Christian churches, social capital and the 2020 Belarusian uprising
By Lisa J Walters, on 9 August 2021
Author: Paula Borowska, PhD Candidate at UCL SSEES. Paula’s working thesis is ‘Religion and social capital: the case of Protestants in Belarus’
This August marks a year since the large-scale protests had swept through Belarus following the fraudulent presidential election. With several protesters dead and the number of political prisoners in hundreds, Belarus is undergoing one of the most dramatic periods since it proclaimed independence in 1990.
Despite the violence of the authorities, the persistence of the protests demonstrated something unanticipated. One can hardly say that civil society in Belarus is the ‘least developed in Europe’ (Lenzi, 2002) or ‘weak’ (Matchanka, 2014), while social capital is in ‘low stocks’. In fact, social networks, solidarity and trust of Belarusians have never been at these levels.
The brutal suppression of peaceful protest marches has also triggered reaction from various Christian churches in Belarus. This blog post explores how Christian churches engaged with the ongoing crisis. It views their participation as talaka, a form of voluntary assistance, historically, traditional to Belarusian rural communities. Considering the political turbulence and the state repressions, churches efficiently facilitated acts of solidarity within society.
Talaka as civic action
In scholarly discourse, social capital refers to social networks and norms of trust and reciprocity (Putnam, 2000). Some scholars went as far to define social capital in former Soviet republics as non-communitarian or in ‘low stocks’ – as clientelism and corruption lay at its heart, rather than the community in a broader sense (Åberg, 2000). Yet, research on social capital in Belarus is scarce.
The argument that social capital is ‘non-communitarian’ or is in ‘low stocks’ in the post-Soviet space, however, seems problematic. First, it underestimates social developments on the ground. Second, there is no consensus on the most sufficient and complete way of measuring of social capital (Wu et al., 2018). This is the case, in particular, of less open and accessible, non-democratic societies, such as that of Belarus. To explore social capital, I suggest focusing on a traditional form of civic engagement which developed in the Belarusian society – called talaka.
Historically, talaka developed as a form of collective mutual neighbourly help among Belarusian peasants (Tarnavskyi, 2011; Karbalevich, 2014). It played an important role among farmers, especially, in the second half of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. People engaged with talaka, when building, harvesting, and other agrarian works. Since it enabled communication and provided socialization, talaka was vital in the community (Karbalevich 2014). Also, such collective assistance helped releasing social pressure and made individuals feel part of the community.
Is talaka alive in Belarus?
During my PhD fieldwork on social capital in Belarus, some of the study participants reflected upon talaka too. Although they were familiar with the concept, the word talaka has been widely wiped out from the popular language. Yet, the idea of collective ad hoc assistance has, however, survived.
One of the study participants based in the countryside, Maryja (aged 55), has given a recent example of talaka in her community when the neighbours’ house was burnt down, and members of the Protestant church helped the family either with construction works or money.
Another modern-day example of talaka is the digital activism of Belarusians. For example, they can donate money for various civic initiatives on the online platform Talaka to support a socially relevant project. This could include further maintaining the Belarusian language courses ‘Mova Nanova’ or regular broadcasting of foreign movies with Belarusian dubbing.
Christian churches and the outbreak of protests
Religious organizations are part of civil society (Bacon, 2006), yet, in Belarus, some of them, analogously to other organizations, have been collaborating with the authorities on political affairs (Laputska, 2017). Some would argue that the Belarusian Orthodox Church exemplifies this.
Nevertheless, when protests broke out, the reaction of the major churches reflected the popular mood in Belarus. Clergymen from all three major Christian churches (Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant) took part in the peaceful marches and some were even arrested and sentenced.
In response, the authorities pushed for personal changes within the hierarchy of the Catholic and Orthodox churches, by which they aimed to marginalize them in public and curve the potential impact they could bring on the society. In that sense, churches suffer as much as other civil society actors, and this seems unprecedented in the post-Soviet history of Belarus.
On the institutional level, all major Christian churches have taken an unequivocal position against the initial state violence. Initially, Metropolitan Paval, the then head of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, had congratulated Aliaksandr Lukashenka with ‘winning of the election’. However, soon after on 17 September, he apologized for this and visited those who suffered from the hands of riot police (Belsat.eu, 2020a; Euroradio, 2020).
Although Metropolitan Paval emphasised that the Orthodox Church stayed beyond politics, he empathized peoples’ suffering and prayed for the victims. In fact, this and civic participation of many less known Orthodox priests has proved that the Church in Belarus has a certain degree of independence from the state. Eventually, the public engagement of the head of the Belarusian Orthodox Church cost him his position and he (a Russian citizen) had to leave Belarus.
Amid political turmoil, some Belarusians have already left the Orthodox church for the Catholic, because of, in their opinion, the insufficient reaction of the former towards the state violence (Isachenka, 2020). However, it is difficult to estimate the scale of this phenomenon and whether it could seriously hit the Orthodox Church.
The authorities have taken similar personal countermeasures against the second largest church in the country, the Catholic Church. The most striking case involved rejecting for several months the entry to Belarus of Archbishop Tadeuš Kadrusievič, the then head of the Belarusian Catholic Church (RFE/RL, 2021). This was in the reaction to his active position on calling the authorities to have a dialogue with the society, condemning the violence and to release all political prisoners (Svaboda.org, 2020). Upon Archbishop Kandrusievič’s return to Belarus, he has already submitted to Pope Francis his letter of resignation.
Some Protestant churches have also issued statements which condemned the state violence. For example, the association of Baptists, later the association of Pentecostals and charismatics made their official position clear to the public opinion (Baptist.by, 2020; Ocvbe.bel, 2020) too.
Talaka of churches
From the moment of the 2020 Belarusian protests, religious organizations have undertaken talaka, engaged with support to people or facilitated civic action. For example, believers from various denominations have formed the Christian Vision (Khrys’cian’skoye vid’yenie in Russian). The group works within the Co-ordination Council for the Transfer of Power, headed by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition candidate in the 2020 presidential election. The ‘Christian vision’ gathers information on repression of believers (Christian Vision, 2020).
In a recently published paper, Natallia Vasilevich, who leads the group, stated that “Parish, prayer, regency and even priestly chats in Viber have become networks of mutual assistance, information exchange, a space for discussion and planning of public actions.” (Christian Vision, 2020). A number of religious Belarusians (including clergymen) mobilized to act amid the emerging political crisis. Also, the congregational life in faith communities has changed too as the members shifted focus to small acts of civic engagement.
Some Protestant groups have been active on Telegram, an instant messaging application, which remains popular among Belarusians and cannot be controlled by the authorities. One of the channels on Telegram, with over 500 subscribers, is ‘Jevanhel’skaja Belarus’. It, mainly, contains updates on arrests and court hearings of religious activists. For example, as the channel has reported, on 15 July, one of the congregations in Minsk has been closed by the Ministry of Emergency Services, allegedly because of the violation of fire safety. In reality, the reason might be to harm congregations for their criticism.
Another manifestation of talaka is the human chain of repentance called “From Kurapaty to Akreścina. Never again”. Kurapaty forest in the outskirts of Minsk has been known for the discovery of mass graves of Stalinist victims in the late 1980s. Akreścina, on the other hand, is a detention centre in Minsk where the authorities keep protesters and activists.
The human chain was organized by a group of Protestants in Minsk on 21 August 2020. It attracted nearly 10 thousands of people, many of whom held a copy of the Bible, crosses or white-red-white flags (historic flags which were widely embraced in the 2020 protest movement in the opposition to the Lukashenka regime) in their hands (Belsat.eu, 2020b; Kulakevich, 2020; Wilson, 2021). The organizers wanted this to be the ‘repentance chain’ of Belarusian society, and the symbol of the objection to the state violence. The event proved the high degree of organizational and mobilizational capacity of Protestants in the country.
Does talaka threaten the authoritarian regime?
The ongoing crackdown on individuals, civil society leaders and organizations has demonstrated that the authorities fear collective action of Belarusians. The protests, which brought hundreds of thousands of people to the streets for months, arrests of tens of thousands, killings, and acts of torture and injustice towards innocent people unleashed the large resources of social networks and solidarity among Belarusians, something that the authorities did not anticipate.
Churches in Belarus, with their financial and human resources, and, in many respects, the independence from the state, will continue to catalyse this (political) socialization of Belarusians. However, since the state brutality, the leadership of churches has their hands largely tied as to what they could fearlessly do in public to express their position. Their impact, thus, has been limited.
The lessons from the Belarusian protests have shaken the conventional wisdom about the nature of civil society and social capital. More academic attention on the social developments in Belarus could help explain how religious ideas mobilize people to undertake civic action and whether religious membership could promote a wider social change. Talaka requires significant social resources, which clearly do exist in the Belarusian society, but results in the rise of trust and solidarity too, something that any non-democratic regime would be scared of. Strong networks and relationships facilitate democracy and citizen freedoms, rather authoritarian-style rule.
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