Re-Writing History in Belarus

The official interpretation of history in Belarus has experienced a dramatic evolution since the USSR's collapse. At the first stage a Belarusian nationalist-oriented approach dominated in historiography. After Lukashenka came to power in 1994, a reversal to a Soviet driven narrative took place, which, however, included a number of additional elements.

On the one hand, Lukashenka’s narrative reconciled the national version of history in the pre-Soviet period. They both agree that Belarusian statehood has a long tradition of independent existence and holds 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 the most ideologically charged and distorted, as it involves the rule of Lukashenka himself.

The Rise of National Narrative

After the collapse of the USSR and before Lukashenka’s first term in power, a 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, the destruction of national identity of Belarusians and life as experienced in a totalitarian society.

Instead, a new version of Belarusian history started not from the Soviet era, as Muscovite historians often like to portray, but rather from the Middle Ages. The forefathers of the new Belarus sought origins of national statehood in the period of Polack Princedom and later the Grand Duchy of Lithuania as the peak of sovereign development for the Belarusian nation.

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

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

Back to the USSR

As with any political authority, Lukashenka's regime tries to use history to legitimise and support his policies as well as to form a particular world view amongst the citizenry. As a result, present day historical education has become overly ideological and lacks a balanced view of Belarus' 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 much for the class-based approach nor discussion of early relations with Moscow.

Belarusian Identity - The Impact Of Lukashenka's Rule​ Lukashenka’s narrative managed to reconcile the nationalist version of history of the pre-Soviet period with its own modern conception of Belarusian history. 

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 Belarusian statehood. They speak, although very carefully, about numerous wars with Moscow and uprisings by Belarusians against the Russian Empire.

But the picture changes completely after we come to the collapse of the Russian Empire, and the socialist revolution which was followed by the 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 criticism of it is taboo.

Take for instance a history textbook for schools that was published in 2006. The book covers the period from 1945-2005, the postwar period for the USSR and independent Belarus. One will not find a word about the Stalinist terror after World War II nor the anti-Soviet activities that took place within the country. Instead, it describes how the Belarusian people heroically overcame hardships during the post-war period and helped the leadership to implement industrialisation. The authors do not criticise the Soviet political regime.

Likewise, when it comes to Perestroika, schoolchildren will not find any information on the Belarusian Popular Front or other anti-soviet national associations that emerged during the period of liberalisation in the 1980s. All this despite the fact that they played a key role in gaining Belarusian independence. Likewise, the book does not mention the Kurapaty burial grounds, discovered by Zianon Paźniak, the place where thousands of Belarusians were executed during Stalin's terror. But the most distorted period in the current textbooks remains the period when Lukashenka has ruled Belarus.

The Era of Lukashenka

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

So, the idea of the exclusive role of Aliaksandr Lukashenka serves has been planted as the main element of the official narrative. It portrays his every major political step as something extremely important and desired by the common people. Meanwhile, the book remains silent on the very 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 even the physical elimination of opponents.

Schoolchildren can hardly find the names of the 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. Reading the book ones get the impression that the opposition never existed, neither does Belarusian civil society. There are just two main actors: the president and the Belarusian people, who totally support him.

State Identity instead of National Identity

Although the 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, a 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 building 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 the constant changing of rulers and ideas, and it is hard to make them take something too seriously.

Vadzim Smok

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