Ihar Kuzniatsou: “Repressions are both history and reality in Belarus”

Ihar Kuzniatsou: “Repressions are both history and reality in Belarus

A wave of terror swept over the Soviet Union 70 years ago. 1937 became the bloodiest year in the history of the Soviet-era repressions. Why did the communist regime resort to the policy of massive executions and deportation? How big was the scale of the repressions? Which place do they have in minds of the Belarusians today? These and many other questions are answered by Dr. Ihar Kuzniatsou, coordinator of the Belarusian branch of the International historic and educational charitable association “Memorial”, member of the Belarusian Association of Journalists.

In the countries of the former Soviet Union, the words “Stalin” and “repressions” traditionally go together. Is it correct to limit the period of repressions with the beginning and the end of the Stalin’s rule?

No, of course not. Active repressions began much earlier, immediately after the “October coup” of 1917. Cheka, the first Soviet secret service, was created in December 1917, headed by Dzerzhinski. This organization was the first to adopt the practice of extrajudicial executions. Political enemies were eliminated without even keeping up appearance of any courts or tribunals. 


Which periods would you single out in the history of the soviet repressions?

Historians speak about the period of active repressions beginning with the October coup in 1917 and coming to an end with the death of Stalin in 1953. After that, the era of Khrushchev and Brezhnev came, and the repressions become much milder. The repressions die away during Perestroika and cease after the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, in Belarus, unlike in most other former SovietRepublics, the repressions continue until now, moreover – they are building up.

How many people were subject to the repressions in the Soviet Union?

The first official information was published in 1991. It was said, that about 3 mln. people were subject to repressions during the Soviet rule, including 600,000 of those who were executed. However, these numbers were deliberately lowered. No less than 20 mln. people were murdered during this time, and according to some sources – almost 60 mln. Speaking about the number of the repressed, the range is enormous, but in any case we should count with dozens of millions of people.


How extensive were repressions in Belarus?

According to the official information, about 600,000 people were repressed in Belarus. The independent research shows, however, that not less than 1,5 mln. people became victims in our country. Note, that this number does not include those who were repressed psychologically and economically. Children and spouses of the “public enemies” were fired from their jobs and could neither find one again, nor receive any financial support from the state.

What was the ultimate goal of the repressions? Why did the Soviet state adopt such a brutal policy?

Why did the Soviet regime need repressions? Nobody has found an answer to this question, and probably no one ever will. In the USSR one didn’t even have to have a single “wrong” thought in order to become a “public enemy”. It is hard to comprehend how massive this process was. When you study cases of that period, you see that in the mid-30s it was mostly intelligentsia, which was repressed. Already in 1937, repressions touched literally everyone. In the execution lists one can find kolkhoz peasants, unemployed, housewives, etc. And, most unbelievable, two thirds of these people were absolutely loyal towards the Soviet rule! The people, who didn’t have a single thought about damaging the regime in any way, were executed. Perhaps, the communist rulers wanted to cultivate the feeling of fear in the country. Everyone ought to be afraid, and first of all those who believed in the communist idea. These people suffered the most, but continued to believe. The situation was totally absurd.

There is a rather widespread opinion that Stalin didn’t know about the real scale of repressions. Allegedly, it was his surrounding, which got out of hand. Is that true?

Indeed, some people believe that Stalin had nothing to do with the repressions. Supposedly, his secret services got out of control and started massive executions. This belief is completely refuted by the scientific research. The repressive process was strictly regulated and all the instructions came directly from the Central Committee of the Communist party, from Stalin and Politburo. One should mention the infamous order #00477, signed by Mr. Ezhov, People’s Commissar of NKVD (predecessor organization of KGB). It introduced the so-called “genocide instructions”. It determined in advance, how many people should be arrested, executed or deported in every single administrative district of each of the Soviet republics. Moreover, even the social structure of the repressed-to-be people was regulated. The “genocide instructions” determined how many priests, engineers, intellectuals, workers, peasants, etc. should be arrested. It was often carried to the point of absurdity. For instance, some regions ran out of priests, but the instructions kept on coming from above. Then, local secret services “borrowed” priests from neighbouring regions. It was vital not simply to fulfill, but, so to say, to over-fulfill the order. Those, who fell behind the numbers set in instructions, ran the risk to end up in the same holes, where they buried the executed.

Why did the peak of the repressions fall on 1937-1938?

Speaking at the March congress of the communist party in 1937, Stalin proclaimed the following thesis: “As the socialism becomes successful, the resistance of enemies will increase”. The order #00477 was the immediate result of the Stalin’s speech – the words of the “chief” were put into practice. A massive purge began, which had the gravest consequences. Just in the single year of 1937 about 7% to 15% of the total population of the Soviet Union was eliminated.

The people who executed the sentence – didn’t they become victims too?

Concerning the people who were members of the so-called “troikas”, “dvoikas”, extraordinary councils and execution squats – this is a very difficult issue. They are usually called butchers, but I would add that they were victims too. They were forced to execute the orders. Some took part in the repressions because they genuinely believed in the Soviet idea, they believed to be executing real enemies. Others did so because they wanted to stay alive, because they thought that by killing others they would save themselves and their relatives. But in 1938 it was the time for them to pay… Those, who were the most active in implementing the policy of repressions, were eliminated. According to the official information, more than 20,000 Cheka officers were executed during the Stalin’s rule. The regime got rid of witnesses, so that no one would be able to find out what really happened in the thirties.

Which peculiarities did the repressions in Belarus have?

In Belarus the repressions were more massive. It was believed, that the situation in this country is full of threats to the regime because the republic was bordering the capitalist Europe. Thus, the rates of the peasants’ deportation from Belarus during the period of massive collectivization (creation of kolkhozes) are higher than in Russia or Ukraine. The deportation from the borderlands was a usual practice. People were deported to faraway territories, such as Siberia or Kazakhstan. The people who were used to live in Belarus were not adapted to living in such harsh climatic conditions. It was a form of genocide, elimination of people without any trials and sentences.

Another peculiarity of repressions in Belarus was the fact, that the country’s intelligentsia was practically eradicated in the early 30’s. Most Belarusian intellectuals, writers, poets and scientists were accused of being members of hostile organizations (all of which were forged by secret services). The sentences were relatively “mild” at that time – intellectuals were more often deported than executed. However, in 1937 the bloody tide caught up with them in concentration camps in Siberia and elsewhere. They were eliminated before their exile term expired. On the whole, 90% of all Belarusian writers and poets were murdered. By comparison, in Russia this figure is closer to 20%. 

The sad anniversary will be marked this year – 70 years ago, on the 29th of October, 1937 more than 100 outstanding intellectuals were shot dead in the NKVD prison in Minsk.

The executions by shooting were very widespread, but it was not the only way of eliminating people. Which other methods did the Soviet regime use to fight “public enemies”?

The so-called “philosophers’ steamships” were, undoubtedly, the mildest form of repression. During Lenin’s rule they were used to deport the unwanted intellectuals to the West. By doing so, the Soviet regime has fueled scientific communities in Europe and in America, doing the capitalistic world a great favour. Such an approach, however, was rather an exception than a rule. The most massive repressions were implemented by the extrajudicial bodies. They are guilty of about two thirds of all murders and imprisonments of innocent people. The most widespread form of such “extrajudicial justice” were so-called “troikas”, which worked in every administrative district of the USSR. “Troika” (Russian for ‘three-piece’), as the name implies, consisted of three people – first secretary of the local committee of the communist party, prosecutor, and the chief of the local branch of NKVD. These three people determined the fate of any person in absentia.

Administrative deportation was another type of repression. Deportations were most characteristic for 1922-1932, when whole villages and towns were deported into the depth of the Soviet territory. This was a period of massive collectivization, when peasants were forced to join collective farms, giving up most of their possessions and personal freedom. Those who refused were repressed, as well as those, who were too well-off. Deportations were also used to eliminate the homesteads, which were quite numerous in Belarus.

Court trials were purely formal and rare. The executions by the list were common practice. We also have evidence, that many people were executed without their death being documented at all. As a result, the person vanished, and even today relatives have no information about the time and place of the person’s death.

The Holocaust is believed to be the most documented crime in human history. What about the Soviet repressions? How thoroughly were they documented in archives, and how easy are these documents to be accessed?

First of all, all the repressive actions were secret, and many of them were not documented. Second, many of the documents, such as the deeds stating that the execution took place, or maps with execution sites marked, were destroyed in the first years after Stalin’s death by the members of his clique, who remained in power and wanted to cover their tracks. Third, in Belarus, the KGB archive is completely sealed off for scientists, the police archive is very difficult to access, and parts of the National archive are not accessible as well. We know nothing about all but three execution sites in the country.


How are the Soviet repressions interpreted in today’s Belarus?

The present Belarusian regime has virtually no attitude towards this problem. For Belarusian authorities, the Soviet repressions are non-existent. The Citizens’ Committee on Honoring the Victims of the Stalin’s Repressions has recently asked the president and the council of ministers to proclaim 2007 as the year of remembrance, and the 29th of October as the Day of Remembrance of the Repression Victims. There is no answer. By giving this silent refusal, the regime shows that it doesn’t want to have anything to do with this problem.

Now I would like to tell a couple of words about the scientific sphere. With the beginning of Perestroika and the break-up of the Soviet Union, a special working group on the study of the Soviet repressions was created at the Institute of History of the BelarusianAcademy of Sciences. However, this group was dismantled shortly after the presidential elections of 1994. Since 1995 none of Belarusian scientists has been officially researching the repressions. What is more, not a single thesis on the issue of the Soviet crimes was defended during this time. It is not because researchers don’t want to deal with this topic, but because the regime has introduced such a procedure, which makes it simply impossible.

The scientists are divided over the issue. Those representing the official point of view claim that the repressions were justified and natural, because no state can exist without them. The French Revolution is usually given as example. Other historians, who operate the objective information, see things differently. They clearly show that the Soviet rule was not too different from the nazi regime by its cruelty. I can even say, that the methods used by the NKVD were often more brutal than those used by Gestapo and SS on the occupied territories of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

  Which affect did the repressions have on the minds of people?

Beginning with 1996-1997, the official Belarusian press has practically published nothing on this topic. If it did so, then the repressions were presented in a positive light. The whole new generation grew up without knowing about the brutality of the Soviet system. The older generation didn’t know about the repressions before, and didn’t accept the truth about them during Perestroika. Information given in present textbooks for schools and universities is very limited and presented in the traditional Soviet context. Allegedly, the October revolution was successful and needed to fight the enemies on the way of its development.


In Belarus, you see neither rethinking of the lessons taught by history, nor revealing the names of the butchers, nor public repentance. The people who know nothing about the tragic pages of its history are not capable of becoming a normal civilized nation. As a historian, I am appalled when I hear from our journalists, including those working for the independent media that the issue of the repressions came out of fashion. This is not a suite, which may or may not be in fashion. This is a national tragedy, the memory of which should be passed from one generation to another. The issue of the repressions remains topical also because the feeling of fear is still here. It lives in our genes. The fear presses upon Belarusians, who are still suffering from the syndrome-1937. We can’t say that the repressions are history in Belarus. Here they are both history and reality. But I am sure that this period will eventually be over some day.


Mother of God Kurapatskaia for all innocent killed

Kurapaty (the place of mass execution of Belarusian people in the times of Soviet repressions)

Questions by Ales Kudrytski

Photos by K.Shastouski