Belarusian Culture: On the other side of the nation

Maхim Zhbankov

Summary

In 2019, Belarusian culture was traditionally financed from what had been left over from other areas (0.67% of the 2019 budget1). The mild Belarusization practices failed to reorient the general vector of administrative-volitional cultural policy. The latter led, on the one hand, to an expansion of mild tactics of creative partisaning (self-actualization within the system) and, on the other hand, to the formation of a sustainable matrix of activities extraneous to the state. The new pragmatics is alien to politics; the state is of little interest; the Belarusian language is irrelevant. The very fact of its strengthening means the end of all national projects of the previous generation.

The political confrontation of the 2000s and aesthetic conflicts of the 2010s were replaced by the era of psychocomfort – the replication of niche products from trusted suppliers. This ensures stability, but does not stimulate growth. Given the openness to external cultural influences and the general fuzziness of the domestic value paradigm, the very existence of a ‘national’ content is problematic.

Trends:
Neopop: laming of the shrew

The public celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Belarusian People’s Republic (the main cultural event of 2018) predictably turned out to be a one-time victory. A year later, the authorities did everything possible to prevent another patriotic gathering, the more so as this time, the event was organized not by non-partisan culture managers, but the ‘old’ political opposition.

The progressive format of an easy musical national ecstasy was rejected at the preparation stage in favor of the standard speech-plus-concert format, which caused a nervous reaction at all levels of the country’s leadership. The head of state personally participated in the selection of the location. Closing the central sites in Minsk one by one, starting with the Dynamo Stadium and the park in front of the Opera House occupied last year, the city administration drove the holiday out to the patch near the Kiev Park (a less prominent part of Minsk). The cultural event returned to the matrix of a conditionally permitted political micro-show, simultaneously losing the trust of the system and the crowd in shirts with national ornaments on them.

In the absence of the national pop industry, inhibition of cultural dynamics and devaluation of political codes, easily consumable popular product – well-packed canned pop food – turned to be in highest demand.

Fresh blood on our dance floor: Minsk boy Tima Belorusskih has entered the Russian Forbes’ list of ruble millionaires in 2019.2 Slanting bangs, nervous tearjerkers, tattered feelings, stripes of passion, childish pathos through the electronic rustle... Tima is good for his absolute banality and business acumen. This is not a person, but a project like those of Max Korzh and LSP, who gather full stadiums today. The Minsk residential registration, catchy nickname and mild Belarusian pronunciation is all that left from the local binding of the new hero.

‘The Silent at Home’ post-punk trio play another game. A pensive hybrid of the gothic ‘Joy Division’ and Victor Tsoi’s ‘Kino’ is hardly noticeable at home, but is in demand in the charts of top European critics, club zones and European festivals, to which Tima Belorusskih would not be invited. The Hugo Boss ad soundtrack was the latest breakthrough.3 This is a new all-in-one retro, vintage supersound of the 1980s performed with laboratory precision. The post-totalitarian decadence of ‘Europe’s black hole’, captivating for the European audience particularly because its day before yesterday is Belarus’ never changing today.

The past can still be invented. Non-state business responded to the reburial of Kastus Kalinowski in Vilnius with the synchronous release of merchandize with impassioned Kalinowski on it, with sabers and pistols, Captain Jack Sparrow style. 4 Comandante Kastus has little in common with historical truth, yet he looks good on hoodies.

Independent director, screenwriter and producer Andrei Kureichik and his associates initiated the ‘first Belarusian slasher’ titled “Ghouls.” The film did not meet a single deadline, was released with almost a year delay, and left the viewers perplexed. An attempt to create a local pop product from a college romcom, crime world folklore, swamp mysticism, vampire tales and low-budget horror stories turned out to be a failure: unarticulated storyline, cardboardy characters, spiritless dialogues, botched special effects and a complete lack of understanding of what is happening. Yes, we broke into the Eurotrash zone, but only as tongue-tied epigones.

Neoart: trance, rebellion, staging

The release of “Premiere”, the second book by Andrus Gorvat, and the suicide of 33-year-old nonconformist artist Zakhar Kudin framed the content of the year in Belarusian culture. Both personified an attempt to go beyond the role standards offered to artists by our social medium – a fashionable socialite (Gorvat) or an outsider in the eternal lifeworld and financial crisis (Kudin).

Gorvat’s “Premiere” was written simultaneously with the rehearsals of the play based on his first book “Radio Prudok”, which anchored the author’s reputation as a melancholic-lyrical mosaic writer. Sketchy notes about rural life and the call of the universe were replaced by a multi-layered text in the manner of Fellini’s “812.” The master of social-media emo writing wants to destroy his own myth, tries a different technique, tries to make ‘literature’, but it is here where he finally loses control over the process.

The Zakhar Kudin case is important as a drama of an extrasystemic artist in a zero art market and disastrous art management. The aesthetics of an agro-town with its never-ending Dazhynki-style generates demand for problem-free ‘understandability’ and aggressive banality. There is no place for experimenters there, perhaps, because they refuse to know the attention codes of the local addressee. Maxim Shved’s “Pure Art” documentary, which was released in Minsk a month before the tragedy, ingenuously rhymed Kudin’s abstract painting with painting out graffiti on city walls.5 Shved wanted to raise house painters to the level of conceptual non-figurative art creators, but, in fact, he simply nullified the works of the homeless artist, showing his complete incompatibility with the quasi-Soviet cultural environment.

An eye-catching gesture, a spectacular art provocation becomes the highest form of rebellion in the regularized field of legitimate Belarusian culture. At the opening of his exhibition at the Contemporary Art Center in October, artist Alexei Kuzmich threw off his cloak and stood full frontal with a “Ministry of Culture” shield on his genitals. As he said, that was his protest against rigid censorship of his exhibition. The protest against “managed culture” was met with support and understanding by the audience and lawsuits against the artist.6

Young filmmaker Vlada Senkova decided to gently adapt the situation to herself, turning the one-reeler commissioned by UNESCO into the full-length film “II.” The creative idea forced the customer to scoot over, but still the movie about troubled school life turned out to be a wan shadow of the Russian gruesome film “Everyone Will Die But I Will Stay.” The local emphasis traditionally reduced to a set of simple markers: children quietly learn Polish and dance to the drug-suicidal-dance mix by Bakei.

The short film “Franka” by Mitry Semyonov-Aleinikov was the most successful Belarusian film of the year with a bunch of festival awards. It is another example of competent custom-made work (for the Belarusian “War. Remain Human” almanac). Skillful direction, excellent camerawork, accurate casting and the right moral philosophy with a strange aftertaste of a neat composition on a given topic.

The release of the book “The Devil Harnessed Into The Plough” by the 1990s-style publicist Sergei Dubavets in the year under review is indicative. The phantasmagoric Prague trip of two functionaries, a young and a veteran, of Radio Solaris (slightly disguised Radio Svoboda) is some sort of a psychedelic report about generations’ discord. The final result of night walks and endless conversations is a statement of the exhaustion and futility of the heroic position of old-school activists in the face of the victorious cynicism of new pragmatists. The plot is exhausted. The budget is not.

As Igor Babkov said, it can be ascertained that our national partisans were eaten by national managers. And the new partisans are no longer ours, just a gang of outsiders without trade or distinct position.

A group of young film authors positions themselves as a new Belarusian wave just like this: “Belarusian burnt-out cinema”, which means that “nothing can be proved to anyone; there is nothing to strive for and nothing to lose.”7 The “Drama” film almanac by Nikita Lavretsky, Yulia Shatun and Alexei Svirsky released in the spring of 2019 is not even an exercise in a parallel to the inertial Belarusfilm Studio, but a perpendicular on-screen statement. In the unkempt monotonous stream of visual images it is easy to see the main external sources of inspiration: an independent low-budget festival-oriented movie and the culture of social media vlogs. Internally, it displays the inherent lack of systematic transfer of cultural experience in Belarus’ half-baked society. As a result, every new generation is ready to start from scratch, inarticulately as before.

And this is a final recognition of the disease. New authors are children of the indisplaceable powers that be and shallow education, skillful in techniques but superficial. They read the country at the level of the daily routine; they are actually cut off from cultural tradition; they substitute education with quotemanship, and signature with ambition. They live under the crossfire of neighboring cultures and poorly understand the meaning of the epic Belarusian Project.

The new counterculturists mix the hunger for self-expression with the tone of the global market, firmly zeroing out the local context as noisy and of little significance in terms of their personal stories. But they forget that all such revolutions had already happened before.

Alignment of comets: the new old

The invariability of the cultural order makes attempts to devise long-term growth strategies and creative innovations pointless. The effects of presence remain. A cost effective way to maintain a reputation.

Major songwriter of the country Liavon Volsky returned in 2019 with “Gravitacya” album. In his current incarnation, Volsky is not a frontman of the legendary rock brigade, not a buffoon or a fiery tribune. A solo author, who looks at himself in the midst of a meaningless environment of varying degrees of information clutter. The third coming of Liavon’s alliance with Norwegian musicians after “Hramadaznaustva” (2014) and “Psychasamatyka” (2016) looks like scraps of the first two. The positioning as a conceptual album about the cycle of human life is shuttered by a slurred selection of tracks, general depressiveness and nervous lashing out at the time, neighbors, leaders, weather, Russian techno and the system as a whole.

“Libido” novel by Ilya Sin was the book of the year according to the Jerzy Giedroyc Literary Award. An experienced verbal experimenter and performer, Sin wrote, perhaps, his most readable text. A solid European-style writing, a game on the verge of a street joke and the life of saints, assemblage of recognizable mundane details, which suddenly takes a phantasmagoric shape, compositional flair, an accurate sense of the music of words and a sense of rhythm... Urban gothic of the times of triumphant stability. It is precisely this competently and subtly captured experience of the absurdity of the present that makes Sin’s text relevant and timely. But it also makes “Libido” absolutely sealed-in and self-sufficient like a new strange look into a familiar abyss.

Rebellious Sergei Mikhalok put his Brutto on a pause and recorded the second plastic pop album under the Drezden brand. The release of “Edelweiss” is doubly unoriginal as a sentimental tribute to the 1980s and a loose recitation of the first Drezden. The basic formula of the project failed: added to a collection of discolored cards may only be similar discolored cards.

The Svetlana Alexievich Intellectual Club resumed sessions after almost a 1.5-year pause. Their format remained virtually unchanged. Even the joint statement by Algerd Bakharevich and Viktor Martinovich did not help.8 The popular authors tried very hard not to quarrel and carefully avoided sharp corners without uncovering the announced topic of the cost of compromises, thus serving as an illustration of this cost.

The Belarusian PEN Center – a representation of the international human rights organization – became a venue of the major cultural scandal of the year. Writer and politician Pavel Severinets publicly accused the Center’s leadership of discriminating against Christian writers, promoting “cultural Marxism” and, at the same time, forming a “gay lobby.”9 Nevertheless, Pavel decided to return to the Center, from which he was expelled for non-payment of membership fees since 2014 for ideological reasons. The fact that this happened shortly before and during the election congress of the PEN Center gave grounds to suspect a hostile takeover of the organization.10 After heated debates, P. Severinets was reinstated and then expelled again after mass protests of the members, this time for activities incompatible with the basic values of the Center.

This caused a split in the ranks of independent Belarusian writers, a hysterical information war and a series of demonstrative demarches of iconic personas, and intensified the never-ceasing conflict between the traditionalists and advocates of the European way to the full extent.

The year saw a couple of closures that left noticeable gaps in the cultural landscape. The 30th and the last ‘Basovišča’ festival of young musicians of Belarus11 was held near Bialystok in July. The Minsk private bookshop ‘Gogol’s Dream’ announced its liquidation at the end of the year. Both events are a farewell to the desired reality, with a certain field of hope. The former was a fairy tale about music that could awaken the nation (even from beyond its borders). The latter was the belief that good intention and good taste are able to sell well in Belarus.

Conclusion

The dynamics of the cultural situation in 2019 generally followed the trends that we described in previous reviews. There are still no considerable transformations in the Belarusian cultural field. Public officers in charge of culture are among the lowest paid workers (BYN 650 per month on average). Market-based strategies are mainly actualized outside the country.

There are neither ideas, nor resources for a redistribution of the areas of influence. Accordingly, the mission of culture activists is still a simple reaffirmation of their vitality, i.e. the release of products in stable demand and proved quality, a dramatic self-presentation at best. Inertia remains the main motive of the season.

The recent boom of the decorative Belarusian identity has completely exhausted itself and lost its initial fervor. 12 After a series of marches of Belarusian Republican Youth Union members in embroidered shirts, the frisky national design no longer scares anyone, but makes it possible to slightly color the monotonous stagnation landscape, and feed the identity at a low price during corporate events like the Symbal.by Fest.

Openness to external cultural interventions in conditions of the blurred paradigms of domestic values turns into a style dependence and general derivativeness. Belarus’ young sprouts grow for outside venues, trying to keep up with the neighbors.