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The Mad Tea Partier of Minsk

Evgeny Lipkovich’s crusades have ranged from yogurt to green spaces to freedom of thought. Second in a series.

by Volha Khvoin 25 April 2012

This is the second article in an occasional series on political satire in the former Soviet Union.

 

MINSK | Is satire even possible in a country where a deaf person is arrested and accused of shouting slogans, or where a court claims that a man with one arm was clapping his hands (and therefore has committed a crime)?

 

Evgeny Lipkovich, a well-known Belarusian blogger, thinks so. The country’s politics is depicted as a sideshow in his work, which often includes bizarre public stunts.

 

“I don’t think my position is absurd, because the situation we live in is even more absurd,” he says during a recent interview at his kitchen table. Though laughing, he offers a quite serious observation: “In general, our reality, when taken to its absurd conclusion, is perceived more clearly.”

 

Lipkovich with Laura, his beloved English bulldog.

 

Lipkovich, 53, has been blogging for eight years and has nearly 4,000 friends on Facebook and 2,000 readers on LiveJournal. He is popular among the narrow part of Belarusian society that is both online and interested in politics. Lipkovich’s blog is among those that have been blocked by the state on servers in government agencies and educational and cultural institutions.

 

He says the administration of strongman President Alyaksandr Lukashenka does not bear much serious thought, but the situations it has created make fertile ground for satire.

 

Sometimes Lipkovich’s crusades can be nearly incomprehensible to his countrymen. A diabetic, he mounted a campaign in October 2007 urging the government to restart production of low-fat yogurt. He used what he called “phone terrorism,” making repeated calls to the health and economy ministries and to the Minsk city council. When a presidential envoy went to Israel and announced he would answer questions from readers of a local newspaper, Lipkovich had his readers bombard the email address with demands to restart production of low-fat yogurt.

 

In December 2007, the deputy prime minister announced in parliament that the Gormolzavod No. 2 dairy would do so.

 

Two years ago, Lipkovich, who works as an administrator for an organization that educates civic groups about the law, ran for a spot on the Minsk council. He sought to protect a park that authorities want to clear for development.

 

Lipkovich dropped out of the campaign, which he had conducted online, before the election, saying it had been an attempt to gauge the influence of the Internet domestically.

 

The blogger said his video declaration of his candidacy was viewed 17,000 times in a single day. His campaign team of 10 people was formed online.

 

His decision to pull out disappointed some. “I would definitely have signed Lipkovich’s petition and would have voted for him,” wrote one user of a popular forum. “Our politics has become boring, the clowns have grown up and gotten serious.”

 

More recently, Lipkovich, alongside philosopher Vladimir Mackiewicz, launched a series of online videos called The Mad Tea Party in which the hosts and their guests hash out topics including conspiracy theories, political correctness, pornography, and Shakespeare. They take place in off-beat locations like bridal shops, laundries, and basements.

 

 

THE WORKER WHO HATED THE WORKING CLASS

 

For several years in the 1980s, Lipkovich worked at the Horizont electronics and appliance factory in Minsk, then at the Minsk Automobile Plant. Management at Horizont was, at best, indifferent to the health and safety of workers there, he says.

 

“I worked on an automated system that transported toxic chemicals. If the ventilation wasn’t functioning, which happened quite often, and a flock of sparrows was flying over, the entire flock would fall dead on the plant. … And the buildings where the poisonous substances were stored are still in the center of Minsk. Can you imagine?” he says, pacing around the kitchen.

 

Lipkovich, whose parents had also worked at the Horizont plant, recalls the factory stints as helping shape his scathing view of the working class.

 

“I was studying at university at that time. We were brought up in the spirit of socialism: front-rank workers, great nation, and all that. Well, this fantasy didn’t exist in real life,” he says. “The workers’ favorite entertainment was to booze it up after getting paid.”

 

He describes scenes of wives meeting their husbands at factory gates on payday. “Filthy language and sex talk in the most obscene form – I saw it all and worked around these people for three years.”

 

For his part, Lipkovich was reading the works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, at a time when simply owning one of the dissident writer’s books could carry a prison sentence of up to seven years.

 

He made friends with some so-called undesirables who were starting their own small clothing business and read How to Be a Witness by Vladimir Albrecht, a Soviet dissident who was sent to the gulag and wrote a guide on how to behave during KGB interrogations. In the interview, Lipkovich repeatedly refers to the book.

 

It wasn’t the first time he had flirted with capitalism. As a young man he and some friends began buying records from foreign students who were able to travel to West Berlin to get them. Lipkovich’s group would take the records to a basement recording studio and make copies, which they sold at a mark-up.

 

“The catalogues were getting thicker, the market was huge,” he says. “The records would travel from Minsk to Moscow and St. Petersburg, where the cultural life was in bloom.”

 

The group was found out and the business shut down. Lipkovich was arrested as an accomplice, but the charges were eventually dropped.

 

PLAYING WITH FIRE, ONLINE

 

Although dissident behavior is still regularly punished in Belarus, with opposition figures and protesters imprisoned, some are still relatively daring online.

 

Based on a campaign that urged people to clap in public to express their disapproval of the government – and the ensuing arrests of people who did so – a video uploaded last year shows how to call a police officer in Belarus, in even the most remote place, as if by magic.

 

 

On the eve of the 2010 presidential election, a video called “Hide Your Grandmother’s Passport” appeared on YouTube. It made a tongue-in-cheek appeal to young people to hide their elders’ identification documents so they could not vote for a fictitious candidate who, like Lukashenka, enjoys solid support among older voters.

 

A few days after the clip appeared online its director was fired from his job at Belarusian TV. Later, one of its actors lost his job as a university drama coach.

 

Lipkovich himself has had run-ins with the state over his online shenanigans. 

 

In 2010 he faced a criminal charge of desecrating the flag and his house was searched after he posted an altered photo of Mikalai Charhinets, chairman of the state-sponsored Belarusian Writers Union.

 

The dust-up happened when Charhinets, who also chairs the country’s Public Morality Council, sought to ban a planned performance by German rockers Rammstein in Minsk. Charhinets accused the metal band of glorifying fascism and immorality and suggested that he be given a concert preview to vet the group.

 

"We have to deal with this band,” he warned. “We have to demand that they don’t distort the state of mind of the Belarusian youth.”

 

Anonymous pranksters superimposed Charhinets’ face onto that of a Rammstein member in one of the group’s official photos and changed a red flag to the Belarus flag, the image that landed Lipkovich in hot water, although the charges were later dropped.

 

Lipkovich also wrote an open letter to Lukashenka suggesting that Charhinets be given a complete medical examination.

 

But if the blogger has championed forbidden culture, he has also burned books.

 

His target, again, was Charhinets, who has been a reliable mouthpiece for the government, endorsing the policing of opposition websites after the Minsk subway bombing last year. His books have become part of the curriculum, though their quality is debatable.

 

In early 2011, Lipkovich burned copies of a novel by Charhinets called The Mystery of the Oval Office as part of what he called Day for the Protection of the Morality of Belarusian Youth.

 

“This is a pornographic book,” Lipkovich exclaims, referring to some sexually explicit passages. He calls Charhinets “a disgrace to the country. He’s not worth hating. … At my expense as a taxpayer I provide for the Writers Union and they publish worthless books.”

 

After the burning, Charhinets sued Lipkovich for insulting his dignity. A court ordered the blogger to pay Charhinets 525,000 rubles ($167 at the time).

 

A group of writers in Charhinets’ union wrote their own open letter asking, "Is it time to go after Lipkovich to the fullest extent of the law?"

 

A CLOWN ON EVERY CORNER

 

On the state of Belarusian culture, Lipkovich is a strange combination of optimist and pessimist. He says people are freer than during the Soviet period and are “acquiring a strong resistance toward the system.” But although Belarusians have a great capacity to laugh at themselves and their government, he says they are depressed.

 

“The government deliberately imposes depression upon us; they think it’s easier to rule over the nation using fear. They can’t do it in a different way. I think they suffer from paranoia.”

 

“If humor helped to reduce the level of people’s discontent, the government would put clowns on each corner instead of police officers. It would be cheaper.”

 

Yet Lipkovich pulls his punches when it comes to some who give their silent consent to the regime. He recalls a recent meeting with a friend who works as a provost of a state university. “We were talking about everything and he was shaking my hand. He understands everything but tries to shut it out. I can understand it – in this system he has a job, he is a high official. But in general we have a continuation of the working class from the Soviet times. It is simply being used.”

 

Modern Belarusian literature lacks a standout satirical work chronicling the country’s absurd reality – such attempts tend to end up as tragedy. Would Lipkovich step up to the plate?

 

“Immortalize them? Write about them?” he scoffs. “The government must be ignored. These are not characters!” But then he muses about Lukashenka and a top aide often described as the president’s likely successor. “Now, as in the best traditions of monarchical dynasties, if the heir were to be smothered with a pillow … you might have a plot.”

Story and photos by Volha Khvoin, a writer for Novy Chas, an independent newspaper in Minsk. 
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