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Vyshyvanki, security and consumerism

Identity politics is on the rise everywhere in Europe. From the UKIP in Britain and Front National in France to the Jobbik in Hungary, the national has become a valuable political currency that, when used properly, can be converted into political support, votes and, of course, power. Even in Belarus the national, oppressed and silenced for around two decades, is slowly crawling into politics, and public space more generally. Nothing can illustrate this trend better than an exploded popularity of a traditional Belarusian dress – vyshyvanka (pl. – vyshyvanki), a shirt-like clothing, which contains elements of Belarusian ethnic embroidery. I see two distinct but somewhat interrelated dimensions of this explosion of Belarusian culture – security and consumerism.

A magnificent vyshyvanka on a magnificent Belarusian man. Photo: nn.by
A magnificent vyshyvanka on a magnificent Belarusian man. Photo: nn.by

Culture and security

In one of my previous articles I discussed how aggressive Russian foreign policy changed the geopolitical game in the post-USSR region. In brief, native dictators including Lukashenko have built economic systems that are essentially dependant on Russia, giving the latter great opportunities for exploiting this vulnerability. They used to balance this threat with promising political allegiance to Russia, but Ukrainian crisis changed it all. Now, the “bad guys” of the region are on their own against Russia because Russia can secure her interests without their support whatsoever and, which is more important, back up her claims with brute power.

This is an extreme vulnerability that threatens the very existence of Belarus, and naturally demands a certain response to restore the balance of (or at least reduce the discrepancy in) power between Belarus and Russia. In other words, having lost his source of power, Lukashenko needs to compensate. He cannot go West because even now the West will not embrace him and will ask for structural reforms and democratisation. His other friends like Venezuela or China are either too far away or will not play power politics with Russia for a distant land with no strategic value for them. With geopolitical options rapidly dwindling Lukashenko finally decided to carefully explore possibilities of rooting his power in the forgotten national.

A brief history of the national in modern Belarus

Belarusian national project that Lukashenko has been advancing so far has nothing to do with national history and culture, but rather is a continuation of the enforcement of a Soviet identity. He made Russian a second language and nurtured it to the point that Belarusians’ second language now is Belarusian. The slightly modified Soviet flag, coat of arms and anthem were introduced instead of historically national symbols. De-sovetization never happened and visual images of the era, when ‘national’ was a curse word, are dominating public space. As such, the national was hollowed, impoverished and reduced to Soviet-friendly discourses, images and memories. Essentially Belarusians’ collective identity was de-nationalised to neutralise any possible resistance to Lukashenko’s rule by eradicating the very ideas upon which the challenge to his power can be built.

It all started when for the first time in 20 years of his reign Lukashenko delivered a speech in Belarusian ahead of the Independence Day and repeated his feat on the festive occasion itself with all the Russian-speaking guests, including Putin, present. It created a certain confusion, and commentators spent much time debating his true intentions. This however was succeeded by a series of events that follow a certain pattern and make big picture clearer. These events marked the beginning of a “thaw” in the attitude of the authorities to Belarusian language and culture, including installation of a monument to a Belarusian Great Duke, who fought Russians, renaming the streets and generally adopting a more Belarusian culture-friendly policy. These developments culminated in another remarkable speech by Lukashenko, where he said that schools should spend more time and lessons to teach Belarusian (it may sound surreal, but this is how it is in Belarus). These are hesitant steps in trying to use the national to distance the country from Russian cultural space, along with a more heavy measures, such as ostracising pro-Russian high level officials.

Belarusian government is looking for another way, if you want – a third way, to incorporate national identity into the national security. On the one hand, there is a habitual policy of de-nationalisation and russification, which as explained above became obsolete and even dangerous. On the other hand, there is a project of cultural and national renaissance. Either undermines his rule, and therefore Lukashenko seeks to re-invent the national, but in a particular middle-ground way.

Culture and consumerism

Everything Belarusian is also becoming popular. This trend has started at the grassroots and has been rather independent from a newly discovered slightly pro-Belarusian government’s policy. Belarusian language courses[1] became a huge success, corporates started using national language and visual images in their ads more and more, but most of all it has been a rise of vyshyvanka ­– a traditional clothing that nobody thought could be a good wear just a year ago.

Literally, Belarus has gone vyshyvanka-crazy. Conservative pro-renaissance media have been tracking the developments with a particular determination. Just look at the headlines from the last two months: “1.5 thousand people came together to celebrate a vyshyvanka day in Minsk”, “Clothing with Belarusian embroidery is wining over Poland“, “Lukashenko, Putin and Nazarbaev wearing vyshyvanki” (sic!), “Vyshyvanka-style painted VW Golf’s owner: don’t be ashamed of your roots”, “Two Miss Belarus wearing vyshyvanki”, “Alpha-Bank employees dressed in vyshyvanki” and so on and so forth.

Lukashenko during 2006 election campaign. This shirt isn't trendy anymore, Alex. Photo: kp.ru
Avoiding the national: Lukashenko during the 2006 election campaign wearing plain vyshyvanka without traditional embroidery. This shirt isn’t trendy anymore, Alex! Photo: kp.ru

The trend has gained significant external projection. So far it has reached its zenith when Snoop Dog announced opening of his clothing line ‘I love Belarus‘ featuring traditional Belarusian embroidery patterns and when ICON published pictures of semi naked women dressed in vyshyvanki-like t-shirts. And if the objectification of women in the latter instance was heavily criticised, an impact of the commodification of Belarusian culture was largely overlooked.

This kind of consumerist approach to experiencing the national does nothing but commodifies the culture, reduces it to a merchandise; experience itself is substituted with culture’s consumption. Consumerist approach to encountering culture is inherently fixed at the spectacular at the expense of a more holistic experience of the national. To further develop this point I would like to refer to a criticism of bucket lists by Rebecca Mead. She pointedly noted:

This is the YOLO-ization of cultural experience, whereby the pursuit of fleeting novelty is granted greater value than a patient dedication to an enduring attention—an attention which might ultimately enlarge the self, and not just pad one’s experiential résumé. The notion of the bucket list legitimizes this diminished conception of the value of repeated exposure to art and culture. Rather, it privileges a restless consumption, a hungry appetite for the new.

The same can be said about this recent trend. It is not a popularisation of Belarusian culture, but rather a popularisation of Belarusian culture-inspired visual images in the forms of a merchandise. It is also important that this merchandise could be produced at the industrial scale. This is why what Belarusians and foreigners consume is not even vyshyvanki, but what we in Belarus call vyshymaiki – t-shirts with national embroidery that resembles vyshyvanka a little. It is easy to produce, it is easy to consume.

And I would agree that getting to know the spectacular now can lead to genuinely experiencing culture in future, if not a unique condition of the national in Belarus. Because of the governmental policy of de-nationalisation, Belarusian culture is almost as alien to Belarusians as it is to foreigners. In this sense, vyshyvanka is almost the only encounter with the national that Belarusians experience in everyday life. In this way, re-membering national culture, identity and history is substituted with consuming a spectacular piece of it.[2] In other words, wearing vyshyvanka in Belarus is an attempt to simulate belonging to the national, rather than to belong.

But despite the controversies surrounding the rising popularity of things that are Belarusian, the one thing everybody can agree with is that the rise itself is truly extraordinary. The challenge is to channel the power dynamics and consumerist drive of the rise into other more genuine forms of experiencing national culture.

Notes