On cultural exchange between Finland and Belarus

Jussi Seppälä,
Finland-Belarus Society,

Culture first – then business. This is a good rule of thumb for making business in Belarus. If you approach business people with the old Finnish direct approach – “we want to have cooperation with you” – then something goes wrong. The Belarusians are like the Finns – peaceful people not wanting to rule the world – but it is better to avoid excessive straightness in the beginning of communication. As the modern DNA tests have confirmed, Belarusians belong genetically to Europe, to the Polish side. Finns are made of different materials, almost from the same as Russians, which also belong to the large Finno-Ugrian family. Finno-Ugrians wanting cooperation with Europeans is an old story. However, before trying to enter into deeper levels of cooperation, some basic cultural exchange is necessary.

The Finland-Belarus Society (NGO) has explored Belarus since 2002, when the association was established. The association has organized many trips to Belarus, including excursions to different kinds of business and cultural organizations. The Belaruskali salt mines in Soligorsk are unforgettable, the Neman glass factory remains in the heart, and the Motovelo factory offered the possibility to buy real Belarusian made bicycles. The association has received kind reception also in other places, like Vitebsk, Orsha, Mogilev, Gomel, Brest, Grodno and Smorgon. The association has been treated as a business delegation, although it has not been such – the main interest has been in culture. Here is the basic question – which comes first, culture or business? For our association it has strangely been business, so for the real business delegations it must be culture.

When you visit Belarus as a business person, you must go to the opera, ballet and circus. Then you should visit the art museums and galleries. You should also go to concerts. It is very easy to buy tickets for various events online. In the good old days you had to have a local acquaintance in Minsk who bought the tickets in advance and then gave them to you. Of the galleries, you should definitely visit the Y gallery, which is located in new premises in an interesting cultural area that is like the Telliskivi area in Tallinn. In Minsk, the area of old industrial space transformed into cultural space is huge. Since private investments in culture are lacking in Belarus, the new cultural space is probably city or state funded. If this is the case, then you can be certain that “culture first, then business”.

Minsk is not the only center of culture in Belarus. You should also visit places like Vitebsk, the birthplace of painter Marc Chagall. In Grodno you can meet artists at the old water tower. Grodno is a good example of Belarusian culture, which seems to be a mixture of different kinds of European influences, yet having its own style. The cultural environment has a profound effect in people. Cultural traditions have long roots, going back hundreds and thousands of years. Although people in Finland and Belarus may have a different genetic background, the cultural closeness is considerable. In the good old days, a Belarusian farmer wanted to sit on the edge of the field, looking far into the horizon, drinking a little bit of self-made samogon (moonshine). Just like in Finland. When people are not under artificial rules, life finds its natural foundations, and the basic things tend to be the same everywhere. Culture defines what we are, or what we are supposed to be. Culture brings us together and separates us. Culture can give us clues to the deeper meanings of life. Can business do that?

At the beginning of the 2000s, some called Belarus the black hole of Europe. Times have changed and there are many black holes in the world. Even the whole world seems to be a black hole, if we follow Greta Thunberg. Is there a changing human cultural force that could bring light to a dark world? What would be the role of business in such a project? Business should support human life and culture, by helping to develop the sense and meaning of life in general. In Belarus, there is little private money to support culture. If there are sponsors, they are not on permanent basis. The main source of support for culture is state money. The background to this situation is the old Soviet-era legislation, which is more about control than creating something new. From this basis, business would have plenty of room to support culture financially.

We live in a time of change, as we always have. However, the current change seems to be hard for us to understand, if we think about climate change and its consequences. Culture and business must join forces in front of today’s world challenges. It is not enough to say “we want to have cooperation with you” if you just want to make more money. You need to see culture and business together, so that new thinking could emerge. Cultural exchange between different people and countries is more than necessary for the promotion of sustainable goals in the world.

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