A culture war is raging in Belarus. The prize? The right to define the nation. Battle lines are being drawn across all aspects of everyday life, such that even one’s choice of language can rapidly become be a political statement. Belarusian-speakers are in an ever-dwindling minority, like islands gradually sinking into a rising sea of Russian. But linguistic heritage is not the only thing that is under threat. Many Belarusians have apparently ‘forgotten’ their history too.
As linguistic Russification, ‘correct’ histories was a social effect of Soviet rule. Unusually for Sovietised history, given Marxist-Leninism’s aversion to national determinism, Belarus was given a status of ‘Partisan Republic’. Rich in forest and marshland, Belarus had provided the perfect terrain for guerilla resistance against the Nazi occupation in WWII. Reams of history and ubiquitous monuments were produced to glorify the Soviet patriotism of the partisans, at the expense of pre-Soviet history, which was whitewashed. While academics argue over whether this amounted to denationalisation or Soviet nation-building, the overall effect was the mass deletion of memory.
Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s regime tries to draw its legitimacy from promoting the same Soviet myths about the Belarusian nation. Belarus is thus projected as a Russian-speaking, Russia-allied and anti-elitist nation, with a strong base in the proletariat. Lukashenka’s Belarus again has an official state ideology – although it is only loosely defined and has no name. According to the regime’s narrative, the nation’s ‘flourishing’ owes most to its ties with the Russian people, especially as manifested in the Soviet period.
Culture as resistance
In today’s Belarus, a country often called ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’, resistance is above all cultural. History writing, narrative fiction and poetry frequently equate to political subversion. Rock concerts are prone to turn into full-blown demonstrations. In the Soviet period, a small core of academics, writers, musicians, etc. maintained the autonomy of Belarusian language and culture. Perhaps counterintuitively, given the fact that their activities were often antithetic to the Soviet project, these dissidents usually worked for the state. They ordinarily belonged to centrally-funded writers’ and artists’ unions and published in state-owned journals. Now, such material support has been largely withdrawn, and the state monopoly on culture has completely withered away. Contemporary Belarusian literature, music, art and theatre have been freer than ever to develop into important vehicles of protest, de-Sovietisation and Belarusian identity.
Because this cultural schism is, broadly speaking, a divide between an eastern and a western orientation, it can even translate into a difference in faith. Thus the state has stronger ties with Orthodoxy, while Catholicism is more associated with dissidence. This is not to say that there are always clear divisions at the level of individuals: Russian-speakers abound in opposition circles, for example. But many of Belarus’ cultural symbols fall into one of two camps. There are even two national flags. The official flag is green and red (introduced in 1995 by Lukashenka and modelled on the old Soviet republic’s flag), while the symbol of protest and symbol of the pre-Soviet nationalist movement is a white-red-white horizontal tricolour. The latter is all but banned: in 2010 the activist Siarhei Kavalenka was even handed a prison sentence for placing the alternative Belarusian flag on a Christmas tree in his native city of Vitsebsk.
Negation of culture
While it struggles to keep hold of creative arts, the state has monopoly control over key material assets, such as the television and radio waves, newspaper distribution system, cinemas, concert halls, and education system. It has the police and special military forces at its disposal, and has shown repeatedly that it is not afraid to deploy them. Administrative violence is frequently aimed at cultural outlets and events. For example, the Union of Belarusian Writers, an organisation composed of the country’s leading liberal-minded novelists, poets and dramatists, had its state funding rescinded in 2001, and was evicted from its offices in 2006. In 2011, a ‘blacklist’ of cultural figures who could not be mentioned in the state-owned media was ‘leaked’ on opposition websites (official sources vehemently denied its existence). Several of the musical groups listed, such as the outspoken rock outfit Lyapis Trubetskoy, have had concerts in Belarus cancelled by the authorities.
The most recent victims of the war on culture were academics. On September 14 last year, in the western Belarusian city of Hrodna, one historian lost his job and another was arrested. The first was Andrey Charnyakevich, a co-author of a collective volume on Hrodna’s history. The book, ‘Hrodnology’ (Hrodnaznaustva), was rapidly pulled from the shelves and Charnyakevich was dismissed from his post at the local state university. Aimed at mass enlightenment, the work portrays Hrodna – and by implication, Belarus – as a thriving hub with strong ties to the great cultures of Central and Eastern Europe. The historian’s emphasis on Hrodna’s ‘European’ heritage clearly undermines the regime’s insistence on a ‘Eurasian’ version of Belarusian history.
The second target was Valer Bulhakau, the editor of Belarus’ leading independent scholarly journal ARCHE. Bulhakau was in the city presenting a new publication: a Belarusian translation of Polish historian Jan Szumski’s monograph, on Soviet terror in Western Belarus in the aftermath of the Second World War. The arrest was the beginning of a series of administrative assaults on ARCHE, as a result of which the journal has suspended publication and its editor has fled the country. As well as censuring Szumski’s book which debunks any lingering misconceptions about the Soviet ‘liberation’ of Western Belarus after the Nazi occupation, the authorities banned the release of a journal issue on the history of Belarus during the Second World War. The volume contained essays, many of which were translations of recent Western scholarship, on taboo issues such as local collaboration in Nazi crimes and Soviet military failures.
Occupation and resistance
In 2004, the first full-length independent Belarusian film was banned from being shown in the country’s cinemas. ‘Mysterium Occupation’, a film set during the Second World War, had already gained recognition at international film festivals. One of the key transgressions of the film was a suggestion that Belarus today is still under (Nazi) occupation. The makers called the film a ‘partisan film’ (as the name of its website shows), thereby making quite explicit the nature of cultural resistance in Belarus today.
Embracing the underground, cultural activists have resurrected and inverted the concept of the ‘Partisan Republic’. A major opposition news resource is named Belarus Partizan, and the most popular cultural journal bears the name pARTisan. The internet, where identities are more hidden and sources are harder to track, is fast becoming the key medium where opposition activity can be discussed and distributed. The Budz’ma Belarusami! (‘Let’s Be Belarusian!’) website is a popular source of cultural products promoting national pride, featuring work by writers, musicians, artists and historians. The campaign also recently launched the first animated history of Belarus. In a similar vein to the ‘Hrodnology’ project, this short video aims to make the country’s history interesting, accessible, and in a manner that clearly contrasts with Soviet and neo-Soviet orthodoxies.
Another important platform for alternative Belarusianness is emigration and the diaspora. A large contingent of students, artists and scholars are active in neighbouring countries including Lithuania, Poland and Russia. Free from state intervention, various research initiatives and grassroots projects are able to operate. An important asset is Belsat, the Belarusian television station which is funded by the Polish state and based in Warsaw. Another is the European Humanities University in Vilnius, the Belarusian university-in-exile which was forced out of Minsk by the Lukashenka regime in 2005. This is where Andrey Charnyakevich now works, after losing his job in Hrodna.
Can a regime which fights against its own national culture survive? There are many reasons to suppose that Lukashenka’s rule cannot last very much longer – it is overly dependent on Russian patronage, promised improvements in living standards are not materialising, and the regime’s support among the population is dwindling. Nonetheless, that same regime has already lasted 18 years, prides itself on the ‘stability’ it delivers, and the president is still a relatively young man. The political opposition is divided and looked upon with suspicion by many.
The dictatorship cannot, however, wipe out the vivacity of the Belarusian language as it appears in everyday speech, in music, in prose and poetry. It cannot carry on denying that the Belarusian people have a history stretching back before 1917. It cannot do these things because they matter too much to too many people. It is not yet clear whether a journal such as ARCHE will return, or whether cultural resistance can gain enough political significance to pose a threat to Lukashenka. But there should be little doubt that Belarusian culture will continue to fight.