Orientalism and the "casus belarus"

8 February 2006
Read in:
Why do some Belarusian intellectuals label Belarusian society as archaic and patriarchal at a time when Soviet-style modernization has all but wiped out manifestations of Belarusian cultural heritage? Detached from Belarusian social reality, drawing on nineteenth-century stereotypes of the Slavic character, and idealizing metropolitan western Europe, these intellectuals "orientalize" Belarus, says political scientist Andrei Kazakevich.

In 2005, the European Humanities University (EHU) in Minsk was closed down. The most recent issue of the cultural-philosophical journal Topos, published by intellectuals associated with the EHU, was dedicated to the closure. Four essays included in the issue, collected under the title “casus belarus”, form the basis of the discussion that follows.1

If we remove the rhetoric and the complex terminology, the “casus belarus” articles can be reduced to the following thesis: Belarus is the space of “archaic”, anti-modernity, a patriarchal society that resists processes of globalization and modernization.2 The degree of “archaization” in Belarus (the articles sometimes refer to Belarus as a whole, sometimes to “the Belarusian regime”, sometimes to “the Belarusian ideology”) differs from article to article, though the general orientation of their reflection is visible from the titles. One author 3, for example, describes the Belarusian situation as a series of unsuccessful attempts to adapt to globalization. Although he does not propose a completely “archaic” perspective, the influence of “archaization” is noticeable even there. “The local answer to globalization leads to the internal transformation of the modernized society, which in a paradoxical way acquires traditional and even archaic features.” Or see the thesis about “involutional de-differentiation of Belarusian society”, which is clearly not based on real social processes.

The articles are of moderate length, but are indicative of the way of thinking that goes beyond political discussion; together, they manifest a certain attitude to Belarus. The authors demonstrate a critical and even scornful attitude to Belarusian political reality, which they try to describe using the concept of “orientalization”. The “eastern” and “pre-modern” qualities they identify have little to do with Belarus, but correspond excellently with the “universal schemes”4 favoured by intellectuals. One article describes how the university lecturer understands a like-minded person in a foreign country better than his neighbour. It reveals much about the strange aspiration to describe neighbours and foreign friends in the same breath.

No doubt some of the authors’ conclusions can be agreed with; the main problem, however, lies in the strategy, style, and methodology of the analysis. What prompted the present article is the unserious attitude of some Belarusian intellectuals towards Belarus as a subject for reflection, along with increasing stereotyping about Belarusian reality. Earlier these stereotypes had a predominantly “Eastern” argumentation. Now they have a “Western” one.

Intuitive attempts to use existing Western methods of analysis present certain dangers, especially where identical schemes are used to describe an infinite number of countries, from India to Paraguay. Topos follows this tradition with an inclination towards “standard terminology” when analyzing traditional, patriarchal, and collectivist societies. We should point out here that our position is that neither the first, the second, nor the third correlates with reality. When reading the texts, one has the impression that they inform readers about a “rural”, “pre-modern”, and “collective-farmish” country from the “universal” standpoint of the “urban”, “modern”, and “educated” intellectual. This position lacks critical self-reflection. The university in this case is considered an “institution of dialectic thought, anti-ideological par excellence” (Gornykh). It is an abstract university that lives on hermetic doxa, and that has nothing to do with real higher educational establishments in Belarus and Europe.

One of the constituents of doxa is of the opinion that where something does not correspond to the “modern” and “liberal” idea of politics, university, education, and ideology, it is a priori a manifestation of a patriarchalism, traditionalism, clannishness, and backwardness. The authors make extensive use of phraseology: “patriarchal authoritarianism”, “patriarchal vertical”, “Belarusian anomaly”, “family country”, “people-family”, “anti-modernity”, “revenge of the village”, “village idyll”, “authority of the leader”, “natural maxim”, “ethnographic criteria of well-being”, “pre-reflective archetypes”, “pathologic regression”, and so on. However, these seem like cartoon concepts – the real Belarus is completely different, at both the political and the symbolic levels. The political system can be considered unacceptable, ineffective, authoritarian, and unfair, but, technically speaking, it is completely up-to-date.

Patriarchy and patrimony: The logic of the authorities

“We live with the feeling that all movements in the social space of our country are regulated by the will of one person. The authoritarian form of government acquires […] the peculiar colouring of parental care […] this paternal image finds support”.5 The collocations “parental care” and “paternal image” are significant here. “The political equation of family unity and stability is realized in the implementation of the archetypical features of the patriarchal home in the social space”6 The word “patriarchal” is interesting here. In the same paragraph: “The being-for-itself of our society proceeds from the will of one person. We can be legitimately involved in this process only in the capacity of novices […] The paternalistic organization of the public space makes the citizens of Belarus political castrates.” Here, the author talks of paternalism and introduces the figure of the novice, raising the question the logical development of theses: is the author speaking of patronage, or of novitiate, patriarchal, or paternalistic relations? Taken alone, these concepts present completely different perspectives for the organization of power (including at the symbolic level); taken together, they look like a pile of “colonial” stereotypes. Besides, what is the purpose of the argument? To illustrate the logic of the authorities, to describe the symbolic universe, or to fill the text with as many “oriental” meanings as possible in order to define its hopelessly archaic status? The latter seems the most likely.

Patronage is a matter of patron-client relations. The patron is not a father, a patriarch, or a pastor. The patronage structure can have a rational or even bureaucratic (not necessarily hierarchical) organization. The phenomenon of patronage is as modern as Microsoft. Naturally, patronage is highly significant in the contemporary Belarusian political system, but it has no traditional or archaic nature. The same goes for paternalism. Even if the population sets hopes on the state, these hopes are of a rational and individualistic nature, and not based on the traditional institution of the family. Belarusian paternalism is organized according to a bureaucratic rather than a paternal model.

The term “patriarchal” is used by one author7 to define the Belarusian mentality, the collective subconscious, and symbolic power relations. “Patriarchal” is understood as “archaic” and “following old traditions”. “In our country, the debate between liberalism and communitarianism (that has been productive in the development of Western democracy) was resolved in favour of the patriarchal community.” Ironically, it is impossible to find in Belarus any traits of a patriarchal way of life and, moreover, community. Patrimony, family, novice-hood, and patronage are reduced to some general space of archaism, in order to conclude that Belarusian society is patriarchal (and this for a society that does not preserve ethnic traditions nor traditional institutions).

The attempt to archaize Belarus takes place at a time when a considerable number of intellectuals see the untimely death of everything archaic and traditional in Belarus as the consequence of Soviet modernization. At the same time, state ideology tries to portray the image of a dynamic and maximally modern Belarus, valuing consumption and progress much more than ideas and tradition.8

Another apparently exotic concept is Belarus as a family-country that has turned to sultanism-authoritarianism 9. Does this mean that the sultanate as a form of political organization must be considered a tradition that builds on the model of the extended family? In fact, the only thing that unites these two terms is their “oriental” colouring.

Why the home must be patriarchal

“It is not only a matter of the autocracy. At the symbolic, rhetorical, and […] poetic levels there is organized a space that corresponds to the ethos of eastern European culture, the space of the communal home.”10 The concept of “home” is a good illustration of the strategy of the intellectual de-modernization of Belarus. It concerns the “realization” of “all the traits of the patriarchal” in the social space of Belarus, in which social and political activity is possible only in the form of “novitiate”. It seems to be a complete set of stereotypes about eastern Europe from around the turn of the last century (eastern European as a modern synonym for “Slavonic-Russian”). This “eastern European ethos” seems to exist predominantly in the mind of the intellectual, since neither social nor political practices can lead to such conclusions.

What does the model of “patriarchal home” explain? The well-known phenomena of Belarusian political reality: abuse of responsibility for selfish social-political ends, the necessity to emigrate (either abroad or inwards), the marginalization of those who disagree, the will of the marginalized to ignore the authorities, and the will of the authorities to extend their control.11

This also happens in non-patriarchal models. The will to ignore the authorities can be based on indifference to who governs; political passivity can be the result of indifference or distaste for politics, not conformity with “parental authority”. As regards the usurpation of responsibility for social-political self-identification: that description is even more apt for contemporary corporations and other bureaucratic systems. In turn, support for authoritarian regimes is rooted not only in the desire for power, but also in the individualistic and rational wish to escape “unreasonable” responsibility for the whole of society, and to “mind one’s own business”. This phenomenon is somewhat different from serfdom.

It is difficult to find traits of the patriarchal home in Belarus, either in the city or the village. The family has a minimal, nuclear structure, and the government a rational, bureaucratic one. Of course, stereotypes about the rootedness of the support for the regime in eastern European culture are not derived from Belarusian experience, but recall the archaic models of Russian philosophy. Every appearance of “the home” as a symbol or metaphor is regarded as a feature of the patriarchal, the archaic, and the anti-modern. The fact that this metaphor (which symbolizes peace and well-being) functions in European political lexicons from Slovakia to Scotland is ignored.

Does a collective farmer, at the level of “collective subconscious”, consider him or herself as a “client”, “child”, or “novice” of “the Father”? Ignoring ungrounded speculation, it seems not. If he or she does say “our Father”, it means “our boss”, or maybe “our leader”: it does not follow that the “archetypical features of patriarchy that correspond to the ethos of eastern European culture” have taken root in her consciousness, nor that he or she considers himself or herself a “serf” nor “younger brother”. The same goes for the “worker”.

In advertising or propaganda, the metaphor of the home can be interpreted differently; there are good reasons to think that its interpretation by the producers and consumers of propaganda is not bound by a “strict hierarchy”. It may be a small cosy house for a young family, a new flat in a modern many-storied building, a farm, and so on.12 These images work on the level of the mass consciousness of a society that ceased to be archaic and patriarchal long ago, despite the convenience of these terms, images, and myths for describing backward and “anti-modern” countries.

Is democracy possible for barbarians?

The question of whether democracy is possible for Belarus is at the centre of political discussion. The answer is, of course, positive, but the strategy of argumentation astonishes. “Democratic principles must become a social habit and develop on the basis of the ethnic culture” (though it is not clear what can be considered “ethnic culture” in the case of Belarus). Democracy can be derived from “patriarchal” family relations.13 Both advise basing the political regime upon doubtful models presented “as natural maxims of the eastern European, Slavonic culture”. How then have all other eastern European peoples managed to build states (predominantly democratic) without the use of the model of the “patriarchal home”? What threat can democracy present to Belarusian cultural identity, especially if we take into account the discussion about the latter’s absence or weakness?

The usual stereotypes are also visible here – for instance, that the attitude to oikos (home, family) in the political field of the West has been scornful ever since the ancient Greeks, or that ancient Greek democracy was individualistic.14 Let us recall that the agora was far from being a space for individual self-expression, since every citizen was tightly bound to the family, freedom meaning the right to participate in collective (political) life.

The search for the “fundamental cultural differences that define the process of Belarusian self-determination within the European context” is done the standard way. “If Eastern democracy has a credo, it is collectivism, the cultural-anthropologic paradigm of which builds on family relations. The understanding of kinship as the prototype is the ‘natural maxim’ of Slavonic culture […] The main spatial archetype of east European Slavonic culture is home, that unites all members of the family community.”15 The passage in which the author writes that Belarusian culture does not “sentence us to live a patriarchal political life” and force us to submit to “patriarchal authoritarianism” is especially pleasing. Of course, the conclusion is that democracy is possible; however, the conception of our ethos (which we must not destroy in the process of democratization) seems strange, to put it mildly.

Village and city: The search for anti-modernity

The contrast of village and city is another predictable scheme in the consideration of anti-modernity and resistance to globalization (as if only liberals, cosmopolitans, and democrats lived in cities). The archaization of the village seems to accompany personal hostility on the part of the authors to everything rural and “collective-farmish”. The attempt to demonstrate the “archaism” of Belarus is manifested in the description of the playing of the national anthem on Belarusian TV as a “trait of the early-modern ideology of the [rural] community”.16 The key term here is “early modern”, as if national anthems were not sung in postmodern Western countries. As far as the wearing of national clothing is concerned, in the majority of the European countries the practice is even more widespread and treated much more positively than in Belarus, the country of “rural revenge”.

The stereotypical Soviet scheme, in which national means folkloristic, which means rural, which means collective-farmish, which means “anti-modern”, outdated, archaic, and narrow-minded is without doubt at work here. It would be interesting to consider how far a local festival in Bavaria (which has features that Belarusian intellectuals would call folkloristic or collective-farmish) is anti-modern.

In general, it is described how the barbarian, illiterate, conservative, and even idiotic “village” destroys the individual style of the “city elite” (to which intellectuals belong). The “anti-modernist revenge of the village”; “twenty-first-century peasant’s revolt against the universal City”; “the nucleus of so-called ‘Belarusian ideology’ is the open declaration of the necessity to rehabilitate the values of the village”.17 Belarus is the arena of “rural madness”, where the struggle against the city takes place. The city is the microcosm that embraces the world, a movement against all that is desolate and illiterate. In short, the city is the embodiment of the forces of light against the forces of darkness, the village.

Even more surprising are speculations about how much the Belarusian regime hates the media, the foundation of the urban order. “In its opposition to the values of European urban culture […] the Belarusian authorities find a deadly enemy in the image of media, which calls to life everything that undermines the homeostasis of the rural community.”18 The irony of the situation is that the financial provision of the regime’s political system is built directly upon the media.

Archaic, rural, patriarchal… Sometimes the authors’ speculations seem a manifestation of inflated European identity – the self-perception as a “European intellectual” in Belarus, but outside the Belarusian context. Sometimes they resemble the image of the Belarusian literati at the beginning of the twentieth century, firmly interweaved into Soviet identity. Intellectuals do not treat Belarus seriously. Policy, culture, and society are only stereotypes from which one can form a cartoon, according to universal schemes deprived of local context. In political and intellectual terms, that is probably what the “casus belarus” is.

  1. V. Furs, "Belarusian 'reality' in the framework of globalization"; A. Gornykh, "Belarus: A case of anti-modern ideology"; A. Pikulik, "Matrix, paternalism and family country. Anthropology of Belarusian ideology"; T. Shchittsova, "Under patronage: The authoritarian regime in the light of cultural anthropology", in: Topos, 1/2005.
  2. It is worth mentioning that particularly Uladzimir Furs tries to escape such flatness, albeit unsuccessfully, to our mind.
  3. Uladzimir Furs
  4. In the "East", the family is patriarchal, the state is paternalistic and patrimonial, and democracy is collectivist. These social and political features are attributed to Belarus, as a part of the "East".
  5. T. Shchyttsova.
  6. Ibid. 20.
  7. Shchyttsova op. cit.
  8. See Andrei Kazakevich, "Supernova reality: Advertisement of the system and the end of history", Arche 4/2005
  9. Pikulik op. cit. 39
  10. Shchittsova op. cit. 19-20
  11. Ibid. 19-20.
  12. These are the symbols of the ideological slogan "our home Belarus" that could be seen in the TV ads on the eve of the referendum.
  13. Shchittsova, op. cit.
  14. Ibid. 23.
  15. Ibid. 23, 24
  16. Gornykh, op. cit. 30.
  17. Ibid. 30
  18. Ibid. 32

Published 8 February 2006

Original in Belarusian
Translation by Eurozine
First published in Arche 6/2005

Contributed by Arche
© Andrei Kazakevich/Arche Eurozine


recommended articles