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Yauhen Herasimenka and Olivia Kortas | 07.09.2016

The sound of suppression

Even though underground musicians usually do not attract large crowds, the authoritarian regime in Belarus suppresses them. Even two years since the legalisation of street music, artists are still afraid of the consequences of performing in public.

Sergej and Denis play music in the metro stations of Minsk to collect money for their studies and daily needs. (Photo: Olivia Kortas)

Nobody cares about the two young street musicians in Minsk's Jakub Kolas metro station. "Easy words, easy things", Sergey's warm voice echoes in the grey concrete tube. His fingers pluck the strings of a brown guitar, while his friend Denis starts to sing one of the many songs unofficially blacklisted in Belarus.

People in jeans, in high heels, in sweaters, with suitcases, in training pants, rush through the shadowy tunnel. They pass Sergey and Denis with blank faces, their strong eyes focus on distant points. They won't show a reaction, even if they like Sergey's and Denis' provocative song.

"Every time we start playing, policemen appear. They ask their questions: 'Who are you? What are you doing?' They tell us that it's forbidden to play here", Denis says. "Recently, we had to spend 24 hours in prison."

On 11 September 2016, parliamentary elections will take place. "Now the EU and the OSCE are watching Belarus. That's why the regime is pretending that democracy exists and that critical voices can be heard", says Ingo Petz, German writer and freelance journalist who has been extensively covering Belarusian culture since 1998. "The restrictions on the independent culture scene have become relatively looser recently. There is a high risk that this will change after the elections", he adds.

"Citizens in Belarus are not confronted with unpleasant topics"

After the presidential elections in 2010, the regime of authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko introduced a policy of strong suppression. Musicians who don't support the government face problems finding halls or even cafés for their concerts. "The purpose of these restrictions is to develop the Belarusian society based on neo-sowjet ideology and so indirectly ensure the stability of the political regime", explains Maria Davydchyk, Cultural Scientist and former consultant for the German Council on Foreign Relations on Belarus.. Belarus is her country of her origin, but tellingly she left over 10 years ago.

Street musicians have only been tolerated for two years. However they still don't want to show their faces on public photos as they could be recognised by police or authorities. (Photo: Yauhen Herasimenka)

In contrast, meet Sergey. The 18-year-old pulls the hood over his close-cropped hair. A small silver cross dangles over his bare chest. "At the beginning of the summer, a policeman put his arm around me and said: 'Let's go to my warm, comfortable car'", Sergey remembers. He had been playing Ukrainian and Belarusian songs, "they caught us when we were playing 'Warriors of Light'", the unofficial anthem of the Euromaidan. Sergey hides his hands in the pockets of his dark blue jeans. "I felt offended and disappointed. And one main question bounced around in my head: 'What for?'", he asks.

Cultural Scientist Davydchyk has an answer: "Due to the current restrictions, the majority of citizens in Belarus are not confronted with critical cultural and historical topics; they don't see protest or alternative opinions." Belarusian society is losing its possibilities to unite through independent music or media content as non-conformist concerts, movies or TV series do not exist.

In the view of the authorities, Vova Brovkin would definitely be called non-conformist. The singer and video-artist sits in a Soviet-style university canteen. He studies theatre at the Institute of Culture in Minsk. Brovkin wears an orange Reebok sweater and skinny jeans, his dyed hair is carefully styled. In the surroundings of his university, Brovkin talks in hushed tones. But in his YouTube videos his half-naked body flickers provocatively to the beats of his songs.

The Department of Ideology issues permits to perform concerts

Brovkin has experienced how the government's restrictive social construction affects the Belarusian people. "I've been beaten up a couple of times by the youngsters in my home town, I've been pushed, and punched in the face", the slim 19-year-old recounts. The play with sexuality in his art projects in particular has encountered intolerance. "They called me a faggot, said I should be killed, told me to stop producing my videos."

He adds: "I am different. This system forces people to be the same. And when somebody doesn't meet common expectations, people stop him. They don't understand or they are jealous." When Brovkin moved to Minsk to start studying, he couldn't escape the harassment. "My institute even invited me to the administration office. They told me that my art is shit, that I should focus on something else", he says, his brown eyes anxiously scanning the canteen.

The two singers were inspired by other street musicians a year ago. "After we tried playing on the street, we discovered our passion. We can't live without the atmosphere," Sergej says. (Photo: Yauhen Herasimenka)

Lukashenko's regime targets non-conformist young people in schools and universities. "They put pressure on people who are too outspoken or too active. So young musicians rebelling against the regime could theoretically be threatened with expulsion. In the past, a lot of young people were driven out of their universities", Petz explains. According to the journalist, the regime has achieved its goal. "Young people show pragmatism and either adjust to the suppression or move abroad. We can't blame them. Nobody wants to waste time behind bars."

Legislation is one of the most important means of suppressing non-mainstream culture in Belarus. On 5 July 2013, President Lukashenko signed Decree no. 257 on "Questions on the organisation and implementation of cultural events". Since then, organisers of concerts must apply to the Department for Ideological Work, Youth and Culture for a permit.

Blacklisted artists cannot play in public

For the permit application musicians must submit the lyrics of the songs they will perform. One example: "Our pianist and singer, Piotr Klujeu was asked to replace the word 'December' in a non-political song with 'January' or 'February'", explains Pavel Belavus, founder of the Artsiadziba cultural centre in Minsk. Back in December 2010, demonstrators against the presidential elections were beaten down and detained by the regime. "The government fears songs that refer to these protests", Belavus adds.

The office of the Artsiadziba is situated in a shopping mall. Here, Pavel Belavus is working together with young activists of the Minsk cultural scene. (Olivia Kortas)

Since he founded Artsiadziba five years ago, the government has perceived the cultural centre as an enemy. The current office is already the sixth place the team of young event managers have had to rent since the centre's inception. "Every time we moved to a new place, the owners were put under pressure to get rid of us", complains Belavus.

The cultural scene in Belarus lacks dynamism

With Artsiadziba, Belavus has tried to organise concerts of unofficially blacklisted musicians, those who have criticised the regime. "Some of them haven't played in public for five years", the cultural activist says. Most of these blacklisted musicians and bands provoked the regime in the liberal 90s.

"Back in the 90s, Belarus was a completely different country", Ingo Petz remembers. "I saw a sub-culture dynamic comparable to the West." What seems like progressive culture in Belarus nowadays looks like a copy of intellectual movements in EU countries. "When it comes to the development of a more vibrant Belarusian culture in the future, I am quite pessimistic", Petz admits. "But on the other hand, Belarusian culture has always had a very difficult position in history. Nevertheless it has always succeeded in adapting to new conditions and challenges."


Olivia Kortas is a German freelance journalist. She studied EU Journalism and now covers politics in Europe.
Yauhen Herasimenka is a Belarusian activist, currently studying Political Science in Poznan, Poland.