Belarusian Culture: Life after life

Maxim Zhbankov


The year 2021 saw the continued disastrous spinning dive of Belarusian authoritarianism in all its dimensions, including culture. The situation was indisputably marked by all signs of not just a systemic crisis, but a complete disintegration of the previous hierarchy of values and the structure of the cultural order.

The former mode of sluggish political stagnation with the relatively autonomous coexistence of the three models of culture and culturalness – state-serving, conditionally commercial and creative underground – entered the phase of acute confrontation. The cultural process turned into a police operation, on the one hand, and fragmented civil resistance, on the other, leaving the commercial sector to pack the bags and learn to survive on the wreckage of previous projects and reputations. The only thing that was left in the public cultural field cleansed of undesirable elements were politicians and conformists.

The state went into hysterical self-defense mode. For the creative field, this means the activation of the emergency program of cultural repression: permanent political censorship, forced emigration of artists, liquidation of cultural venues, actual prohibition of the artistic freedom, and prosecution of dissidents. Emigration, liquidation, anonymization and creative underground made the virtual headlines in 2021.


Cultural terror: down-to-nothing haircut

The total misunderstanding of the nature of social protest multiplied by the blind faith in global conspiracies and the omnipresent NATO tanks forced the authorities, which received a powerful shock in August 2020, to actively search for the internal enemy and insidious puppeteers of the protest. Most grassroots civic initiatives were declared foreign agents, and this includes independent culture.

The wave of velvet Belarusization was brought down even before the election, during the hunt for stores with handy-dandy merchandise carrying national motifs. Then came the lists of activists/extremists. The purge was zealous and profound, hitting the Union of Writers, PEN Center, Godna and Budzma campaigns, and the Korpus creative space. Musicians, poets and DJs went to jail for days or years. Paddy wagons under red-green flags uncompromisingly struggled with red scarves and white socks. A line of pro-government merchandise – black and gray shirts and hoodies with quotations from the self-elected leader – were offered to help them.

To go to prison for years (15 days of administrative arrest are no big deal now), it was enough to play Viktor Tsoi’s songs on bagpipes, like IRDORATH ethno-fantasy band did,1 paint an ideologically wrong portrait, like painter Ales Pushkin did,2 play an instrumental DJ set during a demonstration, like cultural activist Alexander “Papa Bo” Bogdanov did. Deferred hunting became a popular genre of cultural work: musicians and artists were identified on surveillance camera recordings made during protest marches even six to ten months after the actions.

Return of partisanship: the no-name time

What seemed like a cultural revolution at the height of the mass protest movement inside the country has shrunk in 2021 to scattered experiments in self-defense, eluding and conspiratorial events.

Disowning a signature under a cultural text, blurring a photo, cutting back on media–this is about everything at once: the refusal to speak openly and personally, the fear of getting on an arrest list, the desire to stay in the protest camp and yet have an opportunity to travel, disbelief in a quick positive outcome, and catchy advertising tags. Poet Slavomir Adamovich once publicly stitched up his mouth to protest against the arbitrariness of the authorities. Today, the Free Choir sings blindfolded.3

The four actual dimensions of the latest guerrilla movement are decentralization, autonomization, conditional publicity, and the hope for self-preservation.

The anonymity of new online protest is in some ways in tune with the current anonymity of the power machine. In both cases, it is about personal security, offering of complicity and sharing of responsibility. But there is also a fundamental difference between the anonymity of the powers that be and the anonymity of protest. The anonymization of power is in the imposition of uniformity, loyalty through intimidation, cultivation of artificial passivity, and destruction of narratives. Protest activism, by contrast, is a sum of units capable of perceiving their private movement as part of the general stream of dissent, not waiting for the next global strategy of change.

The new anonymous protester reproduces the basic patterns of the previous century’s underground conspiracy: minimum publicity, minimum contacts, and tactics of delinked cells. This is a strength, as seizure of one cell does not destroy the network. But this is also a weakness, as cultural events clam up in a small circle of a reliable minority, sharply narrowing the range of impacts on the incidental audience. Other culture is forced to fence in, turning marginal from the point of view of influence on external and internal social processes.

The present state of affairs is a wartime cultural order, a state of emergency. It spurs the self-elected regime to fight the hostile cultural content, upscale the propaganda hysteria, burns down the unreliable, and, from the ground up, educates the shallow generation of smoothies and muffins in the Belarusian specific partisanship, i.e. creative movements below the state’s radar.4

The trend of the year is the choreography of action in the presence of an invader, a dance in the occupied territory. Secret events, hidden faces, elaborate metaphors, the play of concealed meanings, actions for export, exhibitions without names (like the Klaipeda Red Line). The author goes into the shadow to survive. How to remain relevant and significant at the same time is a question, to which there is no clear answer.

Phantom of an alternative: recyclables to take out

There are two important and directly interrelated trends on the cultural front: the complete nullification of the old mental matrices and forced assimilation into the new European context. Emergency self-identification in the absence of lost financial and organizational resources, acute political frustration, and ideological and stylistic collapse was a test for the Belarusian culture’s adequacy and the ability to quickly respond to the traumatic deformation of the cultural space. The inconsistency of unprecedented devastation and the limited opportunity for creative response was the main feature of the troubled times.

The stagnant cultural practices of the recent past produced a peculiar kind of the quasi-Soviet author: a cautious peddler of branded clichés, self-repetition and self-citation, firmly stuck in a narrow patch of old successes, a character who has nowhere and no reason to grow.

This used to be a survival strategy, and now it has become a reactionary, random décor, filling the existential void with random noises, videos with the slope of protest glamor, the pioneering cuteness of hipster bands (Navi Band, VAL), and heart print pullovers, indispensable ethnic motifs, inextirpable choral experiments, and endlessly victorious march of cheeky pussycats. In the art environment scattered all over Belarus, the lack of tomorrow’s trendsetters makes yesterday’s survivors mainstream.

Even the art criticism turned out to be secondary. Actionist Alexei Kuzmich made a video-deconstruction of Belarusian protest as an infantile teenage hysteria without sense or prospects,5 and did it in the language of... infantile teenage hysteria without sense or prospects. He mirrored the situation, and became a hostage to it.

The secondariness of efforts, insignificance of achievements, and parochialism of the cultural optics are reflected in the choice of enemies. Who are we fighting? With parades and Dazhynki festivals. With the toxic Belarusian TV and Radio Company. With the wretched choice of the state candidate for Eurovision 2021, ludicrous Local Voices. With the attempt to acculturize the moth-eaten X Factor pop contest on the Belarusian soil. With the enthusiasm of the Minsk audience at the concerts of Russian Hands Up! pop singers.

And even when attempts to make a statement are made, a secondary semantic and formal resource seizes the initiative and broadcasts in its own way. A psychodrama about a killer in uniform flows into a plastic sketch with quotations from Lermontov and NIZKIZ band (“Error 403” by the Belarus Free Theatre), and the attempt to invent an alternative candidate for Eurovision 2021 turns into a hybrid of electronics, ethnic chants, pictures of Tarot cards, a horned dictator and a double of Lukashenko’s youngest son in a red jacket.6

Country without a country: new maps of Belarusianness

Semantic polyphony and the multilayered character are an important feature of the newest Belarusian culture. The most obvious segment is the triable and tried: fugitives from criminal prosecution and long prison terms. And then there are the corporate relocatees, the office people that migrate according to company policies. Ideological alternatives are the protest staff, children of the world behind the looking-glass, naive dilettantes hooked on revolution, newcomers to politics, fresh citizens with no experience in ideological confrontation, and just random people (including those inside the country), who had not planned to fight, but were not ready to become minced meat in the state meat grinder, plus the splinters of the shattered underground. And Lukashenko’s backup dancers. All of those are different audiences and different authors. The motley dimensions of Belarus’ resilient cultural identity.

Civil society, which frightened the inertial authorities by its independence from the state machinery, has managed to arrange a flexible system of horizontal ties and creative contacts during the few years of mild Belarusization and relaxation of administrative control, has confidently reached the international level and acquired the status of valid partners. This ‘inner Europe’ contrasted (sometimes though a strange symbiosis) with the clumsy noise industry of the pro-government establishment, and created a self-sustaining zone of culture of the active minority.

This micro-ecosystem lived in the dormy social medium according to the laws of the new age. And when the system began to struggle against alien implants, persecuting cultural activists and pushing the unwanted outside the country, the surviving ‘Europeans’ did not become fugitives without an alibi. Irrespective of the scatter, they returned home, to greater Europe, to a familiar world with clear rules and a clear structure. Evacuated in a package. Took out their common slice of life. Belarus after Belarus.

The experience of forced semantic switch-overs, the emergency change of cultural residency and the ability to make someone else’s things their own are valid here. Artist Maxim Osipov travels across Europe with a touring exhibit. He paints Godzillas wearing embroidered shirt, rhymes naïve with pop thrash, and amateur painting with propaganda schizo. Svetlana Ben, the acknowledged art chanson prima, went to Berlin together with another Belarusian traveler, Galia Chikis, to record the “Mirror Ball” single, perhaps the most appropriate response to the current situation in the country.

One more experience of cross-cultural expression, the novel “Wherefore Are You Going, Wolf?” by Eva Vezhnavets, combines magical realism with pagan mythology, blends people’s drama with the personal history of the emigrant author, added trippy shamanism and provincial alcoholism. And not only did it become the undisputed winner of the Giedroyc Literary Award, but also set a new standard of quality for a literary work of troubled times.7 In her debut “” novel, Tatiana Zamirovskaya, the old-time cultural emigrant, found, perhaps, the most precise metaphor for a broken time: digital copies of the physically dead are lumped together in a peculiar world and, desperately trying to be alive.

A number of web projects made themselves known in 2021: Nikita Monich and Maksim Zhbankou’s new YouTube channels, Nikita Melkozerov’s acclaimed “Raspberry Life”, and Vadim Prokopyev’s “Radio Hague”, the combat leaflet of the frontline restaurateur. The previously underdeveloped format of the cultural standup allowed playing on the edge of genres, bringing the cultural anatomization into the media domain, and making media longreads spectacular and stagey. The conversational genre became a fact of Belarusian culture, and marked the possible direction of its growth.

The experience of successful collaborations of European management and Belarusian documentary filmmakers enabled new films that followed the events of 2020, from Warsaw Film Festival winner Andrei Kutsila’s “When Flowers Are Not Silent” to Alexei Paluyan’s “Courage” on the Oscar longlist, to confidently become favorites of international film festivals.8

The practices of flexible setup, lap gluing, montage joints and mobile self-determination were the new experiences of Belarusianness. Migration is a traumatic buildup of meaning and style, pushing junk out of the action field. Unnecessary things are thrown aside along the way. This is how everything necessary grows today.


The political crisis made art-activism and cultural terror the main subjects of the day, leaving the sphere of pure entertainment at the mercy of visiting tourists, cut off the habitual patterns of cultural contacts and creative support, and completely nullified the social heft of the subsidized, servile cultural environment. The main events of the year were made for takeout, taken online and/or minimally publicized.

Together with the nation, Belarus’ culture undergoes a period of shock therapy, a defocusing of meaning with an unclear perspective and unobvious effectiveness. The style of the age of change inevitably crumbles into formal experiences, external influences, and self-citation. The collage-montage-feuilleton reel is in fashion for the second year in a row. A strange time is looking for its own vocabulary, and has not found it so far.

What’s next? Apparently, new forms of chaotic activism amid the repressive information noise of a higher level. The old order is irreversibly lost. The new one does not yet exist. What is being called “purge” is, in fact, a square one experience, an eve of new stories and emergence of new heroes.