Belarus Creative OppositionBelarus is often called “Europe’s black hole” and is best known for its dictator Alexander Lukashenka and the 1986 Chernobyl Disaster. Indeed, with its statues of Lenin, KGB, socialist realist buildings and collective farms, time seems to have stopped in Belarus, where the Soviet Union still lives. But behind the country’s closed borders, an exciting and vibrant youth scene is alive and well, producing alternative culture underground in dorms, music clubs, informal groups, artistic communities and cyberspace.
Most experts on Belarus write about the country’s political or civic opposition. Only few articles have appeared on the cultural opposition. This is unfortunate, given the key role played by the creative opposition in many authoritarian countries. It is impossible, for example, to understand the revolutions of 1989 without studying the impact of independent elite culture, including Vaclav Havel’s plays, Adam Michnik’s essays, or Gaspar Miklos Tamas’ philosophical tracts, or alternative popular culture, like the psychedelic rock of the Plastic People of the Universe in Czechoslovakia and the anarchist “happenings” of the Orange Alternative in Poland. The Soviet bloc was full of underground rockers, writers, artists, poets, religious believers, film-makers, environmentalists, hippies and punks. They were important because, in the 1980s, many Central Europeans were inspired by alternative culture to take up alternative politics, paving the way for political change.
The same thing is happening today in Belarus. One interesting difference is that the creative opposition in Belarus is largely made up of and driven by young people. This article is about a few young movers and shakers from the country’s cultural scene. Each is a dynamic, unique individual who is not afraid to be different. Together they represent thousands of active and creative young Belarusians who, unlike the government, love their country and its unique culture.
Like kids everywhere else, young Belarusians are crazy about the Internet, fashion, music and popular culture. But unlike in the West, where all of this is readily available, in Belarus access to anything independent is controlled by the authorities. Here, in the middle of Europe, youth activists are arrested, imprisoned, expelled from universities and fired from jobs. Independent schools have been closed down, youth NGOs dissolved, youth publications seized and alternative bands banned. The Lukashenka regime tries to control practically every aspect of youth life, because it fears any free ideas, whether home-grown or from the West. A “state ideology” course is taught during early school years and is required for all college freshmen. All state employees must take a special ideology exam as a part of hiring procedures. A new regulation requires that all college applicants wanting to study journalism, international relations and law, must obtain letters of recommendations from their local authorities. The Ministry of Culture decides what kind of music private FM radio stations should play and the Ministry of Education sets the official guidelines for youth fashion. But, of course, the main decisions are made by the President, who a couple of years ago ordered that only Belarusian models should appear on advertising billboards.
The authorities can try to restrict, impose, threaten and repress, but they really can’t determine what young people wear, listen to, read or watch. As was the case with jazz in the 1950s and jeans in the 1960s Soviet bloc, what is forbidden today in Belarus becomes even more fashionable and desirable. Young Belarusians are no different than other youth who respond to restrictions and regulations with creative forms of dissent. Thanks to the regime, the youth counterculture is alive and well in Belarus. When peaceful meetings are broken up, young activists stage flash mobs and street performances that ridicule the absurdities of the government. When concerts are banned, youngsters go to underground night clubs, across borders and to outdoor festivals to listen to their black-listed bands. When there is no officially approved venue for their works, young artists, photographers and designers show in alternative art galleries and post their works online. Independent writers and journalists publish samizdat (underground) newspapers and magazines, create online communities, and spread information through blogs and home-made documentary films and videos. “New media” and street art are becoming more and more popular in a country that finds itself near the bottom of every ranking of freedom of expression.
Here are some sketches of a few of the most creative young people in Belarus. What is unique about them is how they are using culture to promote activism among Belarus’ youth, who are generally apathetic about politics. Someday, they will be the leaders of a free and democratic Belarus in Europe. But today, they are making “Europe’s last dictatorship” a much more colorful and interesting place.
Rockin’ in the Free World
Vital Supranovich is a 28 year-old producer of Belarusian music. He has helped dozens of bands make it to the main stage, but prefers to remain backstage himself. As a teenager, he co-founded the Belarusian Music Alternative Group (BMA Group) in 1996 because he wanted to promote the Belarusian rock that he loved. Since then, BMA has released almost a hundred albums and organized hundreds of concerts.
Independent music in Belarusian is a key political statement in this authoritarian and russified country. Over the last decade, musicians and fans have come and gone, but Vital says that a core group of independent rockers has remained. More importantly, crowds are still screaming “Long Live Belarus” at concerts, even though people can be arrested for openly displaying their desire to see a free and independent Belarus. Organizing a concert in Belarus is difficult, expensive and risky. A dozen special permits must be obtained from various state agencies and even if the papers are in order, the authorities still can shut down a concert at the last moment without any explanation, apology or compensation for expenses. According to Vital, this is one of the main reasons why there are only a few producers working with independent musicians. He explains his own successful career by making it clear that his job is his passion, and that for him, Belarusian music is not just a business, but a way of life.
“It’s very hard to make long-term plans in our country, where the rules of the game are always changing. I just try to do my best in any given situation,” – Vital says. Before a number of leading rock bands were banned from performing in Belarus by the authorities, BMA mostly released the albums and organized the concerts of these bands. After the ban was imposed three years ago, Vital had to start from scratch in finding and promoting new names, as well as coming up with new forms of activities for those on the black list. In 2006, BMA put together and released “Songs of Freedom” a compact disc of protest songs produced in cooperation with the “For Freedom” civic campaign, which became the best selling album of the year; it was followed by two more successful editions. In September 2007, together with the student initiative “StudFarmat,” Vital organized a Belarusian rock festival, “The Right to Be Free” in Lutsk, Ukraine. A concert which Vital put together in December to celebrate the 10th anniversary of one the most famous Belarusian records ever – “Narodny Albom” (The People’s Album) – sold out and became the cultural event of 2007 (http://www.democraticbelarus.eu/node/3149).
Vital believes that neither ordinary citizens nor musicians can remain apart from the country’s political issues. He works closely with a number of democratic initiatives and promotes civic activism through music. He is now trying to organize a “Songs of Freedom” fan club to unite and encourage the activism of the thousands of owners of these albums. Along with commercial rock concerts, he organizes folk music events, which are rarely profitable, because it is important for him to promote Belarusian culture in all its forms. As an expert on music, Vital thinks that some of the up and coming bands, especially those playing heavy metal and hard rock, such as “Tovarisch Mauser,” “B:N:” or “Indiga,” also have a real chance to become popular in the West, if they can somehow reach foreign publics. “It’s crucial for musicians to feel that their music is wanted, but it’s not always easy in Belarus,” – Vital says. This is why he dreams that one day he will launch his own FM radio station, which will play Belarusian-language alternative music, the kind of music he likes best.
Green Gloves vs. Red Tape
Jenia is a 23 year-old private entrepreneur, the owner of a youth fashion boutique in Babrujsk, a city of 220,000 in eastern Belarus. Jenia says she has always been an active student, just not politically active. Yet during her last year, she was expelled from the State Economic University for missing a few classes. She had made the mistake of going on an international student exchange trip on EU expansion.I’ve visited parliament in six European countries, but not in Belarus, because it’s closed to the general public” – she says. Despite all her problems, Jenia completed her studies through distance learning, but instead of looking for a job in the state sector, she decided to start her own business.
Always fashionable with a unique sense of style—she was wearing fancy green gloves with plastic cuffs when I interviewed her—it wasn’t hard for Jenia to figure out in which field she’d like to apply her entrepreneurial ambitions. “It’s very hard to find stylish and affordable clothes in Belarus, almost impossible,” – she says. “I really love second-hand stores. Finding something nice is like searching for treasure.” Like most young people who want to be mod, Jenia prefers to buy her clothes abroad and makes frequent shopping trips to Lithuania and Poland. She gets ideas for her own clothes from magazines, movies and designers’ websites. So it was natural that she decided to open a boutique for young people. And since she carried back the first batch of clothes from Lithuania in a big bag, Jenia called her store “The Suitcase.”
Opened three months ago, “The Suitcase” is already a popular destination in Babrujsk, and not just for youth. The female-owned store is the exception in a country where business is dominated by males, and its bright and daring foreign fashions stand out. But Jenia is not sure how long it will survive. At the beginning of December, her cozy boutique was almost closed down by local authorities, because she was a day late in putting Christmas decorations in store windows, as required by municipal regulations. “The legislation and attitude concerning small business is horrible. State officials treat us like we are second class citizens.” Commenting on a new restrictive law against small business, which sparked a nationwide strike paralyzing 80 percent of the open-air markets and malls last week, Jenia believes that “the choice the authorities offer to small entrepreneurs is a quick death by guillotine or a slow death by hanging.” She doesn’t think that regime can force people to buy Belarusian products by stopping private entrepreneurs from importing foreign goods. “People will always find a way to buy what they like. You can’t create a ghetto in the middle of Europe nowadays.”
Despite all the problems, Jenia is sure that the experience she gained was useful and will help her with future projects. “Just making money is not so inspiring and interesting. I want to use my communications skills and knowledge to make the world a better place.” She plans to help some promising Belarusian bands and artists – her friends – in taking part in international festivals. “There are so many talented young people around, with great ideas and projects, but, unfortunately, most of them don’t speak English and can’t network on their own. But they are very entrepreneurial, have a European outlook and challenge our grey reality with their creativity and positive action.
They might not be ready for open political protest, but they want to change the situation in the country. They, too, need attention and some help.”
Making a Point
Andrei, who is 21 years old, belongs to a new wave of activists who joined the democratic movement in March 2006. He was expelled from Belarusian State University for participating in the peaceful spring protests, but chose to stay in Belarus and start his own organization, known today “Initiative” (http://www.iniciative.org/). Its activists were first united by a passion for flash mobs organized through the LiveJournal online community. In mid 2006, their flash mobs were a sensation in the democratic movement, mobilizing hundreds of youngsters to protest the regime’s falsification of the election results and post-election repression. It took several months before the secret services were able to track down the organizers and start arresting those planning or participating in the actions, causing a crisis in the flash mob movement and forcing its leaders to come up with new tactics and forms for the happenings. But the flash mobbers were able to redefine their goals, rework their strategy, and find their niche in Belarus’ democratic movement.
I talked to Andrei while we were marching down a Minsk street under a giant Initiative flag during the Dziady (Forefather’s Eve) annual demonstration on October 28. The group’s unusual logo (a red-white-red exclamation point on a black background) on a huge flag (three meters tall) attracted a lot of attention and even caused some misunderstanding among older marchers, due to its radical appearance. Andrei explained that Initiative is a Minsk-based group, open to anyone who wants to join, which unites males and females, mainly young professionals and students, aged 18-30. It carries out well-planned, carefully prepared, frequent peaceful street actions designed to overcome apathy and fear among young people.
Last year, Initiative organized more than 50 happenings, and only once did the police manage to detain some participants. Paradoxically, this happened during an unplanned event when Initiative members, like many other youngsters around the world, showed up in Minsk’s downtown wearing crazy costumes to celebrate Halloween. The group regularly manages to place the banned white-red-white historical flag on the tallest buildings around the city to protest the anti-Belarusian policy of the authorities. It took police more than four hours to tear down a flag put up on a downtown apartment building on May 15, the anniversary of the phony 1995 referendum which returned old Soviet state symbols to Belarus. Last May, Initiative organized “Cheer Up with Flowers Day” and handed out 2,000 tulips to people on the streets, including police and soldiers. A month later, about 30 activists wearing tee shirts declaring “Protect Old Grodno” handed out more than 5,000 leaflets with information on how the authorities were destroying historical buildings in one of Belarus’ oldest cities.
“The most rewarding part is to see people’s reaction when we talk to them on the streets,” - Andrei said. “I was shocked to find out that most of them didn’t know that we have political prisoners in our country,” – he continued, referring to the organization’s best known action, in which Initiative activists ask people on the streets to sign postcards that are then sent as a sign of solidarity to political prisoners. The group’s strategy of creativity, courage and activism seems to be a success. It was able to collect and mail more than 1,500 postcards to political prisoners for Christmas Eve. These energetic guys are definitely winning over people and gaining public attention. As I was interviewing Andrei, the flag his group was carrying broke. A bunch of old ladies, who at first were suspicious of the young radicals with the big black flag, ended up cheering them on as they tried to catch up with the marchers after fixing the staff. Like their flag, the group is making its point.
CONTINUED in the Spring 2009 issue of BELARUSIAN REVIEW.
Only 30 herself, Iryna Vidanava is Belarusian activist who has been working with independent youth groups and publications for more than a decade.
Source: Transitions Online, April 28, 2008
This article appeared in
Belarusian Review, Vol. 20, No. 4
Copyright 2008 Belarusian Review
All rights reserved.