Queering Belarusian History from Below
Updated: Sep 14, 2020
History as Social Activism
As a social movements’ activist and a historian, I have been interested since my university years in exploring how historical research might be used as a form of social activism. However, I only started such unorthodox studies several years after I had graduated. In my home country of Belarus many research topics, such as the 1930s mass terror, and research methods, such as oral history, are unacceptable in academia. It is impossible to write a thesis on such topics and it is very hard to pursue research on them if one works within institutions funded by Belarusian state. Therefore, I decided to cooperate with NGOs working on different issues. In cooperation with the (now defunct) Centre for the Development of Student Initiatives, I produced a small publication on the history of Belarusian students’ movements. I also participated in an oral history project on Chernobyl catastrophe, where I tried to forge links between historians and environmentalists.
At some point I met members of the GayBelarus initiative (later rebranded as “Identity”, now ceased to exist) and asked whether they would be interested in collaborating on a queer history project. For me, as a historian, it was challenging to find at least some traces of queer existence in my country. My collaborators (Natallia Mańkoŭskaja, Tania Siacko and Kaciaryna Borsuk) and I interviewed activists of the 1990s generation, establishing intergenerational links between activists. We gathered available literature and, surprisingly, found quite a pile of it (from perestroika newspaper articles on same-sex desire in Belarus to books by Western academics on queer people in Russian Empire/Soviet Union). Ira Roldugina from Moscow and I worked with Belarusian and Russian archives to establish how many men (and, occasionally, women) suffered because of the anti-‘sodomy’ law in Belarus from 1945 to 1990 (the law was in effect from 1934 to 1994, but data available is limited to these years). For the LGBTI community in Belarus, history is an important way of ‘proving’ to society that queer people are not a ‘foreign import’ which emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union. History becomes a means of showing that their existence and needs have to be respected.
Writing a Queer History of Belarus
One of the outcomes of the project was a short publication named Queer history of Belarus in the second half of the 20th century: a preliminary study (Minsk, 2016), which is available online in Belarusian, Russian, and English.
This brochure became one of a wave of publications on queer history of former Soviet Union, as more and more researchers are pursuing research in this direction. Recent books include Francesca Stella’s monograph Lesbian Lives in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia: Post/Socialism and Gendered Sexualities (2015), Jaanus Samma’s publication to accompany an exhibition Not Suitable For Work. A Chairman’s Tale (2015) and Dan Healey’s Russian Homophobia from Stalin to Sochi (2018). There are several researchers writing their PhD theses on the Soviet queer history: Arthur Clech at EHESS (Paris), Ira Roldugina at the University of Oxford, Feruza Aripova at the Northeastern University (Boston), and Rustam Gadzhiev recently received PhD from the University of Melbourne. Ineta Lipša of the Institute of Latvian History is writing a book on Latvian queers of the Soviet era. Unfortunately, literature in Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian languages is not abundant (although Stella, Clech and Roldugina do publish articles in Russian, and the Russian translation of Healey’s first book Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia was published in 2008).
In relation to abovementioned authors, my research on queer Belarus was not particularly innovative, but it was published for local readers first and foremost, and it was made accessible to relatively wide non-academic audience. It was also the first publication specifically on Belarusian queer history, as other authors write mostly on Russia (Samma and Uku Lember – on Estonia, Lipša and Aripova – on Latvia). After the text was published I discovered numerous other sources and relevant publications, and I clearly see that the material is rich enough to write a book. However, it remains a project for the remote future.
The Challenges of Doing LGBTI Public History in Contemporary Belarus
After the project was over, I continued to work on the queer history of Belarus, mostly on the second half of 20th century, but occasionally on 1920s as well. I was motivated not only by my professional interest, but also by the warm responses I received about my work from the queer community. I participated in conferences abroad and co-organised public lectures and discussions in Minsk. For some time such events went smoothly, however, earlier this year in April 2018 the Dotyk festival of queer history was interrupted by the authorities. Two venues, one after another, revoked their consent to host the festival after joint harassment from several units of the Minsk city government, including the police. In the end, the festival events were held in a very tiny venue and only small portion of those willing to come were able to do so. However, a couple of hundred people watched the online video stream from the festival.
The attack on the history festival signalled the beginning of a concerted attack on LGBTI visibility in Belarus. On 20 May the Ministry of Interior issued a homophobic official statement. Several police raids on LGBT club nights followed, although this is not a new thing in Belarus. Finally, on 31 July Alok Vaid-Menon, an Indian-American queer activist, was denied entry to Belarus in Minsk airport.
Looking to the Future
I try to remain optimistic. The kind of history I do is overtly political and is perceived by the authorities as ‘dangerous’. It is exactly the thing I want my trade to be. I believe that engaged history writing is a way to change society and make it more acceptable, more liveable.
I am not aware of any professional Belarusian historians who research queer history, but there are several queer activists in my country who pursue historical research. For instance, the “Makeout” group maintains a very inspiring Retro page on their website.
Uladzimir Valodzin is a doctoral researcher at the European University Institute in Florence. He previously received a diploma in museum studies from Belarusian State University in Minsk and a MA in heritage studies from European Humanities University in Vilnius. Later he worked for several years in several museums and an archive in Minsk. His current PhD research focuses on non-conformism in Belarusian universities during the ‘thaw’ period (1953-1968).