Stand By is an attempt to talk about things happening to simple people in Belarus, avoiding the limitations of oversimplification, here lives a nation enslaved by the dictator Lukashenko.
Agnieszka Wójcińska: In the new project about Belarus prepared by the Sputnik Photos collective, your part touches upon war. It consists of old photos and items associated with the army. This is rather enigmatic. What is the story about?
Andrei Liankevich: In brief, this is an attempt to talk about things that have not been talked about so far. I am trying to show that the war was not a simple black and white event where on one side you had the good men of the Soviet Union, and on the other the bad Germans who attacked them. This is far more complex. For example, how does a simple man living in a God-forsaken village in the Eastern Borderlands, which used to be Polish but then belonged to the USSR, see all this? The Germans come, but he has already lost his family and his property during Stalinist repressions. What decision does he make? Does he begin to cooperate with the Germans, who promise they will help him win back his lost position? Some do so, some decide not to. I wanted to understand how people made those kinds of decisions.
Is this oversimplified image of the war the only right one in post Soviet countries?
The myths on which this way of thinking about the war is based are very strong, also in Belarus. For example, the belief that the war began in 1941. It never gets mentioned that at that point the war had been waging for 2 years, and the Soviet Union had been idly watching Germany march across Europe. There are many basic facts kept silent, both in schools and at homes. For example, why was the siege of Leningrad possible? This question is never asked. It is taken for granted that the Germans came, and it happened. Just as it is taken for granted that here came the bad Fascists, we killed them, and we won the war.
In your book you said that the war and the message of “every fourth Belarusian man killed” had never been a topic close to your heart. What made you take interest in it?
As a former journalist I can feel that this is a good time to start discussing it. There are just a few veterans left, there is no need to be afraid of offending or hurting anyone. And it is possible to step outside obvious answers; without that, I believe, there can be no moving forward, no future. For Poles it is obvious what happened during World War II, that there were two armies as well as guerillas, and that each of these fractions did all kinds of things. The Belarusian nation, and Russian as well, has never accounted for it. Take the question of who Stalin was. An effective manager? Because that is one of the myths on which the war narrative is based. Meanwhile, in reality he killed more people that Hitler. All these questions, never asked in the past 70 years, made me undertake this subject.
The war, or to be more precise, its female veterans, are present in Stand By in one more piece, a project by Agnieszka Rayss.
An important, breakthrough project. Female veterans do not exist at all in the history of the Soviet Union. There are only veteran men. There is no war of women or children.
As the one described by Svetlana Alexievich in her book, The Unwomanly Face of the War, she was the first one to focus attention on this problem in a reportage.
There had been no one before to do this in photography.
What does the war look like in the public consciousness in Belarus?
It marks the beginning of the history of the contemporary state, on which this whole history is based. There are museums, there are parades. We are heroes, because we won the war. We are famous, because we won the war. We are the best in the world, because we won the war. And without anyone’s help to that. But something else is interesting. I collected many postcards commemorating the war for the sake of this project. And it so happens that while you can buy other greeting cards all year round, those war-related, dedicated to veterans, are available only on the 9th of May, give or take a few days. This is paradoxical; about 60 per cent of streets in Minsk are named after people or events associated with the war, but that has no bearing on everyday lives. People have no idea who their streets are commemorating. And 99 per cent of people asked when WWII began will say: “in 1941”.
Going back to your material. What do the old photos photographed by you represent?
My father and his comrades from the army, and places depicted by a photographer who was accompanying them. This is a story of my Dad, who was in the army, in the place where the war began for Soviet Russia – in the Brest fortress, through which the Fascists entered the USSR. With time this place became a symbol of the struggle and heroism of Soviet soldiers, even though it played no important role from the point of view of real history. The Germans crossed Brest within just a few hours. And yet 20 or 30 years after the war, one of the most important myths, foundations of modern Belarusian, or generally – Soviet – ideology, was created. This myth talks about soldiers who fought to the last drop of their blood. In reality, the sacrifice of those who gave their lives there made no sense. On one hand, I take Polaroid photos of the place which was created later – the museum and all the symbols; on the other – all the black and white photos from that period. I am trying to show how history changes over time. And how the lives of simple folk are intertwined with it, the lives of people like my father, who was the only person in my family to have ever served in the army.
Some of the photos of portraits are blurry. What did you want to express by it?
A story opposite to that of the Brest fortress. These photos present portraits of war heroes, who used to be the most important people in the Soviet or Belarusian history as recently as 20 or 30 years ago. Everybody knew them; trains and national parks bore their names. Now their portraits can be found only in museums and nobody remembers who they were. I took photos of those gods disappearing quietly from history. I supplemented the photos with fragments of Google Maps showing streets named after these forgotten heroes.
Your materials also include photos of bottles decorated in a military style.
For this project I accumulated a collection of modern franchise commemorating the war – these bottles, glass machine rifles, flags. They are a great visual illustration of the modern understanding of the war, the kitsch and the distance to what it really was with all its pain and seriousness.
Where did this journey in search of war take you?
On one hand, I saw a different understanding of war. I created its alternative version for my own use. On the other, I recreated the history of my family, which allowed me to better understand who I am, but also who Poles living in the Eastern Borderlands were for the USSR. My family on my Dad’s side is of Polish descent. My grandfather was a landowner, who had a criminal record for owning land “taken from a kolkhoz”. Neither him nor anyone in my family, with the exception of my father who was a private and an army driver, have ever served in the Soviet military forces. Soviet generals did not trust Poles from the Eastern Borderlands, never being sure in which direction they would start firing after two years of living in the USSR.
How did you come up with the title for your project, Farewell Fatherland?
I was referring to the last words written by solders on the walls of the Brest fortress. This project is also my goodbye to the history and myths of the country I live in. Thirdly, I have reached a stage of a very difficult, and yet easy decision that I do not want to spend my whole life in Belarus. Because the aesthetics and the atmosphere here are not fully mine. I will live somewhere in between; I am leaving to study in Germany, I am a tutor at a Lithuanian university, and I await further projects with Sputnik, in different places.
Stand By consists of works by seven Sputnik Photos photographers. How did you come up with the idea of a project on Belarus?
– Two years ago I said to the other Sputnik Photos members: there are presidential elections coming in Belarus, Lukashenko started playing a weird democracy card. We live in interesting times, where Belarus can go in different directions. This is a historical moment for Belarusian art and Belarus itself. We have a chance to either photograph a country that will be no more, or to make the first photo album of modern Belarus. They liked the idea, we received a grant, and the project was launched. For Sputnik it was a continuation of other projects on post-Soviet countries, Russia’s sputniks. And for me, this was important on a personal level.
Belarusian art lacks serious projects. Stand By is a point to move forward from. This is also an answer to a frequently asked question of what subjects in Belarus can be interesting to a photographer, also from the West. And it occurred that there are millions of subjects in the air, which need to be dealt with now. From graffiti, presented by Rafał Milach, talking about the political situation but also abstract art, to serious reporting, such as the material on female veterans made by Agnieszka Rayss.
Looking from a Polish perspective, we know more and more about Ukraine, and almost next to nothing on Belarus.
In the past few years, ever since the Orange Revolution, Ukraine has managed to create a myth of the existence of a Ukrainian nation. Belarus has not managed to do so. We are known in the west only in the contexts of Chernobyl, Lukashenko, and villages. Artists who come here simply follow clichés 99 per cent of the time. “Stand By” was for me a very important attempt to talk about things which are happening to the simple people in Belarus. About how the young and old live, about their good and bad moments. Without using black and white paint, without using clichés of a nation enslaved by the dictator Lukashenko. Because this is the same kind of oversimplification as the myths of war we have discussed. Take Justyna Mielnikiewicz. She is presenting the problem of the migration of women who go looking for a husband abroad. Janek Brykczyński talks about the modern Białowieża Forest in Belarus, about what it means in the lives of simple people. These are seemingly simple subjects, but once you start reading the texts accompanying them, you begin to understand these important issues.
This book is important for Belarusian art because of one more thing. It shows different kinds of modern art – starting with the Polaroid photos of Rafał Milach, through my Google Map cut-outs, to the large format works of Janek Brykczyński and the iPhone photography of Justyna Mielnikiewicz. This is a compendium of the most popular modern photographic languages.
And what does team work bring to Stand By?
Besides various photography techniques – it brings different points of view of Belarus. It would have been impossible to do such a book alone in a year. This is a great advantage of such collaborative projects.
How did you work?
Each of us looked for themes on our own. That was a long process. During their first visit none of the visiting photographers took any photos; only a few were a result of their second trip. This was good personal training for all of us. It occurred that the impression that in a country under an authoritarian regime you are under permanent KGB surveillance exists only in our heads. If you are looking for those people in the streets, then you will see them. With each visit you become more relaxed, you can go and take photos of everything, the dictatorship moves into the background. It was a great discovery for me, that you can be unafraid to take some photos. I realised that paranoia was just in my head.
So you had no problems with this project?
Janek Brykczyński was sent back to Poland once to obtain an extra permit to take photos in the border zone. A head of an association of veterans got offended that Agnieszka Rayss was doing her work without his permission, but even that conflict was resolved. That’s it.
What was the most difficult part about this project?
First of all, each of us presented their own point of view on a particular social issue in Belarus, without giving any simple black and white answers. Secondly, there were many discussions about this project. Should there be any text accompanying the photos? What can we say about our subjects? We have proven ourselves as a collective that is able to make decisions together. The third difficult aspect was to come to Belarus and understand what is happening. Because even the Belarusians don’t really understand.
Looking at Stand By as a whole, is it more of a documentary or an artistic project?
This project is an important point in Sputnik’s development. Here you can see that the members of the collective understand very well that photography is evolving, and that the boundaries between documentary and artistic photos are evaporating. Each of us follows our own path towards modern photography, leaving behind the classic forms of a journalist’s approach, toward different languages of photography.
In Belarus you function as an independent freelancer. What is your job like in that reality?
Journalism is not a safe job in any country in the world. I work for Western media, just as Andrzej Poczobut, but I have never really been critical and I have never touched upon dangerous subjects, unlike him, who directly criticises the situation in the country in his writing. As a photographer I show things which just are, which are hard to deny. Sure, I have faced some dangerous situations. A few years ago my nose was broken. A year ago, during the elections, all my equipment was taken away and, obviously, never given back. Just as my colleagues I sat waiting in my apartment waiting for them to come and confiscate my hard drive. I spent a night in custody once. But this is what the situation is like. On the other hand, I work on my books, on my projects. I don’t think I fear for my life.
This project ended with a book. What will happen to it now?
We have received a grant from the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs to organise an exhibition. It is going to have its opening in September, in Krynki, a town in the Podlasie Province; this has a symbolic meaning, since this place has had long multicultural traditions, both Poles and Belarusians live there. Then we will show it in Gdańsk. We will also take it to the Belarusian University in exile in Vilnius. But I absolutely believe that this project needs to be shown in Minsk. Otherwise, as photographers, we will not give back to the Belarusian people what we should. I hope it will work.