2020 marked the beginning of a new, tragic page in the history of Belarus, a state geographically situated in the centre of the European continent – its advantage and curse. That year’s massive anti-regime protests ended up with at least 13 deaths and around 1,500 politically motivated imprisonments. Fearing repressions and revenge, between 300,000 and 500,000 were forced into exile.
However, the rage of the self-proclaimed president running the country for almost 30 years was directed not only at those speaking up against him – for decades remaining Putin’s ally, Lukashenko has been undertaking systematic steps to eradicate his own country’s mother tongue and fighting independent culture development. ‘Nothing great can be expressed in Belarusian, it is a poor language,’ he claimed in one of his public addresses, himself speaking with a heavy accent. ‘Russian language is a blessing for all of us!’ The absurdity of the restrictions introduced is manifested in the fact that now the history of Belarus is taught in schools in Russian.
Against the backdrop of a steady closure of Belarusian-speaking schools – a trend accompanying Lukashenko’s office since 1994 – after the 2020 crackdown virtually all independent Belarusian media, publishing houses and NGOs have been either declared extremist or forced into closure or exile. One of them was the Francisak Skaryna Belarusian Language Society. Named after the first book printer in Eastern Europe, a Belarus native, it used to be the oldest public organisation in the country.
At the same time, as some of the most active intellectuals as political immigrants now live in Georgia, Poland, Ukraine, Germany and other European countries, Belarusian culture continues fighting for its place under the sun. The voices that speak about its rich past and current challenges can be heard in different parts of the world and, with the support of sympathetic publishers and media workers, books and photobooks in the Belarusian language and on Belarus-related topics find new readers.
Today, I would like to draw your attention to three of them, all of which, in my opinion, highlight in their own way different dimensions and states of being a Belarusian: a nomad looking for their own stolen motherland and its history.
Where is Your Face? Diary 2020–2023 by Anastasia Rydlevskaya (in Belarusian)
A former literature teacher Anastasia now lives in Gdansk (Poland) where, in her own words, she has turned into ‘a full-time artist’. But to define her expertise this way is to say nothing: the young woman rather follows the traditions of good old Belarusians in the vein of the Renaissance person Francisak Skaryna himself – she shoots music videos, sings and records albums, paints canvases, creates installations and publishes art books. All combined in a single synergic statement of the search for beauty, fragility and truth.
Where is Your Face? (2023) is Anastasia’s debut paper-child, and while flipping through its bright pages with surreal theatrically staged photos and philosophical statements, you cannot avoid getting swallowed by her unique universe. However, those created (or rather revealed) surrealities seem more easily explainable than the reality of today’s junta-ruled Belarus. Anastasia’s world is populated with white poppies growing out of exhausted pupils, lions turning blue from the tears they absorbed, the omnipresent forgiving sun, homes sliding away and long-desired transformations.
Two pages from Anastasia Rydlevskaya’s artbook Where is Your Face? Diary 2020–2023 (Ekopress and Free Belarus Center)
Every state Anastasia depicts wears its own colourful handmade mask that appears to play two roles. It both covers the artist’s face and helps visualise complex emotions many Belarusians have experienced after 2020, having left their friends, colleagues and family members in prisons. Her metaphors, however surprising they might seem, appeal to the collective subconscious – caring but now helpless hands, grieving eyes, grinning faces, wounds of nostalgia and tired feet running towards the promised rest. The inspiration drawn from the celestial bodies – many masks take specifically these shapes – refer to the pagan roots of the ancestral Belarusian religion that was pushed out of the Belarusian lands during the forced conversion to Christianity by Kievan Rus rulers.
Anastasia’s hand-written notes and sincere reflections make her dialogue with the sun and the moon look almost routine; the artist seems to be talking to them the same way she talks to her mother she was forced to leave in Belarus, asking them for consolation and comfort in exile.
Minsk, the City I Miss by Julia Cimafiejeva (in Belarusian and German)
Another printed project to which I would like to bring the attention of Belarusian and foreign audiences is a book conceived at the crossroads of photography and poetry, the two media poet Julia Cimafiejeva feels comfortable with. Minsk. Die Stadt die ich vermisse, as the German title puts it straight, tells the writer’s story about the city she, like hundreds of thousands of other Belarusians, had to leave behind after 2020. The city that now remains in our memories only. The city that we will never be able to see the same way again.
In the preface, Julia recalls that the photos included in the selection were made between 2016 and 2020 – the period she describes as ‘careless and melancholy, filled with emptiness and anticipation, sad and at the same time bright’. Back then, we were still living under Lukashenko’s regime, but at the time he didn’t see arts and culture as a threat so these spheres experienced little pressure, unlike in the 2020 elections when Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of Belarusian YouTuber Sergei Tikhanovsky, ran for presidency and won the most votes. Living in our own more or less predictable bubble, we Minskers felt our city was peculiar, but welcoming. Exactly as Julia puts it – built somewhere between the oppositions of the post-Soviet weirdness, and hopes for change.
Black and white (or grey?) images alternate with ones in colour, a method rarely used in conventional photobooks. But Julia’s is a different one. Her nostalgic monologue is a confession of complicated relations with the city she grew to love and hate. Thus, like with any other uneasy couples, the memories they share are both good and worrisome. Her foggy, almost timeless, grey-and-white Minsk promises invisibility, it allows to merge and blend in, to observe and collect. Her colour photos, on the other hand, can dream and sing. Through night lights and blurred focus, they illustrate Julia’s poems – for example one dedicated to a Minsker’s love of the streets. ‘The street lies face down / and while pedestrians trample it with their feet / cars press it with their wheels / the street keeps singing its quiet, tender song / somewhere deep down / beneath the asphalt.’ After all, deep down all of us are like the streets – we combine bitterness and lulling nostalgia and preserve the memories of our childhood and youth, songs we never knew how to sing but could recognise immediately.
Two pages from Julia Cimafiejeva photobook Minsk, the City I Miss (Edition Fröhlich/Regelindis Westphal, Berlin, 2022)
‘Why was I able to direct my camera / at an ordinary heap of rubbish /on a Parisian street / and capture it? And why did the spot / I was aiming at / in Minsk turn out to be empty / and clear in the shot? / What was it that I missed there?’ the poet wonders in one of her poems. And this image of emptiness she had anticipated years before the exodus of Belarusians does feel as the most tangible, blanket one. We had to leave behind our houses, empty our rooms of disillusionment, but now, three years later, we have learnt to read the silence because in our poems even blank spaces between the lines can speak.
Whisper by Siarhiej Leskiec (in Belarusian)
Whisper is the name of another important work from a Belarus author, this time addressing the topics not directly related to the recent political events. In two years, the book has been republished twice, and now can be found in travelling collections of virtually every emigrant from Belarus – another reason I decided to include it into my essay. The author of Whisper, documentary photographer Siarhiej Leskiec, started approaching the idea of his project more than a decade ago. Moving around remote villages, he was collecting stories and sketching a social practice unique not only in our lands, but also in the world – the healing whispers.
Long before the introduction of Christianity, healing through special prayers (‘shept’), as well as herb- and water-based rituals had been an indispensable part of Belarusian folk culture. In the Soviet period whisperers were persecuted and labelled as ‘damn witches’, however, despite all the hardships, they miraculously survived. Somehow ironically, the factors compromising their future nowadays are more trivial: the whole universe of mystic pagan rituals is gradually disappearing due to urbanisation and globalisation. Having always felt a special connection to his country’s heritage, Siarhiej took up the task of preserving it using the tools available to him.
The book brings together rough field notes made during his trips around the country, and first-person accounts – fragments of the stories the whisperers (or ‘babkas’ as they are called in Belarusian) shared. Sometimes we are even allowed to read the very texts of their spells – all in local dialects, familiar to many Belarusians from childhoods traditionally spent at grandparents’ in the countryside. The visual part of the compilation is presented through portraits – all compositionally similar, with the elderly women sitting or standing in front of the lens. All composed, all serious and concentrated, focusing their healing powers only they know the origins of.
Two pages from Siarhiej Leskiec’s photobook Whisper (Warstat Vilma, 2022)
However different they may appear, all three books address closely related topics. In their own way all three articulate the necessity of remembering: one’s country’s past and traditions, one’s personal battles for a better future, and one’s losses. But, from a historical perspective, what is actually a loss? Every honest attempt to confront injustice is already a victory, because whatever face it takes, the enemy is always the same. It is people’s disregard for the fragility of life.
 Translated by Olga Bubich.
Belarusian essayist, photobooks maker and reviewer, translator, photographer, lecturer, and curator.
Born in 1980 in Minsk, Belarus. Graduated from Minsk State Linguistic University, English Faculty, majoring in English, Italian and English, American and Italian literature (1997–2002), have BA and MA (2002–2004). Worked on the Ph.D. thesis in Pedagogy. As a freelance journalist collaborated with Belarusian, Ukranian, Russian, British, Georgian, German, US and Swedish online and paper-based media. Has taken part in more than 20 solo and group exhibitions. Is the author of two photobooks related to the issue of memory and 'counter-memory' art activism. Personal site: bubich.by.
Photo by Andrey Dubinin