01 November 2010

A weekend of memory in Belarus

The run up to the Belarusian presidential elections, to be held on December 19th this year, has witnessed the intensification of the internal memory war in Belarus. The incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka, running for his fourth term in office after 16 years in power, has consistently promoted a vision of Belarusian nationhood which draws especially on Soviet mythology of the Great Patriotic War and “brotherhood” with Russia. The upcoming general release on November 4th of the “first joint cinematic project of the Russian-Belarusian Union State”, Brest Fortress (Brestskaya Krepost’), should be seen as official Minsk’s newest salvo in this civil memory war. In opposition to the state’s version of history, a number of political parties and grassroots movements position themselves as guardians of a historical legacy descending from the Western European, democratic traditions of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Two widely-publicised opposition demonstrations were held over the weekend in Belarus to mourn the victims of Stalinist terror in 1937 and NKVD-led massacres during the Second World War.

On October 29th, a small group of intellectuals and political leaders, including several presidential hopefuls, held a “memory picket” at the KGB headquarters in central Minsk, laying candles for several dozen Belarusian intellectuals and political prisoners who were shot dead in the NKVD prison at this site on the same day in 1937 (see here for an article in Belarusian, or here for a report in Russian). October 29th has been designated as the Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Stalinism by the Belarusian opposition (the official European day of remembrance is August 23). The events of the day also included a procession which ended at Kurapaty, where mass graves of Belarusian civilians murdered during the Second World War by the NKVD were discovered in 1988.

The feast day of Dziady (which corresponds to All Souls Day in the Western Christian calendar) is celebrated on November 1st in Belarus. It is a traditional day for remembrance of the dead, equivalent to Zaduszki in Poland. An organised procession of national mourning from Minsk to Kurapaty was held on Sunday Oct 31 (because Nov 1 is not an official holiday), where several hundred activists, again including several candidates for the post of president, waved the banned White-Red-White flag and held a memorial ceremony at the mass burial site (see here for an English summary, here for a detailed report in Belarusian, here for a shorter, and somewhat more pessimistic, account in Russian). A similar, smaller-scale event is being held on November 1 in Warsaw, where the local movement “Belarusian National Memory” will visit the graves of Belarusian notables buried in Warsaw’s cemeteries.

Meanwhile, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka was in the western regional capital of Brest, where he addressed locals and their concerns, and outlined his proposals for a better health policy through the further proliferation of large sports complexes in Belarus. The leading article in state-owned daily Sovietskaya Byelorussiya, the country’s best-selling newspaper known for its unwavering loyalty to the government, is interesting for its opening: in the first paragraph, the only street where the president is said to have “strolled” is Sovietskaya Street. This appears to be the only street worthy of his presence, at least in terms of public consciousness. During his visit, Lukashenka also announced that “I have never falsified any elections”, and that “in Belarus there will never be a President-Tsar”. The latter is of note because of the lingering negative connotations of tsarism, presumably carried over from Soviet ideology. On the question of falsification, opposition publications were quick to remind their readers of Lukashenka’s announcement to the Russian press in June 2009, where he publicly stated that he had falsified the elections of 2006, reducing the vote in his favour from a supposed 93% to 86% in order to look ‘more credible’. This report was entitled “Lukashenka: Something has Happened with my Memory” - a sign that the memory war is also operating on a more recent front.

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