The notion that citizens should be ready to sacrifice themselves fighting to protect the motherland that nourished them was central to Soviet propaganda mobilising the population for the twentieth-century war effort. This legacy is critically explored in Motherland by Alexander Mihalkovich and Hanna Badziaka, which had its world premiere at CPH:DOX and questions how the state’s machinery cares for its own people today, or, rather, brutalises them. The empire has by now broken apart, but we witness a persistent militarisation of society in Belarus, where Victory Day is still a nostalgic and grand public celebration. Young men are subject to eighteen months of compulsory military service at training centres — army time that involves a vicious hazing process and hierarchical power abuses called «Dedovschina» carried over from the Soviet era. Through its humiliating tasks and punishments, the practice is designed to indoctrinate new recruits with unwavering obedience and cohesive groupthink. It has created a pervasive climate of fear. A number of deaths have happened under its watch that have been officially ruled suicides but bear the hallmarks of possible manslaughter or homicide and are suspected as cover-ups by families looking for answers.
The Belarusian motherland the directors capture here is one not of patriotic glory but rather bereaved women, as several mothers whose sons have died violently during military service (and who have been strictly prohibited from photographing the mysterious bruising on their children’s corpses at the morgue) seek to launch a class-action lawsuit to push the regime to take responsibility for the adverse conditions and bullying rife at the training centres. The most publicised is that of Alyaksandr Korzhych, who was found hanged with his feet tied and a T-shirt over his head just months after being drafted at a base in the military town of Pechi, notorious for the extortion practices of commanders demanding cash payments from new recruits.
It has created a pervasive climate of fear.
While families negotiate the hellish aftermath of these tragedies and seek justice against an indifferent state machine that would rather that any recollection of these deaths quietly go away, other young men party and enjoy the little freedom they have as their service draws nearer. Their anxiety is palpable: the brutality of army service is no secret, and they worry about what they will have to endure. One father reassures his son that sharp-edged military order is a rite of passage that will straighten out any flimsiness of mind. This doesn’t hold true, as those coming out the other side describe being burdened with a psychological «mess» to process.
Excerpts of Mihalkovich’s own letters to his mother, written during military service, are read in voice-over, forming an intimate, emotional framework within which the army tragedies and their implications are examined. We hear a sensitive recruit become someone who gets a rush from the power he is eventually granted over newer conscripts, unsettled to admit he has been partially brainwashed.
Rituals of militarisation
Intelligently structured to reveal how the mechanisms and rituals of militarisation control a whole society, the film shifts gear halfway through to focus on the protests surrounding the 2020 presidential election in Belarus, in which dictatorial leader Alexander Lukashenko gained a sixth term in office, despite allegations of electoral result falsification. Amid a groundswell of civic indignation and resistance, as demonstrators come out onto the streets, soldiers are sent to crack down on dissent. We see the raw force shored up by the army’s indoctrination process enacted upon Belarus’s citizens. Footage shows the repression, well-documented by citizen phone video, of citizens being beaten in the street and a detention centre where screams are heard of detainees being tortured as their loved ones wait outside for their release.
Young activists, anxious about possible arrest and themselves subject to soon do compulsory service, ask one of their conscripted peers how it is that a Belarusian troop could use force on their own populace. It is to the people that the army takes their oath, they insist — and the majority do not want Lukashenko in power. «If I don’t obey, it’s easier for them to liquidate me», the conscript replies, his language registering a perceived level of threat that alarms his friends. Some young people prefer to break their legs rather than serve in the army. With this documentary dedicated to all Ukrainians fighting Russian aggression and Belarusian political prisoners suffering from the regime, it becomes more comprehensible why. Physical injury is terrible enough to endure, but the ultimate battle is to retain the capacity for free thought that all resistance and dissent stem from, not to mention the only hope for authentic peace of mind. In light of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the implications of a young army of conscripts trained not to protect their families and communities but psychologically manipulated to uphold a status quo of corrupt power takes on even deeper dimensions of criminal injustice and horror.