Thirty years have passed since the collapse of the USSR and the emergence of Belarus on the world map as an independent state. While most of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe were actively engaged in political and economic reforms and civic society building, Belarus was somewhat in stasis. Its ‘farewell to socialism’ was not over. For 27 years in power, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko managed to establish a regime of one-man rule based on the bureaucratic ‘vertical’ and repressive state apparatuses. Belarusian political and economic system – combining the totalitarian features of the Soviet model of governance and the economic mechanisms of state-monopoly capitalism – appeared to be quite stress-resistant (which is evident even now, despite the accelerated disintegration of the entire system). […] Until 2020 many experts believed that there were no serious and obvious prerequisites either for the internal transformation of government institutions or for the emergence of a revolutionary situation in Belarus (Shraibman 2017; Wilson 2021). However, the COVID-19 pandemic, an unexpectedly unfolding 2020 presidential election campaign and the dramatic subsequent events that followed, have disrupted this prolonged period of a socio-economic stagnation. Only then it became clear that behind the seeming eventlessness of the ‘situation of halted development’ there was an ongoing ‘latent structural transformation of the social environment’ (Editor’s note: Ab Imperio 2014) informing the large-scale societal changes.
[…] The articles published in this thematic issue focus on the ongoing and yet unfinished political present, that spans a year and a half from the start of the pandemic in the spring of 2020 to the end of 2021. This Editorial provided merely a snapshot of the events in Belarus in the given period describing this ongoing ‘present’. Simultaneously, the contributors draw on the relevant aspects of the situation on the ground to provide further details for their arguments where necessary. […] [T]his volume also raises an issue of crossovers between academic work and activism, as the narratives challenge a neutral stand-by observer’s stance and venture into the space of an (emotionally) engaged citizen. This positionality is acceptable and even welcomed in some disciplines and methodological approaches including cultural, gender studies, ethnography, community-based participatory research, citizen’s reporting, etc. Perhaps, its relevance should be reconsidered and applied to other disciplinary enquiries occurring during similar rapid large-scale dramatic events. As the contributions to this special volume show its insight remains topical and informative for our understanding of the current processes ongoing in Belarusian society to date.
This special issue consists of a set of articles and 5 opinion pieces. The first article by Almira Ousmanova called Analog Dictatorship against Digital Multitude highlights an outdated nature of the regime by juxtaposing analog and digital technologies. Then, the paper by Anta-nina Stebur and Volia Davydik provides an insight into the Features and Effects of the Digital Technologies in the Belarusian Protest. The following two articles investigate various aspects related to the use of Telegram in Belarus: Gleb Koran’s Telegram Belarusian Protests of 2020: Affective Tool for Populist’s Uprisings and Anton Saifullaeu’s Strategy of Language Resistance in Telegram During the Belarusian Civic Movement. In turn, Andrei Vazyanau explores Instagram affordances in his paper titled Ugly Repressions, Protest’s Beauty and Emotional Community on Belarusian Political Instagram. The article by Andrei Gornykh problematises the role of traditional media in Belarus and money flows in Belarusian authoritarianism.
These contributions in one way or another reflect on two parallel political, cultural and media realities that have formed inside and outside of the country: anachronistic-illegitimate-authoritarian and forward-looking democratic one. They also reveal a complex process of authorial self-reflexivity in the situation of their overinvestment in the situation on the ground. Final paper by Ksenia Robbe and Andrei Zavadski called ‘C’mon, Turn Swan Lake on’: Memories of the 1990s at the Belarusian Protests of 2020’ engages with a broader timeline providing an in-depth account of the memory politics in the protest as compared to the perestroika years and the 1990s.
The opinion pieces represent shorter accounts or narratives from/of the ‘revolution’. They will be particularly useful for those who want to have a concise but comprehensive account of the most relevant dimensions of the protest. They start with the one by Volha Kananovich, entitled Beyond the ‘Telegram Revolution’: Understanding the Role of Social Media in Belarus Protests. Then, Hanna Stähle talks about a specific aspect of the uprising, namely: The Unintended Female Revolution? This is followed by Sasha Razor on The Protest Art of Antonina Slobodchikova. The last two pieces deal with the religious and youth groups’ roles in the protests respectively: Regina Elsner A Religious Factor in Belarus’ Protest: Mediation of the Political Crisis by the Church? and Kristiina Silvan Battleground “Lukamol”: the Belarusian Republican Youth Union between a Rock and a Hard Place. The volume ends with an overview of the cinematic works prompted or/and reformed by the events of 2020 prepared by Diana El.
Robert Zalesky (pseudonym) and Almira Ousmanova (EHU)
Image credit: Photo taken by Almira Ousmanova at the art exhibition “ Every Day: Art, Solidarity, Resistance” (Kyiv, Arsenal, 2021)
This is a photo of the sculpture by Ala Savashevich named Ghost (2017), which represents a coat without the body. Even without a head, we can easily recognize in it a cumulative iconographic image of political leaders in Soviet monumental propaganda (Lenin first of all, but not only). But there are many other connotations: this work is about the materiality of ideology, and about the hardness of authoritarian regimes (even when ideology turns into the set of empty signifiers), as well as about the continuity of totalitarian regimes (regardless of the context). It also reminds us that at some point in history, dictatorships end anyway, leaving behind themselves ossified ruins. Unfortunately, totalitarian regimes do not go away without bloodshed: when collapsing, they drag a huge number of people into the abyss. And this is exactly what is happening now in Lukashenka’s Belarus and even more so in Putin’s Russia. And just at the moment, when we were ready to say “Goodbye, post-socialism”, Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine was unleashed, and all the ghosts of the past suddenly materialized.