Symbal.by is a social business that produces shirts, mugs, hats, flags and other accessories bearing traditional Belarusian cultural symbols that have historically been either discouraged or implicitly banned by authorities in favour of Russification. The proceeds from the sale of these merchandise are used to support events promoting Belarusian language and culture in an environment where national identity has been obscured by centuries of Russian cultural dominance.
Theory of Change
In societies faced with the threat of cultural domination of one group by another, commercialization of cultural symbols can become potent tools in defending the right to self-determination.
Since Symbal.by became a popular shopping destination for locals and tourists alike, proceeds from its sales have been deployed towards organizing a variety of festivals and events promoting Belarusian language and culture. In 2018, Symbal.by was among the organizers of Freedom Day, a mass celebration marking the 100th anniversary of the independence of Belarusian People’s Republic. Ahead of the August 2020 presidential elections, Symbal.by came under increasing pressure from authorities and decided to close their brick and mortar shop to focus instead on online sales, attracting many customers. The online shop continues to experience strong sales, with hundreds of orders per day. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Symbal.by now holds all their events online. Most recently, they have begun hosting online concerts featuring musicians who sing in Belarusian language.
Through its shop and festivals organized with earnings, Symbal.by has helped popularize Belarusian language and culture. In recent years, the motifs and symbols featured on its merchandise have been mainstreamed into popular culture, with celebrities seen sporting them and on social media. As a co-organizer of Freedom Day in 2018, Symbal.by collected an unprecedented USD 25,000 in donations to help cover event costs. Up to 50,000 people attended the event in Minsk. This year, when Symbal.by took the decision to close their physical store under increased pressure from authorities, Belarusians showed their support by coming in droves to shop on the last open days. Online orders also surged, further proof that Symbal.by is deeply embedded in the community and can quickly rally support.