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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

When the Last Curtain Falls: The Government Destroying its Own Country's Art & Culture

Written by: Katsiaryna Lozka

This article was written in collaboration with  the ReThink.CEE fellowship at the German Marhall Fund of the United States (GMF).

The Death of an Artist

In July 2023, the renown Belarusian artist and anti-authoritarian protestor, Ales Pushkin, died in prison.

His death is representative of a wider phenomenon in Belarus. With a steadfast history of activism dating back to 1989, Ales Pushkin had voiced his dissent against both Soviet rule in Belarus and more recently, the regime led by President Lukashenka. At the time of his death, he was 2 years into his 5-year sentence for participating in protests demanding fair elections. Since 2020, more than 1,000 members of the Belarusian cultural sphere have experienced politically motivated repression, with over 90 of them put behind bars.

The Erosion of Belarusian Identity

Lukashenka still holds the title of longest-serving European president. The regime has persistently prohibited Belarusian-speaking and opposition-minded singers, writers, and poets. Currently, only 4% of schools in Belarus offer instruction in Belarusian, and less than 20% of the population speaks it. In a famous incident in 2019, Lukashenka even referred to Belarusians as “Russians with a stamp of quality.”

Cultural dissent has been an essential aspect of life in Belarus for decades, extending back to the Soviet era that ended in 1991. Only 3 years later, when Alexander Lukashenka rose to power in 1994, the policy of Russification reminiscent of the Russian Imperial and Soviet eras was reinstated. In particular, this policy followed an illegal referendum in 1995, which resulted in the Russian language being elevated to the status of a second-state language, and symbols like the red-green flag and the former coat of arms being reintroduced.

No Place for Belarusian Authors…in Belarus

A turning point emerged around the elections in 2020, when oppression tactics of the government were escalated for years to come. In 2022 alone, the author’s association PEN Belarus recorded 1,390 cultural rights violations and human rights abuses against cultural workers. This includes the declaration of works by Belarusian authors as extremist. Noteworthy incidents include the confiscation of over 200 books in May 2022 from the Belarusian bookstore Knihauka and the August 2023 designation of two poems by Belarusian poet Vintsent Dunin-Marcinkievič as extremist. When were these poems written? In the 19th century.

Removing One’s Own History from the Public Eye

Further measures extended to cultural symbols that can be found in public. In 2022, the National Historical Museum removed the statues of Vitaut and Jahaila: significant figures from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania which are a crucial element of the Belarusian national narrative and demonstrate that the country’s historical statehood did not always develop in Russia-controlled entities. The plans to replace these statues with figures  of the Russian Empire highlight the regime’s effort to erase historical truths about Belarus and instead highlight its strong reliance on Imperial Russian and Soviet legacies. But the list goes on: Responding to a demand of pro-Russia activist Volha Bondarava, a monument commemorating Larysa Heniush, a 20th-century Belarusian poet and dissident, was demolished in the town of Zelva.

Fight or Flight

Amidst times of repression and war, culture frequently becomes both a battleground as much as a refuge for those seeking change. Numerous Belarusian cultural figures have expressed their support for the pro-democracy movement. For instance, since 2020, almost all actors and artistic directors (totaling around 60 individuals from the renowned Belarusian theater Kupalauski) chose to resign as a collective gesture against the regime. The theater has faced challenges in finding willing Belarusian actors to replace the original staff and instead recruited several Russian actors.

The Nobel Prize in Literature laureate Svetlana Alexievich is one of many prominent Belarusians who fled the country. During the protest months, Alexievich hosted EU ambassadors at her apartment to avoid arrest, eventually relocating to Germany. Others such as the writer, Alhierd Bacharevič, and poet Julija Cimafejeva, initially sought refuge in Austria before seeking exile elsewhere in Europe.

Narratives of Resilience

Prior to leaving Belarus, Bacharevič recounted an interaction during the protests when a woman asked him, “Will you write a book about us?” To which he replied, “Yes.” Despite seemingly insurmountable challenges, Belarusian artists persist in their cultural endeavors, producing written works and music in the Belarusian language. For instance, the Belarusian online library Kamunikat remains active by publishing books in Belarusian and organizing events. Books such as Motherfield by Julija Cimafiejeva, Music for the Dead and Resurrected by Valzhyna Mort, as well as works by authors like Alhierd Bacharevič and Sasha Filipenko are accessible in various languages, thus opening the Belarusian literary world to an international audience.

Belarusian writers also participate in conferences, interviews, and public events to engage in discussions that shed light on the situation in Belarus and neighboring Ukraine. The Belarus Free Theater features plays based on books by Belarusian authors. It once operated clandestinely within Belarus and is now in exile, staging performances across Europe and beyond.

Sounds of Freedom

Music was another cultural tool that emerged as both an inspiration and a source of support for the people. Concerts and other performances in Belarus are tightly regulated, with instances of concert disruptions and detentions of singers and bands being a longstanding practice. However, with the recent escalation of repression, numerous musicians were compelled to seek refuge in exile, while others faced imprisonment. For instance, members of the Belarusian fantasy-folk band Irdorath were incarcerated for over two years due to singing songs during the protests. Similarly, artists like Free Choir, Lavon Volski, and Naviband were forced to relocate abroad, leaving their listeners to track their journeys online, as live concerts now exclusively take place outside the country’s borders.

National Identity Standing Strong

Amidst multiple challenges that the Belarusian cultural and artistic heritage faces today, its cultural heritage will likely only emerge as a steadfast guardian of the nation’s identity. Against the backdrop of increasing Russian influence and Lukashenka’s policies of Russification, the survival of the Belarusian culture remains a battleground, where the preservation of language, art, and tradition becomes paramount. Quoting Uladzimir Matskevich, a Belarusian philosopher who is currently held as a political prisoner: “First, thinking becomes free. Then, everything else becomes free.”

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