Re-Writing History in Belarus

By Vadzim Smok

Official interpretation of history in Belarus experienced dramatic evolution since USSR collapse.  At first stage Belarusian national-oriented approach dominated in historiography. After Lukashenka came to power in 1994, a setback to the Soviet narrative took place, which, however, included a number of additional elements.

On the one hand, Lukashenka’s narrative reconciled with national version of history on pre-Soviet period. They both agree that Belarusian statehood has a long tradition of independent existence and presents a value for all Belarusians. On the other hand, many aspects of the Soviet period remain a taboo or cannot be criticised. The period of independence (since early 1990s) remains most ideologically loaded and distorted, as it involves the rule of Lukashenka himself.

The Rise of National Narrative

After the collapse of USSR and before Lukashenka’s first term in power, nationally oriented elite offered an interpretation of the past that was typical for transitional countries of that period. This version of history showed Soviet period as mostly negative, highlighting the horrors of Stalin’s terror, destruction of national identity of Belarusians and life in a totalitarian society.

Instead, new version of  Belarusian history started not from the Soviet era, as Moscow historians often like to portray, but  from the Middle Ages. Fathers of new Belarus sought origins of national statehood in the period of Polack Princedom and later Grand Duchy of Lithuania (Litva) as peak of sovereign development of Belarusians.

The World War II, which became the core element of present official ideology, received its proper name instead of the Soviet version, “Great Patriotic War”. Former Soviet heroes of the war often became simply victims of occupations by  communists and fascists.

Also, the new narrative presented a rather anti-Russian picture of history. It glorified battles against Russia throughout the history and condemned periods of Russian occupation during the Russian Empire era or the Soviet times.

Back to the USSR

As any political authority, Lukashenka regime tries to use history to legitimise and support his politics as well as to form a particular world view among the citizens. As a result, present historical education became overly ideological and lacks a balanced view of the Belarusian past.

But unlike the Soviet version of the Belarusian history, which involved class struggle and Russia-centrism in every period of Belarusian history, Lukashenka’s narrative does not care that much about the class approach and early relations with Moscow.

On the contrary, official ideologists accept the importance of early feudal princedoms like Polack and Turaŭ, and later the Great Duchy of Lithuania, in the genesis of Belarus statehood. They speak, although very carefully, about numerous wars with Moscow and uprisings of Belarusians against the Russian Empire.

But the picture changes completely after we come to collapse of the Russian Empire, socialist revolution and creation of the Soviet Union. Authorities recognise the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic as the first real Belarusian state and the whole existence within USSR remains sort of sacred, and its critics tabooed.

Take for instance the history textbook for schools that was published in 2006. The book covers the period of 1945-2005, the after-war period of USSR and independent Belarus. One will not find a word about Stalin terror after the World War II and anti-Soviet activities in the country. Instead, it describes how Belarusian people heroically overcame hardships of the post-war time and helped the leadership to implemented industrialisation. The authors do not criticise the Soviet political regime.

Likewise, when it comes to perestroika times, schoolchildren will not find any information on the Belarusian Popular Front and other anti-soviet national associations that emerged during liberalisation of 1980s. They played a key role in gaining Belarusian independence. However, the book does not mention Kurapaty burial, discovered by Zianon Paźniak, the place where thousands of Belarusians were executed during the Stalin terror. But the most distorted time in present workbooks remains the period when Lukashenka ruled Belarus.

The Era of Lukashenka

The story of independence in the textbook starts like this: “To overcome the crisis caused by USSR collapse, Belarus needed strong authority and political will of the leaders. The establishment of the institute of president in 1994 started a new stage in the development of our country”.

So, this idea of exclusive role of Aliaksandr Lukashenka serves as the main element of the official narrative. It portrays his every major political step as something extremely important and desired by common people. Meanwhile, the book remains silent on the active active period of party politics in the first half of 1990s or methods of consolidation of power which Lukashenka exercised and which involved violence and physical elimination of opponents.

Schoolchildren can hardly find names of some prominent figures that contributed greatly to attaining independence, like the Belarusian Popular Front leader Zianon Paźniak or Stanislaŭ Šuškievič, the official Head of State of Belarus in 1991-1994. Reaing the book ones get an impression that the opposition never existed, neither does the Belarusian civil society. There are just two main actors: the president and the Belarusian people, that support him totally.

State Identity instead of National Identity

Although ideology of the regime reconciled more or less with the national narrative on pre-soviet Belarusian past, it does not actively use it for strengthening national unity and identity. Hence, new generation of people, unlike their elder colleagues from 1990s, have no interest in national history whatsoever.

If asked, young people can hardly produce any coherent knowledge about the past of their country, apart from a few ideological clichés. Rather than accepting their national identity and speaking about historical and cultural heritage, most Belarusians identify themselves with the state.

Lukashenka likes to repeat that he cannot stand any cult of personality, yet the official ideology and historical education is doing just that. The influence of ideology on youth is pretty obvious, especially in small towns and villages, but the picture remains inherently unstable.

The new generation of Belarusians do not exist in informational isolation and hardly believes everything that the state tries to preach. Internet has spread massively during recent years and alternative versions of history are available to all interested. After all, there is no need to worry about Belarusians: they are accustomed to permanent changes of rulers and ideas, and it is hard to make them take something too seriously.

Belarus Digest