The tug-of-war for Belarus’s memory

Grigory Ioffe,
Radford University,
Radford, Virginia, USA

To this day, Belarusians do not have a cohesive historical memory. Instead, it comes in two pronounced versions, though there have been some selectively successful attempts at consolidating them.

According to the Neo-Soviet/Russo-Centric Version, no event in Belarusian history outweighs the significance of the Great Patriotic War, the name that Russians and Belarusians attach to the eastern front of World War II from June 22, 1941 to May 9 1945. The enormity of the casualties, the cruelty of the occupiers, and a wide and efficient network of partisan detachments form the centerpieces of wartime memories. Such landmarks as the Brest Fortress, Khatyn, the new Museum of the Great Patriotic War, and the recently (2018) opened memorial at Trostenets (the fourth-largest Nazi death camp in Europe), sustain these memories. It may be somewhat more difficult to grasp why the memory of the war is not just a tribute to its casualties and to the eventual victory in that titanic conflict but also a symbol of its formative influence on Belarusians as a national community. Anyway, since 1996, July 3, when the Soviet Army liberated Minsk from the Germans back in 1944, has been commemorated as Independence Day in Belarus.

The 1917 Revolution is also held in high regard by the Neo-Soviet strain of historical memory. Moreover, in Belarus, where November 7 (considered the start of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917) is still a national holiday, this event is higher in status than in Russia itself. The fact that Belarusians en masse did not fight for self-determination either in the aftermath of the revolution or seven decades later finds a peculiar interpretation in the popular course of history: “When Soviet power was taking shape and nation-building experience was absent, the working class of Belarus treated any detachment whatsoever from Soviet Russia with suspicion.” Hence the more-than-skeptical attitude toward the Belarusian People’s Republic (BPR). Proclaimed on March 25, 1918, this would-be state languished for the remaining nine months of German military occupation. In contrast, the Soviet quasi-statehood bestowed upon Belarus on January 1, 1919 is regarded as the legitimate and sole forerunner of fully-fledged statehood that Belarus gained 72 years later, in 1991, in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Since the late 1980s, the neo-Soviet strain of national memory has been in conflict with the Westernizing one. To be sure, the latter is no younger than its neo-Soviet counterpart. The first indigenously produced survey of Belarusian history was published in 1910; and by its author’s, Vatslav Lastouski’s, own assertion, the work was meant to help liberate Belarusians from the Russian yoke. Later on, however, the Westernizing narratives of Belarusian history were hard hit on two occasions and never fully recovered. The initial blow came in the 1930s, when close to 300 Belarusian-speaking writers and college professors fell victim to mass Stalinist repressions. Subsequently, the Westernizing version of Belarusian history espoused by many of these purged academics was adopted by collaborationist structures under German occupation in World War II, which were then defeated by the partisan movement and the Soviet Army. The third resurgence of the Westernizing historical discourse came about during Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika and is firmly associated with Zianon Pazniak, the leader of the Belarusian Popular Front until his emigration in 1996. The main building blocks of the Westernizing version of Belarusian historical memory are as follows. Relations between Belarus and Russia are those between a colony and the metropolis; by all means, it is necessary to break the umbilical cord, which still connects Belarus with Russia. Belarus is a European community that should return to Europe. During World War II, two equally alien forces fought each other on the territory of Belarus—Nazism and Stalinism—and Belarusians fell victim to this clash. Post-war developments tied Belarus to Russia even more. Meanwhile, Belarusians should shake off the layers of Soviet history and recall their European roots.

Just as in the Russo-centric version, the Polotsk Pricipality is believed to be the forerunner of Belarus. But in contrast to the Russo-centric narrative, the Westernizing strand of historical memory questions the alleged subordination of Polotsk to Kiev. As is argued in some canonical texts of the Westernizing version, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL), which had captured Polotsk and other parts of modern-day Belarus, was “privatized” by ethnic Lithuanians; but life in it took on “Belarusian national forms.” Unlike the Russo-centric tendency to refer to “Belarusian lands” inside the GDL and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (which incorporated the GDL in 1569), the Westernizing tradition specifically refers to the latter two larger entities as “our country” or “our state.” According to the Westernizing version, March 25, the anniversary of the BPR is the true Independence Day of Belarus.

Available surveys suggest that the Russo-centric/Neo-Soviet version is still more influential in Belarus compared with the Westernizing version. The latter, however, has been gaining traction particularly during the time periods marked by worsening relations with and growing detachment from Russia as was the case following the 2014 Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The semi-official celebration of the centennial of the BPR in 2018 was one of the hallmarks in the ascendance of the Westernizing strand of Belarusian historical memory. A deep political crisis in Belarus following the presidential elections of August 2020, has trappings of yet another hallmark. Much will depend on how, when and by what means will this crisis be resolved.

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