Holocaust Discourse Raises Controversy in Belarus
During her speech on 12 June 2016 in New York, Belarusian Nobel laureate in literature Sviatlana Alexievich criticised Poles for actively murdering Jews during World War II.
The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately reacted with a protest note demanding explanation and an apology from Alexievich. Sviatlana Alexievich had to elaborate on her position in an interview with a Polish journalist later. In the meantime Belarusian bloggers and journalists condemned her words.
On 8 July 2016 vandals poured paint on the "The Pit", a memorial sculptural complex devoted to the liquidated inhabitants of the Minsk ghetto. This issue was not widely reported by the Belarusian media and was ignored by the state as well.
This was the first time people desecrated the Holocaust memorial in central Minsk in years. However, it reflects the problematic nature of memory politics in Belarus. It also shows that the Belarusian public remains unprepared to fully reflect on the Holocaust and would rather speak out when the discussion focuses on neighbouring countries.
Memory of the Holocaust in independent Belarus
Traditionally marginalised and suppressed in the Soviet Union, Holocaust discourse had a chance to emerge in independent Belarus.
However, in the early 1990s Belarusians seemed too preoccupied with their own identity, economic problems, and nation and state building to begin discussing the Holocaust. Belarusian historians were busy trying to research and fill the numerous blank pages in Belarusian national history. Politicians were involved in political and economic problems accompanying Belarus’s transition to an independent state.
History textbooks for schools and universities provided little information about the Holocaust, and scholars had other. The authorities did not speak much about that episode of Belarusian history despite the revival of the Great Patriotic War cult in the official ideology following the election of Aliaksandr Lukashenka.
The politics of memory under Lukashenka
Lukashenka made the Great Patriotic War one of the key elements of the state ideology. Two of the main official holidays in Belarus commemorate the Great Patriotic War – Victory Day and Independence Day. The Independence Day celebrations changed from the day Belarus became independent from the USSR (27th of July) to the day Minsk was liberated (3rd of July) as a result of a referendum in 1996.
A subject called “The History of the Great Patriotic War” entered syllabuses at all universities in 2005 following Lukashenka’s order. The same year, the authorities opened "Stalin's Line," a historical-cultural complex “to become a symbol of a heroic struggle of the Soviet people against German-fascist invaders,” as the complex’s web-site states.
The Holocaust was practically excluded from the new politics of memory in Belarus. The massacre of hundreds of thousands of Jews on Belarusian territory by Nazis and their collaborators – often local – is muted during official speeches by the president on Victory and Independents Days.
This topic has still not entered mainstream public discourse, although some positive steps have been taken, including the erection of bronze statues at “The Pit” memorial in 2000. "The Pit" was initially founded in 1967 and was first visited by Lukashenka in 2008.
The erection of 45 new Holocaust memorials between 2005 and 2010 and the participation of Belarusian officials in the 65th and 70th anniversaries of the liquidation of the Minsk ghetto also mark an improvement in Holocaust memory politics in Belarus.
However, guring his presidency Lukashenka afforded himself being derogatory when speaking about Jews. One of the latest incidents was in April 2016 when the Belarusian president publicly asked the then Head of Hrodna region Siamion Shapira “to take all Jews under [Shapira’s] control”. This request stemmed from the fact that tut.by, an independent news portal owned by the Jewish Yury Ziser, published articles criticising a new law “on social parasites."
Lukashenka later explained that the year before Shapira had been asked to take control over Jews in Belarus, but Ziser's independent behaviour was not acceptable to the Belarusian president. Later Shapira said that this situation was not insulting to him although many other Belarusian Jews and Belarusians expressed their dissatisfaction with Lukashenka’s words.
The prospects of Holocaust discourse
Overall, the problem of silence surrounding the Holocaust in memory politics remains relevant in Belarus both on official and unofficial levels. Both the Belarusian state and the Belarusian public are very much distanced from that part of their history due to current historical discourse. Anti-Jewish clichés occasionally are articulated even on the official level since Soviet Union times.
Belarusians seem to be unready and unwilling to uncover the dark sides of their past. The fact that the Jewish population in Belarus decreases with each census means that it it unlikely that local Jews will force Belarusians to answer uncomfortable questions about the Holocaust.
At present, writer and Nobel Prize winner Sviatlana Alexievich is one of very few Belarusians willing to publicly discuss the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. Her intellectual status and popularity might finally attract some public attention to historical memory problems in Belarus.
However, Belarusians appear to be more eager to discuss Alexievich’s words regarding Polish attitudes towards Jews during World War II in her New York speech than to pay attention to her interview with The Voice of America four days later.
The writer named the liquidation of the Jews in Belarus during the WWII as one of the reasons for the lack of elites in Belarus today. In her opinion this is also to blame for the longevity of Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s rule.