Not So Funny: How Western Journalists Fail Belarus

 

Vice Magazine is regularly touted as being the main voice of Generation Y. Although they do not perform the role of the objective journalist outlet, they do offer one of the limited progressive critiques in mainstream media. The one-time Canadian punk zine is now a multimedia empire with dozens of offices across the world. They openly critique the exploitation caused by neoliberal economics, point out the obvious racism of mainstream politicians, and offer something beyond the blandness of the majority of modern day media outlets. One has to wonder then how they agreed to publish a garbage article like A Visit to Europe’s Last Dictatorship – a first-person account of a trip to Belarus.

Written by self-confessed Canadian drunk, Dave Hazzan, the article was littered with every cliché ever written about Belarus since its independence. Rich with comments about how Belarus is the land of drunkards, frowning border guards, and how they don’t know how to cope with tourism because they rejected his medical insurance. Unlike the normal pro-Western former Soviet republics in the Baltics, it is almost as if the Soviet Union has never ceased in Belarus for Dave, despite a pretty strong Western influence on the country. However, they “seem invisible behind the socialist realist façade,” whatever the fuck that means. Instead, Belarus is a country of boozers that have yet to get over the trauma of the Second World War. In Donald Trump shithole-esque fashion, Dave sums up his article by speaking about the fining of another traveller for a visa violation by saying, “I wonder if she’ll pay it. I sure as shit wouldn’t—when you’re an isolated pariah of the international community, you don’t have much leverage forcing people to pay fines from abroad.”

With that, Mr. Hazzan concluded an article that involved no communication with any Belarusians other than his Airbnb host and seemingly zero background research. He did find time to include a visiting South African that was just happy to speak to him because he spoke English though. While lamenting Belarus’s continuing Soviet influence and remaining Lenin statues, he didn’t even find time to speak about the major protests that occurred just months before his arrival. I don’t think he even went to Kastrychnitskaya Vulitsa to have a look for any youth culture. He must have assumed all people in their twenties were getting drunk at a Young Pioneer meeting. Despite this being on the same level as Louise Linton’s writing about Africa, Vice Magazine published this garbage and probably paid the cunt.

The fact that a media platform like Vice, which professes such progressive leanings, managed to publish something so uninformed, lame, and pretty colonial speaks to the current state of reporting about Belarus. Despite their decent coverage of issues like inequality and LGBT issues in Europe and North America, they have a long-standing habit of publishing similar articles about different parts of Eastern Europe and the former USSR. Recently, they published an essay about a tourist being assaulted in Georgia – despite the country being one of the safest in the region. They likewise seem equally transfixed on conflicts in the former USSR, yet equally disinterested in the cultural renaissance occurring across the same countries. The reason they publish these sort of articles is that they fulfil the long-standing stereotypes of ex-socialist countries being backwards and allow Canadian writers to feel smugly civilized. For whatever reason, Belarus is constantly treated to the same inane descriptions compared to every other post-Soviet republic by Vice and other media organizations.

There is a whole cottage industry of publishing articles about Belarus that are all seemingly based on it being “the Last Dictatorship of Europe”, with ample references to the Soviet Union. A Belarusian web magazine even parodied Western articles about the country, noting that every article must mention the President of Belarus and his 13-year-old son, pictures of Lenin statues, and those moments of suspense after a police officer tells you to not take a photo of a public building. We see these sorts of articles across mainstream media, like the BBC and CNN, but also more progressive media like Dazed and the Calvert Journal. What is evident is a complete lack of serious journalism that re-hashes the same stereotypes while making light of the oppression and ignoring a vibrant counterculture culture.

While representing the oppression occurring in Belarus, Western journalists treat the absurd nature of the Lukashenko regime’s behaviour as less visceral but almost comedic. He is constantly portrayed as an authoritarian buffoon with a habit of saying insufferably stupid things, like how he’d prefer to be a dictator than a homosexual. They show him constantly next to his heir apparent Kolya Lukashenko, who is his 13-year-old son, in matching military uniforms. He is mocked with his big bushy moustache and silly comb-over that fulfills the Western imagination of what a post-Soviet dictator is. As a GQ article about Lukashenko describes him, “Belarus is a nation blighted by Soviet-style tyranny under President Alexander Lukashenko, whose one-party rule would be a comedy were it not for the cruelty,” yet then goes on to focus on his weird predilections.

The problem is that the emphasis is placed upon the comedy of how the Lukashenko regime’s violence is administered instead of what the consequences of this violence are. The continuous oppression in Belarus is reported like those memes that begin “In Soviet Union…” It is unfortunate but part of the national character. In doing so, the Western media obfuscate the brutality of the Belarusian government and places blame upon citizens for allowing this regime to stay in power. Attached to every story regarding Lukashenko’s bizarre behaviour is anecdotes about how the Belarusians are so “Soviet” – as to say they are willingly complacent and accepting of this rule. The opposition to this regime is constantly portrayed as popping up then disappearing every couple years during election while ignoring a robust counterculture. As seen in Vice and many others, most articles don’t even give voice to Belarusian citizens and their hopes/horrors. The consequence is that the Western media normalizes this oppression and treats it as a byproduct of a culture insufficiently willing to Westernize itself, and therefore becomes complicit in the continuation of the Lukashenko government’s oppression.

As I chastise Western media, I cannot deny that Post Pravda has likewise been guilty of reductive “Last Dictatorship of Europe” behaviour. In 2015, we published an article by a Belarusian exile living in Lithuania speaking about her Belarusian identity with a reference to the “Last Dictatorship” in the title. At the time of publishing, it seemed like an innocuous title that aptly summarized the circumstances. However, what has occurred with the majority of reporting on the country has been a flourishing of a single, narrow story. Like any other subject, the role of writers is to oxygenate the conversation and look to break groupthink. We are meant to showcase the emptiness or problematize existing ideas. In this fashion, we failed that time.

The reality is that there is plenty of material for journalists to address that is both independent, youthful, and forward-thinking in Belarus. The publisher of the list of How to write about Belarus? Tips for Western journalists referenced above, 34mag is a fantastic press outlet that has strategically and successfully help articulate and organize the counterculture of Belarus. They openly operate in Minsk and are constantly providing information in Belarusian, Russian and English. They were instrumental in helping provide information during the most recent protests against the parasite tax for individuals detained and what to do if you or a loved one is arrested. Artist Daria Sazanovich’s illustrations depict activists and acts of resistance to the state, while photographer Maxim Sarychau’s work encapsulates the emotional and personal consequences of those who suffer from standing up to the Lukashenko regime. Likewise, there is a growing rave and music scene that is filled with talent. People do not need to revert to clichés to tell a compelling story about Belarus.

The problem is that many publishers and journalists are either too intellectually lazy or sufficiently racist so that they do not care to check themselves. In evading their moral responsibility, they do not empower those voices that may help lead Belarus to rid itself of oppression. With even the most minimal research and interaction with everyday Belarusians, it will become clear that Belarus is not the last dictatorship in Europe. It is a country with an extremely oppressive government where there is a diverse and complex society – similar to every other European society. More importantly, it is a country that demands more attention and better representation than it is currently getting.

Artistic Credit: Daria Sazanovich