Belarusian Historians Struggle to Find Their Place

On 10 April, in an interview for Radio Svaboda Belarusian historian and a former lecturer at the European Humanities University Aleś Smalianchuk stated that Belarus did not have its own historical policy.

His interview followed several politically-motivated dismissals at Hrodna State University. The dismissals prove that the authorities are afraid of alternative initiatives and thus, exclude them from the public sphere.

But the policy of the Belarusian authorities is far from consistent. On the one hand they ban the white-red-white flag of the 1918 Belarusian National Republic (BNR), while at the same time they permit a BNR public rally in the centre of Minsk. State media even organised a roundtable acknowledging the role of the BNR in Belarusian history. At the same time they dropped charges against Arche magazine where many Belarusian historians have published their work. 

One thing is certain - the Belarusian authorities are aware of the power of pulling ''cultural-historical" strings to reach their short-term political goals. Belarusians historians know it only too well.

Book on History of Hrodna Sparks Dismissals

The local authorities in Hrodna have a problem tolerating a different historical narrative, like the one published in a recent a book on the history of Hrodna, a regional centre in the West of Belarus. The book called 'Hrodnaznaustva' came out in Poland in 2012 and immediately raised lots of controversy. As a result several contributors to this book could not continue their work and left the university. The authorities gradually, and efficiently, appear to have gotten rid of the authors - historians who no longer are permitted to teach at the university, or any other state university. 

In September 2012, Andrej Czarniakevich, a historian who co-authored the book lost his job at Hrodna State University. It became clear that the region's governor, Siamon Shapiro, personally decided to dismiss the historian. The reason given was that the publication was published abroad using an 'unclear' source of financing.

Viachaslau Shved, another contributor to the book is a well-recognised professor who has been working at Hrodna State University for many years. At the end of March he lost his position as the dean of  the Department of Belarusian Culture and Regional Tourism. Later on, Shved failed to win a new round of competition for his position as professor and as a result lost his job. He has since suggested that the procedure was politically motivated.

Another historian, Igor Kuzmin, left the same university in protest of the politics of the local officials who are clearly interested in maintaining control and censorship in the field of education. 

A Roundtable with the Academics: the BNR Recognised 

However, Belarusian authorities are not always tough on different interpretations of history. Proclamations made about the first Belarusian state founded on 25 March 1918 remain a bone of contention for those who adhere to the Soviet version of the history and those who oppose it. The authorities do not recognise 25th of March as a national holiday, while the opposition does.

Usually the authorities allow public rallies on that day. This year, while giving permission to hold the annual event, they stipulated that the organisers were not to bring white-red-white flags of the BNR to the event.  Over a thousand people participated in the rally. Police arrested only seven people - a rather modest number by Belarusian standards.

A major Belarusian state newspaper used the anniversary of the BNR as an occasion to discuss its historical importance. The state newspaper 'Zviazda' organised a roundtable with the participation of scholars from the National Academy of Sciences. Historians and philosophers discussed the Belarusian National Republic and the role of intellectuals in the process of forming national awareness amongst Belarusians. For Belarus, this was a very unusual event. 

One of the participants, Mikalaj Smiakhovich from the National Academy of Sciences, highlighted the role of the Belarusian intelligentsia. In his opinion, historians perceive the BNR today as a national form of the Belarusian state: ‘95 years ago the Belarusian nation obtained the right to have its own state’. Aliaksandr Kavalenia, director of the Institute of History of the National Academy of Sciences, talked about the mission intellectuals for the further development of the Belarusian state. 

Any Hope for Belarusian Historians? 

Aleś Smalanchuk's interview for Radio Svaboda, mentioned above, gives a rather sad picture of the situation with Belarusian historians and historiography. The state suppresses alternative historical narratives, though occasionally it tolerates and allows some challenging initiatives. At the same time, no educational institutions in the country can seriously take responsibility for the promotion and support for the independent teaching of Belarusian history. 

Commenting on the recent dismissals of historians in Hrodna, Smalanchuk also criticised the European Humanities University (EHU), a Belarusian university in exile. He noted that even at this university, which is supposed to support independent teaching and studies of Belarusian history, a number of prominent Belarusian historians such as Zakhar Shybieka and Valiantsin Holubeu have had to leave.

According to Smalanchuk, the university no longer admits new people to study history and political science and the administration is on the verge of demonstrating contempt for the Belarusian language and history with its current policies. 

In short, Belarusian historians are struggling to find a favourable working environment not only in their home country, but abroad as well. 

Paula Borowska is an analyst of the Ostrogorski Centre. Originally from Bialystok, she studied at the University of Gdansk and the University of Bologna.

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