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Belarus after 2020: cultural tactics, strategies and utopias

We are republishing the important text of the discussion and analysis project .

During the last twenty years, the Belarusian cultural field has functioned under constant pressure and restrictions from the Belarusian state. After 2020, the repression took on a massive character. As of January 2023, 115 cultural figures are in political prison, and the number of administrative and criminal cases against those who support independent cultural projects is increasing every month.

State persecution, disruption of the work of cultural institutions, arrests of cultural figures and liquidation of independent cultural associations have become a new everyday occurrence. Despite the pressure and risks, Belarusian culture continues not only to make sense of the traumatic experience of 2020, but also produces new meanings, creates and strengthens spaces for public dialogue, and builds translocal and transnational connections.

In this text, several main strategies of response of the Belarusian cultural field to political and social crises after 2020 will be considered. The focus will be on the processes of "national revival", the practices of collective care and the experience of grassroots cooperation. These three strategies are not exhaustive, but provide an opportunity to see some patterns within the various communities, groups and collectives engaged in the cultural sphere.

In practice, these processes often complement each other. Working from the point of crisis, Belarusian cultural figures use all available tools to process and transform experience after 2020.

National revival

According to the Center of New Ideas, the protests of 2020 were the starting point for many Belarusians in the conception of "nation" and "national identity". "National revival" got its start together with the wave of mutual support of Belarusians and was called the United Transitional Cabinet — the main vector of rebuilding Belarusian culture.

In 2022, the category of "national identity" for the Belarusian cultural space became even more popular. Russia's war in Ukraine and the need to distance itself from the colonial ambitions of the aggressor country became for many a turning point in learning (or returning) the Belarusian language as a symbolic barrier against military expansion.

Interest in Belarusian history, attempts to understand the quasi-colonial experience of Belarus and its dependence on Russia gave impetus to the development of numerous cultural projects and initiatives. "National revival" as a set of practices and actions aimed at rebuilding and mastering the past Belarusian culture and the lost Belarusian language, gave space for projects to promote the language and create cultural products in it, interest in ethnography and preservation of Belarusian rites, historical Belarusian context and research creative work with him.

© Examples of initiatives: Instagram channels of the groups Zabi Zyapu, Gutar_ka, Sami Sopolka.

At the same time, the very concept of "nation" within the framework of the strategy of national revival often tends to rely on the historical myth about the "illustrious past of Belarus". Thus, national revival is unreflectively associated with forgotten and lost heroes, communities and their traditions, the gradual return to which will help in the collective appropriation of "national identity" and nation-building.

This reconstruction of cultural and historical experience, passed through the political prism and agenda of specific actors, represents Belarus and Belarusians with a homogeneous set of cultural and social practices. Reducing "national identity" to the experience of loss of "national" wealth: the nobility, the village, the generation of executed poets, clothes, rituals, religion - the "nation" is crystallized as a conservative, rigid structure, focused solely on restoring what has already been lost without critical consideration of this past.

The real cultural ambiguity and complexity of the Belarusian context, connections within Belarus between communities with different value orientations and their influence on Belarusian culture, multifaceted social and linguistic communication are marginalized. Vulnerable groups — women, HIV-positive people, people with disabilities, the elderly, LGBTQ+ people — are excluded from such a national discourse as insignificant for the narrative of the history of Belarus.

Collective concern and solidarity

If national revival focuses on past achievements, collective solidarity works from a place of shared trauma. The practice of trauma care and healing (trauma care and healing) in the cultural sphere becomes an attempt to transform a painful experience and through joint actions develop a vision of a possible future.

A large number of group exhibitions and events that work with the deconstruction of the Soviet past and the Belarusian present, the search for a common and different understanding between generations of Belarusian cultural figures and friends from the countries of Eastern Europe and the Baltics, focus on a critical understanding of the events of the recent and distant history of Belarus. The personal and collective experience of life in Belarus becomes a tool for exploring the possibilities of supporting each other and building new communities that often go beyond the borders of specific countries.

Group exhibition of Belarusian bridges_chak , February 5 – March 19, 2022, Sentiment Gallery, Zurich / © photo: Philipp Rupp / Julien Gremaud

The forced migration of Belarusian cultural figures, the loss of a home (sometimes double or triple), the feeling of danger, artistic helplessness, physical and psychological exhaustion form a cultural language focused on empathy for events that resonate with the Belarusian experience.

A vivid example of collective concern and solidarity from the cultural, political, and civil fields can be the immediate anti-war response of Belarusians to Russia's war in Ukraine and participation in the resistance. Belarusian cultural and civil activists took part not only in protest actions and actions of direct aid to Ukrainians affected by Russia's actions, but also organized transnational solidarity projects. One of such large projects can be called , a project of archiving and distribution of artistic expressions against the Russian war, initiated by and a group of Belarusian cultural workers.

Russia's war in Ukraine was not the only event around which the efforts of the Belarusian cultural field were consolidated. The migration crisis on the border of Belarus, Latvia and Lithuania, protests in Iran, the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia mobilized both cultural and civil initiatives.

Along with this, such active inclusion in regional and global processes in many cases turns out to be built on personal contribution. In connection with the massive forced liquidation of NGOs in Belarus, cultural figures are forced to build solidarity processes from scratch. The lack of full-fledged organizational structures, lack of financial and human resources leads to self-exploitation in the cultural field and increases its social and economic vulnerability.

Grassroots cooperation and Belarusian culture as an open space

The clearing of the cultural field in Belarus and emigration to other countries in many ways froze or destroyed those structures of work that existed in the field of culture before. But it prompted the formation and activation of grassroots initiatives that are ready to respond to cultural requests here and now.

The active work of diasporas and communities within Belarus shows that expanding access to the cultural field helps in building inclusion, where the needs of different groups are understood and discussed. The opportunity to get involved in cultural processes and bring an agenda invisible to major cultural actors gives an impetus to a deeper study of Belarusian culture and expansion of its borders.

© Yana Moroz (Baästet): "sleeping/not sleeping", VR, 3D animation, exhibition Queer Actions for the Nature of Belarus, 2021

Cooperation at the grassroots level, pooling of resources and mutual assistance in the organization of events, festivals, cultural laboratories, theater productions, including constructive political statements (for example, the protection of migrant rights or women's rights), allows to create alternative visions of what is Belarusian culture and how it can be filled. Using the example of diaspora community centers, one can see how diverse the requests and interests of Belarusians in emigration are: they study the culture of the host country, and restore ties within their community, and look for new landmarks for life in new places.

Despite many successes, grassroots cooperation remains limited. In most cases, participation in grassroots groups takes place on a volunteer basis, which inevitably leads to difficulties with the sustainability and long-term nature of such projects.

What is Belarusian culture, how to preserve it and at the same time give the opportunity to new communities to join the co-creation in it? How to stand in solidarity with others and support your communities? The Belarusian cultural field is looking for answers to these and many other questions.

By creating a cultural field as an open space for the expressions of different groups, conceiving of the Belarusian "national identity" not as a set of predetermined linguistic and cultural norms, but as a plastic structure available for redefinition, Belarusian cultural figures can formulate culture as a space of solidarity, inclusion and mutual care.. These values, which were expressed and took shape in 2020, are relevant for Belarusians both inside the country and abroad.