At first glance, no two words seem as distant from each other as protest and embroidery. However, in Belarus, where the opposition is challenging Alexander Lukashenko's control of power following the presidential elections on August 9, the revolution is not just being broadcast on social media, it is being embroidered.
The official results of these presidential elections, announced on August 10, gave Lukashenko more than 80% of the votes, while the leader of the recomposed opposition, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, obtained less than 10%. The results were not accepted by Tsikhanouskaya, who denounced a massive fraud with arguments from independent observer activists, and demands an official conversation with Lukashenko. However, for the Government, the elections are a finished matter and do not give rise to further discussions. In addition, internet access across the country was cut off since August 9, which means that most Belarusians cannot find out about ongoing national protests, in which the police have used violence against protesters. More than 5,000 people were arrested, and one death was reported.
Since Lukashenko came to power in 1994, the Eastern European country of nearly 10 million people has never again had free and fair elections. While these protests are the largest in recent years, previous elections in Belarus had similar responses, followed by crackdowns and mass arrests. Thus, the historical memory of any vestige of protests is erased from the collective consciousness.
For this reason, a Belarusian artist decided to immortalize the August 2020 protests with embroidery. Rufina Bazlova, who lives in Prague and studied art in the Czech Republic, chose a language close to the hearts of many Belarusians: red embroidery on a white background. For many years after independence, this type of embroidery was an essential part of Belarusian folklore to promote tourism to the country.
And it also has a political connotation. During the independence of Belarus after the fall of the Russian Empire, the country used the white, red and white tricolor flag. This is how he remembered the days of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of which he was a part, but his newly achieved independence did not last long: The country was reabsorbed by the Soviet Union in 1919. That is why, when the Soviet Union fell in 1991, it was once again the flag of independent Belarus and claimed a separate identity from Russia. However, in 1995, Lukashenko restored the green and red flag of Soviet Belarus (albeit without the hammer and sickle), and made the red and white flag a symbol of opposition to his rule.
Today the symbolism is still valid. Frequently seen in current protests, it is a symbol of resistance to the regime, according to Max Ščur, a Belarusian activist and writer based in Prague, the Czech capital:
What we are witnessing now in Minsk and Belarus is a democratic revolution, civic society is being born. Belarusian cultural identity is complicated, but right now it's all about democratic values and an active anti-regime position. It's a “civic”, not “ethnic” model of society in progress.
What we are seeing now in Minsk and throughout Belarus is a democratic revolution, the birth of civil society. Belarusian cultural identity is complicated, but at the moment, everything is related to democratic values and an active position against the regime. It is a model of “civic” society, not “ethnic”, in progress.
Ales Plotka, a Belarusian singer and civic activist based also in Prague agrees, but states that the position of the flag is more ambiguous:
The white-red-white flag is a common symbol of resistance against this unfair government. It was associated with the traditional opposition in the past, and demonized by Lukashenko ideologists, but is now used country-wide by all sorts of people. There is no official ban on it, as it is really a historical flag, known for over seven centuries. Sometimes people carrying it are attacked, usually by the police. During events celebrating the anniversary of the independent Belarusan Democratic Republic (1918-1919), it was widely used, and people leaving the area were temporarily arrested for carrying it. But today, the more it is used and recognized, the less often people carrying it are attacked.
The red and white flag is a frequent symbol of resistance against this unjust government. It was associated with the traditional opposition of the past and demonized by Lukashenko's ideologues, but today all kinds of people use it throughout the country. There is no official prohibition to use it, as it is a historical flag known for seven centuries. Sometimes there were attacks, usually by the Police, against those who carried it. It was used extensively during the events celebrating the anniversary of the independence of the Belarusian Democratic Republic (1918-1919), and people living in the vicinity were temporarily detained for wearing it. But today, the more it is used and recognized, the less the wearer is attacked.
This is why Bazlova's work has powerful political symbolism. This can be seen in the selection of events that he decides to embroider, as in the case of the two DJs who sabotaged an activity in favor of Lukashenko with the reproduction of a song by the late Soviet rock musician Viktor Tsoi about the need for a change, and that it has become almost a protest anthem of the opposition to mobilize the people against Lukashenko.
Bazlova, who has lived in the Czech Republic since 2008, explained to Global Voices the reason for her work:
Je to jednoduché – reaguji na to, co se deje v Bělorusku. Vycházím přímo z toho, co vidím ve správach a síti telegram. Běloruský ornament je v nějakém smyslu zakódovaná historie národa. Navíc červená barva na bílém lnu je symbolem života. Jak možná víte, původní vlajka Běloruské Lidové republiky vzniklé v r. 1918 měla červený pruh na bílém pozadí. Lukašenko z nějakého důvodu is nevrátil ke kořenům a rozhodl se pro novou variantu – současnou oficialní červeno-zelenou vlajku, která však taky má na sobě tradiční běloruský ornament.
I have lived in the Czech Republic for twelve years, I came in 2008 to study; I studied Illustration in Plzen and Scenography in Prague. It's simple: a reaction to what is happening in Belarus. I am directly inspired by what I see in the news and on Telegram channels. Belarusian ornamentation is, in a way, a codification of our history. Traditionally, red on linen was a symbol of life. As you may know, the original flag of the Democratic Republic of Belarus from 1918 had a red band on a white background. For some reason, Lukashenko did not pick up the original and settled on a new version: A red and green flag that also incorporates traditional ornamentation on one side.
He also explains how he goes about combining comic books with embroidery into a form of artistic expression:
To není moje první práce s vyprávěním příběhu prostřednictvím výšivek. Již před několika lety jsem vyšívala komiks Ženokol. Přestože taky pracuji v jiných technikách letošní národní probuzení si naprosto vyžádalo techniku lidové výšivky. Události posledních měsíců je naše velká historie, Bělorusko se změnilo, probudilo se, přicházejí velké změny které musí být zapsané do vyšívkového kódu! Mám v plánu vytvořit rozsáhlejší komiks or letošních volbach. Ale není to nejrzchlejší technika, takže to ještě nějakou dobu potrvá.
It is not the first of my works that focuses on telling a story through embroidery. A few years ago, I embroidered a comic series called Ženokol. Although I use different artistic techniques, this year's national awakening called for a national embroidery technique. The events of the last months represent a part of our long history: Belarus changed, woke up, great changes are coming that must be written in the embroidery code! I'm thinking of creating a long comic about this year's (presidential) elections. But it is not the fastest technique so it will take a while.
Admire Rufina Bazlova's embroidery on Instagram