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Built on Unknown Bones: Stalinism and Mass Repressions in Belarus

Lack of knowledge about the massacres at Kurapaty leave modern Belarus on shaky foundations.

by David R. Marples 2 July 2019

Battles over a forested site in Belarus, where an unknown number of people were killed in the years 1937-1941, have left monuments vandalized, construction contested, and historians vilified, but none of it brings Belarus any closer to knowing what happened at Kurapaty, which in turn extends a cultivated ignorance about the very foundations of modern Belarus.


Kurapaty, in the northern part of the city of Minsk, has become a shrine to the victims of Stalin in the period 1937-1941. We do not know the precise number of victims and there have been various estimates of the ethnic background of the corpses found there. Although the evidence of NKVD responsibility is clear, it remains a disputed and contested episode.


Kurapaty was “rediscovered” in 1988 by Zianon Pazniak, the leader of the Conservative Christian Party of the Popular Front. Pazniak, who fled Belarus in 1996 in fear for his life, has offered estimates of victim numbers as high as 250,000, which some scholars have condemned as grossly far-fetched, given that the population of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic was around 5 million in 1937.


There has been equally strong criticism of the other main researcher of the site, Ihar Kuzniatsou, a historian at Belarusian State University. The government has accused him, among other things, of plagiarism, while the opposition, including Pazniak, maintain he is linked to the Belarusian KGB and “has no moral right” to be involved with the question of Kurapaty.


The result is that there is still no definitive history of Kurapaty, who lies buried there, and the precise nature of the events. The Belarusian KGB archives are closed to the public, and scholars have not yet found a single mention of Kurapaty in the files of the Belarusian National Archive. Meanwhile, the government regards public interest in the memorial site as politically motivated, as some of the prominent figures are associated with opposition political parties or associations.


At best, official Belarus – represented by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and his advisers – is ambivalent about the site, the victims, and how to commemorate them. Last November, a small monument was erected on the government’s behalf, a plain and unimaginative edifice, with a bell  suspended from four metal supports, reminiscent of the larger and more impressive structure at the Khatyn Memorial to Nazi victims some 50 kilometers outside Minsk.


This official monument still stands at Kurapaty, but many other monuments have fallen, and nor can anything else be erected on the spot without opposition.


The Clinton Bench, a gift “from the people of the United States to the people of Belarus in the name of memory,” dedicated during a brief visit by President Bill Clinton in 1994, was repeatedly vandalized and finally smashed to pieces last February.


The Clinton bench, still intact in April 2017


An order to build a road through the forest in 2000 sparked determined protests, and between 2004 and 2014, the forest was a protected zone. In 2012, the protection zone was reduced to permit construction of a leisure center, the crudely named Bul’bash Hall (bul’bash means “potato-eater,” a derogatory Russian term for Belarusians), but that also met with stiff resistance, and it was not built.


The site was contested again in 2014, with the opening of the Let’s Go Eat restaurant – including “intimate rooms” for male diners to meet women employed by the restaurant – at the very entrance to the burial site. Despite daily protests led by the Young Front, the venue remains open.


Crosses erected by members of the opposition have been bulldozed and removed, and this April a fence was built around the forest, with Lukashenka talking about plans for an “exhibition center.” Answering questions on the plans, he responded: “I gave instruction to tidy up the place respecting Christian, Muslim, Jewish traditions. … When Catholics started to complain, some Muslims remarked, reasonably, that Muslim, Jewish, Orthodox, and Catholic people are buried there.”


Claiming that the 5- to 7-meter tall crosses had not been erected with sincere sentiments of honoring the dead, Lukashenka said, “We will tidy up this forest. We will apologize to those people for disturbing their ashes. They just want to rest in peace. Dead people should rest in peace. And we are only disturbing them when trying to politicize the matter. It is not normal. This is my point of view.”


Identity Made of Memory


It is not only individual memorials at stake here, but national memory and identity.


Belarus does not have a clearly defined identity. The president has attempted to build one like that of Russia, based on a narrative of victory over Nazi Germany in 1941-1945. This strategy was not a failure at the time because virtually every family in Belarus lost someone in the war. It is, however, distorted, with the estimated number of war victims constantly increasing. From the death toll of one in four, used by Communist Party leader Pyatro Mashera in 1965, Lukashenka went on to claim in 2004 that one in three residents within the 1940 borders had been killed in the war.


One of the identified Kurapaty victims


By contrast, the Holocaust is downplayed. Jewish victims in Belarus, who numbered around 600,000, are consistently added to overall Soviet totals, in line with historical practice in the Soviet period. Post-Soviet school textbooks offer no detailed treatment of the topic.


Yet both Stalinist and Nazi repressions are passing out of living memory. The number of war veterans today is a few thousand, and few are still capable of taking part in the annual Victory Day commemoration on 9 May.


Meanwhile, any attempt to discuss Stalinist crimes undermines the official narrative in a number of critical ways. On one side, the NKVD perpetrators of massacres at Kurapaty were an integral part of the Soviet regime. On the other side, those killed included cultural leaders of Soviet Belarus, political figures, and simple peasants. Most victims, according to Kuzniatsou, were men aged 30-40, and about 65 percent were ethnic Belarusians. About 85 percent were workers and peasants, about half of whom were accused of espionage.


Kurapaty was perhaps the major killing site, and Pazniak and others see it as a national shrine that should be respected and commemorated. However, it was far from the only one – Kuzniatsou cites at least 12 locations in Minsk alone – in a series of atrocities that damaged Belarus’s sense of identity.


Events of the 1930s determined the future of the small republic. Unlike its much larger neighbor Ukraine, Belarus found it very difficult to recover from the losses of its cultural elite. The night of 29-30 October 1937 is remembered now as the “Night of the Executed Poets,” the peak of attacks on Belarusian writers, when more than 100 were executed on Stalin’s orders, along with leading political and cultural figures from other spheres. Yet the authorities today will not recognize 30 October as an official day of remembrance.


Crosses in the forest


More broadly, in the 1930s, the Belarusian language was superseded by Russian, which by the 1970s came to dominate public life, publications, newspapers, and business. Russian remains prevalent today, with only token efforts to elevate the national language. Even in post-Soviet times, Russian dominated: it was the sole state language of Belarus from 1990 to 1995 before newly elected President Lukashenka held a referendum that restored Belarusian as an equal language in theory – even if Russian dominated in practice.


If Belarusians do not understand their past, it becomes ever more difficult to define the present and to define what the state represents. Is it indeed an emergent nation, separate from Russia, with a different heritage and aspirations?


From Past to Future


Lukashenka has belatedly recognized the need for distance from Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which seeks to keep its smaller neighbor in the Russian sphere of influence through various means. On his side, Lukashenka has initiated dialogue with the West, and the visa-free policy on the western border of Belarus was extended this year, from five to 30 days.


Yet in his 25 years in the presidency, Lukashenka has barely moved forward in terms of defining national identity. The state is modern in many ways. It has an advanced IT industry, new hotels and construction, and its population is well educated. Young Belarusians travel more to EU countries, proportionally, than any other residents of the former Soviet republics.


However, politically, Belarus is dormant. Bland, seemingly interchangeable figures monopolize public life, and the president controls the instruments of power. Parliament is a talking shop without real authority. Elections are carefully controlled.


Belarus missed out on fundamental transformations experienced in 1988-1991 by its neighbors, including Russia, as Stalin-era crimes were uncovered.


In Ukraine, for example, the 1933 Holodomor (famine) which eliminated nearly 4 million peasants, has taken on a defining significance, and has been recognized as genocide by Ukraine and 33 other countries.


In Belarus, no such scholarly or public interrogation has taken place. This has left a void in understanding the past. Only when the crosses were removed from the Kurapaty memorial site earlier this year was there a widespread reaction, and that was more from an Orthodox and Catholic Christian perspective than out of a broader understanding of the enormity of Kurapaty.


Could things change? I believe they could, but much depends on the eventual successor to Lukashenka (who turns 65 in August), a generational change, and continuing commitment by the youthful protesters who have been defending Kurapaty from various provocations and acts of vandalism.


That people have defended the site – sometimes daily, over several months – is the most encouraging sign. However, local historians are in a tighter corner because focus on Stalin’s victims leads to charges of “historical revisionism” and can bring the sort of pressure placed on scholars like Kuzniatsou, who defy the official line.


The Kurapaty site and its history need to become the focus of foreign scholars, and international conferences and fora, where they can be addressed with clarity and a lack of hyperbole. After all, no one should monopolize the interpretations and study of the past.

David R. Marples is a professor of Russian and East European history and currently chairman of the department of history and classics, University of Alberta, Canada. He is the author of 16 single-authored books, including Ukraine in Conflict, “Our Glorious Past”: Lukashenka’s Belarus and the Great Patriotic War, and Heroes and Villains: Creating National History in Contemporary Ukraine. Photos taken by the author. 
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