By Alex Adams
“If I say it ended in tragedy, this is, in the first place, because of the size of the human toll taken in course of that social – or chronological – change. For in a real tragedy, it is not the hero who perishes; it is the chorus.” – Joseph Brodsky, 1987 Nobel Lecture
On April 7, 2021, the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies welcomed three guest speakers to discuss the ongoing Belarusian protests. Logging into Zoom from Los Angeles, Ithaca, and Prague, Sasha Razor, a scholar and activist, Valzhyna Mort, a poet, and Rufina Bazlova, an artist, had a lot to say about not only the present, but also the past and future as well in Belarus. All three helped to contextualize the protests and the role of art in helping us understand them.
Sasha Razor, a scholar of Soviet culture, started by speaking about Belarusian responses to dictatorship. After displaying a poster showcasing the expansive penal system in Belarus, Razor noted that “police brutality and state violence have become a collective formative experience for generations of Belarusians.” Yet, protestors decided to turn away from weapons and, instead, toward the arts.
There has been a return to traditional, Belarussian art forms such as Vyshyvanka and other forms of embroidery—these artforms, which have been imbibed with a political spirit, have collectively contributed to a new form of protest dubbed “craftivism.” Though craftivism has now become a global movement, Razor specified that these crafts are “at the heart of our traditional culture and…therefore, what we are seeing today is a part of our cultural memory and a code that we share as a community.” The protests are therefore uniquely Belarusian, even if they are part of a worldwide movement.
Rufina Bazlova, a practitioner of traditional Belarusian crafts, said her family often jokes that the only thing left to her was embroidery—this is a statement not only on the struggles of Belarusians today but a reminder of the losses Belarusian cultural life experienced under the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Now, as an emigre living in the Czech Republic, Bazlova learns about ongoing events in Belarus through viral videos and pictures, and, through Instagram posts, she responds to them. In a way that may only intuitively make sense to those who are millennials or younger, Bazlova is skipping traditional modes of artistic distribution in order to directly reach engaged people around the world.
Valzhyna Mort, a poet, translator, and professor at Cornell, spoke about her theories on the power of art, and read poems from her most recent book, Music for the Dead and Resurrected to express her views on Belarus. She said that poetry opposes the academic discipline of history, because poetry is based on emotion rather than facts. Official memory, the memory that historians tend to write, relies on a “locked archive,” while poetry relies on remembrance and emotional connections. Mort thus sees poetry as a method of explaining tension and creating catharsis.
To Bazlova, Belorussian protest art is about energizing protestors—through transforming reality, art connects to people and shows how the world could be.
In Razor’s words, “[art] is a transformative experience” and provides “emotional processing.” Collectively, Belarusian culture and art offers collective testimonies, working as one to keep the protests alive. However, not everyone thinks art is the way to bring Lukashenko down.
“Poetry can create a ceremony of coping,” Mort said, but it is “not a weapon that can be used against a dictatorship.” Instead, Mort argued, poets are simply documenting what is happening in the present moment, and they are creating a space for inquiry. Political scientists, she added, are the ones who should be responsible for figuring out how to articulate political change.
One question from the audience was about the feminine aspects in the art movement today. Both Bazlova and Mort said that this seemed like a natural extension of the matriarchal traditions in Belarussian families; however, Razor wanted to caution everyone to remember that there are women in the police force and courts, arresting protestors and sending them to jail. Ultimately, many of the same means of protest are co-opted by the regime, and protestors must constantly stay alert and re-code or invent new ways to keep the movement alive.
These three speakers force us to remember that the Belarusian protests are complicated, and the opposition is not fully ideologically unified. However, one thing is clear: most Belarusians want the cockroach out of office.
Alex Adams is a senior majoring in History and Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies. He is an undergraduate fellow at the Havighurst Center.