Konstanty Kalinouski: A Contested Hero
At the start of September, the Belarusian journal ARCHE reported that two monuments commemorating Konstanty Kalinouski, a revolutionary contested in the official Belarusian history, disappeared in a town near Hrodna.
Konstanty Kalinouski remains a controversial figure, present in Belarusian, Lithuanian and Polish histories. To some scholars he symbolises patriotism, a set of ideals and courage, while others consider him a Polish noble who struggled against the tsarist Russia.
Very few, however, dispute that Kalinouski became a political symbol for the anti-Lukashenka opposition. During the post-elections demonstrations in 2006, the protesters symbolically renamed October Square, after the Bolshevik revolution, into Kalinouski square.
Although this year marks the 150th anniversary of the Kalinouski uprising, the state is not organising any official events. The initiative remains mainly in the hands of Belarusian civil society.
Publisher of first journal in the Belarusian language
Vincenty Konstanty Kalinouski was born in 1839 in Mostowlany, in the Hrodna region and today in Podlasie region of Poland. In those times, these lands belonged to the Russian empire.
Kalinouski turned his interest towards revolutionary activity against the tsarist regime during his legal studies in Saint-Petersburg. Back in Hrodna he continued his clandestine work. He supported the Belarusian language and published the first journal in a latin script version of Belarusian, Muzyckaja Prauda in 1861 and two other periodicals in Polish. Through the journal, Kalinouski encouraged peasants to struggle for independence from the tsarist empire.
The uprising is known in the Polish historiography as the January Uprising started in Warsaw in the winter of 1863. Kalinouski joined it at a later point and focused on getting peasants involved in the struggle. He led the uprising in the Hrodna region, as a part of the general struggle against the Russian Empire, an effort which Belarusian historians now call the Kalinouski uprising (paustannie Kalinouskaha in Belarusian).
Kalinouski at some point had disputes with the Polish leadership. The sensitive issues included the idea of an independent Belarusian-Lithuanian state, that would exist in some form of federation with Poland. Lithuania (Litva) in this historical context differs from the territory of modern Lithuania. Litva referred to the territories which covered the lands that make up a large part of the present-day Belarus and partly the region around Vilnius in today’s Lithuania.
In the end, his supposed allies betrayed Kalinouski and the Russian authorities hung the 26-year old Kastus in Wilno (now Vilnius in Lithuania) in March 1864.
Kalinouski: a Belarusian activist or a Polish terrorist?
Today for many Belarusian activists Kalinouski stands for an independent Belarusian state, a distinctly Belarusian national identity and the proper position of the Belarusian language.
He has also become somewhat of a prisoner to historical politics and the present government’s current pro-Russian orientation. Currently the authorities allow Kalinouski to exist in a public space, while at the same time they continue to be rather reserved when it comes to more serious forms of commemoration of the uprising.
The position of the authorities has its own ideological explanation. Quite simply, the Kalinouski was struggling to overthrow the tsarist regime and make Belarus-Lithuania an independent state and thus the Kalinouski uprising proves that Belarusians did not always support Russian rule in the past. In any event, the commemoration could perhaps undermine the myth of Belarusians that Belarusians and Russians never had any problems in the past.
According to historian Andrei Kisztynou, the rising of 1863 did not have an anti-Russian character. Its slogan “For our and your freedom” referred to all nations which were part of the Tsarist empire, including the Russians themselves. This is why the Soviet authorities promoted Kalinouski as a fighter for the rights of the poor. To this day, thanks to Soviet support, one can still find many Kalinouski streets in Belarusian cities.
Another historian, Viktar Khurcik, argued that at the time a Belarusian identity did not exist, which means that Kalinouski and other participants of the uprising in the Hrodna region held a Polish identity. On the other hand, Ales Smalianchuk has pointed out that Kalinouski used primarily Belarusian language in his writings.
Kalinouski as a political symbol of the Belarusian opposition
These days, the Belarusian opposition view Kalinouski as a political symbol. Many Belarusian activists argue that his support for the Belarusian language and his political standpoint have remained valid, particularly now.
In 2006, Belarusian protesters symbolically renamed the October square, named after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and where they contested the unfair presidential elections, as Kalinouski Square.
In the aftermath of these events in Minsk, the Polish authorities founded the Kalinouski Scholarship. It offers financial support for youth that due to their oppositional activity would not be able to continue their studies at Belarusian universities. It also supports more senior figures such as Andrei Sannikau and Ales Michalevich, former presidential candidates. The program is meant to attract individuals who have a deep respect for Belarusian culture, language and politics. Those people should also have potential to become a member of the future elite of Belarus.
Social awareness and Kalinouski
In March the Independent Research Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Research examined the attitudes of Belarusians towards various political activists both from present and the past. The data showed that positive opinions towards Kalinouski’s stood at 11.7% among the surveyed. This puts him in fifth place, just after Margaret Thatcher. Alexander Lukashenka enjoys the highest rating at 20.9%.
IISEPS noted that such a result is rather disappointing. Over the span of a few months Kalinouski often appeared in various publications. Historians presented him as a person with unclear national identification, Polish or Belarusian, which made him less popular, the Institute explained.
In addition, his attitude towards the Orthodox Church also also could cause negative opinions. According to IISEPS, it could be perhaps due to his unfriendly stance towards Russian Orthodoxy.
Kastus remains particularly popular among young Belarusians, aged 18-20. Almost three times fewer Belarusians aged 60 approve of calling him a hero. Nasha Niva argued that both Poland and Lithuania would commemorate the events from 1863-64 officially and in Belarus, it will occur only through the initiative of civil society.
In August the Belarusian news portal Naviny.by reported that the authorities opposed an initiative by Minsk citizens to raise a statute for Kalinouski. The initiators gathered 3,500 signatures to support the application, but they never received any positive feedback on the project idea from the authorities.
Scholars of various disciplines in the humanities will have a chance to discuss the role of Kastus Kalinouski in the creation of the Belarusian nation. The Anglo-Belarusian Society is organising a conference Kastus Kalinouski and the Process of Nation-Building in Belarus. The conference will take place in March 2014 in London. The Society has already announced a call for proposals.
Kastus Kalinouski remains a complex character, one that may be seen as a representative of the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania made up by parts of territories of three countries: Belarus, Poland and Lithuania, all of which shared an idea of independence from the Russian empire.
The Russian Opposition and Putin: Do They Differ When It Comes to Belarus?
The idea that democracy will come to Belarus from Russia and with Russian help has been prevalent in the West almost as long as Lukashenka has ruled the country.
In fact the current Russian leadership has little regard for either Belarusian democracy or Belarusian independence. After all, Putin once proposed that Belarus join Russia to form one federal entity or as six provinces. Do the other political forces in Russia hold different views?
This week, the Belarusian media widely discussed a blog post of the rising star of the Russian democratic opposition, Alexei Navalny. Writing in 2008, Navalny described the Belarusian language in openly derisory terms. Belarus as a separate nation apparently remains for him a not very serious reality. When the post caused a scandal on the Belarusian web, Navalny simply deleted the text. No explanation or apology followed.
Navalny is known for his nationalist past, and according to some commentators, the statement probably has more to do with his past than his present. But other Russian opposition figures also appear not to be very supportive of a democratic and independent Belarus. The Russian opposition nowadays encompasses all possible political forces, so their attitudes towards Belarus differ, yet usually ends in some kind of revanshist stance.
The Kremlin’s court opposition – the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) – consistently use imperialist rhetoric. Its leader Vladimir Zhirinovski proposed last year to integrate Belarus into Russia so that: “Now we [Russia] will have eight federal districts. Let’s have the ninth one – Minsk federal district […]” And for the time being he urged: “Stop feeding Belarus.” Anyway, he noted, “Belarus would not go anywhere – nobody needs it in Europe.”
Interestingly enough, Zhirinovski was probably the only mainstream Russian politician who very vocally decried the election fraud during the last presidential elections in Belarus in 2010.
Another key oppositional movement in Russia is the Communist Party. Its leader Gennadi Zyuganov regularly meets Lukashenka and usually supports him when Minsk has a falling out with the Kremlin in some new dispute. The Russian Communist leader took the side of Belarus in the recent Belaruskali and Uralkali scandal as well.
Zyuganov calle the unification [obyedinenie] of Belarus and Russia “the major task.” With all his nostalgia for the Soviet Union, Zyuganov prefers not Soviet internationalist slogans but chauvinist Tsarist-times rhetoric. “For me, Russians [russkie] are the Great Russians, Little Russians [Ukrainians] and White Russians [belorossy – sic!]. I believe that the greatest tragedy of our peoples is the rift that took place [in 1991] – that divide is unnatural, abnormal, immoral and – to a significant extent – criminal.”
The average Russian communist supports not Belarus as a nation but something which he sees as a good political and socioeconomic model built by Lukashenka. In 2011, Zyuganov declared in Strasbourg that an “improved USSR has been maintained in Belarus.”
Zyuganov declared in Strasbourg that the “improved USSR has been maintained in Belarus.” Read more
A famous supporter of Russian communists, Noble Prize in physics laureate and Belarus-born Zhores Alferov publicly defended Belarusian sovereignty after Putin’s 2002 proposal to annex Belarus to form of one or six provinces. Alferov, who is proud of his Belarusian origins, said unification should take place along the lines defined by Lukashenka and Yeltsin.
The leader of major Russian social democratic party Just Russia Sergei Mironov has also met Lukashenka many times. During the 2012 presidential elections in Russia, Mironov proclaimed as his aim, “creat[ion of] a confederation of Slavic states including Russia, Ukraine, Belarus.” Moreover, in the past Mironov accused the Belarusian leadership of avoiding the implementation of integration agreements with Russia and a lack of interest in said integration.
New rising political stars express very similar attitudes towards Belarus. Sergei Udaltsov entered politics as leader of Communist youth organisation Vanguard of Red Youth (AKM) and is currently leader of the Left Front. The Left Front, according to its program, aims at the “revival and development of a united federative state in the post-Soviet space”. The AKM activists last year carried out propagandist activity in Kurapaty – where victims of political repressions in the USSR in 1930s were shot. They brought with them leaflets entitled Stalin Was Right.
The liberal political forces have become rather marginalised in Russia over the past decade. Lukashenka accused Anatoly Chubais – a central figure among Russian liberals – of being “an enemy of integration.” Yet such accusations levelled against the former Russian Deputy Prime Minister are first and foremost related to the history of the 1990s.
Chubais then stepped in at the last minute to stop Lukashenka’s plot to take over power in Russia by making an ailing Yeltsin sign an integration treaty. Still, Chubais in a public debate with Lukashenka has sworn that “unification of our nations is absolutely unavoidable,” and expressed his regret that “politicians have lost their way” with the integration initiatives.
Moreover, it was Chubais – actually born in Belarus – who in 2003 proposed the idea of building a Russian “liberal empire.” He is not an exception in his dismissal of Belarusian statehood. Another major intellectual figure of the Russian liberal movement, Nikolai Svanidze, openly called Western Belarus “Eastern Poland” when discussing Soviet history.
You have a better chance to become democratic since Russia has an imperial complex, you are in the middle of Europe and you do not have the “Caucasian” factor” Read more
On the other hand, as early as 2002 leading Russian liberal politician Boris Nemtsov tried to convince the Kremlin to negotiate with the pro-independence Belarusian opposition. In July, he signed an agreement with United Civic Party of Belarus about collaboration and emphasised, “If you become a free country, Russia will also have a such chance. You have a better chance to become democratic since Russia has an imperial complex, you are in the middle of Europe and you do not have the “Caucasian” factor.” Unlike most other Russian politicians Nemtsov does not oppose Belarusian statehood in principle.
Who Shall Democratise Whom?
Such a widespread dismissive attitude on the part of most Russian politicians is based on a similar mood that prevails in Russian society, one which has nostalgia for a Great Russia, if not of Soviet then of Tsarist kind. Thus, according to a survey by the Russian Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), 61 per cent of Russians are willing to support a revival of the Soviet Union.
The first attempts to democratise Belarus through Russia date back to the late 1990s. After the last presidential elections in Belarus, the idea of democratisation through Russia once again came up. A member of the German Bundestag, Marieluise Beck, called for the EU and Russia to fight together for democracy in Belarus. Some former Western diplomats also supported this idea.
Who can fight with the West against the Belarusian regime on the Russian front? The majority of both the ruling and opposition political forces have doubts even about Belarusian statehood. Only marginalised groups with minimal political clout display any interest in a free and independent Belarus.
Of course, Moscow can topple Lukashenka at short notice. But instead of cultivating democracy, Russia will only replace Lukashenka with someone less stubborn who would better suit Russia’s geopolitical vision – one which does not include Belarus as a separate nation.