“Rich, Intelligent and Well Developed”: on Art, Gas Pipe and a Nonlocal Bank

Aleksey Naumchik, Bartender makes a fire show, Oktyabrskaya Street, July 4, 2015

On the second week of December 2018, the torrent of troubling concerns flooded media, amplifying habitual distress shared by many. The discussion was around the potential loss of sovereignty by Belarusian state and its integration into Russia, fuelled by recent alarming news. At a meeting of the Council of Ministers of Belarus and Russia,[2] the Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Dmitry Medvedev mentioned that Russia was ready to further deepen integration with Belarus, which included the establishment of a common issuing bank, court, accounts chamber, and other institutional bodies.

President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko voiced an opinion that under the pretext of “deep integration” Russia just expressed an impudent will to incorporate Belarus, and defiantly refused to further perceive Russia as a “fraternal state”, opting for the logic of pragmatic partnership instead. It marked a new stage in a continuous gas and oil crisis, a primary conflict between Belarusian and Russian governments, reinforced by a luckily lukewarm plan for establishing a Union State tracing back to 1996. This time the conflict was caused by a tax manoeuver initiated by Russia resulting in the rise of oil prices – for the Belarusian market as well. In turn, it will lead to remarkable budget cuts and the rise of fuel prices for the latter, unless the Belarusian government accepts almost the “all-or-nothing” integration deal described above. It’s hard to tell now how this situation will unfold in the future but seems that the old strategies – chattering, eluding, lingering – wouldn’t be effective anymore.

Meanwhile, the influence of Russian fossil fuel industry over domestic affairs extends beyond the political impact thanks to Russian Joint Stock Company Gazprom – a gas and oil company owned by the Government of Russia[3]– and affiliated entities: Gazprom Transgaz Belarus and Belgazprombank. Gazprom Transgaz Belarus, a subsidiary enterprise of Gazprom, is a company engaged in gas supply and gas transportation and the biggest tax generator in Minsk throughout 2018.[4]

Prior to 2007 the company was owned by Belarusian state and was named Beltransgaz until 2013, but due to the severe financial crisis and other complications, the state made a decision to sell to Gazprom a major natural gas pipeline passing through the country and carrying on the delivery of Russian gas to Europe. In 2007-2010 Gazprom bought 50 percent of Beltransgaz shares, and in 2011 acquired the remaining half. This made the company a monopolist on the Belarusian gas market, controlling the whole gas transmission system in the country. Belgazprombank, in turn, is a bank which represents financial interests of Gazprom in Belarus, 49,8% shares of which is owned by Gazprom and 49,8% shares is owned by Gazprombank. Both Belgazprombank and Gazprom Transgaz Belarus carry out activities in the cultural sector and support the development of art, science, healthy lifestyle and many other ‘wholesome phenomena’, being deeply involved in charitable actions due to their corporate policy.

The inner view of Art-Belarus Gallery, Minsk, 2017 / Google Street View + VR Virtushka

Following the logic of President Lukashenko and his signature affective family analogies, one is likely to accept a present from a rich uncle without questioning the origin of their wealth too much. The disproportionate amount of (purchasing) power in comparison to the government institutions is striking: for example, in 2013 Belgazprombank acquired three paintings by Marc Chagall and a painting by Chaïm Soutine with a total cost of nearly 2.9 million US dollars; whilst in the same year of 2013 the Republican budget for art, culture, and cinematography was equal to roughly 83530 US dollars[5]: it becomes quite easy to shine with these underresourced nonbusiness activities on the background. Considering the scope of their endeavors and the specificity of the local art scene, it’s impossible to disregard projects initiated by the aforementioned institutions or ignore their overall influence over the field. Therefore I suggest to view several projects and try to define the narratives and work methods intrinsic to Gazprom offshoots.

Alesia Zhitkevich, “The Artist is not a Moralist”, 2014. Mockup of acrylic painting on wall

Art-Belarus began in 2011 as a Belgazprombank Corporate Collection and was later transformed into a “national, historic and cultural umbrella project on its basis”. The core of the collection was formed of works by celebrated painters born within the current territorial boundaries of Belarus with the focus on authors associated with École de Paris: already mentioned Marc Chagall and Chaïm Soutine, Mikhaïl Kikoïne, Ossip Zadkine, and others. Under the slogan of “repatriation of historical legacy,” more than one hundred of works produced from the beginning of XVI century and on were acquired to the collection; thirty-five of them were granted the official status of the historical and cultural heritage of the Republic of Belarus.

In 2014, as a logical continuation of the foregoing activities, an exhibition Ten Centuries of Art in Belarus was held in the National Art Museum in cooperation with the Ministry of Culture. It accommodated items from both Belgazprombank collection and other sources: museums, private collectors, libraries, religious organizations. More than 500 artworks produced throughout 1000 years of the local art history were presented, outlining and redefining what does Belarusian art mean and how long it has been existing in general.[6]There are some certain main ideas perpetuated by Art-Belarus: a belief in a consistent and seamless process of culture development which had been interrupted once and thus needs to be rediscovered, recovered, reconstructed, restarted; a belief in the existence of History which bears its lacunas urging to be filled; a belief in the necessity of reestablishment of a ‘national art idea’ which on top of that follows the official historic and artistic discourse.[7]Belgazprombank Corporate Collection, in this case, appears to be a resplendent assembly of valuable artifacts, serving these convictions and positively impressing the shareholders while also being an educational and cultural project.

Street view of Palace of Art, Minsk, 2014 / Yandex.Maps photo panorama

Currently, the part of the collection is available to the public permanently in a gallery of the same name, Art-Belarus. It opened in April 2017 in Palats Mastatsva (Palace of Art), an exhibition center belonging to the Union of Artists of Belarus. This three-story central venue was dubbed Honey Palace since its direction was constantly trying to make up for budget shortfall by renting its facilities to various goods fairs, honey fairs amongst others. The current director of Palace of Art Alexandr Zinkevich, after having been persistently and unsuccessfully looking for proper investors, saw this collaboration as an opportunity to “save the Palace’s reputation” and unlock its true potential.[8]Except for the collection, Palace annually hosts two other events initiated by Art-Belarus: art-fair Autumn Salon with Belgazprombank and international art festival Art-Minsk, both this time claiming the field of contemporary art.

Autumn Salon with Belgazprombankwas established in 2015, becoming the biggest (if not ‘the only’) art fair in the country. It was designed to serve another aim posited by Art-Belarus: to give a momentum of development to contemporary Belarusian art, as the management puts it.[9]

Salonis inviting galleries from across the country and welcoming artists on the basis of unchallenging competitive selection – but only those, who was born in Belarus and are younger than 40. The bank itself describes Autumn Salon as a contemporary art project which facilitates the development of a local art market and insists to present “the best in contemporary Belarusian art”; yet mostly academic or romantic art is being exhibited, suggesting some kind of a chimera if not an oxymoron.It’s quite difficult to believe that there is a possibility to stimulate the establishment of the art-market when private collectors, museums, or galleries are not interested in acquiring artworks: the majority of the buyers are customers looking for a suitable interior accent and following their own taste, favoring predominantly bright and comforting paintings. Nevertheless, to exhibit their work in an exhibition space in the city center artists don’t need to belong to either an art union or a gallery, to pay exhibition rent, to go through rigorous selection process; hence many are using this rare chance to reach new (any) audience and pay bills, nourishing this structure with their contributions. Another alluring opportunity is getting an annual grant awarded either by an international jury or by the audience, which can become a good support for a young artist. Yet the question remains: what is the power dynamics in the relationship between Salon, its parent organization, and a contemporary artist, and how to locate and fill the gaps in these institutional structures? The strategies may vary, being anywhere from articulated non-participation to a subversive involvement; and the latter is a case of a contribution made by Uladzimir Hramovich within the booth of the gallery of contemporary art Y (Галерэя “Ў”) in 2017.

Alina Savchenko and Ruslan Vashkevich, Pavilion, 2018

Due to the agreement between the gallery and the fair, the former participated in its own terms which included the absence of censorship in both exhibition premises and the fair catalog. Hramovich utilized this privilege in order to address the disturbances caused by Belgazprombank and exhibit his series of drawings The Memory of the People to Live Forever. In this series, he depicts buildings and monuments which had accumulated and produced cultural meaning in the past, and are ruined in the present. There, Bus station in Minsk, destroyed for the construction of the office of Gazprom (1999-2014) neighbors with Triumphal Arch in Palmyra, Syria. Destroyed by the group of IGIL (II century – 2015). The demolition of the aforementioned bus terminal in Minsk not only ejected a unique architectural accent from the city fabric, but moreover deprived 3000 daily commuters of the convenient transportation hub, hitting elderly people at most. Hramovich successfully planted the memory of this destruction into the corporate advertising affair not only by showing his graphic works but also by publishing the only drawing of the bus terminal with all necessary descriptions in the fair catalog. As for the Gazprom Center, its final completion was rescheduled from 2018 to 2020, formally because of the foundation damage.

View of the corner of Niezaliežnasci avenue and Filimonava street. The building site of the Gazprom office is behind the blue fence. Minsk, 2016 / Yandex.Maps

International contemporary art festival Art-Minsk was held for the first time in 2018. There were 250 artists selected from 800 applicants; though, as art critic Olga Bubich cites an anonymous source, a big part of these applications was received from kids and teenagers who had been attending ateliers of fine art in their spare time.[10]Stefano Antonelli from 999Contemporary was appointed as a festival curator regardless of his professional focus on street art and an absolute disconnection from the local historical and cultural context. Apart from the main exhibition in Palace of Art which Antonelli curated, several other spaces participated in the project, with National Library of Belarus, National Centre for Contemporary Arts, Zair Azgur Memorial Studio among others. The content of the main festival was not much different from the Autumn Salon, except the participants’ age limitation was removed. Belarusian artist Ruslan Vashkevich in collaboration with Alina Savchenko disrupted ‘harmonious’ narrative of Art-Minsk with their project Pavilion: a functioning salespoint with honey and Chinese consumer goods, identical to the very salespoints which gave Honey Palace its nickname. Already during the mounting, organizers and the curator got unhappily surprised by the project concept as if it had been selected blindly or without proper consideration. After the opening, administration of the Palace of Arts had forbidden self-employed business owners invited by the artists to trade, by invoking the law and addressing bureaucratic restrictions. For this reason, the duo made a decision to withdraw their participation as the trade was of major importance to their project, and left the Palace of Arts within two days.[11]Obviously, appellation to the law was a strategy to disarm the critical statement and a try to maintain a ‘smooth’ appearance of Art-Minsk, what only proved that the main interest of the festival wasn’t contemporary art per se. As a consequence, a well-planned and acute artwork was pushed out of the exhibition, which ironically only made the statement more rich with new connotations.

In March 2017 Belgazprombank acquired at auction three factory premises from MZOR plant (Minsk Plant of October Revolution) situated on Kastryčnickaja street, with plans to reconstruct them and establish a large center for contemporary culture within the next 4 years.

View of Kastryčnickaja street, Minsk, 2014 / Yandex.Maps photo panorama

Kastryčnickaja (or Oktyabrskaya in Russian), used to be a part of industrial outskirts of Minsk and has since been transformed into the lively street hosting bars, cultural institutions, and nightlife. Until 2017, these premises had been rented from the state, but then a large investor came to this territory. OK16 was set up as a temporary project and destined to last for 4 years within the newly bought industrial space. It quickly gained the reputation as an important cultural hub and is now managing its own lecture and project spaces, hosting the ART Corporation project theatre, and holding 3-5 public events weekly. Bank’s purchase coincided with the eviction of a cultural space CECH, which had been existing in a part of the same building since 2015. CECH was famous for its own exhibition projects as well as for collaborations, for example, Month of Photography in Minsk and award for contemporary photography Prafota. It also hosted lectures, workshops, artist talks, and accommodated a library with books on art, photography, philosophy, sociology, and various other topics. Though a temporary close-down of CECH was rather caused by the internal tensions rather than Belgazprombank influence, many were still concerned about the nature of such changes and blamed it on gentrification processes. It will be a stretch to name this chain of events gentrification – since what has happened was rather a revitalization if we stick to original definitions. Nevertheless, the reference to gentrification probably better describes the fears and personal attachments of a part of a local community: the most recent history of the street was associated with independent cultural initiatives and small businesses, relatable and significant to many, evoking the sense of belonging. Affordable and recognizable premises of Kastryčnickaja became the meeting point and a space for cultural production attracting new actors every year, exactly to the point where big investors started to see business opportunities. It is difficult to tell now when will the rent eventually become too high for non-profit organizations and result in the eviction – both symbolical and physical – of those, who had been communally investing resources and mental energy into its development; but it is easier to predict how agents of the marketplace will feed off the energy of the street. Even considering that neither OK16 nor the future cultural center wouldn’t be interested in the direct opposition with their neighbors, the power dynamics of the street has been dramatically changed with the injection of big capital, offering bleeding edge potentialities.

In November 2017 we met to talk with two artists and Autumn Salon participants: aforementioned Uladzimir Hramovich, and Alesia Zhitkevich. In our conversation about the fair, we touched upon the topics of kitsch, the monopoly of private capital, private sponsorship, and censorship in Belarus. Aimed at reaching the broader audience, both professional and nonprofessional, we planned to publish this conversation titled “The Energy of Whose Future?” in a monthly printed magazine Mastactva (Art), founded by the Ministry of Culture of Republic of Belarus.

Nevertheless, it became impossible to use this magazine as a platform for critique: after long chains of email conversations, the text was cut by half by editors due to “ethical reasons”, with all discussions of political and cultural context cleaned. The new version of the interview contained only observations of formal characteristics of exhibited art, thus we made a decision to withdraw our text from publication.

Interestingly enough, we weren’t allowed to express the same ideas that Victor Babariko, the Chairman of Board of Belgazprombank, was not confused by in various interviews[12], as follows: Belgazprombank and Gazprom Transgaz Belarus are investing in culture because of the interest in improving company’s brand, displaying itself as socially conscious, engaging with potential customers and creating a semblance of positive attitude towards them, which altogether makes a company to be perceived as outstanding and trustworthy. Additionally, there is an obvious urge to develop and master the new methods of working under the conditions of new, creative economy – hence a purchase of the industrial spaces. But why are the conversations about market and business interests so sensitive for the local cultural field, especially for agencies associated with the Ministry of Culture? Why does Palace of Art shut out critique instead of addressing or conceptualizing its own financial challenges? And is there any possibility to change the power dynamics in the relationship, where only one side articulates its interests without anxiety?With the lack of resources on the one hand, and growing public demand on the other hand, governmental organizations in Belarus tend to stigmatize themselves for a relative impecuniosity, and dream of a ‘proper’ institutionalization. Within such logic, there is a constant need to catch up, compare, fight shame, be saved, fit the extrinsic standards and apply unfamiliar ideas without attention to the context. Rather than that, it could be more of use to review how the value of art is constructed, and what is its relation to the capitalist economy and self-colonization. The absence of Chagall paintings on a public display in Belarus was perceived as intolerable or again – ‘shameful’; but why isn’t it equally, if not more, shameful that the majority of contemporary artists are disregarded by the official discourse?

Uladzimir Hramovich, the building site of the Gazprom office, from the series: Ghosts, 2018. Digital collage, 46 x 30 cm

Maybe a good example of a proper balance between the agenda of the controlling entities and its own is the case of Centre for Visual and Performing Arts ART Corporation: another umbrella organization which systematically and steadily patrons and produces projects in the field of cinema, theatre, and education, and is aiming at the “revitalization and reformation of the cultural space of Belarus.”[13]It was established by Belgazprombank in 2010 with the support of the Ministry of Culture of Republic of Belarus. It includes International Theatre Forum TEART, Minsk International Film Festival Listapad, educational project for young theatre and cinema professionals Art Leader School; communication platform TOK, involved with audience development and artist support. Theatre Forum TEART annually offers visitors the opportunity to encounter relevant and timely performances presented by local and international theatres and various accompanying educational activities. Among the plays presented throughout the years of festival existence one could find, to name a very few, an adaptation of “Mann Ist Mann” by Bertolt Brecht presented by director Aleksey Lelyavsky and Belarussian State Puppet Theatre, documentary-theatre piece “Soil Sample Kazakhstan” by Stefan Kaegi and Rimini Protokoll theatre, “Persona. Marilyn” created by Krystian Lupa and Gustaw Holoubek Warsaw Drama Theatre, a piece “On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God” from Romeo Castellucci and the Italian company Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio, and numerous others.[14]Additionally, within the project theatre, ART Corporation produced and co-produced 6 performances, positively acclaimed by both critics and the public. But the question remains: does the urgency of political at least partially dissolve in the thoughtful work of a team and timely content?

Gazprom as a parental organization indirectly acts to gain symbolic control over Belarusian art history up to a thousand years back; it manipulates the urban landscape in the present and builds the future of the creative economy.

For now, what Belgazprombank and Gazprom Transgaz Belarus offer and what the cultural sector in Belarus wants, coincide in general; in return, addressees oftentimes provide loyalty, humbleness, and self-censorship. Moreover, the same companies partner with the Belarusian government in order to support and realize the local cultural projects and expects favors in return – not in vain. While Russian officials can speculate on the potentiality of the integration and use it as a tool to direct the country towards certain unprofitable decisions, shouldn’t the influence of Russian capital over Belarusian culture be perceived as at least in some ways disturbing? Can the most eminent net of projects and institutions in contemporary Belarusian culture potentially become a part of the same power play? Artists and cultural workers, tired of unfair, unequal and untimely payments and the pressure of official ideology, behave understandably when they choose more comfortable working conditions for themselves and embrace the opportunity to realize their ambitions. It may be not productive to demand the invariable withdrawal but it is certainly of use to focus on a change of conformist behavior instead, and start practicing open dialogue, subversion, and political engagement within this pragmatic, not charitable, relationship.


[1] A description of an ideal client of Belgazprombank given by Victor Babariko, a Chairman of Board of Belgazprombank. Victor Babariko: Dolzhny Roditsya Svobodnye Lyudi [Victor Babariko: Free People Should be Born]. (T. Guseva, Interviewer). Retrieved from

[2] The Union State of Russia and Belarus is a supranational union consisting of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus. Since it has been conceived, it has never reached the point where the level of political, economic, and social integration initially desirable by the governments was achieved: common head of state, legislature, flag, citizenship, currency, and other. Currently, major goals shifted to the democratic developement, establishment of a single economic and customs area, providing security within its borders, and coordination of foreign politics.

[3] According to the report on the execution of the federal budget of the Russian Federation, oil and gas revenues make up around 35-49% of the budget annually. // Annual report on execution of the federal budget (starting from January 1, 2006)

[4]  Here and further I utilize several excerpts from a preface to an interview I conducted with Uladzimir Hramovich and Alesia Zhitkevich, Banken Och Konsten: Tankar Kring Höstsalongen I Minsk, which was published in Swedish in Hjärnstorm Nummer 132: Belarus/Sverige

[5]  Law of the Republic of Belarus of October 26, 2012 No. 432-Z “On the Republican Budget for 2013” 

[6] Ten Centuries of Art in Belarus

[7] About ‘Art-Belarus’ Project

[8] Lyubov Kasperovich. Med i shyby spasajut art-vystavki. Chem zhivet stolichnyj Dvorec Iskusstva [Honey and fur coats save art exhibitions. How does capital Palace of Art live]

[9] About ‘Art-Belarus’ Project

[10] Olga Bubich. Iskusstvo protiv meda. Chto pokazyvaet nam “Art-Minsk” [Art against honey. What does Art-Minsk show us.]

[11] Ibid.

[12] For example, here (in Russian): Victor Babariko o nizkoj konkurencii, sdelke s vlastju i kriptovalutah [Victor Babariko about low competition, deal with the government and cryptocurrency]

[13] About

[14] Archive





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