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Denazification of Ukraine – What can we learn from Belarus?

In late March, Ukrainian officials reported arson attacks on national archives located in the cities of Chernihiv and Kharkiv. It appears the Russian army has been destroying Ukrainian works of literature and confiscating historical documents in occupied territories. One...
Odessa citizens protect historical heritage.Source: radiofrance

In late March, Ukrainian officials reported arson attacks on national archives located in the cities of Chernihiv and Kharkiv. It appears the Russian army has been destroying Ukrainian works of literature and confiscating historical documents in occupied territories.

One of Russia’s most publicised but least understood plans for Ukraine is denazification. State policy in Belarus can provide insights into what the Russian leadership may intend for Ukraine. The gradual replacement of the Belarusian language ​​with Russian at schools and universities, the forced Russification of culture, and political repression have become unavoidable features of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka’s policies. Russian President Vladimir Putin seems ready to pay any price, including death and human suffering, to create the illusion of a “Russian world.”

What is denazification for Putin? 

Historically, denazification refers to a set of measures adopted in Germany after WWII. It targeted all spheres of life, with a focus on expunging Nazi ideology from education, culture, politics, media, and private life. Demanding the denazification of Ukraine, Putin clearly equates the current government in Ukraine to Nazis.

In the current situation, what Russian authorities likely mean by denazification is Russification. Russian and Soviet histories provide examples of Russification. Developed in the 19th century by Tsarist authorities to assist in subjugating the populations of conquered lands, the Soviets actively used the concept, too. For example, in 1867, Russian authorities forbade the printing and distribution of all Belarusian-language periodicals and banned the use of Belarusian in all official discourse. In the Soviet era, attempts to trace the history of the Soviet republics from a period before 1917 were deemed nationalistic and required “decisive destruction.”

Belarusian national revival in the 1990s

Belarusians in peaceful protest in 1991, Minsk

Belarusians protest peacefully in 1991, Minsk, Belarus.

In January 1990, just before the breakdown of the USSR, the Law on Languages in the Belarusian Soviet Republic set the Belarusian language as the official state language. The law, favoured by some of the country’s political elite, included a set of measures to gradually increase the use of Belarusian over a period of 10 years. Belarusian was enshrined in the 1994 constitution as the official state language. Parliamentary sessions began to be held in Belarusian.

The early 1990s saw a national revival of Belarusian culture and language. Many Belarusian politicians spoke openly about the need to develop a Belarusian national identity and criticised the Soviet past. Belarusian-language periodicals, radio, and other media flourished. Between 1990 and 1995, the number of print-media editions in Belarusian became greater than the four previous centuries combined. This period of cultural development was underway as Alexander Lukashenka came to power in 1994.

Russian becomes the second official language

In 1995, less than a year after Lukashenka was elected the first Belarusian president, the national flag and coat of arms were changed to resemble slightly modified versions of their Soviet precursors. And as a result of a 1995 referendum (criticised by most independent observers), state authorities declared 88.3 per cent of Belarusians in support of Russian being made the second official language of Belarus. This later became fixed in the Belarusian Constitution.

The Belarusian language rapidly lost its prominent position in education, print media, and politics. Lukashenka sought both to limit the influence of the Belarusian-speaking opposition, and to demonstrate loyalty to Russia, his main international backer. In 1994–1995, more than 76 per cent of first-grade students began their education in Belarusian-speaking classrooms. By 2013, the total number of pupils studying in Belarusian has fallen to just 13 per cent.

In universities, the use of Belarusian has been gradually diminishing along with the dismissal of Belarusian-speaking teachers. For example, after the wave of post-election protests in 2010, the authorities dismissed or discriminated against the Belarusian-speaking teaching staff at Hrodna State University.

Protests in Minsk, Belarus, 2020.

Under Lukashenka, Belarusian-language media has suffered repression, persecution, and shutdowns. In response, nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) have attempted to preserve and promote Belarusian culture. Between 2015–2018, the regime relaxed its anti-Belarusian language policies. The authorities even allowed some Belarusian language initiatives. But the Lukashenka regime has never pursued a conscious policy of supporting the national language. Instead, it has occasionally permitted civil society to do so when deemed necessary.

Following the rigged 2020 presidential elections, the authorities liquidated nearly all NGOs that either actively used or promoted the Belarusian language, including the Belarusian Language Society, PEN Belarus, and other initiatives and media outlets. Many activists associated with these organisations have ended up behind bars or have been forced into exile.

As of 2021, less than 3 per cent of Belarusians use Belarusian as a language of communication, although 66 per cent consider it their mother tongue.

State symbols and rewriting history

Another example of the denazification-cum-Russification of Belarus is the banning of its historical symbols and the rewriting of its history. As soon as Belarus declared its independence from the USSR, some politicians actively promoted nationalist symbols, such as the Belarusian white-red-white flag and the “Pahonia” coat of arms. In 1995, these were officially replaced with versions almost identical to their Soviet incarnations. In response, the Belarusian opposition began to identify themselves with the nationalist historical symbols of Belarus, particularly during protests. In 2020, hundreds of thousands took to the streets with white-red-white flags. Today, the Belarusian regime detains Belarusians not only for displaying the white-red-white flag, but even for white-red colour combinations on their clothing.

Nationalist political and cultural elites in Belarus have faced repression throughout history. The Soviet authorities exiled or killed thousands of prominent nationalists. Between 29–30 October 1937, in what came to be known as the “night of executed poets,” Soviet authorities conducted a mass execution of more than 100 cultural figures, poets, and writers in Minsk.

Removing unwanted names from textbooks has become another strategy of the Lukashenka regime. For example, Kastus Kalinovsky has been gradually transformed from a nationalist hero of the Belarusian struggle against Tsarist Russia into a Polish collaborator. The works of Larisa Genyush, a prominent poet, and writer Vasil Bykau have disappeared from contemporary school textbooks. Nobel Laureate Sviatlana Aleksievich has faced a smear campaign, with Lukashenka himself declaring her a traitor and an enemy of the nation.

Has the “Denazification” of Ukraine already begun?

Belarus provides a clear illustration of how Russian, Soviet, and Belarusian authorities have carried out a campaign of Russification. It has involved the censorship of culture, the discrimination of the national language, and the substitution of historical narratives.

As the international community concentrates its attention on battlefields in Ukraine, Russia is using every chance to undermine Ukrainian culture and the Ukrainian language in the territories it occupies. It is changing education programmes, burning national archives, destroying books by Ukrainian authors, and limiting access to Ukrainian media—a Russification campaign under the banner of “denazification.”

Ultimately, Russia’s aim is to promote the idea that the Ukrainian nation and its language are artificial constructions, and that being under Russian control is the only destiny for Ukraine.

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Alesia Rudnik
Alesia Rudnik
Alesia Rudnik – is a PhD candidate in political science at Karlstad University (Sweden) and a research fellow at the Belarusian think-tank 'Center for new ideas'.
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