In Belarus, a new civic culture is born out of recycled historical symbols in urban yards

Minsk's industrial suburbs united, with their own white-red-white flags: Altayskaya, Anharskaya, Sokal, Partyzanski district and Shabany. The latter is the most stigmatised district of the Belarusan capital, often compared to Harlem in New York. Photo by Kanstancin Kasiak, used with permission.

In Belarus, people continue to resist and protest, having in their majority refused to recognize the results of the August 9 presidential election in which Alyaksandr Lukashenka claimed a sixth consecutive term. Every Sunday, massive protest marches continue to take place in the capital Minsk, some being the country’s largest demonstrations since the restoration of independence in 1991. But on working days, a new form of protest is developing: inhabitants of a few high rises on the outskirts of the city gather in the spaces between their buildings, and march displaying their own local visual identity based on revisited old symbols of national history.

National symbols strike back and win: The story of the new old flag

For months, the brutality of the police has been concentrated mostly in the city center, where the movement started in August, and where most of the Sunday marches also take place. Media sources such as Nasha Niva now estimate that over 30,000 people have been detained since the protests began. The independent monitoring initiative Project 23.34 has examined over 3,200 detention cases; one-third of the respondents, most of them under 30 years old, had been subjected to physical violence. Furthermore, 144 political prisoners remain in jail. This is why, in order to overcome this trauma and yet to continue resisting state violence, part of the protest has moved to local neighborhoods.

What hasn't changed though, is the reference to an old, yet powerful, symbol: the historical, white-red-white Belarusan flag. Given that the official authorities use a green-red flag, intellectuals never expected such seas of the white-red-white flag and its imagery on the streets of Minsk and other major cities across the country. Precisely because it was demonized by the authorities, people decided to claim it as a symbol of their opposition to Lukashenka, to dictatorship, and of solidarity in their protest, giving it a new meaning.

Flag of the Selmash district in Homiel featuring the image of a typical gopnik. Photo by Dzmitry Novikau, used with permission.

So once it started to reappear in the streets, people started creating very local variants of the white-red-white flag for their districts and neighborhoods. In just a couple of weeks, cities and towns, districts, and sometimes even streets of Minsk, came up with their own, new flags. Local identity is, indeed, strong in Belarus, a society that for long was steeped in peasant culture proud of its local specificity. There are now literally hundreds of those flags, which are printed in different formats and sizes, and adorn windows, walls, but also cars, protest signs, clothes.

What is particular is the process of “desacralisation” of historical symbols: the new flags and coats of arms relate to modern-day, popular culture, as well. For example, the industrial district of Semash in Homiel, Belarus’ third city, adopted the figure of a gopnik, a figure of urban subculture associated in former Soviet cities with poor education and background and specific music and dress code.

Have you ever heard of a ‘Yard Revolution'?

On November 12, 31-year-old Raman Bandarenka confronted a group of strangers who had arrived to remove the white-red-white ribbons in his Minsk yard; he was beaten and later died in hospital.

The white-red-white ribbons in Bandarenka’s courtyard were just one expression of this hyperlocal activism. Initially, courtyards like these served as refuges during the first days of protest: their inhabitants assisted those who were fleeing riot police by hiding them. Today, protesters are claiming back the urban space by organizing sporadic and decentralised acts of civic resistance. Some are coordinated over the platform, an interactive map showing local Telegram channels, the encrypted messenger service that is most favored in Belarus. The project, which was inspired by urban blogger Anton Matolka, quickly became an indispensable tool for local communities’ self-organisation. It was a logical continuation of protest marches in suburbs, which had never happened before in new Belarusan history.

Yards thus started organizing their lives themselves. The newly created flags have triggered further interest to know what stands behind their imagery, and people have invited poets, musicians and cultural creatives to stage concerts, lectures, workshops and film screenings, something unprecedented in Belarus. As with the case of Bandarenka, some of those events did not go well: on September 21, the rock musicians Alyaksandr Pamidorau and Lesley Knife were arrested and spent several days in prison.

But some actions have also gained national popularity, and have a second life online: the Yanka Kupala State Theatre, a major cultural institution in the country, resigned en masse in August after its director, Paviel Latushka, was fired for supporting the anti-Lukashenka protest. The now underground actors have since become the heroes of the courtyards: their YouTube channel, with nearly 150,000 viewers, is growing in popularity. A rock band, called J:Mors, also held an impromptu concert on a balcony on September 12, narrowly evading arrest. The performance can be viewed on this YouTube video:

The concert took place on a balcony overlooking what is now called the Square of Changes, or Ploshcha Pieramien in Minsk. Once a nondescript courtyard with no formal name, the Square of Changes has become well known in Belarus. It is the location of a mural depicting two DJs who were detained by police after playing Viktor Tsoi’s famous song “Peremen” (“Change” in Russian) at an official event, in reference the protest culture at the end of the Soviet state. The mural has been guarded by police, vandalised, and painted over many times.

Not least, the Square of Changes was where Raman Bandarenka was last seen alive.

This new yard identity is a powerful source not only of resistance but also of self-governance: those locations are now gradually gaining public use due to popular sayings, images online, and even their use in newspaper headlines.

All these steps of real and natural grass-roots activities, together with the local Belarusan community, whose consolidated position and support have become an influential factor of this year’s never-ending resistance, form a new Belarusan society. The process goes the way it should: from low and local to high and national and even global.

This article is made possible through a partnership with Transitions, a Prague-based publishing and media training organisation.

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