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When Revisiting History is a Threat

Why do the Belarusian authorities oppose the revision of the Great Patriotic War myth? by Vadzim Bylina 18 July 2017

On 18 May in the Temple of All Saints, a church in Minsk, representatives of the Orthodox Church and of the state administration gathered to announce the establishment of an association called “Defenders of Memory and Truth of the Great Patriotic War.” The setting for the press conference was not chosen idly: the temple’s priest, Fiodar Pouny, has closely collaborated in the past with the Belarusian authorities. He can often be seen on state TV next to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and alongside famous sportsmen and businessmen.

 

In Lukashenka’s Belarus the myth of the Great Patriotic War, as World War II is known in Soviet history, has become a cornerstone of state ideology. School curricula, mainstream media, and even state holidays have helped strengthen the myth. However, the mere establishment of such an association indicates that the authorities are worried – that something went wrong and some outside source or sources have challenged the myth, necessitating increased support and reinforcement.  

 

The main cause for concern appears to be the voices of intellectuals interested in revising the myth that have been growing louder in recent months. Issues and opinions previously off-limits – essentially forbidden to be mentioned in state media, school textbooks, and sanctioned public discourse – have come to the fore – including extremely sensitive subjects such as the crimes committed by Soviet partisans during the war, and the involvement of the local population in the Holocaust.

 

The National Myth of Belarusian State Ideology

 

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, dozens of historical articles and monographs debunking Soviet historical myths have been published. Nevertheless, Belarusian official discourse still features a Soviet interpretation of World War II that has only been slightly transformed to match the changing times.

 

The official version claims that most of Belarus’ inhabitants rose up to fight the Nazis. Just a small group of traitors, which included Belarusian nationalists, supported the Germans.

 

Lukashenka meets veterans during Victory Day celebrations. Photo: tut.by

 

Not surprisingly, then, according to a 2015 survey from the Minsk-based Independent Institute of Socioeconomic and Political Studies (IISEPS), Belarusian attitudes to World War II significantly differ from those of most nations in Central Europe. Regardless of political preferences, the majority of Belarusians shared the traditional viewpoint established in Soviet times. More than 85 percent of those interviewed agreed that it was a patriotic war fought over their then-homeland, the Soviet Union. Only around 11 percent believed that, for Belarusians, it was somebody else’s war that they had been drawn into.

 

The official Belarusian version of the war also contrasts with those of its neighbors because it pays very little attention to the Holocaust and Nazi-Soviet activities before 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union under Operation Barbarossa. The real scale of Nazi support, the cruelty of Soviet partisan toward the civilian population, the activities of Polish guerillas, and other “inappropriate” topics are overlooked. In the past decades, some independent media and intellectuals have tried to shed some more light on these taboo subjects. But, as the survey of IISEPS shows, most revision attempts went unnoticed and have not influenced the overall perception of the war.

 

Silence Over the Holocaust

 

Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich is perhaps the most influential intellectual who has tried to draw public attention to such forbidden issues. This March she invited Lithuanian writer Ruta Vanagaite – the author of the bestseller “Our People” – to come to Minsk. Vanagaite’s book describes the participation of Lithuanians in the Holocaust, a subject that sparked discussions in Lithuania along with sharp criticism from a conservative part of society.

 

Svetlana Alexievich and Ruta Vaganaite during their public meeting in Minsk. Photo: kp.by

 

In Belarus, a public meeting with the controversial author brought to the forefront the Holocaust issue, otherwise marginalized in mainstream discourse in Belarus. While historians agree that the level of participation of Belarusians in the Holocaust was lower than the local population in the Baltic States and Ukraine, a monograph describing the involvement of Belarusians in the extermination of the Jews has not yet been written. The problem is only partly described in several studies on Belarusian-Nazi collaboration.

 

School textbooks still pay very little attention to the Holocaust. At war commemorations, the official media always repeat the Soviet cliché that every third Belarusian was killed during the war, without ever mentioning that this calculation includes hundreds of thousands of local Jews who were exterminated.

 

Victory Day celebration in Minsk. Photo: relax.by

 

Several well-known intellectuals and opposition politicians, including Aliaksandr Fiaduta and Uladzimir Niakliayeu, attended the event organized for Vanagaite’s visit. And more than 45,000 people viewed the 45-minute speech of the writer on YouTube.

 

The Crimes of the Communist Partisans

 

At the end of last year, the Belarusian service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty published  “A Gentleman Who Possessed a Speaking Sparrow,” a collection of articles written by journalist and musician Zmitser Bartosik. In his travels across Belarus, he gathered memories of old villagers who have lived their entire lives in rural areas. Many of them spoke about the interactions between the Soviet partisans and the locals. The interviews also mentioned a number of cases when the communist guerillas executed local families, including children and women.

 

The collection of articles got positive reviews, and in April 2017 the Belarus Free Theatre, an underground theater group, staged a theatrical adaptation of the book. The play earned plaudits as well. Commenting on Facebook, historian Aliaksei Bratachkin said the actors helped spectators see their memories through the “ideological constructs” from different times and to consider peeling back those layers to reach the “past.”

 

Theatre perfomance based on 'The Man Who Had a Speaking Sparrow.' Photo: artsiadziba.by

 

The IISEPS 2015 survey showed that around 60 percent of the respondents had heard about the cruelty of partisans toward the civil population. More than 27 percent believe that such behavior cannot be justified – a huge number considering the official history policy of glorifying the heroism of the Soviet guerrillas.

 

Many former partisans became involved in politics after the war and in the 1960s the former leaders of the partisan movement occupied key positions in the government of Soviet Belarus. Because of their past, they were interested in maintaining the war myth about Belarus as a “Partisan Republic” – one of the leaders of the anti-Nazi resistance. As a result, thousands of monuments were erected around the country, hundreds of books were written, and dozens of movies were filmed glorifying Soviet partisans. Studying the success of the partisan movement became a major topic for Belarusian historians.  

 

The Dangers of Revisionism

 

The origins of the present-day political elite are in Soviet Belarus. Naturally, a book describing the war crimes of the communist elite during the war would pose a great threat to the ideology of Lukashenka’s regime.

 

In 2015, Ihar Karpenka, the current minister of education and leader of the pro-government Communist Party, proposed the introduction of sanctions for the falsification of Great Patriotic War events. While the attempt came to nothing back then, the establishment of the “Defenders of memory and truth of Great Patriotic War” could mean the first step toward reviving those efforts.

 

Nevertheless, Bratachkin says the official version of the war has reached a dead end: “A large amount of research and memoirs debunking the myth have been published. Karpenka’s initiative and the establishment of the Defenders organization is an attempt to control the memory of war through censorship.”

 

Another researcher, sociologist Aliaksei Lastouski, also noted increased efforts toward preserving long-standing perceptions of the Great Patriotic War.

 

Great Patriotic War museum in Minsk. Photo: poshyk.info

 

“On the level of official rhetoric we can observe changes toward further mythologization of war history. This image of the war is so integrated into the state project of identity that all challenges to the official version are perceived as life-or-death threats,” says Lastouski, who heads the contemporary history department at the Belarusian Collegium, the country’s oldest informal educational program.

 

“This does not facilitate academic studies of the war. Official historians are not interested in the war topic because each step away from the official line can cause serious troubles. Every attempt to revise the official version of memory is doomed to be censored.”

 

At the moment, Alexievich’s activities and cultural events such as the performance of the underground theater only reach a small part of the Belarusian public. However, Belarusian contemporary history does have some precedent of the public mobilizing to readdress historical misinterpretations.

 

At the end of the 1980s, the promulgation of the truth about repression under Stalin accelerated the establishment of an anti-communist movement in Belarus. In 1988 the first mass protest of the democratic opposition took place in Kurapaty, on the outskirts of Minsk, a place that had been used for mass executions during Stalin’s regime. 

 

Zianon Pazdniak, the archaeologist who excavated human remains at Kurapaty, became the leader of the anti-communist movement.

 

The recent activities of the regime seem to indicate the authorities remember well the threat Kurapaty represented for the communist regime and will do all they can to be sure the historical myth of the Great Patriotic War does not meet the same fate. 

Vadzim Bylina is a researcher at the Institute of Political Studies Political Sphere, with offices in Minsk and Vilnius. 

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