From a Nobel to GaraSH: self-constructing, independent culture

Maxim Zhbankov


In 2015, Belarusian culture achieved a range of international successes (including the Nobel Prize in Literature), but it was unable to convert them into a genuine resource for change. The state confirmed that culture was less than a priority (representing just 0.56% of the total annual budget)1 and continued to replicate stagnant provincial mentality, slightly embellished with national ornamental designs. Its main approaches to managing the cultural process are centralised distribution of resources, and obstructing undesirable elements by means of bureaucracy. Independent culture is still a niche product with no prospects for extending its reach. Entertainment culture is now successfully replacing social action scenarios, and opportunities for consumerist migration have partially eased the severity of the political conflict. In this land of triumphant stability, energy for radical change is morphing into a series of avoidance tactics; a guerrilla existence in defiance of top-down directives.


The canon vs. sabotage: differing approaches to identity

In 2015, cultural policy retained its previous format of warring canons and conflicting traditions. Belarusian culture’s chief success – Svetlana Aleksievich being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature – did not lead the nation to unite around the winner as one might have hoped. Even beforehand, during public debates on the Belarusian writer’s chances of winning the Nobel, animated discussions erupted over her uncertain national allegiance and dubious linguistic preferences. Aleksievich’s victory only complicated the issue, with one section of the nationally minded intelligentsia deeming it a disaster for “Belarusianness”.

The Belarusian authorities’ reaction was both revealing and wholly predictable: strained, official written congratulations, promptly followed by the president criticising the “disloyal” author for her insufficient patriotism (vis-à-vis the official stance). As a result, the Belarusian cultural field made very little use of Nobel laureate Aleksievich’s potential as a strong player with international authority, and she was forced out for being an influential social activist and a genuine newsmaker.

The PEN-Centre’s proposal to level the playing field with another literary contest for authors writing in Belarusian or Russian provoked harsh criticism from stalwarts of the “mother tongue” (some even gave up their PEN-Centre membership). These linguistic discussions were clearly underpinned by a generational clash between the national-romantics of the 1990s and the national-pragmatics of the 2010s.

The state’s customary filtering of cultural content resurfaced in a series of arbitrary, repressive solutions.

Zmicier Vajciuškevič, the sovereign of Belarusian “sung poetry”, was officially branded an extremist and received a paper to that effect from Minsk city executive committee’s cultural department.2

A group photo showing military cadets sporting Pahonia (“The Chase” – the original Belarusian coat of arms) T-shirts beneath their unbuttoned shirts whipped up a scandal that ended in administrative penalties for the young patriots.

A show about Branislaŭ Taraškievič, performed several times at the Belarusian State University’s student theatre, suddenly found itself without a venue for no logical reason.

State services temporarily blocked the website for reposting an “offensive” blog post about May 9.3

The entire print run of the book The Long Road from Tyranny: Post-Communist Authoritarianism and the Struggle for Democracy in Serbia and Belarus, by the late political scientist Vital Silicki, was destroyed by its publishers after the company was threatened with liquidation.

Artists on the “blacklist” – Volski, Vajciuškevič and Mikhalok – were still unable to organise fully legal concerts in their own homeland.

The conflict between independent publisher Logvinov and the ministry of information almost ended in the closure of the company and its bookshop. An international solidarity campaign saved the day by rapidly raising BYR 967 million Belarusian roubles (approx. 43,500 EUR on 3/5/16) in donations from 27 countries to pay off Logvinov’s fine.

Constant pressure from the authorities has spawned the creation of its shadow doppelganger – guerrilla culture. On its latest album, Chyrvony Shtral’ (“Red Sztral”), carousing show-band Krambambulya declared itself a military unit and retreated into the forests like partisans, while the singing beefcakes of Brutto belted out Partizan Rok (“Partisan Rock”), which they plan to expand into an eponymous anti-imperialist fest.

A stormy public debate was stirred up by Vieršnica (a version of the Pahonia emblem, featuring a horsewoman instead of the usual knight), seen as brilliantly novel by some, and a profanation by others. One of the original emblem’s creators, Uladzimir Krukouski, publicly pledged to take the artists to court, effectively denying the new generation the right to upgrade its national symbols.

Last year’s furore over the tribute project Re: Piesniary (“Re: Songsters”) resumed in court in spring 2015, with songwriter Oleg Molchan condemning Anastasiya Shpakovskaya’s “unfaithful” rendition of his song Malitva (“Prayer”). Society continues to stagnate due to the immutability of the cultural canon, which rejects all facelifts, differing viewpoints, grass-roots initiatives, or rotation among its “top brass”. In turn, this has deepened the rift dividing artistic activists into the permitted and the undesirables, the loyal and the “saboteurs”.

The surge of mass interest in traditional national designs that peaked in 2014 turned out to be another flash in the pan, which slid smoothly into a self-referential phase of banal replication. “Looking local” has now been irreversibly transformed into casual dress. National designs even wound up on the label of Bobrov beer and an “embroidery-patterned” barbecue basket from vodka firm Bul’bash (“Spudmuncher”). Throughout the year, models, sports personalities, bar staff and state TV journalists would occasionally don “progressive” embroidery-print T-shirts. For three months, the basement of the Palace of the Republic, opposite the presidential administration building, operated as Placoŭka Hall, a themed club fitted out with traditional national designs.

This year, the Belarusian National Youth Union began handing out ribbons with red-and-white designs in the streets. At the end of the year, that pro-state organisation announced that, together with Minsk city executive committee and the ministry of culture, it intended to organise its own Embroidery Day. The regime now considers non-aligned, supra-ideological pop designs acceptable, since their political message has generally been diminished. This is why they have been so readily assimilated and swallowed up by the state ideological machine – like a fresh carnation in the head of state’s buttonhole.

Cultural policy: the pros and cons

The past year was marked by renewed attempts to manage culture bureaucratically, which continued to be a failure. A draft Cultural Code was made public for open discussion in 2013, but was never adopted. It was put up for discussion again in December 2015, however. Judging by the wording of the draft Code4 (which claims to be the “first and only one in the world”), culture is chiefly regarded as something to be influenced and controlled administratively, and its priorities are to foster patriotism and preserve cultural heritage.

Cultural output must be produced in state-sanctioned quantities by “suitable” institutions, staffed by an adequate number of employees with state certification (and the relevant documents). The Code still contains no mention of mechanisms for implementing cultural projects, although it does describe management and supervision procedures. The basic principles of the draft are reactionary and conservative in nature; they proclaim culture to be a repository of values, and are largely aimed at preserving and replicating the existing, sluggish cultural order.

In a similar vein came another administrative initiative – the draft decree “on several issues concerning film production and stimulating cinematographic development in the Republic of Belarus”. This decree plans to introduce licensing for film-making in the country: “Film production in the Republic of Belarus … is permitted with a licence to make films in the Republic of Belarus, issued by the Ministry of Culture or its authorised body (or bodies), in accordance with the legislation governing administrative procedures, in the form prescribed by the Ministry of Culture. … Licences will be issued for each (specific) film production, irrespective of running time or number of episodes, and must be issued before the film production begins”.5 If this draft is passed, the proposed complete state takeover of the film-production process will spell the end of independent cinema, and paralyse any unofficial film initiatives.

In practice, similar attempts to treat culture as a state resource subject to bureaucratic agreements resulted in a range of fiascos last year. Organising the Belarusian pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale 2015 proved to be problematic: owing to managemental setbacks, the chief sponsor pulling out, and funding delays from the ministry of culture, Aleksey Shinkarenko and Olga Rybchinskaya’s project War Witness Archive was never fully implemented. It closed a week after its opening, continued as an online presentation for another month, then reopened, only to come to an end two months before the Biennale closed its doors.

The winner of a competition for state funding – William Devital’s film My, brat’ya [Avel’] (“The Code of Cain”), which received USD 2 million in backing from the state – was finally unveiled to the public after three postponed premieres. It was a box-office flop, however, garnering a wave of negative reviews and swiftly vanishing off the screens. The state commissioned a national blockbuster, the director made a commercial movie, and both sides lost out in the end.

Another ministry of culture cinema competition (in which all the winners just happened to represent Belarusfilm) was also marred by scandalous decisions: although Andrey Golubev’s entry Sledy na vode (“Ripples on the Water”) was successful, an invited Russian film-maker, Yegor Konchalovskiy, was commissioned to direct it.6 By the same token, the Francysk Skaryna Medal was awarded to a Russian pop producer, Viktor Drobysh.

As previously, the year’s main creativity was to be found beyond the confines of the state. At BulbaMovie 2015, the “new wave” of independent film-makers spoke up confidently, forging ahead with their ideas without concern for state ideological or stylistic censorship. This new cinema – ranging from Mitriy Semyonov-Aleynikov’s social drama Odna krov’ (“One Blood”) to the vaudeville grotesque of Andrey Kureychik’s GaraSH (“GarIDGE”) – is funded by the directors themselves, allowing them to make exactly what they want.

The godfather of Belarusian indie cinema, Andrey Kudinenko, established a creative film research laboratory with his portmanteau project Khronotop (“Chronotope”). Meanwhile, a popular release was Heta Belarus, dzietka! (“This is Belarus, babe!”), an informal visitor’s guidebook by Marta Chernova and Masha Cheryakova – two foreign authors with Belarusian roots – offering lively instructions on how to survive in the land of triumphant stability.

The Autumn Salon with BelGazPromBank was a rare case of Belarusian business investing in the art world, albeit with a debatable “three-in-one” concept: an exhibition and sale of banal art of our times, an exhibition of classic works by École de Paris artists, and an arts competition with a foreign jury.

The first Belarusian ever to be nominated for a Grammy Award was Anton Matsulevich, drummer for the indie band IQ48. He ended up among the top names on the current music scene after producing a track for the American rapper Fetty Wapp.


The dynamics of the cultural situation in 2015 were entirely in line with trends we have indicated in previous reviews.

On the one hand, the state has maintained its monopoly on cultural policy by striving to preserve and reinforce administrative control over the production and distribution of cultural output. On the other hand, it is helpless when it comes to assessing and comprehending works by independent cultural activists, so bureaucratic red tape and administrative measures are applied to foil them.

The unwieldy state administration is incapable of providing responsive cultural management, effective funding, ideological pluralism, or specific support for creative culture. Therefore, it constantly lags behind its more dynamic neighbours to the East and the West, and inevitably loses out.

The conceptual void of the state “meaning machine” is transforming state-subsidised culture into a purely decorative element of the existing social order, devoid of any apparent innovative potential.

We are observing a devaluation of the classic national cultural concept: the local cultural space is becoming increasingly ill-defined. This has rendered it closer to European standards in terms of content and style, but nevertheless underlines the urgent need for radically new national identity models.

Despite being decentralised and multi-faceted from the outset, post-political grass-roots culture has proved equally incapable of shaping the nation’s collective consciousness. By mechanically replicating humdrum practices without any intelligent, overarching strategy, “soft Belarusification” has left the ideological canvas blank, to be filled with foreign slogans and borrowed cultural myths.