…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”.
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.