“So if you criticize the authorities, you cannot be a state employee?”

In Mogilev, a Deputy Museum Director has been fired for protesting 

25 August 2020, 11:27 | Angelica Vasilevskaya, TUT.BY
(Editor’s note: the letter signs museum employees are holding in the above photo spell out “We are against violence!”)
Source: TUT.BY

In Mogilev, the Deputy Director of the Maslenikov Regional Art Museum has been fired for protesting against violence and sending a corresponding appeal to the Head of Culture of the Regional Council. Aleksandr Balberov says that the staff of the museum is dispirited “due to the inability to express their opinions”. The Director of the museum, a former Regional Council official, says that “the authorities now have the right to do everything”.

Employees of Mogilev’s Maslenikov Regional Museum wrote an appeal to the Head of the Department of Culture of the Mogilev Regional Council, Oleg Stelmashka, on 13 August. They expressed their protest in connection with the violence and detentions taking place in Belarus.

The museum workers showed their solidarity with the staff of the Mogilev Regional Drama Theater and the Kupalovsky Theater, and also asked to “consider with all objectivity the circumstance of the detention of Vladimir Alekseevich Petrovich, an actor and director of the Mogilev Drama Theater.” Petrovich had been detained during a trip and then sentenced to three days of jailtime.

All this, says Aleksandr Balberov, was caused by the fact that Museum Director Elena Bobrova, the former Deputy Head of the Mogilev Regional Council Department of Culture, who has held the current post since January 2019, summoned him for a conversation that day.

“The essence of the conversation was that a closed meeting of the Ministry of Culture was held, at which an order was given to uncover protest moods among staff, to deliver information about employees who participate in public gatherings, to call the police against employees who are seen inciting protest actions,” says Balberov. “I told the Director plainly that this does not correspond to my moral and civic principles and that I will not do this. And I said that she should make a statement to the staff and not hide the situation from them. To this I was told that ‘the government now has the right to do everything’.”

Then, according to Balberov, he spoke to the staff and told them everything, because he “did not want to be an accomplice in this lie and violence against the right of people to have divergent views.” After that, he, along with half of the staff, wrote an appeal to the Head of the Mogilev Regional Council Department of Culture.

“As a result, I was declared the instigator. They said that I turned the staff against the Director, that I incited people to strike and discredited the institution in pursuit of my own political goals,” says Aleksandr. “I was removed from the post of Deputy Director and my paperwork was withdrawn from the office: my application and the order of appointment, related to my appointment to the post of Deputy Director of Science. Until July, I was listed as Acting Deputy Director, as well as Head of the Department of Scientific Publishing and Marketing. I was appointed Deputy Director by order at the beginning of August, and now it turns out that I was Acting Deputy Director until 21 July, and after, until 21 August, did everything that I had signed as Deputy Director suddenly become illegitimate?”

Balberov was removed from the projects he oversaw: for example, the creation of an exposition for the Belynichi Art Museum (currently under construction) for the Day of the Belarusian Written Language.

The Director, among other things, noted that she ‘no longer wants to work with me, as I share everything with the staff. That neither she nor the Head of the Department of Culture, whom I discredited with my demarche during a staff meeting, no longer has confidence in me.’ The main argument was that, in the opinion of the Director and Head of the department, a person who criticizes the authorities and who has an opposing viewpoint cannot work in a state organization. Among other things, I was accused of the fact that because of my appeal, only four out of 35 museum employees went to a pro-government rally in Mogilev. It was said that all this can be done after submitting a letter of resignation.

24 August was Aleksandr’s last working day. He says he wrote the statement himself, but it was done “under pressure”.

I considered it necessary to write a letter of resignation, as I do not want to have anything to do with the system that has turned culture and art into servants of the authorities and ideology, into bureaucrats from regional executive committees. I also don’t want to be an earpiece and an informer, because I believe that it is precisely in the diversity of opinions and positions that there is forward movement, there is progress. What I was offered does not fit into any norms of morality and law and seems like it’s out of a script of a film about the GDR of the Stasi era. It is very difficult to realize that now in this country, different views, solidarity with work colleagues can become an instrument of pressure in the command-administrative system, and in the future – become materials for a criminal case.

Aleksandr Balberov says that the staff of the museum is dispirited, because the essence of the meetings with the Head of the Culture Department of the Regional Council comes down to, “the state pays your salary — what more do you want?”

The official position is this: if you are a public sector employee, the right to dissent is excluded by default. And here, the question follows: how can you then build and develop something if only one point of view is allowed? How can there be a constructive dialogue in this situation if it all comes down to one thing: if someone is not satisfied with the state of things, put a resignation letter on the table.

Aleksandr sees that many people are afraid because “the leadership in state structures deliberately generates an atmosphere of distrust in people, fear for relatives and friends, and uncertainty about the future.”

This is such a creeping psychological violence, a slow escalation of the situation. People are manipulated, claiming that everything is paid for and orchestrated. But this is not true.

Balberov does not yet know where to go to work next. He is a history teacher, with a Master’s in archaeology, a scholarship recipient of the Presidential Fund to Support Talented Youth, who has formed exhibition projects, established himself as a guide, and author of publications at various scientific conferences.

“I will not be lost in any case,” says Aleksandr Balberov. “You know, it may seem that here I made a statement and quit, and all of this was pointless. But this is not the case. Before this, there was no such unity of people, mutual assistance, empathy for people, sometimes even strangers. This is humanity, this is the willingness to speak and be heard — and this is real. That, which rests only on commands, orders, protocols of instructions, physical and psychological violence, sooner or later will fall apart. Because life will win. I believe that issues can be resolved only in a situation of dialogue, respectful attitude to the individual and not in lies, mockery and command-and-order tone. Culture and art will never be instruments of violence. Culture and art cannot serve ideology.”