The Up in Flames Issue

Photographing the Search for Belarus's National Identity

Belarus's scars and, more importantly, the heroics of war have become the central focus of a government in search of a unifying national identity.

by Andrew Miksys
22 December 2015, 12:00am

This story appears in the December issue of VICE magazine.

Belarus is a country almost perfectly divided between East and West. From the east, Russia maintains a strong influence. Seventy percent of the people in Belarus speak Russian instead of the native Belarusian, and when you translate "Belarus" as "White Rus," or "White Russia," you realize how deeply the country identifies with its namesake. To the west is the border with the EU nations of Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. Ties with these neighbors are not insignificant, and a form of Old Belarusian was the official state language used by the grand dukes of Lithuania in medieval times.

But with the current war to the south in Ukraine, Belarus's border with its European neighbors is looking more like a new Berlin Wall as Russia isolates itself to an extent not seen since the Cold War. This year, the mustachioed president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, oversaw peace negotiations between Russia, Ukraine, and the EU in Minsk, his country's capital. It is unclear exactly what the future holds, but perhaps he has become less enthusiastic about authoritarian, Soviet-style politics and Russian grandstanding after witnessing the fates of Crimea and Ukraine.

I began traveling to Belarus about six years ago to photograph Victory Day, a holiday celebrating the Soviet victory over fascism and Nazi Germany. During the celebrations, tractors, military equipment, and factory workers parade through the streets. A vintage USSR flag flies on a radio tower over Minsk. At a military-themed park named Stalin Line, there is a new statue of Stalin, and World War II battles are reenacted by men dressed in Soviet and Nazi uniforms. Red tulips, a symbol of spring and rejuvenation in the USSR, fill the streets and are given to war veterans as a way of thanking them for their service. The experience can be disorienting. You might even feel like you are traveling back in time.

The scars and, more importantly, the heroics of war have become the central focus of a government in search of a unifying national identity. I soon discovered that other Soviet holidays, like October Revolution Day and Defender of the Fatherland Day, are also observed in Belarus. I returned year after year to photograph them. The holidays, though, were more of a backdrop to my project, a way of following the path of national culture while looking for something more personal. I was seeking a more intimate understanding of a world that should be part of the past but is stubbornly resilient in the present.