Issue 3/2017 - Das Imperium schlägt zurück?

Good Universalism

A View From/Of Belarus

Olga Shparaga

Belarus, frequently described as “Europe’s last dictatorship,” is often reduced to nothing but this catchphrase. This text will address the country within a shared European context; in other words, it will seek a different, more productive way to talk about Belarus. I shall argue inter alia that the field of art activist strategies in Belarus is comparable to that elsewhere in Europe and indeed worldwide. Although there are clear differences in the political circumstances, state violence against citizens is still the central problem in Belarus, in contrast to other democratic countries.
I believe that the common features of art activist strategies, which I shall refer to below as good universalism, are strongly linked to the dividing lines that currently run through society. The first of these dividing lines could be termed the opposition between nationalism or nostalgia for nationalism on the one hand, and sensitivity to diversity on the other. The distinguishing feature of this opposition is that nowadays these two opposing poles are in a sense universalized: both activist practices that take diversity seriously and nostalgia for nationalism are no longer merely local phenomena, but assume concrete forms and are reinforced beyond national borders. In this context, the second pole of this opposition, nostalgia for nationalism, could also be described as bad or regressive universalism. This antithesis polarizes society today, not just in Belarus, but around the globe, and at the same time debilitates “civil societies” both in Belarus and elsewhere.
I shall first examine bad universalism in greater detail, and will subsequently draw on some examples of art activism from Belarus to discuss the potential of good universalism in Europe and globally. Alana Lentin and Gavan Titley’s The Crises of Multiculturalism: Racism in a Neoliberal Age, which analyzes “bad” and “good diversity,” has prompted this examination of good and bad forms of universalism.1

Polarized Societies
Bad universalism is expressed in universalized nostalgia for nationalism, which is manifested in authoritarian populist politics and the emergence of new forms of xenophobia. A Europe-wide survey from 2016 demonstrated that “authoritarian-populist [...] views […] can be subsumed under other positions that are hostile to immigration and human rights, and opposed to the EU institutions.”2 Furthermore “the traditional division into right and left has been replaced by a much more complex and trenchant mix of political groupings”3; I shall refer to this here as the asynchronicity of the present.
Bad universalism emerges in opposition to good universalism. Thinking of the current situation in the USA, we could conclude that the slogan “Make America great again” was perhaps also coined in response to consolidation of the human rights agenda, including recognition of LGBTQ rights or women’s rights. One consideration that would lend support to this interpretation is that Donald Trump hardly ever uses the term “human rights” in his speeches, while the slogan “Make America great again” has spawned a host of counter-interpretations, such as “Make America gay again,” “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” etc. American political scientists also refer in this context to a polarization of US society.4 The most decisive factor is the mutual sense among various groups or advocates of differing values that their opponents embody enemy stereotypes. As a result, we seem to be going round in circles, with each stance that is adopted provoking the opposite camp. This is a global phenomenon. As a result, supporters and opponents of nationalism in various countries are uniting (as once the proletariat did), and are finding their own positions corroborated beyond the borders of their local communities.
Does that mean that we find formally identical strategies in the two sides of this opposition? In other words, are we confronted with formally identical phenomena that cut across borders? Before addressing this question in greater detail by considering several examples from the Belarussian context, I would like to characterize the idea of a dividing line in more concrete terms, in other words, the line separating various communities’ distinct perceptions of time, which can be encapsulated in the term asynchronous present.

Overcoming the Fictitious Unity of the Present
US Slavic Studies scholar Nancy Condee identifies the main pre-requisite for the “asynchronous present” in a specific form of migration within the post-Soviet area in the 1990s that involved former Soviet citizens from a range of ethnic or inter-ethnic backgrounds. This signified a mutual deterritorialization “now simultaneously of émigrés from land and of land from would-be citizens”5 that “marked a decisive break in the familiar coordinates of space and time.” This deterritorialization subsequently evolved along several different lines, giving rise to the aforementioned asynchronicity. Turning towards Europe thus necessarily assumed an ambiguous form too. There was a tendency to be guided by the past, looking back to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (from the 13th century) and the Polish-Lithuanian Rzeczpospolita (from the 16th century), interpreted in terms of national statehood, in contrast to the present-day universe of the European Union, which is centered around the idea of a post-national Europe. Although a Europe-oriented approach is a typical hallmark of civil society in Belarus, this tendency to look to the past simultaneously led to a rift that was instrumentalized by the political regime, and which correlates to the aforementioned dividing line.
Could it not be said that nowadays similar processes occur across the entire European area and indeed worldwide? I am referring to globalization processes, including financialization, accompanied by contradictory viewpoints that grow out of multi-culturalism, as well as between generations, not to mention the erosion of the welfare state. The consequences of such processes have grown familiar: heightened social inequality and the aforementioned polarization between societal groups. Different communities are more closely interlinked than ever before on a fictitious level through electronic technologies, at the same time raising the question of alternative possibilities for social bonding.6
Despite new social and political asymmetries, it seems that an emancipatory potential is emerging in this respect in certain contemporary art practices. Rather than making pronounced reference to long (national) past histories and their purported essence, this potential is more solidly rooted in differentiated, networked experiences that can be connected across vast distances using modern technologies. This has increasingly hybridized individual and collective identities, as well as making the borders between communities more open.7
From a multicultural perspective, the focus is on how new normative and social practices or institutions are formed and spread within particular communities. In this context Davina Cooper underscores the threefold role of borders (of communities), which, first of all, create a geographical, socio-economic and cultural distance from the status quo; secondly, reinforce community members’ commitment to and familiarity with local practices; and thirdly fundamentally call into question the attractiveness of the status quo.8 This consideration can also influence critical citizens’ willingness to transform private or domestic spaces into public spaces by creating new social movements. One example is youth training on the topic of Aids with a focus on the entire community “based both on sharing [of experience] and [recognition of] similarities and differences, i.e. on not strictly exclusionary identitities.”9
How does this kind of cross-border dimension differ when it comes to nostalgia for nationalism rather than sensitivity to diversity? In the latter case, reference can be made to pluralization of community experiences, norms and practices. The border in this context connects various realms of experience, and points to similarities that do not entirely disrupt differences, yet at the same time highlight the status quo of discrimination as a problem.
The role of borders in nostalgia for nationalism is more defensive, involving distancing from certain practices and identities. These borders “incorporate” a particular community and do not allow any scope for a more nuanced appraisal of experiences interpreted as antagonistic (for example experiences connected to Islamic culture). A twofold homogenization is thus at play, and in this sense a regression too, making nostalgia the dominant form of synchronization (the longing for a time when differences were not decisive for self-determination).
Do art activist practices in Belarus embody the first of these strategies, contributing to resistance against the political regime and simultaneously serving as a blueprint of how societal polarization can be overcome or mitigated?

Local Narratives in the Plural
Over the past year and a half, a number of exhibitions, discussions, readings and performances that could serve as examples of good universalism have been organized in new art spaces (housed in former factories) and in open-air venues in Minsk, Brest and other cities in Belarus. Most of these were initiated by new and/or temporary art collectives. The range of themes tackled includes exclusionary treatment of migrants in Belarus and internationally, problems of social justice, the history of the Jewish community in Brest between the First and Second World Wars and during the Holocaust, experiences of mentally ill individuals in Belarus between 1941 and 1944, as well as the stigmatized topic of the explosions on the Minsk underground rail system in 2011, in which twelve people were killed and over 200 injured.
As part of the 2016 International Month of Photography, the LЁD collective, founded in 2015, presented the photo project Acquired Reflex. In the project description, the artists explain that the series constitutes an experiment in secret self-observation. The objective is to present situations “where it is impossible to determine accurately who or what chooses the strategy of our actions: ourselves or stereotype, habit, acquired earlier reflex.”10 The artists describe the background to the project in the following terms: “Our childhood has passed in a country that no longer exists, as there are no such values that belonged to it anymore. We grew up somewhere at the crossroads of epochs and came into the world of electronic impulses and capitalism. What defines the personal values from our common past and present history?”11 The photographs in the series depict both the collective as a whole and the individual artists in various private and public spaces that bear the traits of both the Soviet era and contemporary Belarus. The artists’ imagined sense of belonging vis-à-vis a spectrum of different social groups is presented in the images. The semi-static mode of representation allows viewers to establish some distance, in order to render their own perception of time more precise.
A further project that merits inclusion here is the interactive exhibition created by an informal education institution, the European College of Liberal Arts in Belarus (ECLAB), in the Cech art space. A group of curators, humanities researchers and students, also including myself, chose three thematic aspects to examine in this project. The first relates to the informal cultural community in Minsk in the late Soviet period, the second to a mapping project entitled Minsk, City of Women—documenting streets named after women—and the third addresses Jewish music in the twentieth century and representation of the Holocaust in feature films. These are all topics that receive scant attention in Belarus due to the pronounced ideological emphasis in state education and the nationalist slant of many independent initiatives. These issues do however play an important role in terms of respect for cultural diversity and discursive plurality in the past and present.
The aforementioned projects, which are also supported by ecological and urban planning initiatives, share a number of common features that point to strategies of non-fictitious synchronization of the present. Firstly, the key issue in this context concerns pluralizing versions of both the past and present. Historical multicultural communities serve as an important example, along with considered references to the Soviet era that view this period with a critical gaze, situating it in a continuum with the present, rather than simply rejecting it. Secondly, these projects seek to conceptualize cultural identities in specific social contexts. This affords protection against a certain type of romanticization and at the same time directs attention to the political and economic dimension. Addressing the topics of humiliation and the diverse forms that violence assumes plays an important role here, particularly in considering these phenomena from a general historical and contemporary perspective, and thus as a kind of universalization through synchronization of individual and collective efforts to overcome this traumatic experience.
Looking for new forms and instruments to work with documents, as well as chronicling individual or collective traumatic experiences and experiences of working through such traumas can all serve as synchronization instruments. These experiences are given local and global interpretations: as a result, they serve not merely as cultural, but also as social, economic and political factors. This is the only way to create the conditions needed to articulate new experiences and examine the contexts within which such articulations occur. Given that the issue is also to a large extent the non-homogenizing constitution of the past and present (and the violent consequences of homogenization), these strategies play an important role in making our society more democratic.


Translated by Helen Ferguson


1 Cf. Alana Lentin/Gavan Titley, The Crises of Multiculturalism: Racism in a Neoliberal Age. London/Chicago 2011.
2 Cf. “Umfrage – Nationalismus und Fremdenfeindlichkeit in ganz Europe verbreitet”, in: Die Zeit Online, 8th October 2016;
3 Ibid.
4 Cf. Russell Berman, “What’s the Answer to Political Polarization in the U.S.?”, in: The Atlantic, 8th March 2016;
5 Nancy Condee, “From Emigration to E-migration: Contemporaneity and the Former Second World”, in: T. Smith/O. Enwezor/N. Condee (ed.), Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity. Durham 2008, p. 239.
6 Cf. Manuel Castells, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture. Volume 1: The Rise of the Network Society. Oxford 2010, in particular Chapter 7, “The Edge of Forever: Timeless Time”.
7 Cf. on this point Boris Groys’ reflections on temporal or situational communities, “Comrades of Time”, in: e-flux journal #11, December 2009;
8 Cf. Davina Cooper, Challenging Diversity: Rethinking Equality and the Value of Difference. Cambridge 2004, p. 189.
9 Cf. Richard K. Caputo, “Multiculturalism & Social Justice in the United States: An Attempt to Reconcile the Irreconcilable within a Pragmatic Liberal Framework”, in: Race, Gender & Class, Vol. 8, No. 1, 2001, p. 174.
10 Acquired reflex;
11 Ibid.