Why do the Be­laru­sian au­thor­i­ties op­pose the re­vi­sion of the World War II myth?

The Baltic Times - - COMMENTARY - Vadzim Bylina

On May 18, 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.

Not sur­pris­ingly, then, ac­cord­ing to a 2015 sur­vey from the Min­skbased 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 per cent of those in­ter­viewed agreed that it was a pa­tri­otic war fought over their then­home­land, the Soviet Union. Only around 11 per cent 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 par­ti­sans 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.

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.

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.”

The IISEPS 2015 sur­vey showed that around 60 per cent of the re­spon­dents had heard about the cru­elty of par­ti­sans to­ward the civil­ian 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 1960’s, 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.

“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 lifeor-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 re-ad­dress his­tor­i­cal mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tions.

At the end of the 1980s, the pro­mul­ga­tion of the truth about re­pres­sion un­der Stalin ac­cel­er­ated the es­tab­lish­ment of an an­ti­com­mu­nist 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.

The ar­ti­cle first ap­peared on www.tol.org

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

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