Identity Uprising in Minsk Yards Anna Vasilenka
Minsk is a city almost entirely built in the second half of the twentieth century as one large project with its own unique features of the urban environment, meeting the needs of Soviet reality and distinguishing it from its western neighbors. The scale of urban spaces, a clear functional-spatial division of the territory, the splendor and cleanliness of the streets - all this fit exceptionally well with the image of a city that had risen from the ashes of war. However, if earlier Minsk was suitable for its residents, now it became physically and morally old for citizens (Ilyashevich, 2018). I myself experienced avoiding the main square in the city, as it is a big empty grey square with the palace of Republic in the middle, which reminds me more of a sarkofag, rather than the place to hold some national events.
Nevertheless, those main squares and avenues of Minsk always served as a place of massive gatherings to protest the long-lasting regime of Lukashenko. As in every city, main squares serve best for such kinds of events, as it requires a lot of space for everyone. Unfortunately for Minsk, those public spaces were specifically designed unattractive for the public to avoid mass gathering and give people the feeling of insecurity. During Lukkashenka’s presidency, old established Soviet places became even more authoritarian and less people-friendly. Those places are now flourishing the great authoritarian achievements of the president and emphasize the importance of the Soviet Union in the past. No wonder, that such places were not attractive to citizens, together with the protests happening on them. No one wanted to go out in public and stood against the riot with no chances to defend or run away.
This year, mass protests took a different path to strike against the authoritarian government and raise their voice. Instead of going to the city center, people started to gather in the local neighborhoods, even in the yards of their own houses to meet the neighbors and walk around the neighborhood. Being close to home, walking on your own flexible small street felt much safer than to expose yourself in the mass gathering in the open air, surrounded by police and soviet heritage.
The sense of political center changed significantly after Belarusians got [started fighting for] a chance to experience and expose their own historical identity - not the one propagandized by the government, but the one which respects the human value, their historical background and traditions, the one that constantly fights for independence. The police brutality and disability of public places in the city squares pushed protests to local neighborhood which helped people to rebuilt their Belarusian identities.
What us Belarusian identity
Throughout the centuries Belarus been a part of Lithuanian, Polish and Russian Empires, for a little while it's been even under the German occupation. During many years Belarus had an opportunity to flourish as an independent Republic with its own culture, language and symbols. In the early 18th century Belarus was occupied by Russian Empire and was forbidden to use belarusian language, the process of ‘russification’ started in the territories of the republic. During the Soviet Union, Belarus also experienced a lack of national identity and russian language was much more emphasized in the country, because of the central government in Moscow. In the 1990s, when many post-soviet republics were on the way to establish democracies, Belarus took a very different part of development. This path included a dictator, very close connections and influence from Russia, rejection from the West, socialistic methods of government and anti-privatisation.
The collapse of the Soviet Union left Belarus with russian-speaking schools, russian media and partially, with russian identities. Since the election of 1994, the new-elected regime of Lukashenko “denied its typical for Central Eastern Europe way towards the nation-state model and restored a Soviet-style - nation-obedient-to-the-state’ with no separate national identity…” (Viacorka).
The constitutional changes after the Referendum of 1996 strengthened the authoritarian regime in Belarus, which had an immediate negative impact on Belarus–European Union relationship. Facing the possibility of political isolation from democratic west, Belarus practically had no choice left but got closer with Russia. “The authoritarian form of regime limits the role of the national identity in the state foreign policy making. On one hand, the revival of the soviet identity in Belarus was aimed to alienate Belarusians from ‘Europeanization’. On the other hand, it smoothed the planning integration with Russia. Therefore, national identity was a helpful tool that facilitated adjustment of domestic norms to the Russian-oriented foreign policy” (Nechuparenka, 2011). Alexander Lukashenka obtained diplomatic support for his candidacy from Russia during every subsequent election, through infinite assurances and endless agreements signed with Moscow for further political and economic integration between the two states. After Moscow had invested multiple diplomatic and financial efforts in the Russia-Belarus integration initiative, Russia was unable to afford the anti-Russian changes in Belarusian foreign policy following the elections (Nechuparenko, 2011).
Despite the strong influence of Russia and Soviet Union in the past, there is another, non-russian identity living among the belarusian population. This alternative identity is focused on national revival, the history with Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Poland, the first creation of independent Belarus in the early 20th century and belarusian opposition during the soviet times. Current opposition in Belarus is using those narratives to promote and remind everyone of the other part of other history, which is greatly dismissed or manipulated both by Russia and the official government of Lukashenko. This political culture of people is not congruent with the current political system. In the case of Belarus, two political cultures are fighting with each other: pro-russian one, which is heavily implemented by government and russian propaganda and belarusian one, based on historical roots and previous attempts for independence. The latter one, is actively pressured by the government by arresting and detaining opposition leaders, not recognizing national events and symbols and actively manipulating the historical events.
According to the latest census in 2009, 83.7% of Belarus population identified themselves as Belarusians. However, being Belarusian could mean different things (Viacorka). One would say that being belarusian means being educated in Belarusian culture and relate to it, other would say it is to be a Belarusian citizen. Besides Belarusian civic and ethnic identities, a notable part of the population identifies themselves as “Slavs”, “locals” or according to their religious denomination (Orthodox or Catholic). European identity is apparently more popular than the Soviet one, but significantly weaker than the “Slavic”. These identifications apparently compete with Belarusian identity, and potentially could become an object of manipulation, argues Viacorka.
How Lukashenka´s urban space influenced protests
Public space has never been seen as an important variable to understand why protests can not succeed in some countries. Belarus, as I will explain later, does not only have Soviet identity heirated in people, but in buildings, squares and streets as well. In this chapter, I will refer to Arve Hansen’s research (2017), that explained social and political elements of many public spaces in Minsk, including to main one used for protests: Nezalezhnastsi and Kastruchnitskaya squares.
Arve Hansen (2017) in his research on public spaces in the Soviet city argues that Minsk is a difficult city to protest because 1) it reflects Lukashenka and his achievements, as well as propagandist and official view of the history; 2) two main squares (Kastrychnitskaia and Nezalezhnastsi) are places most people tend to avoid, which makes the protests almost invisible; 3) the squares offer protesters little shelter or protection, it's hard to interact with each other, and they're easily monitored from the outside.
Minsk is well known for its 'Soviet' look, and the first visitor is struck by how much Soviet architecture has been preserved. The city is distinguished by large avenues, Stalinist architectural design, prominent red stars and Soviet slogans, massive squares and monuments to the victory of 1945 (Hansen, 2017). There are many explanations why Minsk was infused with such a Soviet identity, but the Great Patriotic War, which reduced the town to rubble, is perhaps the most important. This helped the Soviet architects to rebuild Minsk as an example of what the socialist experiment could achieve (Bohn 2013, 6). Besides the historic celebration of the heroes of Communism, the war became a major theme for the public spaces of Minsk, such as Lenin, Dzerzhinsky and Kalinin (Bohn 2013, 30).
A number of new monumental construction projects have been initiated since Lukashėnka came to power. The unfinished Palace of the Republic had been untouched at Kastrychnitskaia since 1984, when economic difficulties brought the project to a halt. In 2001, the building was completed after 17 years as a construction site and the square reopened. The National Library (2006), the Stalitsa shopping center on Nezalezhnastsi square (2006), and the new Great Patriotic War museum (2014), to name but a few, are even more grandiose projects. These construction projects are close to the monumental Soviet-brutalist style. It can be said that Lukashėnkian architecture continues the Soviet tradition of reflecting the progress and prosperity of the leadership of the country (Hansen, 2017).
Most big protests Minsk experienced in 2006 and 2010 were held on two main big squares in Minsk: Nezalezhnasti and Kastrychnitskaia squares. Kastrychnitskaya is the most geographically centered square in Minsk. The Palace of the Republic, where officially approved concerts and receptions by international delegations are held, is the centrepiece of the square. Lukashėnka has also been inaugurated there for four times since 2001. The city’s inhabitants like to call it the giant sarcophagus, because of its brutal but simplistic design – reminiscent of a giant coffin (Hansen, 2017). Kastrychnitskaya Square is an unwelcoming empty space made of concrete in front of a huge building called the Palace of the Republic (Barykina). The Palace, symbolically, is a monumentalization of the presidential body and a tool to make state power absolute. For authoritarian ideology, it is not necessary that the owners of the residence change (in spite of the desire of Lukashenko to envision himself in the residence forever by symbolically securing eternity for himself in the mausoleum) (Barykina).
However, the square is usually simply called 'Ploshcha', which is Belarusian for 'square.' The protestors distance themselves from the largely Russophone leadership by choosing a Belarusian word. At present, when opposition members say "We're going to start the Ploshcha," or "go out to the Ploshcha," they mean starting a big Kastrychnitskaia protest (Hansen, 2017). Despite these attempts to seize space and transform the association from the October Bolshevik Revolution to a popular revolt against Russia, the 2006 Ploshcha did not turn out to be like the 2004 Ukrainian Maidan, and the protests ended with massive arrests. 1500 people lost their jobs following the protests, 1200 were sent to jail, and 500 students were expelled from their universities. In contemporary Minsk, city space not only participates in power and ownership performances, but also acts as nostalgic condensations and embodiments of ongoing struggles. It is a "layered" space consisting of techniques for urban planning, official discourses, individual routine activities and personal ways to connect to and use urban spaces (Barykina).
Nezalezhnasti square - the symbolic name of the square is one draw for the opposition: Independance Square. “Yet, the perceived elements of Nezalezhnastsi are problematic. Despite its 1991 renaming from Lenin Square to Independence Square, Lenin is still present as a 7-meter-tall statue looming in front of the House of Government” (Hansen, 2017). Hansen’s (2017) respondent perceives the square as a constant struggle for independence from Lenin, more than anything else. Even as a place for political protests, the square has lost much of its value after Lukashėnka stripped the national assembly of political power.
The protest of 2010 was much more brutal than the protest of 2006. Until this summer of 2020, “Ploshcha of 2010” was considered the most powerful, though unsuccessful revolt of opposition. The two main squares of protest in Minsk, Kastrychnitskaia and Nezalezhnastsi, are linked by the residents of the city to the success of Lukashėnka and to the failed protests.
In summary, the perceived elements of Minsk seek to strengthen the official version of history and the Belarusian identity of the authorities. Lukashėnka and the Soviet past represent the vast majority of the principal features of the city. Be it the architecture; the reputation as a clean city; or the many monuments to people and events ideologically "correct".
What places are acceptable for a political mass demonstration is decided by the significance of being seen by the political authorities. It is considered a requirement to be in or in proximity to the political center. By occupying a space close to where political decisions are made, there is also symbolic value to be gained. This helps demonstrators to express that the space also belongs to them; that they represent the people; and that their job is not done by political institutions (Hensen, 2017). That is true that in the country with controlled media and abused power like Lukashenko, the only desire of people is to be closer to the physical buildings of power - the Administration, the Parliament. People only want to show the state apparatus that opposition exists and to engage as many people as possible.
After the presidential elections in August 2020, massive protests took place in the city center, protesting against the fraud elections and another consecutive term of Lukashenko. For the first time in the history of modern Belarus, no people were detained by riot police. After that, people continued gathering on Sundays protests against Lukashenka in the city center, but more and more people started to be brutally beaten and detained. That’s when Belarusians created a new tactic of massive gatherings to oppose the regime - gathering in their local neighborhoods, also known as “Yard Revolution”.
Identitiy uprising in urban yards
Despite constant threats from the government, every single Sunday many of thousands of people go on a protest against Lukashenka’s occupation of power, fraud election and police violence. For months, the violence of the police has been concentrated mainly in the city center, where the protest began in August, and where most Sunday marches often take place. Media outlets like Nasha Niva are now believed to have arrested more than 30,000 people since demonstrations started. Project “23.34” surveyed over 3,200 detention cases in the independent monitoring initiative, and one third of the respondents had been physically assaulted, most of them under the age of 30 years. In addition, 144 inmates remain in jail. Therefore, many of the demonstrations have shifted to local communities to transcend this trauma and still oppose state brutality (Global Voices, 2020).
In order to continue to protest and not be brutally arrested by police, people of Minsk and other cities in Belarus decided to gather in their own yards with neighbors and walk around the local neighborhood. Knowing the area gives people the feeling of protection, in case of a riot there is a place nearby to run to - your own house. Those small local gatherings transformed to something more than gathering, but shaped their own super local identities. Global Voices (2020) noticed that by organizing intermittent and decentralized acts of civic resistance, demonstrators are reclaiming urban space. Some are organized over the Dze.chat site, an interactive map showing local Telegram channels, the most common encrypted messenger service in Belarus. The project, inspired by urban blogger Anton Matolka, rapidly became an invaluable tool for local community self-organization. It was a natural continuation of the protest marches in the suburbs, which had never existed before in the new history of Belarus.
For 26 years, since Lukashenko came to power, the authorities have discredited the state symbols with which Belarus gained independence - white-red-white flag. But now very many people began to consider it theirs. For exactly the reason that governmental officials are trying to destroy every symbol of an independent country a while back, manipulate the historical facts and make the city landscape look like a small Soviet paradise, people are now using the white-red-white colors wherever possible. Coloring the fences, putting flags on the windows, wearing the ribbons, wearing white-red-white clothes, drawing graffiti. Every local neighborhood even developed their own flag, symbolizing the most important elements and history of their area. Local identity is, indeed, strong in Belarus, a society that for long was steeped in peasant culture proud of its local specificity (Global Voices, 2020). This new yard identity is not only a powerful source of resistance but also of self-governance: thanks to common sayings, online photos, these locations are now increasingly gaining public use.
Together with the local Belarusian community, whose consolidated position and support have become an influential factor in this year's never-ending resistance, all these true and natural grass-roots activities form a new Belarusian society. From low and local to high and national and even global, the process goes the way it should (Global Voices).
I dedicated my first chapter of the paper explaining what is belarusian identity and if it even exists. Being belarusian has never been easy, considering so many attempts to destroy our culture and traditions, together with any attempts to gain independence. Since Lukashenka came to power, our identity was again manipulated - instead of building a strong independent state and gaining experience of state building from other Post-Soviet countries, Belarus took a path of being totally dependent on Russia. Today, something truly incredible is being born in the yards of belarusian neighborhoods - a truly new meaning is being given to old white-red-white flags. It is now not only a historical flag of Belarus, but a symbol of solidarity, unity and resistance.
Protests in local neighborhoods give people a chance to claim their own urban space in the city. For almost 30 years the country was turned into an authoritarian paradise, praising Soviet leaders and flourishing great success of Lukashenka. Both main squares in Minsk were made badly for mass gatherings on purpose. Belarus is an autocratic country and there are many challenges facing the opposition, such as state-controlled media, a poor national identity and abusive state apparatus. Just two squares are broad enough to gather protestors and to be close to the political center at the same time. These two squares, Kastrychnitskaia and Nezalezhnastsi, present challenges to the opposition and reinforce the tactics used to remain in control by Lukashėnka. This year, opposition used their own new tactics -- instead of an open protest in the main streets and squares, people started to revolt much more locally in the yards between the houses, that gave them the flexibility, mobility, security and much better communication between each other.
Belarusian identity was manipulated by the government for too long, now it is time to not only remember what are the origins of the nation, but to build something much greater and unique on its foundation.
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