Long way home: collecting the artefacts of a forgotten Belarusian past

3 August 2021

The creative world of Masha Maroz is tied to a century of upheaval for Belarusian culture. “Since childhood, I’ve taken the historical injustice that Belarus has faced as a nation very personally,” she says. “In order to come back to my roots and find my identity as an author and as a citizen, I’ve had to travel a long and often crooked path, as all Belarusians do.”

The historical injustice that so riled the young Maroz began at the end of 18th century, when the larger part of modern Belarus was incorporated into the Russian Empire. The first independent Belarusian state was declared in 1918, but survived only a year before being absorbed by the Soviet Union.

These repeated incursions were catastrophic for the evolution of Belarusian culture, which was either presented as inferior to that of Russia itself, or was outright eradicated. For example, 132 Belarusian poets, writers, artists, and scientists were shot between 29 and 30 October 1937 by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police.

A second attempt to create a new Belarusian state was made in 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union. New state symbols, including a coat of arms called the Pahonia and a red-white-red flag, were unveiled. It was under this flag that the young Alexander Lukashenko took his oath to become the first president of Belarus in 1994. To this day, he remains the only person ever to have held the office.

Lukashenko’s rule quickly became as disastrous for Belarusian culture as the Soviet regime that had preceded it. Within a year, he had scrapped the country’s flag and coat of arms in favour of ones that harked back to their socialist forerunners. Although Belarusian remained the country’s official language on paper, in practice, it largely lost its place in the public sphere. Russian became the country’s lingua franca, a position it holds until this day.

Growing up, I myself often felt this great resentment towards the fact that the Belarusian language and culture were perceived as being for “peasants”, somehow underdeveloped in comparison to its Russian counterparts.

Today, many of the items associated with Belarusian culture — at least in the government’s official narrative — are imported directly from the Soviet era: straw dolls, vodka, and large, state-backed competitions and festivals celebrating everything from milkmaids to tractor drivers.

But cultural symbols of a different Belarus — the democratic state that millions dreamt of when the Soviet Union finally fell — are also undergoing a resurgence. Since the summer of 2020, pro-democracy protesters have adopted the Pahonia and the red and white striped Belarusian flag, wearing them while rallying against Lukashenko’s re-election in August. (The United Nations was among those who condemned the vote, calling it “neither free nor fair”.) The state, meanwhile, is aware of the power these symbols hold. As of June 2021, people in Belarus are regularly given prison sentences for appearing in public with any form of white-red-white pattern, not to mention actual flags.

In this environment, Maroz’s work serves as an antidote to the state-endorsed neglect of Belarusian culture. She conducts expeditions to collect local stories, explore traditional costumes, and photograph roadside decorated crosses, archiving Belarusian artistry that has been for too-long overlooked or ignored.

A costume artist by training, Maroz is particularly passionate about Belarus’ traditional textile work. “Funnily enough, we associate Belarusian patterns and embroidery with red, white, and black, but all of that is just a small part of the colour and variety you can find in traditional costumes,” she says. Old Belarusians often wore green and yellow patterned velvet, but the practice was largely lost during the Soviet era, when officials shunned variety for a single, state-approved image of folklore. Mass-production and the Soviet penchant for dance festivals saw traditional garments further simplified. “Dance was an important part of Soviet cultural festivals, and ethnic garments were altered in a way so that dancers could move,” says Maroz. She is now trying to revive these ancient traditions by creating her own fashion collection, inspired by ethnic garments from the Polesie region.

The collection is also designed to invoke another ancient symbol seen on the roads of Polesie: the cross. Fusing Orthodox Christian and pagan beliefs, large crosses mark the boundaries and the centre of Polesie villages. They can be also found next to the holy springs, or other places of local power. Villagers ensure the crosses are kept clean, and each year before Easter, they are freshly decorated with flowers, ribbons, and clothes. “I saw an archive photo of the cross wrapped in clothes in 2013. It is one of the most powerful and authentic Belarusian symbols,” says Maroz. “Recently, I visited a village that was almost abandoned — there was only one man living there. But he erected a new cross himself and put two benches next to it.’‘

Such archive photos of Polesie from the early 20th century are another endless source of inspiration for Maroz. “The quality of the photos are amazing, but we know little about those who photographed Belarusians back then,” she says. Maroz has begun sharing the photos she finds, as well as those she takes on her expeditions, on Instagram, on an account called @past__perfect__. Black-and-white film photos of Belarusians who lived 100 years ago sit next to Maroz’s own images from expeditions, or examples of traditional Belarusian textiles. They also include images from American photographer and explorer Loise Arner Boyd, who visited Polesie in 1934. While her photos are well-known abroad, they are little celebrated in Belarus.

Maroz’s ultimate goal is to present Belarusian heritage as a modern art form. “For me, this is not only about archiving and preserving, I believe these symbols have to live in our daily life,” she says. Just as modern-day design giants like IKEA are backed by real Scandinavian culture and heritage, she believes artifacts from Belarus’ past can become a foundation for the country’s new identity — connecting them to previous generations. “I reckon myself a mediator, a bridge, between the symbolic world of our ancestors and a modern world. I want to help other people see and feel the same things which I have had chance access to since childhood.”

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