The past is alive
For a long time the concept of time has been distorted in Belarus. At the moment you cross the border into the Belarusian State you enter into another dimension. Rules of the past still prevail, as well as a lifestyle inherited from the Soviet Union. The present has been lost in the dust of the past. The country is covered with propaganda, advertising a social and prosperous state “for the people”, with abundant Soviet symbols and Victory day parades in the city of Minsk. This dust of the Soviet past is everywhere and as we breathe it, it gets into our lungs and makes us allergic, as pollen in spring. But when pollen just makes you sneeze and tears up your nose, this dust of the past makes for a worse disease, one that affects people’s souls. People become cripples when their souls are touched with fear.
When you ask the older generation how can they live and bear with what is going on in the country, most of them answer in similar terms:
“Nothing will change here, this rule will not change, they will never go away.”
“But why, then, do you not want to change anything?” I ask desperately.
People are afraid to lose their jobs and their last means of subsistence, and students are afraid they will be expelled from the university. This fear was inherited from our parents. People are used to obeying, to keeping silent and fearing authority. Perhaps the only way to loose this fear is to wait until one generation replaces the other, one that knew nothing about the USSR.
Dream state – state induced dreaming
Belarus itself is a paradox of time. It represents an independent state without a nation. It kept Soviet rules although there is no Union left. Reality there is more like a dream. Sometimes it seems that time was frozen in Belarus: the same symbols of the former empire, the same military parades, the same KGB, the same…fear. Only now the propaganda differs from Soviet times. Free from Communist ideology, it became more ‘creative’. City billboards, newspapers, radio, TV sets… after a month of receiving information in such a way, you’d be persuaded that there is no better place to live than Belarus – you’d hate the United States and the European Union, you would think that our big sister Russia betrayed Belarus by raising gas prices, you’d see parades on Victory Day and Independence Day and would think nothing else is happening in this country, or you wouldn’t believe in anything or in anybody anymore, as reality around you would appear too different from the images on the state television’s channels.
In the Soviet Union the society lived mostly in harmony with the ideology suggested by the leading party, there was no incongruity between the existing reality and the perception of this reality by the people. In Belarus it appears totally different. Most of the population understands that what is happening in the country is just low-grade propaganda. But to change it appears too difficult and people just try to escape from the reality, which is more like a dream. Some try just to ignore it, others find ways to immigrate: physically – to another country or mentally- to the internet. The government doesn’t want to understand that it actually just competes with time. It tries to impose on society its own perception of time and satisfy people with already created ideology and moldy style of life. But they forget that such ideology is already out of date. There is not any sense to compete with time, as it suggests many more opportunities for people than the government can cover with its “social benefits”.
Enter the Internet
The strengthening of authoritarian rule in Belarus happened at a time of rapid electronic media and internet communications development. And this appeared to be the only process which the government was not able to slow down and bring under its control. At the same time, forbidden newspapers were forced to seek ways of survival which led them to move to internet portals. When the traditional media in Western countries went through a process of transformation and the number of published newspapers began to decrease, a large number of Belarusian papers were already available online. Even the oldest and the most traditional Belarusian newspaper Nasha Niva (which had problems with publishing and distribution) appeared on the internet and soon became a very popular and always up-to-date source of information. If for the foreign media the switch to the internet was a natural way of technological development, for the Belarusian media the move was heavily determined by unfavorable conditions and government restrictions.
The internet was for a long time not just a source of obtaining free and unbiased information about events in the country, but also a space to discuss politics freely, which most people were afraid to speak about otherwise. Blogs became increasingly popular in Belarus (and in neighboring Russia as well), as in real life there is not much public space to express your opinion (or expressions of such can lead to certain problems). With the development of electronic media, blogs began to quickly play the role of traditional media, and their popularity sparked the beginning of the so called civic journalism. As Belarus today suffers from an information vacuum, the internet remains the only source of current and unbiased information.
National culture arises with new generation of Belarusians
The Belarusian national revival, which sought to increase national consciousness, was stopped in the middle of the 1990’s (with the election of the first pro-Soviet president, who is still in power). Since then, all aspects of Belarusian national culture were constricted by a systematical government policy. The number of Belarusian language schools has been decreasing year by year. National culture was replaced by a peasant-Soviet hybrid of state propaganda, with awful concerts “For Belarus” and mass parades on the streets of Minsk during the main state holidays.
But concurrently, the Belarusian language began to spread on the internet. Belarusian language sites and blogs on different topics continue to appear. For many young people it also gives the opportunity to express and realize their ideas. Here you can easily find people who already feel Belarusian, despite the government’s attitude to national culture. Most of them are people of a new generation who have never experienced life in the Soviet Union, and who do not recognize Soviet state symbols but only national ones which were changed in 1995. They don’t accept government propaganda and the semi-Soviet culture championed by state authority. It is too artificial and lost in time.
Young people have created their own culture, through Belarusian rock’n’roll, literature and internet sites like Generation.by (with its cultural and informational project). It is created by a team of young people who represent a new generation of Belarusians, free from the influence of Soviet past and the government view of the “ideal social state”. They write the story of their generation through news and articles about its people. They are modern, creative, and live up to date with the rest of the world, no matter how hard the government tries to isolate Belarus from external influences. They are people who want to find fulfillment in their homeland and despite the present condition in which they live, their perception of reality is much stronger than the illusion created by the state.
In a globalized world the internet helps Belarusians attain their national consciousness.
Volha is a Belarusian living in Prague.
The photo with the Soviet flag was taken by A.Liankevich. The remaining photos were taken by Julia Darashkevich.