A Philosopher on the Streets of Belarus

Editor's notes: This article was drafted in early September 2020 and reflects the situation in Belarus at that time. To view endnotes and photo credits, please see the October 2020 NewsNet.

Tatiana Shchyttsova is a Belarusian philosopher, Professor in the Department of Social Sciences at European Humanities University, Vilnius, and president of MAG, Международная ассоциация гуманитариев (International Association for the Humanities), http://www.mag-iah.com/


A moral breakthrough has profoundly transformed Belarusian society, including people who have not yet joined the protests. They might still be living their lives, going to their jobs, but they are engaged just due to the fact of living here, working alongside protesters, seeing what is happening in the streets.

For a long time, the authoritarian Belarusian regime kept itself in power by means of a “social contract” in which the state guaranteed a minimum level of social-economic stability and, in return, citizens abstained from political life.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Belarus enjoyed a brief democratic moment, ended by the 1996 ratification of constitutional amendments that dramatically expanded the scope of presidential authority, in effect abolishing the democratic principle of separation of powers. Belarusian citizens adapted to this authoritarian regime, tacitly accepting the “contract.” The regime was able to administer the country without interference. Civil society paid a high price, forfeiting its political subjecthood for many years. Social apathy became the dominant characteristic of the period. The moral transformation that is now underway derives from a sudden and traumatic lurch from apathy. The shock of the events of August 9-12, made it impossible to return to any sort of social contract with Lukashenko’s regime.

What happened after the elections is nothing less than a legal and humanitarian catastrophe.

Of course, one might object to this characterization of the situation, saying that people were also detained and beaten before the elections. The difference now is that a majority of our citizens have fundamentally changed the way they relate to what is going on in the country. It is possible to be aware of problems for a long time – yes, there is an opposition; yes, we read that somebody got arrested – without connecting any of this knowledge to oneself. It is possible to keep one’s distance, to avoid being personally touched. Moving from apathy to active involvement in social-political affairs occurs only when the authorities’ behavior shocks people, causing a collective trauma. This time, of course, it was the abrupt unmasking of the regime’s monstrous inhumanity that was the crucial trigger.

It started when we heard about Lukashenko’s 80% success. The next thing we learned, already on the morning of August 10, was that people had been beaten and taken away. Later, news spread of vicious beatings and the brutalization of victims. Our society was injured and deafened, just as in a concussion. One can get used to a loud noise, but not when the volume is turned up until eardrums burst. The same happens with our psychological life and our moral sense of self.

It is possible to keep functioning under the rules of a social contract, to keep going to work in order to receive the minimum needed for survival, and to somehow make a little money on the side in order to get slightly ahead. The country lived with this mindset until the catastrophe. Then the country exploded, and all patience came to an end.

Rebooting the Political System

People joined together out of indignation, against the insolent violation of law and against inhuman cruelty. Our protest was motivated by a sense of justice and compassion for the people being mistreated. For this reason, our opposition to the regime had not only a political character, but also one that was clearly moral and ethical. When we say we are outraged, we mean we are inspired by humanistic values (justice, the value of human life, respect for human dignity, and human freedom) and we want to establish them as the basic principles of our social life. These values – the moral basis of our protests, shared by all – are also the basis of our political unity.

The unprecedented protest mobilization was due to Svetlana Tikhanovskaia’s unique political program. Essentially, it insisted on new elections, in order to present the Belarusian nation with the opportunity to realize its constitutional rights. Such a program does not promote any specific ideology. It is neither right nor left, neither Christiandemocratic nor liberal-democratic.

What happened? Representatives of all political associations and perspectives were able to join together in the streets, because all sane people agreed it was necessary for us to reboot the political system and to restore the rule of law and representative democracy. The potential presidency of Tikhanovskaia became the prerequisite for political renewal in our country.

What is happening in Belarus today is a reaffirmation of the nation on new grounds, which are shared by the protesting majority. This reaffirmation is unique. Its specificity consists in the fact that the national agenda came to the fore decidedly not in the way it had been promoted for many years by the old national-democratic opposition, reaching back to the time of Zenon Poznyak. The old opposition always championed a so-called ethnic (as opposed to civic) nationalism. This strategy was unconvincing; it just did not work in Belarus. It failed to gain wide support in the population.

It is impossible to describe today’s reaffirmation of the nation by means of existing conceptual models, such as the dichotomies between civic and ethnic nationalism, or the national and the post-national.

The current agenda for the nation is grounded both in our cultural ethos and in a common civic aspiration to selfdetermine the rules for living together in our country. We are guided by a specific ethos, a collective understanding of how we should build our common life. An ethos is not a construction invented on the spot. It is formed historically, and, in the end, it reveals what scholars call a “national habitus.”2 Today our feeling of national belonging has grown in strength, because the majority of our citizens shares an understanding of how we should build our common life. From this national unity is born the determination to persevere against all odds.

White-Red-White Returns

There is one more very important (and astonishing!) point to make. We see the re-emergence of the white-red-white flag, which for many years had been associated with the old opposition and which had not had wide support in the society. Now almost everyone rallies around this flag as a symbol of nationwide solidarity. How did this happen? I think the political program of Tikhanovskaia was a crucial factor. Let us ask, what do the civic protests seek? United in support of Tikhanovskaia’s program, they demand a different Belarus. They want to exchange the existing political order for a fundamentally new one. With the radicalization and sharpening of political conflict, and an ever-stronger demand for bringing a different Belarus to life, new symbols are needed—symbols not tainted by association with the state authorities.

In this conflict, the demand for political symbols that are not official quite naturally shifted attention to the white-redwhite flag. I write “naturally” because there was no reason to invent another flag. One already existed and had been an important part of our national history. The former national symbols have gained renewed currency. Moreover, today it is not just the flag. People sing the “Pogon” and other Belarusian songs, use Belarusian ornament and coloring. Just to be clear, despite the well-deserved criticism that might be directed at the “old opposition,” their struggle for national revival played a vital role. It is in large measure due to their efforts that our historical symbols survived. The specificities of Tikhanovskaia’s program have therefore led to a natural return of national symbols, which historically preceded the symbols of the contemporary state (the flag, the anthem). Today historical, national symbols present themselves as an alternative to official symbols, which are associated with the Soviet system. Tikhanovskaia’s political program has created a window for re-activating our historical heritage.

The “Second Sex” for a Different Belarus

There is one more symbol that significantly strengthens the civic demand for different Belarus. It is the “second sex” of Lukashenko’s principal challenger in the elections. We must speak not only of the reaffirmation of the nation but also of the reaffirmation of women as political actors in our society. In the mid-twentieth century, Simone de Beauvoir wrote a celebrated book, The Second Sex, which posed the question of women’s political subjecthood. Our events provide an excellent reason to write a new book with that title. This time “the second sex” worked as a meaningful political code, symbolizing a “second” i.e. different Belarus. From a sociological point of view, it is important that the three women who stepped into the political arena – Maria Kolesnikova, Svetlana Tikhanovskaia, and Veronika Cepkalo – each represent a different social group, with the effect that the new political position of women in our society resonates widely.

The Asymmetrical Power of the Powerless

There is much criticism from abroad (very often from Ukrainian citizens) against the peaceful character of Belarusian protests. I realize this strategy is higly controversial, but I support it for several reasons.

First, the Belarusian authoritarian regime commands an extremely large and consolidated security apparatus. Second, the violence and atrocities committed by these people after the announcement of the official results of the elections have been so brutal and so shocking that physical violence as a prioritized political instrument became a symbol of Lukashenko’s usurpatory regime. At the very core of the Belarusian uprising is a moral trauma. People chant: “We will not forget. We will not forgive.” Faced with outrageous violations of basic human values, Belarusians have fought back asymmetrically by calling out: “Stop violence!” It is this moral response that gives rise to political solidarity.

As a philosopher, I would like to point out the extraordinary transformative potential of such an asymmetrical response, which is built on a shared moral sensibility (individual and social at once), impelling people to struggle for a better society. As long as this moral sensibility persists, we can hope for change in our society and collectively to struggle for it—to keep taking to the streets and all that entails. I think it is an important lesson for modern politicians in general: our societies need to cultivate a moral sensibility, an ability to show compassion for one another.

Moreover, such a peaceful stance is inextricably tied to identity, in particular, to a critical rethinking of the Soviet heritage. A major protest action was called “the chain of repentance.” It connected Окреcтина (“Okrestina,” the unofficial name of the detention center where people detained on August 9-12 were tortured) and Куропаты (“Kuropaty,” the site near Minsk of Stalinist mass executions). The action drew a historical link between the Soviet system and the authoritarian regime of Lukashenko. The cruel violence of today’s riot police (OMON) against protesting citizens was juxtaposed with historical crimes, not only of fascists but also of NKVD officers. Such reflection is, without doubt, indispensable for Belarus, as well as for the entire post-Soviet region.

Everything Depends on Moral Decisions and Resolve

The state now does everything it can to artificially create social divisions, to provoke a civil war. One of the rhetorical turns used by the state is to call the protesters an opposition. However, what today’s political crisis shows is that we no longer have an opposition, just as we no longer have legitimate state power. What we have is a majority of society that seeks to restore the rule of law, and, ranged against it, a vertical power structure blocking that restoration by means of its apparatus of violence.

One of the main unknowns today is how the rank and file nomenklatura – the middle management of the state administration – will behave. What will happen next depends very much on them. For that reason, it is extremely important to keep protesting – in every way possible.

Today it makes no sense to speculate or predict, because predictions are only justified and will only be reliable when they are based on the logic of concrete social and political processes. However, we now find ourselves in a phase of maximal indeterminacy. Very much now depends not on any sort of systemic mechanisms but on how real human beings will behave, on their moral decisions and resolve.

September 7, 2020

Edited and translated by Andrzej W. Tymowski, who is the director of international programs at the American Council of Learned Societies.

Tatiana Shchyttsova is a Belarusian philosopher, Professor in the Department of Social Sciences at European Humanities University, Vilnius, and president of MAG, Международная ассоциация гуманитариев (International Association for the Humanities), http://www.mag-iah.com/