Gay Pride Parade, “Dazhynki” or White March: which holiday suits “Belarusians of the future”?
Where is the all-white steamer under the white-red-white flag carrying the Belarusians? A queer person can peer into binoculars forever, but they are unlikely to see the bright pier. They were left ashore.
Belarus is a relatively young state in search of its own identity. Two centuries under the rule of the empire (first Russian, then Soviet) have mercilessly eroded people’s ability to define themselves as a community within geographical — and quite fluid — borders avoiding reference to the values of the “big brother”. The 2020 protests became the icebreaker that, among other things, has broken open the river of self-identification. We used to search for our identity under the ice, but now we can scoop water with buckets and examine it in the sunlight. Politicians, intellectuals from the worlds of science and culture, bloggers and other influencers have all rushed to embrace it. However, the small creeks and undercurrents that feed this river are of little interest to them. What was hidden five, fifteen, forty or a hundred years ago is likely to remain so.
Here is an editorial and philological observation of the words, signs and meanings that fill the media space at the conventional hash-tag #belarusian.
The undoubted merit of the white-red-white flag is that it did not last too long as a state flag. For less than a year, in 1918, it was promoted by the Belarusian People’s Republic, and from 1991 to 1995 it flew over the independent Republic of Belarus. In both cases, it was the flag of a country just beginning to forge its identity, recovering its elements from the wreckage of an empire. The first was called the Russian Empire, and the second deliberately avoided being called that but effectively was one. History was halted both times, and both times flags with a greater degree of scarlet took over — these flags then swelled with statehood, symbolically soaking up all the blood of state violence. Significantly, the current Belarusian red-green flag flies on police wagons and above prisons.
The white-red-white flag has always been used by the Belarusian opposition, but the longer Lukashenka has been in power, the more it has become a symbol used to protest rather than promote something. Imagine, for example, a white-red-white pin on a student’s backpack. It is most likely a sign of her dislike for the ruling authorities, but no more than that: it is impossible to say for sure whether the student sympathises with the centre-right Belarusian People’s Front party, the Hramada Social Democrats, the Greens, or no one at all. The white-red-white flag left some room for meaning. In 2020, it embraced an infinite number of meanings. But not all of them.
Parties, public associations, trade unions, business organisations, neighbourhoods and backyard communities protested with white-red-white flags — of traditional or stylized patterns. Some LGBTQ+ activists also waved this flag. However, when these activists chose to promote their identity — combining the white-red-white flags with rainbow flags or forming a separate queer bloc — they immediately had to explain themselves offline and online. A photo by Nadzeya Buzhan of two girls kissing under a white-red-white flag in front of a police barricade was well received by the Associated Press (it was one of the top 2020 images, the only one selected among those submitted by contest participants from Belarus), but not by readers of various Belarusian media, judging by the comments.
It turns out that you can be gay and wave a white-red-white flag, but only if you don’t expose your queerness. It turns out that you can encompass many meanings by a white-red-white flag: “I support Christian Democrats”, “I am against the Astravets NPP”, “I am from the Vastok estate”, “I am a doctor”, “I am a pensioner”. But “I am a lesbian” does not fit. There are probably more things that don’t fit, which we are yet to find out.
Belarus above all
The Polish artist Liliana Zeic has a project called “Self-Portrait with Borrowed Man”: a photograph shows a naked Liliana and a man spooning on bed sheets with the pattern of the Polish coat of arms and the inscription “I am Polish, therefore I have Polish duties”. I wonder how many white-red-white flags would have to be flown over Government House for it to represent some kind of “package of duties”, apart from paying taxes? What would these duties be? And how would non-compliance be punished?
Broad-brush answers can be found in the protest slogans and words, which are gaining weight now that street activity is at zero, but active foreign policy work on the concept of a “new Belarus” is underway. Apart from the cheerful classic “Long Live Belarus”, a new trend appeared: “Belarus above all”.
The slogan, invented by the National Socialist Albin Stapovich and engraved by the United Transitional Cabinet on the newly created “Honour and Dignity” medal, has even sparked a discussion about the “right turn” of Belarusian democratic forces. It is too reminiscent of “Deutschland über alles” (“Germany above all”), a line from the German national anthem before 1945. But even outside the German context, the wording raises questions. Which direction is meant by “above all things”? Is it a turn to the right (conservative), to the left (literally geographically — to the left of Russia), or a leap on a heraldic horse somewhere high (above human rights, regardless of one’s “nationality”)?
Eternally young Belarus that did not mature either in 1919 or in 1991 is obsessed with blueprints and puns. Old meanings are introduced into the zone of risky farming in the hope that they will grow into something else on the boggy Belarusian ground. We see hoodies with the inscription “Let’s Make Belarus Fucking Awesome Again”, a reference to the Trumpist (and racist) “Let’s Make America Great Again”. And then this slogan is printed in rainbow-coloured letters on merchandise dedicated to LGBTQ+ Pride Month — such a crazy values quilt is hard to come up with. What does a shopper like this tell us? That a gay nationalist uses it to carry baguettes and crab sticks? The same brand also prints Shepard Fairey’s famous “HOPE” poster on its clothes. In this case, however, the “hope” is not Barack Obama but Zianon Pazniak, the leader of Belarusian conservative forces. Maybe “NOPE” makes more sense?
Even if Hitler and Trump are erased from the memory of humanity, slogans implying the superiority and greatness of a certain state cannot be translated into anything other than the disregard for certain rights and freedoms. What kind of Belarus would be “fucking awesome”? What time does “again” refer to? Let’s say it’s the time of the 1863 uprising in Belarus, when Kastuś Kalinoŭski published the first Belarusian newspaper Mużyckaja Praŭda. Then you can open a theme pub in Vilnius called 1863, where like-minded people would enjoy potato pancakes and drinks while listening to the songs of. But only on condition that all like-minded people find the numerous steps and ladders in the bar “fucking awesome”, otherwise this Belarus is no longer for them because it is stupidly incapable of satisfying their needs.
War protest anthems and stylised interiors with flags, third-wave coffee funnels and vegan cakes, protest art exhibitions and flipchart co-working spaces are not accessible to everyone. Even where an empire doesn’t have a bayonet’s reach, new hierarchies of opportunity are in the making. But it’s no surprise when the state is above all.
Language is what unites naturally, without passports or state decrees. The Belarusian language is extremely democratic by nature. The speakers have two spellings (the classical versus the Sovietized ) and three alphabets: Cyrillic, Latin and Arabic. The language is open to the creation of new words and naturally includes feminine endings for job titles. But the status of the language in Belarus is still unfortunate. During the 2019 census, to prevent the state from shutting down Belarusian-language schools and changing the language of road signs from Belarusian to Russian, activists urged their fellow citizens to declare Belarusian as their mother tongue, even if they did not actually use it. As a result, 61.2% of Belarusians called Belarusian their native language. At the same time, 5,670,330 responded that they spoke Russian as their main language at home, and 2,275,243 said that they spoke Belarusian. No one knows for sure how many of the respondents in both groups actually speak what is known as trasianka, a mixture of Belarusian and Russian.
Trasianka is a very popular language outside Minsk. But the biased attitude towards the rural population is fuelled by resentment towards officials who, coming from different regions of the country, often speak the language they use at home and mix the two languages. Many officials speak pure Russian, but some speak excellent Belarusian — such as the deceased foreign minister, Uladzimir Makei, and the former culture minister, now democratic leader, Pavel Latuska.
There are plenty of examples in the cultural sphere of how the language of people from the countryside has been broadcast just for the sake of ridicule. It turns out that when a like-minded person or a beloved grandmother speaks in trasianka, people are either ashamed of this characteristic or touched by it, but when it’s someone with conflicting opinions, people extrapolate the assumed set of values attributed to an official or regime supporter to a trasianka native. In its survey on the language to be used by Belarusian media after 2022, the Belarusian Association of Journalists unexpectedly combined trasianka and Russian in the same answer, thus linking it with the language that the Kremlin metropolis is trying to appropriate, but which has never been perceived in Belarus as a language that marks someone as necessarily “Russian”.
Instead of distinguishing and cherishing the numerous linguistic peculiarities of the different regions of the country and adding colourful beads to the embroidery of identity, Belarusians are once again presented with a black-and-white universe. So in the bilateral rush to separate from Russia and the Lukashenka regime, the best option seems to be for everyone to start speaking a language that neither Russia nor the regime speaks. But that language is still not spoken by the majority of the population of Belarus. And it would be interesting to hear what language it really speaks. And what exactly it has to say. What does ? The 2020 posters made by people in these towns were not as funny as those in Minsk. Nor did they attract as much attention from photographers. Well, at least prison food is just as terrible for everyone.
It reminds me of Alena Zhaludok’s music video “Dziekats i Tsekats”. The clip pokes fun at officially sanctioned Belarusian pop, but the message of reclaiming the trademark Belarusian pronunciation is more than apt. There is nothing wrong with speaking Russian with a Belarusian accent (just as there is nothing wrong with speaking highly regarded colonial English with an accent).
Surprisingly, in an effort to immediately counter the Russian kokoshnik, urban Belarusians have appropriated the vyshyvanka, a rural embroidered shirt, — by 2020, literally every clothing brand was selling such shirts or silk-printed the embroidery on T-shirts — but still feel entitled to ridicule those who wear the vyshyvanka from birth. Ridicule goes hand in hand with manipulation: “Our people are just not ready” is what you would be told when it comes to same-sex marriage. What are the “people” ready for then? If you closet everyone who populist politicians don’t like, then how will the “people” see that other people exist? How will the life of a lesbian who teaches geography in a district school change if she starts talking about the oceans in Belarusian, but continues to be paid a pittance, while the presenters of the new Belarusian TV talk about topics that the “people” are ready for?
“Gay pride or?”
asks the host of the YouTube show Zhizn-Malina. Guests are presumably faced with a dilemma: they have to choose between an LGBTQ+ event or an aesthetically and ideologically constructed harvest festival organised by the authorities. This issue demonises both the Pride and the harvest festival. On the other hand, it illustrates the supposedly momentous choice Belarusians face at this historical crossroads. A choice between Western and Soviet values. Gay Pride plays for the West, and Dazhynki represents the Soviets. Notably, Franak Viachorka, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s advisor on international relations, opted for the Gay Pride parade, while Valer Sakhaschyk, head of the Transitional Cabinet’s defence and security department, chose Dazhynki.
A or B? As if there are only two options, and these options cannot offer any other charge. Gay Pride is a bare-ass party with feathers, and Dazhynki is a straw tractor competition, end of story. It’s either A or B, there is no third option.
Whatever quasi-Christian empire is bursting at the seams, total binarity is an axiom that, if challenged, will knock the Earth out of its orbit. Good and evil, black and white, heaven and hell, Christians and barbarians, the opposition and regime supporters.
Significantly, many members of the democratic community interviewed chose Dazhynki. Anything but a “party with feathers”. In 2020, the police were called losers and faggots (here’s a picture inspired by this in a decent magazine), and the music video creators for the punk band Daj darohu! thought it would be funny to reverse the “ОМОН” inscription on the SWAT police uniforms and change it to “HOMO”. Nothing new, the same technique is used by the government, except that it neglects the LGBTQ+ issue and prefers the pejorative terms “junkies” and “prostitutes” to describe the protesters. The principle is as simple as ABC: to brand an undesirable person as a representative of an “undesirable” stratum of the population. The August 2020 protest slogan “Junkies present? Prostitutes present?” (sometimes “lesbians” were also called out) was clearly not an attempt at reclaiming, but simply a mockery of the propaganda narrative. The poster “Better a prostitute daughter than a riot policeman son” illustrates a tendency. In a “new Belarus”, it is perfectly acceptable to have a YouTube show in which a well-known fashion designer discusses the looks of officials with the hosts and calls an athlete who has not spoken out against the regime a “transsexual”.
“We didn’t know each other until this summer”, read the banners in 2020. Have we actually got to know anyone that summer? Were we open to meeting someone who wasn’t like us? Did we want to reach out to them? To ask about their lives? What values did they defend in the streets?
When the mass protests were coming to an end, artist Hleb Burnashou and programmer Ales Akson had AI analyse some 1800 photos of Belarusian marches. The images showed over 8300 people with open faces. The machine’s task was to extract the straight average — the collective image of the Belarusian demonstrators. The AI produced an unbiased result, but many Belarusians refused to recognise the image as authentic. In one of his interviews, Hleb said that he was struck by the number of sexist and racist comments under publications about his project. People paid attention to skin colour, hair colour, eye colour, and eye shape, and argued about the gender of the person depicted by artificial intelligence.
Interestingly, when the graffiti called “Friendship of Belarus and Russia” appeared on a block of flats in Minsk, commentators were more concerned with its appropriateness and artistic value than with the figure that symbolised Belarus — a boy (or a person presenting as a boy) with ultra-blonde hair and blue eyes.
Artificial intelligence seems to have succeeded in creating something bigger than intended by Burnashou and Akson. The “collective portrait” is a mirror in which one can see not only the Belarusian protester but also all the shades of Belarusian xenophobia. Perhaps this non-existent person would be more accepted if they were the president of Israel, the grandfather of a top Hollywood actress or a great artist. But not the way they are now. Even after “that summer”, people do not want to get to know them.
In a discussion about the migration crisis on the Belarusian-Polish border in 2021, filmmaker Tania Svirepa said that Belarusians are “not so barbless”, judging by their aggressive comments on reports from the border and their shameless hatred of refugees from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and other “exotic” countries. “Not so barbless” is a reference to the generalisation about Belarusians being soft and harmless, along with the expression “beautiful people” and “Belarusians care for each other”.
Being barbless postulated the general “harmlessness” of the protest masses. The generalisation was reinforced by photos of well-dressed women wearing make-up and carrying flowers and of protesters taking off their shoes before standing on benches. The absence of smashed shop windows and broken policemen’s bones was seen as a manifestation of the Belarusian “mentality”, tolerant and peace-loving. The theorem was established without proof, unless you count as such the numerous articles, YouTube videos and posts by intellectuals addressing this mysterious “Belarusian mentality”.
Mentality is an anti-scientific term invented for propaganda purposes. But the environment in which people are born, grow up and die is a very real circumstance. For generations, Belarusians have lived in conditions where the “right to violence” is the exclusive power of the state, and the same state gives citizens a symbolic “licence” for domestic violence (by refusing to pass a relevant law) to keep aggression behind closed doors. What would happen if there were fewer CCTV cameras on the streets? What if guns became more accessible on the darknet? What happens when there is a split in power structures? The “barbless” theorem has yet to be proven.
In the same article on the migration crisis, photographer Maksim Sarychau compares the conversations on social media to when he as a schoolboy was chased by neo-Nazis who had attacked a hardcore concert: “They wanted to beat me up because they didn’t like that I had a chain on my trousers and because I listened to different music. The way they talk about migrants reminded me of this intolerance”. The peak of the crisis has passed, but migrants are still trying to cross the border between Belarus and the European Union, and non-governmental media сontinue to refer to them as “illegals” or “illegal migrants”.
“We believe! We can! We will win!” — Belarusians now shout at marches outside Belarus. But what is “winning”? Would we be victorious if the hate on TV was for regime supporters rather than opposition activists? Would we win if there were fewer books about the Second World War and more about Polish kings? Would it be a victory for us to read the dusty books of Fitzgerald and Hemingway in Belarusian because we are not “ready” for modern literature? Would we win if the white-red-white flag flew over the Gomselmash plant but all the workers were made redundant? Will we win if women are allowed to work in the mines with no days off? Will we win if we allow same-sex marriage but “singles” still need fake certificates from the registry office to get the benefits intended for “couples”?
The artist Maksim Vosipau has made a collage of two images: , waving the flag of the USSR, walks towards , holding the flag of democratic Belarus. The vivid images fully illustrate the two versions of “victory”, and it is clear that time better serves the interest of the latter. But what kind of celebration will unfold to the clinking of glittering glasses? It is quite possible that Belarusians, having escaped from the shadow of the empire, will not hold a gay parade or Dazhynki, but a white-white procession, in which only those whose flag is more visible, whose voice is louder and whose banner is approved by the majority will have a place. After all, the court at the Hague does not grant arrest warrants for internal rulers. It is a matter of personal eradication — a look in the mirror at one’s own phobias and a flexing of the muscle of openness to the world around us.