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Lenin in a veil: the long path to decommunisation in Belarus

On 7 November 2016, the anniversary of the October Revolution, a newly renovated statue of Lenin appeared in the Belarusian capital. The controversial reactions to it culminated in the disruption of the unveiling ceremony.

Until now, commemoration of the October...


7 November in Belarus. Source: svaboda.org

On 7 November 2016, the anniversary of the October Revolution, a newly renovated statue of Lenin appeared in the Belarusian capital. The controversial reactions to it culminated in the disruption of the unveiling ceremony.

Until now, commemoration of the October Revolution in Belarus has taken place mostly by inertia. 7 November remains a public holiday, reintroduced in the calendar back in 1995. Ordinary Belarusians tend to ignore it: for them it is no more than another long weekend. Only communists and their sympathisers gather to hold rallies and lay flowers at the feet of Lenin monuments.

While decommunisation is largely absent from the public discourse, this year some new trends have emerged. Instead of turning a blind eye to the anniversary of the Bolshevik power takeover in 1917, the Belarusian political opposition have started to question the ways in which it is publicly remembered.

Goodbye Lenin?

Soviet monuments co-exist in Belarus with newer memory sites built after 1991, revealing the problematic course of post-Soviet Belarusian national identity formation. As of 2016, roughly 400 Lenin monuments are still standing on the central squares of Belarusian cities.

In communist times, only 15 towns in Belarus did not have a Lenin monument. Over the past 18 years, this number has grown by only 16 towns and settlements, where authorities gradually took down their Soviet monuments. The town of Navahrudak in the Hrodna region was the first to remove its Lenin statues.

In 1998, in preparation for the 200th anniversary of the birth of Adam Mickevič, a famous native of the town, municipal authorities renovated the central square and took down the old plaster monument without much ado. And yet the decommunisation of Navahrudak ended without having properly begun: the town's central square is still named after Lenin.

Other Belarusian Lenins are gradually falling apart due to the effects of time and the low-quality materials used to construct them. Local municipalities often choose not to spend money on the restoration of these Soviet relics. Sometimes, when towns receive funds for reconstruction, they prefer to quietly move their Lenins away from central spots: this has already happened in Niasviž, Dokšycy and Ašmiany.

Renovated Lenin controversy

Even though most Soviet era monuments are ignored by the public, the state still maintains a symbolic allegiance to the communist past, at least in the capital. Minsk has yet to get rid of the monument to KGB founder Felix Dzerzhinski, while one of the major squares of the city – Independence Square – has its own Lenin.

In 2003, Minsk municipal powers reinstated the old name, “Lenin Square,” to a central subway station which had been known as “Independence Square” since 1992. The opinions of Minsk's inhabitants were ambiguous, and the issue resurfaced again in 2010. Eventually, Minsk city authorities settled on “Lenin Square,” as apparently they received about 30 petitions in favour of keeping the Soviet-era name.

In a similar vein, the highlight of this year's celebrations of the October Revolution was the unveiling of the renovated Lenin statue near the Minsk Tractor Works. Originally, this monument stood in an inner yard of the Tractor Works, visible only to employees. In 2016, a group of “veterans of tractor production” successfully negotiated its relocation to a more publicly accessible location.

Minsk Tractor Works decided to hold the unveiling on the symbolic day of 7 November. The leader of the Youth Front, Zmicier Daškevič​, along with three other activists, showed up at the rally and antagonised the communists who had gathered there. In addition, activists from the movement “For Freedom,” the United Civic Party, and the Belarusian Christian Democracy also planned a separate rally near the KGB headquarters on 7 November to commemorate victims of Soviet repression.

Even though Minsk municipal authorities prohibited the event, a dozen people still gathered near the KGB building. They held candles and portraits of the victims of the Soviet regime along with pictures of people who had gone missing during Lukashenka's rule.

The Virtual Museum of Soviet Repressions in Belarus, a civil society initiative established in 2012, offered a public viewing of a film, dealing with the legacy of the communist crimes. It also organised a guided tour to Kurapaty, the site of mass shootings in the 1930s. However, current Belarusian regime does not encourage a broad public discussion of decommunisation themes.

Dealing with the imperfect past

Most monuments in Belarus ignore not only the problematic aspects of the Soviet past, but also less controversial events of the 20th century. For instance, the October Revolution is inextricably linked with the First World War, yet monuments to the latter are very rare. Numerous Eastern Front fortifications from the Great War era are suffering from neglect. The WWI memorial near the town of Smarhon in the Hrodna region is still under construction, and its future is unclear.

Financed jointly by Belarus and Russia, the Smarhon memorial suffers from fickle political priorities and a lack of funds. The grand opening, planned for 2014, did not take place, although the Belarusian side promises to complete it in time for the 2018 centenary of the end of WWI.

As a rule, construction of such significant monuments in Belarus does not involve participation of the public or open dialogue in society. Historians have criticised the WWI memorial in Smarhon for its one-sided interpretation, yet the final project still focuses heavily on the Russian imperial perspective on WWI. It is evident that Belarus remains unwilling to revise Soviet-era practises of commemorating 20th century history.

The recent installation of a renovated Lenin statue in the Belarusian capital also shows that Belarusian authorities prefer to maintain the status quo. Most likely, they fear that even the most gradual decommunisation will get out of control. It might unleash forces which could potentially threaten the current regime's stability, as the “Leninopad” in Ukraine demonstrated in 2013 – 2014.

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