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Between the Anniversaries of Great Terror and October Revolution

In early November 2017, Belarusians remembered two important dates in their 20th-century history: the October Revolution and the Great Terror. On 5 November, a traditional Dziady manifestation commemorated the Stalinist repression victims in Kurapaty – the place where the...

In early November 2017, Belarusians remembered two important dates in their 20th-century history: the October Revolution and the Great Terror. On 5 November, a traditional Dziady manifestation commemorated the Stalinist repression victims in Kurapaty – the place where the NKVD killed thousands of innocent people in 1937 at the outskirts of Minsk.

Two days later, a few hundred Communists, holding red flags and the pictures of Lenin and Stalin celebrated the centennial of the October Revolution in the centre of the capital. Belarusian regime conserved their Soviet nostalgia by leaving 7 November a public holiday and distancing itself from dealing with the Great Terror memories.

The opposition and civil society traditionally lead the way organising commemorative events for the Stalinist repression victims. However, recently even high-level officials, including Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makei, comment on the totalitarian character of the Soviet state.

October Revolution centenary highlights

October Revolution centenary celebration in Minsk, 2017. Source: svaboda.org

Lenin monuments and October Revolution anniversary belong to the usual entourage of Lukashenka’s Belarus, even though the ones who genuinely care about them are a few Communists and their sympathisers. A few hundred of them gathered on 7 November in the centre of Minsk to commemorate the centennial of the revolution.

As the October Revolution anniversary remains a public holiday in Belarus, the majority of Belarusians enjoyed the long weekend, for the most part ignoring celebrations of the Communists. Few incidents included a barbed wire and skull wreath at the Lenin monument in Biarozauka (Hrodna region) and an edible Lenin performance at the exhibition in Viciebsk.

In the latter case, the Museum of Modern Art ran the exhibition “Time of Women,” where one of the items on display was Lenin’s head made from meat jelly.

The exhibition survived only for two days, as the museum’s administration closed it down, anticipating negative reactions from Lenin’s admirers. The artist, Anastasia Hančarova, who entitled her piece as “Twelve Knives in the Back of the Revolution” denied any political background of her work, saying that she just used Lenin as a pop culture icon.

What remains forgotten amid these celebrations and happenings, is the meaning of the entire revolutionary year 1917 for the Belarusian history. For instance, the February Revolution brought an end to the Russian Empire and introduced democratic governance. It gave Belarusian national activists legal opportunities to engage in politics and to reinforce the Belarusian national self-determination agenda. Unfortunately, the centenary of 1917 failed to bring these aspects to light.

Meat jelly Lenin. Source: nn.by


In the shadow of Great Terror memories

Moreover, 1917 also marked the start of political repressions in Belarus, following the Bolshevik power takeover and subsiding only after Stalin’s death in 1953. Historians estimate the total number of the Great Terror casualties in Belarus to be around 600 000 to 1.5 million people.  During the preceding week, Belarusians commemorated these victims, who perished 80 years ago in 1937,  the peak year of Stalinist repressions.

The anniversary of the darkest days in Belarusian history coincides with Dziady, a traditional memory day of the dead on 2 November. On the following Sunday, opposition and civil society organised a procession through the streets of Minsk to Kurapaty, the forest where NKVD secretly executed over 200,000 innocent people throughout the years of Great Terror. On the night of 30 October 1937 alone, the NKVD murdered more than 100 representatives of Belarusian intelligentsia.

Starting with the discovery of mass-shooting graves in Kurapaty in 1988, Dziady transformed from a religious remembrance day into the symbol of political protest of Belarusian society against the Soviet state. Current Belarusian authorities do not officially recognize Dziady as the memory day of political repressions victims and do not have in place other commemorative dates of Stalinist terror, in contrast to the neighbouring states.

Since 2007, Ukraine commemorates victims of political repression victims and Holodomor separately, on the third Sunday in May and on the fourth Saturday in November respectively. Russians too have the Day of Political Repression Victims on 30 October, established back in 1991.

Belarusian Interior Minister Ihar Šunievič proudly wearing his NKVD uniform. Source: kp.by

Belarusian authorities continue to ignore the Great Terror. Belarusian Interior Minister Ihar Šunievič proudly wears the NKVD officer uniform at official events. In 2016, Belarusian Prosecutor General’s Office refused to release the names of citizens whose remains and documents were found in Kurapaty. In February 2017, authorities allowed a new construction project there, which was not the first time when construction plans threatened the memorial and provoked public protests.


Status quo forever?

Recently, Belarusian TV and most of the regional cinemas refused to broadcast a film “Yellow Sand,” based on the story by Vasil’ Bykau about the political repressions and shootings in Kurapaty. The director, Aliaksej Turovič had to get a loan to be able to make this film. In September 2017, it premiered at one of the largest Minsk cinemas, but the authorities and officials ignored it.

Screenshot from Turovič’s film “Yellow Sand,” depicting NKVD during the executions. Source: svaboda.org

However, the editor-in-chief of one of the leading pro-regime newspapers Belarus Segodnia Pavel Jakubovič gave a positive evaluation to Turovič‘s film. Earlier in 2017, Jakubovič initiated a donation campaign and a project competition for the new memorial in Kurapaty. He also has been trying, albeit so far unsuccessfully, to remove the “extremist” brand from Zianon Pazniak‘s book Defence of Kurapaty. People’s Memorial. In May 2017, Belarusian Supreme Court confirmed this sentence of the Brest regional court and banned the book. 

In a recent interview with Financial Times on 28 September 2017, Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makei referred to the Soviet Union as a “totalitarian state.” Yet these examples still remain too few to indicate a change of heart.

So far, it appears that Belarusian political regime tolerates rehabilitation of the Soviet state, instead of a consistent evaluation of its legacies. The official recognition of political repressions along with proper educational initiatives would be logical first steps towards an honest approach to history and memory.

Lizaveta Kasmach
Lizaveta Kasmach
Lizaveta Kasmach holds a PhD in History from the University of Alberta, Canada.
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