23 December 2022

The questions that are more complicated than the answers

Art historian Ekaterina Ruskevich talks about the duality of the Belarusian space, about the emigration, the dialog, and the responsibility

© Ekaterina Ruskevich

Беларуская   English   Русский

Over the past two years almost all my friends and colleagues have left, or are leaving the country. Sometimes some of them return. I left Belarus on several occasions, every time I thought I was leaving for a month and would be back soon. I first went to Russia and returned to Belarus, later there was Russia again, then Armenia and Georgia. I think I will return this time too, but I don’t know when. I’m not prepared to, and for various reasons I cannot go someplace further. Meanwhile, I take the opportunity to observe the ongoing events in Belarus from the outside. And I keep asking myself rhetorical questions trying to understand what is going on now and what is going to happen next.

In the last few years, a strange situation has developed in Belarus’ cultural and media spaces. The country is being written about from abroad, and the majority of cultural events are taking place outside its borders as well.

That is why I ask myself whether I, being outside, can rely on the media that are located outside Belarus but cover events going on in the country. Can I trust the journalists and people who respond to their questions? How objective and how informed can they be? Can I be sure that the information is accurate? As long as part of this information is given on condition of anonymity, which means that its sources cannot be verified. Expert comments given to journalists also originate from those who left Belarus. (I myself in the course of the past four months have given five comments about the situation with Belarusian murals of the 60s and 70s which continue to be destroyed, evidently, on the occasion of the “Year of Historical Memory.” Information about another destroyed mosaic I receive from sympathisers in Belarus. But I can’t see what’s going on with my own eyes, and I’m afraid this, alas, lowers the quality of my comments.)

For the majority of my friends and colleagues to be outside is not a matter of “personal choice” related to work proposals or more comfortable conditions. In most cases it is the only possible and necessary measure. This happened for many reasons – political reasons, in the first place. A little bit of political education (Belarusians know that all but it’s worth repeating for readers from other countries): today nine non-state Belarusian media with a sociopolitical focus are recognised as “extremist formations” and operate from abroad.  Over the past two years the content of 778 Telegram channels and other web resources has been declared extremist material. Many online media have been blocked. Everyone has had enough of the joke about the “extremist” quality label. By the way, the extremist formation status is different to the foreign agent status – the quality label in the neighbouring country. An interview to an “extremist formation” is a criminal offence punishable by prison terms. For example, Daria Losik, wife of Ihar Losik, a journalist sentenced to 15 years in prison, has been accused of promoting extremist activities for her interview to the Belsat TV channel, and this isn't the only such case. Inside Belarus, it is dangerous to write about certain things, so all the information about the repressions, detentions, and trials is collected and broadcast by Belarusian media abroad. Otherwise, this issue would have been shrouded in darkness and silence.

So how about the cultural life in Belarus? Is there any in the conditions of unfreedom? If you look at cultural events listings you will see that most of the events take place outside the country. In early December, 1084. Na mezhi (“1084. On the border”) festival of documentary films about Belarus was held in Ukraine; from late May to early June, Pradmova intellectual book festival was held in Tbilisi, Cracow, Warsaw, and Vilnius; in November, Bulbamovie Belarusian film festival was held in Warsaw. Some time before the war, the exhibition Kozhny dzen. Mistetstvo. Colidarnist. Sprotiv (“Every Day. Art. Solidarity. Resistance”) about the 2020 Belarusian protests was shown at Mysteskyi Arsenal in Kyiv. The Belarusian Free Theatre recently presented at the Odeon Theatre in Paris a performance based on Dogs of Europe by Alhierd Bacharevic; the Kryly Khalopa theatre from Brest is also touring Europe; a group of the Janka Kupala National Theatre performers, director Yury Divakov, and composer Olga Podgaiskaya are now in Poland. It is just part of names and events from the long list of Belarusian cultural events (which continue to happen) and cultural figures (who continue to work). The relocated Belarusian media have long been publishing cultural event listings for several countries and informing the audience where to see a Belarusian event over a weekend, say, in Vilnius or in Warsaw. I think these listings will soon be updated with Berlin considering how many people have moved there in recent months (that said, looking from a distance, I see Berlin as quite a special place, kind of focused on itself).

There had been a history to the “duality” of the cultural and social life of Belarus: it would have to fit either a state-approved or an independent format. Now this duality has also become territorial in nature. As a vehicle to expand the cultural space, it may be a good thing. However, piecing together the geographic mosaic of different announcements of interesting events, big and small, you think about their accessibility to you, about (im)possibility of your physical presence, you face unsolvable tasks of visa and transportation logistics... Sure enough, the pandemic has taught us to use online platforms, but also led to social deprivation. Are we experiencing an alienation from cultural events and from those who participate in these events now?

Maybe... But not an alienation from the country. As the participants themselves say, “Home is always with you, Belarus is something you can’t quite leave behind.” Another question then: how can we “reflect creatively” on what happened? Who can speak about it and who cannot? Immediate witnesses and participants – can they? Undoubtedly! What relation, then, do those who are far off bear on the cultural rethinking of this experience? Is what are they showing some kind of creative interpretation of the post-traumatic stress disorder in onlookers from abroad? Does such a genre exist? And who is all this for? Sometimes it can seem as if participants in the events see these events only as spaces for an internal dialog – outside the country…

And what about Belarus itself? I am really glad to see announcements of exhibitions at the National Art Museum and at the National Center for Contemporary Arts, newly published books, quality translations into Belarusian, excellent – albeit few and far between – projects of architects and restorers, for example, the colouring of St Joseph Church in Minsk, the collecting work of the Minsk City History Museum, and others. But fear is still there – what is going to happen tomorrow?

Looking from today's perspective, the 2013-2019 period is seen as a good time for the country’s cultural life. The period of mild “Belurasisation” offered an illusory hope of future opportunities and work options. But seeing how rapidly things took the opposite direction, you understand that the essence have always been the same. This invites a historical parallel to the 1920s in the young Soviet republic, when the Belarusisation policies ended up with the case of the Union of Liberation of Belarus in 1930. These days, every week we read a report on “cultural casualties”, or more precisely, repressions.

From the end of 2022 where we are now, I sincerely want to thank Goethe-Institut, the Brest Fortress Development Foundation, Gallery U in Minsk, and various regional initiatives. There have been so many excellent projects… It seems, Belarus is the only country to close down Goethe-Institut. A bit more information: over three hundred non-profit organisations (NPOs) have been closed down in Belarus in the last two years, many cultural organisations among them.

The public history of our “duality” is directly related to our personal history. Living outside home in the last two years has become so familiar that now feels almost a norm. Many people I know have the experience of double emigration from Belarus via Ukraine. Emigration does not make people better or worse, in most cases it makes you alone rethinking your professional and national identity. Some invested too much in their careers at home and do not feel it possible to start over again in a new place with the same ease and energy as before. Leaving the country gives you a new feeling of being safe, of the concern about those who stayed, to some it offers the opportunity to work, and to those who went through an abrupt forced escape – an acute and painful homesickness. It is not easy for anyone: for one it is harder, for another easier. Some can speak about it, some prefer to remain silent because no one will listen. Others do not know anything which means they cannot understand you – this is faced by almost all who left. A negative scenario of one-way communication: they will not listen to you and understand you. Instead, they will publicly remind you of and ask you about the collective guilt and the legacy of the Soviet past that your country transformed into the post-Soviet present.

There is one more popular “dialog” scenario, when they explain to you that your citizenship is identical with your country’s state policies (don’t forget that and your country is an accomplice of the aggressor) and your self-identity. The nationality issue has lately been simplified to a great degree. In a public political discussion it sounds at least strange, especially from so-called experts on the country. Nevertheless, such conclusions were already responded to in Oslo during the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony and two years ago, when my fellow compatriots opted for peaceful protest. That is why instead of analysing differences between guilt, responsibility, and hues of the post-Soviet once again, I would see it much more appropriate to begin to speak about human rights, about the value of human life and culture, about more complex definitions of the national and the historical.

By the way, as for the question of responsibility, definition, and possibility of international legal institutions, my country now has one more characteristics – “occupied territory”. This definition is both offensive and convenient. On the one hand, the country loses its subjectivity, in a way, and on the other hand, the responsibility for being an accomplice is thus removed. But can we at all speak about personal responsibility of citizens who are in fact deprived of their basic civil rights, and an attempt to defend these rights exposes you to imprisonment?

My text about half consists of questions. Maybe this is what many of my compatriots feel: they are frozen in confusion about the future which is not quite painted in white. Maybe it is time to ask questions to other people, to each other, to yourself – and search, search, search for answers.

Translated from Russian by Alexander Stoliarchuk