On the 18th of May, the world celebrates the International Day of Museums. The holiday is not alien to Belarus either – there are more than 150 museums with paintings, historical exhibits, unique antiquities in our country . However, the life of a museum worker cannot be called simple: most of the museums belong to the state, which means that the salary is paid by the government. And one needs to work hard for the reward: sign the election protocol with false numbers, plant a tree for free during the public clean-up day, attend ice hockey and a pro-government festival. On the International Day of Museums, we would like to bring to your attention, how the government of Belarus is effectively destroying museums.
As of January 2021, the average salary of a museum worker is just over 700 rubles (or $ 278), which is one of the lowest in Belarus. In the regions outside Minsk, the earnings are even lower, and often barely reach the minimum wage. During the Corona virus pandemic, many museums lost the influx of foreign tourists and did not receive any support from the state. Nevertheless, the museums continue keeping their doors open to receive visitors – even in conditions of war between the state and the people.
On the 12th of August 2020, 78-year-old Anton Bubolo (he was a juvenile concentration camp prisoner during the second World War), a senior researcher at the Verkhnedvinsk Museum of Local Nature and History, was detained. On that day, he had a walk by the fountain in the city center with his son, daughter and grandchildren. At 19:30 security officials without explaining anything grabbed a group of men walking nearby. As part of this, they also detained Anton Bubolo. The head of the District Police Department Dmitry Novikov explained that Anton Bubolo was engaged in sabotaging the state. In the end, the elderly man was given a warning about participating in mass events not authorized by the authorities – even though there was no rally in Verkhnedvinsk on that day. He was last to be released from the District Police Department, close to midnight, and no one apologized to him.
Konstantin Shishmakov, director of the Bagration Military History Museum in Volkovysk, was found dead in a forest on the 18th August, 2020. Relatives had lost contact with him three days before that. On the day of his disappearance, he called his wife and said that he would no longer work in the museum. Six days before his disappearance, Konstantin refused to sign the final election protocol with false numbers.
On the 9th of December 2020, the Director of the Museum of Belarusian Literature Mikhail Rybakov was summoned to the Ministry of Culture. He was “offered” to write a letter of resignation on his own free will, referring to the “new personnel policy of the management.” Back in February 2020, during his appraisal, Mikhail Rybakov proved his suitability to the position. He publicly requested the Minister of Culture Anatoly Markevich to explain the reasons for this act but received no response.
On the same day, the contract with the director of the National History and Culture Museum-Reserve “Nesvizh” Sergei Klimov was terminated. He was asked to write a letter of resignation on his own free will. Sergei Klimov headed the museum for ten years. It was under his management that this institution became one of the most popular tourist sites in Belarus. In August 2020, a white-red-white flag appeared over the museum building.
On the 1st of January 2021, the director of the museum-estate “Pruzhanskі palatsyk” Yuriy Zelevich resigned. He had been the director of the museum for 20 years and actively supported the movement of Belarusian renaissance as well as inviting opposition performers to the museum. Under his management, the museum became the pride of Pruzhany as it features the only restored estate in “Art Nouveau”. Yuri Zelevich did not explain the reasons for leaving, but said that he would very much like to work in this position again.
In January 2021, the contract with the director of the Museum of History of Mogilev Alexei Batyukov was not renewed. Alexei did not support the politics of the illegitimate government. He signed a letter against the violence of the security forces and for the resignation of the usurper. In October he was fined for participating in three protests. It is worth mentioning that thanks to him, historical values such as the Statute of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania returned to Mogilev. Alexei carried out many projects to popularize our history and culture. In September, the museum staff demanded Lukashenko’s resignation, an end of violence against peaceful Belarusians, an investigation of police brutality during protests, and the release of political prisoners.
An illustrative story happened in February 2021 with an accountant of the Vitebsk Regional Museum of Local Nature and History. The money that the institution earned from selling souvenirs, holding exhibitions and excursions was distributed by the accountant for bonuses, material assistance and other payments to museum employees, as well as new furniture. The accountant was fired and a criminal case opened against her based on the grounds that, since the museum is funded by the state, all proceeds should be returned to the budget.
On the 21st of March, the tour guide of the Museum of the Great Patriotic War, 29-year-old Yuri Kuvshinov was detained. On his backpack there was a badge with the “Pahonia” coat of arms against the background of a white-red-white flag. Yuri noted that he always wore this badge, even after the events of August and September, and no one had any complaints. On the day of his arrest, he conducted a guided tour for the cadets of the Military Academy and told them about the white-red-white flag. He met the group again in the subway on his way home. The supervisor of the group grabbed Yuri by the backpack, demanded to show his phone and called the riot police patrol. When Yuri was under interrogation, the supervisor served as a witness and said, while hiding his eyes, that he was just doing his job. Yuri was imprisoned for 15 days.
On the 26th of March, 59-year-old local resident of Novogrudok, Sergei Lavrushchik, was detained. He is the owner and collector of many rare exhibits and plans to create his own museum. During the search, the police officers found several weapons: cartridges of various calibers, a replaceable machine-gun disk, a pistol and an unregistered hunting rifle with cartridges. All of these were parts of the exhibits of his museum. Sergei’s son said that the weapons were rusty and have not been fired for a long time. All these items as well as many others belonged to the family of Sergei Lavrushchikand and were shared with the local state museum. He wanted to call his own museum “The Museum of the Last Litvin”.
On the 31st of March, the acting head of the educational department of the Museum of Belarusian Polesie, Valery Kobrinets, resigned. In August 2020, he was detained right at his workplace and sent to the District Police Department, where a protocol under Article. 23.34 of the Code of Administrative Offenses was drawn up. Valery was collecting signatures as part of an appeal to the deputies to meet with voters. Valery was fined 10 “basic units” ($115). In February, during the search in his house, a laptop and a USB flash drive were confiscated.
On the 16th of April, the private “Tsikavii Museum” (“Interesting Museum”) in Grodno was closed. It contained more than 600 exhibits – household items of the 19th and 20th centuries from different countries. The collection included the likes of old irons, radios, gramophones, phonographs, kitchen utensils, a collection of cup holders, and so on. During the pandemic, the state reduced the rent by 5 percent (less than $2). Then everything returned to its previous level. In March, the rental costs increased from 96 to 377 rubles. In April the rent had reached 581 rubles. At the moment, the owner of the museum is considering moving the collection elsewhere.
ICCI “Our House” expresses solidarity with all museum employees who suffered from repressions. We believe that in a democratic Belarus, the work of these people will be in demand, well paid and honoured.