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Konstanty Chodkowski

Belarus’ most progressive activists:
The “Zmahary”

Some consider them to be national heroes. For others, they are an object of jokes and ridicule. Sometimes they are depicted as Belarusian hard-liners, sometimes as nationalists and internet trolls. Meet the “Zmahary”.

It is a relaxing evening conversation in a small kitchen in one of those typical Soviet panel flats. It is located in the center of the eastern Belarusian city of Vitebsk. After another cup of tea, Irina, a young Belarusian student, starts telling the story of the “Zmahary” and their tradition. The word comes from Belarusian “змагацца”, which basically means “to struggle”, “to wrestle” or “to fight for something”. What they do is “Zmaharstvo” – “zmaharing”, or simply “struggling”. From their point of view, it means to do everything possible to reach the goal that everybody is dreaming of: to live in a free and independent Belarus. But a lot of people consider this phenomenon to be just one more example of democratic and powerless trolling, especially on the internet.

To be a “zmahar” means to disagree on the current authoritarian regime and to act against it in every possible way. This definition was also recently widespread on the well-known blog “1863x” as the “Zmahar manifesto”. It states: “We don’t want to adapt to, neither to serve this regime. We want to keep our lives under our control. We don’t want to live under any master. We need nothing more than dignity and freedom”.

A meeting with a “Zmahar”

Vova in the Center of Modern Art in Vitebsk (Photo: Marco Fieber)

To find those “Zmahars” in daily life is not that hard. We found Vova. At first, he seems to be a blurry mixture of an activist being politically crazy, deeply engaged, and alternative. But after some time the picture gets clearer. Vova is an ordinary guy, living in Vitebsk since his early childhood. He is quite young, seriously-looking, well-educated and experienced and just started to work in the local public museum. What is unusual about him is his consistent use of the Belarusian language, even when his friends are asking questions in Russian. That must be hard to maintain. This is especially the case for Vitebsk, where almost every local speaks Russian in everyday life.

Vova describes himself as a cultural manager, not as a political activist. “My life experience is centered mostly on organizing cultural or mass events across the town. Concerts, festivals and banquets – this is my daily bread”. So where is “Zmaharstvo” in this kind of activity?

In talk with the author (Photo: Marco Fieber)

Center of Modern Art in Vitebsk, Vova shows his workplace. The museum is located in the city center, in an old, tsarist building. At the first glance, it looks like a quiet and peaceful place. This impression changes when you enter the rooms. Every one of them is full of different kinds of tools and artwork, designed and arranged in different ways. Every corner is full of paintings, every wall full of colors. One can feel the atmosphere of artistic rebellion. In such a small and narrow place they managed to set up a well-organized art manufactory, several galleries, permanent exhibitions and even a showroom.

“We don’t want this city to be boring”

The whole place was established by Vova’s friends – other “Zmahars”. They have created it from scratch. All they had in the beginning was an empty, decaying building. Vova denies working for the state, he prefers the term with the state: “In the past few years I had to learn to cooperate”. But “to cooperate” does not mean “to give up”, he adds. It means rather “to choose a more effective and more constructive way of changing the reality surrounding us”. That is what he is doing, running a modern, European art center in the unfavourable Belarusian environment. No grants, no modern financing. Just a low-budget state institution. “It’s very tough work, but we don’t want this city to be boring. Every citizen has the right to consume culture on the same level as they do in Paris or Berlin”, he says.

“In Belarus you can do everything you want – but not politics”

Vova arranges a meeting with one of his friends. Vitaliy is a former political activist, persecuted by the regime in the past, now developing his entrepreneurship and acting together with Vova in the civic initiative “Vitebsk4Me”. Vitaliy welcomes his guests in his soon-to-be-opened bar arranged in an Irish-pub-style. But still, the atmosphere is very similar to that in the Center of Modern Art: a creative mess.

Sitting in his future pub: Vitaliy (Photo: Marco Fieber)

It has been a long way there. Together with his friends, Vitaliy was engaged in several alternative, leftist initiatives. Then he joined Aleksandr Milinkevich’s team for the presidential campaign back in 2006. After that, Vitaliy was subjected to political persecution. A few times he was temporarily arrested for illegal political activities. After these experiences, he decided to change his way of acting and became a professional manager instead of a political activist. Now, Vitaly sees himself as an artist and event manager. He invested his time and money to establish a constructive civic organization that has soon turned into a prosperous business. Many other “Zmahars” chose similar paths.

More than trolling

It does not take much time to recognize that “Zmahars” are also objects of jokes and ridicules, especially on the internet. One of the most popular jokes is the following: “How many “Zmahars” does it take to change a bulb? – None, because “Zmahars” cannot change anything”. This view refers to the stereotype of an oppositionist who is active mostly during political meetings and in social media. It displays an image of activists focusing on criticizing the current Belarusian authorities while not having competitive political ideas. Their activities are considered as primitive “political trolling”. But that is not the whole truth. The “Zmahars” have simply changed their strategy of transforming the society. What connects Vova, Vitaliy and many other “Zmahars” in Belarus is their strong will to make this country a better place to live.

Young artists from Vitebsk paint their latest artwork. (Photo: Marco Fieber)

It doesn’t matter if their activities are about establishing a cultural center or a prospering pub. All they are doing is focused on the idea of deeper change. That is “Zmaharstvo” itself – forming a new space for freedom and civic society, for real social development. In a country like Belarus they are forced to do this on their own. To be more effective, they need to put away all the classic methods of political fight. As Vitaliy says: “You cannot exist in a permanent state of war against the government. Sooner or later you will realise that you need compromises to make it all work.”


Konstanty Chodkowski is a journalist for Eastbook.eu and member of the Polish Geopolitical Association.



The background image is a derivative of "Belarus" by Marc Veraart, used under CC BY.