cases of violence, bullying, and tortures of the abducted, since August 2020 none of the representatives of the “law enforcement” bodies have either been taken to court or convicted.
On social networks, many Belarussians admit to be leaving their apartments with warm clothes, toilet paper, a toothbrush, and other hygiene products in their backpacks “just in case” – those released from prisons after several weeks mention inhumane unsanitary conditions and overcrowded cells, where COVID patients are often deliberately placed in to infect others. However, COVID-19 is also actively used by prison officials as an excuse to refuse relatives to bring parcels with basic necessity items and medication to their detained husbands, wives, children, and friends.
In the country with a speaking name “the last dictatorship of Europe”, people are repressed because of their “intentions”, “condemning silence” and “mental solidarity”. And all these episodes are not scenes from a dystopian novel but the reality with 10 million civilians trapped in the nightmare which “logic” cannot be explained in terms of critical thinking and human vocabulary.
But let us return to the memory repression thesis.
Large-scale peaceful protests calling for the revision of the results of the openly rigged elections began with the announcement of another triumphant victory for the dictator Lukashenko (who has already been in power for 26 years) and the arrests of key opposition figures. Among the participants of street protests, the very first of which spontaneously broke out right on the election day – August 9, 2020, there were obviously journalists and photographers, whose professional activities involve documentation and public presentation of the current events in the press, including the episodes of aggressive actions of policemen people in uniform towards civilians. The news about Belarussian events quickly spread all over the planet causing responses and steps from world leaders.
The Belarusian authorities, in their turn, were also fast to realize that photo- and video documentation is, if not strong evidence (judges, demonstrating their totally unethical conduct, often simply refused to consider CCTV recording or photo reports as proof of innocence), then incriminating manifestation of “excessive zeal”, and so they began a hunt for “memory keepers”. For example, on August 27, 2020, the police simultaneously detained about 50 media workers. It was symbolic that many were forced to delete photographs. Four correspondents who refused to do so, were accused of participating in an unauthorized rally. During a Skype trial, photojournalist Alexander Vasyukovich reminded that he had identification signs indicating that he was at the rally as a media representative, which means he was not actually “protesting” but doing his job – taking pictures. So, what was the actual reason for his arrest then? The fact that the riot policemen ignored it, only confirms that they were deliberately obstructing the journalist’s activities – the prevention of documentation. Preventing the formation of memories?
Ogawa describes recollections as a reliable compass that helps to “wander through the sparse forest of memory” – the Belarusian authorities, judging by their actions, are actively trying to isolate “modern history keepers” and stop the very fact of formation of evidence. To lay the only, asphalted, road through the forest, tamping into the cold silent concrete everyone who was able and was ready to share what they saw and experienced. For Ogawa, books are “repositories of human memories”, but I suggest adding to this list of comparisons any media able to store the memory of a person, a family, and a nation: photographs, art, oral stories, even posts on social networks – the fastest and simplest way of recording one’s own experience nowadays…
By detaining journalists (for example, the journalist of TUT.BY non-governmental media Katerina Borisevich has been kept in jail without trial for 79 days so far*), arresting editors, confiscating photo- and video equipment, the repression machine is trying to deprive the Belarusians of their memory compasses. Books, as we know from Orwell’s dystopia, burn well. But I am sure that as long as we have a pencil and a sheet of paper, a stick and the cold ground, we are going to leave traces. We will remember and we will speak.
In 1941, near the village of Drozdy near Minsk, the Nazis built their first concentration camp in Belarus and kept Soviet war prisoners and civilians aged 5 to 50 there; right there, nearby, was the place of their execution. According to approximate figures: more than 10,000 people. Until now, the place of memory has not been properly immortalized by a memorial, and the mass grave looks like an abandoned wasteland with a lonely tractor delivering fertilizers across the disturbed ground. It was there where in 2017 two Belarusian artists Vasilisa Polyanina and Lesya Pchelka held a symbolic memorial event “Fertile Soil”, “planting” wooden crosses in freshly plowed land.
…as long as we have a stick and the cold ground we will remember.
In September 2020, the Brest Fortress Development Foundation announced an open call, as a result of which it invited four contemporary artists to take part in a 10-day art residency in Brest.
The art residency in Brest, where the organizers covered the costs of the artists’ stay, is a way to focus on artistic practice, an opportunity to immerse yourself in the local environment and problems, and to spend a week working on a project.
The mission of the residency was, using artistic methods, to expand the existing image of the Soviet history of Brest and to present a reflective look on the Soviet heritage of the fortress and of the city.
The Foundation’s team has been researching the fortress and Brest for more than seven years, working with local history through the digitalization of knowledge, events in new formats and creating new tourism products. The Foundation often involves artists in its projects: photographers Oksana Yushko and Arthur Bondar (Moscow), artist Wapke Feentsra from myvillages.org (Rotterdam), Nick Degtyarev (Moscow), Hutkasmachnaa (Minsk) and many others. In 2020, within the framework of the art residency in Brest, there came: Ilona Dergach, Aliaxey Talstou, Daria Trofimova, Maxim Sarychau.
Still from the video of the performance by Ilona Dergach
“In Brest, much reminds of the Soviet era, which ended almost 30 years ago. But only now are we beginning to think about how to relate to this past and the power of its influence on the present.
For many, the image of Brest is inseparably linked with the outbreak of World War II in the USSR and the creation of the Memorial Complex “Brest Hero-Fortress”. The planning of a significant part of the residential areas of the city took place during the Soviet period, therefore the traditions of Soviet architecture can still be noticed in the new quarters today. The Soviet has become firmly embedded in our present and culture, and sometimes it seems that little has changed around. The Soviet way of thinking also did not disappear with the collapse of the USSR – that is why different generations have different attitudes towards the same events in history and today.
In the critical heritage studies, there is a concept of “heritagization”, where “heritage” is formed and designated through the grassroots initiative, when a community or group proposes something and demands that this object / phenomenon be recognized as historically important. Much in Brest has yet to become a heritage, and artists are among those who can help to realize the significance and emphasize what should be preserved.
Therefore, during the art residency of the Brest Fortress Development Foundation, the artists were invited to immerse in the context of modern Brest, including the Brest Fortress, architecture and monuments of the Soviet period, to reveal an invisible heritage that has already become part of the usual everyday life, in which the border between the past and the present is often blurred. What value is there today? What will disappear as quickly as it appeared in our life? What is important to remember and keep?
In his artistic research, photographer Maxim Sarychau, went on a trip through the Brest region in search of a Soviet-era mosaics that were created at bus stops. Daria Trofimova turned to monotonous life and stories in five-story buildings typical for the entire post-Soviet space, creating a kind of video-pannel out of them. Aliaxey Talstou, in the genre of performative poetry, suggests thinking about what is better to leave in the past and without which a “bright future” is impossible. Ilona Dergach asked a question about the invisible boundaries of what is permissible in the construction of memory and its hidden aspects in the name of higher goals.
Time requires changes and creates new opportunities for comprehending the past. Our discussions and debates can help in this process of choosing an invisible heritage. – curatorial text for the exhibition ‘Invisible Heritage’.1
Project organizer: Brest Fortress Development Foundation
Supported by Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung
Project partners: Hermitage Hotel, Conserva Art Quarter, SHKLO Platform for Contemporary Photographers, Binkl.by, KH Space.
Excerpt From the curatorial text of Alina Dzeravianka, 2020
According to numerous critics of the protest movement, none of the protesters in Belarus are doing it right. Frustrated by the fact that the protest has not immediately resulted in the regime’s fall, different groups within it are blaming each other. Particularly often the criticism, from both left and right, is addressed to a vaguely defined social entity of “liberal protesters”, sometimes also denoted with labels such as “creative class”, “intelligentsia”, and “neoliberal establishment”. It is the criticized elements of protest practice which make me think that NGOers are also listed as part of the “liberal protesters”: recurrent reflection on the protest, bringing elements of creativity and celebration into it as well as the active coverage of NGOers’ participation in Instagram or Facebook.
Within Facebook in Belarus (and among Belarusians living abroad) the “creative class” is referred to as the “next enemy after the regime” and accused of usurping the representational space of the protest; the same goes for discursive marginalization of protest activities that differ from those of the creative class (e.g. street fighting). I have encountered twice the opinion that people who encourage others to go to protests with balloons and flowers in their hands are responsible for human victims of the protest.
Another direction of criticism in Facebook is of those who were running for president and were/are allegedly too pro-Russian or neoliberal, or both. International left does not show much sympathy to Belarusian protests. Slavoj Žižek stated, without any empirical reason, that ”The aim of the protests in cities like Minsk is to align the country with Western liberal-capitalist values“.1 Other leftist analysts were concerned, as of 17th August 2020, with the risks of workers being “indoctrinated” with “liberal and nationalist agenda” of a “broad liberal protest”.2 Omitted or mentioned in passing in most of those criticisms is the police violence. The scale of violence used by the police in Belarus on the first post-election days, 9-13 August 2020 “seems to have no analogues in the political history of Europe in the post-WWII period”.3 For details and figures regarding the violations of human rights in the first days after election one can consult the report of Human Rights Center “Viasna”.4
Since 9th of August the Belarusian regime clearly demonstrated features of an organized crime group (kidnapping and robbing people, damaging property), fascism (mass torture and sadistic humiliation of dissenters) and slave-owning system (forcing workers to stay and work at their workplaces). The protest does not have an economic agenda simply because people find it hard to talk about taxation, privatization, and even geopolitics in the country where the very ideas of personal safety, property, law, and citizenship have been systematically ignored for months already: as OMON5 comes to schools, as it forces factory workers to go on their shift, as it grabs people on their way to/from the supermarket. Most people in Belarus are protesting, first and foremost, against this harassment by the police.
NGOs in Belarus: work as a form of protest
On October 26, 2020, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya announced the beginning of national strike in Belarus. Professional communities that I belong to — university lecturers, NGO workers, artists, civil activists, — were overwhelmingly in favour of this move and shared information about it. Literally all of the cafes and bars where we usually eat were closed on that Monday, as well as other places from which we used to consume services and buy goods. Minsk Urban Platform, an NGO that I am part of, was puzzled: do we work or do we strike? Do we work if none of the help that we rely on comes from the Belarusian state? Do we work if the entire NGO labour in Belarus is in fact an act of permanent protest? Do we relocate from Belarus to a safer place in order to do our work better? And how do we respond to the criticism of any decision we’d take in this situation? These practical questions pushed me to analyze the position of NGO workers within the ongoing Belarusian protest.
Of course, there is no “NGO worker” or third sector worker in Belarus — it is a cloud of diverse positions, nominations, and even identities. However, for the purposes of this text I can try to specify who it is not. First of all, here I do not refer to workers of GONGOs, which try to substitute or fake civil society in Belarus.6 Neither I consider those whom Alena Minchenia called “professional protesters”7 — members of opposition’s political organizations. The rest are mainly people active within centres, platforms, associations, and unions for human rights, specifically rights of vulnerable groups, informal education, social inclusion, environmental protection, sustainable mobility, etc.
Due to the vulnerability of these people in Belarus today, I will mention no names below. For instance, if the Facebook event is dedicated to help Belarusians abroad you cannot even be sure who you can invite to it without a risk to compromise them.
While aware of the criticism of NGO-ization, more specifically, of NGO becoming “a well-mannered, reasonable, salaried, 9-to-5 job”, I would object that in Belarus it has been transforming in the opposite direction over the last years. Well, what does it mean to be an NGO worker in Belarus? First of all, no funding from the Belarusian government and an increasingly bureaucratized procedure of receiving assistance from abroad. Obviously, with no working contracts, Belarusian NGOers are mostly people living from one project to another, without any pension fund contributions and guarantees of income for a next calendar year (a rare project envisions financial support for longer than 12 months) — and in permanent fear of imprisonment. NGO workers in Belarus are less likely to have children — a subjective observation I cannot comment in this text — although they usually have parents (who often need care). General unpredictability of life scenarios and absence of employment warrants makes it irrelevant for them to buy cars on credit or deal with the real estate mortgage (I believe, credits and mortgages make factory workers more vulnerable and helpless against dismissal — Belarusian factories workers are not an exception). NGO workers in Belarus are often hard to distinguish from volunteers (and there are no working unions for them); moreover, without a working contract you can’t be fired.
To these characteristics one can add the low prestige of NGOs in Belarusian society. In Belarus NGO workers are often called “grant-eaters” — and they do depend on foreign grants (which take lots of nerves, papers, and months to be registered), because Belarusian state does not bother with spending on education and science, as well as culture, ecology, art and many other things that require long term investment and do not bring direct rent.
NGO workers are indeed more likely to have Schengen visas or residence permits but it is simply because their activity requires constant improvement of qualification and exchange of experience with colleagues abroad. Having to work in the highly bureaucratized, corrupt, and violent environment, these people are exposed to burn-outs, and leaving the country for a week or two can be a quicker and cheaper way to protect mental health than going to a therapist.
NGO workers do often emigrate from Belarus but not even because they can hardly count on a career or comprehensive self-realization here. In most cases, they leave the country because they cannot count on safety on its territory.
What to do in Belarus in 2020?
In 2020, many NGO offices which made a conscious decision to close for quarantine in March, remain closed because of the fears that officers from GUBAZiK (Interior Ministry’s Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption) might come with a raid. From May till August 2020, dozens of my NGO colleagues were involved in pre-election campaigns as collectors of signatures for alternative candidates; majority of them spent some time disseminating information about elections; quite a few decided to be independent observers at the elections.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic and unprecedented political mobilization of the Belarusian society, many NGOers not only stayed in Belarus over pre- and post-election months but were also actively engaged in the protest. On the first post-election days, organizations wrote and signed a public letter against police violence. They made many posters to support those who were on strike, which they donated to the solidarity foundations. Most of them go to protests; especially to Sunday rallies — which is the minimum expected. If someone doesn’t go to protests, he or she often tries to find excuses for that. The community tries to raise awareness that every protester has a set of privileges and vulnerabilities which affect whether or not they can participate in the street protests. Despite this rational message, missing the protest marches is a frequent cause of frustration and self-conviction. Meanwhile, dozens of my Belarusian NGO friends went through detention over the last three months. A colleague who did urban research on improvement of public services has been under criminal trial since July. He was thrown into prison only because other protesters did not give him out to OMON during one of the peaceful demonstrations.
All of that doesn’t mean that the Belarusian NGOs stopped the implementations of their planned projects in 2020. “Okay, the protest is going to be our new normal for some time, but who will do my work? Who will develop our work in Belarus?” — says a colleague of mine, who works for social inclusion and accessibility. In Belarus you do not expect any state authority to do that work. So, for many NGOers, 2020 is torn between the realization of projects (that they often have to re-design with COVID-19 in mind) and the participation in the protest movement.
Like everyone else, NGO workers are claiming the right to physical safety and justice by going to the streets and, incredibly often, to jail. Many of them clearly articulate that they want the protests to raise economic demands and conversations about inequality and precarity. However, so far the gap between a person with the keyboard and a person with the rock-drill in Belarus is much smaller than the gap between siloviki8 in balaclavas and all the rest. This is the most significant inequality which makes us all precarious, and we do not know for how long this situation will last — this circumstance is largely omitted by the political analysts of different orientations.
Can I quit?
A certain symbolic line is drawn in discussions by both sides, those Belarusian NGO-workers who physically left Belarus and those who stayed in the country. Those who remained in Belarus respond to the criticism with the most radical argument of these days which is hard to object to — to be present here.
Those who for different reasons make a decision to leave the country, obviously feel the need to explain why they do so. Some Belarusians relocate immediately after being beaten by the riot police and after the administrative detention for going to the streets with flowers and posters, and/or after visits by the “police” at their homes or offices, and/or after being repeatedly “invited for a talk” to a local police office — via a phone call from a hidden number because in Belarus the “policemen” are not even bothered to officially summon to court.
In a way, the Belarusian citizens are privileged exodists: they are white and they do not have to cross a sea to enter another country. However, it is pandemic time and borders are closed. As of 30th October you can only cross borders with Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland if you have a type D visa or a residence permit from those countries. In certain cases you will not be able to return to Belarus because this state decides to not let its own citizens back in.9 It is more complicated with Russia as there is no type D visa for Belarusian citizens. However, Russia allows Belarus citizens if they have an appointment for a medical treatment or visit close relatives there. As of the late October, Ukraine is one of the few remaining destinations Belarusian citizens can travel to without a visa, but is very likely that this possibility might be interrupted at any moment with the introduction of new anti-coronavirus regulations.
The dread of the moment when Lukashenka’s words were mistaken as a decision to close borders with Lithuania and Poland is still present: for many, the impossibility of leaving the country is the last stop on the way to totalitarianism.
After weeks of ethical hesitations and despite the dangers of the coronavirus, many eventually take a bus.
And I started thinking: Maybe I have spent not enough time in jail? It was only 15 days but some got 30, and some were there for months. Am I such a coward to sneak after that? May I allow myself to leave Minsk now? Have I deserved this right to be outside of Belarus? — this kind of monologue you can imagine in Kyiv, Warsaw, Vilnius and other cities where Belarusian NGO workers and activists go in 2020. I have heard a few myself, and several more were recited by “friends of my friends”.
After leaving Belarus and coming to a safer place, the worst question you can hear is “Are you in Minsk now?” Siarhei Čaly, a Belarusian economist, admitted he was “a bit irritated with Belarusians flooding Warsaw, Kyiv, and Vilnius’. Leaving Minsk is less cool than it has ever been before, and you do not post Instagram stories from Kyiv.
Furthermore, you have no idea of how to talk to your friends in Minsk. Should you persuade them to take further care of themselves and leave the country? Or, rather, do you cheer them up and thank them for what they are doing?
An emotional shelter for some relocated Belarusians has been the “we work you strike” principle. “It is only my work which helps me not to go mad here”, admits a colleague on Instagram, after spending her seventh week outside of Belarus. Taking antidepressants and visiting a therapist is discussed daily, but my colleagues prefer to donate to Belarusian crowdfunding campaigns.
Some people are coming back to Belarus right now, during the last days of October. A colleague with Polish card; another colleague without Polish card; one more colleague who left Minsk “for a short weekend retreat only”, and so on. Belarusians can also be detained when entering the country, as it happened to a political prisoner Ihar Alinievič on the 30th of October. However, as a friend of mine recently put it, “at some point the fear of Belarusian prison is so strong that the only way to overcome it is to be in that prison”.
Thus, the unidimensional systems of coordinates, including the left-right political spectrum, fall short to describe the political composition of the Belarusian protest. The new Belarus is being constructed from multiple epistemic standpoints: by those attentively observing and those participating, by those taking care and those showing courage. Plurality of these standpoints is heuristic and produces the situated knowledge, in a feminist tradition of Donna Haraway: we can better understand what it means to be in Belarus by sharing ethnography of it to those who are not there. Within Belarus, an ability to look from multiple standpoints is crucial for understanding the imbalances of power and force that are causing violence and traumatizing the society. After all, the construction of Belarus is occurring without the method, as an exercise of Feyerabend’s epistemological anarchism, where “everything goes”. No single protest strategy can pretend to be the key one; and importantly, not a single group can carry responsibility for its success. Every protester in Belarus is a bit of an NGO worker these days, a participant of labor (work, not war) for change, a pioneer in multiple forms of “being there” and “protesting well enough”.
Kunitskaya, Ksenia & Vitaly Shkurin, 2020. “In Belarus, the Left Is Fighting to Put Social Demands at the Heart of the Protests.” Interview by Volodymyr Artiukh. Jacobin, 17 August, 2020. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2020/08/belarus-protests-lukashenko-minsk↩
The law enforcement agency in Belarus, which is considered to be the republic’s riot police. [ed.]↩
Matchanka, Anastasiya. “Substitution of Civil Society in Belarus: Government-Organised Non-Governmental Organisations.” Journal of Belarusian Studies 7, no. 2 (2014): 67-94.↩
Minchenia, Alena. “Belarusian Professional Protesters in the Structure of Democracy Promotion: Enacting Politics, Reinforcing Divisions.” Conflict and Society 6, no. 1 (2020): 218-235)↩
Literally translated as “people of force” or “strongmen”. Siloviki are members of security services police and armed forces.↩
On August 31st 2020 Tadevuš Kandrusievič, a Belarusian prelate of the Catholic Church, was prevented from entering Belarus after visiting Poland, despite being a Belarusian citizen. On November 1st there were reports of Belarusian students studying abroad denied entry to Belarus.↩
Andrey Vozyanov is a social anthropologist (Dr. des in Social Anthropology), sound-designer and lo-fi musician (kate in the box, Novy Byt) based in Minsk. Since 2016 he is a researcher and editor at Minsk Urban Platform and is currently working on a podcast show about post-Soviet urbanism which he questions from the perspective of a Minsk citizen. Since 2018 he has been teaching media and communications at European Humanities University, Vilnius. In 2020 he developed a lockdown podcast Excursions Through an Mp3-player, which came out of Facebook audio-diary, drawings, and seminars, but remained unreleased due to the events of summer 2020 in Belarus.
1:thermodynamics : a measure of the unavailable energy in a closed thermodynamic system that is also usually considered to be a measure of the system’s disorder, that is a property of the system’s state, and that varies directly with any reversible change in heat in the system and inversely with the temperature of the system
broadly : the degree of disorder or uncertainty in a system
“Cleanliness and order is the number one question!”
“We, of course, try to maintain the image of our country. As you say – cleanliness, neatness, quietness and so on.”
“What are you tired of in Belarus? Order and cleanliness in your country?”3
Yes! – because even according to the Second law of thermodynamics, in an isolated system entropy does not decrease, and any closed system tends to disorder.
Yes! – because Belarusian cleanliness strives for sterility, and sterility is infertility and the absence of microorganisms.
Yes! – because the Belarusian order and “stability” are based on conservation. And conservation is preservation from damage, decay, destruction, suspension of development, and not restoration, maintenance of life, or renewal.
In 2020, an isolated and closed Belarusian political system, based upon a regime lasting a quarter of a century, seriously crushed, violating its own order and notorious stability. First of all, this was manifested by the government policy amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Denial of a real threat, comparing the situation with “psychosis”, cynical jokes and statements about prevention and treatment, refusal to introduce quarantine measures, downplaying the problem and false statistics, insults and accusations against the sick and the dead – all these bugs made a mess in the system. And even the most ordered “particles” realized that the system no longer ensures their healthy existence, does not preserve life even at the level of conservation. And the entropy began to rise. t was manifested by the regime in pejorative and low-grade criticism, pressure on candidates and political repressions, outright falsification of elections, violence by the riot police during the suppression of protests, various mass punishments for dissent and for the manifestation of civil position, all accompanied by breaking of the law, constant perjury, and violation of human rights – which in its entirety could be already considered as the genocide of the own people. In turn, the dissenting, protesting society also increased the degree of chaos and instability of the system, rocking the regime further and further, more actively, and on a larger scale. If in May-July the actions of activists and volunteers involved in election campaigns were rather orderly – collecting signatures or numerous complaints about election violations, attempting to become independent observers – then from August 9th, a Brownian movement began, actively changing forms, methods, and directions of protest, in which thousands of particles participate and, thus, set in motion the larger segments.
And of this fact (as I record it here) An image, a type goes on before our eyes Present each moment; for behold whenever The sun’s light and the rays, let in, pour down Across dark halls of houses: thou wilt see The many mites in many a manner mixed Amid a void in the very light of the rays, And battling on, as in eternal strife, And in battalions contending without halt, In meetings, partings, harried up and down. From this thou mayest conjecture of what sort The ceaseless tossing of primordial seeds Amid the mightier void- at least so far As small affair can for a vaster serve, And by example put thee on the spoor Of knowledge. For this reason too ’tis fit Thou turn thy mind the more unto these bodies Which here are witnessed tumbling in the light: Namely, because such tumblings are a sign That motions also of the primal stuff Secret and viewless lurk beneath, behind. For thou wilt mark here many a speck, impelled By viewless blows, to change its little course, And beaten backwards to return again, Hither and thither in all directions round. Lo, all their shifting movement is of old, From the primeval atoms; for the same Primordial seeds of things first move of self, And then those bodies built of unions small And nearest, as it were, unto the powers Of the primeval atoms, are stirred up By impulse of those atoms’ unseen blows, And these thereafter goad the next in size: Thus motion ascends from the primevals on, And stage by stage emerges to our sense, Until those objects also move which we Can mark in sunbeams, though it not appears What blows do urge them.
Lucretius. De Rerum Natura. William Ellery Leonard. E. P. Dutton. 1916
“We didn’t know each other until this summer” is a line from the popular song that this year has become one of the most frequently quoted among Belarusians in various locations and situations: courtyards, protests, marches, and prison cells. Its popularity testifies not only to growing solidarity but also to the fact that if earlier most of the society did not defend their interests and exercise civil rights, 2020 has become a real point dividing the history and lives of many people into “before” and “after”.
My personal story is a simple and, alas, a widespread example of the regime repressions, described by the new expression “If you were not in prison, then you are not a Belarusian”. I was sentenced to 15 days for participation in an unauthorized event (Article 23.34). It was a protest of artists against violence which took place near the Palace of Art in Minsk on August 15. My imprisonment led to an acquaintance with women of different ages, characters, spheres of activity and interests, forms and manifestations of their civil position. We were transferred from cell to cell, from one detention center to another, from Minsk to Zhodino. But everywhere we didn’t just get to know each other but became true sisters – supportive, understanding, and caring.
While in prison, I realized that this experience was also a dividing line. Therefore, some time after each of us walked out free, I asked my new friends to reflect and share their feelings. Their “before and after” are both in many ways similar, and somewhat different, but they once again emphasize this growing “Belarusian entropy”.
– For 26 years I was in a lethargic dream, realizing the futility of all attempts to make any body movements against the established regime. But during the coronavirus epidemic, I realized that the people in power absolutely do not care about my health. Or the health of my family. Or the health of my friends.
This was followed by an election campaign that literally pushed me off the couch. I was outraged by the cynicism and rudeness of the people who seized power.
I went out into the street, realizing the danger to my life and freedom. But I couldn’t stand it anymore.
Naturally, the dogs of the regime did not forgive me for my dissent. I was caught, convicted (according to their own idea of justice), and put in prison.
In prison, I made an agreement with my body and consciousness, convincing myself that things are going as they ought to. That I should not pay attention to humiliation and deprivation. I expected that I would undergo these tests and was ready for them. I even enjoyed communicating with the girls who shared the cell with me.
But when I walked out into the fresh air (I can’t say I was freed because there is no freedom in my beautiful country), I realized all the horror that happened to me. I got scared. Scared for myself. Scared for my loved ones. I’m scared for the people who emerged out of prison with me. We are defenseless against malice, against impudence, against lies and hypocrisy of the authorities…
– As for the future of Belarus, my expectations are only positive, but the only question is when this future will come. At the very beginning of the protests I believed in victory within several weeks. Now it is clear that the process has been delayed, but it is still going in the right direction and will certainly be successful. Belarusians have become different people, they learned how close to each other they can be.
There is only one thing that changed after I served time. I went out and thought: “Here it is exactly the same prison.” And this feeling persists. But at the same time, I know for sure that we will win and that people who do not allow us to live freely and happily in our native country, will be punished. My dream is to turn jokes about “a country to live”4 into reality. I dream of freedom, independence, cultural and economic growth of Belarus, democracy, and good education. We have everything to materialize this. And among this “everything” in the first place is love. Love to each other and to Belarus, which, in general, has now become the same!
– I cannot say that I lived badly even six months ago. I had a good job, earned good money. But this money was paid to me by “Uncle John” from America. And the president of our country insisted on TV that we are eggheads.
At some point, one realizes that money is not the most crucial thing in life. And we got into this situation not for the sake of or because of the money.
We went to the streets to defend our rights, our voice, the people who live around us, our principles, our friends and family. We do not want to be repeatedly insulted by the “head” of the state. We do not want to be compared to livestock. We do not want to be beaten, humiliated, fired, and killed for dissent. I expect the voices of the people to be heard so that the people can choose their own representative. And that this representative would regard the people who hired them.
When I got to the detention center and served my sentence there, I observed something that struck me even more: I have not seen a single lowbrow girl. Everyone was well-mannered, we sorted the garbage in the cell, we sang songs, we talked a lot. There were only those girls who were diligent, intelligent, kind, and honest. It seems to me that such a society deserves respect for itself. Our people have shown that we know how to unite and help each other. I believe that Belarus has colossal prospects with such people.
And if before the arrest and incarceration I was terrified, eventually more faith grew inside me. There, being in a cell, absolutely defenseless, we were much stronger than those who imprisoned and guarded us. Freedom, faith, and love lived within us. And I believe that with such people Belarus will become, if not financially wealthy, then at least rich in spirit, and in this case, our nation will become much happier.
And one can speculate about the future for a long time, but the most important thing that I have gained for myself is pride. The pride that I am Belarusian, pride for my country. I had never been proud of this before – rather, with a little frustration, I had to explain abroad what kind of country it is. And now I am sure that in the future, every Belarusian will be proud of his or her country and of the fact that he or she is a citizen of Belarus, and the whole world will see that this is a country with incredible and bright people.
– Belarus will be fine. I didn’t think about it before, I thought that everything would just remain the same. Now I see what kind of people live here, what their views, goals and desires are. This is inspiring. I knew about such people who have always been like that – my friends, the people with whom I made projects. But it seemed to me that there are fewer of them; that this community is a kind of a “local get-together”. And the real Belarusians can be identified in the scandalous clinic queues, by derogatory attitude at schools, by disgruntled tired eyes (I would also like to add by “hatred of all living things”, but this is too much of an exaggeration, probably). As if they are present, they are noticeable, while you are somewhere alienated, in your own world.
Then it turned out to be a cleverly created illusion. They are simply and truly more visible. They had more power, there are more of them in the media and state institutions.
I realized this more acutely after the prison. While we were there, we discussed that such a system and such conditions should not exist for anyone. Not for us, not for real criminals. The prison should be a place of rehabilitation, not aggravation.
After getting out of prison, I visited a medical center for health inspection. They provide assistance to victims of repressions free of charge . The building is well maintained, has good equipment and caring staff. Everything was fine, everything was as it should be. And suddenly I remembered the clinic, which I had attended in my childhood. Its shabby walls, dirty toilets, rudeness and queues. We grew up in the midst of this. In grey schools with teachers who hate you and their work. In grey universities, where both students and teachers come just to tick the box. In grey hospitals, maternity hospitals, executive committees and somewhere else. We were surrounded by the same state structures with ugly posters, stupid phrases, bad taste and stereotypes. It has become a background that one doesn’t even notice, but which is somehow influential. And you feel like an outcast within this. It doesn’t matter where you work and what you do – a worker, a pupil, a student, a doctor, a marketer, a teacher, an entrepreneur – you are a bit of a stranger here if you have brains and a sense of taste. You realised this in the subcortex. And now, suddenly it came out.
It turns out that we are the norm. Not cliches created by the government, but us. We are the majority, we are Belarusians, we are the people. We have soul, intellect, ambition and desires. We are responsible for our life and our future. We are ready for changes, ready to manage them and invest in improvements. We want to fulfil ourselves and realize our plans. We want to live, we want freedom. And now we want to trust. Because it turned out that there is someone to trust.
Why do I personally compare the current situation in Belarus with entropy? Because I see a growing chaos and randomness in the actions of both parties: the regime and its opponents. Just as the suppression and punishment by the state exhausts the legality, the logic and the strategy – so the protest becomes more and more unexpected, uncontrollable and multi-format. The more severe and terrible the punishment gets, the stronger intimidation becomes – the bolder, more active, diverse and larger the reaction grows. The stronger repressions against culture and art workers are manifested – the more creative the response is. The more people are forced to leave the country – the faster the number of active citizens increases. At the same time, despite our strong faith, determination, struggle, consolidation, and solidarity, I see that the regime and its power mechanisms are not weakening, but are even more blatantly demonstrating the liberty of their banditry and cruelty. While active and highly educated people are forced to emigrate or undergo rehabilitation, protesters, who are still active, are tired of the situation and are mentally and physically unstable. They lose work and places of study, and institutions are forced to close or completely reorganize its functions and staff. All this suggests that the order of this “closed” Belarusian system continues to decrease rapidly, and the entropy, as is typical of the Universe, is increasing. And all this is as irreversible as it is hard to put the toothpaste back into a tube. That means that the only thing that can be assumed is that chaos will grow and strive to its destructive limit. Nobody knows when and how it will happen. But this is what ensures our evolution.
Claude Shannon – the creator of the information theory, who was working with the concept of the information entropy – explained the history of the term as follows: “My greatest concern was what to call it. I thought of calling it ‘information’, but the word was overly used, so I decided to call it ‘uncertainty’. When I discussed it with John von Neumann, he had a better idea. Von Neumann told me, ‘You should call it entropy, for two reasons: In the first place your uncertainty function has been used in statistical mechanics under that name, so it already has a name. In the second place, and more important, nobody knows what entropy really is, so in a debate you will always have the advantage.”5
That is why I would like to call what is happening in the country today “the Belarusian entropy”: despite a certain logic of the process, the experience of other countries, professional and amateur forecasting, internal and external predictions, the outcome remains unknown – as well as the future of the Universe, tending towards chaos. The main thing, noted by the absolute majority, is that the process has started, and artificially maintained balance and order are broken: we really woke up, came to life, and now grow together with this entropy.
October 30, 2020
In July 2020, Nadya Sayapina created a performance Heritage, dedicated to paintings confiscated from the corporate art collection of Belgazprombank in relation to the criminal case against Viktor Babariko – the chairman of the bank’s board and a presidential candidate. During the performance, 24 cultural workers and artists attached the reproductions of confiscated paintings to their backs and for several hours had been standing in front of the framed QR codes hanging on the walls.
Nadya Sayapina was detained at home on September 7, 2020. Law enforcement officers, using her keys without consent, illegally searched her apartment, seizing a router and several hard drives. Nadya’s trial was carried out with multiple gross violations, and the evidence of her guilt was based on the false testimony given by a witness who kept providing contradictory information. Sayapina was sentenced to 15 days of administrative arrest under Part 1 of Article 23.34 of the Code of Administrative Offenses – participation in unauthorized public gatherings – for taking part in a performance held on August 15 in front of the Palace of the Arts. The performance featured artists standing with the portraits of people who were injured during the protests which took place on August 9-11, 2020 and were brutally suppressed by the authorities.
“A country to live” is a Youtube channel of Sergei Tikhanovsky – a husband of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, whose detention led her to run for the presidency. The channel is focused on giving publicity to the social and political hardships of Belarusian everydayness outside of the big cities. Its title is taken from the promotional video commissioned by the Ministry of Information, crafted to idealize Belarus and promote its positive image. [ed.].