#photography & visual arts
default, People lay flowers at the Yanka Kupala National Academic Theatre, 28 August 2020, Minsk, Belarus, photo: Natalia Fedosenkova / Getty Images, center, #000000, bialorus_teatr_protest_gettyimages_8.jpg
It is beyond doubt that impending historical watersheds and social changes are best (fore)seen by creative thinkers. On 1st July 2020, more than a month before the rigged election and subsequent unprecedented crackdown, a large group of independent Belarusian artists published a message under the hashtag #cultprotest.
‘We, cultural workers’, it said, ‘are announcing a #cultprotest. Our #cultprotest aims to unite everyone in a creative profession. Under the #cultprotest hashtag, we will do what we are best at – create art. And it will be evaluated not by some expert boards but by the people of Belarus, who have woken up. Our #сultprotest will sing, shoot videos, draw pictures and hold events for free citizens, not for the establishment we are tired of! We refuse to participate in any public events, to provide them with light and sound, to design their posters and to make up the faces of the artists who have decided to participate in them.’
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I remember the skeptical voices of some of my friends. They said it’s easy for poets to rebel on their blogs. It’s harder for sculptors of monuments, conductors and orchestra members, theatre directors and actors, everyone whose art obviously requires public support and is controlled by the authorities in an unfree state.
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A rally for Polish solidarity with Belarus, Kraków, 20th August 2020, photo: Beata Zawrzel / NurPhoto via Getty Images
Until recently, Belarusian artists were not inclined to open dissidence. Soviet writers did not want to write for the desk drawer. They would grit their teeth but agree to censors’ changes in order to publish. A few exceptions only proved the rule. Take the poet Larisa Genyush (who never accepted Soviet citizenship) and her heroic confrontation with the system. Not to mention other forms of art. Little has changed in Lukashenka’s time. When writers rebelled against Russification, the Union of Belarusian Writers lost all state support. Another union was created instead, loyal to the authorities and headed by a public official with the rank of general.
Now, following the brutal repressions against peaceful citizens in the first days after the election, the cup of patience has overflowed. It has become clear that Belarusian culture will never be the same. The winners of public competitions have refused to accept their awards, titles, diplomas and scholarships on a mass scale. Several journalists from Belarusian television and other state-owned media outlets have quit. It is noteworthy, for instance, that the employees of Radio House went on strike against the lies and violence.
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The Kupala Theatre has been at the forefront of the artists’ protests. Fifty-eight Kupala staff members, including most of the theatre’s actors and all its directors, have resigned, and the main Belarusian theatre ceased to exist in its previous form. The theatre’s director, Pavel Latushka, a former ambassador and former minister of culture (the most civilised of all our culture ministers, by the way) is one of the protest leaders.
Numerous musicians – members of all sorts of choirs and orchestras – performed on the steps of the Philharmonic Hall for several days in peaceful protest. They sang famous Belarusian songs such as Kupalinka, Pahonia (to the words of Maksim Bahdanovich), Mahutny Bozha (God Almighty) (to the words of Natalia Arsenieva) and Moy Rodny Kut (My Native Land) (to the words of Yakub Kolas). These undisputed classics were complemented with the contemporary song Na Beregu Svobody (On the Shore of Freedom) by the wonderful composer Olga Podgayskaya, to lyrics written by this author.
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And when the authorities dispersed the audience from near the Philharmonic Hall, the musicians used their creativity to find new places for their protests. They sang at the Minsk Kamarousky marketplace or in the circular concourse of the Stalitsa underground shopping centre; they stood in a circle on the second and third tiers, thus achieving a perfect acoustic effect.
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Another form of musical support for peaceful protesters is the daily performance of folklore music at noon near the Kupala Theatre. At first, the authorities did not interfere, but starting with the ninth event, as reported by the devoted organiser and master of ceremonies, Sergey Dovgushev, they started to get in their way. Informants appeared, along with policemen with megaphones, OMON officers and construction workers deliberately making a lot of noise. But people continued to sing along.
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It does not take a philologist to see that ‘cultprotest’ contains not only an abbreviation of the word ‘culture’ but also the word ‘cult’. What approach should the church adopt in a situation where the regime has unleashed its law enforcement forces and is terrorising peaceful citizens? I feel sincere gratitude towards those Belarusian men of the cloth who have not remained silent, who are trying to stop the violence and are urging the authorities to follow the norms of human behaviour.
‘Why is the biblical story of the infamous Cain, who killed his brother Abel, repeated in our holy land?’ Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz asks in his address.
A Greek Catholic priest from Brest, Igor Kondratyev, takes an active part in human chains of solidarity and protests at detention centres. At a rally on 16th August, he demanded the release of all detainees, and 170 people were released in Brest the next morning. And Pavel Kasperovich, a priest from the Grodno diocese, wrote a poem called King Herod, with an unambiguous ending:
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|Адзін у пакутах вар’ята
||The king is lonely and scared.
|Цар чуе, як шэпча Гасподзь:
||The Lord whispers in his ear:
|«Ніхто не пазбегне расплаты.
||‘Your time is up. Be prepared,
|Твой час завяршыўся, сыходзь!»
||For retribution is near.’
Originally written in Belarusian by Andrey Khadanovich, translated from Russian by Natalia Mamul