Tatiana Shchyttsova in Minsk August 14, 2020.

Tatiana Shchyttsova in Minsk August 14, 2020.

Interviews “At the very core of the Belarusian uprising is a moral trauma”

Tatiana Shchyttsova, is professor of Philosophy at the Department of Social Sciences and Academic Director of Center for Philosophical Anthropology, at the European Humanities University, Vilnius. Here in an interview on the present situation in Belarus, on the role of philosophy in times of revolution and change.

Published on balticworlds.com on October 1, 2020

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Tatiana Shchyttsova, is professor of Philosophy at the Department of Social Sciences and Academic Director of Center for Philosophical Anthropology, at the European Humanities University, Vilnius. She is also Editor-in-chief of the Journal for philosophy and cultural studies Topos. Here in an interview with Eva Schwarz, philosopher and Director of the Centre for practical knowledge at Södertörn University, on the present situation in Belarus on the role of philosophy in times of revolution and change.

Tatiana, you have just returned from Minsk to Vilnius, how are you? 

When I returned my immediate feeling was frustration, because the whole of August I was completely immersed in our revolution, I had — and still have — a strong feeling that I must be there in Minsk. I planned to keep going to Minsk regularly, at least on weekends. Unfortunately, current circumstances (first of all the covidquarantine) do not allow me to realize this plan. However I do hope to come to Minsk in October.  

After the return to Vilnius, I met some activists of the Belarusian diaspora which has become also very consolidated now. They organize for instance regular protest meetings in front of the Belarusian Embassy and other events. On September 23, we protested there against the illegal inauguration of Lukashenko.  

In your words, what is going on in the Belarusian society right now? 

Right now, we see a new wave of sharped political antagonism due to the quasi-inauguration of  Lukashenko that took place on September 23 in Minsk. Protesting people went to the streets at the evening of September 23 in order to “celebrate” this event and were again brutally persecuted and detained by the riot police which acted, again in the same cruel way as during the situation of August 9. 

The fact of Lukashenko’s presidential inauguration has led to a new political situation. From now he is a fully illegitimate figure i.e. he became an usurpator de jure so to say. He and his adherents realize it. Therefore they will be tougher in their striving to supress the civic uprising. I would call their political behavior an internal occupation of the power – contrary to that internal self-liberation of our civic society which is happening now in Belarus. It is  a self-liberation from the political illness that struck the nation for many years. In medicine, there is the concept of an autoimmune disease: this is when pathological formations appear in the body as a result of an alleged “protective” reaction to external circumstances, which destroy it from the inside. Lukashenka’s authoritarian regime is just such a disease of our society. The disease has been “flourishing” for a very long time and has now passed into a critical phase. The internal self-liberation of the nation – our collective political recovery – leaves no doubt about how to properly call the usurpatory regime. As I said, we are dealing with an internal occupation.   

An internal occupation? How do you resist it? 

To successfully resist it, we need not only patience, not only a street protest marathon and various partisan tactics, but also, we need to take constant and consistent steps aimed to deprive the occupying forces of their institutional and material base. People has already begun to withdraw from various pro-government organizations. A list of companies whose products should not be bought has been distributed for the same purpose. The larger and the more varied such steps are, the more difficult it will be for the occupation regime to survive. 

Besides, it seems more problematic now to hope for a split in the political (state) elite.  

I’m afraid, that for many people, who serve in the so-called power vertical, Lukashenko’s presidential inauguration has such a strong symbolic meaning (i.e. impact on their consciousness) that it will be much more difficult for them to step down or express some disagreement. This is connected with a symbolic power of ritual. Even if it is a cargo-ritual (as Lukashenko’s inauguration actually is) it organizes and moves people to act in a certain way. 

How would you describe Lukashenko’s role? 

Lukashenko was from the beginning a kind of populist leader. From 1996 until August 2020, we had electoral authoritarianism in Belarus (1996 – the year of the ratification of Constitutional amendments that significantly expanded the scope of presidential power and actually abolished the democratic principle of the distribution of powers in Belarus). After the last elections, Belarusian authoritarian regime has turned into a bloody dictatorship. Yet Lukashenko still tries to behave as a populist, although in today’s context he appears to be rather a sadist-populist who, while declaring his willingness and obedience to serve the Belarusian people, sanctions cruel repressions and calls the protesting people “rubbish”. His quasi-inauguration shows that the Belarusian authorities still are completely incapable to recognize political subjecthood of our people, of the civil society.  

This is why the current situation requires a new mobilisation and more concentrated efforts from the Coordination Council, therepresentative organ of the protesting civic society that is recognized by the international community. 

Furthermore, I see that people are overwhelmed by very controversial emotions: anger and resoluteness, despair and feeling of helplessness. There is a high risk that people will fall into a kind of political depression or despair. More and more people conclude that all the previous forms of protesting are not enough anymore. There is an understanding that only a nationwide strike could really change the situation. 

At the protest in Minsk, you were reciting philosophical texts at a square. What do you think is the role of philosophy in and for this revolution? What is your role? 

Yes, together with a friend of mine, Tatiana Vadalazhskaya (sociologist, coordinator of the Flying University in Minsk), we initiated public readings of fragments from philosophical and intellectual literature devoted to the issues of freedom, independency and so on. We called the initiative “Word in defense of freedom” (among the authors presented were Lock, Kant, Arendt, Wolan). It was accepted by people at the streets very enthusiastically because it was one more way to express solidarity — as a rule our small group (it could be 2-5 persons) joined some concrete action (gathering, rally) in order to add to it such reflexive philosophical element (for instance, the protest of school teachers in front of the Ministry of education, the meeting of staff and students of Belarusian State University). It worked very well. I think, it is precisely a key role of philosophers and other intellectuals to care about cultivation of constant reflexive, meaningful dimension in the course of the revolution. It is not the only possible role of course. I mean it is our very special role in addition to civic engagement in  protest actions, volunteer help of different sort – all these forms of civic activism that is required under the conditions of social revolution. I see that media still prevail political analysis and expertise, along with publication of the last news and facts. At the same time, there is a need for clarifications and interpretations of ‘humanistic’ sort. I mean those that are generated by philosophers and in general by the humanities’ scholars. It is what I try to do.  

Furthermore, taking into account a media war accompanying and deepening the political crisis in Belarus, philosophers have to be inventive and insistent in advancing the principle  ‘Enlightenment instead of propaganda’. 

Besides, it is important that Belarusian intellectuals and scholars participate in international discussions and publish texts in foreign media on the events in Belarus. Thereby they help people abroad to better understand our situation and contribute to evoking international resonance around the Belarusian political crisis.  

In your research you are occupied with asymmetrical relations and the relation between different generations. Now, pictures of the protesting women from Belarus go around the world. Here innocent women in white, there the brutal male police officers in black, complete with face masks. This seems to be the asymmetrical relation, par excellence. At the same time we could see pictures of women trying to remove the masks of the men, forcing them to expose their face. What do you think about this? 

Yes, you are completely right. The political confrontation in Belarus is characterized by a very particular asymmetry – the asymmetry between cruel physical violence used by the Belarussian authorities and the purposefully peaceful character of the protests, between violation of the law systematically practised by the state’s officials and the protesters’ constant appeals to restore the rule of law in Belarus. Peaceful protest is indeed a distinct feature of the Belarusian uprising. The violence and atrocities committed by the riot police in August 9-12, were so brutal and shocking that physical violence has become a symbol of Lukashenko’s usurpatory regime. The last one has shown itself as a bloody one, as a regime in which physical violence is a prioritized political instrument.  The protestingpeople united against this regime on the basis of their shared indignation against the violation of the law and inhuman cruelty. The Belarusian protest is based, thus, on a sense of justice and compassion towards the injured people, towards the victims. At the very core of the Belarusian uprising is a moral trauma (people chant: We’ll not forget. We’ll not forgive). Having faced with outrageous violation of basic humanistic values (respect for human life, human dignity and freedom), Belarusians have answered asymmetrically. Their answer is: stop violence ! It is this moral answer which is an initial basis for political solidarity. I am convinced, such asymmetrical answer has an extraordinary transformative potential.It is a particular moral sensibility that made our people struggle for a better society. As long as this moral sensibility persists, we are able to hope for changes in our society and to collectively struggle for it — to keep taking to the streets and so on. I think it is an important lesson for politicians in general. 

And again, you are right that nowhere this asymmetrical relation is manifested so evidently as in the opposition of innocent women in white, with open face and flowers on the one hand and the brutal male police officers in black, complete with face masks on the other hand. The white women protest August 12-13 was in a way a sacrificial momentum in the course of the uprising, it was an inauguration of the Belarusian protest as peaceful resoluteness to the core of the human rights, to save and defend our lives and our dignity. Such a peaceful stance is not about humility. Our women are brave and show a very remarkable courage (there are so many proofs of this!). What they symbolize is a determination to change our life in this country on the basis of moral prohibition against illegal physical violence that is on the basis of absolute respect to human life and dignity.  I know that there is much criticism concerning a peaceful character of the Belarusian protest. And I realize that it is a highly controversial issue. However, I am sure, it is the path we must follow consistently. Of course, there were many cases when people started to defend themselves, or each other’s during the clashes with the riot police. It is understandable. And I have to add that after the secrete quasi-inauguration of Lukashenko, one can expect that the protesters will behave even more active in order to defend each other (the evening of September 23, when many people – especially in Minsk – went to the streets, already proved it). However we may not allow the protests to turn into a bilateral armed conflict. It is exactly what Lukashenko wants and tries to provoke. 

In your work on the German Philosopher Eugen Fink, you emphasise his cosmological  theory. One of his central ideas is the idea of sharing—an interactive intergenerational  sharing of the world understood as a cooperative constitution of the world by different generations. How would you describe the relation between different generations in Belarus? Perhaps one can see the revolution as a way to enact this sharing, to take responsibility for the young and for the generations to come? 

Yes, it is a very significant  theory for understanding the Belarusian uprising. The unique civic solidarity we can see in the whole country is also an intergenerational solidarity. Among the Belarusian protesters, there are people of different generations – from very young people to pretty old ones and it is so both in the big cities and towns and in the villages. It is really crucial and shows that the moral feelings and values, that lie at the basis of the uprising, are shared by different generations. That this is their joint human and civic reaction to the events and traumatic experience of August 9-12 was the same. It encourages us to reflect on the meaning of the notion of collective trauma. Is collective trauma the same as a shared one? From the Belarusian experience of a cooperative intergenerational protest, I would say that shared trauma — in strict/strong sense – is a social affective experience in which the very fact of sharing is validated by a cooperative relation to what had been traumatizing. At the same time, such intergenerational sharing and cooperation does not exclude, of course, that different generations have different perspectives on what is happening in Belarus, in their turn conditioned by the respective social-cultural (biographical) experience of the different generations. Here there is a particular asymmetry as well. Whereas the old generation feels guilty for the long-lasting authoritarian regime, the younger generation ultimately realizes that it lives and wants to live in a completely other world than that brutally enforced by the official Belarusian state. Their current intergenerational solidarity is thus an excellent basis for a further dialog and cooperation to be developed in a new democratic Belarus.  

Interestingly, as for taking the responsibility for the generations to come, both the old generation and the younger one declare today that this is their principal stance (in terms of: we want our children and grandchildren to live in a free country).  

In the media, also here in Sweden, one could see pictures of a peaceful protest, of brave people, walking together, dancing, playing music, protesting holding hands with their kids. Cleaning after themselves, taking off their shoes when climbing on a bench, showing respect. But then there are pictures and stories about violence, rape and torture towards them. Those, who march on the street are risking a lot, maybe everything. But they are not staying at home. How come that people are so strong now? What has changed?  

It is first of all solidarity – the solidarity determination to change our country, our life and  world –, that makes people so strong. There was a beautiful slogan: “We have not known each other until this summer”. Indeed  it is an amazing feeling. We cannot cease to be amazed at our own strength– at the fact that we act in solidarity, that we together are capable of so much and that it turns out that, in principal, there is a joint “WE”. This wonder, the feeling of solidarity, is associated with the very particular joy solidarity brings in itself to us. I see in this wonder – in this joyful discovery of our solidarity which is both individual and common, shared with others — an ineradicable source of strength.   

Moreover, there is an understanding that there is no turning back, no retreat from here. If the protest will stop or will evidently decrease now the country will be thrown back economically and culturally, the regime will deploy long-term systemic repression against all who participated in the protest, the former stagnation will be replaced by a rapid degradation and political barbarism. 

We realize that the Belarusian uprising is still weak in terms of its’ political organisation.  It is not surprising due to the fact that more than two decades the authoritarian regime  excluded real civic engagement in decision making at all levels of government. Let me refer here briefly to the results of the national sociological survey “Citizenship Test” conducted in Belarus by the international non-profit organization Pact. The results were published in February 2017. According to this survey about 99 % (!) of the respondents answered that they have no impact either on local government policies or on the decisions of the highest authorities and the state policy. If one takes this very recent pre-history into consideration and looks carefully at what has been happening in Belarus since spring 2020 (in connection with the authorities’ reaction to the COVID pandemic and then with the pre-election campaign), one can see that our civil society has radically changed – it has clearly manifested itself as a political subject. We have realized, firstly, that the state apparatus does not represent the people (nor act in the people’s interests) and, secondly, that representation is not about delegation of power but about interaction and communication between authorities and civic society in a manner that indeed could enable the authorities to act in the interests of people. Otherwise they are not legitimate. So right now, the Belarusian civil society and the Coordination Council, in particular, learn how to be a political subject and to coordinate the social-political processes aimed at restoration of representative democracy in Belarus.    

You are professor in philosophy at the European Humanities University in Vilnius, a Belarusian exile-university. Please tell the readers about the background of your exile! 

Indeed, European Humanities University (EHU) in Vilnius is often presented as a Belarusian university in exile. EHU was initially grounded in Minsk (in 1992) as a non-state University. It was forcefully closed by the Belarusian authorities in 2004. After this, it was re-established in Vilnius thanks to the international support and Lithuanian hospitality. Most of our students (more than 90 percentage) are from Belarus. At least half of our teaching staff as well. Many of our students, alumni and professors were and still are engaged in the protest movement.  

Just recently, four of our students  — Maryja Rabkova, and later Maryia Suvorava, Darya Asipenka, Viktoryia Bahdanovich — were detained. Suvorava, Asipenka, Bahdanovich received 13 and 14 days of administrative arrest. Maryja Rabkova (detained on September 17) is a human rights activist, she is internationally recognized as a political prisoner.  

See in this regard the EHU’s declaration: https://en.ehu.lt/news/solidarity-rabkova/ 

Hannah Arendt defines a revolution as the coincidence of a strive for freedom and the experience of a new beginning. To her freedom is related to the idea of freedom of speech, that you can be seen and heard in public and that others can react to that. If freedom is organized politically in a revolution, it is not just an ideal anymore but can be experienced as an experience of a beginning. In this sense, in a true revolution, the old cannot just be replaced, (as Zizek seems to assume), by another regime. Would you say, that what happens in your country is that people can experience a beginning? 

Yes, it is a new beginning for (of) our nation. 

We experience a kind of re-affirmation of our nation which is unique in its own way. National agenda came to the fore in a completely different form if we compare it with the national agenda which for many years had been promoted by the “old opposition”, starting from the Zenon Poznyak time. Representatives of our traditional national-democratic opposition promoted a so-called ethnic nationalism as opposed to civic nationalism. As well known, this strategy failed in Belarus — for many reasons it could not unite people.  

What we observe today cannot be conceived of in terms of the dichotomy between ethnic nationalism  and civic one nor  in terms of the dichotomy between the national and the post-national. 

The current national agenda is based both on our cultural ethos and on our civic resoluteness to establish rules for living together in our country by themselves. In this endeavour to realize our political subjecthood, we follow a certain ethos — that is, a collective idea of ​​how we should build our common life. Ethos is not an occasional – ad hoc — construction. It is formed historically. Through the ethos manifests itself our national habitus. Today our sense of national belongingness is manifested and strengthened due to the shared understanding of how we would like to build our common life in this country. In this connection, it is noteworthy and truly amazing that the historical Belarusian flag – the white-red-white one – which very long time was associated with the old opposition has again become a symbol of national unity. In general, our historical national symbols (we can talk not only about the flag, people everywhere sing “Pogonya” and other Belarusian songs, use historical ornaments and coloristic) have gotten a new relevance. It is a very delicate and essential moment: our struggle for democracy is about reactualisation (Vergegenwärtigung) of the previous efforts (1918, 1991-1996) to establish Belarus as a sovereign democratic state. The historical task is the same. The situation differs.  From this historical perspective, it is noteworthy that the soviet regime is considered as a historical basis for the authoritarian regime of Lukashenko. Cruel violence of the today’s riot police (‘OMON’) in relation to protesting citizens is not only juxtaposed with crimes of fascists, but also is historically linked with repressive actions of NKVD officers. One of the protest actions was called The Chain of repentance. It connected Окреcтина (“Okrestina,” the unofficial name of the detention center where people detained on August 9-11 were tortured) and Куропаты (“Kuropaty,” the site near Minsk of Stalinist mass executions). 

The new beginning we experience is about the vividness of democracy as a way of life. 

What is unique in this regard is that a democratic form of life which is being created now in Belarus combines equal originally liberal-humanistic and social and national elements. It is about personal freedom/dignity/value and horizontal social solidarity and national unity/sovereignty at once.