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A Taste for Oppression

An interview with Ronan Hervouet following the 2020 Belarus Election

13 August 2020

How did you come to write A Taste for Oppression: A Political Ethnography of Everyday Life in Belarus?

This book is my second one on Belarus. The first one, published in French in 2009 and entitled Datcha Blues : Existences ordinaires et dictature en Biélorussie, explores the ways in which ordinary urban citizens face the Soviet and Post-Soviet world in Belarus. In it, I show how ordinary city dwellers, by putting their energies into the tending of vegetable gardens, put their desire for happiness into practice, by loosening the shackles of the system without actually breaking them. My book A Taste for Oppression is in a certain way a follow-up volume to my exploration of everyday authoritarianism in Belarus. I focus this time not on city dwellers but on people living in the countryside. I am seeking to understand the forms of life that occur in rural areas, from the inside, without assuming my contacts to be motivated solely by the power of a hegemonic domination. I therefore focused on practices aiming toward “self-ownership” employed by people who, because they are never encountered, and because their worlds remain unobserved, are denied any power to define their own projects or appropriate their own existences. This book explores more deeply than the first one the political representations linked to everyday life.

Image 1: Protesters gathered in Minsk on 30 July 2020 | CC BY-SA 4.0

Bearing in mind that Belarus is in the news at the moment as a result of Lukashenko’s latest “official” election victory last weekend, what does the book tell us about the lives of ordinary Belarussians under this regime?

We cannot speak of the election as a victory for Lukashenko. Numerous testimonies indicate that the frauds are massive, probably at a level unequalled during Lukashenko’s reign. The recent events show that ordinary people don’t want the Lukashenko’s regime any more. The constestations occur in Minsk but also in more than 25 different towns. Some conversations with Belarusian friends who live there indicate that even in villages there are critics of the President. Can we find some explanations of this in my book? I try to understand why things have not changed until now. I conducted my research between 2006 and 2013. The regime was not founded only on repression and violence. There were other reasons (material, symbolic, subjective, moral) that were analysed in an ethnographic perspective. In my book I describe in this perspective different ordinary lives under the Belarusian dictatorship. Despite the numerous constraints imposed by the administration and the hierarchy, people were able to build worlds that were coherent, moral and even sometimes desirable. There has been a switchover recently. The regime does not assure protection and moral meaning in everyday life any longer. The regime was perceived as more or less fair. It is perceived today as unfair. The book shows why the regime has perpetuated, but, simultaneously, shows the fragility of the regime. If everyday life cannot experienced as moral, the regime has no legitimity. And only brute force can keep it going. This is what we are witnessing today.

How long did you spend in the country in total researching the subject?

I lived five years in the country. Between 1999 and 2001, I taught Sociology and Economics at the Franco-Belarusian faculty of Political Science and European Studies, in the European Humanitarian University. Then, from 2009 to 2012, I was co-Director of the Franco-Belarusian Center of Political Science and European Studies. In addition to these two stays, I spent some weeks in the country every year, until 2013. In the end, I spent more than three years in the country to gather the materials that were necessary for my investigation.

What does the title of the book “A Taste for Oppression” mean in this context?

The title is a reference to the Tocqueville’s sentence: “The love of order is confounded with a taste for oppression.” Today, the “love of order” is not sufficient to inspire a taste for oppression. Oppression is contested. Oppression is fought. The taste for oppression is possible when the “order” imposed by the regime is translated in everyday life by meaningful activities. That is what I show in my book. This meaningful everyday life has recently exploded.

Image 2: Street poster depicting Alexander Lukashenko as a cannibal. In English, the text reads: “It’s me! I beat women and children. It’s me! I kill people. It’s me! I use firearms and flashbangs against peaceful protesters. It’s me! I took away people’s freedom and right to choose by stealing their votes! I got 80%, but I’m afraid to go outside and talk to the people.” Minsk, Belarus | By Homoatrox – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Does the collectivised organisation of the economy inhibit and limit the lives lived by ordinary Belarussians?

The description of the effective functioning of the kolkhoz and, more broadly, of the relationships and interdependencies in rural worlds, paints a picture of the social world in the countryside that contrasts with the representations presented by the media and politicians. Consent is seen as the product of discipline imposed from above. Alexander Lukashenko claims to govern machinery which functions automatically if the directives handed down from the topmost decision-making body are properly transmitted, down through the ranks, to the most localized actions. Media and academic discourses place the emphasis on coercion, fear, and violence to explain the workings of a system that manages to perpetuate itself despite the harsh working conditions and faint hopes of economic success. This conception of society as a machine prevents us from understanding the multiple networks of exchange – formal and informal – that govern the regulation of these worlds. Anthropologists who studied rural life in communist Europe at local levels had previously identified this pitfall. Steven Sampson, when pointing out that local groups and individuals potentially had more power than most observers of socialist regimes realized, suggests that socialist Romania was “a society with a plan, but not a planned society” (Sampson 1984). Far from being concentrated at the top of an institutional pyramid, power is disseminated and mobilized in a fragmentary and tenuous manner, in multiple areas of the social space. The kolkhozes form a world reflecting aspects of a configuration structured by complex systems of interdependencies, hovering between different states of unstable balances. These systems of interdependencies paint a picture of a society moving like a Calder mobile. The recent events confirm the instability and the fragility of these social balances.

What political attitudes and opinions towards the Lukashenko regime did you encounter among ordinary people while carrying out the research for the book?

In the countryside, the people I met spoke very little about politics. Sometimes they expressed some criticism, annoyance, distance toward Lukashenko. But more often they explained that they wanted stability and order to continue to live as they lived. They didn’t see any alternative to Lukashenko and sometimes expressed clearly their support of his politics. Today, the contestation is huge. Lukashenko is no longer seen as the one who allows, people to live with dignity through his politics.

My reading of the book is that ordinary people can often use resources provided by the authoritarian regime to ensure that their way of life is protected and more acceptable. Is this correct? I am sure it is more complex that the way I have described it here.

Although it displays a particularly strong disciplinary dimension, in practice this closed world tolerates in the countryside many illegalisms which, without calling into question the general directives handed down from above, ease certain constraints on countryfolk at the local level and make their future more predictable. These illegal actions include the private use of collective resources (theft, robbery, misappropriation, accounting fraud), the distillation and distribution of home-made alcohol and, in a more residual manner, poaching or prostitution. They also complement the authorized resources that people can obtain in rural areas. These resources are mobilized within systems of horizontal and vertical interdependencies implying relatively stable configurations of reciprocities and obligations. The use of these resources enables the satisfaction of certain material expectations, which differ according to generational affiliations. Their modes of appropriation and mobilization then produce forms of practical solidarity. Finally, they allow people to lead dignified and meaningful lives, since they enable the manifestation of socially recognized qualities: endurance, ingenuity, enthusiasm, and a sense of independence. Individuals thus negotiate with the imposed constraints in order to decompartmentalize their life worlds. These constraints are not seen as the embodiments of an oppressive system, but rather as an order of things that must be appropriated in order to construct one’s own universe. By inducing specific practices, through the circumvention of official constraints, the system thus indirectly generates a specific moral economy. The configurations have changed since my survey; the regime no longer meets the expectations of the inhabitants, even, a priori, in the countryside. In my book, by showing the springs of stability, I also underline the fragility of the balances. Today, we understand that these balances in this moral economy have imploded.

What will a reader get out of your book? Who do you think would most benefit from reading your book?

Of course, the specialists of Eastern Europe – academics, researchers, students, NGOs, journalists, diplomats – will find here a recent investigation about a country which is poorly known. But beyond this usual audience of academic works, I wrote this book so that an audience of non-specialists might find it interesting. I feature many stories from ordinary citizens, which capture the different dimensions of the tragedies of the 20th century in this part of Europe. The analysis describes sometimes epic characters, their family history, their sufferings and their joys, their secrets and their hopes.

What is the political future of “the last dictatorship in Europe” and how will this affect the lives of ordinary people in rural areas? 

Today, the 13th of August 2020, no one can know what will happen in the next days, weeks and months in Belarus. As a researcher, but also as a European citizen, I hope that, in the future, ordinary people in rural areas, but also in cities, will be able to live with dignity.

Ronan Hervouet is Associate Professor at the University of Bordeaux in the Faculty of Sociology and a member of the Centre Émile Durkheim. He has previously published a book on Belarus, entitled Datcha Blues: Existences ordinaires et dictature en Biélorussie (Belin, 2009).

Forthcoming Spring 2021 from Berghahn Books

A Political Ethnography of Everyday Life in Belarus
Ronan Hervouet
Vol. 6, Anthropology of Europe

Belarus has emerged from communism in a unique manner as a Presidential Republic with a bicameral parliament. The author, who has lived in Belarus for several years, highlights several mechanisms of tyranny, beyond the regime’s ability to control and repress, which should not be underestimated. The book immerses the reader in the depths of the Belarusian countryside, among the kolhozes and rural communities at the heart of this authoritarian regime under Alexander Lukashenko, and offers vivid descriptions of the everyday life of Belarusians. It sheds light on the reasons why part of the population supports Lukashenko and takes a fresh look at the functioning of what has been called ‘the last dictatorship in Europe’.

326 pages, bibliog., index | ISBN  978-1-80073-025-0