Cultural Policy in Forced Exile
The Belarusian Council for Culture helps artists, creates conditions to preserve their achievements, finds resources, and promotes “invisible” work.
From Revolution in Belarus to a Festival in Portugal
“It was important for me to do something for the revolution. I joined a poetic video project where the idea was to create art videos and include texts written by contemporary Belarusian poets”, says Masha Kruk. “After one week of work, I returned home at two or three in the morning. At seven the same morning, the criminal police came after me”.
The video was a sketch about the fight for rights and freedom in art. The police detained her and saw on her smartphone a lot of information that could be dangerous for other team members, including backstage pictures from the shoot. As Kruk, the project’s producer, explains, the police considered the content to be offensive and tried to find the contacts of other team members.
Among them was the director Dasha Brian. “When Masha was arrested, the second producer immediately called me”, she says. “In a very quiet, passive-aggressive voice, he said that I, as the director, would most likely be the next target. I needed to hand over all the materials to a friend I trusted, he said, and spend the night out of my home. Mentally I was ready to leave, and I had a visa. It was brought from the embassy on the day of Masha’s arrest”. Kruk says that most likely Brian and the second producer сould have ended up in prison within a couple of days if they had not urgently fled Belarus for Poland.
After relocating, Kruk and Brian created a project called Revolution, dedicated to the events of the 2020 uprising in Belarus. After Russia’s full invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, they extended their agenda by addressing refugee issues and human rights concerns. Now the main team of the project includes ten people, nine of them women. There is also a larger team of freelance participants who join film shoots or exhibition installations.
“Our task is to inspire and unite through creativity and art those people, who continue to fight for rights and freedom”, Brian and Kruk have written.
Currently, the Revolution project organizes exhibitions and screenings, art discussions and parties, workshops, and fundraisers in support of Ukraine. The team collaborates with galleries and museums, and it continues to make films.
“We are already known in Poland, but the goal is to promote the project further”, says Kruk. “We won a travel grant to go to Portugal for a festival where world-class works are gathered. During the festival, we had the opportunity to showcase one of our films and discuss the project”. This was the week-long FEST festival of cinema, music, television, and show business.
“Two Years Ago, the Organization Was Dreaming of a Resource Center”
The travel grant was from ArtPower Belarus, the largest project of the Belarusian Council for Culture, implemented with the support of the European Union and the Danish Cultural Institute. The organization was established in October 2020 as a fund for cultural solidarity and renamed later. Its goal is to preserve and develop Belarusian culture.
“Two years ago, the organization was dreaming of a resource center. And now it has been implemented, and we have a physical space in Lithuania”, says Nadzeya Haretskaya, internal coordinator of the organization.
She explains that the Belarusian Council for Culture took on the responsibility to support cultural actors in Belarus and beyond to preserve, develop, and promote their achievements. This becomes possible when the organization accumulates resources, creates mechanisms for international promotion, and helps people come together to advocate their interests.
The resource center issued its first call for applications for support in the spring of 2023 and received 216, for a total request sum of €7.2 million. Twenty-two applicants received support, with €485,000 distributed among them. A second call was issue in the summer and 12 out of 93 applications for mini-grants were supported to the amount of €50,000 in total). Thirteen applicants out of 27 also won a professional travel grant.
The applications were evaluated by experts, who considered about half of the projects to be excellent, Haretskaya says. “It was incredibly interesting to feel the pulse of modern Belarusian culture”, says one of the experts. “The applications were different: some were solid, thought-out from beginning to end, others were more dreamy”. Another expert comments: “The applications had a different degree of sophistication, but the palette of initiatives was certainly impressive”.
Among the supported projects is the Belarusian Youth Hub in Warsaw, a student organization that implements cultural and educational projects. The Tutaka Foundation also received funding for the Festival of the Awakened TUTAKA, which took place in July near Bialystok, on the site of the legendary Belarusian rock music festival Basovishcha.
When raising funds for culture, according to Haretskaya, the main task is to be able to explain its role, and to avoid doing so on a residual basis after the military industry, medicine, and education have been funded. Since 2020, the Belarusian Council for Culture has been collaborating with political actors, such as Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s Office, to carry out this work. In 2022, one of its results was the allocation of a EU grant of €2 million for the ArtPower Belarus project.
“Two years ago, donors were funding mainly the NGO sector, media, and politics. In 2022, for the first time, culture was included in the priority list for EU funding”, says a representative of the organization. During 2020–2022, it raised €939,000 to finance projects and provide assistance, which was not easy.
“We Are Doing Work That Is Not Immediately Noticeable”
The Belarusian Council for Culture initiated the Belarusian Culture Days in 2021, and various initiatives have embraced the event since then. In 2021, it lasted a whole week and was held in 19 countries under the slogan “Culture is stronger than a dictatorship”. In 2022, there were 125 events in 16 countries all over the world. In 2023, the Belarusian Culture Days was organized under the slogan “Speak Belarus” to tell the world about the country’s history and present, together with what Belarusians are proud of.
These activities are not the main work of the organization, however. “Belarusians ask us to talk about projects in Belarus or show concerts we organized. We don’t do concerts—we are looking for resources so that others can do it”, explains a representative of the organization. “We took on a responsibility that no one liked, and we are doing work that is not immediately noticeable”.
A significant part of work done by the Belarusian Council for Culture is invisible: the creation of a new policy to preserve and develop cultural heritage, Haretskaya explains. This includes daily communications, producing policy documents, and negotiations.
For example, a representative of the organization was included in a meeting in Brussels in which the high representative of the EU for foreign affairs and security policy participated. This allowed it to present a road map to support Belarusian culture, arguing how cultural policy is important in a time of crisis and setting out how it is possible to help it.
The Belarusian Council for Culture also plans to provide education for cultural professionals in the form of an art management school in 2024. It is looking for opportunities to institutionalize the different existing initiatives so that cultural actors can better advocate their interests at the international level.
“This is cultural policy. Belarusians who left the country because of repression have no state, and cultural policy has to be carried out by people who have taken this responsibility”, says Haretskaya.
The team operates from six countries, including a physical office in Lithuania. It comprises approximately 15 employees and 20 associated experts and consultants. Their work will be needed not only in exile, but also when Belarusians return home, Haretskaya believes. However, she clarifies that her colleagues do not see themselves in the role of ministry officials.
Culture Is Underground or Serves the Regime
It is now difficult for artists in Belarus to work and show their creativity in public—they can be arrested for days and even years. The Belarusian Council for Culture has collected information about more than 700 cases of cultural actors who faced repression and needed personal support, and the number of affected persons is even higher. Some artists simply want to take a break from the risks associated with their activities, explains Haretskaya. “Finding those to support is a delicate process”, she says.
Despite all the obstacles, cultural actors in Belarus continue working. For the competition in which Revolution won a grant, approximately two-thirds of the 216 applications were sent by teams based either entirely or partly in the country. These are projects with groundbreaking ideas—ones that will affect a community, ideas, or practices, even if the impact will not be widespread, and even if it means working for future realization and creating “for the desk drawer”.
“They are trying to do something underground. We know about it, but the majority in the country do not know about this—they are the ones who are left with the pro-government concerts”, explains Haretskaya.
There is no place for some cultural actors in the country. “We tried to implement our project in Belarus, but it is impossible”, says Masha Kruk. By June 2023, her Revolution project had already produced nine short films. Two upcoming films will focus on women’s rights, exploring topics related to the uprising, war, and mental health. The project also organizes and curates exhibitions of contemporary art at which it holds their films screening.
The next two films are to be made in Warsaw, and then shown at exhibitions in Germany and Poland. The team’s works will most likely not be presented in Belarus in the near future, like those of many others who have fled the country.
Public culture in Belarus has transformed into mere entertainment that serves the authoritarian system, according to Haretskaya. She sees this as a serious problem that has been created by the state and can be solved within the framework of cultural policy. She says: “Either the state understands how culture affects society and develops society spiritually. Or it does not understand and merge cultural policy into the field of economy and consumption”.