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 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
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.
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 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.
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.
How geopolitics increases the heft of the Roman Catholic Church in Belarus
During mass on 1 November, Catholic Metropolitan Tadevuš Kandrusievič called the 1917 October Revolution in Russia an “existential disaster,” which brought immense suffering to Belarus. He noted that Belarus still celebrates the revolution date as a public holiday, while the Catholic population do not have official day-offs on All Saints Day and Memorial Day to perform their rites.
This year, the Catholic Church strengthened its criticism of unjust state policies against it when compared with the dominant Russian Orthodox Church. Against a backdrop of warming Belarus-West relations, the Catholic Church seems to feel more confident and, therefore, more able to publicly voice its problems with the authorities.
Meanwhile, Minsk realises the importance of the Church for reaching its strategic goals and understands it will have to listen to Belarusian Catholics more carefully.
According to official data, the share of Catholics in Belarus stands at 1.4 million people or 15 per cent of the population. The Roman Catholic Church remains the second largest denomination after the Orthodox Church. Belarusian Catholics differ from the Orthodox majority in several ways. Catholics practice more regularly and identify their religion more closely with personal faith—and not with national or family culture—as a 2017 study by the Pew Research Centre suggests. In addition, the Orthodox Church has long worked in a close partnership with the secular state and, thus, enjoys all kinds of privileges.
The Orthodox Church reserves the exclusive right to influence certain spheres of the state’s activities, such as education, healthcare, and crime prevention. The state has also granted it the status of “one of the most important social institutions” with “which cultural heritage in the past and today accord influence on the formation of the spiritual, cultural and national traditions of the Belarusian nation.”
Belarusian Catholics are still waiting for a similar agreement. The Belarusian authorities have postponed concluding a concordat with the Catholic Church in Belarus for several years. So far, Catholics have fewer rights in comparison with Orthodox worshipers, but Catholics seem to be advocating for rights more publicly and actively. Throughout 2017, the Catholic Church has issued an unprecedented amount of criticism against official state policies.
Struggling for equality in holidays
Belarus’s Orthodox population have an official holiday for their Memorial Day—Radaŭnica, celebrated on the Thursday a week after Easter. Unlike them, Belarusian Catholics—who celebrate All Saints’ Day on 1 November and Memorial Day (called Dziady or Grandfathers in Belarusian) on 2 November—do not have an official day off to perform their rituals.
At a mass during All Saints Day on 1 November, Metropolitan of the Belarusian Roman Catholic Church Tadevuš Kandrusievič said that he is advocating the establishment of new official holidays in Belarus. He urged the believers to join an online petition dedicated to the cause.
He also spoke of the the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik October Revolution, which is celebrated in Belarus on 7 November according to the Soviet tradition. The Metropolitan called the October Revolution an “existential disaster.” He noted that it brought immense suffering to the Belarusian people, but still remains an official holiday in Belarus.
The day before the speech, on 31 October, Kandrusievič and a few other priests held masses at Kurapaty, an execution site during Stalin’s Great Terror, and at Trascianiec, the location of a Nazi concentration camp. The aim of the two masses was to clearly signal of the position of Catholic Church on the issue of historical memory and past crimes.
The Belarusian state has yet to fully condemn Communist crimes. Meanwhile, the defeat of Nazi Germany during World War II remains at the heart of official state ideology. However, it should be noted that some progress has recently been made in the acknowledgement and memorialisation of the Kurapaty executions. In February, prominent state figures and historians held a roundtable discussion on whether Kurapaty should become a National Mourning Memorial site.
Discrimination of Catholics Continues
Speaking at the Academy of Public Administration on 2 May 2017, Kandrusievič cited numerous facts that prove the discrimination of the Roman Catholic Church by the Belarusian state.
Discrimination includes the restriction of foreign priests’ right to work in Belarus, attempts to control Sunday schools, unequal rights in army conscription for students of Catholic schools, and even false accusations of automotive speeding as grounds for rejecting a work permit. Kandrusievič noted that during his religious work in Russia and Europe, he never met with these kinds of obstacles.
However, he also noted some progress in relations with the authorities. “I have had several meetings with the leadership of the Presidential Administration to discuss these issues. I think they have heard me and I hope the problems will be resolved. The relations between the state and the Roman Catholic Church are not frozen, they are developing,” Kandrusievič said.
Is the Catholic Church increasing its influence?
The Roman Catholic church has had a rocky relationship with the regime of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka. Supported by Poland, which until recently was a steadfast critic of Belarus and continues to be a source of unwelcome foreign priests, the Roman Catholic Church has seemed like an agent of Western civilisation in an Orthodox-dominated, pro-Russian society.
The authorities have repeatedly criticised the Catholic Church. The Belarusian Commissioner for Religious and Ethnic Affairs faulted the church with “insufficient cadre training” and accused “some Belarusian priests of the destructive activities.” However, Lukashenka himself has had to maintain friendly relations with the local church and abstain from any public accusations.
The Belarusian leader has long sought the support of the influential Catholic hierarchy for his attempts to normalise relations with the West. In April 2009, Pope Benedict XVI held a private audience with President Lukashenka in the Apostolic Palace, an event that was seen to signal a break from Lukashenka’s diplomatic isolation.
Despite some international criticism, the Vatican has remained committed to its policy of engagement with Belarus and has been ready to help the Belarusian authorities improve their ties with the EU. In 2016, for example, President Lukashenka had a meeting with the current Pope Francis, where the Belarusian leader reminded him (again) of an earlier invitation to visit Belarus. However, some obstacles will not make a visit possible anytime soon. The remaining issue is the over-dominant position of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The current geopolitical environment and Belarus’s changing foreign policy are increasing the influence of the Catholic Church as an important Western actor, because it seems able to publicly voice issues with the Belarusian authorities. Meanwhile, Minsk realises the importance of the Church for reaching its strategic goals and it is adapting to new rules as they develop.