About the study
How the situation in the cultural sector has changed in 2022-2023 in general and by fields
Reasons for persecution and how the situation with repression is changing
Expansion of Russian culture
Repressions in the public sector
Since October 2019, PEN Belarus has been systematically collecting facts of violations of cultural rights and human rights of cultural figures through daily monitoring of open sources (mass media, blogs, social networks) and direct contacts and communication with cultural actors. As time passes (the further away from 2020), more and more facts of violations become non-public. On the one hand, independent media, weakened by the crackdown, cannot record everything happening in the cultural sphere. On the other hand, there has been a significant change in people’s attitude towards making things public. As a result, cases of persecution of cultural figures, their colleagues and entourage, and information about administrative pressure on private and state organisations in the cultural sphere often do not go beyond the family and a close circle of acquaintances. Instead, they remain out of sight inside closed professional groups. To obtain additional facts about the forms, types and scale of the current repressions in the field of culture, to better understand the trends and possible consequences for culture inside the country, and to find an answer to the question about possible support and assistance to cultural workers in Belarus, PEN Belarus conducted an additional research. Its empirical base includes 42 expert interviews with cultural workers from the state-owned and independent cultural sectors representing the following creative groups: literary workers (including publishers, book distributors and librarians), artists, photographers, musicians, theatre and cinema workers, museum workers, local historians, academia (humanities), restorers, art managers, cultural researchers and journalists. The semi-structured interview format allowed both to ask the same questions and collect statistics on violations in the cultural sphere, becoming an additional source for PEN’s monitoring (the main focus of this research). It also created space for individual conversations and statements, forming this text’s basis. The respondents live and work in Belarus (except for three people who left the country between late 2022 and mid-2023). The interviews were conducted between mid-March and early June 2023. The research participants are critical thinkers with many years of experience in the cultural sphere.
We would like to thank all of our interlocutors for meaningful conversations in terms of better understanding what is happening in the cultural sphere inside Belarus, but also interesting per se. This text is based on their quotes and reflections.
“The repressive machine has no clear structure” (E20) 
According to the respondents, the situation in the cultural sphere of Belarus has been deteriorating for the last year and a half – “the cultural sphere has shrunk”, “deterioration is simply galloping”, “Belarusian culture and art … is in such a deep pit”, “now culture is at the risk level orange (not red yet)”. The range of cultural activity is narrowing, while whole layers of culture are systematically destroyed (“at the level of institutions“). Development inside the country is non-existent. The “pogrom” of independent media occurred well before 2022. During the last 1.5-2 years, most cultural organisations were closed. Authorities continue the policy of forced liquidation of the non-profit sector, including private publishing houses, depriving publishers of their licenses. Alternative educational projects are being closed amid pressure on the private school education system. The independent theatre has almost no opportunities. The operation of the independent music scene is blocked. In the visual arts sector, “repressions are becoming increasingly extensive, as is the level of censorship and self-censorship“. The regime deprives artists of their voices and livelihoods. The most popular method of repression is censorship: everything has to be sterile regarding politics and criticism. Introducing the register of organisers of cultural and entertainment events has dramatically complicated the procedure for obtaining touring certificates. The requirements for holding any kind of event became stricter. Cultural workers disloyal to the regime have limited access to the audience after the lists of “unreliable” were drawn up. It is now challenging for people of culture to find a venue for expression as access to platforms, spaces, and places for events is restricted. A repressive reaction can follow after any event. Authorities pay special attention to the event or cultural community that “was more popular than this one, than others, or if it is more popular than it was yesterday.” Propagandists take the lead in the censorship chorus of the state (“nowadays the authorities bend an ear to them“). Independent culture has returned to the practices of the Soviet times: it has gone underground, back to house concerts and shows. Everything public – “even if it is something harmless” – becomes increasingly unsafe.
The gap between the state-run and independent cultural sectors is widening. Employees of the state-owned organisations are carefully vetted for loyalty to the system. Dismissals of workers, top-quality specialists included, lead to the de-professionalisation of the sector and “profanation of culture”, with the quality of products and services rapidly deteriorating. Institutions work mainly to serve the ideological demands of the authorities, with the Great Patriotic War and “genocide of the Belarusian people” being the main topics in demand. Under the aegis of Russification, there has been an attack on Belarusian national culture, leading to its gradual destruction. The number of forbidden topics is growing (the war in Ukraine since February 2022). Folk traditions, arts and crafts, and searching for a cultural code are safe topics for the state-owned and independent cultural sectors. The forced emigration of specialists continues “simply without a possibility to return, at least as of today.” Notably, many cultural workers consciously choose to stay in the country, to continue to live in a state of “I don’t have a place here” and in an atmosphere of “uncertainty and constant danger.” At the same time, they consider this extreme situation a privilege, among other things – “I try to dissect it, transform it into some artistic things.” It will not be possible to realise them soon, but such an opportunity will happen someday. Meanwhile, they will continue their work in Belarus: “Everyone is doing everything.”
Given the profiles of the specialists we talked with during this research, we will focus on the situation in literature and visual arts. Other fields of art like music, theatre, museums, cinema and heritage are covered depending on the volume of information we have received from our interlocutors.
Literature finds itself “at a crossroads”: “When it comes to the Belarusian literature, I mean the serious one, which we had here in Belarus, it is no longer there. Some have fled, and some have kept a low profile. Everyone writes into a drawer, and practically, there is no literature.” (E4).
The respondents from the sphere of literature mainly spoke about how much the closure of independent publishing houses changed the sector, affecting both authors and readers. Today, there is practically nowhere to get published in Belarus. Some publishing houses were closed, and others received written or verbal warnings from the Ministry of Information. “We would eagerly like to publish your book, but we don’t know if we will be operational in a month.” If you publish unofficially, “you will be punished over taxes for engaging in entrepreneurial activity, you will instantly face criminal charges”. One of the respondents described the closure of Zmicier Kolas, the oldest publishing house in Belarus operating in the book market since the late 1980s, as “unprecedented.” The publishing house was closed without even receiving a warning for publishing a book of “extremist” nature” – a collection of historical documents from the state archives of Belarus. Published in 2021 and not even sold anywhere, the book was labelled “extremist” in 2023. “Just imagine how an athlete used some pills two years ago. Two years later, those pills were added to the list of doping substances. That athlete will never get punished for taking the pills two years ago. This can’t happen” (E42).
As a result, dozens of names are simply absent from the shelves of Belkniha, the state-run bookstore chain monopoly. “It is self-evident when there is neither Goliath, Januškievič, Lohvinaŭ, nor Knihazbor.” Most contemporary prominent authors are absent, “those who have already become the living classics of our literature.” The shelves of the state-owned stores are mainly filled with “state-sponsored books” and many Russian books. What catches the eye is an almost complete absence of books on history, except for the Great Patriotic War and propaganda “opuses” that openly sow hatred and enmity. The latter are displayed in the most prominent places inside the shops. In addition to the ban on sales, authors are banned from distributing their books via the network of libraries.
Moreover, their names and titles cannot be mentioned in the state-owned media unless they are needed for defamatory reports and articles. Even quoting them is forbidden. There is information that the “list of people who should not be quoted” has already been in place.
Purges of library collections are becoming a tendency. “I am very concerned about what is happening now … [because] the authorities have no historical right … The library has to preserve all the documents of the era … The library’s collection should not depend on the viewpoint of those in power” (E32). There is also a decline in the quality of their replenishment due to librarians’ self-censorship, among other things – “We certainly purchase fewer good books” because they are not sure about the author: “Maybe it has already been exposed or into trouble somewhere.“
Such state-funded institutions as libraries and bookshops have introduced more rigorous procedures for permitted public events. Prior approvals are mandatory. Employees of the Culture Ministry or “undercover” inspectors regularly visit libraries and bookstores (Belkniha and Akademkniha) to ensure no banned books are on the shelves. “They react very zealously. A red-coloured book with white letters? It’s extremism! They start a scandal.” Libraries are obsessed with one theme – the Second World War and genocide. “We suffered, there was a war, many people died, and so on. God forbid to let us start a new war – they keep repeating it like a mantra” (E28).
One of the literary workers said that all the repressions taking place in the sphere of literature led him to think about the existence of some “comrades handlers who are non-Belarusians and who do not live in Belarus” (Е42) because what is taking place looks like a planned policy of destroying or at least narrowing the Belarusian book publishing industry.
- Fine Arts
“Censorship is the most popular way of repression. It’s about the impossibility of speaking out and exhibiting because you are on the list. Censorship is psychologically more difficult than imprisonment… On the other hand, it’s a threat. You realise that you are facing a threat to end up like Aleś [Puškin] “ (E21). One of the experts in the field of art reckons that the story of Aleś is very much in the back of everyone’s mind – so much so that everything that happened to him was vivid and representative: the arrest, the performance he made at the trial, the verdict. She believes everything could have been much more tragic for the art community. There would have been other attempts to make socio-political, artistic statements, followed by prosecution. But “Ales saved us practically, no matter how awful [it may sound]“.
One could say that fine art is in a “silence mode” (or self-preservation mode). In the preceding “waiting mode,” people hoped that something would change and the pressure would not be so intense. But when even those artists “who had never made political statements in their works” were not allowed to exhibit “simply for their stance, it became quite clear that we are in a silence mode” (E21).
The authorities have lists of “unreliable” artists. On 1 January 2023, amendments in the Culture Code came into force, requiring every exhibition to undergo an approval procedure as follows: a curator/organiser must photograph all the works and have a textual description of the authors, their titles, etc., and submit the whole package for approval. “A dedicated department decides if a particular work can be displayed.” “What is approval?” It is a vetting by special services, where the Ministry [of Culture] is only an intermediary” (E20). “This approval procedure is crazy: I submit a list of experts, a concept, but the reply I get is in the oral form” (E38). It is “just a phone call”; no one receives any documents; “it is just called a recommendation”. No one wants to take responsibility, because “Belarusians who care” can come to the event anyway and use posts or phone calls to close the exhibition – “the so-called Bondarava – Sidarovič phenomenon, and I don’t recall the name of the third activist [Žyhimont]“ (E33).
Thus, there are several levels of censorship. First, an exhibition project undergoes approval. Then, it cannot be ruled out that on the day of the exhibition, a representative of the commission (“someone from the Ministry of Culture“) will come and say: “I have a list of 30 works by the following authors that cannot be displayed. You must remove [them] right now or you simply will not open this exhibition” (Е18). The next level is the censorship of propagandists. “Sometimes, you notice – you come to an exhibition, and the artists say: “Well, here we go, we have passed this level, the Ministry of Culture’s filter. Now, what will our ladies [pro-government propagandists] have to say?” (E33) “It’s also such a panopticon. Yes, they are watching you all the time – we know three of them for sure, these horsewomen of the apocalypse, but there are probably others. And it’s very unpleasant when you live in a paranoid mode” (E21). And one more level: “The most recent thing that happened was that they were already forced to exhibit their works under pseudonyms because a preventive censorship for exhibitions had been introduced” (E29).
All new artists are deemed “unreliable” and “move from the stop-lists and back at the speed of light”. Correspondingly, their works are removed, too. “Even the works currently in museum collections cannot be shown now” (Е18). There is a ban on exhibitions, buying works and adding them to collections. “In my understanding, it is an attempt to deprive undesirable artists of livelihood at all levels so that they not only were unable exhibit in Belarus but were unable to exist as an artist thanks to their talent” (E23). Another way of putting pressure on artists is through purely “mercantile conditions”, i.e. the rental of workshops. “It is elementary to fight with artists: if artists do not support the authorities or show some kind of dissent, one can easily raise the cost of workshop rental even two-fold. And the decision can be backdated. If you don’t want to pay, take your easels, canvases and sculptures, and vacate the studio” (E1).
Among other sad trends taking place in the field of fine arts is pressure on creative unions. The regime attempts to turn them (particularly the Union of Artists) into “ideology-driven organisations”. The unions must include “military-patriotic education” in their priorities and activities. It is known that a personal information file was drawn up for each chairperson of a creative union: “Is the person good or not good? Do they suit the authorities?” Another new practice is “suspended membership” or, in other words, unjustified expulsion of people from the Union of Artists. “It would not be so terrible for people if it did not affect the rental of those inexpensive workshops” (E38).
Political and critical independent art is impossible in the public sphere today. “The Palace of Arts in Minsk recently hosted the opening of a big exhibition with many artists and art figures attending. I was “delighted” not to see even the slightest political subtext, a shade or sound of our time.” (E32). The last politically biased exhibition was “Žihimont [The Human Factor, October 2022] … Yes, it was an ideological event, but it was a political statement, a normal visual manifestation of how they see those against Lukašenka’s regime. It was a great comic strip” (Е21). At present, what grabs attention is the tendency to exhibit applied and decorative art. Lately, a large number of officially approved exhibitions related to functional art has been organised – “Since the beginning of 2023, three or four big exhibitions have taken place. It is safe… The applied art has always been very decorative, safe. It has never been political or biased” (E21).
The ways for the independent music scene to work are blocked. “There is no possibility to perform. However, it is possible to end up in jail”. Like in the situation with artists mentioned above, there is a list of musicians and bands banned on the Belarusian stage. “The post-Soviet system – even worse [than the Soviet one]” of touring certificates was introduced. It means that “you not only have to pay money“ to obtain it but, most importantly, to submit the names of musicians and their contact details, including on social media. “They are verifying who you are”. Obviously, “many musicians will never get them because they performed in squares filled with protesters and so on. They are those who did not leave and stayed” (E21). “Practically all musicians have left. Only a few have stayed, including me, for example” (E10).
As a result, musicians from the “unreliable” list are deprived of the opportunity to perform at Belarusian venues physically. They have no access to radio airtime, either. Therefore, they are unable to earn money from their music. “I cannot physically perform in clubs or earn bread with my officially registered creative work in Belarus (I used to receive royalties from radio broadcasts)” (E10).
Opportunities for independent theatre are closed. Opportunities for creativity and self-realisation in state-owned institutions have shrunk. “It all starts with touring certificates, which are not issued because almost everyone is banned. It is forbidden to promote their creativity since they put their signatures for the nomination of Babaryka”. What happened in 2022 was a “major purge of names and stricter rules to for production approvals, for everything.” The “production” means “a very multifunctional story: beginning from an artist and ending with the director, playwright, actors, etc. – pretty much all people involved in theatre” (E40). In 2023, European and Russian playwriters who supported Ukraine were added to the stop lists.
The purges continue in cultural institutions. The repertoire is affected the most in the state-run theatres: “Plays were suspended for some time until new actors were introduced”. The purges in the higher education system “cleansed the entire teaching staff of the theatre faculty at the Academy of Arts, especially such people with critical thinking as theatre scholars” (E40).
Ideological censorship and oversight by the Ministry of Culture – The state requires theatres to create and promote ideologically verified plays and productions. For example, Minsk hosted a national theatre festival for the first time, where military plays (“Victory”) were shown. All productions are subjected to the expertise of the Ministry of Culture – defence of the performance, concept, etc., during which individual fragments are debriefed and “adjustments are made regarding many things.” Questions are even asked about the absolutely harmless Belarusian classics, “which also require adjustments”.
Museums are losing people who made them more modern. “The most notable incident is, of course, the situation with the Azgur Museum – a very successful museum project, which was terminated. The museum’s team was completely renewed” (E17). The management, teams and specialists are replaced. New staffers are often recruited not with professionalism in mind but “through personal connections, especially for managerial positions.” In some museums, the loss of professionals brings along concerns about the preservation of cultural heritage. “It’s sad that so many assets, such a rich heritage, end up in the hands of non-professionals” (E2).
As in all other fields of art, museums are negatively affected by the “unreliable” lists. They experience difficulties in inviting guests and organising events. “They simply don’t know who to invite [to Museum Night] because no one can be invited” (E19).
Ideological censorship. Curators face the difficult task of identifying the allowable symbols and themes – “it is like surfing on invisible waves.” The museum executives have to understand intuitively what is allowed and what is not – “partly, it is schizophrenia… they made people’s lives simpler when they drew up a list of banned. But what about the themes, which are not allowed?” (E23).
The Belarusfilm National Film Studio has practically become a restricted-access facility, where every employee goes through “department No. 1”, i.e. inquiries are made to the KGB, the police, and sometimes this “Adolf” [the chief ideologue] calls to his office and asks bizarre questions like: “Do you have a foreign visa? Why did you make a foreign visa?” (E36). Professional qualities and talent are “the very last thing. The main thing is to pass department No. 1“. That is why a Russian director and a Georgian cameraman are now working on the Black Castle of Alšany film based on the novel by a Belarusian literature classic.
The amount of red tape and formalities is increasing. “You have to fill in a form for every item“, tenders are required for every little thing, prosecution for corruption, threats from the administration – “we will fire you”. “All this is no longer about creativity. It is quite “the opposite” (E36).
A whole national film studio is shooting only one feature film. Belarusian actors are actively offered work in Russia “because a huge amount of money is allocated for cinema, and a huge number of films are being shot now in Russia”. The deterioration of the political situation has hurt the sphere of documentary film production regarding funding shortages and, above all, the relations between people. Trust has been destroyed. “Documentary filmmaking is about a person, and the person has to trust you. But when pressure on every person with a strong opinion is much higher than the atmospheric pressure, there is no conducive atmosphere for documentaries” (E35).
A new cultural export law passed in early 2023 has opened the doors for screening films inside the country, bypassing the sanctions.
The last three years have seen significant limitations in this field. Top-level professionals dealing with restoration were dismissed from the Ministry of Culture. Over the last 1.5-2 years, most cultural and heritage organisations have been closed down. “I think only one foundation is left, but it is not operational” (E39). The informational narrowly professional infrastructure was virtually destroyed. Important platforms to discuss ideas and projects have ceased to exist. The conferences organised by NGOs or nature reserves are almost non-existent. The civil society sector has been liquidated, and natural reserves have been largely destroyed “because most top managers were replaced or fired, people are intimidated” (E39). There is no place to get published. Scientific information is accumulating without joining the free circulation of scientific knowledge.
As with other professional groups in the field of culture, one of the trends features the ban on heritage professionals from public speeches without vetting their names by special services. Unvetted lecturers are not allowed to speak, even though they may be the only experts with first-hand knowledge.
After the dismissal of critical specialists from the Ministry of Culture in the heritage field and the resulting gaps in the Ministry, the sector is working at half load. This, in turn, has led to a slowdown in the provision of state services: review of project designs, approval and development of relevant documents.
“Expression has become synonymous with crime” (E23)
Most respondents agree that repression in the cultural sphere is not a targeted attack on culture. The main reason for persecution is the civic position of cultural figures (voiced mainly back in 2020). “They are being hunted for those traces”: being at a street protest, online comments, etc. People are jailed for a photo from a protest rally, “for emoticons” (“nowadays social media are a great source for persecution”), for anti-war statements, shares, etc. People are accused of participating in “mass riots” (peaceful protests), inciting hatred, causing economic damage, etc. People are “very massively” summoned to the KGB over donations to the funds of solidarity with Belarusians who suffered from security forces’ violence. “You donated money back in 2020 to support homeless cats, for example, but nobody cares to look into the details. A bank transfer via Facebook is enough to have a person prosecuted… There are 63,000 people in the database of those who donated money via Facebook” (E18). One of the high-profile events that took place in March 2023 and triggered a new wave of detentions “was the Mačuliščy case , which made things very hot here, let’s put it this way” (E13).
The authorities have set a “maniacal task” of punishing everyone who took part in peaceful protests. People from the creative professions find themselves in the middle of this madness happening in the country – “It’s like a card game; you may get jailed or maybe not“; “it is like a lottery” [for cultural workers]. One of the regime’s strategies is to ” subdue and scare people”, instil fear, and “brutalise some people so others are afraid”. One of the female respondents from the literary world metaphorically compared repression to a car that needs chains to get through a snowy road. “The intimidation chains” were attached to the never-ending roller of repression.
When asked how the situation with repressions is changing, respondents spoke about their intensification and toughening, about a flywheel that has accelerated and now cannot stop, gaining more and more momentum. They also likened it to the feeling of a tightening nut under systematic pressure. What once seemed unacceptable to government officials and regime functionaries has become appropriate. The boundaries of what is permissible are being pushed further and further away. Any manifestation of civic engagement is persecuted. “You no longer have the right not only to speak but also to put likes online and in this way show compassion” (E27). Comparing the current situation with 2020, they spoke about “two different universes” and the change of context in principle. “When some colleagues in 2022 started writing to me asking why we keep silent, I realised they simply didn’t understand the context. Over two years since 2020, the context has changed dramatically” (E27) in the following ways:
– what could have been a fine (or even a warning) in the past now means “immediate shutdown“;
– In 2020, one could record and publish a video appeal. “Today, if you put one like, you will be sent to jail for 15 days, in the best-case scenario”;
– what was punished with just days of arrest in the autumn of 2020 “now may have people imprisoned for years.”
“There have already been so many moments when it seemed like this is the bottom, and it couldn’t be like this under any law, but the bottom would still not be there” (E21).
The opportunities for creativity are shrinking. State-sponsored cultural institutions are turning into restricted-access objects that increasingly require “visible loyalty”, where, among other things, “spying and snitching” can flourish – “the word ‘delation’ is certainly something that symbolises the cultural process of our time” (E29). Repression related to conversation is on the rise. In the system of professional relations between a cultural worker and the management/authorities, the “can-can’t” balance has shifted towards “can’t.” Before 2022, “well, let’s give it a try” was still possible. In the second half of 2022, it became “it is no longer possible” (E23). The number of forbidden topics is growing – “you can’t express yourself about the [Ukraine-Russia] war at all.” There are fewer opportunities for performative statements – “If we compare it even to the summer of 2021 when you could mention a white square on the wall, it is clear that now there is no way you can mention anything” (E19). In 2022, the lists of “unreliable” figures were quickly drawn up in all fields of culture. The law about the register  became an additional obstacle between artists and spectators. “It was probably the main negative” (Е24). Since February 2022, another noticeable change has been a “visible expansion of Russian culture into Belarusian culture“. This trend deserves to be described in greater detail below.
“The Russian world is absolutely everywhere” (E4)
At least one in three respondents among cultural workers mentioned the topic of the increasing penetration of Russian culture into Belarusian culture. “Now the Russian world is coming”, “The influence of Russian culture is becoming clearer every year”, “this expansion is part of the general strategy. It is not only about culture… it is already strongly felt”, “it is the most terrible thing – the absorption of Belarusian culture by the Russian imperial culture”, “Russian expansion has now become more active”, “unfortunately, the Russia-Belarus circle is closing now in the sphere of culture”.
The wave of Russian culture is perceived more and more strongly in every field:
- literature – “I go into a bookshop and see what is going on there on the shelves: what percentage is occupied by Belarusan books, what Russian books and writers are there: Prilepin, etc. About a year ago, the situation on the shelves with Belarusian books was better. Now everything that could be taken off has been removed” (E32).
- theatres – “Endless tours of Russian theatres in Belarusian theatres” (E33);
- concerts – “Who is performing? Grigoriy Leps, some young lady with the kokoshnik on her head whom I don’t know… Russian singers and bands are all over the city’s playbills. (E33) “The same story in the Philharmonic Society: many Russian musicians are coming. This has never happened before” (E20);
- museums – “The first joint museum forum took place, resulting in 44 agreements signed by Belarusian and Russian museums. There will be exchanges of exhibitions, they will be coming” (E33); “officials from the ministry of culture or elsewhere were attending and told the organisers to remove many Belarusian writers from the exposition” (E20);
- cinema – “Russian pressure is undeniable here. We will not take Belarusian directors and camera operators, but we will take them from Russia and Georgia to make a film about the history of Belarus” (E36);
- exhibitions – “Russian artists have better exposure than Belarusians in the galleries. This is very wrong. This is unfair even by artistic standards” (E8);
- lectures – “There are more and more lectures about Mayakovsky, Brodsky, Tsvetayeva, etc. It feels almost like going out in Moscow. Events are more focused on Akhmatova than Kanstancin Bujlo or, God forbid, Arsienjeva” (E13);
- creative unions – “I read documents from which it becomes clear that they [creative unions: artists, designers, cinematographers, etc.] are forced to be absorbed by Russian unions. In other words, they disappear as independent Belarusian NGOs to become a structural subdivision in a Russian creative union” (E26);
- education – “Our best students who won school-level subject competitions could enrol with the best Russian universities without exams. That’s how brain drain to Russia is set up” (E16);
- urban environment – “In the sphere of aesthetics and architecture, I notice that the Russian aesthetics is increasingly penetrating the urban space” (E8). “They are even changing the signs. They remove the Belarusian signs and replace them with Russian ones” (E4).
- state-run media – “The Belarusian state TV is spreading terrible anti-Belarusian propaganda” (E10). As one of the respondents noted, “the balance between culture and media” has fundamentally changed in the sense that pro-governmental activists and propagandists like Volha Bondarava attack Belarusian national culture without impunity “under the aegis of Russification”. In the past, such rhetoric was only possible to a certain degree, as the state would have restrained it in many respects. It is unleashed now because it has “backing” from the Russian side.
“Today, proactivity is discouraged. The main thing is to fulfil the norm“ (E28)
State-run cultural institutions represent a vertical system in which the head gives tasks or orders top-down for “everyone to fulfil.” They are heavily self-censored. “You have to mind every step so that, God forbid, someone doesn’t see something or suspect some kind of anti-state sedition. However, nobody tells us what this sedition actually means, either.” They are very ideological. “The focus is on one theme only” – the WWII and genocide of Belarusian people during the war. “Those are the president’s favourite narratives.” “Recently, they created a theatre festival about the war and staged military plays.” The system is bureaucratised. “You must fill in a form for every item” and run purchase tenders. In cultural institutions, authorities continue to replace management with regime loyalists, including specially designated ideology officers. Both employees and employers are under pressure amid strengthened administrative control. “They have put their supervisors everywhere, that’s for sure.”
In 2021-2022, in-house ideology officers appeared in all cultural institutions – “they are vetting everyone for loyalty.” The position is called “deputy director for HR security, whose job is to oversee all the daily routines, etc. We understand perfectly well what he/she has to monitor” (theatre). “Supervisors from security services are now employed in state institutions as officers in charge of internal routines – that’s how they are called” (in an organisation from the academic music field). “This position is called in our institution as a vice-rector for security and HR” (in an organisation from the field of education). “There is Adolf, a nickname, at the film studio. They say he was all over the place in charge of everything. It was impossible to work”. “The vice-rector for ideology checks everything from the History faculty: scientific articles, reviews, texts for students, etc.” The chief ideology officer dismisses the undesirable, hires new people, monitors the activity of employees on social media, may cancel bonuses, approves reviews, calls for interrogations and conversations, for example, to find out whether the employee has changed views. “We know your views in 2020. Have they changed? This kind of stuff.” When hiring, this officer asks questions to identify the level of loyalty to the regime, namely, attitude toward the president and the state. “You are expected to declare that you are ‘For Belarus’ [pro-Lukashenka slogan] and not ‘Viva Belarus’ [protesters’ slogan]“. For example, such a person appeared at the end of 2022 at the Academy of Arts. “He built a partition in the middle of the corridor, taped the window with foil and called the professors individually. There were two sheets of paper in front of them. On one was a statement about the voluntary termination of the job contract. On the other was a statement that they agreed to provide any information at his request. Those who refused to sign the latter were ‘optimised’ and sacked.” (E40).
- Ways to put pressure on employees
- Ousters, demotions, and contract renewals for a few months and six months or up to one year, whereas in the past, the contract would be renewed for several years.
- Threats of dismissal or non-renewal of contract, cancellation of bonuses or salary increments, increased workload, etc;
- Disciplinary action (for being five minutes late for work on rare occasions), reports on employees, insults, admonishments, interviews;
- coercion to join pro-governmental trade unions – “It means a lot now if you are a member of such [pro-government] organisations as Belaja Ruś, Union of Women, trade union”).
- a requirement to sign an unbelievable number of “trash papers“: for example, a document that “we, as public officials, do not have the right (since when are professors called public officials?) to have bank accounts abroad, assist a spouse if he/she is an entrepreneur”; a document, which obliges employees to familiarise themselves with the list of extremist materials (“more than 500 pages”) and undertake to monitor all Internet resources to which they are subscribed;
- Dismissal and coercion to resign.
Targeted and massive dismissals of employees continue in state-owned cultural and educational institutions for various formally justified reasons. Unofficially, they just tell you: “You understand…” “Three years have passed since the 2020 events, but they are still hunting the disloyal people.” They are fired on various pretexts before the end of the contract, laid off or forced to quit: “I was called and told that they have no problems with how I work, but I have only two options: the first one is that I quit voluntarily; the other one is when the university is out of this” [getting fired with cause]. “Well, I chose the former.” (E27).
The interviewed cultural workers spoke about several waves of dismissals in their institutions, which, in one way or another, continue now. Based on the example of one institution in the higher education system, we can safely say that the first wave occurred in October-November 2020 and the second one – in late 2021. At the Belarusfilm film studio, the first wave was at the beginning of 2022, the second one – began in September 2022, and the third wave is happening now (the interview took place in the first days of June 2023). At the Academy of Sciences, the first “onset of repression” was in the autumn of 2020. “Recruitment was followed by fresh purges ” in October 2022. These things have continued there up to now.
Specialists from the cultural sphere were dismissed despite their professionalism, high competence, level of scientific knowledge and merits. They were fired for disloyalty, “for a photo, a statement… Some list arrives in the office, you are on this list, and that’s it. You are told goodbye.” Respondents voiced the following reasons for dismissal / non-renewal of the job contract:
– participation in the 2020 protests – “those who participated in the street protests and were exposed in this way or another”;
– a collective appeal on behalf of the professional community – “those who appeared in a video appeal”;
– a signature for Viktar Babaryka during his nomination as a presidential candidate – “I know for sure that they signed for Babaryka”;
– a signature against unfair elections – “she voluntarily put a signature against unfair elections either on Election Day or afterwards. They collected signatures somewhere at the polling station in protest against the fraudulent counting of ballot papers”;
– critical publications in social media – “Nowadays social networks are a source of evidence for persecution”;
– pro-Polish stance – “those who had or have favourable attitudes towards Poland”;
– pro-Belarusian stance – “Everyone connected with Belarusian culture in one way or another was fired. They are the people who can speak out against the Russian world, who simply say something undesirable and yet say something that can float on the springs, who simply say something unacceptable, something that can affect the Russian world in Belarus…”;
– refusal to join a trade union – “they sacked four or five people for not joining the trade union”;
– after administrative or criminal prosecution – “They took him and detained him for several days. He was dismissed for being absent from work”;
– after defamatory publications in pro-government media channels:
- Mukavozčyk’s article in Belarus. Today – “After Mukavozčyk’s article, the purges began… This article became the point of no return because the names were mentioned”;
- “after the publication in a marginal channel run by some idiots. They wrote some illiterate stuff, but hard and scary, with a lot of accusations”;
– delation within a professional community – “The workers of this institution write a delation that the person is a white-red-white supporter. The ministry has to react and fire that person”;
– in general, anything can be a reason – “And anything you could not even imagine in sound mind could be a reason to make a huge noise.”
Dismissal is not only about the loss of income and means of subsistence. People are also deprived of social housing if the workers are provided with it. For some, it may also mean deportation and a ban on profession in Belarus. A cultural worker dismissed “for politics” has no place in the system of state institutions as that person’s disloyalty to the regime will be indicated in the personal information file; a new potential employer will request such a dossier.
- Ban on profession: the “wolf ticket” and the lists of “unreliable” people
“Nowadays, even cleaners must pass the filter if they want to be employed in a state-run institution. No one will slip through the net. Only the ‘right’ people should be there” (E2). The personal information file from the previous employer and the lists of “unreliable” people serve the role of such a filter.
The respondents mentioned that the personal information file consists of two parts: professional evaluation and checklists filled in by special services. “The more ticked boxes you have, the less likely you are to get a job.” Employers may be willing to take you “with open arms”, but a negative evaluation, describing you as “a person inclined to carry on extremist conversations,” blocks the road to the job. There is a practice of “mutual cover-up” when the former boss takes responsibility for the loyalty of a former employee. If former bosses conceal something in the personal evaluation of the employee, they may be punished for that. One of the respondents mentioned that criminal liability for the HR officer was introduced at a state-owned enterprise to ensure that anyone involved in some administrative or criminal cases or found on stop lists does not get through. “They don’t hire you now simply because they don’t know who you are. But if you already have a bad record, everything is clear.”
Dismissal with political connotation, most likely, also means a “ban on the name” of the fired professional. “Such a person is unlikely to be invited to an even authorised event, school, or conference.” “Moreover, if you dare to come anyway, they will lock you out“.
“A person can be banned as an artist. My name is banned because it promotes my art” (E40)
Blacklists are a practice affecting both the state and independent cultural sectors.
The lists of banned cultural figures is a return to the practices widespread during the Soviet times. There is a difference, though: in the past, such lists mainly included musicians and dissident writers; today, they cover a full range of creative professionals. “The stop lists are everywhere.” “People call them “blacklists”, but I think the official name is the “unreliable persons” (E33.) Respondents said that there is no one comprehensive “register book” and that no one has ever seen these lists. The ones that appear in the public space from time to time rather arouse scepticism. “Because the real lists do not get in the public domain”. No one knows exactly what they look like or in what form they exist. Still, no one doubts that they exist. The interviewees mentioned that the lists have grades – “first line and second line”, “black and grey”, “one group and another group”, “there are two lists”, “whether it is one blacklist or a whole set of blacklists is hard to say.” However, in this case it was more about the lists regulating employment/non-employment or the lists of persons for dismissal. If you are on the ‘first line’ list, “you can’t get a job anywhere.” The ‘second-line’ list means “you get a job, but you can’t do anything there.” “These blacklists have several grades: if you are a public servant, your signature for any of the alternative candidates in the elections is enough to lose the job. If you are a janitor, they will likely have a calmer attitude towards you” (E29).
“Irina Vladimirovna Driga is the chief specialist responsible for ideological work at the Ministry of Culture. All the lists go through her phone … Somehow she succeeds in controlling everyone and everything …”. Roughly speaking, now the Ministry of Culture indeed records everything that happens in the field of culture related to other spheres: education, information, etc. “Now, for a song to be played on the radio, it feels as if it has to be approved by Ms. Driga personally – do you know her? Well, this is a new bottom we have reached” (E10).
One of the consequences of the protracted nature of the repression of cultural figures and the regime’s relentless pressure on state institutions and civil society organisations is the “normalisation” of what is happening. “I mean you’re like: Oh, well, you’re in home confinement. well, okay. You got a fine? Well, okay; it stops surprising you” (E37). “Oh, you have not been allowed to exhibit? Well, it is the routine of art life” (E21). Along with the emergence of a “new norm”, there are such processes in the sphere of culture inside Belarus as deprofessionalisation of the state sector and horizontalisation of independent culture.
- De-professionalisation of the public cultural sphere/reduction of product quality/crisis of the system
“Practically everything is done to fulfil an order and show off “ (E28)
Mass dismissals of highly professional specialists and difficulties in replenishing the staff, decrease in the number of motivated employees, destruction of professional infrastructure and deterioration of working conditions (including those related to the breakdown of contacts with Western institutions), all new changes and tasks set by the state before cultural institutions lead, on the one hand, to profanation and surrogate culture (with some exceptions) when the delivered product is “a fair of unskilled artists”, a compromise and interior art. One of the main long-term threats is the disruption of specialists’ competences, and the transfer of experience and knowledge.
- The hermitical nature and horizontalisation of the independent cultural sector
“Independent culture cannot express itself in Belarus“ (E30)
There are very few alternatives left for independent culture. We can see a return to the “strategies for exhibiting art that were in place during the Soviet era” (E21) – house concerts, exhibitions and gatherings at private flats. The art life went into a “silence mode,” becoming more intimate and less public.
“Many people who stay in Belarus work under pseudonyms – it doesn’t matter whether in Belarus or Europe. This leads to the horizontalisation of the career, i.e. it’s as if you start losing your social capital. Your career is displayed on your CV, but it’s not displayed in the community. That’s the more difficult part. Sometimes, you can work on the same project with someone and not know you are friends. You don’t know you’re working on the same project” (E40). Self-censorship and anonymity, the inability to talk about your work (except through word of mouth) lead to the disappearance of cultural figures from the radar, the scattered networking, the breaking of networks – “it’s excruciating and scary.”
“There is no competition or visual experience because not everyone can attend professional festivals. Moreover, they don’t bring anyone here from abroad. And there is a fear that we are closing ourselves within our home party. When I say ‘we’, I also talk about the audiences who need visual experience” (E19).
“What we need is impossible” (E20)
Cultural workers from the state and independent cultural sectors spoke about at least two watersheds between Belarusians: “friend – foe” and “those who left – those who stayed.” From this comes one of the demands, one of the possible ways to help those who live and work in Belarus today.
“Friend – foe” is the division between cooperation or non-cooperation with state institutions. “I would very much like to see the myth debunked that the “state” in Minsk is now a system where only pro-regime people are left, who want to destroy even more from inside. These people need air very much now” (E40). “Both graphomaniacs and genius authors participated in protests. The same story is now: good authors and graphomaniacs remain in the state-owned organisations. It is important not to divide people only based on some external facts but to look at the essence of their actions“ (E17).
“Those who left – those who stayed”: The respondents referred a lot to the topic of the breakup/split/confrontation/division of Belarusians and the absence of a bridge between those who left and those who stayed, about mutual offences and accusations, disputes, misunderstanding and condemnation. “It is such a painful moment” that “players” from both sides add oil to the fire. The main reproaches to those who stayed in the country are that they are collaborators and traitors and that nothing is happening inside Belarus, that now all cultural life is outside the borders of Belarus, “which is not true.” “There are many wonderful people left here, for whom I do what I do“ (E21). “We, people of culture from completely different fields, sometimes meet each other somewhere and feel surprised that we are here. And then it also turns out that you or someone else turns out to be doing something here” (E19).
Along with the requests “to be friendlier to creative workers at state organisations” and “stretch hands to each other, especially in the field of culture”, there were also requests to the community in diasporas to provide moral support and tell people abroad that “that not all people are the same here” – there are those who do not support the war and continue to do good important projects; to be the voice of those who are forced to be in the silence mode. “Artists and the art community in general, any art community that is abroad right now, should very well understand that these statements that they are making now, that are related to politics or the war in Ukraine, they should understand that they are not speaking out on their behalf, they are speaking out on behalf of us” (E21).
It is crucial to maintain the diplomatic community so that cultural workers can have an opportunity to travel and exhibit abroad and “be able to shed this mental pressure”. Options should be given to as many artists as possible to create art statements outside the country so that the Belarusian agenda does not get washed out from the European media and the negative image of Belarusians in connection with the war in Ukraine is overcome. “It is important not so much for the art community per se but for the whole society of Belarus” (E21). At the same time, cultural workers should be allowed to remain anonymous. “There is hostility towards Belarusians who remain anonymous and do want not to show their faces” (E40).
It would be good to somehow include them in the context of visual experience and exchange and connect people. “We are all scattered and disconnected. Someone is in Georgia, someone is in Vilnius, others are doing something in Warsaw. It would be good If we could somehow connect more” (E19). There is also a need to deal with the development of civic education and higher education to establish a professional development system outside Belarus so that conferences could be held and there would be an opportunity to publish. These things should be detached from the political agenda. “Otherwise, this will be a one-way ticket.”
- For security reasons we do not disclose the names of the respondents. “E20” means “expert 20”; hereinafter in the text the authorship of statements in indicated in the same way.
- The conversation took place 1.5 months before Aleś Puškin’s (Ales Pushkin) death in prison.
- Artist Aleś Puškin (Ales Pushkin) was detained in March 2021 over the portrait of anti-Soviet partisan Yaŭhien Žychar and sentenced to five years in a penal colony.
- Pro-government artist Sviatlana Žyhimont.
- An attack on a Russian A-50 at Mačuliščy airbase near Minsk
- Register of organisers of cultural and entertainment events.