Amid the horrific Russian war on Ukraine, I would like to share news on my personal milestone. On 28 February, I have defended (with my minor corrections) my PhD thesis at UCL SSEES. Over the last few years, I studied the Protestant congregations (both in urban and rural areas) based in Belarus, and the ways they generate social capital. For all these years, Professor Titus Hjelm and Professor Andrew Wilson provided outstanding mentorship.
Prof Hjelm supported this project with his sociological lenses, while giving a necessary intellectual freedom and space to develop my own ideas. Prof Wilson offered his comprehensive knowledge and expertise on Belarus and was always keen to discuss my work as well as offer his valuable advice.
My PhD viva with my two examiners, professor Anne White from UCL and Professor Irena Borowik from Jagielloński University in Kraków, turned out to be an insightful and thought-provoking discussion. Many thanks to all those who supported me during my PhD journey, including my husband, Yarik.
In Poland, anti-Covid vaccines are widely available, to the extent that an individual can choose a specific brand they would like to get, yet Poles are one of the least vaccinated in the European Union. Although Covid-19 has affected social life in Poland, the polls show that a large group of people do not ‘believe’ in vaccines and question their safety.
The epidemic has had an impact on religious life in Poland. Although a few high Catholic Church’s officials encouraged in public to take up vaccines, its position seems ambiguous.
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.
Since the first case of Covid-19 has been reported in Belarus in February, it did not seem to significantly affect the life of Belarusians. For some time, the authorities have been in the phase of denial of the coronavirus-related threat. Unlike in the rest of Europe, despite the rising numbers of the cases, the ’last dictatorship of Europe’ has opted for a liberal approach towards fighting the epidemics. In fact, Aleksander Lukashenka, the head of the state since 1994, often deliberately belittled the problem.
Yet, the Belarusian society seems to be deeply divided over the coronavirus threat. While some people take it seriously, others believe that strict measures such as quarantine, would cause devastating economic harm.
The coronavirus-related lockdown has forced millions of Poles to drastically change their lifestyle. In particular, the ban on public gathering has been carrying severe implications for all social actors, including churches and their members. Unlike many other European countries, 40% of Polish adults describe themselves as highly religious  and they might have found the restraints more difficult to cope with. With the lockdown, religion in Poland went almost completely private instead of being collectively practiced in churches.
On 4 April around 200 people gathered in Kurapaty to commemorate the victims of mass execution of 1937-41. Source: svaboda.org (RFE/RL)
On the morning of 4 April tractors began digging up 70 wooden crosses at the Kurapaty memorial site on the outskirts of Minsk. Police detained 15 activists that came out in protest. Later the same day around 200 people gathered in the Kurapaty forest to commemorate the victims of Stalin’s mass execution at the site, where over 150,000 people perished during the purges.
Today, more than 30 years after the discovery of the mass graves, Kurapaty still symbolises the most outrageous atrocities of the Soviet regime. Kurapaty has unleashed the potential social capital residing in Belarusian civil society and mobilised citizens to erect a people’s memorial, which civil society has preserved despite the hostility of the authorities.
As researchers we often aim at changing the world for a better place. For example, we identify a problem and keep on seeking the ways of resolving it or explaining a certain phenomenon.
It is a long journey and, at times, it feels isolating us from non-academic world. But if you think of it, the “non-academic world” is in fact the primary target of your research. So, how about giving your project a chance to become something real, meaningful and, perhaps, inspiring for others – those outside academia?
The ad of the exhibition “Belarus: the Revival of Spirituality”
This autumn seems really hectic when it comes to religion-related events in the region. The current hot item is the decision of the Constantinople Bartholomew to grant autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. I will comment upon this in the next post, but now let’s see what has recently happened in Belarus.
Two important events have recently taken place in Minsk, which proves, I think, that there might be a shift in the official religious discourse; first, “Belarus: the Revival of Spirituality”, an exhibition at the National Historical Museum; and second, “Belarus and the Bible”, the large event organised at the National Library.
Traditional beginning of a new school year in the Gethsamane church, Minsk. Source: ochve.be
Last month cohorts of young Belarusians began a new school year. This blog entry, however, discusses other types of schools in Belarus – religious, known as Sunday schools. Below more about those run by Protestant congregations.
But before that – it has been a while since my last blog post. A few reasons wre behind this inactivity – mainly the preparation for the upgrade and other academic commitments. Eventually, I managed to handle it and now can continue my usual PhD-related activities as well as try engage others in my research through blogging.
Today the 7th International Congress of Belarusian Studies kicked off in Warsaw, this time in cooperation with Collegium Civitas. Previous conferences took place in Kaunas, Lithuania. The Congress remains one of the rare opportunities for academics working on Belarus to meet up and discuss their research.
I am excited about my tomorrow’s presentation on the social capital formation in the village of Alšany, south-west Belarus. I have already prepared my powerpoint slides.