The symbols and language of the 2020 Belarus protests circumvented the terminological deadlock of Belarusian identity, which for years had been attempted to be explained by national templates. Unconventional actions by the public have revealed a hidden picture of the mentality in Belarus, which has become a huge step towards a post-national future.
The ongoing Belarusian protests in addition to its obvious political aims, also solves a much more important issue. The public is abandoning the national template of self-determination as a civil order. For Belarusians in 2020, so many things have changed. For the first time in more than a quarter century, the authorities in Minsk felt a real danger to their existence and lost control over public opinion.
Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s autocracy has completely exhausted itself of moral and ideological resources. This was caused by the outbreak of protests in 2020, which has a much deeper meaning. Lawlessness and violence from the authorities was a desperate reaction to the devaluation of their ideological values and the anachronistic narrative of state social care and order.
The external and internal discourse on Belarusian identity in the post-Soviet period has turned into a search for El Dorado. Trying to create a conceptual framework that explains national identity has long led to an ontological impasse. Despite their Marxist-Leninist origins, the intellectual and political elites were far removed from critical reflection upon the processes of breaking out of dependency at the level of emancipatory theories. Belarus, as a political and cultural subject, was formed within the framework of Russian imperialism and colonialism, which consequently led the local elites to a simplistic, template vision of what future emancipation should be. For some post-/anti-Soviet elites, nationalism was, in fact, their only ideological alternative in the 1990s, in which local intellectual elites tried to find ways to say farewell to the empire. However, the public, which was in a condition of frustration and economic desperation, was immune to any ideas of a rupture with the old metropole of the Soviet empire. A national project, primarily carried out by intellectual elites, was condemned to an axiological discussion and nothing more.
The provincialisation of the inner space of memory was an unconscious strategy, an acute confrontation with colonial knowledge. In fact, the narrative of the national-democratic elite was merely a re-interpretation of the old colonial historical-geographical discourse on the empire’s peripheries. The logic of postcolonial nationalism, while ignoring reality, created an alternative space-time construct of the nation. It was based on historical traumas of subjugation and the search for a rationale of civilisational affiliation to Europe for the purpose of a rapid, discursive break with the colonial past. Society perceived the degradation of the empire with a sense of ambivalence for the lost past and the unrealised hopes for the future. There was a collapse in the outlook when individuals were forced to accept the rigours of the market, and a sense of nostalgia for the old “caring” state. Similar feelings can be found in Svetlana Alexievich’s book, Secondhand Time, which demonstrates a sense of ambivalent sorrow for the old values in the new order. Secondhand Time‘s sorrow is the impossibility of escaping from the past and its helplessness against the global changes to which the (post-) Soviet individual was subjected.
Lukashenka had skilfully played on this sentiment in 1994, offering a nostalgic hard hand of order. At the same time, during his first presidential campaign, he made advising curtsies towards the symbols of post-Soviet liberation: freedom of speech, democracy, and national values. It was something qualitatively different from his opponents, who stuck to one concrete ideological paradigm. Lukashenka expressed the narrative of longing for a lost past and the unfulfilled future. As a consequence, he won the first, and probably the most democratic, presidential election in Belarus.
In Lukashenka’s first presidential term, a purge of the political scene and free journalism began. But even then, he was anxious to create an ideological basis, namely the process of developing a national identity. One of the distinguishing features of this was the extreme reactionism towards matters of historical politics and to a lesser extent, culture. Ideological reactionism was based on a bipolar understanding of the past and present. At the same time, Lukashenka acted as the main adjuster of past values and present needs. Through the narrative of “acquired independence” the authorities were correcting the Soviet narrative of the past and were creating all the conditions for the de-historicisation of public opinion, limiting it to the existing colonial interpretation of the past. The national (renaissance) narratives of the past moved to the so-called “partisan” condition – now under government censorship.
A very similar approach was developed in the cultural sphere. The processes which formed the cultural space in Belarus during Soviet times have preserved their ideological structure. The People’s/national culture remained at the level of an ethnographic epos, the Belarusian-speaking cultural environment, in the official discourse, was degraded to a representational function, and popular culture remained highly dependent on the Russian market. An independent, or rather unofficial, culture mostly exploited the diverse nature of the national discourse. Its agents created the opportunity for personal choice, but in a quite limited way. Already in the 21st century, the phenomenon of “cultural partisans,” described by the philosopher Maksim Zhbankov, had been formed in Belarus. According to Zhbankov, a cultural partisan does not create a big canon, but rather creates his or her own small representation from fragments of alien culture. A partisan can equally consume the national, the global, and the colonial product. Culture for him or her is not a way to identify with something, but an opportunity to choose from a plurality of culture.
Perhaps that is the reason why the cultural aspect of the Belarusian protests last year was so creative and largely free from national contents. During just a few months of protest, protesters were able to dissolve the official discourse and the so-called “state ideology,” which had been created over two decades ago. The language of the protests, coupled with social media, deconstructed all possible narrative lines in defence of power. After the first months of civil protest, the regime decided not to continue the culture and ideological struggle. Instead they used methods, tested over the years, to increase repressions, distort information, and create opposition along the principle of “they are traitors – we are defenders”.
Removed from the state
Last year Belarusian protesters discovered a number of mechanisms of collective interaction. These mechanisms go far beyond the concept of national identity, native language, or history. They include solidarity with the repressed, strategies to fight against COVID-19, foreign scholarship programmes, political and economic lobbying, and ways to provide material and moral support to victims of the regime. One of the innovations was neighbourhood chats and meetings, which led to the deepening of local communities without the participation of the authorities.
The media space has completely changed since last summer and has gone out of state control. Telegram has become the main information platform, which is largely created by the public. Despite the introduction of more propaganda, restrictions to public and non-state media, the information space has shifted to an autonomous mode from the state. The public has still managed to establish mechanisms of fixing crimes by concrete representatives of the authorities and power structures.
The symbols and language of the protests circumvented the terminological deadlock of Belarusian identity, which for years had been explained by national templates. Unconventional actions in the cultural and ideological domains have revealed a hidden picture of society’s mentality. The flexibility of the public manifesto against the current authorities disorients not only the authorities themselves, but the old “national-democratic” elites. They are forced, contrary to their convictions, to adjust to the civil interpretation of the cultural baggage of Belarus. One such example is the white-red-white flag, which has become a bright symbol of protest. The multiple meanings behind the white-red-white flag in the post-Soviet period has led to a limited and politicised perception of this symbol in Belarus and beyond. However, in 2020, it was the white-red-white flag that went beyond the historical symbol of Lukashenka’s political opposition. The protests gave the white-red-white flag a qualitatively new meaning of solidarity (at least for a while) against violence and lawlessness. The colours of the flag acquired the accompanying semantics of “freedom”, “change”, “sacrifice” and “new times”. The white-red-white flag contrasts strongly with the official red-green flag, which symbolizes the “Soviet” present and the flag of the regime.
Another interesting fact is that the standard “patriotic” and nationalist vocabulary is used exclusively by the authorities. The cumbersome semantic categories of “Fatherland,” “Motherland,” “defence of own country,” and “external threats” are the only available linguistic tools for Lukashenka’s analogous autocracy. The creativity with which the public is using language for the needs of protest stands in strong contrast to the uninspiring state propaganda. Surprisingly, in just a few months, the society in Belarus has deconstructed the entire ideology of power.
Lukashism, a term that certainly flattered the authorities, suggests the existence of a serious ideological construct. Like other autocratic -isms (Stalinism, Hitlerism, Putinism, etc.), it assumes not only the discursive capacity to introduce ideology, but also the specific characteristics that distinguish it from other political systems. In this case, ideology would not only be what power proclaims, but also what its adepts believe. Belief in a “leader,” no matter what, is the result of painstaking work in which minds and state structures have invested in for years. In just a couple of months, Lukashism has transformed from a long-term ideological long-build to a phantom idea of a minority.
The Belarusian protest has literally crushed all the semantics of “Batka” (father of the nation). Yesterday’s Lukashists became “yabat’kas” in an instant. Besides the fact that the semantic derivation of the word is associated with the Russian vulgarism “yebat” (“fuck”), it is interesting from a perspective of cultural meanings. Yabatka is a neologism based on the tracing of the popular symbol of solidarity in Russian “Ya/my” (I am/We are). It was actively used in the combination “I am/We are Batka” by state propaganda and the regime’s PR during the first months of the protests.
According to the narrative of the protesters, “yabat’ka” is an opportunist and careerist, an individual without social and professional skills, seeking the approval of those in power through absolute social degradation. Following 26 years in power, Lukashenka was left with analogue adepts, aggressive and imitating love yabat’kas. Obviously in a world dominated by the national categorisation of “us” and “them,” in which the authorities exploit and manipulate the national discourse, it is impossible to completely clear oneself of the semantic attachment to the concepts of the people or the nation.
However, in just half a year, the Belarusian protest has shown that the mechanisms of transforming the nation into a civic society are quite feasible under the proper stress situation. The public was able to demonstrate its full autonomous provision outside the national standard. And, of course, this happened in conditions of an absolute autocracy. The uniqueness of the Belarusian case is that, gradually passing through all the stages of accepting the collapse of the empire, society has managed to evolve from a “failed” one into a modern one without national complexes. Although it should be noted that this evolution is not fully complete. There is an ideological ambiguity that depends directly on the language of politics. In case the language of politics begins to dominate the public consciousness. People believe in it and the process of transformation could drag on for many years.
Surely though it is too early to speak about the public deconstruction of the ideological and cultural space of post-Soviet Belarus. But for the first time the entire society is given an opportunity to publicly oppose the existing norms and ideology. A society that had been “partisaning” for years and did not want to fit into the canonical algorithms of the collective self declared its desire to (de)structure them. Naturally, contradictions and ideological oxymorons will remain, but the baggage of meta-narratives will not go away by itself. There will be a lot of image work and one will have to constantly combine the present with the incongruous past. Contemporary world issues will emerge, such as the problems of socially excluded groups, discrimination, racism, gender inequality, class divisions, etc. Yet, a definite step forward has been made, and even without the realisation of political goals. Society can move towards a post-national future on its own and solve its problems autonomously from the state or external factors.
Anton Saifullayeu is an adjunct professor of Centre for Eastern European Studies at University of Warsaw and the editor in chief of the Białorus2020 portal (https://bialorus2020studium.pl/).