Dziady in Belarus
On 28 October thousands of Belarusians are expected to visit Kurapaty to mark Dziady.
Dziady is a traditional day of remembrance of the deceased ancestors observed in Belarus. Kurapaty is the place on the outskirts of Minsk where the Bolshevists executed over 200,000 people in 1930s.
Dziady is more than a traditional holiday. It has also become a symbol of resistance to the Soviet regime and the revival of the Belarusian nation. In 1988 Dziady became the day when the Belarusian first organised a mass demonstration against Soviet rule.
Belarus is the only country where the Dziady celebration preserves its authentic form. On this day, Belarusians visit not only the graves of their dead relatives, but also invite them to visit their houses. As with most traditional folk holidays it has pagan roots. Belarusians believed that on this holiday the deceased souls visit their descendants. The hosts even leave spare sets of flatware on the tables for the dead.
Dziady used to be a holiday that was granted the status of a day off in 1990s. However, Lukashenka abolished it as the people associated Dziady with the anti-Communist struggle.
Lukashenka and Communism
A great number of Belarusians still miss the Communist past. These people nearly all support Lukashenka, who thinks that “The Communist ideology, based on Marxist-Leninist ideology, should be a key part of the Belarusian state ideology”.
Research conducted by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies showed that 48.7% of people over 60 and 29.3% aged between 50 and 59 even wish for the revival of the Soviet Union. These very groups actively support Lukashenka and the idea of closer ties with Russia. On the other side, young people do not want revival of the USSR and support the idea of an European path for Belarus: 55.1 % of those between the ages of 18-29 want to join the European Union.
That is why today’s authorities keep silent about the mass executions in Soviet times in public, and support the Communist party which mainatins its loyalty to Lukashenka. Communism remains one of the fundamental principles of Lukashenka’s regime, which are full of fissures and cracks when analyzed under the facts of Soviet rule in Belarus.
The Article That Changed the Belarusian History
Kurapaty is the Belarusian symbol of Stalinist repressions. The first mass action which gave hope for changes in Belarus took place there, on Dziady. The demonstration was a reaction to publication of the article written by Zyanon Paznyak and Yauhen Shmyhalyou “Kurapaty – the Road of Death”.
Literature and Art magazine published this article in 1988. It is unbelievable that such article was published in the Soviet Union. In the article, the authors depicted about the mass executions in Kurapaty, and how the Soviet special services tortured and murdered dozens and thousands of people. According to their research , every night from 1937 until 1941 the NKVD delivered people to Kurapaty and shot them.
No one knows exactly how many peaceful citizens the Soviet authorities killed. Initially, the Communists spoke of a figure of around 30,000. Zyanon Paznyak who publicised Kurapaty crimes claims that the number may more likely be 100-250,000, while British historian Norman Davies thinks it is over 250,000.
They Went to Dziady as Population, and Returned as People
The truth about the mass executions had a powerful effect on the Belarusian society in 1980s. 30 October 1988 became a historical day for Belarus. In those days, it was extremely difficult to distribute information and dissidents had not yet forgotten what prisons and mental hospitals looked like. Despite all this, thousands of people came to the demonstration.
The Soviet authorities behaved brutally on that day. Belarusian writer Vasil Bykau described that day as “The Long Road Home” in his autobiography:
They started dispersing the demonstration – they beat and arrested people, poisoning them with gas, using portable gas-sprays. They poisoned Paznyak as well – he was leading the crowd. But Paznyak did not surrender. He led the crowd to the outskirts and then to Kurapaty. However, the troops were there to block the way. Then Paznyak led the people to the field, where the religious ceremony took place under the snow which fell from the sky.
It was on Dziady when people hoisted the white-red-white flag for the first time in Soviet Belarus. Belarusian writer Victar Kazko said after the action that “They went to Dziady as a population, and returned as a people”.
The Soviet authorities were scared, for the first time in many years. They were scared not only because the people found out about the mass executions. They were frightened because the peaceful protesters continued their rally to Kurapaty despite the demands and the brutal actions of the authorities.
Vandals Destroy Kurapaty, the Authorities Keep Silence
Today, there is a People’s Monument in Kurapaty. People come here and erect their own crosses. But every year, vandals dig out the graves, destroy crosses, break memorial shields, and paint swastikas on the icons.
The favourite target for the vandals is a bench with the following encryption: “From people of the USA to People of Belarus, for Memory”. People call it “Clinton’s bench”, as the American government presented it in 1994 during his visit to Kurapaty.
The authorities try to leave the acts of vandalism unattended. In fact, they do not give any help or protection to the memorial complex. The law-enforcement agencies initiate criminal cases for vandalism, but only one case has reached the courts thus far, and only because members of the Conservative Christian Party of the Belarusian Popular Front caught the vandals on the spot. The court considered the vandals guilty but they were then granted amnesty and released.
Today a private company is building park near the stove. The owners claim that the visitors of the new complex will have an excellent opportunity “to hide from the city fuss”. Of course, business should develop in Belarus, but the question is, whether it should happen next to the place were hundreds of thousands were murdered under Stalin.
The History Will Decide
Every year since 1988 the opposition marches to Kurapaty.The age of the participants has changed greatly. Previously, it was mostly middle-aged people who came to Dziady, but today the great majority of the participants are young.
The authorities do not let any information about Kurapaty to seep into history textbooks. They threaten students who participate in political activities with expulsion from universities and administrative detentions. But still young Belarusians come to Kurapaty on Dziady.
The Communist regime also seemed unbreakable but it lost to the History in the end.
Lukashenka Entertains Loyal Russian Journalists
Last week, almost one hundred journalists from Russian regions came to Belarus to enjoy a carefully staged show.
The most important component of it was Lukashenka's performance at his press conference on 16 October. Belarusian authorities use free trips for Russian journalists as an instrument of propaganda targeted at journalists from various parts of Russia, the Russian government and Belarusian electorate.
Lukashenka expects the Russians to buy his image of effective Soviet-style ruler. He tries to contrast the problems of Russia, such as social inequality and poor governance, with Belarusian “socialism and order”. Meanwhile, the Russian government is blamed for all major problems in Belarus. Lukashenka uses this tactics to persuade Belarusians that he is not guilty for the worsening problems under the Belarusian model. But as time goes on, the old propaganda methods seem to lag behind and lose their effectiveness.
A Major PR Investment
2012 was the tenth anniversary of these organized trips for Russian journalists to Belarus. 90 journalists represented 80 Russian media from 48 regions – quite a number for a propaganda campaign.
This event is much more than a press-conference. It also includes a week of travelling around Belarus and visiting enterprises, organisations, and historical and cultural sites. Of course, authorities include only the most successful sites on the list, as the aim of the journey is not to paint a real picture of Belarus but to create a positive image.
It is not easy to become a guest of this week-long tour around Belarus. The Presidential Administration carefully screens all potential candidates. As a result, one will not find representatives of federal TV channels and major newspapers among the participants.
All journalists come from regional media, as Russian regions show much stronger support for the Belarusian ruler. They present a more conservative side of Russia, and therefore like the authoritarian style of the Belarusian president coupled with myths about Belarusian order and respect for common people, which reminds them of Soviet times.
The Belarusian authorities usually act very generously during these visits: they cover all expenses, provide journalists with nice accommodation and meals. In addition, after visiting any enterprise the guests usually receive its products as gifts. No wonder that after such visits Russian journalists have sweet memories about rapidly developing little Belarus and its strict but fair leader.
The journalists understand the price they must pay in exchange for such generosity. The regime expects them to report to their audience a standard set of myths about Belarus. Some of the most popular myths include the following: they did not ruin the Soviet legacy, they did not let the oligarchs rob the ordinary people and privatise national property, and they maintain everything in good order.
Slavic Brothers that Swindle Belarus
Another goal of these conferences are to reach the Russian elite and Lukashenka's own electorate in Belarus.
Such conferences provide a good opportunity for Lukashenka to tell his Russian colleagues things that are not easy to tell in personal meetings. In other words, Lukashenka can criticise the Russian government without facing them. The conference is also a good opportunity to blame Russia for Lukashenka’s own political failures.
Support for the regime is in constant decline, and turnout at the recent parliamentary elections proved it. Lukashenka badly needs justification for his failures and Russia is very convenient for that purpose.
This year, Lukashenka sounded offended. Throughout the conference, the Belarusian president complained about the Russian government constantly swindling poor Belarusians. He blamed Russia for not letting Belarusians produce gas and oil from Russian subsurface like western countries do. Russia obviously wants to control Belarus through minerals supply, as its own production will increase Belarus independence from the energy empire.
Lukashenka also criticised the Russians for recently joining the WTO. According to the Belarusian ruler, Russia declared EurAsEC (Eurasian Economic Community) its main integration priority, but in reality joined the WTO without Belarus. Now Belarus has to “struggle” in the unexpected economic environment of the WTO without having made any special preparations.
He openly blamed Russia for the 2011 economic crisis in Belarus. Lukashenka repeated his favourite myth that the crises occurred because of the introduction of duties on second-hand cars. The duties were Russia’s initiative to protect the Russian car industry.
According to that myth, Belarusians bought huge amounts of foreign currency and rushed to neighbouring EU countries to buy used cars. This resulted in financial distortion and the subsequent sharp devaluation of the Belarusian rouble. Of course, he did not elaborate that the national currency was printed before the 2010 elections to reach the electoral promise of a $500 per month average salary.
Lukashenka also revealed some interesting facts from Belarusian backstage politics. He mentioned that he once received a luxurious Maybach car as a present from a foreigner (it could indeed be a form of bribe for the dictator’s favours).
He also announced that some Russian oligarch offered him a $5bn kickback for the privatisation of the largest Belarusian enterprise, Belaruskali. Of course, the defender of the common people rejected that generous offer.
Is the Old Game Over?
Such a PR campaign needs substantial funding, but will this investment bring the expected profit? If we look at the three main target audiences of the conference, the answers vary.
The only audience where Lukashenka can definitely succeed is the Russian regions. Ordinary Russians that live in remote places where freedom of media is restricted will likely believe the reports of local journalists that were properly brainwashed in Belarus. However, with the other two target groups the situation looks more difficult.
Russians have extensive leverage on Lukashenka and seem to actively use it while publicly expressing proper and polite rhetoric. Belarus for its part has nothing to counterbalance this leverage, since it cannot turn to the West without radical changes inside the regime. Lukashenka is trapped and is now trying to shake off responsibility, But as he confessed at the conference, Belarusian negotiators are “already laughed at” in Moscow.
The Russian establishment do not take Lukashenka seriously, like they did some 15 years ago. They fully understand the situation that Belarus has ended up and will use that situation to their advantage. Short-sighted politics of the Belarusian president are indeed worth laughing at: he becomes he is totally dependent on his “Slavic brothers”.
Meanwhile, in Belarus trust in the authorities is gradually falling. An October poll conducted by the IISEPS shows that support for Lukashenka is at around 30 per cent. After last year’s notorious devaluation, people do not believe any assurances on economic policy. They behave according to rumours and insider information from relatives and friends. Lukashenka’s pleading not guilty in front of the electorate is also likely to fail.
It looks like the regime is running out of substantial arguments for propaganda. The reality turns out completely different and becomes too obvious to not be accepted. So, the Belarusian regime faces a major challenge with an unknown outcome. Playing by the old rules is impossible, but the new rules will destroy the game.