City of the Golden Swamp

Photographer Masha Demianova spends three days in Minsk with her friend Vika.

“Masha, I'm sorry but you asked me to wake you up if my nose started to bleed…”

The first thing I see upon waking up in Minsk is the blood-covered face of a friend who has let me into her life for three days to explore her city.

It seems appropriate to examine a city as an environment of its inhabitants and describe it through images. In this case such person is Vika NON of the Lumpen modeling agency. I found it attractive that, despite a philosophical education and a background of varied knowledge, she exists without serving any social group. She and her sister-in-arms Angelina (Stanovlenie Mass) make music that defies the conventions of their habitat.

“To call this project strictly a musical one would be wrong. It's more of an attempt to cure my perception of social conformity by creative means. To show this city of the golden swamp, the last frontier of childhood, from the point of view of its loving inhabitant,” says Vika.

Despite being deliberately radical, she and her friends remain sincere – the intent to alienate doesn't deny the desire to attract. But this attraction is almost never enviable. Vika’s appearance stirs up the Minsk everyman to the point of physical violence.

“Due to my peculiar appearance – tall with short hair, absence of makeup and an unwillingness to dress up ‘like a girl should’ – I was called a ‘faggot’ and even beaten up. The last straw was an assault by a stranger in the middle of the day. It all happened next to my house in front of everyone, but no one tried to help me or call the police. When I reached the police station, all the help I received was a lecture on my looks.”

When describing Minsk, Vika uses academic language and maintains an emotionless gaze: “Belarus is a project which historically combined Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, Jews, Lithuanians, Tatars, and other ethnicities. Therefore, arriving in Minsk, its heart and capital, one could trace certain tendencies of different cultures’ coexistence and their influence on the city's appearance and population’s attitude.”

After the train, I first found myself at a local clothing store which looked exactly like memories of my childhood in the 1990s – it was easy to descend into a touching nostalgic mood.

“Childhood, a time when the world seemed bigger, always comes to mind while wandering down the large avenues of Minsk. Because of its ensemble of 1930-1950 buildings, which give the impression of a utopian city for an ideal, future population, Minsk is often called the ‘City of Sun.’ But are those people of the future really so ideal?”

“Basically, national character is formed and defined by fundamental archetypal concepts and cultural codes. According to Ivan Charota, a Belarusian philologist, ‘swamp’ is the basic ethno-cultural archetype of Belarusian art. A swamp is both a deathtrap and a means of protection from the enemy. The duality of water and land, synthesis of silence and terror; marsh, mist and uncertainty.

“Modern Belarusians, with their traditional indifference, have developed a numbness toward anything new. After being forced to endure absurd laws, people have become apathetic to culture and satisfaction with mediocrity has replaced their inner patriotism.  Sumptuous ‘show business’ and the consumption of third-rate pop culture has come to dominate national heritage and even language. Nowadays, a wealthy tomorrow means everything and self-reflection is strictly decorative.”

In the summer of 2016, Belarus approved the decree – “On the prevention of social dependence” – which requires all employed citizens to pay a social parasitism tax, with certain exceptions. According to the parameters laid out by unsympathetic authorities, the unusual musical activity in which Vika is engaged doesn't qualify her for the “creative professional” status, which exempts artists from the tax. If she refuses to pay, she will be subject to an administrative punishment of 15 days and nights either sweeping a graveyard or removing rocks from the fields.

Both options seem attractive enough.