Freedom and Thinking. Essays on Civil Society

Uladzimir Matskevich

Excerpts from the book

Hereby you will find a collection of essays by Uladzimir Matskevich on civil society. This collection includes texts published by the author on his Facebook page from December 2019 to January 2020. This series of texts was written at the accomplishment of the Fresh Wind[[i]] public campaign and served as a reflection on the current state of Belarusian civil society and a proposal of means and models for assessing and working with it. The key issue of these discussions was the question of whether Belarusian society can withstand modern challenges and threats. The starting point in the search for an answer was the polemic about whether there is civil society in Belarus as a subject that can influence political processes in the country, make decisions concerning “common causes”, and consolidate for the achievement of common goals.

The author analyses the foundations of civil society and the role media, public opinion, and the state play in its development and maintenance, how civil society relates to the nation, to different actions and practices of public participation. 

Moving on to current challenges, Uladzimir Matskevich examines in detail the evolution of social connections and relations and raises questions about new forms of civil society in the contemporary era.

When reading this book, it should be taken into account that the text was written before the events of August 2020 in Belarus, which in many ways changed and expanded the practice of civic participation, and we now have an opportunity to assess these changes, including based on Uladzimir Matskevich’s ideas. The theoretical schemes and pivots presented in the book are the keys to helping the reader “grasp” the author’s concept of understanding civil society and, based on that, shape their attitude to the present condition of Belarusian civil society.

The author does not try to take the position of an outside observer in relation to the “object of study”; on the contrary, he offers a view from within civil society, from the position which can certainly be called a leadership one. For Matskevich, leadership is a personal attitude towards taking a proactive stance, expressed primarily in intellectually embracing the object – civil society – in all its diversity and uniqueness. As the author himself might say, in “thinking civil society.”[[ii]]

The title of the book contains two main characteristics of civil society – freedom and thinking – which, for Matskevich, constitute its essence and meaning, its modus vivendi. Although these two entities cannot be reduced to each other, there is a firm connection between them. The author draws upon this subject in one of his texts: “First, thinking becomes free, then it makes everything else free. But thinking cannot but be free, otherwise, it is no longer thinking. If Belarus is not free in the choice of the way of its development, then its thinking through this way is not free, therefore, the country is not free (unable) to think, therefore, it does not think”.[[iii]] Thus, this collection of essays should be seen as an orientation to emancipating thinking about civil society, to freeing it from the usual schemes and frameworks that influence the way we think about this complex, ambiguous, and sometimes elusive object.

Editor’s foreword (Kiryl Maltsau, Ales Zalesski)


Civil society in Belarus does exist

I know this for a fact because it was the solidarity of civil society that saved me from death in October 2006[[iv]].

With the support of civil society in 2009-2010, we defeated Belarusian foreign minister Uladzimir Makei’s Public Advisory Council with its profanation of public participation. Civil society’s insistence on the creation of the Eastern Partnership programme replaced the European Commission’s decorative plan with one that included the real representation and work of the civil society of all countries as full-fledged actors in the political process[[v]]. The solidarity that followed the disgraceful elections and the violent suppression of the 2010 protest is known to everyone who has their eyes open.

Many people refuse to admit the existence of civil society and do not want to know anything about it.

It is understandable why the regime, its ideologists, its guards and overseers prefer to not know.

Unfortunately, those who were appointed as analysts, commentators, and intellectuals in Belarus do not want to know anything about civil society either. Actually, they shape the state of civil society that we have today.

Civil society does exist. What it is like, what its capacity is – is another question.

Admittedly, its capacity is not the best. But “I have no other civil society for you”. If I can rely on anything, it is only on civil society.

Indeed, it saved me from death 13 years ago. But more often than not, it failed me. It did so because of its immaturity, passivity, subservience, and obedience.

It is what it is. I have no one else to appeal to. Even if they can’t hear me. Even if civil society is dominated by ideas opposed to mine.

Civil society has not always existed. It began to take shape at the same time and under the same conditions as modern nations and nation-states were founded only two and a half centuries ago.

In the first hundred years of its existence, civil society was represented by the greatest thinkers and heroes.

Kant and Voltaire, the founders of the United States of America, and the members of the French National Constituent Assembly who overthrew the monarchy were conscious of being citizens.

Eighteenth-century civil society was transnational. Immanuel Kant emphasised the moral foundations of the French Revolution. Benjamin Franklin influenced French revolutionaries, while his French friends took part in the American War of Independence. Tadeusz Kościuszko was a general in the continental US army, obtained American citizenship, befriended Thomas Jefferson, and fought against slavery in the US and serfdom in Lithuania.

It was a heroic period in the existence of civil society.

By the end of the 19th century, civil society had evolved into what Gabriel Tarde called the public. The public, especially the general public, cannot consist of thinkers and heroes alone. But the public is a bearer of public opinion, a holder and embodiment of the ideas that constitute public opinion.

Totalitarian regimes of the 20th century seized the means of shaping public opinion, took the public under total control, and destroyed the civil societies of the seized nations.

Only civil society is capable of resisting the totalitarian regimes of communism, Nazism and fascism. Where civil society failed to consolidate, the Bolsheviks, Nazis, Falangists and the like won. A coalition of the countries with a strong civil society won World War II.

But after the war, even democratic regimes became apprehensive of civil society. However, civil society itself had been badly degraded. From a society of thinkers and heroes (who created and gave flesh and blood to ideas), having passed the stage of the general public (holders and interpreters of ideas), civil society began to degenerate into a consumerist society (consumers and profaners of ideas).

However, in the 20th century, nations existed in two guises: the state and the civil society opposed to it.

By the end of the 20th century, they tried to keep civil society in Europe within the confines of the NGOs[[vi]], or the “third sector”. Civil society was pushed to the background after the “first sector” (the state) and the “second sector” (business and economic agents) began to play an important role. Earlier, businesses and entrepreneurs did not separate themselves from civil society.

But the civil society cannot be reduced to NGOs, although they are part of it.

Just like 250 years ago, civil society is primarily about thinkers and heroes. About personalities with civic consciousness, civic conscience, and civic courage.

They might disagree with each other on many issues. They clash and quarrel. But it is one of the main modes of civil society’s existence – to clash and argue about everything that citizens consider fundamental, important, valuable or dangerous.

But only if it is fundamental and important!

What is or is not important is up to each citizen to decide. Civil society is an emergent entity of multiple individual citizens.

Modern states in Europe are depoliticising civil society, both in their countries and in the countries seeking to join or build partnership relations with the European Union.

The EU states have restricted civil society activities to charity, social, humanitarian, and local issues, thus isolating NGOs from politics. NGOs are kept by the state and partly private funds, which are anyway controlled by the state. Civil society in other countries is used by the European states and the Brussels bureaucracy simply as a crowd for international events and endorsement of bilateral inter-state relations, which is manifested in the Eastern Partnership countries.

They seek to cram an obedient public into a “Procrustean bed of NGOs”[[vii]] but civil society still exists and cannot be divorced from politics. It was in civil society that the “green movement” was born. It broke into politics by hacking the “first sector” through “green parties”, through international movements. It is civil society that is forcing states to solve global environmental problems, no matter how much the states shy away from these issues.

Civil society heroes are the first to get into the hot spots of the planet, to raise the most important issues of the global world order, not forgetting the human and humanitarian dimensions.

In the 1980s and 1990s, it seemed to many researchers that the role of nation-states was declining and that they were giving way to transnational corporations. But in the 21st century, states have regained their positions and are trying, along with TNC oligarchs, to manipulate civil society.

The Belarusian state is also imperfect. Moreover, it has been hijacked by a group that has in effect privatised it.

The Belarusian state needs to be re-established[[viii]].

Who can re-establish the state though?

Only civil society can. This is the way it has been done for 250 years since the first modern nation-states were formed in America and Europe – the USA and the French First Republic.

The unitary or federative state of the Rzeczpospolita could have been the third such state in the world. But it failed for two reasons:

♦ The archaic method of establishment. The state was established (the famous Constitution of 3 May 1791) in the old way by the magnates and the active part of the gentry, with almost zero participation from civil society, which had not yet had time to form and consolidate. The coexistence of feudal archaic and medieval remnants with modern trends was not viable;

♦ External aggression. Both the French Republic and the new Rzeczpospolita were resented by the absolutist monarchies and empires of Europe. Both France and the Rzeczpospolita were unable to withstand the consolidated absolutist coalition and England that was going through the first industrial revolution. France managed to maintain its integrity with the restoration of the monarchy. The territory of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was divided between the three victorious empires. These empires only had 100 years to live. However, the development of the Rzeczpospolita (Poles, Belarusians, Ukrainians and Lithuanians) came to a standstill for a century. Two of the four nations were able to establish their states after World War I, while the other two had to wait another 70 years. Even so, neither Ukraine nor Belarus has coped with all the challenges of forming a nation and establishing a capable state.

Why can’t anyone establish a state except civil society? There is simply no one else. Nobody else has agency and power. Except for the states themselves. A state can be established by another state or a group of states. But then it would not be a nation-state, but the result of external collusion or conspiracy.

Such states do exist, including in Europe. And we, in Belarus, are one such state.

The Belarusian Popular Republic (BPR) – the first Belarusian state – was not de jure or de facto recognised by any other states. The Belarusian SSR was established by the Soviet authorities, i.e. another state.

It is time for us to get down to business ourselves, to finish what was started by the founders of the BPR and demand the recognition of the BPR Rada – the institution we inherited from our forefathers – so that we would finish what they started, and the Rada could transfer its powers to a real nation-state – the Republic of Belarus.

It is clear what the civil society of Belarus has to do now.

But how?

More on this will follow, but first, we will have to dismantle, analyse, and describe the condition of civil society in today’s Belarus, which has to perform its historical mission at this stage of the development of the nation and the country.


The courage to have a personal opinion

In various situations, I have often heard the statement: “I represent the civil society of Belarus/X-land”. This statement has always been annoying to me.

First of all, I know for a fact that no one has ever received the authority to speak on behalf of any country’s civil society. There is simply no such procedure, no such body or assembly that can delegate to someone the right to represent civil society.

Secondly, this is something that has to do with the very notion and category of civil society. Civil society is not at all a community of special people who are different from others; it is a collective name for free citizens who are equal to each other, and none of them is “more equal” than others to speak on behalf of or represent others. In civil society, each citizen represents only and exclusively themselves.

But then, what is the power of civil society if everyone only represents themselves? Let’s try to sort it out.

The Italian writer Franco Magnani once shared an almost paradoxical idea: “The more citizens with civil courage a country has, the less it needs heroes”.

Normally, courage and heroism go together, but here they are divorced. However, we are talking about a special kind of courage – civil courage (Zivilcourage). This is indeed a special kind of courage. Alexander von Humboldt put it this way: “Jeder muss den Mut zu seiner Meinung haben” (“Everyone should have the courage to have a personal opinion”).

It may be difficult for a modern person to understand; having a personal opinion seems very easy today, so what has courage got to do with it? For a modern person, the phrase “Jeder muss seiner Meinung haben” (“Everyone should have a personal opinion”) would rather be appropriate.

This is a fundamental difference. Let’s first highlight three fundamental problematic points:

♦ Obligation. To be courageous or to be obliged. In the 18th century, you had to have the courage to have your own opinion, in the 21st century it is an obligation. So what happens to an opinion if in one case it takes courage to have it, and in the other, it is an obligation?♦ Ownership. To be or to have. And yet now, just as in the 18th century, people have opinions. Both then and now, people considered the opinions they had as their own. So maybe it’s about the category of “ownership”? What are “personal opinions” and can there be non-personal opinions?

♦ Person. To be or to appear. Courage is a category that applies to the holder of the opinion, rather than the opinion itself. The opinion may be the same, but one person needs the courage to have it, while the other is simply obliged to have it. So the distinction is about the person. The same opinion may be held by fundamentally different people, by different types of people. What is the difference between an eighteenth-century man, who needed the courage to have their own opinion, and a postmodern man, who is simply obliged to have one?

Here is the simplest example of these differences. There is a view that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Galileo Galilei once expressed this opinion in his own way before the Inquisition (“And yet it moves!”), and it is the same opinion that primary school teachers ram into their students.

The students are OBLIGED to share this opinion, or they will not get a good grade. Do they need the COURAGE to have such an opinion? Of course not. Teachers don’t need courage either.

Galileo, on the other hand, absolutely needed courage, he risked his life to utter that opinion. Conversely, he was OBLIGED to hold a contrary opinion. Whose contrary opinion was it? It was the opinion of the church and science of the time. The members of the Inquisition tribunal had an opinion different from Galileo’s. Was that opinion their own? Galileo insisted on his PERSONAL opinion, while they insisted on the opinion of the church, they represented the church in the debate with Galileo.

Whose opinion are teachers and good students promoting? Is it their own opinion or Galileo’s opinion? Or perhaps, it is the opinion of modern science, and the teachers are its representatives who impose a non-personal opinion on their students?

The fact that the Earth revolves around the Sun is now accepted as a trite unquestionable truth. There is a small number of people who hold a contrary opinion. This contrary opinion does exist, those who have the true opinion are aware of it and consider it not to be true. Both opinions can’t be equal in relation to the truth.

But now we are not dealing with truth per se, but with the courage to have or not have a personal opinion, no matter how true it is. Leaving objective truth beyond the scope, we cannot ignore the subjective conviction that our own opinion is true.

Actually, courage, within this framework, can be understood as the conviction that one’s own opinion is true. This is the fourth fundamental problematic point:

♦ Verity. The subjective conviction that the opinion one believes to be personal is true: if there is no such conviction, a personal opinion is easily abandoned in favour of someone else’s or some collective or majority opinion.

One more example from another situation and another era is relevant here. This situation is described in a vivid artistic form in Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon. The Bolsheviks in the 1920s and 30s could not be reproached for their lack of personal courage. They underwent tsarist prisons and exile, demonstrated heroism during the Civil War, bravely faced death and risked their own lives. They were often educated and intelligent people who held personal opinions. For those opinions, they could be prosecuted.

Galileo Galilei was tried by the Inquisition for his personal opinion, and Nikolai Bukharin was also tried for this by the Communist Party. This is where the similarity between the two situations ends, as the outcome is quite different. Galileo risked his life defending his personal opinion against that of the church. Bukharin acknowledged the opinion of the party to be true and was executed anyway. Moreover, he acknowledged the right of the party to execute him. That situation struck Arthur Koestler to the core, and he tried to make sense of it by describing the feelings and thoughts of his main character Nikolai Rubashov.

Koestler’s protagonist, like his real-life prototypes, accepted only objective truth, and no subjective belief in the verity of his personal opinion is comparable to an authority that establishes objective truth. The Party was such an instance in Soviet times. The Party could not be wrong. But in Galileo’s time, the Catholic Church was the same authority. Galileo dared to oppose his subjective conviction of what is true to the opinion of the institution which was empowered to establish objective truth. Bukharin and other Bolsheviks had no such courage.

Personal courage, readiness to risk one’s life and heroism at war do not intersect with intellectual courage, with readiness to risk one’s life for the subjective conviction of the verity of a personal opinion.

The Bolsheviks were ready to risk their lives for some values but were not prepared to pay a lower price for the truth since they had a conviction of the value of an opinion other than their own.

Hence the fifth fundamental problematic point:

♦ Value. An opinion acquires value in an act, and an act is the public presentation of a personal opinion with the conviction that it is true: how is it possible to value an opinion more than life? The risk of paying for a personal opinion with one’s life is a rather extreme case. But the cost can be high without risking one’s life. Prison is also a high cost, and so are ostracism, bullying, the contempt of others, or simply the loss of some benefits: a job, a degree, etc.

The value of an opinion is determined by the price one is ready to pay for the right to express it and announce it urbi et orbi. An opinion expressed without any risk is hardly worth much. An opinion that one is obliged to have or has under an obligation is worth almost nothing at all – in terms of neither verity nor ownership.

All these (and some other, not so important within our subject) fundamental problematic points can be described by one word: “parrhesia”.

This term has been known since the times of Euripides. Greek philosophers, Roman thinkers, and Christian theologians have written and spoken about parrhesia, and it occupies an important place in The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola and Michel Foucault’s Care of the Self. Michel Foucault, consistently and routinely developing the Archaeology of Knowledge, introduced the term “parrhesia” into modern usage and analysed the phenomenon in detail in his cycle of lectures, The Courage of Truth, which he delivered three months before his death.

The importance of the lectures for our subject (civil society) lies in the fact that in them, Michel Foucault talks about politics, power, democracy and their relation to truth. Here is a long but significant quote:

“You may recall that last year I undertook the analysis of this free-spokenness, of the practice of parrhēsía, and of the character able to employ parrhēsía, who is called the parrhesiast (parrhēsíastēs) – the word appears later. The study of parrhēsía and of the parrhēsíastēs in the culture of self in Antiquity is obviously a sort of prehistory of those practices which are organised and developed later around some famous couples: the penitent and the confessor, the person being guided and the spiritual director, the sick person and the psychiatrist, the patient and the psychoanalyst. It was, in a sense, this prehistory that I was trying to write.

Only then, while studying this parrhesiastic practice in this perspective, as the prehistory of these famous couples, I became aware again of something which rather surprised me and which I had not foreseen. Although parrhēsía is an important notion in the domain of spiritual direction, spiritual guidance, or soul counselling, and however important it may be in Hellenistic and Roman literature in particular, it is important to recognise that its origin lies elsewhere, that it is not essentially, fundamentally, or primarily in the practice of spiritual guidance that it emerges.

Last year I tried to show you that the notion of parrhēsía was first of all and fundamentally a political notion. And this analysis of parrhēsía as a political notion, as a political concept, clearly took me away somewhat from my immediate project: the ancient history of practices of telling the truth about oneself. However, on the other hand, this drawback was compensated for by the fact that by taking up again or undertaking the analysis of parrhēsía in the field of political practices, I drew a bit closer to a theme which, after all, has always been present in my analysis of the relations between the subject and truth: that of relations of power and their role in the interplay between the subject and truth. With the notion of parrhēsía, originally rooted in political practice and the problematisation of democracy, then later diverging towards the sphere of personal ethics and the formation of the moral subject, with this notion with political roots and its divergence into morality, we have, to put things very schematically – and this is what interested me, why I stopped to look at this and am still focusing on it – the possibility of posing the question of the subject and truth from the point of view of the practice of what could be called the government of oneself and others.”

What is important to us about this? The term parrhesia originated in Athenian democracy and referred to a simple citizen of the polis who spoke the truth in a popular assembly, regardless of how that truth was perceived by others, the majority or the rulers. One could pay for speaking the truth with his life or be subjected to ostracism – banishment.

The word later came to be used to refer to other forms of truth-telling at the risk of the speaker. It was these practices of parrhesia “in the domain of spiritual direction, spiritual guidance, or soul counselling” that caught Foucault’s initial attention. The political aspect of parrhesia was too obvious and not worthy of attention until Foucault came to understand “the possibility of posing the question of the subject and truth from the point of view of the practice of what could be called the government of oneself and others”.

In the subject of civil society the political aspect cannot be excluded in any way, but also “the question of the subject and truth from the point of view of the practice of what could be called the government of oneself and others” cannot be avoided.

It was easy for the ancient Greeks. For them, there was only private life and political life. Greek democracy was direct and immediate. Every citizen spoke for himself in a popular assembly and made personal decisions. Neither he nor his listeners had any doubts that he was guided solely by his personal opinion.

Parrhesia was not perceived as something exceptional but was opposed to demagogy and the art of rhetoric. Every citizen of the polis understood that a specially trained orator had the purpose of changing the private (personal) opinion of his listeners to enlist them to some common opinion. A parrhesiast, on the other hand, is guided in his speech by a quite different motive, they cannot but tell the truth, it is their inner moral duty.

The only alternative to parrhesia is silence. The Greeks originally understood what modern people have to explain, as Kofi Annan did when he said: “All that evil needs to triumph is the silence of the majority”. The courageous Greek parrhesiasts spoke the truth when the silence of all, or the lack of publicly presented truth, led to evil being perpetrated by the majority of the people. The Greeks did not need the concept of “civic courage”, for personal and civic courage in direct democracy are the same thing.

In later times, parrhesia manifested itself in other, non-political situations, but which also demanded declaring the truth at the risk of death. This was the case for the already mentioned Galileo; it was the case for Martin Luther who took a stand against the sale of indulgences. So did many historical figures who dared to confront absolute monarchs, men who had absolute power over their lives and destiny. But these were not political acts, but moral ones.

This was not the case in the 18th century when representative democracy and civil society were emerging. The society of the 18th century was more complicated than the Athenian one. The educated people of that time had more knowledge and a deeper understanding of society. The social life of people in the 18th century ran beyond politics. There was private life and secular life. People of the late feudal epoch belonged to some estates and were members of various corporations, guilds, communities, sects or clubs. Each shared the views, goals and interests of the community with which they identified. Structured and strong communities had political interests that they tried to address by communicating with the authorities. It was not people with their personal opinions who entered into communication, but representatives of the interests and opinions of estates, guilds, corporations, churches, and later clubs and parties.

Practices of representation had already existed for several centuries. Lawyers represented the interests of their clients. Diplomats promoted the interests of their monarchs and broadcast their opinions, keeping their own to themselves. Scientists spoke in the name of truth. Delegates to deliberative bodies under monarchs (sejms, general states, parliaments) represented the interests of their estates or regions.

Accordingly, figures of speech appeared, which were resorted to when voicing the opinion of certain institutions, instances, collectives and communities, rather than a personal one. This is how the first person plural form of speech has taken root among scientists. The scholar says “we” where the ancient philosophers would say “I”, “you”, “they”. They would use “we” properly, as Aristotle did: “We want to investigate the nature of the soul, and I mean…”.

To give meaning and importance to their words, everyone began to declare: “I speak on behalf of all the merchants of our city” or “I represent here the nobility of so-and-so province”. In grotesque form, it sounds like this: “Not for profit, but only by the will of the one who sent me”.

It is always easier to express a general opinion, to say what someone has said, to refer to the fact that you have been delegated for a certain thing than to formulate your own opinion and attitude to anything.

In the representative bodies of the absolutist era, personal opinion meant and was worth very little. Even the archaic liberum veto was no exception to this rule. One delegate of the sejm could stop the debates and block any decision, not in his name, but as a representative of his town or region.

Any representative of anything could not be free, could not have their own opinion, as they were entrusted with broadcasting and proclaiming a very definite message. They are obliged to have this opinion of the collective, the community, the client, etc., and to keep their personal opinion to themselves.

But such a principle of representation contradicts all the declared principles of democracy. On the one hand, the “representative” is OBLIGED to adhere to the opinion which they are entrusted to represent, on the other hand, they SHOULD have their own opinion as a free citizen and person.

And what is to be done when the opinion they are OBLIGED to hold conflicts with the one they SHOULD hold as a free reasonable person? This is precisely the kind of case where civic courage and parrhesia are needed:

♦ Jeder muss den Mut zu seiner Meinung haben (Everyone must have the courage to have a personal opinion).

♦ You need to BE courageous and you have to HAVE your own opinion, not the one which is required by the group, party, community which sent you in, etc.

♦ You must have critical thinking to distinguish your own opinion from that which is entrusted to you from the outside and to distinguish between what is true and what is not.

♦ You have to have subjective certainty in the ability of critical thinking to establish objective truth, instead of trusting its establishment to external instances, and to have subjective certainty in this established truth.

♦ You need to value truth and true opinion more than the benefits that can come from abandoning true opinion in the form of community recognition, rewards and bonuses resulting from representing collective interests and other people’s opinions.

Understanding this, we can separate parrhesia and civic courage.

There is no civic courage without parrhesia. Civic courage is parrhesia manifested in special situations, when a citizen takes part in politics, i.e. in dealing with general issues and not just their personal ones.

It takes a lot of courage for a person who has decided to get rid of alcohol addiction to come to an Alcoholics Anonymous club and introduce himself: “Hello! My name is Peter and I am an alcoholic!” But that’s not civil courage yet.

Coming out also takes a lot of courage. Now the term is most often used in certain situations – declaring one’s non-traditional sexual orientation. But declaring yourself an atheist in a religious community is pretty much the same thing. In the USSR, declaring that you don’t share communist views was the same thing.

That’s all courage, but it’s not civil courage.

Civil society begins with parrhesia, with the civic courage of the parrhesiast who speaks of the society to which they belong, rather than of themselves.

A free citizen endowed with critical thinking commits an act of parrhesia by proclaiming ideas that are not shared by the majority, that contradict the attitudes of the authorities, and they risk their life and freedom, they can be punished by the contempt of the majority and exclusion from society.

Other free citizens endowed with critical thinking and having enough courage to reconsider the opinions and views imposed on them by corporations, parties, the whole society, and the whole nation, can accept the truth communicated by the parrhesiast and join them. These citizens become civil society.

If the act of parrhesia succeeds and the new idea proclaimed by the parrhesiast becomes the domain of a broad civil society, it changes the whole society and develops it. A particular opinion or idea, the verity of which was based only on the subjective conviction of a courageous citizen, takes hold of the masses and becomes trivial, becoming the common opinion of the majority.

And so it goes until the next act of parrhesia.

Сivil society in Belarus does exist. And there are several ideas which are already known from the acts of parrhesia that should change our society as a whole and lead to the reset of the state.


[i][]↑Fresh Wind is a public campaign that was launched on 31 August 2019 as a reaction to the drafting by the governments of Belarus and Russia of agreements on “deeper integration” of the two countries and changes to the Belarusian constitution that could jeopardise the country’s sovereignty: https://канстытуцыя.бел/

[ii] In 1994, Matskevich put forward the formula “To think Belarus” as a goal to comprehend Belarus not just as a subject of study and description, but as a unique self-sufficient object, requiring an appropriate attitude and background from the researcher:

[iii] Matskevich U. Vopreki ochevidnosti [Contrary to the evidence]. Nevsky prostor, 2006, p. 29.

[iv][]↑ “In autumn 2006, there was a high-profile conflict between the city authorities and the Full Gospel Christians of the New Life Church in Minsk. The land between Malinauka and Sukharava neighbourhood units became part of the development plan. Minsk City Executive Committee decided to deprive the congregation of the land and the building, which it had bought from a collective farm. In protest, the believers went on an open-ended hunger strike. Methodologist Matskevich, believing that the case does not only concern parishioners, joined the hunger strike. He was seriously set on it – as he told me later, they were ‘really ready to die’. Back then the believers and the public defended the church. (…) [As a result,] the authorities cancelled 11 decisions of the economic court in the New Life Church case”. (Belarussky zhurnal).

[v][]↑See Obschestvenny dialog v Belarusi: ot narodovlastiya k grazhdanskomu uchastiyu [Public dialogue in Belarus: from people’s power to civic participation] / Uladzimir Matskevich, 2012, pp. 48-54. (Eurobelarus).

[vi][]↑ NGO is a non-governmental organisation – an organisation set up by individuals, or other organisations not affiliated with the government. NGOs do not carry out commercial activities, so they are often referred to as “non-profit organisations” (NPO).

[vii][]↑ Mozhet li NGO, ili “trety sektor”, obkhoditsa bez grazhdanskogo obschestva? [Can NGOs, or the “third sector”, do without civil society?] / Uladzimir Matskevich, 2014. (

[viii][]↑ Milliony poslushnykh protiv millionov nesoglasnykh. Kto okazhetsya silnee? [Millions of obedient vs. millions of non-content. Who will turn out to be stronger?] / Uladzimir Matskevich. (Belarussky zhurnal).